Thursday, August 02, 2018

There Are No Credits Leftist Jews Can Cash

Jon Lansman is the founder of Momentum, the left-wing group that swept Jeremy Corbyn to power in UK's Labour Party.

He's also Jewish -- a fact which might surprise external observers familiar with how Momentum in general and Corbyn and particular have ridden a wave of antisemitic sentiment.

You might not believe me, but I really am not too familiar with Jon Lansman. I don't know if he's a good guy in a bad situation, or a crass as-a-Jew opportunist. For the purpose of this post, I don't need to know.

What I do know, and what this Nick Cohen column very effectively establishes, is that despite his unimpeachable credentials as a leftist and as a Corbynite, Jon Lansman would not be able to effectively combat antisemitism in his movement even if he tried. Why? Because the moment he does, he'll lose his credentials as a leftist and a Corbynite.
When Corbyn supporters cite the support of Lansman or groups such as the tiny Jewish Voices for Labour as evidence that accusations of left anti-Semitism are groundless, they argue in bad faith. If Lansman or any other Jew were to say they had gone too far and must change their behaviour, the left would denounce them. 
When he challenged Corbyn’s appointee for the post of Labour general secretary, Corbyn supporters immediately told Lansman his views were worthless because he was ‘a Zionist infiltrator’, who puts ‘Israel above the left or even Britain’. In Leninist terms, the function of Jews on the modern left is to be useful idiots who can be dispensed with as soon as their usefulness ends.
There's a mythology out there that people don't listen to antisemitism claims because Jews "cry antisemitism" all the time. The corollary to that is that, were there Jews who were better Jews -- Good Jews -- and didn't engage in such abominable behavior, then their call-outs of antisemitism would get attention and a fair hearing.

And I suspect at least some Jews (I have no idea if Lansman is one of them) really believe this. They think "I'm not -- I've shown I'm not -- one of those Jews. I acknowledge that antisemitism claims are sometimes (often, usually) a bad faith smear. I've proven myself a good comrade. I've earned my credits. So if I say somethings antisemitic, I can cash those chips."

It doesn't work. It never works. The minute you go to that well, you'll find out it's dry. Even a group like JVP -- whom you'd think could never be accused of being too quick on the antisemitism trigger -- still falls victim to it on the rare occasions they do try to levy a claim of antisemitism against one of their "friends".


Because they're not actually thought of as epistemically reliable. They're not trusted independent of their utility in propping up the previously-arrived-at conclusions of their putative allies. And once they stop serving that function, the antisemitic default rises back up -- a Jew who disagrees with you is a Jew who's probably lying, probably part of the conspiracy, probably [hiss] a Zionist. It doesn't matter what your credentials are. The threshold bar for talking too much about antisemitism is talking about antisemitism, period.

In a sense, this makes me more sympathetic to Lansman than you might expect. He's in a trap he can't escape from; there's no way for him to be an influential leftist and a prominent critic of antisemitism in his movement at the same time. There's no trick -- neither ironclad arguments nor impeccable left credentials -- that would force people to let him occupy both worlds. He is in what Memmi calls an "impossible condition", one "which can have no solution in its actual structure." Without being too glib about it, when you think the reason people gaslight, deride, and dismiss Jewish testimony is because of the Jews, and not the antisemitism, of course you'll fail to see the trap. But in an antisemitic society, Jews get no usable credits for being Good.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

On Open Hillel's Brief Against Hillel

There is an ongoing lawsuit by Jewish students at San Francisco State University alleging the school has tolerated and promoted an antisemitic environment -- among other ways, by deliberately excluding the campus Hillel from certain university activities. Open Hillel just filed an amicus brief in that case, arguing that because of its controversial "standards of partnership," Hillel does not represent all Jews and therefore acts singling it out for exclusion and ostracization cannot be seen as probative evidence of antisemitism.

I have a column in Tablet Magazine today that goes into further detail. In essence, my observations are that (a) this represents a dramatic escalation of Open Hillel's posture towards Hillel International and the establishment Jewish community; and (b) as a matter of anti-discrimination doctrine, the principle it asserts (that attacking an identity-affiliated group cannot be seen as evidence of discriminatory intent if the group is not wholly coterminous with or uniformly backed by the relevant protected class) would represent a disastrous narrowing of anti-discrimination law -- not just for Jews, but for all marginalized groups.

There are no LGBT groups supported by all queers, no African-American groups that enjoy the backing of every Black individual, no Middle Eastern groups inclusive of all Middle Easterners. But if a public university made the terrible decision to single out the Gay-Straight Alliance or the Black Lives Matter chapter or the Middle Eastern Students Association for exclusion, LGBT, Black, and Middle Eastern students would have every right to feel as if their equal standing on campus was threatened—regardless of whether every single member of those identity groups felt represented by the corresponding student organization and regardless of whether the university could identify a more palatable (if likely far less representative) alternative. So too with Hillel. That Jewish students perceive university efforts to extirpate Hillel from campus life as a form of anti-Semitism is neither mysterious nor idiosyncratic.

The full argument is in the column, of course. The only other thing I want to observe is that Open Hillel's press release promoting the brief suggests it is motivated in large part by opposition to the Lawfare Project, which is backing the plaintiffs' suit against SFSU. OH asserts that the Lawfare Project "uses lawsuits as a tactic to shut down speech that calls attention to Israel’s actions or protests Israel’s policies."

I have no quarrel with skepticism towards the Lawfare Project, and on the internet OH and TLP can squabble back and forth indefinitely for all I care. But courtrooms are not the venue to act out such grievances, because court decisions set precedents. They're not just meaningless notches in a virtual scorebook; anti-discrimination law changes as a result of these rulings, and (as I argue in my column), it would change much for the worse if Open Hillel's position is adopted. There are stakes here -- not only for themselves -- that I highly doubt Open Hillel considered, and that is a failure of responsibility on their part for which they deserve serious chastisement.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Internet Teaches You Things

I've been on the internet for a long time. This blog has been around since 2004! That's positively ancient in internet-years.

Over the past few days -- not prompted by anything in particular -- I've been reflecting on some of the things I've learned from just observing people talking on the internet. Of course, you could say that the internet is a very particular forum where people exhibit very particular forms of behavior. And that's true. But it's also the case that the internet is an unprecedented aggregation of a diverse array of voices, personalities, and speaking styles, and that there is something to be said for taking its denizens seriously.

So, without further adieu, here are some things I've learned, and advice I accordingly offer, as an official Elder of the Internet:

  1. No matter your ideology, there will always be someone purer than you. That doesn't mean they're right. This includes centrists.
  2. No matter your ideology, there will always be someone profoundly idiotic who largely agrees with you, and someone profoundly idiotic who largely disagrees with you. Neither fact should be unduly weighted.
  3. No ideology is immune from having assholes as adherents. Moreover, people who are assholes can and will express their assholery in the argot of their ideology. So a conservative asshole will use conservative rhetoric and language to effectuate being an asshole, while a socialist asshole will use socialist rhetoric and language. Ditto liberals, ditto centrists, ditto nationalists, ditto anyone. Nothing about the ideology will stop them from doing so, and certainly do not believe your ideology is an exception.
  4. Consequently, I'm dubious that the fact of being an asshole makes one significantly more likely to be attracted to a particular ideology. Rather, I think people adopt political ideologies for other reasons and, "fortuitously", then find that they can still be as trollish and nasty as they like within their confines.
  5. Virtually everyone is more complex than they appear at first glance. Try to give people the benefit of the doubt that they're not the stock caricature version of the position you think they hold or the identity you imagine they occupy. If you take them seriously, you'd be surprised how far they might be willing to walk with you.
  6. That said, there are many genuinely bigoted, malicious, prejudiced people out there. You can call them out, or ignore them, or block them, or mock them, or even argue with them. But don't be in denial about their existence. This goes triple for acknowledging the existence of bigots who are targeting people-not-like-you.
  7. Related: The bigotry you and yours face is serious and should be taken seriously. But you don't need to deny that others are burdened in their own way, and you should be self-critical about one's assumption that they're not. Whether your claim is that "nobody would ever tolerate this if it was said about Jews" or "only when it's said about Jews do people tolerate this", you're almost certainly wrong. They would say it about Jews; they'd say it about other groups too.
  8. There will never be an "-ism" (racism, antisemitism, sexism, etc.) case that is incontestable to everyone. No matter how obvious it seems, someone will be there to contend it's actually fair play (why hello, Councillor "Jews are blood-drinkers"!). Consequently, the whole point of asserting that something is racist or antisemitic or what have you is to do so in cases where someone is contesting it. And the fact that the -ism claim is contested does not, itself, suffice to refute it.
  9. Resist pile-ons. Yes, accountability is important. And yes, each individual contribution to the pile-on would typically (not always -- see death threats) be proportionate and reasonable if isolated and placed in the context of an individual, face-to-face encounter. But aggregated together, they quickly can spiral out of control, and frequently magnify all the internet's worst qualities.
  10. Be generous when reading others. Precision can be hard on social media platforms. Try to be precise in your own work. When you inevitably fail (and you will), you'll be grateful when others are generous while reading you.
  11. The worst thing you can be on the internet is an abusive troll. But the second worst thing you can be is a hack. Practices associated with hackery include cheap shots, indifference to facts, mischaracterizations, ungenerous reading of interlocutors, smarminess, and lazy adoption of prevailing narratives without evidentiary support. Don't be a hack. Perhaps more importantly: if you're a publisher, don't publish hacks. Nobody is forcing you to do it.
  12. Hypocrisy arguments are almost always a double-edged sword. If you say "how can you criticize A for X when you don't criticize B for Y?", it invites the retort "how can you criticize B for Y when you don't criticize A for X?" Typically, all that's revealed is that both parties to the conversation are hacks.
  13. There is a huge difference between suggesting that a given piece of art or writing was of such poor quality that it shouldn't have been run (and that the fact of its publication reflects poorly both on the author and on whoever elected to run it) versus suggesting that some de jure authority should have prohibited it from running. The latter is censorship, the former is quality control. Also, the claim that a given piece is racist, antisemitic, etc. etc. is a (subset) claim about its quality, not something that stands apart and separate from it.
  14. That said, stretch yourself in terms of what you're willing to read or consider. Precisely because personal, private refusal to read or consider something is not censorship, it is in some ways a more tempting and dangerous mechanism for isolating yourself from challenging ideas. It's a fine line between the truth that one need not consider obviously repugnant and unjustified claims (e.g., Holocaust denial) and the truth that one should consider difficult and challenging claims, and only you can police yourself on this front. Take responsibility for your intellectual health.
  15. Recognizing the diversity and pluralism in other groups is good. Searching high and low for the members of other groups who happen to agree with what you already think about them, and then claiming credit for your diverse, pluralistic reading habits, is not good. It is hackery.
  16. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if something you write is widely disparaged and reviled by your target audience, it's not because you were telling some difficult truth or produced a misunderstood masterpiece. It's just because it was bad. Reveling in a hostile reception for its own sake is a bad habit. Reflexive contrarianism is not a good look. Telling yourself that it's all just "people who like being offended" is usually self-serving. And provocation for its own sake is almost always hackery.
  17. People follow people on social media for all sorts of reasons. Don't read too much into it, unless there's a really obvious pattern. "So-and-so follows X-and-Y who once tweeted Z in 2009!" is pretty much always a hack move.
  18. Nobody can force you to be an asshole, or a troll, or a hack. Own your choices online. No one is a saint all the time, and far be it from me to discount the joy of a great internet burn. But default towards kindness.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Negative Partisanship and the Politics of Hurt

Idealistically, we think of the process of political identity formation proceeding something like this:

  • I am pro-life; Republicans are the pro-life party; therefore, I am a Republican.
We come to certain political positions, we figure out which party best matches those positions, and we vote accordingly.

In reality, this turns out to be wildly optimistic. What is more often observed is that loyalty to one's political team comes first, and that in turn drives one's substantive political commitments. It looks something like this:
  • I am a Republican; Republicans are pro-life; therefore, I am pro-life.
Partisanship rules the day, and the implications for the project of political persuasion are worrisome. If people adopt their political positions first (presumably via a process of reasoning) and then pick their party in turn, then they can be persuaded to change their minds through debate about the underlying issues. But if they pick the party first (based on...?) and only come to the positions later, what new information would cause them to change their minds?

Yet there is some evidence that the picture is grimmer still. The above account suggests that people positively associate with a party and pick positions that line up with that party. But there's another theory making the rounds -- that of negative partisanship -- which says that the focus isn't positive but reactive. People are motivated by dislike or outright hatred for the other party, and choose issue-positions based on whatever is dispreferred by the external group. So we get something like this:
  • I hate Democrats; Democrats are pro-choice; therefore, I am pro-life.
In many cases, this looks observationally-equivalent to the above (are you pro-life because Republicans are or because Democrats aren't?). But not always. Consider the rapid ... let's go with "evolution" ... of Republican voters on the subject of Russia and Putin. It doesn't seem to me like there was widespread public embrace of Russia by Republican Party elites. But as Democrats continually hammered on Russia being a threat and meddling in our election, Republicans started to associate "concern with Russia" with a Democratic position. And so, like lemmings, they flocked to the opposite. Indeed, the Trump phenomenon itself can be viewed in this light. Republican Party elites did not, to say the least, initially back him. But it was evident that liberals hated Trump. And if you're motivated by "whatever liberals hate", then Trump's appeal is obvious.

Any iteration of acting "to own the libs" is basically an iteration of this. "Cleek's Law" famously posited that "today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today: updated daily." Go back further, and you have Nietzsche's idea of ressentiment. It's reactionary politics; it isn't based on being for anything.

None of this is me saying anything new. But I did want to make two observations that I think are worth stressing.

The first is that I doubt negative partisanship is limited to parties. People can be negatively motivated by a desire to hurt groups as well. I suspect a lot of the backlash against, say, Black Lives Matter, is a form of racial negative partisanship (in another era we could get away with simply labeling that "racism", but today we need to obscure under layers). White racial resentment is such that when they see large-scale Black political action, that's reason alone to react against it. And one of my main worries of rising antisemitism is a concern that we'll start to see a form of negative partisanship there too -- circumstances where Jews being worried or concerned is taken as proof you're doing something right. 

That's not been the status quo on the left -- including the African-American community, whose staunch anti-antisemitism commitments have been evident for as long as they've been underappreciated by too many in the Jewish community. In race after race, where Jews have expressed concern that a given candidate (Cynthia McKinney, Nikki Tinker, Charles Barron) is hostile to us and ours, the African-American community has responded like allies (and Jews, for our part, have wanted no part with our anti-Black extremists like Seth Grossman). But there's worries that might be changing -- that when Jews say "we're worried about such and such candidate", too many seem to think of it as a sign that the candidate is on the right track. It means one is striking a blow against AIPAC (that this is raised even in cases where AIPAC doesn't seem remotely related to the controversy is independently worrisome), or is proof that new, more deserving minorities are rising to political ascendancy. What was it that Linda Sarsour said? Jews might have to "have to come to terms with being uncomfortable." Jewish discomfort isn't a problem to be addressed, it's a positive good to be lauded.

And that brings me to my second point. Negative partisanship is not by any means solely a right-wing phenomenon. We're all susceptible to it, and indeed, there's a certain logic to it: if you told me that a given piece of legislation was supported by Donald Trump and I knew nothing else about it, I'd still take that one fact as at least prima facie evidence that the legislation was bad. But I can't help but think that negative partisanship is, at root, necessarily reactionary. It's a politics driven by a desire to hurt, and that never moves us in the right direction.

Yes, there are days when I'm like "you know what? Kansas can burn to the ground for all I care -- their voters made their bed and they should have to lie in it." But in my better moments, I don't like that version of myself. It's not just because there are plenty of Kansasans who didn't vote for insane reactionary Republicans and ultra-regressive tax cut extravaganzas. It's also because I don't want to endorse any sort of politics that is predicated on seeing people hurt. Yes, it's funny in its way that the leopards are eating their faces. But that doesn't mean I don't oppose leopards-eating-people's-faces on principle.