Friday, December 30, 2016

Next Year in ... Boston?

Off to the final leg of our holiday travels: Cambridge, Massachusetts, for an annual New Year's Celebration with some of my best college buddies. Since this is 2016, we need to catch a 6:15 AM (4:15 AM Pacific) airport shuttle to travel hundreds of miles away from where we went to college (Owatonna is just a hop, skip, and jump away from Carleton). But so it goes.

Quite possible this is my sign-off for the year. Soon 2016's reign of terror will close, and 2017 can bring in a new reign of terror all its own. In any event, I hope everyone's celebrations are fun and safe, and if I don't write again, see you on the flipside!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Sickness Debilitating Zionism

I've noticed how, when asked to defend Bibi's record or Israeli settlements, conservative Zionist voices immediately -- almost instinctively -- pivot to complaining about the actions or inactions of someone else. Obama did this. Iran did that. Hamas did this. The UN did that.

On this note, there is a passage in T'ruah's analysis of the UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements that deserves highlighting:
Much of the Israeli and Jewish communal response to the UNSC resolution, as well as to all tokhecha [rebukes/corrections] regarding settlement growth, has emphasized the failure of Palestinians to accept past agreements, or focused on terror as the primary obstacle to peace. While there is certainly reason to find fault with both sidesas the UNSC resolution does—Zionism, ultimately, is about taking our future in our own hands, rather than waiting for someone else to determine our future. This means both accepting responsibility for the misguided and dangerous policy of settlement expansion, and taking it upon ourselves to do what is necessary to bring about peace.

If I could endorse this 1,000 times, I would. This could not be more right. And that it needs to be said at all identifies a sickness that is crippling the Zionist vision.

My specialty is anti-discrimination law, and so I'm well aware of the importance of comparator analysis. One common way of establishing discrimination is to demonstrate that similarly situated A and B are nonetheless being treated differently. Tell me that the UN -- that much of the world -- treats Israel unfairly, and I'll tell you "you're 100% right". It does. Absolutely it does. The comparative analysis of looking to how other countries behave or what other politicians say and do can completely warrant that assertion.

But the point of Zionism was not to enable Jews to be able to declare how unfairly we're treated. It was not even to make it so that Jews would cease to be unfairly treated. The point of Zionism was to put Jews in control of Jewish choices. It is a far closer cousin to Black Power and other nationalist conceptions of minority liberation than it is to more classically liberal civil rights models. The point of Zionism is self-determination. And a self-determining ideology comes with responsibility for what the self determines; it no longer is primarily about what others determine for us. The revolution that was Zionism was that Jews generate our own future, regardless of how the surrounding world feels about us. When putative Zionists focus on what others are or are not doing, what others say or are not saying, they abdicate the very core of the Zionist mission.

And here is the sickness: For too many Jews, Zionism has ceased to be about taking our future in our own hands. This self-determining vision is beginning to wither. I've complained bitterly about those "Zionists" who refuse to act until the world writes them a permission slip. For these people, the metric of Zionism has become what other people or other countries do or don't do. It has become a pathetic shadow of itself: a reactive, rather than self-generating, ideology. Their Zionism focuses on what we can't do rather than what we can. It talks not of Israeli action but of Arab rejection. "If you will it, it is no dream" is replaced by "no partner for peace."

Take the settlements. Persons opposed to a settlement freeze often argue that Palestinians won't come to the negotiating table just because there is a halt to settlement growth. They say that evacuating the settlements won't bring peace. They say that the international community doesn't really care about settlements at all; it's a figleaf for more general anti-Israeli antipathy. They say that other countries engage in similar behavior and are not chastised for it.

Maybe they're right. It's not implausible. But none of these constitute a self-determined reason to continue the settlement project. They're all based on what others (supposedly) will say or do, or won't say or won't do. We won't act on the settlements until someone else says or does the right thing. Our decisions are in their hands.

Put another way, one could fully agree that reversing settlement growth will not cause Palestinians to come to the negotiating table, will not bring about a peace agreement, will not result in any diminution of anti-Israel sentiment internationally, and still observe that Israel is fully capable of doing it. However, outside of the nationalist-right, which endorses the settlements for their own sake, the discussion barely even purports to glance that way. Among those Jews who are not themselves affirmatively pro-settlement, Jewish autonomous choice has become virtually irrelevant to the conversation. The operative variables are entirely what non-Jews will or won't say, do or don't do.

I talk to these Jews, and they are dismissive -- perplexed, even -- towards the idea that Jews should act even in absence of cookies from gentiles. Say Israel should withdraw from the settlements, and they'll talk of Gaza, of Lebanon, of Cyprus, of Tibet, of Western Sahara, of Ukraine, of Iran -- someone else, somewhere else, something else. Agree with all of these examples, and say Israel should do it anyway, and they'll stare blankly. They cannot see a self-generative Zionism outside of the fringes of the extreme right (which, say what you will about it, tends not to care much about what the rest of the world thinks). The idea that we should do these things for self seems not to occur to them.  They are paralyzed, awaiting a gentile seal of approval even as they bitterly grouse that the seal will never come. They have abandoned the core insight of Zionism itself, regressing to a world in which the most important measurement of the Jew was the gentile.

It is a sickness that is eating away at the heart of the Zionist dream. And somehow, it must be cured.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

New Year's Resolutions: 2017

It's New Year's Resolutions time, the longest-running feature of this by now truly ancient relic of the internet (twelve years is positively decrepit for a blog). Of course, first we assess our performance on last year's resolutions:

Met: 1 (95% positive, though I actually can't remember), 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10 (I really think I've improved here), 11 (ditto), 13, 14, 15 (this is going back on the list, though)

Missed: 8, 12 (a few, but not enough)

Pick 'em: 6 (What's "major"? What's "political thought"?), 7 (What's "regularly"?),

Actually, a pretty successful year on a personal level. Almost enough to make up for the impending collapse of human civilization. Almost. Anyway, onwards to 2017!

(1) Survive. Seems like a good opener. (Met)

(2) Thrive. Always good to have a stretch goal. (Borderline, but we'll say Met)

(3) Get over 1,000 followers on Twitter. (Met)

(4) Have an article accepted in a peer-reviewed journal. (Met -- see here)

(5) Publish at least one article each in Tablet and Ha'aretz. (Met)

(6) Publish in a new popular (non-academic venue) -- aka, expand beyond Tablet or Ha'aretz. (Met -- JTA and Forward)

(7) Continue to coordinate with significant Jewish communal groups. (Pick 'em -- depends on how you count "regularly prodding ADL reps to tackle the Jewish hard-right")

(8) Do a Vegas trip with friends. (Met)

(9) Add a non-trivial amount of vegetables to my diet. (Met(!))

(10) Finish my Ph.D. subfield exams and coursework. (Met)

(11) Read an important work in the history of political thought that was not assigned in a formal or informal class. (Met)

(12) Visit a part of America or the world I have not yet been to before. (Met)

(13) Get a clearer idea of what's causing/how to prevent my kidney stones. (Missed -- but the kidney stone is gone!)

(14) Go to the dentist. (Met)

(15) Regularly do some form of stretching, yoga, or physical therapy designed to address my ludicrously tight muscles. (Missed)

Could 2017 be worse than 2016? Probably! But here's to doing our level best!

Rogue One Bullet Thoughts

I saw Rogue One yesterday afternoon, a film that has been dividing my friends between "very good" and "not good at all." I think it was actually quite good. A very different, darker vibe than any other Star Wars movie, but it did its job well. Below are scattered thoughts -- some spoilers.

  • As a prequel, this is clearly far superior than Episodes I through III. That's not too high a bar, of course, but it's good to get out of the way.
  • The most important question for any Star Wars movie -- but particularly one titled "Rogue One" -- is whether Wedge Antilles was in it. And the answer appears to be yes ... sort of. Those weak in the force might think that the reference to "Captain Antilles" heard in the movie is a callout, but obviously that's the (no relation) Antilles who captained the Tantive IV (the rebel corvette captured by Darth Vader at the start of A New Hope). But reportedly there was an audio-only cameo by the actor who voiced Wedge in the first movie. Though (I'm embarrassed to admit this) I don't know what the line was.
  • A lot of people complained that the characters in Rogue One were not sufficiently fleshed out such that we came to care about them. I get that criticism, but in a weird way I think that was sort of effective. This was a movie about pretty everyday people fighting for the rebellion. Nobody was the mythical child of destiny, or even particularly special, and so (with the semi-exception of the lead) nobody had some grandiose backstory or sweeping character arc. The movie didn't give the sense that the particular characters it focused on were cosmically more important than the "NPC" characters that surrounded them, and I found that a surprisingly impactful choice -- particularly in a movie where everyone is basically doomed at the end.
  • On that same note, many "war" movies treat all "NPC" soldiers as basically robots. They die immediately in one hit (unlike speaking characters, who survive long enough to be cradled and get a few haltering last words). They never care about their fellows being killed or maimed around them. One thing I like about Rogue One is that it was at least better on that score, and that reinforced the fundamental "equality" between the main characters and the extras.
  • This is a grim, grim movie. More or less everyone dies at the end. That makes sense given where A New Hope picks up -- the Rebel Alliance is in dire straits there, so something must have happened to devastate its fleet and (more directly) explain why none of these people are seen in the following movies -- but tonally it is very different even from The Empire Strikes Back (the other "dark" movie).
  • Forest Whitaker's performance as Saw Gerrera (who, for the entire movie, I thought was "Sol Guerrera") was bone-achingly bad.
  • Oh, one more: With the addition of "mountains" and "tropical atoll", has the Star Wars franchise now covered all major topographies? There's desert (Tatooine), tundra (Hoth), forest (Endor), swamp (Dagobah) ... have we done "rolling prairie"? Is Naboo a prairie? I'm trying my best not to remember.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Legal Ramifications of UNSC Resolution 2334

Over at the Lawfare Blog, Elena Chachko has a good rundown of the legal (not political) ramifications of the just-passed UN Security Resolution on Israeli settlements. Chachko, a former clerk for Chief Justice Grunis on the Israeli Supreme Court, contends that the resolution carries few, but not no, major legal consequences. For the most part, it does not alter but does "revitalize" (to use Chachko's term) the international legal case against the settlements.

It's not a long piece, but I'd nonetheless recommend reading the whole thing to get a complete picture that cuts through a lot of the political sturm und drang. And if this does not exhaust your thirst for international legal analysis related to the settlements, you might enjoy this exchange between Eugene Kontorovich and Yael Ronen and Yuval Shany on the international legal validity of Israel's proposed "settlement regulation" bill, which would authorize the (compensated) expropriation of Palestinian land in order to retroactively legalize thousands of unauthorized settlement homes in the West Bank.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Last Call

At the end of November, I noted that one group which was really going to have it rough -- from a cognitive dissonance point of view, anyway -- over the next four years is that of Trump-critical conservatives. These are the guys who have some awareness of the outrageous danger that Donald Trump poses to our democratic system of governance, but really, really want to insist that this makes him no different from equally-dangerous-threat-to-the-republic Barack Obama. Having Obama to blame as the True Evil was the one thing that kept them sane. He was the one thing that kept them "conservatives". Donald Trump may be a problem, but Barack Obama!

It is for this reason that the last month or so of conservative commentary on Obama -- reaching its apex with the UN abstention vote on Israeli settlements -- has reached a fevered pitch. Like drunks who just heard "last call", conservatives are imbibing their favorite tonic with a desperate ferocity, knowing that it will soon disappear. In a month, right-wingers won't have Obama as their foil. They won't be able to wave their hands, throw up some pixie dust, and say "look over there!" They'll have to confront their demon face-to-face. Or -- perhaps more likely -- they'll have to bend the knee to it.

It is no accident that virtually the entirety of conservative response to Trump so far has been an extended riff on "I know you are but what am I?" Each and every sin Trump represents gets projected back onto the Democratic Party, the better to deny responsibility for what was happening in their own house. Harder and harder they clutch at denial: The mainstream media is the real feeder of fake news! Russia is the real force for good in the Middle East! Minorities are the real racists! Scientists are the ones really in denial on climate change!

The evolution of "fake news" is a great example. It is a problem when completely fabricated nonsense ("The Pope endorses Trump!") storms through social media. It undermines public trust and it shreds the informational fabric necessary for people to make informed decisions. But conservatives, desperate to insist that the problem isn't their own, are scrambling to apply the term to any liberal opinion they dislike. One might not agree with the assessment that the Iran Deal checked Iran's nuclear ambitions. One might have cogent arguments against it. But a story that reports that claim is not "fake news", it's a contrary evaluative appraisal. It doesn't fit, and it's embarrassing to see my conservative friends turn into the saddest of post-modernist parodies trying to make it fit. But the point of applying it isn't because it fits, it's to neutralize the terrible reality that there is a problem, and it is not in fact a symmetrical one.

So in all likelihood, other institutions (or the myth of Obama's "legacy") will take Obama's place as the conservative bugaboo which justifies their failure to hold their own movement to account. But nobody will fulfill that role better than Obama while in office. The conservative image of Barack Obama -- radical, terrorist-sympathizing, un-American, hyperpartisan, dictatorial, White-blaming -- was utterly divorced from reality. Indeed, it many ways it was what created Donald Trump. Tell your base that the opposition is radical, terrorist-sympathizing, un-American, hyperpartisan, dictatorial, and racist, and they will start believing you. And they'll do without your oh-so-subtle pseudo-intellectual pivot that seeks to ground it outside the fever swamp. Each time putatively reasonable conservatives engage in the myth, they further abdicate their responsibility to cure the disease ravaging their own political movement.

But there is a reason why the myth is so tempting. In its distortion it unified Republicans and quelled internal dissonance, albeit at a terrible cost. If Obama was this terrible, horrible, destructive, cataclysmic creature, then it wasn't really that terrible if Republicans created their own version of the "same". The constructed image of Obama warranted the failure of Republicans to confront their demons, because it allowed them to swallow every partisan's favorite intoxicant: The other side's worse.

Soon, Obama will be gone, and with him, the right's favorite palliative. But for one more month, they can still live in the idyllic harmony of the last eight years, where their actions had no consequences and their fantasies needed no foundations. I honestly can barely blame them for their carousing.

So drink up, my conservative friends. It's last call. In the morning, reality hits. And I hear its hangover's a bitch.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Happy Holidays from Outside the Bubble

Greetings from Owatonna, Minnesota, where I am celebrating Christmas with my girlfriend's family. Of course, for many of you this post is a sheer impossibility, as we all know that liberals (especially Berkeley liberals) never venture and in fact are incapable of surviving outside of our "bubble", and Steele County went for Trump 58/33.

Yet here I am, alive, safe, sound, and perfectly content. It's almost like that narrative was ridiculous on its face (admittedly, the incredible mashed potatoes that were served with dinner tonight are certainly doing their fair share to help with the "content" part, though perhaps not the "alive" part).

Hope everyone is having a lovely holiday season, and best wishes that 2017 somehow is at least slightly better from the flaming trainwreck that has been 2016.