Friday, January 13, 2017

Quote of the Day: Bernard Williams on Unadorned Hatred

In one of those statements that is obvious on reflection but which I hadn't really thought of until it was pointed out to me, Bernard Williams argues that virtually no one really argues that people should be treated differently or worse "simply" or "solely" because of their race (or sex, or other like identities):
This point is in fact conceded by those who practice such things as colour discrimination. Few can be found who will explain their practice merely by saying, 'But they're black: and it is my moral principle to treat black men differently from others'. If any reasons are given at all, they will be reasons that seek to correlate the fact of blackness with certain other considerations which are at least candidates for relevance to the question of how a man should be treated: such as insensitivity, brute stupidity, ineducable irresponsibility, etc. Now these reasons are very often rationalizations, and the correlations claimed are either not really believed, or quite irrationally believed, by those who claim them. But this is a different point; the argument concerns what counts as a moral reason, and the rationalizer broadly agrees with others about what counts as such -- the trouble with him is that his reasons are dictated by his politics, and not conversely. The Nazis' 'anthropologists' who tried to construct theories of Aryanism were paying, in very poor coin, the homage of irrationality to reason.
Bernard Williams, "The Idea of Equality," in P. Laslett & W.G. Runciman (eds.), Philosophy, Politics, and Society (Oxford: Blackwell 1962), 112-17.

That last line, about paying "the homage of irrationality to reason", is what earns the quote a place on the blog. But the whole argument matters. Again, virtually all assertions of hate against a particular outgroup are dressed up in this sort of garb -- albeit some wearing more layers than others. Recall the "bombing a synagogue isn't antisemitic if its based on dislike for Israel" case. They don't hate Jews, the argument goes, they hate alleged bad conduct done by Jews. But this is utterly ordinary as a case of antisemitism.  People who hate Jews do so, they say, because Jews are greedy, or bloodthirsty, or conniving, or murderers. It virtually never unadorned, and so the fact of adornment itself doesn't falsify the hypothesis that the attitude is discriminatory.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Rate That Apology, Part 6: Ira Madison III

During the Jeff Sessions confirmation hearing, MTV journalist Ira Madison III posted a tweet captioning a picture of Sessions holding his Asian-American granddaughter. The tweet has now been deleted, but it read:
Sessions, sir, kindly return this Asian baby to the Toys "R" Us store you stole her from.
After deleting the tweet, Madison posted the following "explanation" on Medium:
Hello. Yesterday saw the confirmation hearing of Jeff Sessions. As he was called to testify, Sessions placed his Asian American granddaughter on his lap. I made a joke alluding to the irony of a 70 year old career politician placing his post-millennial, multi-racial granddaughter on his lap to shield himself from criticism of his long standing record. My work is satirical and my words on my Twitter account have never represented MTV’s personal mission statement. But what was intended to be a provocative joke about Sessions’ record put his family in the crossfire and for that I am sorry. 
I am also sorry my joke unnecessarily distracted from the more serious matter at hand. I — and many many other Americans — genuinely believe that Jeff Sessions’ deeply troubling past on issues relating to race and immigration are disqualifying and look forward to holding him and other potential members of Donald Trump’s administration accountable for their actions. Sessions has already been rejected once by the United States Senate for his unfortunate racist comments, behaviors, and views, including praising a 1924 Immigration Law intended to end “acceptance of all races.” He was rebuked by Republicans and Democrats alike in the 1980s, unfortunately, he’s before us again. 
Going forward, we cannot be distracted from Sessions’ history, the histories of many of the men and women Trump wishes to appoint to his administration, or the online rhetoric designed to shut down debate and intimidate and terrify with violent threats and fear of doxxing. This is indicative of life on the internet for many endangered and marginalized groups right now and we must be vigilant. My writing, in part, will always be devoted to justice and I look forward to seeking it out wherever I can in the next four years and beyond.
Alas, this is not going to enter my annals of good apologies. One of the cardinal sins in a bad apology is when the author gets "on a soapbox about how [they're] really right about the core issue and just happened to express [themselves] poorly." That's definitely at work here -- a 2:1 ratio of "soapbox" paragraphs to "apology" paragraphs (and that's being generous in labeling the entire first paragraph as an "apology").

Moreover, the apology paragraph -- really more of a sentence -- is blurry and evasive. Sure, there's something intrinsically tacky about dragging a toddler into a political "joke" in this manner, and I guess that it is encompassed by talking about "put[ting] his family in the crossfire." But there's also a racialized element to the joke that can't be ignored and which this apology attempts to shunt aside. To characterize the joke as targeting "the irony of a 70 year old career politician placing his post-millennial, multi-racial granddaughter on his lap" beggars belief. Anyone with a pulse reading this joke saw it as a crude dismissal of multi-racial families among stereotypically conservative communities: "there's no way Jeff Sessions really has an Asian granddaughter, lol -- she must be a prop!" An apology which does not acknowledge and atone for that cadence, isn't one.

Grade: 3/10

It's Impossible to be Antisemitic, Part 2245

A German court today upheld a lower court ruling that firebombing a synagogue is not necessarily antisemitic, if it is done as a protest of Israeli policies. I alluded to the lower court decision two years ago, and I am blown away  at just how common this line of reasoning is:

In any event, just as it's now impossible for anything to be racist, it's also impossible for anything to be antisemitic.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

It's Impossible To Be Racist, Part 2244

Alabama Representative Mo Brooks (R), on what's driving opposition to the Sessions appointment and support for the Voting Rights Act:
"It's really about political power and racial division and what I've referred to on occasion as the 'war on whites,’” he added. “They are trying to motivate the African-American vote to vote-bloc for Democrats by using every 'Republican is a racist' tool that they can envision, even if they have to lie about it."
Perhaps we can compromise, and agree that while not "every" Republican is a racist, the ones who talk about a "war on whites" certainly are?

The End of Scandal Norms

I haven't been paying super close attention to the story that Russia has some damning info on Trump that it's holding over his head. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. This sort of raw intelligence is always -- at best -- hit or miss. But even if it is true that they've got it, I'm skeptical that it matters.

Let's say that this info is out there. Maybe it's Trump watching Russian prostitutes piss on the bed the Obamas slept in. Or maybe it's something else. Doesn't matter. And let's say it leaks. Here's the sequence of events:
  • Media reports on the news breathlessly, insists that Trump's administration can never survive a scandal of this magnitude.
  • Democrats seize on the news, demand hearings, resignations, hearings, and more hearings.
  • A few Republicans issue murmurs about "inappropriate behavior." More than a few denounce the leak as Russian interference (now it's a problem) and suddenly demand we focus on that.
  • Somebody -- probably in the National Review -- writes a "clever" column on how leftists are hypocritical because they oppose revenge porn. Mary Anne Franks gets more citations from conservative columnists than she ever dreamed nightmared.
  • Republican congressional leaders do nothing. Media starts asking "are they really going to do nothing?"
  • Republican congressional leaders continue to do nothing. Eventually the storm dies down.
  • Scene.
This has been the great, terrible discovery of Mitch McConnell and the 21st century GOP: nobody can force them to do anything.

I first noticed this with former Bush AG Alberto Gonzales, who nearly rode out a seemingly-infinite array of scandals. And when he finally did resign, it was impossible to figure out why. There was no legal obligation to do so. Normally, we chalk up that sort of behavior to "norms" -- but the norms had already been shredded. Gonzales already demonstrated that the sorts of "norms" which would "normally" compel a resignation could be ignored more or less indefinitely. For whatever reason, he just didn't ride the train to the end.

It was Mitch McConnell who decided to take that train all the way to the terminus. You can't make a filibuster-proof majority mandatory for every bill? Why not? You can't just refuse to even hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee for a year? Watch him! Other politicians caught on to the act. Remember Scott Desjarlais, the pro-life Republican from Tennessee who, as a doctor, had slept with several patients(!) and was caught on tape pressuring his mistress(!!) to have an abortion(!!!)? Everyone assumed he just had to resign. You know where he is now? Still in Congress.

Turns out, you don't have to do much of anything if you don't want to. There is an extraordinarily narrow range of levers through which one can be compelled to act in Washington: impeachments, being voted out of office, mandatory court orders ... it's not all that large, and it doesn't cover all that much. Much of what we take for granted our government will do is not legally compelled, but is based on politicians following established patterns of political culture. Among those patterns is that a major scandal will lead to an investigation and some measure of accountability. But nobody forces Congress to launch an investigation, and nobody forces administration officials to resign or even acknowledge scandals reported in the media.

If they ignore it long enough, the storm will eventually pass. And that is what will happen if Russia does have something on Trump and it does eventually leak. The media will convince itself that something has to happen. And then nothing will.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

How AIPAC Works (and Doesn't)

This is a really great, in-depth piece by Armin Rosen on how AIPAC exercises influence in Washington -- and the limits of said influence. While many people think of AIPAC as this towering, 900 lbs monster which makes and destroys political careers, the organization actually has a very different mode of operation. It builds relationships. It makes sure that, whoever is in office of whichever party, they have a route to that person's office so that they can make their concerns known.

While this has been obviously effective, Rosen contends that the Iran Deal case shows the limits of the strategy. Because AIPAC is exceptionally cautious about building and maintaining relationships, it cannot and does not threaten any serious consequences for Congresspersons who flout their will. Representatives were willing to buck AIPAC because they knew AIPAC wasn't going to cut them loose for the apostasy. And that, in turn, has made certain other (generally rightward) forces on the "pro-Israel" community think that AIPAC's lost its edge. What good is it being the proverbially unstoppable "Israel Lobby" if you get stopped on the one issue you actually throw your entire weight behind?

There's a degree to which that's true, though I think Rosen understates the benefits of AIPAC's relationship model even in the wake of the Iran Deal. It's almost certainly true that AIPAC's model is ill-suited to a drawn out fight where a powerful political figure, like the President, digs in his heels and directly contravenes a core AIPAC policy objective. But there will inevitably be very few cases like that, because when it comes to foreign policy -- even Israel-related foreign policy -- it will not be that often that major political figures will have independent preferences strong enough to prompt such a knockdown fight. Where AIPAC's model shines is in greasing the path for the mundane, everyday bits of legislation and funding that only a very few people care about. In those circumstances, relationships and access rule the roost, and AIPAC works very, very well.

I'd also be curious as to Rosen's view on another of my hypothesis: that regarding the degree to which Jewish groups are comfortable publicly feuding with Democratic versus Republican politicians on Israel. Rosen observes that most of AIPAC's staff are Democrats (unsurprising -- it is a predominantly Jewish group, after all), and my argument has been that Jewish groups are willing to argue with Democratic politicians because they have the essential confidence that such arguments won't break the relationship entirely. They're "in the family", so to speak. Friends fight, but that doesn't mean they don't cease being friends. By contrast, there seems to be an implicit concern that any non-trivial attack on GOP policy initiatives by a Jewish group will see a swift and brutal excommunication by the Republicans. For a relationship-focused group like AIPAC, this is a harrowing proposition. Simply put, if the name of the game for AIPAC is relationships, then preserving Republican relationships requires a lot more hand-holding and obsequiousness compared to their more resilient Democratic counterparts (who can handle a tough period like the Iran negotiations and still come back to the table on matters of shared interest later on).

Monday, January 09, 2017

Jewish Community Centers Nationwide Hit With Bomb Threats

In what appears to be a coordinated pattern, numerous Jewish Community Centers around the country were hit with bomb threats today. One of the affected centers was the JCC in Rockville, Maryland, which hosted my synagogue for many years until we were able to build our own space.

Fortunately, all of the threats appear at this point to be unfounded. But still, these things didn't happen until something changed in our political culture, and it's no mystery what that "something" is. The rise of Donald Trump's brand of rabid right-wing resentment threatens Jews a huge range of Americans of diverse backgrounds and heritages. There should be no illusion anymore that Jews will somehow be immune from the wave that's coming.