Sunday, July 05, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Gentleman Jack

I remember seeing ads for Gentleman Jack when Game of Thrones was ending, and being intrigued. The show is about the real-life Anne Lister, and 18th century British landowner who dressed in masculine clothes and lived relatively openly as a lesbian and is often cited as participating in England's first (non-legally sanctioned) same-sex marriage to her partner Ann Walker.

But I never did see it then, and it was only the rapidly dwindling stockpile of television brought upon by the lockdown that finally caused me to watch it (seriously: I think I've seen every good episode of Community -- which is most of them -- at least a dozen times at this point). Should you join me? Some quick thoughts to help you decide:

  • The early episodes (and, as I recall, the advertising), leans pretty hard into a "she's a badass landlady! Look at her collecting rents from the tenants without mercy or tolerating any nonsense!" framing. This is a bit odd to watch in the present political moment.
  • It is a sign of how far we've come as a society that this series could even be made -- not because it features a lesbian relationship, but because even ten years ago I think it would've been seen as homophobic the way that she "recruits" (she may even use the word) Ann Walker to be her lover.
  • Yes, the two characters are named Anne and Ann. It's not that confusing. Usually. But keeping all the other side characters straight is a nearly impossible endeavor.
  • My reaction towards Ann Walker generally took the following arc, occurring over two episode cycles: "Damn, that woman is messed up." "Oh wow, she's had a really tragic life though." "But damn that woman is messed up!" "Oh my gosh, there's just an endless reservoir of tragedy for her isn't there?"
  • The show also features Gemma Whelan, aka Yara Greyjoy, as Anne's far more conventionally feminine sister Marian. It's very interesting to see Whelan play a character that is about as far from Yara as possible. But the show does something I very much like in resisting the cliched juxtaposition of the liberated, modern Anne against the straightlaced, intolerant, conservative Marian. They clearly have a somewhat antagonistic relationship, but it seems to have almost nothing to do with Anne's sexuality. Moreover, it is made evident at various points that Marian is in many respects more liberal than her sister -- particularly with regards to class issues and respectful treatment of servants. In all, Anne's family is shown to be pretty well accepting of her.
  • My head canon is that this show is the prequel to Downton Abbey, and I refuse to be dissuaded on the point.
Jill and I are a sucker for a good period drama, preferably one without gratuitous violence, and Gentleman Jack scratches that itch. Is it transcendent? No. But it's worth a watch if you're into the genre.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Come 2021, Jews Should Prepare for a "Stabbed in the Back" Narrative from the Right

A recurrent feature on this blog are conservative commentators who are just baffled that Jews vote Democrat. Don't we realize that Republicans are our best friend? When we will be come to our senses.

In general, the tone of my posts is relatively jocular -- it amuses me to watch Republicans twist themselves into an emotional knot, unable to grasp why Jews continue to be such a reliable Democratic voting bloc. It's funny because the conservative disbelief is based on their own willful blindness to the priorities of most Jews. They assume that Jews (a) only care about Israel and (b) express "caring" about Israel in terms of providing carte blanche support to the most right-ward manifestations of Israeli politics towards Palestinians. In reality, the eternal mystery of why Jews vote Democrat is not that difficult to solve. It boils down to two things:
First, on every issue aside from Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
Second, on the issue of Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
But I think, if Joe Biden wins in 2020, we might have to brace ourselves for this sentiment to evolve in a more dangerous direction. In 2020, Jews will undoubtedly vote much the same way they've always voted: for the Democrat, in overwhelming numbers. From the vantage of the right, this will be especially inexplicable. Trump moved the embassy. He recognized the annexation of the Golan. He gave the green light to West Bank annexation. He's called Ilhan Omar an antisemite literally dozens of times. What more could Jews want?

If Republicans were truly interested in engaging with Jews as political equals, this might invite some introspection: maybe what Republicans think Jews want (endless occupation coupled with Islamophobic hysteria) is not what Jews actually want. But introspection in the face of Jewish critiques is not exactly a Republican strong suit. So what's more likely is for befuddlement to transform into resentment. The ungrateful Jews -- we gave them everything and yet still they defy us! A philo-semite is an antisemite who loves Jews, the saying goes, and it doesn't take much for obsessive unrequited love to turn into seething passionate hatred. When the turn comes, it will come quickly.

More so than at any point in my lifetime, the Republican Party under Trump has latched onto a self-identification as "friend of the Jews", our bold centurions standing between us and the antisemitic hordes of the radical left and the Muslims. This self-image has thus far been more or less impervious to the Jewish identification of the Republican Party under Trump as the prime driver of antisemitic hate and violence threatening Jews in America today. So when Jews in the next election do what we've done in every other election -- vote Democratic by overwhelming margins -- it will be seen as not just inexplicable, but a betrayal.

The tides of Trumpism have already paved the way for a resurgence of right-wing antisemitism -- we're already seeing it manifest in Soros conspiracies and "globalism" and "replacement theory". I firmly believe that the only reason it hasn't gotten more explicit is the historical accident that Trump has Jewish relatives. But Trumpism after Trump will not be so constrained (one already hears murmurings to the effect that Trump's decaying political fortunes are the fault of Jared Kushner). The right is primed and ready to accept a message of Jewish perfidy, and it will be accelerated by the GOP's wounded insistence that they are entitled to our adoration.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

How To Lose a Primary, 2020-Style

So far in 2020, four House incumbents have lost renomination to their seats (five if you count New York Democrat Eliot Engel, though absentee ballots in New York haven't been tabulated). But there are ... differences between what causes a Republican and a Democrat to lose their own party's nomination.

For example, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) was one of the most conservative members of his caucus -- opposing abortion rights, gay rights, and Obmaa care -- despite representing a D+6 seat. If you're wondering how he got elected in the first place, the answer is that the seat was previously held by his own father who -- in classic machine fashion -- won renomination and then announced his retirement, inducing the local party to hand the nomination to his son. He was defeated by Marie Newman, who narrowly lost a challenge in 2018 and by all appearances is a perfectly normal Democrat. This is not at all abnormal.

Contrast that to what happened last night, where Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) was stunningly unseated by conservative activist Lauren Boebert. Nobody had the race on their radar because Tipton, who enjoyed Trump's endorsement, hardly seemed to have committed any sins against the conservative movement which would generate primary opposition (The Onion notwithstanding). So what was it about Boebert which caused her to surge to victory? Well, she's a qAnon-endorsing conspiracy theorist whose main claim to fame is running a bar called "Shooters" where the staff openly carries guns and which defied orders to shutdown in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic.

Of course, it's not always better when the incumbent loses because of their apostasies -- particularly when one considers what counts as "apostasy" in the modern GOP. Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA) also enjoyed Trump's backing, but lost renomination in a "drive-through convention" to far-right challenger Bob Good. Riggleman's wrongdoing? He officiated a same-sex wedding for two of his former staffers. That's enough to get you bounced in the 2020 Republican Party.

But I guess Republicans did manage to dislodge their most openly White supremacist member this  year -- so good on them for that.

Monday, June 29, 2020

What's the Right Way To Oppose Annexation?

After last year's Yom Kippur, I wrote about a question I posed to some foreign affairs mavens at my synagogue regarding what is the "right" way to pressure or induce Israel in furtherance of American policy objectives. We spend a lot of time talking about what's off the table (e.g., no BDS) -- okay, fine, but what is on the table?

This question, I think, needs to rise back to the forefront of our mind as Israel contemplates annexation. Annexation does not enjoy the avowed support of most American Jewish organizations, but there is deep ambivalence over what tangibly those organizations will do if annexation nonetheless proceeds. The AJC has already announced it will defend annexation if Israel chooses it (it complained that the headline "We'll defend annexation if needed" was misleading, but the article text literally says "If annexation ... comes to pass, we will make the strongest possible case" for it). The ADL apparently will not defend annexation but is cagey on what forms of opposition it will and won't support (more on them in a second).

But this is a conversation we need to have now. When a foreign nation does something we don't like, opposition can mean a wide variety of things, from "quiet grumbling" to "send in the troops". Hopefully, nobody is suggesting invading Israel to stop annexation; likewise, any serious opponent of annexation needs to agree to something more than just a murmured "it wouldn't be my choice but ...." Between those poles, though, there's a lot of space to maneuver.

Which brings us back to the ADL. A few days ago, Jewish Currents made a big splash when it wrote about a leaked ADL memo outlining proposed strategies for responding to annexation. One reason I often give JC a side-eye is that they let their political slant so nakedly seep into their reporting that I don't have confidence that they're reliable relays of the views of their interlocutors. I don't think they'd falsify quotes or anything like that, but the interpretations they make and they inferences they draw are self-serving and often quite dubious. And unfortunately, here they for some reason did not to my knowledge release a copy of the memo itself, meaning we're relying heavily on them for both content and analysis. Yet reading between the lines, there seems to be a disjuncture between what JC imputes to the ADL, and the words they actually quote from the ADL's memo.

The memo, for example, makes clear that the ADL will not be defending annexation or Netanyahu, and that there must be "space for local and national leaders to express their criticism of Israel’s [annexation] decision." Moreover, it is particularly attuned to the problem where criticism of the critics falls disproportionately on the heads on prominent minority figures, and cautions that this must be avoided as well. On the other hand, the memo also suggests that it will oppose certain legislative actions that would impose more tangible punishment on Israel. The primary focus of the memo appears to be on relationship managing with major Democratic figures (particular in the CBC and other minority caucuses) -- respecting the validity of criticizing annexation while wanting to avoid a brush war akin to l'affair Omar.

Yet you'd barely get any of this from the tone of the JC article (and it is accordingly not at all how the article has been largely received). The article rather presents the ADL as plotting to sabotage anti-annexation politics and undermining opposition to the policy; its concerns about relationship-preservation and avoiding flashpoints seen as a barely-disguised attempt to muzzle all but the most perfunctory and non-threatening murmurs of discontent. In the course of accusing the ADL of seeking to undermine opposition to annexation,  the JC barely even admits that the ADL explicitly indicates it will not be defending annexation (in sharp contrast to the AJC). The tone of the article is that, insofar as it is seeking to moderate language and concerned about preserving relationships, the ADL in effect is running interference for annexation even as it pretends to oppose it. All Jewish organizations have an obligation to support whatever proposals or  rhetoric end up emerging under the banner of anti-annexation politics -- and any organization which doesn't commit to doing that should be seen as disingenuous in opposing annexation to begin with. It is reminiscent to a complaint about "tone-policing" -- that given the major looming injustice of annexation, any attempt to contest particular anti-annexation rhetoric or proposals as too extreme or aggressive should be seen as a means of deflecting attention away from the bigger issue.

The problem is that the ADL is absolutely right and reasonable to be concerned that valid concern and opposition to annexation could spiral into something a lot uglier and less defensible, and that Jewish organizations should absolutely be on the lookout to tamp down on flashpoints. And more to the point, we're already seeing some of this ugliness explicitly defended on exactly the argument the JC proffers. Over in the UK, we're seeing a clear version of this at the intersection of two significant actions by the Labour Party leadership: first, sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Labour shadow cabinet after she praised an article falsely accusing Israel of being behind the chokehold tactics used against George Floyd, and second the announcement that if annexation proceeds Labour will back a settlement boycott. The line from the Corbyn diehards is, more or less, that the decision regarding the former means the latter doesn't count; that in the time of annexation if you're objecting to conspiracy theories about Israel being behind racism in American policing, you don't truly oppose annexation at all (read some of the replies!).

There are, in other words, two horns to the dilemma. On the one hand, it is absolutely reasonable to insist that annexation by Israel needs to be met with real, tangible consequences, and that the ADL and other Jewish groups must not obstruct that. And it's entirely plausible that the range of responses that the ADL deems "acceptable" will be too narrow and too weak, and if that turns out to be the case they should be criticized for it. Theoretical opposition to annexation cannot be paired with practical opposition to any and all tangible moves taken against it. That's why we need to start thinking now not just about our redlines of what goes "too far", but the alternatives of  "what's in bounds". If we can't give a realistic answer to that, then it will indeed be hard to take "opposition" to annexation seriously.

But on the other hand, recognizing the need for tangible action does not entail stepping aside and accepting any policy or rhetoric that styles itself as "action". Any time a foreign nation undertakes a provocation, one will see arguments for taking a hardline and arguments for defusing tensions, and it is a lie that only the hardest of hardliners are taking the provocation "seriously". If "opposition to annexation" spills over into "racism in America is the product of an Israeli plot and how dare you call that out as antisemitic with annexation on the table?", that's the sort of thing which doesn't help anyone -- not Jews, not Israelis, not Palestinians, not Black people. Trying to avoid that outcome -- preventing righteous tailored fury from bursting into an unbounded and uncontrollable conflagration -- is neither illegitimate, nor wishy-washy.

If -- God forbid -- Israel carries through with annexation, my hope is that the response of American progressives everything necessary to clearly communicate its unacceptability and to promise proportionate consequences, and nothing that pours unnecessary fuel on the fire or seeks to sabotage the relationship between Jews and our allies. It's a large ask. But if it is to happen, it will require both moral courage -- to call an injustice an injustice and respond accordingly, as well as empathic connections -- to maintain relationships of care and concern. Both prongs matter, and committing to one should not and must not be seen as sacrificing the other.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rosa Diaz: The Face of Police Brutality

While it obviously is not anyone's top priority, many media observers have been wondering aloud about how Brooklyn Nine Nine will address the changing public perception of policing when it returns for its next season. Already, Terry Crews has suggested that several completed scripts have been scrapped as showrunners realize that they need to adapt. But it is going to be a very delicate line to walk. Since the show almost certainly is not going to return as a post office sitcom, it can't ignore the issue, or carry on as if the last few months haven't happened. Yet it probably can't do a full police abolition narrative, while if it takes a reformist approach it will be criticized for being too timid and out of touch.

As much as I love the show, I don't know if this is a hole it can write itself out of. But as I've thought about it, I keep on returning to one potential plotline:

Rosa Diaz gets kicked off the force for police brutality.

Now before I go further, I want to make two things clear.
(1) I adore Rosa Diaz. She's possibly my favorite character on the show. She's a queer icon. Stephanie Beatriz is a treasure.
(2) Rosa Diaz is definitely the main cast character most likely to physically abuse a suspect. Her whole character is based on her being violent, aggressive, and hot-tempered. She literally jokes about committing police brutality in the show's second episode!
It's not hard to imagine the scenario. Rosa is chasing a suspect through New York City alleys. She has to jump over dumpsters and garbage, she's hot, sweaty and frustrated. When she finally catches up with the guy at a dead end, she's basically snarling. And so even though he's cornered and not a threat, she takes him down -- hard. Which someone records, and it goes viral.

At this point, the squad divides. Jake, still hopped up on his childish notions on what it means to be a bad-ass cop, backs up his old friend from the academy; while Amy, in a new leadership position and more exposed to political fallout can't bring herself to defend Rosa's actions. Terry is sensitive to police brutality, having recently experienced a racist confrontation that nearly turned violent, and is surprised to learn that this is one area where Holt -- while not exactly approving -- is a man of his generation of cops, thinking that a rough take down of a suspect is business as usual and not worth getting riled up about. Hitchcock and Scully choose opposing sides for arbitrary reasons. Boyle is paralyzed by indecision.

Jake seizes on the notion that if he can prove the suspect really was guilty of a crime, Rosa's actions will be seen as justified. He works the case feverishly until he eventually discovers that the man Rosa injured had some drugs in his apartment -- a triumph, until Amy points out the obvious so what? So what if the guy smoked a few joints? Does that mean he deserved to be abused? Is Jake really going with "he's no angel"?

And so the resolution is not that Rosa is let off the hook, or learns a valuable lesson, or has the squad unite behind her. The resolution is that Rosa is fired from the NYPD (and, I imagine, written off the show).

Does it have to be Rosa? Could it be a random Nine Nine beat cop we had never seen before instead? No. It has to be Rosa, because it has to be someone we care about. The problem of police abuses is misjudged if it's viewed as the product of a few sadists hidden from public view. Those people exist, but the larger issue is that police abuse occurs by men and women who are in other respects normal, likable, courageous -- people who do good things, have friends who care about them and who care about others, people who in other contexts may do good or even heroic deeds. The Florida cop who attacked a peaceful protester, the one with 79 use of force complaints in three years? He also stopped a suicidal woman from jumping off a bridge. I bring this up not as an excuse -- just the opposite. It is to hammer home the gravity of the problem. This is the banality of evil at work; we deceive ourselves if we think it is a problem that is restricted just to some anonymous snarling monsters. We have to get used to the idea that police violence (like all injustices) are perpetrated by people who look familiar to us.

It has to be Rosa because it has to be someone who has already been fully fleshed out as a human, with the full array of human relationships and feelings and sentiments and history that humans carrying with them. It has to be someone we care about. Only that will give the issue the gravity it deserves.

Israel as Contagion

There's a narrative bubbling in certain areas of the left which seeks to tie American policing abuses to cross-training exchange programs some police departments do with Israeli counterparts. The narrative has its roots in Jewish Voice for Peace's "Deadly Exchange" campaign, which uses the claim as a means of further its campaign to see Israel isolated and ostracized in global society. As the issue of police violence surges to its place at the top of the public's deliberative agenda, the deadly exchange claim likewise attracted those eager for a anti-Israel or antisemitic hook. Just yesterday, new Labour leader Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey -- a prominent Jeremy Corbyn ally and one-time rival for party leadership -- from her position in Labour's shadow cabinet after she approvingly shared an article where actress Maxine Peake claimed, without evidence, that "The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services."

This is not true. Many have cited an Amnesty International report where, they say, it is proven that Israeli police train their American counterparts in human rights violations. But Amnesty has since come out and said explicitly that "Allegations that US police were taught tactics of ‘neck kneeling’ by Israeli secret services is not something we’ve ever reported." This is not surprising, as the content of these exchange programs by all accounts rarely, if ever, focuses on what we might euphemistically call "interpersonal" or "tactical" elements of police activity (it generally concentrates on strategic questions regarding operational responses to mass atrocities -- a subject upon which Israeli security forces sadly carry much expertise).

So what is going on? The stock response from those objecting to the link is the simple but truthful observation that American police hardly need Israeli help on the subject of how to harass racial minorities. Some have argued that, because it is true that there are Israeli and American policing exchange programs (and apparently some Minneapolis officers had partaken), it is ipso facto fair to draw a connection between American abuses and those training seminars -- without any regard to what actually is or is not done in those programs. The argument, in effect, a contagion theory: anyone who associates with Israelis, we can assume, is at least partially corrupted by the contact. They're worse off coming out than coming in.

In apologizing for her comment, Peake said something very interesting: she said "I was inaccurate in my assumption of American police training and its sources." Assumption is the key word there: she had, presumably, read about Israeli and American police training together, and so she assumed that the bad American practices had Israeli roots. But the only evidence was the bare fact of contact -- that's what's driving the narrative. Hence: contagion.

This, I submit, is something antisemitism does. It allows such assumptions to become naturalized. They feel right. American police have done exchange training with counterparts in dozens of other countries, ranging from the UK to Germany to Mexico to Tanzania. Even those who take a dim view of, say, the Mexican police however would likely not jump from mere contacts to causality. If someone said "American police learned chokeholds from Tanzanian police," they'd ask for evidence. If the only evidence is "there are exchange programs between American and Tanzanian police", that likely wouldn't be sufficient. But antisemitism gives a smoother cognitive ride down -- it makes little connections look huge, and implausible leaps seem manageable. It is not accidental that the narrative is about Israeli police exchanges and not German or Mexican or Tanzanian ones.

This is an unorthodox but I think ultimately more accurate way of understanding what antisemitism does. We think of antisemitism often as a motive: because I hate Jews, I think or say or do this thing. But antisemitism is more often a force or process. We usually ask "did Burke or Long-Bailey say what they say because they hate Jews?" The answer to that may well be no. But that's not the right question. The right question is "did a particular way of thinking about Jews render what Burke or Long-Bailey said plausible or resonant in a way it otherwise would not have been?" And there I think it is quite clear that the answer is yes. It is because we think about Jews in a particular way that this contagion theory of Israeli culpability in American policing injustices -- a narrative which objectively stands on such a thin reed -- is plausible when it otherwise wouldn't be. That is the work of antisemitism.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Primary Day Predictions (Kentucky and New York)

It's primary day in America, with some big races in Kentucky and especially New York. Why not lay down a marker  of some predictions?

Kentucky Senate: McGrath defeats Booker. Over/under: 15 point margin.

NY-03: Tom Suozzi (incumbent)

NY-09: Yvette Clark (incumbent) -- but with less than 50%.

NY-10: Jerry Nadler (incumbent)

NY-12: Carolyn Maloney (incumbent)

NY-14:  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,(incumbent), and it's not close.

NY-15: Richie Torres breaks from the pack and defeats the loathsome Ruben Diaz Sr.

NY-16: Jamaal Bowman defeats Eliot Engel (incumbent) by a surprisingly comfortable margin (~10 points).

NY-17: Mondaire Jones in a tight race.

Keep in mind: I'm not very good at predicting things. But we'll see how I do?

Saturday, June 20, 2020

After Bostock, Was It All Worth It?

It's been interesting to watch conservative reactions to the Bostock decision (holding that Title VII's prohibition on sex discrimination encompasses anti-gay and anti-trans discrimination, because that discrimination necessarily is also "because of" sex). Some of the usual suspects have been relatively muted -- likely because the outcome the Court reached is actually overwhelmingly popular. But there certainly are some on the right who are very upset. Josh Blackman collects anonymous examples here. Right-wing commentator Josh Hammer urges conservative judges to abandon procedural legal reasoning entirely in favor of an unabashed substantive commitment to social conservative principlesSenator Josh Hawley claimed the decision represents "the end of the conservative legal movement."

It's more than just Joshes, of course. And the theme of this critique is, as Hawley alludes to, the question of whether it was all worth it. The claim is that social conservatives, at least, have been holding their noses and voting Republican for years because "the judiciary". But if the conservative judiciary gives them results like these, is the bargain really worth it? The murmur is that after Bostock, the jig is up, and conservatives will no longer come out to support a GOP whose judges have betrayed them.

If you're a liberal reading this, it's rather striking. The undisguised insistence that judges should vote in alignment with conservative policy objections (up to and including explicitly disavowing neutral legal proceduralism!) is amazing to see -- less because of the content and more because it's being said out loud. But more incredible is the idea that this Supreme Court has represented anything less than a massive triumph for contentious right-wing causes. The Court of Citizens United, of Trump v. Hawaii, of Hobby Lobby, of Janus, of Masterpiece Cakeshop -- none of that registers? Is it really everything or nothing?

I, of course, heartily encourage social conservatives to adopt this reasoning and decide its not at all worth it. Rise up by sitting down, and showing the Republican Party what's what! But that's because it's obviously self-serving for me: the result of social conservatives staying home and fuming because the Supreme Court only backs them 80% of the time instead of 100% of the time is, in five or ten years, a Supreme Court that backs them 40% of the time.

Indeed, the most important lesson liberals could learn from watching, agape, the social conservative reaction is "if this strategy looks ridiculous to you coming from the right, it's equally farcical when it's threatened from the left." You don't win by staying home, and you're not playing hardball when you insist on everything.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

PlagueWatch Roundup

Instead of another "Should I PlagueWatch It?" entry, instead I'll just give quick thoughts on the TV I am, or have recently been, watching over the past few weeks.


* * *


  • One of my favorite shows on TV, but I think this season is clearly its weakest. The show feels like it may have just run out of ideas. Last season was interesting because it positioned Taylor as an antagonist to both Axe and Rhodes, and they were a worthy foe who forced the duo to actually work together. That was interesting. But now we've slid back into comfortable terrain: Axe and Rhodes going after each other, Taylor in a supporting role.
  • Mike Prince just isn't that inspiring as an antagonist. If you need a fellow billionaire for Axe to go head-to-head with, bring back Rebecca Cantu (who of course now has a huge bone to pick with Axe).
  • Axe and Rhodes appear to be retrogressing as characters, and while it would be one thing if this was the result of especially heavy stresses being put upon them, right now they seem to be under objectively less pressure than at any point in the series.
  • I hate everything about how academia and contemporary students are portrayed. It's a lazy, zeitgeist-y take that doesn't reflect my experience as either a law school teacher or a student.
  • Seriously, what is Rhodes doing taking a bunch of basically unknown, untested, untrustworthy law students and putting them on a super-delicate case like going after the U.S. Treasury Secretary? And then -- I'm sorry, but (a) no student who cares about the Muslim ban is going to care about investigating Todd Krakow -- what a eye-rolling moment that was -- and (b) why wouldn't they assume that Chuck has additional information relevant to the case he just isn't telling them?
  • Slowly but surely, Kate Sacker gets a larger role. I approve of this.


  • Arguably the show's strongest season. Issa, in particular, showed really strong forward momentum as a character.
  • To the extent the show meant to put roughly equal blame on Issa and Molly for their fight (and I'm not sure it did), it did not succeed. While Issa grew a lot, Molly came out looking really rough.
  • The crisis of the last episode was a very well done, but it would have been better if the show had dedicated more time to Kelli and Tiffany over the course of the season. Or the show in general. They really deserve to have some breathing room.
Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • My favorite entry on the "things that have lasted longer than the Confederacy" list, as it's gone seven seasons even though I think I'm the only person who's watched it. And I could not even begin to tell you the plot line from beginning to now.
  • That said, this season (the last) feels like a strong entry. Objectively, the plot is still as fuzzy as ever, but the core conceit (time travel to stop the bad guys from altering the past and changing the future!) is enough of a sci-fi staple that it's pretty easy to follow.
  • Sad we didn't get a true Agent Carter cameo.
  • Where are you, Agent Fitz?
Ultimate Tag
  • Objectively bad, but in an entertaining sort of way.
  • If you have a new show, you really can't do the "we're going to run some of our events while on commercial break, then recap them". We don't know how the events work!
  • I'm pretty sure I heard the hosts say things about so-and-so being "the fastest runner we've ever seen on this show" in the first episode.
  • The actual "events" are very, very poorly designed. The opening event ends up basically placing the runners in random order, depending on who happens to get singled out for a chase. You can effectively avoid the tagger for much longer than your competitors and still come in last. And then the point deficit is usually too much to overcome in the second event.
  • Every single tagger looks like they come straight out of 90s television. Also, some are clearly chosen for physical strength, even though that doesn't actually seem to be have any relevance to their job.
Titan Games
  • Slightly better than Ultimate Tag, mostly because The Rock is so adorably charismatic.
  • While I understand why one might think Ninja Warrior experience would translate well to this show, in reality it demands far more raw physical strength than the NBC staple. Hence, I was not surprised (though very sad) when Jessie Graff struggled.
  • I was more surprised at how much Claressa Shields underperformed, and given her personality I actually wonder whether it might do some lasting damage to her confidence.
Holey Moley
  • Didn't see the first season of this, and ABC is very stingy about making its back episodes available.
  • Joe Tessitore is very game. Rob Riggle is very annoying.
  • Even granting that it's mini-golf, and so intrinsically silly, this show maybe leans a little too hard on the wa-wa-wa-WACKO fun! energy.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Sweet Sixteen

Happy birthday to this blog, which turns 16 today!

As always, thanks to all the readers, new and old, who've decided to spend a little time on my plot of the internet.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Zioness Has Another Manifesto

Zioness, the progressive Zionist group, has released a new "activist's guide" on the issue of racial justice. It consists of:

  1. One page on the need to overcome implicit bias;
  2. One page on the need to "show up" for racial justice, even when one encounters antisemitism; and
  3. Six pages on how to respond to antisemitic tropes (many, though not all, Israel- or Zionism-related) one might encounter while engaging in racial justice work.

This distribution of attention -- centering antisemitism in a pamphlet supposedly focused on racial justice -- has caused Zioness to be the target of numerous social media dunks. I think many of them are deserved, albeit with a few minor reservations. Here are my quick thoughts:
  • From its inception, my primary critique of Zioness -- and I've expressed this personally to their leadership -- is that they resolutely refuse to declare what progressive values demand with respect to Israel. Their justification for their reticence is that they are a domestic policy organization -- a response that is never going to sit well for a group called "Zioness". And documents like this only emphasize why this stance is untenable: Zioness can't forward opinions about Israel and then say "we don't take a position on that" when people ask them to register opinions on Israel. It's a circle they're never going to be able to square, and until they steel themselves and have the guts to forthrightly say "progressivism demands X, Y and Z out of Israel", people are going to going to be justified in looking at them with a skeptical eye.
  • It may be that a guidebook offering suggestions on how to respond to antisemitic tropes a progressive Jew may encounter while engaging in racial justice activism would be useful. But if you're going to make such a resource, don't title it "Racial Justice: An Activist's Guide". An activist's guide to racial justice should center questions of racial justice -- period. This is the locus of the criticisms Zioness is getting over this document, and it is absolutely correct. Creating a document on "racial justice" that has barely any direct discussion of racial justice is almost impossibly cringe-worthy.
  • Of course, the possibility that it might be useful to have a guidebook on how to respond to antisemitism while engaging in racial justice work also poses the question of whether now is the right moment to center that conversation. There is, shall we say, good reason to be skeptical on this front.
  • What little substance there is on racial justice is, to be generous, perfunctory. I'm probably more attached to implicit bias as a useful framing device for understanding contemporary racism than many of my colleagues in the progressive world (it's falling out of vogue), and even I'd say that talking about that alone is woefully incomplete. This is a case where something is worse than nothing -- if they hadn't made the limp gesture towards talking about racial justice qua racial justice, maybe it would have been clear that this document was meant to serve a different purpose (namely, "Responding to Antisemitic Tropes in Racial Justice Activism"). Of course, if that purpose had been made evident it would have more clearly posed the question of whether now was the right time to center that conversation. See the previous bullet point.
  • I've seen for awhile now the allegation that Zioness is an "astroturf" organization. There's virtually no evidence this is true. Moreover, anyone who knows anything about the constitution of American Jewish community politics should very well know it isn't true. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the politics of the American Jewish community -- and Zioness' critics certainly are included -- knows that there are a great many American Jews who (a) have relatively conventional "pro-Israel" politics, (b) have relatively conventional progressive domestic politics, and (c) feel aggrieved when they see these two commitments treated as antithetical to one another. Even if one hates that particular political cocktail, surely there's no dispute about its prevalence. Given that, there's no grounding to the idea that Zioness, which centers its appeal to just that political intersection, could only have sprung up via artificial seeding.* Since I'm confident that Zioness' critics are not ignorant about the political composition of the American Jewish community, I'm equally confident that their use of "astroturf" is entirely as a slur (meaning something like "activist group with more conventional and less radical politics than mine"), not an analytical category.
  • Many of the document's critics have cast it as specifically focused on "defending Israel" rather than addressing antisemitism more broadly. Much of the "antisemitic tropes" they address are Israel-related, but not several are not (ex: "Jews were behind the Atlantic Slave Trade" or "White nationalism isn’t about Jews"). There's something interesting about this, because formally speaking the elision isn't necessary: the locus of the critique -- that, especially right now, the centerpiece of a document on "racial justice" should be "racial justice" -- would I think carry equal punch if Zioness' document were accurately described as talking about antisemitism. So why fudge the description? The answer is that the criticizing "Israel talk" is more comfortable terrain for many compared to criticizing "Jewish talk", and so we see activists instinctively slide into the former even in cases where analytically they're just as much talking about the latter.
The tl;dr is that Zioness is a regular grassroots organization with a pretty obvious base of support, pairing conventional pro-Israel views with conventional mainstream Democratic domestic views. That, on its own, isn't too remarkable. But the document they've produced on "racial justice" is (a) justly being mocked for having a barely even perfunctory focus on racial justice; (b) bad on its own terms; (c) poorly timed with regard to its actual-albeit-understated purpose, and (d) inadvertently demonstrative of how Zioness' ostensible commitment to being a purely "domestic policy organization" that can't be expected to take positions on what progressive values mean for Israel is untenable.

* The closest evidence one has for Zioness being "astroturf" comes from its early funding from the right-wing Lawfare Project and Brooke Goldstein. That would raise legitimate flags, except that Goldstein has been extremely vocal about how much she hates Zioness precisely because they refused to take the pseudo-left concern-troll line that she had expected out of them (which is to say, they've actually been independent). The fallout has gotten so intense that Zioness has outright blocked Goldstein on Twitter. Whatever Goldstein's initial intentions, she'd be the first to agree that Zioness has charted its own path.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Can the Conference Kick Out ZOA?

The Zionist Organization of America, helmed by far-right bombthrower Mort Klein, has been an embarrassment to American Jewry for a long time. There's been rumbling for awhile about the need to extirpate them from mainstream Jewish spaces, but it's never really broken out into the mainstream. But now things might be changing. Abe Silberstein posted a column in the Forward urging the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to expel ZOA from the group. And several constituent members of the Conference appear to be taking up the banner -- or at least calling for an explicit censuring -- including Ameinu, the Union for Reform Judaism, Americans for Peace Now, and HIAS (ZOA, for its part, tried to derail a HIAS leader from ascending to the leadership of the Conference and has urged that it should HIAS that is expelled because it seeks to aid Muslim immigrants and is not truly a "Jewish" organization).

ZOA had previously been warned that its fratricidal tactics could lead to escalating discipline, including expulsion. But if it goes to the Conference membership, are there really the votes to kick them out? I'm dubious.

There are 51 members of the Conference, but "major" notwithstanding, not all of them are all that big. There's a fair amount of deadweight, groups that once were prominent but now are basically shells (the American Jewish Congress is a notorious example). Meanwhile, quite a few significant liberal Jewish groups are not members -- J Street was famously denied membership back in 2014, and groups like T'ruah, the New Israel Fund, and Hazon are also on the outside.

When ZOA tried to stop Dianne Lob of HIAS from becoming the next Chair of the Conference, they lost by a vote of 43-8. Those eight votes haven't been released (though one can venture some pretty solid guesses about who they are), but they represent a floor on ZOA's support, not a ceiling. Canvassing the membership, one can certainly see many of the larger players lining up against ZOA if the political winds shift in the right direction. But it is very hard for me to count 26 potential organizations voting to expel ZOA outright. Many of the smaller groups are, at best, studiously "non-confrontational", and at worst outright sympathizers with ZOA's authoritarian agenda.

Of course, this raises the question of whether the Conference itself is antiquated beyond repair, and some have suggested that liberal groups should leave outright if ZOA is allowed to stay. That possibility, unfortunately, has to be taken seriously. But another approach is that, if it's impossible to kick groups out, work harder to incorporate new groups in. True, J Street tried to do just that a few years ago and was blocked out. But J Street is (quite unfairly, but it is what it is) a particular lightning rod for criticism. By contrast, now would be an excellent time to push to include more organizations that explicitly represent Jews of Color (such as Be'chol Leshon). The "soft middle" that might hesitate to outright kick out a group like ZOA might be similarly loathe to obstruct the incorporation of such organizations -- and their inclusion would, in addition to just being the right thing to do, counterbalance the votes of some of the obsolete legacy organizations as well as almost certainly generating greater internal pressure to speak out against the sort of racism and authoritarianism that ZOA has become known for.

How Endangered is Yvette Clarke?

Last week, we asked how endangered long-time NYC Rep. Eliot Engel (D) was in his Democratic primary later this month (incidentally, Engel's primary challenger, Jamaal Bowman, just picked up an endorsement from Bernie Sanders). Today, we ask the same question of Engel's neighboring incumbent, Rep. Yvette Clarke, who represents parts of Brooklyn. Like Engel, Clarke has a relatively progressive voting record, while (also like Engel) still generally associated with the establishment wing of the party. And like Engel, she faces a vigorous challenge later this month.

In the 2018 primary, the nation's eyes were riveted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's upset victory over incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary. This overshadowed Yvette Clarke's own narrow escape -- she turned back a challenge from community activist Adem Bunkeddeko with just 52% of the vote. Bunkeddeko is back for a rematch this cycle, but this time he's got company: Isiah James, a Democratic Socialist, and city councilor Chaim Deutsch, who is a conservative Democrat closely tied to the Orthodox Jewish community.  James and Bunkeddeko are running to her left, while Deutsch is tackling her from the right.

So how much trouble is Clarke in?

On the one hand, it is very often the case that a primary challenger who narrowly loses to the incumbent on their first try is able to close the deal on the second, as they become a more familiar figure and gain the attention of lower-information voters. Such was the case for Marie Newman against Dan Lipinski earlier this year, as well as Donna Edwards ousting Albert Wynn back in the youthful days of this blog. There was some indication that Clarke was caught napping last time around, and has kicked her campaign into gear this cycle. But coronavirus and lockdowns are throwing all normal campaigns for a loop, and to the extent Clarke needs to run from behind, she might not be able to do it.

On the other hand, unlike in Engel's race, here the field of challengers hasn't consolidated down. James and Bunkeddeko still may split the anti-establishment vote. And while James' candidacy appears to be sputtering out a bit, Bunkeddeko thus far hasn't received the high-profile endorsements that Jamaal Bowman has managed to pull down -- indicating that his challenge is potentially seen as less viable than Bowman's.

Yet while the conventional wisdom is that fractured fields help incumbents, that may not be the case here given how Deutsch is running his campaign. While Clarke is not a conservative Democrat, she has historically polled well in the Orthodox Jewish portions of her district where Deutsch's base resides -- this area almost certainly gave her the margin of victory in 2018. The way Deutsch is running his campaign -- actively touting endorsements from the NYPD and decrying "looters in the streets" -- seems ill-suited to actually winning a 2020 Democratic primary, but his laser-like focus on the portions of the district where Clarke has historically over-performed could suppress her numbers enough to allow Bunkeddeko to pull through.

This race has flown further under the radar than Engel's, but I think there's a solid chance the incumbent gets unseated. New York is shaping to have another eventful primary.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Virtues of a Time

Do you ever feel as if your particular virtues aren't suited for the historical moment you're living in?

All of us, I suspect, have certain things we're good at. Athleticism, courage, cleverness, prudence, etc. And different moments in history demand different virtues. In a time of war, physical prowess and courage will be highly prized. But in other moments in time, they'll be far less important. Some periods call for consideration and thoughtfulness; others call for aggressive action. The bold in one period might be the hot-headed and reckless in another. The prudent in one time could be the quiescent in the next.

Right now, I feel as if my particular virtues aren't well adapted to the times I live in. The things that are most in need right now are traits that I don't feel I especially possess. The things that I'm very good at feel passe and irrelevant.

That's not an indictment of the times. History is not obligated to bend itself to my skill set. But it's an interesting and discomforting feeling nonetheless. Had you asked me a few years ago, and I would have felt quite comfortable about the match between my virtues and what I felt the world demanded of me. Now? Much less so.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

How Endangered is Eliot Engel?

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) has been in Congress for over thirty years. In that time, he's been a pretty standard-issue New York Jewish Democrat -- generally progressive, solidly pro-Israel, slowly working his way up the ranks (he's currently Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee).

This year, however, he's facing a spirited primary challenge from middle school educator Jamaal Bowman. Is this the next AOC-shocker (AOC just endorsed Bowman, as it happened)?

On the one hand: First, Engel would have to be an absolute idiot to be sleeping on this race -- especially given the AOC example from last cycle. So while I'm not versed in exactly what's going on in New York campaigning, I have to assume he's putting out ads and has his campaign apparatus in gear. Engel has the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus, which can only help him, and he also has a very large war chest to spend.

Moreover, there actually haven't been that many House Democratic incumbents that have gone down in defeat this cycle, despite a lot of online energy propping up this or that left-wing challenger. For example, there were plenty of people excitedly chatting up Mckayla Wilkes' challenge to House  Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, but earlier this week Hoyer beat her by almost 60 points. We have to remember: online energy doesn't usually translate into actual votes. The main counterexample this year was Marie Newman's defeat of Dan Lipinski in Illinois -- but Lipinski is far to the right of his district and was already shown to be vulnerable when he barely won renomination in 2018. Engel, by contrast, has a largely progressive voting record and has not shown much prior vulnerability.

On the other hand: The energy I'm seeing on Bowman's behalf does seem qualitatively different from those of other seemingly analogous challengers-from-the-left. He gained a boost when another left-leaning challenger dropped out and endorsed him, which will help consolidate the anti-Engel vote. Bowman's also getting outside support from AOC, the Justice Democrats, and the Working Family's Party, which will partially (though not entirely) off-set Engel's financial edge.

Meanwhile, Engel had a major mic gaffe the other day, when he said that "if he didn't have a primary he wouldn't care" about not being given the opportunity to speak at an anti-police brutality press conference. While the remark is pretty clearly being taken out of context (he was saying the primary is why he cared about being denied a speaking slot, not that the primary is why he cared about police brutality issues), politics isn't fair and Bowman's gained huge momentum off the gaffe.

The other big wild card is how the coronavirus epidemic and anti-police brutality protests will effect the race. Normally, the conventional wisdom is that anything that disrupts traditional campaigning helps the incumbent, because it's the challenger who has to overcome inertia. But in this case, I can very easily see these issues congealing into a generic anti-status quo sentiment among Democratic primary voters, a sense that what we have now just isn't working, and that could easily be directed (fairly or not) against an entrenched incumbent like Engel. My gut instinct is that Engel will not benefit from the chaos and uncertainty.

The primary is June 23, and right now I don't really have a prediction. Let's see what develops.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

What Went On Downballot Tonight

A bunch of states held primaries today, but for the most part they weren't too interesting. The biggest news by far was the defeat of White supremacist (and former Ted Cruz presidential campaign chair) Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, who was ousted by State Sen. Randy Feenstra. While this probably locks the normally solid red seat up for the GOP (unless King runs as an independent), most progressives still cheered the defeat of the most avowedly racist member of Congress.

Aside from that, though, there were very few marquee races. Incumbents won, generally quite handily. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D), who defeated former Rep. Elijah Cummings' widow in a special election a few months ago, repeated the feat in tonight's primary to win the Democratic nomination in Maryland's 7th congressional district. There was some barking by the left at targeting House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, but he crushed progressive challenger with little trouble. Over in Pennsylvania, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, one of the few House Republicans who still can kinda-sorta gesture at being a moderate, looks like he managed to turn back a challenge from his right -- he's up 56/44 with just over half reporting (this seat will be a Democratic target come November).

So barring major action in the federal races, is there anything worth reporting further down the ballot? Potentially.

Start in Massachusetts, which had two State House special elections tonight. Democrats held the HD-37 in Middlesex, and, perhaps more importantly, flipped a Republican seat (HD-3) in Bristol. This follows on the heels of Democrats flipping to Massachusetts State Senate seats from red to blue a few weeks ago. While this has no immediate impact on the Bay State political arena -- Democrats enjoy commanding leads in both legislative chambers -- it still represents good news. The Bristol seat is one where Democrats have historically done well at the top of the ballot but have struggled in more local races; if voters of this ilk are becoming more solidly blue, that can only be a good thing.

Moving over to New Mexico, where a slate of progressive challengers sought to tackle right-wing incumbent Democrats who had joined Republicans to block reproductive rights legislation. In the State Senate, it looks like at least three Democratic incumbents have been defeated, in the 5th, 28th, and 35th Senate districts. Another two races, the 30th district and the 38th district (where the incumbent is State Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen) are too close to call. Also in New Mexico, Teresa Leger Fernandez defeated Valarie Plame to become the Democratic nominee for the third congressional district, vacated by Rep. Ben Lujan (D). I'm not sad about this result.

Montana kind of was a New Mexico in reverse, with the state GOP divided between a moderate "Solutions Caucus" wing (which has been working with legislative Democrats and incumbent Democratic Governor Steve Bullock) and a hard-line ".38 Special" group, which views cooperation as an anathema. Members of both groups faced primary challenges from the other wing, and the overall results were mixed.

Right-wing challengers targeted two moderate state Senators as well as ten state Representatives. On the Senate side, they split (ousting the incumbent in the SD-28 but falling short in the SD-10). In the House, they won in the HD-35, HD-37, and HD-68 but lost in the HD-7, HD-14, HD-21, HD-39, HD-70, HD-86 and HD-88. Meanwhile, centrist challengers took on four .38 special incumbents in the state House, defeating two. The moderates prevailed in the HD-9 and HD-75, while the conservative incumbents hung on the HD-10 and HD-11. Overall, close to a wash.

Our final stop tonight is Pennsylvania, where a bunch of Democratic incumbents appear to be in trouble, but I've yet to find a clear story as to why. Well, that's not wholly true -- in the SD-17, the incumbent is facing sexual harassment allegations, which probably has a lot to do with his troubles. But Democratic incumbents are also trailing in the SD-1 (Farnese), HD-20 (Ravenstahl), HD-182 (Sims), HD-185 (Donatucci), HD-188 (Roebuck), and HD-190 (Green). So far, I haven't found a clear through narrative for these races akin to what we're seeing in New Mexico or Montana. Of the endangered incumbents, Sims is probably the highest profile -- he recently went viral after accusing Republican colleagues of hiding a positive coronavirus diagnosis from House Democrats, placing them in danger. A lot of votes are still being tabulated because they were sent by mail, so I've been cautioned that some of the closer races (including Sims') may change.

Oh, one last thing: in Iowa, just one incumbent lost her primary race -- longtime Democratic state Rep. Vicki Lensing was ousted by University of Iowa law professor Christina Bohannan. I have no idea what these means politically, but I'm always happy to see law professors succeed in their life projects.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Are Americans Grasping the Reality of Police Violence?

As the nation continues to be gripped by protests against police brutality, I've been struck by the near-constant footage of excessive police force against journalists and civilians who seem to be doing nothing more than exercising their constitutional rights. For me, it powerfully communicates the reality of a central theme of the protests: that the police are out of control and are acting as a tool of repression and violence against the Americans they nominally are there to protect.

But my vantage is only a partial one, and I've been waiting to see evidence about how the American people as a whole are reacting. We all still are living in the shadow of 1968, and there is the constant fear that the narrative that emerges will be one where the police are the victims and "law and order" must be restored. Is that what's happening?

Today, Kevin Drum links to new polling that gives cause for optimism: Asked over the weekend whether "police violence against the public" or "violence against the police" was a more serious problem, Americans picked the former by a 55/30 margin. Independents answered at roughly the same margin -- 54/27. Even White Americans agreed by a 50/35 margin (for Black Americans, the gap was a whopping 85/8).

It's just one poll, and just one question. But it does seem to point to a potential sea change (also on that note: a Minneapolis city councilor talking seriously about trying to disband the Minneapolis Police Department outright).

Meanwhile, it's primary night in several states across America -- off-hand, none of the marquee races seem like they'd be particularly impacted by the protests (maybe the effort to take out White Supremacist GOP Rep. Steve King), but I suppose we'll see.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Eighth Circuit Absolves Another Minnesota Police Killing

On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit handed down its opinion in Kong v. City of Burnsville, a case regarding the killing by Burnsville police of an Asian-American man in the midst of a mental health crisis (Burnsville is a suburb of Minneapolis). The district court had denied qualified immunity to the officers, allowing the case to go to trial. On appeal, however, the Eighth Circuit (by 2-1 vote) reversed, holding that the officers' conduct did not violate clearly established law.

The facts of the case are complicated. Early one morning, Burnsville police received a report of suspicious activity in a McDonald's parking lot. A man (Kong) had been spotted sitting in his car for thirty minutes, waving a knife and jumping around. Officers arrived and at first passively monitored the situation. Then they asked the man to put down the knife; he was unresponsive. It was pretty evident that he was undergoing a mental health crisis, but he had not committed any felonies and did not appear to be an immediate threat to anyone.

Eventually, police broke the windows of his car and tased Kong twice. Kong did not drop the knife; he stumbled out of the car and broke out running towards the street where traffic was still driving by. At that point, police officers opened fire, striking and killing him (one bullet lodged in the bumper of a passing vehicle).

The majority held that it was not clearly established that the police could not open fire in this scenario. They contended instead that the officers reasonably perceived Kong as posing an imminent safety threat to the civilians driving by. Judge Kelly, in dissent, pointed out that it was obvious that Kong was undergoing a mental health crisis and he had never threatened anyone, and that in any event people in cars would not be in especial danger from someone holding a knife. A jury could therefore conclude that the decision to open fire on Kong was excessive.

I personally think this is legally a close case -- though close cases I think are generally best left to juries rather than plucked out by judges. But given the current circumstances in the Twin Cities and around the country, I thought it was noteworthy that this case was handed down this Friday, and wanted to give out the facts.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Qualified Immunity and Criminal Law

Normally, we think of civil cases as being easier to win than their criminal counterparts. The standard of proof is lower ("preponderance of the evidence" versus "beyond a reasonable doubt"), and many activities which are not subject to criminal penalties might nonetheless carry civil liability. There's a reason why O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder but nonetheless lost the civil suit against him for wrongful death.

But, at least in the context of police brutality cases, there is one hurdle present in civil litigation that is not found in criminal law: qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity is a judicially-made doctrine that shields officers of the state (not just police officers, though they're the most common subjects of litigation) from civil liability for constitutional violations unless they violate "clearly established" law. In other words, it's not enough for the police officer to have violated the law, it has to have been obvious in advance that they violated the law. The judiciary has interpreted this in an exceptionally stingy fashion, insisting on extremely granular inquiries into whether the precise fact pattern alleged by the plaintiff had been specifically demarcated as unlawful in a prior case. The question isn't something like "has it been 'clearly established' that a police officer can't physical strike an non-resisting suspect?", it's instead more like "has it been 'clearly established' that a police officer can't specifically tackle a non-violent, non-resisting, non-threatening suspect who weighed 130 lbs?" If one doesn't find a case that mirrors those facts, the law isn't "clearly established" and the case fails. The Supreme Court itself has accordingly characterized qualified immunity as a shield for all except "the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." And the Eighth Circuit (which includes Minnesota) -- well, it's insulated some pretty wretched behavior under qualified immunity's guise (and some of its judges think it hasn't gone far enough!).

By its nature, qualified immunity means that many actions which are concededly unlawful violations of Americans' civil rights are nonetheless protected from civil suit. But there is no qualified immunity in the criminal law: one cannot escape criminal punishment by arguing that there has not been prior case law "clearly establishing" that the conduct you're accused of is unlawful. I'm dubious about the ultimate viability of criminal law to serve as a systemic brake on police brutality -- I'm not sure that is a task it is well-suited for (though it is certainly appropriate in particular cases -- the George Floyd case appearing to be an obvious). But a criminal prosecution -- as much as it is (properly!) hamstrung by heightened burdens of proof compared to a civil suit -- does evade the strictures of qualified immunity. And given how aggressively the judiciary has interpreted qualified immunity to shield bad actors in the American policing system, that's a virtue which cannot be discounted.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Albert Memmi (1920 - 2020)

Albert Memmi, the great Tunisian-Jewish anti-colonial writer and theorist, has passed away at age 99.

Late last year, a friend and I had the early sketches of a plan to host a conference in honor of Memmi's 100th birthday (at the time, the most common response to this idea was for people to exclaim "he's still alive?"). That was put on brakes after the coronavirus hit, but there's no question Memmi remains worthy of study and (now) memorialization.

Albert Memmi was born in Tunis in 1920. In his early life he was involved in socialist youth movements, and during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia he was interned in a slave labor camp (from which he escaped). After the war, he became one of the leading intellectual lights of the movement to free Tunisia from French colonization. What Fanon was to Algeira, Memmi was to Tunisia, and for many years Memmi's book The Colonizer and the Colonized was read alongside Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth as cornerstone texts of decolonial theory. That is much less true today, possibly because Memmi's later work was more conservative, possibly because Memmi was emphatic throughout his career that he viewed Zionism as the decolonization movement of the Jews.

Unfortunately, following independence Memmi found that Tunisia had little place for Jews, and he exiled himself to France where he spent the remainder of his life. He wrote a trilogy of books -- Portrait of a Jew, Liberation of the Jew, and Jews and Arabs -- which have been widely overlooked but which I think are each superb explorations of the Jewish condition that continue to resonate to this day (many excerpts from these books have been featured on this blog). He continued to write prolifically, culminating in a follow-up to The Colonizer and the Colonized titled Decolonization and the Decolonized in 2006. This book was controversial, as Memmi evinced a marked conservative turn, and there are parts of it that made me wince as a reader. But that does not mean it is not worth reading, as is the broader corpus of Memmi's amazing life's works.

While Fanon famously died extremely young, Memmi's career as a writer spanned well over a half-century, witnessing tremendous revolutions in his homeland and in the disciplinary areas he wrote upon. Hence, I've sometimes described Memmi as the version of Fanon who got to watch the decolonization story actually unfold. By itself, that makes him a fascinating character. But Memmi deserved to be read and praised in his own right, not simply as a shadow of Fanon.

May his memory be a blessing.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Handicapping the Senate

It's less than six months from election day, so why not handicap the current state of the 2020 Senate races?

I'm going to list the (competitive) races in order of likelihood to flip to the opposing party.

1. Alabama (Doug Jones - D):  You know that West Wing plot where the Democratic nominee in a super-Republican district dies before election day, and Sam Seaborn offers to run in the special election if the dead guy somehow ends up winning? And then every confluence of luck and God and good fortune smiled and the dead guy did win, forcing Sam into a congressional run doomed as soon as it began?

That's kind of Doug Jones' re-election campaign. Everything -- everything -- had to break in increasingly ludicrous fashion for a Democrat to win a Senate seat in Alabama, right down to his opponent being an actual pedophile. And it still was a 2 point race. This was a great victory, and Jones deserves to be showered with plaudits and praise for it. But it'd take another miracle for him to win in 2020, and I don't see it. The only bright spot is that former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville looks likely to best ex-Senator and former Trump AG Jeff Sessions to become the GOP nominee -- not because Tuberville is better, but because one of the few joys of the Trump era has been watching him repeatedly wreck the careers of his erstwhile friends.

2. Colorado (Cory Gardner - R): Colorado, like Nevada, is a state that seemed to go from red to light blue, skipping entirely over purple in the process. Cory Gardner never got the memo, and has legislated like a GOP diehard for his entire first term -- never even gesturing at a pivot toward the center. The reward for his Trumpist loyalty is to be polling down double digits against Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (doing the right thing running for Senate instead of a quixotic Presidential campaign). It's hard to see how he survives -- he ranks below Jones only because Colorado isn't so solidly blue that a Republican victory would require divine intervention.

3. Arizona (Martha McSally - R [special]): Every once in awhile, one comes across a politician who seems perfectly fine on paper, who doesn't seem to have any particular attributes that make her especially lovable or loathable, yet who voters for whatever reason just don't cotton to. Martha McSally seems to be one of those pols. She just lost a Senate race in 2018 to Kyrsten Sinema in a mild upset that presaged Arizona suddenly becoming a real Democratic target, then immediately got appointed to fill the shoes of departing Republican Senator Jon Kyl. Now she's polling down again to Mark Kelly (astronaut husband of shooting survivor and ex-Rep. Gabby Giffords), in a state where Biden is posting some very impressive numbers. Other politicians might be able to reverse the tide. But McSally just doesn't seem to vibe with the folks she needs to, and the trend lines aren't pulling her way. The most recent poll to drop in Arizona has her losing by a crushing 13 point margin.

4. Maine (Susan Collins - R): This would be among the sweetest fruits for me, and Sara Gideon has a very strong shot to take out Moderate Republican(tm) Susan Collins. Maine remains blue at the presidential level, and Collins once sky-high approvals have been in free fall as she's played loyal foot soldier to McConnell and Trump. Yet it's hard not to imagine she's stockpiled some good will from her (however tattered) reputation as a moderate, and Maine more so than anywhere in New England has some areas that are surprisingly Trump-friendly. This will be a real slugfest.

5. North Carolina (Thom Tillis - R): The "new south" -- educated, suburban, professional, racially diverse, and increasingly blue-friendly -- is creeping up and down the Atlantic coast. Virginia's already been taken over. Georgia an increasingly plum target. But the next domino most likely to fall is North Carolina -- still the palest shade of red leaning, but a place where Democratic fortunes appear to be waxing. Tillis has two other things cutting against him: he'll be sharing a ballot with wildly popular Democratic Governor Roy Cooper (who appears to be thrashing any GOP challengers), and a flood of bad press hitting his Senate colleague Richard Burr for allegedly dumping stock before the coronavirus news really broke. Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham is polling well here -- either moderately ahead or at worst tied.

6. Montana (Steve Daines - R): Governor Steve Bullock is another entry in the "thank you for abandoning a ridiculous POTUS bid and running for Senate instead" list, and he instantly turns this race into a real Democratic opportunity. Montana has been quietly getting more competitive over the past few years as the western half of the state and what passes for "cities" turn bluer, and Democratic Senator Jon Tester won a hotly contested 2018 Senate race by a close but not squeaky-thin 3.5% margin. Daines has the advantage of incumbency plus Trump's coattails, but Bullock is popular statewide. This has flown under the radar a bit, and I think Bullock's got a real shot.

7. Georgia (Kelly Loeffler - R [special]): This would place a lot higher if I was ordering based on "likelihood the incumbent loses". Loeffler, only recently appointed by Governor Brian Kemp, is abysmally unpopular in the Peach State, and right now she's polling fourth in a free-for-all election (behind fellow Republican Doug Collins and then two Democrats). The reasons are myriad -- Trump made it clear she was not his choice for the appointment, and she too has gotten into hot water over coronavirus-related trading -- but the end result is she's unlikely to even advance to the run-off. Unfortunately for Democrats, run-offs in Georgia have tended to sharply favor the GOP, so the most likely person to emerge from the scrum is Collins -- an even further-right Trump loyalist. There's also the alarming possibility that, in a highly fractured field, Loeffler manages to squeak into second and lock Democrats out entirely. Of course if that happens, Loeffler's only hope to prevail is to attract cross-over votes ....

8. Michigan (Gary Peters - D): Outside Alabama, this is by far the GOP's best chance for a 2020 Senate pickup. John James is a very strong candidate who ran a surprisingly close race against Debbie Stabenow in 2018, and he's back for a second crack at the Senate. Peters is not as well established as Stabenow was, and 2020 will likely not be as big a blue wave year as 2018 was. On the other hand, Democratic fortunes in Michigan seem to be on the rise, and Biden should perform better there than Clinton did in 2016. That's enough to make Peters the favorite, but not an overwhelming one.

9. Iowa (Joni Ernst - R): Once the ultimate bellwether, Iowa has seemingly been largely written off as a legitimate Democratic target, and for a long time Joni Ernst seemed to be coasting to re-election. But her numbers are surprisingly soft -- two polls this month have her deadlocked with her two most likely Democratic challengers -- and Democrats did win three of four Iowa House seats in 2018. She's definitely still the favorite, but an upset can't be written off.

10. Georgia (David Perdue - R): The other Georgia race, minus the particular "complexities" raised by Loeffler's unique unpopularity. That means most of the above analysis applies, but only more so for the Republicans. Georgia continues to creep towards purple status, but odds are it won't quite get there in 2020.

11. Kansas (Open [Pat Roberts] - R): Kris Kobach blew the Governor's race for the GOP in 2018, but that hasn't deterred him from seeking the Senate nod in 2020. It's possible he'll get it, and so it's possible he'll lose again. Democrats have rarely been competitive in the Sunflower State, but 2018 showed they had a heartbeat. Meanwhile, the state Republican Party has been in a state of near-civil war for years between (relative) moderates and true firebreathers. The latter camp had their man in the Governor's mansion in the form of Sam Brownback, and his experiment in scorched-earth conservative governance led the GOP to unprecedented unpopularity in a state they normally dominate in.

12. Kentucky (Mitch McConnell - R): I know I said Susan Collins would be the sweetest fruit, but if Mitch McConnell goes down I'll revise that assessment. It's unlikely -- Kentucky is blood red at the Presidential level, and McConnell has effectively infinite resources at his disposal. But Andy Beshear's win of the Governor's mansion showed that Democrats still can win statewide if the stars align, and McConnell, for all his power and sway, is actually very unpopular in his home state. A definite long shot, but not wholly out of range.

Friday, May 15, 2020

"Can We Survive Four More Years?"

If you'd asked me a month ago where Democrats were better positioned, Florida or North Carolina, I'd have taken the unconventional bet and said North Carolina. The Tarheel State is growing in exactly the way that Democrats are poised to exploit in the new south -- suburban, well-educated -- and Democrats did well there in 2018. By contrast, Florida still is anchored by its aging retiree population -- Trump's prime demographic -- and it was the state which most resisted the blue tide in the last midterm.

Today, a new poll dropped in each state, putting Biden up six in Florida and Trump up three in North Carolina. It's easy to cherry-pick polls, but it's also the case that the coronavirus response may be seriously eroding Trump's support among seniors. The conventional wisdom is that Democrats win by goosing youth and young professional turnout, and there's a lot to be said for that strategy. But if Democrats can crack the senior vote, especially given their high turnout figures? It might be game over for Trump. It's hard to see much of a electoral college route for him without Florida.

The frankly death-cultist response of Trump and the GOP response to the coronavirus provides a huge opening. Obviously, Democrats are already running ads on this. But I think they've got ammo they're not using. Of course there's the clip of Trump calling the virus a "hoax" -- use that, and plenty of other Trump quotes to go along with it. Place alongside the "sacrifice the weak" poster. Place it alongside Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urging seniors to "take a chance on your survival." Place it alongside Ben Shapiro saying, hey, 80 years old is pretty good life lived already, right? Build a crushing, suffocating narrative that's nothing more than the truth: Donald Trump and the Republican Party are willing to let seniors die.

The ammo is there to make that the story. And with it, the key question that should frame the 2020 election -- for all of us, but especially America's seniors must be asking -- is straightforward: "Can we survive four more years?"

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Explicit Mizrahi Zionism and the California Ethnic Studies Curriculum

In Jewish Currents, Gabi Kirk has a long piece on the antisemitism controversy over the California Ethnic Studies curriculum (last year I wrote on the matter here). It's a wide-ranging issue and a wide-ranging essay, but (in keeping with my prior contribution) I want to focus on the specific issue of Sephardic/Mizrahi inclusion.*

Here is what Kirk says when she reaches that angle of the story:
Complaints about the [proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum] aren’t coming solely from white Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish groups have also claimed the curriculum leaves out their experiences. Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA)—which is also an explicitly Zionist group—claimed in multiple letters to the CDE that the draft ESMC “portray[s] Arabs as a homogenous, Muslim group,” and “excludes and erases the experiences, perspectives, and voices of diverse Middle Eastern communities.” (JIMENA did not respond to requests for comment for this piece.) California is home to a large Mizrahi Jewish population; Los Angeles is home to the largest Iranian-Jewish population in the US. 
Have you fixated on one word in a passage, and just felt it inexorably press layers of meaning onto you? That's me with "explicitly" (as in JIMENA is "also an explicitly Zionist group").

Throughout Kirk's essay, the Jewish organizations criticizing the draft ethnic studies curriculum were pretty much always referred to as "Jewish Zionist". Nobody was ever referred to as "anti-Zionist" -- only the Zionists needed the perpetual modifier attached to them. It's the Zionists versus the unmarked neutrals. But of all the groups mentioned -- from the AJC to the ADL to AMCHA -- only JIMENA was "explicitly Zionist".**

And I started wondering -- why explicitly? What was that word doing? How was JIMENA explicitly Zionist in a way its peers were not? To be sure, JIMENA is Zionist in the same way that most Jewish organizations are, in the same way that most Jews are. I'm quite familiar with them, and I know what role Zionism plays in their organizational orientation. JIMENA is an organization that was formed to represent the interests and the stories of Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewish refugees whose communities in the Arab and Muslim world were decimated in the decades surrounding the establishment of Israel. It is Zionist because (a) most of the community it represents is Zionist and (b) in its estimation, its mission and values are furthered through some iteration of Zionism. But Zionism is not its raison d'etre. It does not even appear in JIMENA's "About" section.

One would be hard pressed to explain how JIMENA is notably "explicit" in its Zionism in a way that, say, the AJC is not. And what would "non-explicit" Zionism look like? If it's not "explicit", is it "covert"? "Hidden"? It starts to look pretty lose-lose, pretty quickly.

The almost assured truth is that the word "explicitly", here, is redundant in terms of cognitive content. It is not actually meant to distinguish JIMENA from the AJC; it does not add information. Its purpose is more affective -- meant to convey a mood of danger, or of shamelessness. It reads like an "explicit lyrics" stamp slapped on an album: these Jews need a warning label. It's similar to how one sometimes sees groups or speakers called "openly" or "avowedly" Zionist. Taken literally, one might ask "as opposed to?" But the purpose of the modifier isn't really to add new content as it is to tut at the brazenness of it all. How very dare they. These are not respectable Jews. They flaunt. If there is a reason why "explicitly" got attached to JIMENA in particular, it was as a red flag for the unwary reader who might otherwise be inclined to credit the worries of the Mizrahi community.

There is something that I think is worth saying about the manner in which the Zionism of Mizrahi Jews is often cast and denigrated in these tones -- as brazen, audacious, flamboyant, even obscene. It's late, and I'm tired, and others can pick this ball up if they want to. But it is something I've noticed before, and I was not surprised to see it here.

* There's a separate issue burbling up regarding a column on this issue written by a certain disgraced Jewish journalist in the Jewish Journal. I have no desire to give this writer any more attention, so I'll just say that the disgraced journalist is disgraced for a reason and that it's a further disgrace that they are still being published in respectable outlets.

** Though the letter was hosted on JIMENA's website, it actually had ten other co-signatories, all California-based Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewish organizations including five synagogues. They go unmentioned in Kirk's essay (are they "explicitly" Zionist too -- whatever that means?). By comparison, in the next paragraph Kirk contrasts JIMENA's letter with "others [who] trace the difficulty of imparting Mizrahi history to Zionism itself." The link goes to an essay hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace (a far more "explicitly" anti-Zionist organization than JIMENA is "explicitly" Zionist) and was signed by two people, one of whom lives in Indiana. Nonetheless, Kirk spends roughly twice as much time on (and extends much more sympathy to) the analysis of this duo. That later in the essay she quotes a proponent of the draft ethnic studies curriculum complaining about "tokenizing" is more than a little rich.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Are We Back To This Again?

Tablet Magazine has a new 2,500 word essay comparing the antisemitic dangers of Black Nationalism to that of White Supremacy.

Is it novel? No. It's the same basic set of arguments about Black antisemitism everyone in the Jewish community has heard (and heard, and heard) approximately infinity times since 2015. It contributes absolutely nothing new to the topic. Misty-eyed reminiscence on (now more than a half-century old) Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights movement? Check. Cherry-picked anecdotes of a few hateful college lectures decades in the past? Check. Earnest equivalence between these lectures and Tiki Marchers in Charlottesville? Check. The only thing surprising about it is that Liel Leibovitz wasn't the author.

Is it timely? No. There's no effort to provide any serious topical hook; there's nothing in the news cycle that appears to have prompted it. It comes effectively out of nowhere. At least when I wrote about Tony Martin (a) it was prompted by a personal experience and (b) he hadn't been dead for seven years. This feels like someone just really missed the good old days where one could publish a "Black antisemitism -- the new threat to the Jews!" column every week. Some people miss the normalcy of going to the gym; some miss the normalcy of obsessing over Black antisemitism. To-may-to to-mah-to.

Is it good? No. It is absolutely possible to write a good piece about Black antisemitism. Adam Serwer had a great one in The Atlantic. And I'd be fascinated to hear Michael Twitty more fully speak on the dynamic he encountered here, if he were so inclined. But the hallmark of a bad piece on Black antisemitism is when it acts as if Black antisemitism drives the broader antisemitic environment Jews face on a global level. The shoals to avoid are very similar to those if one writes on "Jewish Racism" (and indeed, on my desk I have a book titled Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism). Are there important things to say on the subject? Yes, absolutely. But there's a huge difference between noting that there are Jews who are racist and writing as if Jewish racism drives contemporary racism (in the U.S. or globally) on a level that is at par with or exceeds White supremacy. The latter is what crosses into antisemitic territory.

And indeed, ironically this is often exactly the sin that exemplifies how some Black nationalists cross into antisemitic territory -- they present Jews as at the center of or guiding the practice of racism in America. The problem isn't that there aren't Jews who are racist, the problem is presenting that iteration of racism in a fashion wholly out of proportion to its actually tangible impact. Yet that lesson somehow is lost when running yet another "Black antisemitism is just as central as White supremacy" column.

How does an essay like this get published? It's not that it's the worst thing Tablet has ever run (my podium for that event would probably include Anna Breslaw's "Nazis were right: Some of us are Jewhsit", Alexander Zubatov's defense of the "Cultural Marxism" slur, and this Leibovitz classic), but it is one of the more pointless. It's not original, it's not timely, it's not prompted by anything, it's just -- there. Gratuitously stirring up trouble for no reason other than it can.