Saturday, December 06, 2014

Requiem for a TNR Dream

When Chris Hughes bought a majority share of The New Republic two years ago, I tolkd folks to "count me as a supporter." This may not have been one of my best decisions.

I haven't been a regular reader at TNR for awhile now -- Jonathan Chait was my must-read author and he's moved over to NY Mag. But I am a regular irregular reader, if that makes sense, and so I do feel invested in its success. My own relationship with The New Republic echoes that of many of the folks I've been reading over the past few days. As a high school debater I found it lively, engaging, and unpredictable -- all qualities I aspired to myself. It certainly was a "formative influence" on me -- for good and for ill (I can certainly attribute my pronounced hawkish tendencies that persisted through most of my college years to the magazine). And at least some of my blogging style -- most notably how I title my pieces -- was very consciously modeled off of my TNR reading. While I don't exactly identify with it, I can't help but give a nod to how Michael Lerner described his college-age self (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "I was a New Republic reader -- I saw through a lot of bullshit, but I didn't really have any interest in the broader structures of power and domination in the world."

Aside from being comfortably ensconced within the mainstream liberal tradition, TNR's most notable quality was its contrarian streak. This was a blessing and a curse. At its best, the magazine challenged its readers to take unexpected and controversial ideas seriously, and created a forum for debate and argumentation that was unrivaled anywhere. At its worst, it elevated genuinely mediocre ideas to a prominent platform with a smug grin about how it was "provocative". The magazine often took great glee in poking its own coalition; so much so that it sometimes didn't matter whether the poke was justified.

Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, The New Republic appears to be in a state of chaos following a mass exodus of upper-level staff and contributors. The instigating event appears to be the departure of well-respected editor Franklin Foer, who was replaced by former Gawker chieftain Gabriel Snyder. That Foer heard about his replacement through external sources added insult to injury (though it did allow him to announce his resignation rather than being fired). Longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier joined Foer in exiting, and soon a majority of TNR's upper-echelons (and a large quantity of their contributing editors) jumped ship as well.

My first reaction to this was that everybody seemed to be overreacting. To be sure, my first exposure to the breaking story was in Gawker's nyah-nyah post "White Men Upset Wrong White Man Placed in Charge of White-Man Magazine." Aside from the obvious partisanship, this seemed more than a bit cherry-picked (did Julia Ioffe, Hillary Kelly, Rachel Morris, Judith Shulevitz, Anne Applebaum, Ruth Franklin, Sacha Scoblic, Helen Vendler, and Jennifer Homans all get sex-change operations?). But my next thought, of course, was what could possibly be such a big deal as to be prompting this torrent of "RIPs" for the magazine? Everybody seemed to be overreacting. I like Franklin Foer well enough (I've never met him, but How Soccer Explains the World is an enjoyable read), but editors come and go. How we moved from "a leadership shake-up" to "the death of an American institution" eluded me.

The other half of this story appears to be boiled-over discontent at the way Hughes and his minions have been running the company -- basically a blizzard of nonsensical biz school jargon and tech-speak that evinced a conscious disrespect for the magazine's tradition and the value of genuine long-form journalism generally. The nightmare was that Hughes was going to try to convert TNR into a Buzzfeed lookalike with content reduced to a blizzard of attention-grabby but contentless niblets. That the magazine's new CEO reportedly complained that he got bored if he had to read more than 500 words in an article is certainly enough to give any TNR loyalist an aneyurism.

I want to be hopeful. After all, despite its rep Buzzfeed (and Gawker) have actually been moving towards interesting long-form journalism of the sort TNR long exemplified. There seems to be a convergence in the industry, and TNR might be well positioned to exploit that convergence. Yet some epistemic humility on my part is in order. I'm not a member of the media industry, and I don't have any inside information on the magazine. The people who do? Are panicking, and fleeing the magazine in droves. When two-thirds of your masthead cuts ties in the space of a few days, that's a genuine red flag. And it's not clear if TNR's rump staff will be able to right ship.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Another Kid is Alright

This is a killer letter in the Baltimore Jewish Times by Amna Farooqi, talking about Jewish organizations' attempts to connect to millenials without respecting millenials.
One of the more engaging programs at the GA was a plenary panel featuring journalists I admire: Jeffrey Goldberg, Aluf Benn, Steven Linde and Linda Scherzer. As the conversation drifted from the media’s coverage of the war this summer to support for Israel, Benn pointed out that American liberals, especially young people, still traditionally support Israel but are growing more critical of the occupation.

Scherzer responded with: “Do you think young people just don’t get it?” With its deep condescension toward me and my peers, that moment revealed a major flaw in the American Jewish community’s approach to young people. The JFNA, like the rest of the community, knows that it has a problem engaging with us. It was frequently discussed at the GA. But the nature of those conversations actually epitomized the problems they purported to solve.

The panel “Doing Jewish in College and Beyond: Effective Ways to Engage Young Jews” had not a single student or young person on the panel. In fact, several of the students who asked questions were told that their views were “parochial” and only representative of a tiny, insignificant minority.

The program “Generation #Hashtag” highlighted statistics about the rise of anti-Semitism on campuses, even as the students on the panel itself insisted that they didn’t feel unsafe or insecure as Jews.

The fact is, millennials are not staying away because their local federation’s Facebook page is not attractive enough; they are staying away because when they want to talk about their beliefs and goals, they are often condescended to or ignored. Assuming that by understanding Facebook and Twitter they can understand how millennials think, the organizers of the conference displayed how out of touch they really are with young people. I attended the GA because I feel a personal investment in Israel, Zionism and the American Jewish community. I’m a Pakistani-American Muslim, so I’ll forgive you if you find that confusing.
Needless to say, I disagree with the anti-Semitism stuff (I'm a millenial and I do feel these concerns quite acutely). But Farooqi is absolutely right that the first step in engaging with a group is taking the group seriously. A Jewish community which doesn't respect its younger generation can't be surprised if the younger generation doesn't respect it back.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XIII: Paris Hilton

Paris Hilton has received some very threatening messages lately. I still am not 100% sure why anyone cares about Paris Hilton at all (having never wrapped my head around the circular "she's a celebrity because she's a celebrity" bit), but unfortunately it seems like such abuse is par for the course for any person (particularly any woman) in the public eye. These threats, in particular, center around Hilton's Jewish identity:
“I know ur Jew family gives nothing” and “KILL JEWS FOR FUN” are among the threats that have been left on the Instagram account of Hilton and her father, Rick, TMZ reported Tuesday. The man also has threatened to kill and rape Paris Hilton.
Those are pretty sick. But I have news for the writer:

Paris Hilton is not Jewish. Nor is her family. Indeed, I'd struggle to find a more non-Jewish name than "Hilton" this side of "Christianson". I'm assuming the mistake came when someone just assumed any wealthy family supposedly degrading American morals was, of course, Jewish. Since that makes a ton of sense.

But whatever. Welcome to the club, Paris Hilton. I hope you enjoy your stay (and of course, I hope the cops find the schmuck who threatened you).

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Total Request Live: Young v. UPS

A lawyer friend of mine requested that I blog on Young v. UPS, set for argument before the Supreme Court tomorrow. Young involves a suit by a UPS employee who was denied accommodations during the course of her pregnancy. I told her I didn't know if I had much to say on the case, and besides -- it's the Supreme Court hearing a case about a pregnant, working-class woman. I'm sure it will be fine.

Nonetheless, like a fading radio station I'm so excited to actually get a request that I'm going to play it out.

Young's suit relies on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) which, as the name implies, bars discrimination "on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions." If you're thinking that it's nice that the United States has such a law -- don't: the reason we have a specific law barring pregnancy discrimination is because the Supreme Court was adamantly insistent that pregnancy discrimination obviously was not a form of sex discrimination. That my students' jaws invariably hit the floor when I tell them that is an excellent illustration of why limiting "discrimination" to behaviors which favor all of group X at the expense of all of group Y doesn't really capture our full intuitions regarding the meaning of the term.

In any event, the PDA superseded these opinions and instead defined "because of sex" to include pregnancy and related conditions. The PDA does not specifically provide for accommodation of pregnant employees. What it does do is require equal treatment of pregnant employees and others "similar in their ability or inability to work." Young's argument is that UPS does accommodate some employees who are unable to work their normal job functions, through the Collective Bargaining Agreement and in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. By refusing to accommodate her as well, UPS is treating her pregnancy differently from other statuses which affect one's "ability or inability to work." And that, in turn, violates the PDA.

My friend is particularly concerned about a negative ruling in Young because of its perverse effects on working-class women (namely, the ease at which it allows subtraction of the "working" part). What better way to ensure more children are born into perilous economic circumstances than by knocking one of their parents off the job rolls? In terms of concrete effect on vulnerable women, she told me, this might be a bigger deal than Hobby Lobby.

The main cause for worry, though, is that this is a pregnancy case. And as noted above, the Supreme Court has been remarkably hostile to recognizing the interests of pregnant women. The initial ruling that "pregnancy discrimination" was not "sex discrimination", after all, was in contravention to every appellate court in the country which had considered the question. One reason Young may not be getting the attention Hobby Lobby did is precisely because the former is so explicitly blue-collar -- attorneys and accountants don't typically need to be relieved from hard physical labor during their pregnancies, and to the extent they do need certain accommodations their employers are far more likely to grant them without a fuss. But another possible reason is that the legal community perhaps never internalized the idea that it could expect the courts to provide for robust pregnancy protections. Since we never really believed that we "had" them, there's less of a sense that we're "losing" them. That's in contrast to Hobby Lobby, where it felt like a great progressive victory was taken away from us. It's simple loss-aversion.

Of course, my cynicism may be unwarranted here. It's not every day, after all, that you get the Concerned Women for America lining up on the same side as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Judicial skepticism aside, protecting pregnant women tends to unite a pretty wide range of political constituencies -- including historic adversaries on gender issues. It presents the social left plus the social right standing shoulder to shoulder against big businesses. Again, what could possibly go wrong?

Getting Out of the Neighborhood

Mychal Denzel Smith has an interesting post up on Salon regarding Black folks who get rich chastising "bad" Blacks. Smith contends that this whole concept relies on a myth that the paradigmatic "hood" Black person doesn't want to see his friends succeed -- that Black people will do everything they can to hold other Blacks back. In reality, Smith says, these communities often rally around their rising stars and try to protect them.

I wasn't expecting to like this piece as much as I did. When I hear the Chris Rock line and others like it, I immediately think of the persistent trope from White people about how Black people don't care about themselves and the only time they rouse themselves up is when they can blame White folks for all their problems. And I've always thought that was ridiculous -- listen to the Black community and you'll find plenty of people who are quite invested in an intra-Black conversation regarding what they need to do, themselves, to better their lives and improve their standing. One need not agree with every element of this conversation to recognize that it's happening. It's amusing to me that the White folks most confident that this internal Black conversation isn't happening are usually those least plugged in to what African-Americans talk about amongst themselves. Maybe the reason you haven't heard these talks is because you're not the intended audience (that's the point, isn't it)?

Obviously, from this framework a key element is who one's audience is. There is a significant distinction between a Black speaker urging his compatriots that they need to change their behavior and a Black speaker telling eager White audiences about how shiftless, irressponsible, and diseased Black people are. It's possible that one point of difference between myself and Smith is that despite his cross-over appeal I never saw Rock's primary audience, in that bit, as White people -- I did not feel licensed to draw a distinction between Black people and [n-words].

This, in a sense, is the difference between "respectability politics" and "do for self." The former suggests that if only minorities play nice and behave themselves, prejudice will go away and they'll succeed. "Respectability politics" is oriented to the dominant group. "Do for self" might urge very similar behavioral changes, but it harbors no illusions that these practices will cure bigotry. The reason to do them is "for self" -- to simply be better. It's inward-oriented. Racism exists and will continue to exist, so what do you do in a world where racism is a constant? Perhaps how one views Chris Rock is a function of which conversation you think he's most contributing to. And given his popularity amongst White audiences, I can't deny Smith has a point.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rate That Apology! Part 2: Elizabeth Lauten

We're back with one of The Debate Link's favorite games, "Rate that Apology!" People sometimes say terrible things on the internet; later on, they often issue apologies. These range from the meaninglessly formulaic ("I apologize if anyone was offended. I don't have a racist bone in my body.") to the genuinely heartfelt to those which actually manage to make the original offense worse. I'm interested in how people apologize for a lot of reasons. Optimistically, apologies are an important part of moving forward and not replicating past wrongs. Pessimistically, apologies are an important part of moving forward while finding new ways to reinstantiate past wrongs.

In any event, today's entry comes from Elizabeth Lauten, a staffer for Tennessee Congressman Stephen Fincher. Some of you may have seen an image set of the Obama daughters at the annual Thanksigiving turkey pardon. They were, shall we say, not invested in the proceedings. And most people saw the pictures and chuckled at how even the First Daughters are still, at root, teenagers who think their dad does lame things and resent being stuck at boring and hokey public functions.

Lauten, however, thought the Obama daughters needed to show "a little class" and should try dressing "like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar." This would have been a, dare I say, classless response even if they Obama girls had been doing anything remotely out of the ordinary for two teenage girls. It's especially bizarre here given that Lauten is the only person I've seen who saw those pictures and had that particular set of thoughts.

Of course, Lauten soon apologized, and that is the subject of our post (the original wrong is relevant in terms of judging the apology, but remember it's the latter that is the focus of the series):
I reacted to an article and quickly judged the two young ladies in a way that I would never have wanted to be judged myself as a teenager. After many hours of prayer, talking to my parents and re-reading my words online, I can see more clearly how hurtful my words were. Please know that these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart. Furthermore, I'd like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience.
It's perhaps worth pausing here to say what I look for in an apology. First, I want to see the person actually take responsibility for the wrong. This means none of that "if you were offended" non-sense, and certainly no complaining that one was manipulating into saying terrible things because grrrrObama!/I'm just so passionate about this issue/I'm the victim of trolling. Second, I'm suspicious of elements that seem to make it about you, the wrongdoer. This is not the time for you to talk about how wonderful you are; it certainly isn't the time to get on a soapbox about how you're really right about the core issue and just happened to express yourself poorly. Third, I don't want to hear about how the statement "doesn't at all reflect [you]." Clearly, it does -- at least somewhat. That's why you said it. If you don't like that element of self, then you should think about how you got to this place and what needs to change so you do too. Finally, one element that's typically impossible to judge at this stage but is of course worth noting is the follow-through. Anyone can say (or read off a PR-prepared card) a decent apology. It's another thing to see if it actually translates into meaningful behavioral change going forward.

Back to Lauten. She actually has a bunch of good things going for her. She does seem to accept that these words really were wrong and hurtful (not just in the ears of certain oversensitive beholders). And I like the "pledge to learn and grow" line too. That indicates that Lauten concedes that the fact that she wrote this indicates some bad thought process or malign attitudes on her part that need to be changed; that this can't be dismissed as some completely anomalous blip. Unfortunately, that passage stands in tension with "these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart," but at least we have that tension in the first place -- more often apologies take it as a given that obviously this wasn't the real them, so who needs introspection. Also on the potential "con" side is the "after many hours of prayer" bit, which to me seems to border precipitously on "making it about [Lauten]", but that might be a cultural bias on my part.

All in all, not bad. I'd have liked a clearer concession that this statement did say something about Lauten that she now realizes she needs to change, but that element is by far the rarest one you see in public apologies so there is a limit to how much I can mark down.

Grade: 6.5/10.