Thursday, August 17, 2017

Subbing Out Roundup

I took my final subfield exam today, in the History of Political Thought. For those of you who don't know, "subfield exams" were introduced as a means of exploring the "chicken" game: the student really doesn't want to study (for obvious reasons), and the examiner really doesn't want to fail the student (since that would necessitate writing and grading another exam). The equilibrium is for the student to level a deeply mediocre exam, and the examiner in turn to excoriate the student in comments before passing him or her. How it made the jump to Political Theory remains unknown.

What I'm trying to say is, I'm feeling good about my History of Political Thought Exam. But I am very tired, and about to hop on a plane to celebrate a friend's engagement. So ... roundup!

* * *

Leon Wieseltier on Charlottesville, Trump, and the alt-right. He doesn't pull punches. Definitely worth a read.

Somebody finally did a profile piece on rural people of color.

Fascinating article on Egyptian Israeli Arabs, and their strained relationship with a state nominally at peace with Israel.

Zachary Braiterman gives his spin on the perennial "are Jews White" topic.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy on why antisemitism needs to be seen as a distinct axis of oppression.

Very much enjoying this article by Rae Langton on "Blocking as Counterspeech."

What's worse than refusing to pay out valid worker's compensation claims to undocumented immigrants? Refusing it and using the claim as an excuse to deport them from the country. Grotesque.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hungry for Apples?

There's an episode of Rick & Morty where Rick is trapped in a simulation by alien scammers seeking to steal some of his scientific discoveries. But somehow, Rick's idiot son-in-law, Jerry, is in the simulation too. Not wanting to be distracted from the primary mark, the aliens cap Jerry's part of the simulation at 5% power and let him be.

The result is a "simulation" of a human experience that is comically skeletal. Jerry's coworkers respond to every question with a simple "yes!" A few pedestrians (bodies reused) speak a single phrase on loop when they're not phasing into and out of trees. The radio plays "human music", a series of isolated beeps and boops.

Jerry loves it. He "sells" an ad campaign ("Hungry for Apples?"), has sex with his barely-mobile wife ("the best sex I've ever had!"), even talks himself into a promotion and an award for his apples slogan. Eventually, he declares it not just the best, but the most meaningful day of his life -- at which point simulation suddenly ends. Jerry is devastated; Rick patronizingly consoles him by asking "So what if the most meaningful day in your life was a simulation operating at minimum complexity?"

I was thinking about this in relation to the Russian bots which spread pro-Trump and pro-Putin propaganda throughout the right-wing ecosystem. The people who write these posts can barely speak English. They by design have no grasp on reality. It's not just that they appeal solely to people's baser instincts, it's that they appeal to these instincts in a transparently moronic way. They are a simulation of political reality, running at 5% complexity.

And yet a huge chunk of Americans are never happier than when they are gobbling it up. They love this. It's not just that they don't realize that it's all fake. It's more pathetic than that: they've never found more meaning than that which they get from automated Russian twitter accounts spitting out half-literate reactionary fantasies too stupid for Rush Limbaugh to run.

Basically, Trump's base is a bunch Jerrys. That was today's epiphany.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Two Jewish Stories

No substantial commentary. Just felt like linking to the following stories about some very different Jews.

Ha'aretz does a feature where they interview people coming and going at Israeli airports. This one features a discussion with a Ugandan Jew who just finished his first trip in Israel.

Meanwhile, the Forward ran a piece by a woman raised in the ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryas Joel who ended up attending Wellesley, and what happened when her father came to visit her at college.

Both  are interesting reads. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Asking Jews To Be More Anti-Nazi

The second job I wanted to be when I grew up was a cartoonist (the first was omelet chef at a Marriott. Little kids have weird goals). I loved Calvin & Hobbes, and later Dilbert, Doonesbury, Foxtrot, The Boondocks, and many others. My ambition, alas, quickly foundered against the reality that I have no artistic talent whatsoever. But occasionally I still draw cartoons in my head (where their artistry and technical virtues are unimpeachable).

My most recent imagined cartoon is set in Auschwitz, 1944, where a portal opens up and a time-traveler steps through. It is a literal "Social Justice Warrior" -- from the future, armed to the teeth, and ready and eager to "punch some Nazis". After completing his task, some Jewish inmates approach to thank him for rescu--

BAM!

He clocks them too. "Did I say 'Zio-Nazis excepted'?"

I was thinking about this after reading this tweet by Ferrari Sheppard, where he says "Can't be anti Nazi pro Israel."



I read that tweet, in turn, shortly after reading this thread by Sophie Ellman-Golan urging White Jews to "join" the fight against the neo-Nazi resurgence we saw in Charlottesville.


It is, she says, a fight Jewish institutions have been "shamefully late" in adopting as our own.

I reflect on this, and I'm torn. My thoughts are scattered; they fly all over the place.

Consider the ADL -- called out by name by Ellman-Golan. I recall excoriating them for selling out liberal Jews in their appalling silence on David Friedman's "kapo" comments. Then I think of the immense pressure the ADL has come under from the right, which accuses it of taking too hard a line on right-wing racism. I remember the shamefully equivocating tweet ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt put out yesterday, drawing equivalence between Nazi and "antifa" violence. Then I remember the following tweet thread which was so much better. I also remember how a sizable chunk of the negative responses to Greenblatt's original equivocation somehow managed to work "Israel" into the message -- because that's what it's always about, isn't it? I consider how it seems many of the ADL's critics are eager, even happy, to infer the worst about it. They like the idea of "Jews who don't really oppose Nazis". They seem to revel in the idea that the Jews aren't anti-Nazi to their satisfaction.

The Jewish community -- institutionally and otherwise -- is a varied and diverse bunch. That variation and diversity applies as much to our presence in social justice organizing as anything else. The explanations for this diversity will be similarly varied.

After all, I, too, have written fusillades decrying the tepidity of many Jewish groups in calling out the ascendant tide of right-wing racism. So clearly I concur there's a problem here.

At the same time, I also think that there's something truly grating at the idea that Jews have to prove themselves "anti-Nazi." Mia Steinberg wrote something very telling about how this debate plays out for Jews: "Instead of 'would I have stood up to Nazis in WW2', the thought experiment for me has always been 'would I have survived?'" The Holocaust was not an arena for Jews to prove our moral valor, and when our reaction to Nazism doesn't adopt appropriately heroic tones that is not proof of Jewish "complicity" in anything. The celerity with which people seem eager to tell Jews we're the new Nazis, or we don't care about Nazis, or we're not responding to Nazis in a way that gives non-Jews sufficient confidence that we're really anti-Nazi, is degrading and infuriating.

Yet again -- I can't fully go down that road either. Surely, the groups like ZOA who have explicitly lined up behind the Trump/Bannon alt-right wing have no moral legs to stand upon. And even as I bow to no one in downplaying the seriousness of the growing clouds of antisemitism, Ellman-Golan is simply right -- I refuse to tolerate people denying this -- that in its current manifestation in the United States Black people are more violently targeted by the forces of White supremacy than are Jews. That doesn't mean Jews aren't targeted, and aren't targeted in ways that are worthy of genuine fear and concern. But it is not wrong for there to be a focus on racist violence, so long as that focus doesn't come via denying the reality of antisemitic violence.

But  (once more around, and here's where I really want to land) can we honestly say -- unblinking, looked-in-the-eye, full-stop -- that when Jews don't throw themselves into these movements that the primary explanation ought to be "because Jews don't care about Nazism"? Can we be so confident that the movements in question "will fight for us"? The fact of the matter is, too often Jews -- from Chicago Dyke March to Creating Change to Slutwalk -- do try to participate in these movements, and are cast out, or turned aside, or subjected to humiliating ideological litmus tests where we're guilty until proven anti-Zionist. That's part of the reason -- not the sole reason, but part of the story -- why I shy away from protest movements. I don't know that they "will fight for us". That is not something that simply can be wedged into our presuppositions as a demanded default. Much the opposite:
As a Jew, I can't completely cheer at these expressions of left-wing activism because I know there is a real and non-negligible risk that in that crowd someone wants to say the whole thing they're fighting against is a Zionist plot, and there is a real and non-negligible risk that if that person gets a hold of the mic and says so the crowd will erupt in cheers. 
It grates when this is denied, when people act as if the only reason Jews "don't show up" for social justice (to the extent that we don't) is because we're too indifferent or too fragile or too embedded in our own privilege to really care. Such a view doesn't take seriously real practices of exclusion; it assumes them away because it takes "they will fight for us" as an axiom rather than a (often quite dubious) proposition that must be demonstrated. It's the "why do all the black people sit together in the cafeteria" question of Jewish social activism. If Jews are "late" to the social activist party -- and I don't necessarily concede that we are -- perhaps part of the reason is that social convention requires a truly grotesque amount of preparation, costuming, covering, hedging, eliding, and self-effacing before the Jew is admitted through the doors. It's exhausting. And it's hard to blame people for not wanting to show up, when those requirements are allowed to persist unexamined.

Finally, when talking of these exclusions we should be clear that this is not even primarily, let alone solely, a POC thing. Indeed, Black people in America have consistently demonstrated their intolerance of antisemitism and their willingness to stand with Jews against antisemitism even in their own community. That history has to be part of the story too. The story of Black-Jewish relations simply isn't -- much as conservative hagiographers might wish it so -- one of self-sacrificing Jews altruistically defending civil rights only to be sold down the river by ungrateful African-Americans who dived headfirst into antisemitic conspiracy-mongering.

What it boils down to is this:
  • Jews are genuinely threatened by the rise of the alt-right. This is a movement that affects us in a real, tangible way -- not as allies, not as "fragile" White people, but as a vulnerable group that is genuinely imperiled by these social forces. Acting as if Jews don't have skin in this game is a form of antisemitism denial.
  • Currently, the tangible manifestations of extreme-right identity politics have a greater impact on the material conditions of black and brown lives than they do that of White Jews. That assessment in no way falsifies the first bullet point.
  • All non-Jews, to varying degrees, benefit from the social privileges and prerogatives that exist under conditions of antisemitic domination. This assessment in now way falsifies the second bullet point, it merely establishes a kyriarchical relationship where (in the contemporary American context) racial domination has greater punch than also-extant antisemitic domination does.
  • The relationship between (proximately-European) Jews and Whiteness is a complex one. Such Jews clearly do not enjoy an unadulterated White privilege (as the seething hatred of White supremacists makes clear). But it is also clear that we enjoy a great many of these privileges and prerogatives on a day-to-day basis. While possession of these privileges does not falsify the existence of antisemitism, neither does experiencing antisemitism falsify the existence of these privileges.
  • Some Jewish groups have been derelict in their duties to combat this right-wing menace. It is our obligation as Jews to insist that our communal representatives fight against far-right extremist movements both because they threaten us as Jews and because they threat others -- Black people, brown people, queer people, and more -- who may or may not be Jewish.
  • To the extent that some Whites Jews haven't partaken in anti-right resistance movements in the stock ways typically demanded of White allies, the explanations that apply to White people generally who don't "show up" are not always inapposite. But they are frequently incomplete, and a serious conversation needs to be had about the politics of antisemitic exclusion that afflicts Jews who very much do wish to be involved in left-wing activist spaces or otherwise participate in contemporary progressive politics. This conversation cannot take "they will fight for us" as an axiomatic entitlement.
Do these not fully fit together? Then they don't fully fit together. As I said, I'm torn. I don't claim to fully fit together on this.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Nothing About Charlottesville is Shocking

People keep saying they're "shocked" by what's happening in Charlottesville.

Or they're shocked by the failure of the President to give a clear, unambiguous condemnation of White supremacist and neo-Nazi violence. I saw someone on TV say he "could not understand" how the President of the United States could sit back and keep quiet on vicious White nationalist violence done as part of his movement and in solidarity with him.

I don't find it shocking. I don't find it difficult to understand at all. It's only shocking, it's only hard to understand, if one cannot allow yourself to fathom racism as a live explanation.

We've made it so that "racism" is a charge so serious it cannot be spoken. It's so extreme that the very fact that an event is happening in America or a person of even moderate prominence is saying something automatically falsifies the hypothesis. And so when overt racism crashes to the surface, we're left dumbfounded -- unable to understand. This thing that by stipulation cannot be, is. And so we're shocked.

We shouldn't be. Objectively, there's nothing shocking about a country which has been explicitly White supremacist in structure for far longer than it's even been nominally egalitarian seeing White supremacy manifest. There's nothing shocking about a people who have never been forced to seriously reckon with having committed treason-in-defense-of-slavery to proudly carry up that mantle today. There's nothing shocking about a political movement that was built entirely around "White racial resentment" showing the colors of "White racial resentment."

Likewise, there's objectively nothing shocking that a man who rose to political prominence via racist demagoguery and conspiracy-mongering being fine with racism. There's nothing shocking that a President who craves adoration and is adored by nobody more than White supremacists will side with his adorers. There's nothing shocking that Mr. "Obama was born in Kenya" and "grab 'em by the pussy" and "build that wall" and "total shut down of Muslim immigration" and "sheriff's star" will act exactly how he's always acted, every time he's had the opportunity to do so.

Nothing about Charlottesville should shock us. It is entirely in keeping with the character of the ascendant political movement in America, the one that currently helms the Republican Party, the one that currently occupies of the office of President of the United States. To be "shocked" at this is to be in willful denial of the reality in front of us. It is symptomatic of a sort of pale innocence that, as Baldwin put it, itself constitutes the crime.
As we saw the dead dimly through rifts of battlesmoke and heard faintly the cursings and accusations of blood brothers, we darker men said: This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration nor insanity; this is Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture—back of all culture,—stripped and visible today. This is where the world has arrived,—these dark and awful depths and not the shining and ineffable heights of which it boasted. Here is whither the might and energy of modern humanity has really gone.
-- W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Souls of White Folk," Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920).
I always found it a disservice that we only read Du Bois at his most conciliatory. His later work has more bite and more sting. Does his indictment hurt? Do you find it too simple or too sweeping? Well don't boo -- vote! It has always been in the power of White folks to falsify this hypothesis. We had the option in Reconstruction, and we didn't take it. We had the option in 1920, and we didn't take it. We had the option in 2016, and we didn't take it.

There are of course other moments when we came closer to taking it; Du Bois, sadly, didn't live to see them. We can be proud of those moments, but can we honestly deny that they were our aberrations? We can, actually, but it is up to us to supply the proof -- not by reaching back into a glorified history, but by stretching forward and crafting a future that is so consistently egalitarian, so bereft of racial strife and struggle, that we could justly say that a future Charlottesville is an act of madness. It's possible. Such is the virtue of democracy, that it always continues to be in our power.

But that is a possible future, and if present trend lines hold not the most probable. Right now, there's nothing shocking.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Boycott .... or Else

One interesting but often-overlooked aspect of the debate over the proposed Israel Anti-Boycott act is how it merges two very distinct cultural arenas where Israel boycott politics play out. In the United States, the BDS movement is (for the time being) largely about individuals or small organizations making their own decisions of conscience. Now to be clear, one can make a bad decision "of conscience" -- a baker who refuses, as a matter "of conscience", to bake a cake for a gay couple would be a great example. So I don't mean that as an apologia.

What I mean is that Israel-boycotters, in the US, are making a decision that by and large is not tied to state-coercive power. That may well be less the result of any principled limitations and more because prospective boycotters do not have the political power to enlist state-coercive power, but it is a descriptive quality that is fairly noted. Likewise, the line between "boycotts" or "conscience" and "discrimination" is a thin one (as the anti-gay cake-bakers demonstrate). But there is at least a plausible claim that liberty allows one to expressively refuse to associate with those one hates -- even if one's hatred is nothing but hatred, even if the expression is naught but prejudice.

Internationally, things are different. "Boycotting" Israel, in many parts of the world, is an exercise of governmental-diktat, a feature of state coercion and an impediment to human liberty. Iran, for example, just handed down a lifetime ban against two soccer players who (while on the roster of a Greek team) participated in a match against an Israeli squad. Another Iranian journalist just was granted asylum in Israel after Iran threatened to prosecute her for "spying" due to her publication of articles in an Israeli newspaper. A Bangladeshi politician was charged with sedition after meeting with an Israeli official in neighboring India; Bangladesh has no diplomatic relations with Israel and citizens are forbidden from traveling there. The original law that the Israel Anti-Boycott Act is modifying was addressed to the latter problem -- states which were seeking to mandate a boycott against Israel as an exercise of coercive state power (in my post, I discuss this as the secondary boycott problem).

In these contexts, the movement to boycott Israel takes on a (more) unambiguously illiberal bent. It's primary function is as an annex to state repression. To speak of the movement to boycott Israel as an international movement without considering these contexts is badly incomplete. To be sure, one can, I think, defend the right of individuals to boycott whomever they like as a form of free expression (subject, of course, to the difficult parsing that requires vis-a-vis anti-discrimination requirements -- a parsing that itself has not been addressed with requisite seriousness). But a discourse about boycotts that takes "free speech" as its foundation but which does not account for these cases is fundamentally dishonest. The fact that the movement to boycott Israel has, in its original (and longest-standing) manifestation taken such a clearly oppressive form is something that should be dwelled upon.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Israel's First Arab Supreme Court Justice Retires

Salim Joubran, the first Arab Justice on the Israeli Supreme Court, has retired (he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70).

I had the pleasure of getting to hear Justice Joubran speak at the University of Chicago Law School, where he was an engaging and witty presenter (I particularly liked his musings on what would happen if he became the deciding vote in a case determining "who is a Jew" under Jewish law). As a Justice, he's been a defender of gay rights and a skeptic of Israel coddling illegal outposts in the West Bank. He's also been, unsurprisingly, the subject of attacks from right-wing ultras, but hearteningly he was backed by none other than Bibi himself (and other Likud heavy-hitters).

Best wishes to Justice Joubran on his retirement.