Friday, October 22, 2021

The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

After furious pushback from pretty much every quarter, Sunrise DC claims to be reflecting and pondering upon the reaction it got from its announcement demanding the expulsion of three Jewish groups (but not other groups with similar views) from progressive coalitional spaces for being "Zionist".

The probability that they will issue an actual, unequivocal apology strikes me as essentially nil. I welcome being disproven on this point, but it is a prediction I'm quite confident in. For starters, genuine moral epiphanies do not come so fast. Their initial sin was not a harsh word taken in a moment of weakness or impatience, but something pondered and considered. If they are to come to the conclusion that what they did was simply wrong, flat period, it will take more than a few days of bad PR.

But beyond that, as much heat as they're taking from bigger fish in the progressive ecosystem (including the Sunrise Movement as a whole), the local and interpersonal connectors which promoted and lauded this decision in the first place remain operative and will be no doubt furious if Sunrise DC shows contrition. When one gets far enough out into the fringes of political activism, where purity of purpose and practice is the only currency, one's situation is not dissimilar to what Churchill said of dictators -- they ride to and fro on tigers they dare not dismount, for the tigers are hungry. If the back down, they'll be eaten alive by their erstwhile allies and they will not be forgiven by those they have wronged. That's the other thing: there is no chance that any apology, right now, would suffice to heal the wound that Sunrise DC caused -- at least not right away. And to be clear, that's not anyone's moral failing for being insufficiently forgiving -- in a case like this, the wronged party is not obliged to simply accept an apology and immediately wipe the slate clean. All I'm saying is that, even if one does recognize that one has done wrong, it takes a very strong person to apologize knowing that the only tangible result is that they'll be pilloried by their "friends" and unforgiven by those they hurt. Sunrise DC has not shown much evidence of possessing that sort of strength.

Far more likely, then, is that Sunrise DC will look for some alternative pathway to get to a similar place to where they had initially wanted to go, but that avoids the nominal arguments for their particular statement aroused such ire. It has been noted that the argument I made in my post -- that Sunrise DC targeted exclusively Jewish groups for positions that are common among the great bulk of left-of-center organizations, Jewish or not -- seems to be one that has gotten considerable traction as "the" reason for why what Sunrise DC did was wrong. For some, this set off a hunt for some hypothetical set of criteria and distinctions that just happened to include only these three Jewish groups. They would then triumphantly ask whether the American Federation of Teachers' website mentions Israel-related programming on its front page, as if that was the actual demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable (Answer: "No, of course [these other groups] were not in this new reference class which you have just now constructed in such a way as to contain only [the initial three].").

More likely is the promulgation of a new criteria which does expressly include some other, non-Jewish groups they won't work with (the AFT is an obvious candidate). But again, the goal is tractability -- the new standard has to be one that can be enforced, and that means limiting its scope. "Just the Jews" was one such limit that allows for tractability, and I noted in my prior post that if SunriseDC actually meant to preclude cooperation with all groups that hold views on Israel similar to that of the RAC -- which just this summer reiterated its long opposition to "the military occupation of the West Bank, which humiliates Palestinians and causes much daily suffering... the expansion of settlements and annexation in the West Bank and the eviction/displacement of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, elsewhere in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank" -- would mean it basically could not work with any liberal person or organization of any significant size (Jewish or not) of any that had ever ventured a thought on Israel, since such a position is absolutely the normal one among liberal political sorts. 

To be fair, it was pointed out to me -- and I had come to this thought on my own -- that SunriseDC might not especially mind this outcome, as its theory of change is not particularly tied to having close collaborative relations with mainstream liberal organizations or politicians. While I still think that SunriseDC would think carefully about how many bridges it wants to burn, it still is the case that such a move would be less costly for them than for many comparable organizations. Nonetheless, my guess is that SunriseDC does not want to commit to more tangible exclusions than it must. Indeed, right now I think SunriseDC has a potential trust issue looming over any potential partnership it might want to make. Forget what it did to the Jewish groups, what it did to the DFAD coalition, or to Sunrise National -- it was a blindside hit. Anyone who might be interesting in collaborating with SunriseDC has to wonder whether two weeks from now they'll be publicly castigated for having an investment banker on their board or having the wrong vowels in their name or defending "capitalist" solutions to social problems or some other heresy that will come out of nowhere. The hidden utility of only targeting the Jews was that it implicitly signaled to all the non-Jews "don't worry -- you're going to be fine. This isn't about you." If it starts lashing out willy-nilly, everyone has to wonder if they're next; and the best way to dissipate the worry is to just partner with someone else.

So SunriseDC still has the same basic incentive coupled with the same basic moral orientation: it wants to keep excluding the Jewish groups, and a few others for "neutrality's" sake, while keeping the total number of exclusions tractable and enforceable. To this, I see two options. First, come up with a new set of criteria that is very precise and gerrymandered to mostly encompass the Jews they were already targeting (and now a few others). This might be something like "no groups that do work in Israel that isn't expressly about ending the occupation" or "no groups that have hosted Israeli politicians". Again, anyone who thinks these rules actually demarcate the difference between morally acceptable and unacceptable organizations is deceiving themselves as much as if the rule was "no organizations which mention Israel on the front page of their website." These criteria are there for tractability -- it is another way of signaling to everyone else "don't worry, we're not coming after you, we're only going after this slice" (a slice that "just happens to be" overwhelmingly Jewish). Which wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the criteria tracked a moral division -- but it doesn't. The goal, again, is to limit scope. Make an example out of a few, and the rest fall into line (or make an example out of a few, and feel happy that you destroyed a few evildoers. Even SunriseDC can appreciate some marginal gains).

Option two is to retain what they have now -- an intentionally broad and underspecified criteria of "no Zionists", and then just declare that a few more non-Jewish organizations are now qualifying miscreants. The breadth and vagueness allows people to fill in the content however they want (how many people did we see argue -- somehow with a straight face -- that all SunriseDC was doing was announcing opposition to the occupation!), and few will research to see whether the criteria is in fact being consistently applied (particularly when it now facially includes both Jews and non-Jews -- notwithstanding this is a bit like Trump's travel ban expanding to include North Korea and Venezuela).

What will remain true is that this alteration is, at root, nothing more than a gotcha play: "you said the problem was that Jewish groups are singled out? Well now our standard includes non-Jews too -- so there! We corrected the problem!" Of course, my post anticipated this move in noting that Randi Weingarten is sufficiently prominent as a Jewish leader that her, and through her the AFT, could easily be attacked as well without much adjustment. 

But more to the point: it is neither unreasonable nor goalpost moving to hold that when an actor has just a moment earlier engaged in naked discriminatory conduct, it is not entitled to the benefit of the doubt when it reorganizes to do almost exactly the same thing as its initial discrimination, but this time with a fig leaf in front of it (Muslim Ban 1.0 should have altered our assessment Muslim Ban 2.0). Being antisemitic should extract a cost like that; one should be limited in what policies one can endorse or what steps one can take in ways others are not. When you engage in rank antisemitism, you lose -- at least for a little while, certainly for more than a week -- the right to play in sandboxes that are filled with precious Jewish objects.

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