Saturday, December 24, 2011

Failed System

After Newt Gingrich (along with Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann) failed to qualify for the Virginia primary ballot, the Gingrich campaign had sharp words for Virginia's "failed system":
"Only a failed system excludes four out of the six major candidates seeking access to the ballot. Voters deserve the right to vote for any top contender, especially leading candidates. We will work with the Republican Party of Virginia to pursue an aggressive write-in campaign to make sure that all the voters of Virginia are able to vote for the candidate of their choice."

As the article observes, Virginia doesn't allow write-ins for its primary ballots, so it will be an uphill slog for Gingrich indeed.

But seriously -- how pathetic is this? One can understand how Huntsman and Bachmann failed to qualify in Virginia, since Bachmann's lost all her supporters and Huntsman never had any to begin with. And the Perry campaign was probably stymied by the literacy requirement latent in any signature-gathering drive (it's just like Jim Crow!). But for Gingrich, this is just a colossal failure in basic campaign organizing. I mean, if he can't organize a basic signature drive effort, how can he manage a job like being the President?

Come to think of it, that seems like a pretty solid rationale behind Virginia's system for getting candidates on the ballot. Way to go, Old Dominion!

Friday, December 23, 2011

How Would You Like Me To Raise It?, Part II

Several years ago, I wrote an open call inviting people who say they oppose anti-Semitism, but think many claims that something is anti-Semitic (or raises the specter of anti-Semitism) are done in bad faith, to explain how one who genuinely believes that a given statement had anti-Semitic overtones should raise that issue without being summarily dismissed.

This question returns to the fore of my mind with the news that the progressive Truman National Security Project has expelled Joshua Block for his role in a spat where he said certain statements by Center for American Progress bloggers were "borderline anti-Semitic". I'll refrain from commenting on the substance of that particular dispute, save to note again my belief that the term "Israel-firster" does carry with it anti-Semitic overtones (and one of the authors who used that language has since apologized for it). Rather, I want to focus on the tropes of what arguments are permissible and which ones are "silencing", and how that impacts our broader state of discourse about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

In the email informing Block of his expulsion, Truman National Security Project head Rachel Kleinfeld wrote:
"This has nothing to do with your policy views, and is a decision solely made on the basis of the need for this community to privilege the ability to debate difficult topics freely, without fear of mischaracterization or character attacks," she said in the email. "Your actions outside the community have caused too many to fear conversation within the community. That fear is not baseless, given your own actions. As the point of the Truman Fellowship is to help the next generation of leaders think about hard topics together, we need people to feel that they can debate with security."

One certainly understands what Kleinfeld is getting at here. It is damaging to be called an anti-Semite, or be told that one's writings echo anti-Semitic themes. It makes people nervous. And given some of the background on Block's behavior, where he was accused of specifically shopping "oppo research" on his colleagues to conservative outlets, one can understand how this comes off as a breach of trust between Block and his fellows.

Yet still, left unsaid in this report is how it would be appropriate to raise the issue of anti-Semitism, if one genuinely believes that it is in play within certain rhetorical tropes or arguments being played out amongst ones colleagues. Clearly, the answer can't be "never" -- that would be a form of silencing far more egregious than even the worst spin on what Block is accused of. If the goal of the Truman Project is to "debate difficult topics freely", well, how anti-Semitism interacts with global perceptions of Israel and its conduct is the very embodiment of such a "difficult topic".

What's needed, and what I think would be a very salutary development by Kleinfeld if she was able to put it together, is some set of guidelines delineating how one can appropriately raise the specter of anti-Semitism without it being automatically dismissed as a "personal attack" or a "mischaracterization". After all, this is an issue that is dogging progressives, not because they're more prone to anti-Semitism, but because of the dissonance between an intellectual tradition that (rightfully) leans towards hearing the complaints by minority groups that they face prejudice and discrimination, and a growing structural unwillingness to actually engage with those complaints (the right has the latter characteristic but not the former). This would also help dissipate the cynicism some hold that there is no such mechanism for raising the issue of anti-Semitism, that it will always be derided and dismissed, that it will always been seen as in bad faith.

One thing that makes the Israeli/Palestinian conflict so difficult to discuss is that there are a ton of very complicated, controversial issues that one needs to have a handle on before any conversation can even begin without it dissolving into gibberish. One issue is the very real, very salient hardships and injustices the occupation imposes upon Palestinians on a daily basis. Another is the very real, very salient security threats Israel faces from its neighbors who continue to yearn for its destruction. And a third is the very real, very salient specter of anti-Semitism, which doesn't just magnify the threat that Israel faces in the Jewish mind's eye, but also has noticeable and concrete consequences with respect to how Israel is treated, perceived, and evaluated in the global sphere. Discussing that can be difficult, and I don't envy Kleinfeld for having to navigate this very difficult terrain. But it's the project she's laid out for herself, and it's an important one.

Into the Whirlwind

This book looks absolutely fascinating:
God deserves obedience simply because he’s God—or does he? Inspired by a passion for biblical as well as constitutional scholarship, in this bold exploration Yale Law Professor Robert A. Burt conceptualizes the political theory of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. God’s authority as expressed in these accounts is not a given. It is no less inherently problematic and in need of justification than the legitimacy of secular government.

In recounting the rich narratives of key biblical figures—from Adam and Eve to Noah, Cain, Abraham, Moses, Job, and Jesus—In the Whirlwind paints a surprising picture of the ambivalent, mutually dependent relationship between God and his peoples. Taking the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as a unified whole, Burt traces God’s relationship with humanity as it evolves from complete harmony at the outset to continual struggle. In almost every case, God insists on unconditional obedience, while humanity withholds submission and holds God accountable for his promises.

Contemporary political theory aims for perfect justice. The Bible, Burt shows, does not make this assumption. Justice in the biblical account is an imperfect process grounded in human—and divine—limitation. Burt suggests that we consider the lessons of this tension as we try to negotiate the power struggles within secular governments, and also the conflicts roiling our public and private lives.

The book is Robert Burt, Into the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict (Harvard UP). Via Rick Garnett.

UPDATE: Oh, and incidentally, if an intrepid Book Review editor out there is looking for a reviewer....

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Just the Latest Victim of the Gay Agenda

A gay activist has sent an open letter to former Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch (R), formally apologizing for destroying the sanctity of her marriage after she admitted to an affair with a younger (male) subordinate. Koch had been a critical figure in Minnesota Republican's quest to bar gay marriage, and now its evident why -- her own marriage was teetering on the precipice, and even the slightest breeze that marriage equality might bring could push her over the edge.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Next Leg

I elongated my DC trip to cut out the intervening stop back in Champaign. But tomorrow, that comes to an end, and I fly out to Minnesota to spend time with Jill and her family. Blogging will be appropriately sparse tomorrow, and perhaps for the next week or so as well through New Year's.

Paul's Folly

Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that, even taking Paul's excuses for his racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, all-around-nutty "Ron Paul Newsletter" at complete face value, it still would be enough to render him unfit for the Oval Office: "You need not be a racist to be disqualified for the presidency; a truly stunning level of incompetence will do in a pinch."

On the other hand, my dad is actively rooting for Paul to win the Iowa Caucuses -- not because he supports Paul (lord no), but because, in his words, "it will sow chaos".

Even the Liberal!

Arutz Sheva, media arm of the Israeli settler movement, sets a new record in "even the liberal"-ism:
[Friedman's] snipe at Israel, which also was an insult to the Congress, was widely criticized both in Israel and the United States. Even the liberal Washington Post’s columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote that Friedman hit “rock bottom.”

"Even the liberal Washington Post" is nothing new -- but using Jennifer Rubin as your specific source for bipartisan condemnation crosses into a whole new level of hackery.

(Oh, and FYI, I'm exceptionally dubious that Friedman has called "settlers", writ large, "terrorists". Settlers who commit terrorist acts, perhaps, but then, that's what they are).

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Movement of Lone Wolves

Tom Friedman has written to the Washington Jewish Week to express regret over saying that congressional applause for Bibi Netanyahu was "bought and paid for by the Israel Lobby". He acknowledged that the rhetoric he used suggested a "grand conspiracy theory" that he does not endorse, and said in retrospect he should have used alternative language like "engineered".

I was alerted to the apology column by Israeli peace activist Didi Remez, who called it an "unconditional surrender". Upon reading the column though, I thought that was a pretty odd characterization. Friedman specifically said he stood "by 100 percent" the argument in the column, which is that Israel's growing right-ward tilt is alienating American Jews and endangering the safety and longevity of the Jewish state and its democracy. For an "unconditional surrender", that's pretty, well, conditional.

The point is not to knock on Remez, who quickly and to his credit conceded that he was off the mark in characterizing the column the way he did. But his instinct is reflective of a broader trend I see a lot in people who occupy the niche held by Remez and others like him. It is a tendency to view themselves as isolated, perpetually on the defensive -- solo Jeremiahs who against overwhelming odds are trying, perhaps futilely, to get Israel to change its path.

I can see the appeal of this outlook. Obviously, there is something uniquely exhilirating about being the lone wolf -- fighting the good fight against a numerically superior foe with all the resources and all the advantages. It's like being part of the Rebel Alliance or the Polish Underground. Moreover, it comes fit with its own excuse for failure: if you're up against overwhelming odds, then any victory (no matter how small) is an extraordinary accomplishment and, if defeat comes, it is only what is already expected.

But this description is of only limited accuracy. There are, in fact, a great many people who, in their own way and to varying degrees, have concerns about Israel's directions and policies, and wish to push it towards what they see as a more salutary direction. Friedman and his column exemplify that. Why, then, the instinct to presume defeat -- not to embrace the fact that Friedman remained steadfast in his broader critique of the Netanyahu government, but to reflexively engage in lamentation at another warrior's fall?

One gets the sense, sometimes, that these activists are almost afraid to make progress. Progress brings pressure -- a larger movement requires more negotiation internal to the group, and if one has a serious cadre of support, suddenly defeat is not expected but represents an actual failure. Once you're off the fringe, there are no more participation badges. And that's a scary thing.

I had this same thought while reading this post about the stagnation of the OWS movement. It seems like the movement can't bring itself to exert actual influence, because taking a step like that would imply the possibility of failure. So they come up with elaborate justifications to remain vague and amorphous and disengaged from the nitty-gritty of politics, and then when change doesn't happen they can freely blame the system's stacked odds.

OWS is fading out, but not because it didn't tap into something real. It's starting to disintegrate because it couldn't bring itself to actually flex its muscle in any meaningful sense. They say it's because doing so would betray the principles of the movement, or sacrifice moral purity, or reinforce the system they're trying to undo, but you'll have to forgive me if I don't buy it. Maybe they believe it, but I think the real thing here is fear that if they really go balls-to-the-wall, they might fail anyway, and will have to reckon with that. So they bask in the dignity of having not really tried in the first place. It's the fantasy of "I coulda been a contender".

I don't want the movement to redress growing economic inequality in America to suffer that fate. And nor do I want it to happen to the movement that is trying to save Israel's status as a Jewish, democratic state. But one of the first things we have to do is break the reflex that says we're outsiders, that we have no friends in power, that we're all lone wolves. We're not. It's not the case that we dominate the power structure either, to be sure. But we have our friends in high places. We have sympathizers with influence. We have a solid base of support in Israel, and a solid base of support amongst American Jews. They might not always bear the recognizable marks of the hardest of the hardcore, but they're there, and they can be mobilized. But it can't happen so long as we interpret every event as if it demonstrates our own marginal status.

UPDATE: If you're looking for an example from the flip side, check out this tweet by Electronic Intifada's Ali Abunimah: "Hey @RJCHQ d'ya hear about the Israeli family in NH who made 10,000 phone calls for Ron Paul? They must hate Israel lol." I find this very perplexing. Abunimah's politics would suggest he'd be happy both at the prospect of an American President who took a less friendly line towards Israel (as Paul would), as well as a slackening of Jewish support towards Israel (as Jewish Paul supporters probably already have). But the tenor of this tweet suggests the exact opposite instinct: Obviously Paul can't really be hostile to Israel, because he has some committed Jewish supporters (fun fact: Pat Buchanan had Jewish supporters too!), and there's no way that any American Jews could possibly have views on Israel remotely in accord with Abunimah's. If Jews are acting politically, the only logical explanation is that they're doing it to make Abunimah miserable.

Now, most of the time it is true that Jews hold views on Israel which are well out of sync with Abunimah's (which is a very good thing). But the instinct to assume it's just impossible that somewhere, politics might be playing out in your favor for once, is of a kind with the phenomenon I identified in this post.

South Sudan Leader Travels to Israel

The President of newly independent South Sudan has traveled to Israel and had warm words for the Jewish state, describing it as a steadfast ally of South Sudan's aspirations of independence and offering a model for how to survive as a young nation with hostile neighbors.

The alliance makes some sense -- Sudan and Israel are not friends, and South Sudan and Sudan obviously aren't either. In any event, hopefully this is the start of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

Pryor Restraint

Judge Bill Pryor of the 11th Circuit is perhaps most well-known in these parts for casting the critical 6th vote which upheld Florida's ban on gay adoption. That was a low point for the federal judiciary. But he's been showing some signs of independence these past few weeks -- first joining an opinion that held transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, and now upholding a judgment that a student who refused to follow professional guidelines when they conflicted with her personal views on homosexuality could be expelled from a state university's counseling degree program (Pryor wrote an interesting concurrence to the latter which I encourage you to read).

What's changed? Well, one of my close law school friends is currently serving as Pryor's clerk. So I'll just credit her with all the good coming out of Birmingham

Monday, December 19, 2011


I just got a robo-call urging me to support a "draft Hillary Clinton" movement for 2012. The message was brief, and assured us that if Secretary Clinton were President right now, unicorns would frolic and manna would be falling from the sky as we speak (it was actually something to the effect of "banker robber barons would be in jail and all young people would be able to find jobs". So not too far off). The message didn't say who it was from, but directed me to this website, which also doesn't reveal who is backing it.

So there's the question: Is it a GOP dirty trick? Or is this yet another play by some exceptionally bitter bitter-ender like noted woman-of-the-people Lady Lynn de Rothschild (who's currently supporting Jon Huntsman, so we can rule out an aversion to quixotic campaign strategies)? Obviously, it's not Clinton herself, who has made no motions indicating the slightest interest in challenging President Obama. So who?

Place your bets in comments.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Newt Republic

I'm not sure how you can read about Newt Gingrich's proposal to arrest judges who issue rulings he disagrees with without feeling a deep, shivering terror at the state of American democracy.

What's most amazing is that, even after saying stuff like this, we'll still be treated to beltway claptrap about how Newt is the "thinker" of the Republican field; that he's "visionary" and that at least he "has ideas". How those "ideas" deviate from Michele Bachmann's or, for that matter, Hugo Chavez is entirely unclear. But being a raging lunatic has never stopped anyone from seizing momentum in a GOP primary.