Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How To Tokenize with Proportions

13% of American Muslims voted for Donald Trump.

That's a minuscule proportion. It is around half the proportion that Hillary Clinton got in Idaho. It is fair to say that Muslims overwhelmingly voted against Trump, just like it is fair to say that Idahoans voted overwhelmingly against Clinton.

13% also translates, roughly, into "1 in 8". And when you think of that way, it's shouldn't be that hard to find a Muslim Trump supporter. Statistically, all you'd need to do is know eight American Muslims, and one of them is probably a Trump voter. And across a population of roughly 3.3 million Muslims, that means there are roughly 412,500 American Muslims who support Trump -- a lot of people! Yet it would be clearly, obviously wrong to use those "lot of people" to try and argue against the above conclusion that "Muslims overwhelmingly voted against Trump."

In short, it is simultaneously true that "Muslims overwhelmingly dislike Trump" and "it is not hard to find Muslims who do like Trump." Likewise, we can simultaneously know that Idaho is exceptionally conservative and know that finding liberals Idahoans doesn't take any herculean effort.

When one doesn't keep those two thoughts in mind, it is very easy to mislead oneself. I've noted that 13% is also the percentage of UK Jews who planned to vote Labour last election, but that still means it should not be remotely hard to find Jews -- quite a few Jews -- who are loud-and-proud for Jeremy Corbyn. If one is a Corbyn fan, one can (accurately!) think "look at all the Jews I know who support Corbyn" and then (inaccurately) conclude that the stories of widespread Jewish consternation over Corbyn are ginned-up nonsense. Same with Black Republicans -- they're simultaneously rare and not that difficult to find, and so it is easy for conservatives to dupe themselves into thinking they have no race problem by pointing out all the Black Republicans out there.

Ditto when one sees big crowds of angry constituents in a deeply conservative or liberal representative's town hall meeting. One can see those and think "wow -- even here people are turning against [Insert Party]!" But even in the most electorally lopsided districts, there are still going to be quite a few members of the other side -- certainly enough to pack an auditorium, if they're feeling motivated.

Or take this article, "To Understand White Liberal Racism, Read These Emails." It is about angry emails sent to school administrators regarding the decision by Seattle school teachers to wear "Black Lives Matter" t-shirts. The article observes that these emails came from one of the whitest, most affluent" and "staunchly liberal neighborhoods" in the city, places "dotted with rainbow yard signs that say 'All are welcome.'"

Applying the "staunchly liberal" label to these neighborhoods is entirely justified. The (Democratic) state senator in part of Seattle was last re-elected with 80% of the vote. That's a crushing margin! But it still means that 1 in 5 voters in the district cast their ballot for Republicans. On the one hand, that's not a lot of people. On the other, that's a lot of people! Certainly, if 1-in-5 school parents have retrogressively conservative views on  race, that'd be enough to make their voices known in a letter-writing campaign.

Now, to be clear, it is entirely possible -- plausible even -- that these emails didn't come from the 1-in-5 Republicans but from the 4-in-5 Democrats. "Democrats" are a wide tent, and there are, indeed, plenty of putative progressives who are on a hair-trigger about race issues and would be prime candidates to send out letters like these. I'm not saying that because these emails were racist, they couldn't have come from liberals. They very much could have.

What I am saying is that we can't say "because this neighborhood is staunchly liberal, these emails must have come from liberals." That's because that conclusion entails a shift from the accurate observation that this part of Seattle is overwhelmingly liberal, to the inaccurate observation that any political or social activity substantial enough to make it onto the social radar screen must be emerging from liberals. It's quite possible for conservatives in a place like Northeast Seattle to be simultaneously a marginal presence and a visible one, under the right circumstances. Ditto liberals in a place like Idaho.

More broadly, this is just a particular example of an obvious point: words with the same meaning can nonetheless communicate very different messages. When we want to erase the minority presence, we talk in percentages (20% is teensy-tiny!). When we want to elevate it, we talk in ratios (1:5 is really common!). Both are right, and in fact both connotations are right: a minority of 20% is a very small minority (as against an 80% majority), but 1:5 people is very common. Keeping both connotations in mind is good deliberative practice. Jumping from one to the other as argumentatively-necessary is very bad practice.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

No Lessons Tonight

I have no lessons to offer from the results of tonight's Georgia special election. Mostly, this is because any "lessons" you'll hear tonight will almost invariably be "Democrats should do the thing I already thought Democrats should do", and I doubt I'm so dispassionate as to be able to resist that inflection in my analysis.

To the extent I have a takeaway, well, I get -- and basically agree with -- the argument that these results still show a huge swing in the Democratic direction compared to previous House results. Taking a district where Republicans were winning over 60% of the vote and making it nip-and-tuck is a big deal.

At the same time, Jon Ossoff got roughly the same percentage of the vote in the GA-06 as Hillary Clinton did. By and large, the people who vote for Trump are and continue to be fundamentally fine with Trump. All that's happened, all he represents -- they're okay with it. They like it even. I suspect they revel in it.

So mostly right now I'm just sad. I'm sad because I get the sense that if the median Georgia Trump voter knew that I -- Berkeley-residing, academically-employed, advanced-degree-holding, Jewish David -- was sad, they'd be happy. They like that I'm sad. They like that I'm scared. It's high-time people "like me" (whatever that means) were a bit antsy. It's long past due that I recognized that this isn't my country, it's their country. If I'm unhappy, that isn't a regrettable byproduct of important policy reforms they deeply believe in, and it's not a challenge to try to reach out and make me believe that these reforms can speak to me too. It's not the means, it's the end. It's not part of the job, it's why they took the job.

Maybe I'm wrong. But I certainly don't get the sense that they care. One never sees the "middle-income conservative white Christians need to reach out and heal a divided country" take out of the right-wing press.

So I'm sad. And to be clear: Being sad doesn't mean you stop working. And it doesn't mean you stop believing in other people, or assume there's no hope for change. But you're allowed to be sad. You're allowed your sensibilities.

Epistemic Antisemitism

On Twitter, I flagged this great article on antisemitism in left spaces by Spencer Sunshine and promised to write more about it. Then I got distracted. But it really does deserve at least a little additional comment, because there was a particular passage I wanted to highlight:
It’s almost always deeply frustrating to convince Leftists to sever these ties [to antisemitic actors] — but often it’s achievable. Leftists know these people taint their movement, even though they are often hesitant to be drawn into what seem like endless controversies about anti-Semitism. There is almost always disbelief when you broach the topic, and a tendency to dismiss any documentation that comes from the normal watchdog organizations. And it can also make you the center of unwanted attention; Barrett is running a smear campaign against me in retaliation for exposing him. But Leftists usually change their mind once they understand that these unsavory alliances generate critical media attention. 
Leftist Jews often come to me privately and complain about anti-Semitism they’ve experienced, but feel cowed into being silent about it. But the more people speak out against this from within the Left, the less likely the antisemitic conspiracy theorists are to find a welcoming platform.
The emphasized portion (emphasis my own) is what I wanted to highlight. It goes to what I want to call "epistemic antisemitism". Epistemic antisemitism is the process and practices which discredit Jews as knowers, particularly as knowers of their own experience (e.g., their experiences as victims of antisemitism). The default "disbelief" that comes when Jews say "that's antisemitic" -- and Sunshine soft-pedals here, since it is not usually just "disbelief" but a far more aggressive assumption that the antisemitism claim is (as usual) being made it bad faith -- is a particularly dangerous case. Prejudice yields the injustice, and then insulates said prejudice from critical review. In this way, antisemitism claims can be routinely dismissed across the board.

To be clear: "epistemic antisemitism" is not solely or, I'd suggest, even primarily a "left" phenomenon. The right is no more willing to credit antisemitism charges when it implicates them and theirs. To the extent "left" antisemitsm gets more attention, it is because most Jews are part of the (broadly defined) left and so exclusion there hits closer to home. It's also because of a sense that the left has the methodological tools that render it theoretically capable of addressing this wrong in a way the right does not (the right doesn't even purport to believe in things like "be appropriately deferential to marginalized groups when they articulate their own experiences).

In any event, if we are to root out antisemitism in our movements, I firmly believe that tackling epistemic antisemitism has to a top priority -- it stands as the guardian shielding all the other forms from challenge. And so it needs to be made crystal-clear that one cannot hold oneself out as an ally of the Jews if one is not willing to listen attentively, respectfully, and open-mindedly when they proffer critiques -- even when those critiques sting, even when they challenge deeply-felt commitments.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Joys of Social Tragedy

There's perhaps no type of person I'm more contemptuous of than those whose first response to a major social tragedy -- a terrorist attack, a mass shooting, a violent attack on a politician or political activist, and so on -- is gleeful musing on who they're now allowed to hate (or, typically, hate more than usual).

These are the people who get excited about what a suicide bombing "tells us about the Palestinians". They're amped about what a case of "price tag" settle violence "reveals about Zionists." They're positively giddy about what the shooting of Steve Scalise "illustrates about progressives". They can't wait to regale us about what the Manchester bombing "proves about Muslims."

Sometimes there are important social messages that are excavated by a major tragedy. They have real consequences after all, and they can be genuinely illustrative about certain threats various groups face or certain ideologies which have purchase.

My objection isn't to genuine and careful attempts to work through those meanings. Again -- it's to the giddiness that often accompanies it. They're more excited that their prejudices have been (in their minds) verified than they are that something terrible has happened. Their response is virtually never a "genuine and careful attempt" to craft a warranted conclusion from the full body of evidence. It is rather an expression of ideological ecstasy that dances upon graves even as it cloaks itself in the barest veil of solidarity.

It's a sick instinct. It's also an alarmingly commonplace one. I wish people would knock it off.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Blog Bar Mitzvah

The Debate Link turned 13 years old yesterday. It is now, officially, a Jewish adult (in blogosphere years, by contrast, it is a hobbling old man).

As always, thanks to all my loyal readers. Whether you've been around since the beginning or are a new arrival, I appreciate you spending some time in my little corner of the internet.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Haredi, Mizrahi, Feminist ... Labor Prime Minister?

An interesting profile of Dina Dayan, who is running an outsider campaign to be Labor's new leader (more realistically, she's aiming for a seat in the next Knesset).
“I am your fears,” says Dayan, thrusting a finger into the camera as she rips into the Labor Party for “talking about the periphery, instead of letting the periphery talk.” Describing herself as a “Haredi, Mizrahi, un-photogenic woman,” Dayan is explicitly staking her claim as an outsider who represents the disadvantaged groups who Labor elites fear will steal “their” country. To restore the left to power, Dayan says it is time to put the needs of the country’s social periphery into focus, instead of “more of the same for 40 years.”
It's part of an ongoing revitalization of Mizrahi identity in Israel (as well as outside).

Dayan also presents challenges for Ashkenazi Jews such as myself regarding how to relate to particular sort of subaltern challenge. There are, unfortunately, some aspects of her candidacy that should make lefty Jews like myself twitchy:
Dayan says she wants to win the votes of traditional, Mizrahi Israelis who vote Likud—and to do this, has stepped outside of party consensus. She has hired as her campaign team the political strategists behind the infamous text messages sent by the Likud in the 2015 election, warning that “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls.” And her campaign video sympathetically features a picture of the parents of Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier convicted of shooting dead a disarmed Palestinian terrorist in Hebron last year. She later explained: “[Azaria] is the result of a system that abandoned the periphery. His action was a result of distress, ignorance, and neglect, which causes political radicalization. And the left, instead of understanding the problem in depth, prefers to lock itself in its ivory tower.”
The use of the "Arab voters" strategists is, in my view, rather straight-forwardly gross. But with respect to the Azaria bit, I think there are choices in how you read it. Is it an apologia for a man who breached the laws of war (and IDF rules) in gunning down a disarmed combatant? One can say so, and then call it day -- we should have nothing to do with her. But the comment at the bottom suggests something more complicated -- a call to look at disparities in Israeli society that produce figures like Azaria, and a "left" that prefers simple morality plays to actually tackling these problems in depth.

It is not infrequent, when reading the words or views of communities-not-ours, that we encounter such ambiguities -- passages or positions which can be read in a  narrow and self-validating way or which serve as an invitation to imagine a more nuanced or complex orientation. If we don't like the group, our temptation is to choose the former -- a reading which enables us to preserve our pre-existing biases and confirm our instinct that they need not be engaged with further. By contrast, when we like or are sympathetic to the group in question, go the latter route -- demanding context and issuing a plea for understanding.

It seems to me that the latter instinct is a better one -- and one, I hasten to add, that does not close off avenues for critique. I can think that Dayan is too soft towards the violence enacted by persons like Azaria (and the use of the "Arab voters" strategists is suggestive here as well), without going that next step and constructed her as an unmediated apologist for it. It is a symptom of our deliberative degradation that declining to make a complicated question simple along one dimension is frequently presumed to mean that we're committed to simplifying it along another.

Exploiting Queer Trust

There's been a lot of commentary -- much good, some not -- about the decision by Jewish Voice for Peace to "target" (their organizer's words) the LGBTQ group Jewish Queer Youth for infiltration and disruption at the Celebrate Israel march last week (I highly recommend JQY's statement on the event). JQY is oriented towards the at-risk Jewish queer community, especially Orthodox Jewish youth who may not have other safe or comfortable venues where they can come out. Accordingly, JVP's decision to target JQY -- and with it, a particularly vulnerable Jewish and queer population -- has been met with withering criticism by much of the rest of the Jewish community.

But I particularly want to highlight this column in Bustle by Hannah Simpson, a transgender activist with JQY who was present at the parade. JVP has defended its actions by noting that the infiltrators were themselves queer Jews. But Simpson explains, in succinct and cogent terms, just how awful JVP's actions were in the context of an organization like JQY and its efforts to provide a safe and welcoming space for at-risk queer youth.
This attack was nothing short of hurtful and terrifying. JVP violated a key tenet of the work Jewish Queer Youth and so many pro-LGBTQ groups do across this country. We welcome new members seeking hope and community through our programming, often before they are “out” anywhere else. We emphasize being open and accepting all who come through our doors. However, thanks to JVP’s violation of this trust, Jewish Queer Youth and other groups nationwide may need to scrutinize new members. Our priority is making our members feel safe, but this attack shows our openness may be abused to put our members in jeopardy.
This is really important. Part of what JQY provides for at-risk queer Jews is a space of trust. A space where they won't be viewed with suspicion, where they'll be welcomed unconditionally. Indeed, one of the more powerful portions of the JQY statement was where it went out of its way to affirm that
We also respect that there are JQY teens with strong feelings against Israel.  Some even choose to peacefully protest the parade. JQY stands with them too. Support is never contingent on point of view. Our JQY guiding Jewish principle is Eilu v' Eilu divrei elokim chaim - both these and those ideas, even when in conflict, are simultaneously the living word of G-d.
Contrast that statement with JVP's fundamental disrespect for queer Jews who don't adopt their views. It is striking.

To clear: JVP's action worked because JQY was built around the principle of not questioning who decided to walk with them. This is, sadly, a very common tactic of reactionary and illiberal militancy: exploiting open society in order to undermine it. The effect -- very often the hope -- is to undermine those open features and replace them instead with a cloistered environment of fear and mistrust. In the context of the LGBT community, it takes features that are desperately needed and leverages them against the queer population for the sake of political theater.

For vulnerable Jews who often lack for spaces where they can simply be queer, Orthodox, political, apolitical, happy, celebratory, among friends, JVP's action was more than just "anti-Israel protest". It took away something very rare, and very precious.

In electing to proceed anyway, either JVP didn't think about that consequence. Or it did.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Red Crescent Chief Complains of Hamas Firing From Their Hospitals

The Secretary General of the Red Crescent revealed that Hamas had deliberately fired rockets from Red Crescent medical facilities during the 2014 conflict, prompting retaliation from Israeli forces. Worse, he said that Hamas forces viewed the Red Crescent as spies or undercover agents, and fired upon staff as they were fleeing the area.

The news isn't exactly earth-shattering -- it's long been reported that Hamas used civilian and humanitarian shields during military operations -- but it is interesting both that this charge is now coming from top officials in the Red Crescent and being reported in Arab newspapers (the source about is the The National in the United Arab Emirates).

UPDATE: Elder of Ziyon gives some reasons to doubt the veracity of these reports. What a world we live in, where the UAE accuses Hamas of war crimes against Palestinians and a Zionist blogger throws cold water on the claims!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Everything is "Criticism of Israel"

The "Livingstone Formulation" (coined by David Hirsh) is the claim -- made in response to allegations of antisemitism -- that such allegations are made in bad faith as a means to silence or squelch all criticism of Israel.

It is an interesting fact about the Livingstone Formulation that the event which inspired it actually had nothing to do with Israel. Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone was accused of antisemitism after he compared a Jewish reporter to a "Nazi war criminal" and a "concentration camp guard". One would think the antisemitic nature of such statements could easily be disassociated from any particular beliefs about Israel, as the controversy had nothing to do with Israel at all. But Livingstone defended himself by declaring that "For far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government, as I have been".

In short, Livingstone took a non-Israel related instance of antisemitism and transformed it into a case of "criticism of Israel", then used it to complain about Jews who just couldn't tolerate criticism of Israel. From the get-go, the applicability of the "Livingstone Formulation" did not depend on the antisemitism in question actually being Israel-related.

There are many instances of this. Some are public: The courts which held that firebombing a synagogue was not antisemitic but criticism of Israel, and the guy on my twitter feed who fretted that a contrary decision "Sounds too much like: you can't criticise Israel because it's anti-Semitic." Some are private: The time I sent an anti-discrimination paper out for comments and one reader suggested removing the "Israeli foreign policy examples" (there were none, but there were antisemitism examples -- how was it that they got confused?).

Now consider this flyer, about prominent Labour activist and top Jeremy Corbyn ally Jackie Walker.

"To oppose Israel is not to be anti-semitic" (presumably that's Walker). Chomsky offers his own blurb of endorsement: "I wholeheartedly support the right of anyone to criticise Israel without being branded anti-semitic."

All of this might make one wonder what it was that Jackie Walker did that brought these terrible, horrible, no-good, clearly unfair accusations of antisemitism?

Well, she claimed that Jews were "the chief financiers of the slave trade." Then she criticized Holocaust Memorial Day for being exclusionary to other victims of mass atrocity (#AllGenocidesMatter). Finally, she questioned the need for security at Jewish schools and institutions, suggesting Jewish concerns about being targeted were exaggerated or embellished.

None of these are Israel-related. Yet Walker recasts the debate as one about the freedom to criticize Israel, and her backers enthusiastically endorse the transformation. Clearly, they have a point: if one can't contend that Jews were chief financiers of the slave trade hundreds of years before Israel was established, what possible space is there to criticize Israel?

There is an element of farce to this. It does not squelch pro-Palestinian advocacy to call efforts to tie Jews to the slave trade antisemitic. Such superficially ludicrous arguments only work because, for all the claims about people who conflate "criticism of Israel" with "antisemitism", there seem to be far more who conflate "criticism of antisemitism" with "intolerance of criticism of Israel". Were it not for that belief -- the cleansing power of anti-Zionism -- we would not see people try to take things that are transparently not about Israel and convert them into it. If everything is "criticism of Israel", then nothing can be antisemitic -- because what is "antisemitism" but the bad faith effort to silence critics of Israel?