Friday, May 27, 2016

Trump's Pivot to the Conspiratorial Left

The conventional wisdom is that, upon securing the GOP nomination, Donald Trump has to tack to the center. He can't expect to win over independents and undecided voters by the same sort of jingoistic, xenophobic, conspiratorial conservatism that carried him through the Republican primaries.

The conventional wisdom never really applied to Donald Trump, and so it perhaps is not surprising that we have seen no such adjustment as of yet. And the more I think about it, the more I'm doubtful that he will expend any substantial effort to moderate his image. Rather, the move for Donald Trump going forward is straightforward: Double-down on the conspiracy-mongering -- only now, tailor it to aggrieved Sanders voters.

Bernie voters have become more and more convinced that the only reason they lost is because Hillary Clinton and her cronies "rigged" the system. For whatever reason, they just cannot accept the fact that Hillary Clinton is winning because she's winning more votes, and the more Democratic voters there are participating, the better she does (compare caucus vs. primary states). Senator Sanders is, if anything, outperforming expectations, and that's credit to him tapping into real and genuine progressive sentiment that had hitherto lacked significant voice. But he lost for prosaic, democratic reasons -- more people preferred his competitor than him. It happens. It can be difficult to admit (and both the American left and right have a difficult time acknowledging that they do not perfectly and purely represent the outlook of "real Americans"), but that's the long and short of it.

Unfortunately, Trump's own brand of paranoid conspiracy-mongering -- the system's rigged, the media is biased, the establishment is corrupt -- is perfectly tailored to tap into the grievances of the Sanders electorate. Take a look at Trump's statement declining a California debate against Sanders:
“Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher,” Trump said in the statement. “Likewise, the networks want to make a killing on these events and are not proving to be too generous to charitable causes, in this case, women’s health issues. Therefore, as much as I want to debate Bernie Sanders – and it would be an easy payday – I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”
That is aimed at Bernie Sanders voters like a laser. "Totally rigged"! "Crooked Hillary Clinton"! The DWS reference, in particular, is a dogwhistle that independents couldn't care less about but Bernie voters are obsessed over. Trump doesn't want to debate Sanders. Trump wants to stand in for Sanders when the time comes for him to debate Hillary Clinton. Certainly, the ground has been prepared by the constant stream of HOT TAKE Salon articles presenting the "liberal case for Trump" and how Hillary is just too shady for pristine Bernie supporters to sully themselves with and at the very least just stay home.

The reason Trump can appeal to Sanders voters is that, for many of them, the issue is not a matter of a "progressive" challenge. The heart of Sanders' appeal is his attack on "politics as usual", and Donald Trump is if nothing else not "politics as usual." Sanders beats Clinton among conservative Democratic voters who dislike Obama; meanwhile, Clinton's actual policy proposals are perfectly progressive and probably a bit to the left of Obama's in 2008. Once we dispense with the fiction that Sanders voters support him because of some down-the-line desire for progressive policymaking as opposed to a more inchoate expression of ressentiment against those they identify with Power -- well, Trump has absolutely proven himself able to market himself very effectively to the latter camp.

There is obviously no path for Trump to victory on policy. And there's no path for Trump to victory on temperament. Trump's only path to victory is the same path that got him through the GOP nomination -- vitriolic, outrageous, rabble-rousing attacks on "the establishment" of which Hillary Clinton is now the prime representative. Many Sanders voters are primed to favor precisely those appeals. And the more the Sanders campaign goes down the route of insisting that the Democratic establishment rigged the system, the more his voters are going to find Donald Trump's message mighty appealing come fall.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Memmi on the "Mistaken" Belief of Jewish Suffering

I'm trying to return to Albert Memmi this summer, and so I've been reading his book Portrait of a Jew.. I've pulled quotes on this blog from Memmi before -- his discussion on the meaning of Zionism (from Jews and Arabs) and why the nation-state is part of Jewish liberation (from The Liberation of the Jew). This passage deals with how other people react to Jews when we try to claim that we are marginalized, that we do suffer.

Earlier in the chapter (pp. 22-23), Memmi discusses an interesting phenomenon where Jews claimed to not have been truly "aware" of themselves as Jewish, of their marginalized Jewish status, until a particularly robust event of anti-Semitism revealed it to them. Einstein encountering German anti-Semites, Herzl facing down the mobs clamoring for Dreyfuss. As Memmi observes, there is something odd about this -- as if any Jew of that era could really be unaware of the broader currents of anti-Semitism -- and furthermore, the celerity with which these persons are able to describe their situation following the triggering event belies the idea that they really lacked any awareness of its contours prior to that date. What's really going on is a sort of self-deception, where Jews try to tell ourselves that we're fine, happy, assimilated people. And because we tell it so insistently to ourselves, it maybe isn't too surprising that non-Jews are also sometimes incredulous when we do finally feel compelled to express it out loud.

In any event, after noting the default incredulity -- he analogizes it to Europeans who can't fathom that natives suffer under colonialism and accuse them of being "too sensitive" or just "out of [their] mind[s]" -- Memmi writes the following:
"Very well,"" I, too, have often been told, "you suffer because you are a Jew. I believe you because you say so. But you are wrong to feel that way."
[*29] After denying that the situation exists, they say it is a "mistake," after refusing to believe in the Jew's anxiety, they declare it is unfounded. In the end they even lose their temper and retort sharply: "You think of yourself too much! Come now! You enjoy pitying yourselves! Have a little pity for others!"
One of the best arguments I have heard accused me of selfish complacency.
"You are not the only victim--if there are any victims at all!" they told me. "Look at the Negroes, at the Spanish Republicans, at all the displaced persons. And what about the gypsies! What social outcasts they are!"
 A fine argument indeed! They are going to chip off your leg (and sometimes your head) but just look at that poor man in the bed next to you, they say. They cut on both his legs and he was so brave. Aren't you ashamed! A little more and they would blame you for not singing while they dismember you!
Far from thinking I am the only one in this situation, I believe, on the contrary, that racial discrimination is more widespread than anything else in the world. I note, with horror, that most individuals, most peoples, are basically inclined to xenophobia. Far from believing I am the sole victim in a world of peace and justice, I think, unfortunately, that the statement should be reversed: the Jewish tragedy is part of a much broader human category--the category of oppression and misfortune.
 But, I repeat, I do not understand how the misfortune of others can be reassuring and comforting. All the misfortune in the world gives me no consolation at all for my own. It does not console me for anything. All the injustice in the world cannot make me accept the injustice I suffer. On the contrary, it feeds my anger, it whips up my fury against the shame and the outrage. Because I am a Jew, am I to console myself with the [*30] thought of anti-Negro racism or racial difficulties in the colonies? What my would-be comforters suggest to me is that since, after all, xenophobia does exist, it is up to me to suffer patiently the insults to the Jews! I understand perfectly. There are, in short, two attitudes: either one accepts all the sufferings or one rejects it all. Well, I reject it in totum as I reject in detail each face of oppression.
Albert Memmi, Portrait of a Jew (Elisabeth Abbott, trans., New Yor: Viking 1971) (1962), pp. 28-30.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

"If It Had Happened To Any Other Group....": Looking for the Glass

Someone who does not see a pane of glass does not know that he does not see it. Someone who, being placed differently, does see it, does not know the other does not see it. --Simone Weil
Commenting on this passage almost a decade ago, I wrote the following:
The same reality can look quite different to those differently situated. When a person in a different social location remarks on an event or experience that we--despite living in the same "world"--do not perceive, our first response may be to deny or deride them as liars, charlatans, or fakes, for we do not see what they see. It is difficult for us to imagine that our vision may be constrained--especially if one is situated in a position that is treated as if its perspective is universal and whole. Meanwhile, the interlocutor is presented with a very similar problem. When an experience is right there in front of you, a fundamental part of ones existence that can feel, touch, block, or even slay you, it is hard to imagine that your partner cannot see it. The first person's objection is taken to be in bad faith, a manifestation of hostility. 
Ideally, both parties should recognize the limitation of their and their partner's perceptual horizons, adopting a stance of humility. She who does not see should nonetheless be willing to accept the other's sight, she who sees should be generous to those whose vision is lacking. The reality that our perspective is constrained by our social position affects us all, and that is something we share with every other body, no matter how far apart we seem on everything else. Thus, our demand should not be for others to see what we see. Rather, we have the right to demand a certain degree of wonder (to borrow from Luce Irigaray) on the part of our interlocutors in social discussions, "Wonder which beholds what it sees always has if for the first time, never taking hold of the other as its object. It does not try to seize, possess, or reduce this object, but leaves it subjective, still free." No matter how complete we feel our experience is, other people remain in some sense beyond us, and only they have the authority to tell the story of their own experience.
I was thinking about this in relation to two articles I recently read -- Yair Rosenberg's piece on "How Oberlin Has Repeatedly Failed To Confront Anti-Semitism on Campus" and Nathan Heller's profile (also centered around Oberlin) regarding "The New Activism" on college campuses.

Rosenberg's piece, specifically on anti-Semitism, documents just how hard it has been to get the Oberlin community to take anti-Semitism seriously. The initially tepid response of the university president to vicious anti-Semitic conspiracy theories peddled by Joy Karega, a tenure-track professor, was met with considerable frustration, prompting the Board to step in and issue its own statement. The sense among many was that this chain of events showcased just how marginalized Jews were -- "if any other group" had been subjected to such naked bigotry it would not have taken such herculean efforts to secure a meaningful condemnation of the idea that Jews run the media and are responsible for ISIS. It's not that other groups don't face serious wrongs -- the putative difference is that when something bad happens, a statement gets made. No muss, no fuss.

Heller's profile doesn't talk about Jews that much -- an interesting elision that I may write about in another post -- but he does gather the sense of several black student activists on the topic of the Board's statement on Prof. Karega's anti-Semitism:
Like everyone else at the table, [Jasmine] Adams believes that the Oberlin board’s denunciation of Joy Karega’s Facebook posts shows hypervigilance toward anti-Semitism and comparative indifference toward racial oppression. “We want you to say, ‘Racism is not accepted!’ ” Adams says.
When I first read this, my eyes nearly popped out.  "Hypervigilance"! As Rosenberg's piece documents, getting even a half-decent statement out of the Oberlin official was like an exercise in pulling teeth. And this view isn't just found at Oberlin. At Emory, students aggrieved at pro-Donald Trump chalkings contrasted what they took to be an indifferent administrative response to the supposedly quick action against swastikas defacing a Jewish fraternity. The university president had to correct the students by noting that the university actually took its sweet time issuing a condemnation in that case (it actually took a second case of swastika vandalism to prompt a public university response).

I've typically talked about this phenomenon -- the reflexive assumption that Jews are protected, if not overprotected, by powerful actors in contrast to the "real" victims whose plight is almost entirely ignored -- as the concept of Jews as "anti-discrimination winners." And I do think that's part of the story, particularly in explaining why the left's solidaristic impulses so often seem to be lacking when it comes to the Jewish case.

But I was also reflecting on the odd mirror image that has emerged: Both the Jews and the students of color contrast the innumerable hoops they have to jump through against the express-lane treatment the other group supposedly gets. Is it possible we're both right and both wrong?

What I suspect is going on is this: When your own group faces a case of oppression or marginalization or wrong, you see every step in the process: The community which seems indifferent. The administration which seems to want to sweep it under the rug. The critics who roll their eyes at your oversensitivity, or who outright accuse you of fraud. You go through all of that, and what emerges is probably a statement that feels half-hearted and pro forma. It's maddening.

But when another group experiences a similar wrong, you don't see the process. All you see is the beginning and the end: "Bad thing happens --> Statement gets made." It looks like they get as an entitlement the vigorous, robust university response that you had to scrape and claw to even get a whiff of. And that's doubly maddening.

But in all likelihood, it's also just an illusion. What's really happening is the shifting visibility of that pane of glass. It's in front of us, and we see it, and we find it incredible that our fellows don't see it staring us in the face. And meanwhile, they've got their own pane of glass that we don't see, blocking their way, mocking them in comparison to the free and clear (as far as they can tell) path before us.

What to do about this? I endorse what I wrote back when I was a precocious liberal arts college student: We should be humble about what we see, and in particular humble about what we imagine others to have seen. I know how hard it is for Jews to get anti-Semitism on the agenda in the institutions I care about. I also know that other groups feel the same about their own marginalizations. And so, I try not to presume that they've really got it easy. Solidarity starts with taking what other people say seriously, even when it doesn't immediately ring true to one's own view of the world. Because by definition we don't know that we don't see the pane of glass invisible to us. And equally by definition, we don't know that our fellow really doesn't see the pane of glass that's all too present for us.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Assorted Thoughts on the DNC Platform Committee

The DNC has released its platform committee, and the big news is that Senator Sanders successfully got near-parity with the Clinton campaign (he got five appointees, Clinton got six, and the DNC, through chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, picked four). Some assorted thoughts (in no particular order):

* Both Clinton and Sanders picked a Congressperson who is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Sanders picked Rep. Keith Ellison (MN) and Clinton Rep. Luis Gutierrez (IL). But interestingly enough, the most progressive elected official on the whole committee is probably a DWS pick. That would be my Congresswoman here in Berkeley, Rep. Barbara Lee.

* Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD) is a great choice as chair. Universally respected by all factions in the Democratic Party. That doesn't mean I envy him.

* Who is Alicia Reece, and why is an Ohio state representative getting a slot? I'm hoping the answer is "because she's a rising star in Democratic politics and in ten years everyone will think this was a stupid question."

* I presume there is already some murmuring in pro-Israel corners about Sanders picking Arab American Institute head James Zogby to be on the committee. I don't think there is any cause for concern, and I'm in fact optimistic that he will help the committee produce language that instantiates the vision for Israel and Palestine that is shared by most Democrats (as well as most Jews): Two states for two people, respecting the democratic and national rights of each. Zogby is a pro, I doubt he would produce anything objectionable even if he were writing the language himself (which he isn't). None of this will stop some elements of the "pro-Israel" community from releasing commentary about Zogby's selection that will double as a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

* There is a real, non-trivial chance that Cornel West will be a catastrophe in this role. Remember that time he called "Brother Trump" an "authentic human being" (like "Brother Bernie" but unlike all the other candidates)? Or the time he called Obama our "first niggerized black president"? These do not speak of someone interested in the good of the Democratic Party or, quite frankly, the good of the progressive movement writ large. Most of the people on this committee I'm sure will do a good and conscientious job to produce a good document that represents Democratic Party principles and aids the nominee tasked with implementing them. West I can absolutely see deciding to make a grandstanding show that could detonate the whole endeavor.

* Both Clinton and Sanders have a committed environmentalist on their slate, but it's interesting that Clinton's put on the only union representative on the Committee (Paul Booth, of AFSCME).

* Gender breakdown is as follows: Clinton -- four women, two men. Sanders -- four men, one woman. DWS -- two men, two women.

* All of this being said, by far the most likely outcome is that this is essentially the last time we ever hear anything about the platform committee or its work ever again.