Saturday, July 07, 2018

Jackie Robinson's Other Break of the Color Barrier

This was an interesting bit of trivia I didn't know about. In 1944, 2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson -- yes, that Jackie Robinson -- was court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of a bus on a Texas army base. The army had recently desegregated army buses on army bases, and so Robinson knew he was entirely in the right when he refused to move back. Nonetheless, he was taken into custody and interrogated by a superior officer who was none too keen on the "uppity" Robinson.

Robinson was charged with insubordination, but in part thanks to excellent representation and in part thanks to sterling testimony by his battalion commander, he was acquitted of all charges.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Billions Thoughts

Jill and I finished watching all three seasons of Billions (meaning that our insatiable lust for good television to binge must look elsewhere for fulfillment). That means you get my scattered thoughts on the matter. Mild spoilers below.

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* Wow, Damian Lewis is great in this -- way better than he was in Homeland!

* Wow, Maggie Siff is great in this -- just like she is in everything (Rachel Menken for the win)!

* What makes Billions a great show, in my view, is its almost Walzerian treatment of power. Rhodes and Axe have genuine, real power in completely different arenas, and the show takes care to show that each possesses tools and resources at their disposal that the other can't access. Axe's immense wealth can't buy him things like search warrants or prison threats. In other arenas, Rhodes' governmental power can't buy cooperation or incentives that Axe's money can. A lazier show than Billions would suggest that Axe could simply bribe the right people and become akin to his own government, or would be purely a tale of an unstoppable government official smashing through private sector business. Billions doesn't go either way, sitting in a well-crafted equilibrium.

* The least-likely Showtime shows do a really good job of dealing with non-normative sexuality. House of Lies was great in dealing with a gender fluid teenager. Billions handles both the Rhodes' BDSM activity and Taylor's non-binary status very well. Who'd have guessed?

* I will say that they do go a little heavy on the whole "can a robot learn to love" thing with Taylor. But there are points where Taylor indicates that the whole emotionless android thing is a front, which is easier to swallow.

* I actually buy the idea that Taylor's gender non-binary status would rapidly cease to be a "thing" in a place like Axe Capital so long as they bring in the green. But it does strike me as a little hard to swallow that their rise up the ranks that quickly wouldn't breed more noticeable resentment (beyond Dollar Bill being upset at losing his poker table spot).

* In a show where virtually all the characters are terrible, Lara is the worst. I mean, obviously that's not exactly true -- Spyros is the worst. But at least Spyros brings out some great facial expressions of undisguised loathing from Dollar Bill (those scenes are some of my favorites). Lara doesn't have that redeeming factor. I'm also not quite sure why their marriage completely disintegrated, seemingly on a dime. You'd think Malin Akerman would know how to be a Trophy Wife at this point.

* I did appreciate that, at least prior to their marriage's dissolution, Axe was portrayed as entirely sexually faithful to his wife. Again, a lazier show would have simply assumed that the ungodly-rich billionaire would be stepping out with supermodels left, right, and center.

* One of the few "good" characters is Mafee. Sadly, I don't like his chances of surviving Season 4's inevitable Axe/Taylor crossfire unscathed. Poor Mafee.

* I like Wags in spite of myself. Your mileage may vary. But watching him swell with pride the first time Taylor curses was hilarious.

* One character I'm definitely not sold on is Andolov. It's not just because I find him a bit crude and overdrawn. It's because one of Billions' great virtues is that it has thus far avoided the cheap play of assuming the ultra-rich can and will simply murder their way through problems without consequence or remorse. The whole point is that people like Axe have so many resources available to them that they don't need to resort to violence to get their way. And what's more, while the ability to refrain from violence is itself a function of their power, it's also crucial to their self-image: they are not mobsters or street thugs, they just move dollars and cents around. Andolov seems likely to move the show in a more hackneyed direction.

* On the other hand, three years ago I would have said Jock Jeffcoat was a crude and overdrawn stereotype. Sigh.

* You might have noticed I haven't said anything about the other members of Team Government. Well, let's see: Decker is well-acted but a cipher, I've completely lost track of what's motivating Connerty, Dake has no interesting characteristics at all, and Lonnie actually interests me as someone who isn't really willing to "play the game" but consequently had to be steam-rollered for the show's core thesis to make sense (hence why he's no longer in the show).

Quote of the Day: Arendt on Why Eichmann Was Tried in Jerusalem

Arendt answers those who asked why Eichmann should be tried in an Israeli court rather than an international tribunal.
[T[hose who asked the question did not understand that for Israel the only unprecedented feature of the trial was that, for the first time (since the year 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans), Jews were able to sit in judgment on crimes committed against their own people, that, for the first time, they did not need to appeal to others for protection and justice, or fall back upon the compromised phraseology of the rights of man--rights which, as no one knew better than they, were claimed only by people who were too weak to defend their "rights of Englishmen" and to enforce their own law. (The very fact that Israel had her own law under which such a trial could be held had been called, long before the Eichmann trial, an expression of "a revolutionary transformation that has taken place in the political position of the Jewish people" ...) It was against the background of these very vivid experiences and aspirations that Ben-Gurion said: "Israel does not need the protection of an International Court."
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Penguin 2006) (1963), 271-72.

It is worth noting that Arendt was quite the skeptic of trying Eichmann in Jerusalem. But nonetheless, here I think she aptly summarizes one of the key drivers as to why so many thought it was so essential that he be tried by Jews, in Jewish court, in a Jewish state.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Twilight of Liberalism

This feels as good as any for this Fourth of July:
There’s an argument floating around that the evils of American hegemonic practice, especially during the Cold War, means that we should not be concerned about Trump’s efforts to dismantle the infrastructure of US power. There are a number of problems with this claim. One is that there are different ways to transition away from American hegemony. Washington can pursue a policy of judicious retrenchment. Another is to pursue a more progressive, multilateral order to address global commons problems and reduce the chances of great-power conflict. These, and other strategies for managing hegemonic decline are going to be much more difficult if Trump continues on his current path. 
A related problem also lies in the specifics of where Trumpism aims to take the United States: ethnonationalism, support for authoritarian regimes, and the like. America’s current human-rights violations against migrants and asylum seekers are indicative of a shift toward “illiberal hegemony“: one less concerned with generating international goods, trying to reduce civilian casualties during military operations, and so forth. You don’t have to have a pollyannaish view of American international affairs to recognize that US foreign policy can get much, much worse. We’ve been there and done that. 
Why am I talking about this? Because we need to also consider the alternatives. If domestic practice is any guide—and we have reasons to think that it is—then the wane of liberal order is unlikely to usher in a more benign world. It’s not only the concentration camps in the United States that should worry us.
We are witnessing a global decline of the liberal order. In the United States, in Europe, in India, in the Philippines, in Israel, in Turkey, and obviously in many more places where liberalism barely had a toehold to begin with.

I'm not sure how it can be reversed. I'm not sure if it can be reversed. I am sure that I do not trust any of the alternatives to "usher in a more benign world".

Richard Rorty once remarked that there is no knockout philosophical argument that can compel people to be liberal if we don't want to or don't agree to. It'd just be "sad" if we don't. We'd miss out on many occasions for human happiness and flourishing, and unnecessarily provide for much more suffering and misery than is necessary. But there's nothing written into the fabric of human history that demands that we avoid the sadder choices.

Is Judaism Headed for a Schism?

This was initially going to be a comment on my last "Things People Blame the Jews For" post, but I realized it needed it's own space.

One of the things the MK who blamed an earthquake on Reform Jews also said was that Reform Jews should "take the money you invest in the State of Israel and build a Kotel in the U.S." Comments like these are part of a larger pattern whereby the Israeli government is more and more overt in seeking to define non-Orthodox diaspora Jews out of the Jewish community outright. In this account, the Kotel (indeed, all of Israel) isn't "for" non-Orthodox Jews. As the MK succinctly put it: "What do you have to do with the ancient stones of the Kotel?"

The Kotel, Israel -- under this view, we outside the Orthodox branch have no claim on these things. They're  for Jews, and we might as well be another faith entirely. What was it that Miri Regev said? "I've met reforms in Argentina. They were very nice, but they should be reform in Argentina. Here in Israel they should behave [like they're in Israel]". In Israel, Reform Jews aren't Jews.

Comments like these makes me wonder -- in all seriousness -- whether Judaism is headed for a schism. One that goes well beyond just being "more" or "less" observant. I mean like a Catholic Church/Eastern Orthodox style schism, basically breaking down along Israeli and American lines, where we no longer recognize each other as even being part of the same religion.

It's possible. Right now, we're seeing a few dangerous threads that may well start intersecting in the mid-future:

  1. Increasing acceptance of intermarriage in the American Jewish community at the same time as the Israeli Orthodox establishment is clamping down harder on matters of who counts as a Jew.
  2. Increasing frustration from non-Orthodox Jews regarding the hammerlock the Orthodox rabbinate holds over normative Jewish practice.
  3. Increasing political antagonism between American (non-Orthodox) Jews and the Israeli government.

The first and second threads provide the theological and/or social rationales necessary for both sides to stop recognizing the core Jewish legitimacy of the other. I know for my part that my response to Orthodox Jews who question my or my partner's Jewishness is to volley the skepticism right back their way -- it's not just that I disagree with their assessment, I also don't accept their authority to adjudicate the matter at all. They have as much authority to tell me I'm not a Jew as I have the authority to tell them they're not.

The last thread frays the desire of either party to check these tendencies. That is, when an "open" case comes up (e.g., regarding who counts as a Jew), there will be less internal pressure to take up a position that maintains the unity of the Jewish people.

We're already seeing the emergence of a "new diasporism" outside of Israel -- still mostly confined to the Jewish left, but starting to edge more mainstream -- that is explicitly centered around building a robust sense of Jewish culture and identity that is largely detached from anything emanating out of Jerusalem. Couple that with Israeli's societies vague (sometimes not so vague) contempt for the galut and it seems we're headed towards a division of the Jewish people where neither hemisphere is particularly interested in, or feels much connection to, whatever is going on in the other.

So yeah, I don't think it's out of the question that in 50 years time, "Judaism" will have completely split in two -- Zion and diaspora. There will be outposts of both camps in the lands of the other: Orthodox Jews in America and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, but it will be functionally akin to Catholics living in Russia or Eastern Orthodox Jews in Western Europe. There will be no doubt who holds what territory, and the two camps will not see each other as cohabitants of the same faith.

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XLVI: Clear Skies and Earthquakes

Weather-related Jewish conspiracy theories seem to be having a moment.*

In rapid succession this week, we got an Iranian general saying that Israel was stealing his country's clouds, followed by an ultra-Orthodox Israeli MK blaming an earthquake on Reform Jews.

On the former: When faced with real problems (like drought), it isn't wise to get, shall we say, sidetracked away from scientific investigation and instead waste time on nonsense like this. So long as one can blame the neighborhood Jew for all of one's ails, one avoids having to actually investigate the root causes of one's problems.

That said, since random Iranian conspiracy theories are now grist for the President's mill, I look forward to seeing this one appear on Trump's twitter feed within the week.

On the latter: As my friend Richard Goldwasser observed, this is just as absurd as any other "Jews control the natural world" whacko comment we've seen in recent months, and so there's no reason to give it a pass just because the speaker is an Israeli government officer. Indeed, when an Iranian official says stuff like this, it's to be expected. We should if anything be more worried when Israeli politicians start parroting the same nonsense.

* Yes, yes, I know an earthquake isn't really "weather". Sue me.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Suit Up Roundup

The latest wedding prep item to be checked off the list is my wedding suit. I like it. It's snazzy. Still have to pick it up post-alterations, though.

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Anil Kalhan explains what was evident to anyone paying attention: John Roberts didn't "overturn" Korematsu in Trump v. Hawaii -- he renamed it.

What do you call a Jewish Indian fusion food truck? Nu Deli. I love this more than I can express (semi-related: I picked up The Last Jews of Karala: The 2,000-Year History of India's Forgotten Jewish Community at a bookstore the other day. So far, so good.).

Right now, we're seeing growing recognition of the full diversity of the Jewish community. That's good. But it also means reckoning seriously with the fact that the Jewish community has not always been welcoming of our full diversity. Hey Alma hosted a roundtable discussion with six Jews of Color that's definitely worth a read. Sandra Lawson and Donna Cephas write of racism they've experienced within the Jewish community. And the Baltimore Jewish Times just ran a profile on Mendel Davis, son of an African-American Chabad Rabbi.

Nobody expects the National Review to defend the Spanish Inquisition!

An interesting blast from the past: the Jewish Current reprints an exchange between Rabbi Joachim Prinz and an antisemitic Christian pastor who heard him speak at an army base in Abilene, Texas. It is striking reading, precisely because the pastor's arguments come couched in language we'd recognize today: he condemns Nazism, acknowledges the existence of some good Jews, speaks in unfailingly polite terms -- but nonetheless makes sweeping generalizations against the faith as a whole to justify his bigotry. It's well worth reading not because of how alien it is, but because of how little the language of "civil" bigotry has changed over the past seventy years.

JTA profiles Alma Hernandez, a 25-year old Mexican-American Jewish women running for a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives. (She's also being targeted by David Duke, which is possibly the least surprising thing imaginable).