Thursday, July 12, 2018

Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz (1945 - 2018)

I just learned that Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, founding director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, has passed away.

An active participant in Jewish, feminist, and anti-racist causes, Kaye/Kantrowitz reportedly taught the very first women's studies course here at UC-Berkeley. She was the author of several books, the most important (for me at least) being The Issue is Power: Essays on Women, Jews, Violence and Resistance. It is one I regularly consult and reconsult, as I think it is one of the finest meditations on antisemitism and one of the more provocative works of feminist theory I've ever read. I've long thought that if I ever taught a course centered around either (or both!) of those subjects, it would get a very prominent place on the syllabus. She was also active in a group of radical Jewish lesbian authors whose work in the 1980s and early 90s somehow has managed to remain cutting edge even when revisited today.

May her memory be a blessing.

Racist Republicans Hate Immigrants, and Other Republicans Hate Calling Racists "Racist"

Kevin Drum links to some political science evidence regarding what drives anti-immigrant sentiment. And guess what -- it's not economic anxiety. It's racism, pure and simple. Surprise!

But Drum makes a further observation that I think is worth unpacking:
With a few minor exceptions, racist sentiment was no stronger in 2016 than any other recent year. If you dial it up, you gain some voters at the bottom but lose at least as many from the middle.
In other words, Trump’s immigration message didn’t help him and, on net, probably actually hurt him. Outside of Trump’s base, I think most people understand perfectly well that anti-immigrant sentiment is basically driven by racism, and they want no part of it. Democrats should use this to their advantage by baiting Trump into getting ever louder and more putrid about immigration. The racist core of his base is already as fired up as it’s ever going to get over this, but the rest of the country becomes queasier the more he yells about it. In the Trump era, toleration for immigration isn’t just good policy, it’s almost certainly good politics too.
Maybe, but I think he's overlooked the second part of the one-two punch here. No, the hardcore racist set that loves the anti-immigrant message isn't a voting majority. But there's also another group which doesn't exactly like Trump's message, but gets far more upset when anyone calls anything racist just because it obviously is. It's meeeeaaaan. It's even (gasp) "uncivil".

The former group is Trump's base. The latter -- sometimes called anti-anti-racists -- consists of such marginal conservative figures like five United States Supreme Court Justices. These are the people who were totally going to vote Democrat until all that incivility forced them back on the Trump train.

Put them together, and they're a powerful coalition. The racists love the racism, and the anti-anti-racists regretfully -- more in sorrow than anything else, you see -- must vote against any Democrat who calls it out by name.

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume XLVII: Schumer Not Stopping the Kavanaugh Nomination

A few times now -- not anywhere official, just on Facebook posts or blog comments -- I've seen some variation on the following argument: Chuck Schumer is going to "let" Brett Kavanaugh be confirmed because Israel and/or Netanyahu. Right after Justice Kennedy announced his retirement, John Cole made an intimation in this direction:
At first blush, it's not just a false connection to make, it's a profoundly weird one. What exactly does AIPAC or Israel have to do with the Supreme Court? It's the branch of government that -- by far -- is least relevant to their policy agenda. Whatever Schumer does or doesn't regarding the confirmation fight -- and right now, all signs are he's gearing up to make it a real fight -- will almost assuredly have nothing to do with Israel or pro-Israel lobbying one way or the other.

There's actually a few different conspiracy theories intersecting to make this one, not all of which are specifically antisemitic or even about Jews. There is:

  • The belief that congressional Democrats have some super-secret trick they could use to stop Kavanaugh, and the only reason they don't use it is because they don't really want to block the nomination;
  • The belief that Schumer doesn't actually possess substantive (hawkish) policy views about Israel, but rather votes the way he does simply in blind deference to whatever Netanyahu wants;
  • The belief that Israel is so concerned about who will fill Justice Kennedy's seat that they will make sure Kavanaugh gets confirmed.
You need to believe all three subparts for the machine to run. If you don't believe the first, then you're left with the straightforward and boring truth that if Kavanaugh gets confirmed it's almost certainly because he's a Republican nominee needing to get the approval of a Republican Senate, and Democrats don't have some magic bullet to turn 49 into 51.

You need to believe the second because otherwise there's no reason to think that Schumer would care what Bibi thinks about the U.S. Supreme Court. If Schumer votes hawkishly on Israel because that's what he believes (and it so happens to mesh with Bibi's own views), then there's no reason to think that harmony would translate over to the American judicial context. What they really want to argue is that Schumer is bought and paid for by Israel and just ceases to exercise independent judgment once Bibi opens his mouth on any topic.

And you need to believe the third because otherwise there's no account for why Israel would intercede in this issue. I understand why Israel would try to lobby people on the Iran Deal -- that's a big issue for them. But the Supreme Court? That's not their bailiwick. And you'd have to think they care so much that they'd be willing to risk serious blowback for marginal gain, since Kavanaugh is very likely to be confirmed even if they do nothing.

The first of these is actually the largest driver here. There is a non-trivial portion of the progressive base that has more or less full-throatedly endorsed Green Lantern-ism -- the idea that whenever progressive political outcomes don't manifest, it's because liberal politicians didn't will it hard enough. This is itself a weird position when you think about it -- its leftists basically saying that American political structures are so lopsidedly slanted in favor of progressive priorities that we should naturally see progressive results even in circumstances where the liberal party is in the minority. But it's an outcropping of the same "the primary was rigged" sentiment whereby everything is being sabotaged from within, we'd be winning already were it not for the powers-that-be standing in our way, and the greatest enemies are always inside the house.

On it's own, this sort of sentiment doesn't require any particular connection to Jews or Israel. And one does see other terms or entities fill the role of the interfering "power" that stands and obstructs the natural progressive march of political history ("neoliberals", "the establishment", "big money donors" ... there are a few actually).

Nonetheless, understanding this sentiment does illustrate how the "Zionist conspiracy" iteration is not accidental and is a form of antisemitism. It is antisemitism -- specifically, the antisemitism that naturally associates Jews and Jewish entities with extraordinary power and world-spanning conspiracies that stand outside the normal fabric of political space and time -- that makes Israel "work" as a vector for this sort of conspiracy theorizing.

The conspiracy theory is trapped between the rock of feeling like it's going to lose (the Kavanaugh nomination) and the hard place of fervently believing that -- were things proceeding as they "should" (and they mean that descriptively, not normatively) -- they'd be destined to win. What they need, then, is some body that can break their own political equivalents of the laws of physics -- and, precisely because it can latch onto a network of deeply-ingrained antisemitic tropes, the Zionist cabal feels "plausible" as the sort of entity that could pull that off. And, as a bonus, it offers hope -- if the Zionists are what is standing between the conspiracy theorist and total victory, then all one needs to do is smash Zionism and voila! Utopia. It's so much easier than the messy, complicated, sometimes-friend-sometimes-foe reality that characterizes actual political progress -- which is why antisemitism is called the "socialism of fools".

So let's state what should be obvious: If Kavanaugh is confirmed, as remains much more likely than not, it will be for the straightforward reason that he is a Republican nominee and there are 51 Republican Senators in a 100 person chamber. That's it. If a few Democrats defect, that will be because sometimes red-state Democrats facing tough reelection fights cast votes like this. That's it. I'm not saying any of that is good or wise or justified, just that it's the most obvious explanation, and not one that seems so superficially implausible that it cries out for an alternative "it's a Zionist conspiracy" explanation.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

On the Jewbook Blackout

Some of you might be familiar with the term "Jewbook". Those who aren't might worry that it's an antisemitic slur and, in your defense, it initially started out that way as an antisemitic label for Facebook (because of Mark Zuckerberg, obviously). But now it refers to a cluster of Jewish groups on Facebook which have fostered a unique and surprisingly vibrant space for young Jews to sort out questions of identity, talk politics, crack jokes, and simply live Jewishly with other like-minded peers.

Right now, though, much of Jewbook has shut itself down -- a blackout in protest of racism within our communities. The immediate instigating event was the vicious blowback against a column by Nylah Burton urging (what she calls "functionally-") White Jews to not refer to themselves as White-passing. This didn't come out of nowhere, however -- there were antecedents (this roundtable of Jew-of-Color perspectives at HeyAlma alludes to some).

Nylah is an African-American Jew, and the argument she made in her ill-fated column was that White-passing refers to a specifically African-American condition vis-a-vis American White supremacist structures that doesn't track onto the American Jewish experience. The problem isn't that American Jews don't experience antisemitism; it isn't even that pale-skinned Jews are perfectly and unambiguously White in the American context. The problem is that White-passing is a specific term regarding a situation where one carries White privilege unless and until one's "real" racial identity is revealed -- and that isn't typically the way antisemitism operates in America. To the extent I enjoy White privilege in America, that White privilege doesn't usually go away if someone "finds out" I'm Jewish. I might experience (more) antisemitism in that circumstance, but whatever racial prerogatives I enjoy will largely (not entirely) go unchanged.

As you might imagine, the intersection of Whiteness and Jewishness is an arena I have thoughts on (on that note, I'm not sure I ever announced on the blog that the linked-article was just accepted for publication in the Association for Jewish Studies Review). I have thoughts on the degree to which American Jews are White, and I have thoughts -- indeed, somewhat sympathetic thoughts -- on why American Jews today often resist that label.

But the issue here is less the specific contours of that debate -- on which Nylah and I have had some fruitful exchanges -- and more the way Nylah and other JOCs were treated as second-class Jews in its conduction. Consider the condescending tone taken by Micha Danzig in his response -- one which carried more than a whiff of sexism, but which also seemed to suggest that in speaking about Jews Burton was an outsider talking of people not her own. But of course Burton is just a Jewish as Danzig is or I am; her vantage on the state of Jews in America is as authentically Jewish as anyone else's. The irony is that one of the most common refrains from JOCs regarding how they're excluded in Jewish spaces is people -- with varying degrees of explicitness -- questioning whether they're "really" Jewish.

I've written before on how one of the burdens of being Black and Jewish (and I suspect this applies to other cases where one social identity one possesses is stereotypically thought to be incompatible with another) is that one has far less room to "play" with one's Jewish identity than do White Jews. I don't mean "play" to connote anything frivolous -- rather, I'm talking about the full range of ways one can "be" Jewish, from wholly consistent with popular stereotypes of what it means to be Jewish to wildly subversive. I can do things that don't track the dominant perception of what it means to be Jewish and never have my Jewish identity questioned. But when non-White or non-Ashkenazi or otherwise non-normative (within the American context) Jews try to do it -- e.g., by contesting a communal view about Jewish racial identity -- they're not just rejected on substance, they aren't even recognized as leveling the argument as Jews.

The (well, a) sad thing is that I first started hearing about Jewbook because it was thought to be a particularly important space for Jews who -- for whatever reason -- didn't have the standard or stereotypical Jewish background to create and live out a Jewish community. Nylah herself wrote about that quality, and she's not the only one.

I might be a bit too old to really appreciate Jewbook like some of the younglings do (ugh, it kills me to admit that). But I can appreciate that we as Jews have an obligation to put in the work to ensure our spaces our welcoming and inclusive of all Jews. First and foremost, that begins by believing the testimony of JOCs when they say that, right now, it isn't. They're not out to "get us". They are us -- or part of us, anyway. They have no reason to speak out about feeling excluded in Jewish spaces save for a genuine desire to be part of those spaces.

Whether on Jewbook or in the outside world, working towards a genuinely inclusive Jewry is a responsibility we have as Jews, to Jews. Fundamentally, when JOCs say they aren't respected as equals in the Jewish community, I credit that testimony. Honestly, I'm not sure what incentive they'd have to lie about it. So now it's on all of us to put in the work -- and make no mistake, it will require work -- to make it so.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Coming Era of Forced Abortions

"We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."

That is a direct, verbatim quote from a sitting member of Congress -- namely Representative Steve King (R-IA).

The "somebody else" King was referring to was immigrants -- specifically, brown immigrants from Latin America. Them and their children, for King, represent an existential threat to the American republic. And while King stands apart for the explicitness with which he indulges in racist rhetoric, he is not alone in the construction of immigrant births as threat. The term "anchor baby" -- used by Donald Trump, yes, but also Jeb Bush -- also presents it as illicit, even dangerous, when immigrants give birth inside the United States.

This is not a post about immigrants, exactly. It is a post about abortion. And particularly, it is a post about the possibility of government actors coercing or compelling women (particularly women under the custodial authority of the state) to have an abortion.

People scuff at this prospect -- less based on law than based on their own lack of imagination. Who in government might want mandatory abortions? Why, the pro-life movement wouldn't stand for it!

Which is why I bring up the view of Mr. King and his cohort. It is entirely plausible that King and his cohort could come to believe that it is permissible -- even a national security imperative -- that immigrant women not be allowed to birth their "anchor babies" on our shores. They already possess and wield the language that presents the prospects of such births as a wrong, even a threat. Do you really think him and his would really have a problem with someone forcibly terminating an immigrant mother's pregnancy? Do you really think they'd even struggle to justify it? The only question would be whether they'd politely avert their eyes or outright endorse the practice.

Everything about the contemporary state of right-wing politics suggests that this is not an idle fear. The average conservative hardly bats an eyelash if horrific conditions in ICE custody cause immigrant women to miscarry. Pro-life has never extended that far, after all -- it is a movement primarily about controlling women, not saving babies. Forcible births and forcible abortions are two sides of the same coin; the preference depends on the woman involved.

Or take it another step: Remember that infamous case where the Trump administration tried to prevent an undocumented immigrant teenager from procuring an abortion? Judge Kavanaugh's dissent assumed for sake of argument that the girl had an abortion right, but argued that the government could temporarily refuse to honor it if it could secure her an immigration sponsor with sufficient rapidity. But one Judge, Karen Henderson, went further -- in her opinion, undocumented immigrant minors exist in a lawless space, devoid of any rights over their own body at all by virtue of their illegal entry (Judge Kavanaugh, for his part, did not join that opinion). The logic of Henderson's dissent, at least, would apply equally if the government -- whipped into a hysteria that "demographics are destiny" (to use another Steve King-ism) -- sought to compel her to abort her child.

The thing is, Roe v. Wade does not protect, or does not solely protect, a woman's right to an abortion. It protects a woman's right to choose an abortion -- or not. And in a world without Roe, it isn't clear what judicial doctrine would render it unlawful for a government actor to compel or coerce a woman (particularly a woman under custodial authority of the state) to have an abortion.

Indeed, it's far from clear what legal principle absent Roe would or could give a woman -- again, especially women under the custodial authority of the state (which might include the incarcerated, immigrants, and some minors) -- a constitutional right to continue her pregnancy as against a state official claiming authority to compel her otherwise. Roe answers that women have a right to bodily autonomy which vests in them a private right to make reproductive decisions for themselves. Knock off Roe, eliminate the constitutional reproductive autonomy right, and it's replaced by ... what exactly? 

I don't think there's an answer -- at least, not one that doesn't swing entirely in the other direction and say that abortion is constitutionally impermissible (which, of course, would remain blissfully apathetic regarding the rights of women in favor of waxing lyrical over the rights of blastulae). So imagine this: Roe is overturned. The issue of abortion is, as promised, "returned to the states". A few months later, a prison guard rapes an inmate and then, to cover up the crime, forces her to terminate the ensuing pregnancy. Is the latter act a constitutional violation? I don't know that it is. Is it a clearly established constitutional violation (thank you, qualified immunity)? I don't see how. The constitutional underpinnings that say women cannot be forced to involuntarily terminate their pregnancies rest entirely on Roe v. Wade -- if that's overturned, the best you can say about the state of that right is that it is up in the air.

It's well known by now that the end of Roe will fall hardest on the poorest, most marginalized, and most vulnerable women -- not surprisingly, the ones for whom "liberty" is barely given the pretense of acknowledgment whilst government authority is allowed near-boundless jurisdiction. But even this gives contemporary conservatism too much credit, as it suggests that ending abortion is the point. The fact that pro-life politics virtually never come tied to any sort of tangible commitment to expanding pre-natal care is a clue that the birthing isn't the key variable -- the control is. Sometimes you want to control women via compulsory motherhood, and sometimes ... you don't -- but "pro-life" isn't going to do any real work one way or the other. The tides of the contemporary right -- replete with White nationalist themes, anxious to the point of obsession about becoming a minority in "their" nation -- hardly are ones inclined to respect the rights of "someone else's babies."

Think I'm being hyperbolic? Answer me this: If reports emerged of ICE agents forcing immigrant women to abort their children, would Steve King utter a word against it? Would his "pro-life" instincts kick in? Or would he find that he's ... fine? Okay, even?

We know the answer. And the thing is, you don't have to think Steve King is the be-all end-all of modern conservatism to concede that he represents a real and growing portion of it -- a portion that no doubt has adherents amongst ICE enforcers, amongst authoritarian prison guards, amongst certain extreme (but less so everyday) pockets of fanatical racist and xenophobic authoritarians. If you don't think some among them aren't going to start endorsing "extraordinary measures" to ensure no babies get anchored, if you don't think some among them aren't going to turn to forced abortions as a means of covering up their own rape culture, you're deluding yourself.

And ultimately, that's all that's necessary, because we won't be talking about forced abortions as some sort of nationwide policy. We'd be talking about a patchwork of incidents and abuses and cover-ups and "oversights" that just so happen to fall upon the sort of women that the right doesn't care about in the first place. It will be so easy to ignore them, so easy to say they brought it on themselves, so easy to let the majestic lattice of qualified immunity and formalist textualism conclude that they have no remedy.

I think we'll see it. I really do (I know that if we do, the great bulk of the American conservative movement will not care one whit about it). It's not going the only part of a Roe-less future, but it will be a part. Because when your jurisprudence denies that pregnant women have the right to choice what happens to their own body and your politics grows ever more ravenously xenophobic and your acknowledgment that immigrants, the poor, and the incarcerated nonetheless have rights shrivels into nothingness -- the result of that cocktail isn't any mystery.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Why Is Montgomery County Immune to Money in Politics?

The Democratic primary for the Montgomery County (MD) Executive race was a nail-biter this year, pitting progressive County Councilor Marc Elrich against business and political outsider David Blair. But -- pending a potential recount -- it looks like Elrich won the race by less than 100 votes.

Elrich was backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and other left-leaning groups, and they're claiming another victory. Blair, for his part, dumped almost three million dollars of his own money into the race only to come up short (Elrich chose to use public financing).

It's striking to see someone with that much of a financial edge lose a race like this. And it's not the first time Montgomery County Democrats have passed on well-financed candidates.

In 2016, businessman David Trone spent a record-setting $13.2 million dollars of his own money in the Democratic primary for the 8th congressional district, which largely encompasses Montgomery County, only to lose to American University Law Professor Jamie Raskin.  Raskin ran as the most progressive candidate in his 2016 primary race, and he's lived up to that label by becoming (according to Progressive Punch) the single-most liberal member of the entire House delegation.
(Trone, for his part, trotted northwest to the open 6th congressional district, where he just secured the Democratic nomination for 2018).

And that 8th district seat? It was open because its former occupant, Chris Van Hollen, made the jump to the U.S. Senate. And Van Hollen, for his part, won his initial 2002 Democratic primary over Mark Shriver (of the Kennedy Shrivers) despite being outraised 2:1.

Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, with a median household income of over $100,000. The consistent success of progressive Democrats beating back better-funded but more centrist foes makes for an interesting contrast to the claim that affluent suburbs will serve as a drag on moving the Democratic Party to the left.

Maybe this is just a series of anecdotes. But it sure seems that Montgomery County seems uniquely resistant to being swamped by big dollar candidates. Assuming that's right, what gives MoCo this rare immunity?

This is outside my area of political science. But here are some possibilities worth exploring:

  • Diversity: Montgomery County is far more racially diverse than it is often given credit for. It is now a majority-minority county, though non-Hispanic Whites remain a plurality (44% non-Hispanic White, 20% Black, 20% Latino, and 16% Asian). That alone often correlates to a leftier-lean, and potentially more suspicion of big spenders in politics.
  • Education: Montgomery County ranks seventh in the country in terms of residents with college degrees; third in the country for graduate degrees. It's possible that more educated voters are less effected by the boons one can buy with big money.
  • Political proximity: Montgomery County comprises the northwest suburbs of DC, meaning that it has a lot of government workers and thus a potentially unique level of political literacy. That could translate to greater levels of political engagement, counteracting availability effects that emerge from carpet-bombing advertising strategies.