Friday, May 25, 2018

New Website, New Syndicator

I've got a new personal website!

I finally bit the bullet and got myself professional(ish) homepage for my academic life. It felt like it was time, and I wanted to nail down the URL.

The new site has links to my CV, most of my articles, and all my popular press publications, as well as a nifty "about me" section. Don't worry though -- the blog is staying right here (to the point where I actually went out of my way to delete the "blog" tab from the website template. Tempt me not, Satan!).

This post is also an opportunity to test-run the new syndication service I'm using: For awhile now, IFTTT has been markedly unreliable, and this past week it seemed to stop working almost entirely. Hopefully, this will result in my feeds being cross-posted more reliably, but there still might be some kinks as I set up my account.

The French Have Some Weird Views About Zionism

Ifop, on behalf of the Union of Jewish Students in France, commissioned a poll on Israel and Zionism. Here are some things a majority of French respondents believe:

  1. "Zionism is an international organization that seeks to influence the world and societies to the Jews’ benefit."
  2. "Zionism is a racist ideology"
  3. Anti-Zionism is an antisemitic ideology.
  4. Zionism is a "movement of liberation and emancipation for the Jewish people."
Presumably, most of these aren't overlapping. But since they all claimed majority support, by definition there must be some people who think both that "Zionism is a racist ideology" and "Anti-Zionism is an antisemitic ideology", or "Zionism is a movement for liberation and emancipation for the Jewish people" and "Zionism is an international organization that seeks to influence the world and societies to the Jews’ benefit."

I can't tell if that means their views on Zionism are really deep, or just incoherent. My vote is "incoherent."

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Semiotics of Kneeling

The NFL has announced a new rule banning players from kneeling during the National Anthem. If they don't wish to stand, they can wait in the locker room.

I'm not the first to observe that maybe all those who've spent the past few years fretting about snowflake college students who furiously demand protection from offensive speech might maybe asked to spare a note of protest here.

But now is as good a time as any to remind people that when Colin Kaepernick elected to kneel during the National Anthem, it was explicitly not intended as a signal of disrespect to the country or to the flag. Indeed, he adopted that particular mode of protest precisely because it communicated his message in a respectful manner.

The act of kneeling was suggested to Kaepernick by military veteran and fellow NFLer Nate Boyer, as an alternative to sitting during the anthem. Unlike staying seating, kneeling is almost always associated with a form of respect -- even deference. Prior to Kaepernick, the most likely reason you'd see someone kneeling on a sporting field is if there is an injury (I distinctively remember doing it during youth soccer). Obviously, nobody thinks that kneeling there is meant as a form of taunting or abuse. Rather, it's designed to signal "somebody is hurt, and we are acknowledging their hurt -- we're not going to simply carry on as if this isn't happening."

This semiotic meaning of kneeling was explicitly what Kaepernick was drawing on. Boyer drew the connection to soldiers who knelt before the grave of a fallen comrade -- again, a show of respect. The idea was to communicate that in America right now Black people are hurting, that there is an injury, and we need to respect and acknowledge that. On face, this should have been quite familiar precisely because it drew upon a practice that any sports fan is well-acquainted with and which carries an easy parallel to the point Kaepernick was trying to make. That it is now being presented as something different -- an act of defiance or disrespect -- isn't even a communicative misfire: it is a conscious attempt to replace an otherwise clear and powerful message with a different, more easily dismissed meaning.

Kneeling during the pledge is not a form of flouting or turning one's back on America anymore than kneeling during an injury represents a disavowal of the injured player. And this also explains why staying in the locker room does not suffice as an adequate substitute for kneeling -- it lacks, ironically enough, the posture of respectful public engagement communicated by kneeling.

I've written a whole article about what the Book of Job, and other instances of biblical protest, can tell us about contemporary political disputes. Early in the Book of Job, as Job is forced to endure ever-more terrible torments, his wife urges him to simply turn his back: "Curse God, and die." But Job never does this. Job is a story of a man abused by God who protests this treatment, struggles against it, demands explanation for it -- but who never, ever cuts his relationship with God. To the contrary, he is insistent in demanding that the very real relationship they have be vindicated. "Why do you hide your face from me, and treat me as an enemy?" The power in Job's protest is precisely that it remains "in the fray" of engagement -- it is always presented as and remains as the cry of a man who does value and does care about his relationship with God.

Remaining in the locker room can't replace kneeling because it does not communicate any sort of ongoing, meaningful relationship between the protester and the subject of protest. Ironically, I think it would be far more disrespectful to the flag and the country compared to kneeling -- akin to ostentatiously turning one's back or casually chatting in the background as the anthem plays. The semiotic message of kneeling -- that there is something to grieve, an injury to acknowledge, whose relevance emerges out of a thick social relationship which the kneeler remains committed to -- can't be replicated in a private space.

And so it might be worthwhile to reflect on the very end of the Book of Job. Midway through the story, several of Job's friends begin an argument with Job, urging him to desist from challenging God or presuming to know that he is being treated unjustly. By what right does Job claim the authority to question God in this way?

This argument gets interrupted when God finally emerges, "out of a whirlwind" to confront Job. But in the denouement, God speaks once more -- not to Job, but to his friends. He instructs them to repent, "for you have not spoken of me the thing that is just, as my servant Job has." At the very end, Job is vindicated, and those who told him to stay silent, or passively defer to God, are chastised. "You have not spoken of me the thing that is just, as my servant Job has."

These words, repeated twice, are the last words God ever speaks directly to man in the Hebrew Bible.

Big(ger) Media David: NPR Goes National

The story a local NPR affiliate did on Arizona's anti-BDS law -- currently under challenge by the ACLU -- was picked up nationwide. They actually had to reinterview me for sound quality reasons (like a true professional, I did it from my hotel room in Minneapolis), and once again I actually don't hate the sound of my own voice. Judge for yourself though (I come in towards the end).

Monday, May 21, 2018

Quote of the Day: Frederick William IV on Jews

I found this in Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harvest 1994), p. 33 n.31. Asked what he intended to do with the Jews, Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, replied:
I wish them well in every respect, but I want them to feel that they are Jews.
The quote is used to illustrate the paradox of 19th century European elite views towards Jews -- simultaneously expressing (sometimes) warm feelings towards Jews in the abstract, while nonetheless continuing to harbor openly antisemitic attitudes.

This is also reflected in a quote by Wilhelm von Humboldt which Arendt was very fond of: "I love the Jew really only en masse; en detail I strictly avoid him." This was notable because von Humboldt -- great liberal that he was -- was known as one of the great allies of the Jews at the level of political theory. And indeed, contrary to the text of the quote von Humboldt did actually have several Jewish friends. Nonetheless, it reflects the push and pull between abstract commitments to equality (or even fraternity) as against deeply-entrenched antisemitic attitudes.

Interesting side note: The Origins of Totalitarianism was written in 1951. But in 1948, Arendt published in article in Jewish Social Studies titled "Privileged Jews", which presaged some of the content. It's an interesting read: discussing the status of certain elite Jews who in pre-emancipation Europe really did enjoy certain privileges (on account of wealth or education), and how that (partially) privileged status interacted both with antisemitic sentiment in European society and with later moves towards general emancipation.