Thursday, March 07, 2019

The Trouble with (Jewish) Anger

If you read contemporary political theory publications, you've probably seen that "anger" is having quite the moment as a political emotion right now. As against a skeptical literature where anger is viewed as necessarily destructive or reactionary, a bunch of theorists have sought to identify and promote the uses of anger as a tool of public mobilization, asking what anger can do or promote under appropriate circumstances.

Whenever I go to talks or read articles on that subject, though, I always find myself a bit perplexed. The authors seem to concentrate on defending the thesis that anger is powerful -- they suggest that anger (again, in the right circumstances) can accomplish things that might otherwise be out of reach. But it seems to me that the classical knock on anger isn't that it isn't powerful -- virtually everyone concedes that (how many fantasy novels tie anger to a powerful dark side that allows access to eldritch magic?). The problem with anger is that it's hard to control. Anger is difficult to contain and difficult to cabin. Once it is unleashed, it is hard to bottle back up. It ends up hurting those one doesn't intend to hurt, it lashes out in unpredictable and uncontrollable directions. And, of course, anger has the difficult property of being self-generating against critique -- trying to persuade someone that they should be less angry only makes them more angry (convenient, that!).

The Jewish community in America is, I think it is fair to say, getting angry. What are we angry about? Well, a few different things, I suspect:

  • We're angry that a community and a politics that we've long called our own seems to be increasingly comfortable with the promotion of antisemitic stereotypes, and is indifferent, at best, to our feelings of hurt and fear at that fact;
  • We're angry that we've been unable to muster any significant public attention towards or mobilization against antisemitism from the mainstream political right, no matter how much effort we expend trying to raise it, and we're angry that media sources who are utterly indifferent when we try to talk about right-wing antisemitism only perk up when we talk about left-wing antisemitism;
  • We're angry at left-wing antisemitism because we're angry about antisemitism generally but this antisemitism is in our home, and also because this is the antisemitism where we actually seem able to touch it and make people pay attention to it and make its perpetrators take notice of us, and so all the anger over the antisemitism where we can't make anyone care about it gets displaced and funneled into this one social arena where somebody will pay attention to it, even as we realize how unfair that is and we're angry about that too;
  • We're angry that we're blamed for how other people talk or don't talk about antisemitism, and we're angry that people seem less interested in hearing what Jews have to say than in cherry-picking the Jews whose views are consonant with the narrative they want to draw and trumpeting to high heaven;
  • We're angry that any time we try to talk about antisemitism in a case that's within a half-mile of "Israel", we're accused of being unable to tolerate "any" (any!) criticism of Israel, or of being in the bag for Likud, or of proving the point that maybe our loyalties are in doubt;
  • And, I think, we're angry that the Israeli government has been racing off to the right, busily making some -- some -- arguments that once were outlandish now plausible, and putting us in increasingly difficult positions. We're angry that we've been basically powerless to stop this decay of liberal democracy in Israel, we're angry that a community and a place that we care deeply about seems not to care about us in return and is mutating into something unrecognizable to us, and we're displacing that anger a bit.
That's a lot to be angry about. It's not unreasonable to be angry, about any or all of that. And I think it's the case that to some degree, anger has fueled some genuine counterattacks against all of these things. Jewish anger has, certainly, prompted some people to issue apologies who otherwise would've continued about their business, engendered some discussions that otherwise wouldn't have have begun, prompted some solidaristic bonding that might not have otherwise occurred. One could, I think, fairly say that Jewish anger has greased the path towards some accomplishments for the American Jewish community.

But anger, as powerful as it is, is also difficult to control. I don't like the political-me when I'm angry -- and more than that, I don't trust the political-me when I'm angry. My tactical choices are often unwise. And when I look out and say how angry we're getting, I worry. I worry that we're not going to be able to bottle it back up. I worry that it is going to burst its bounds and rage beyond control.

People have been making a lot of (premature, in my view) comparisons between the Democratic Party and UK Labour. But there is one parallel that concerns me right now. British Jews are angry at Labour, and they're by no means unreasonable to feel that way -- I've been quite vocal in calling out the disgusting cesspool of antisemitism that has taken over the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's watch. That's legitimately anger-inducing. And one could even argue that Jewish anger about this has played a significant role in forcing Labour to come to the table and take what (meager) steps it has taken to tackle antisemitism in its ranks.

But I also worry that this anger and bitterness has gotten so deep that it's almost impossible to imagine any set of steps by which Jews and Labour might reconcile. Even when Labour officials do issue statements or take steps that seem genuinely positive as expressions of the importance of tackling antisemitism, the mistrust runs so thick that they're often immediately rejected -- "what good is this statement or that commitment coming from so-and-so, who's been so terrible to us in the past?"

I'm not saying that these statements or commitments will always be followed through on or even that they're always offered in good faith. I'm saying it almost doesn't seem to matter any more, the efforts that are offered in good faith and would be followed through on are swept away just as decisively by the omnipresent feeling of woundedness and mistrust. At a certain level, what Jewish anger wants out of Labour is for it to have never done such awful things in the first place. But there's nothing Labour can promise to satisfy that demand -- and so the anger can never be placated. And that, ultimately, can only lead us to a destructive place, where Jews and the left must be enemies, because there is no longer anything that can be said or done that is interpreted to be a gesture of friendship (even the most perfectly worded statement can be dismissed as a front or a guise, or insufficient given past sins).

American Jewish anger, I worry, is pushing us towards a similar precipice -- one where we can't stop being angry, where there's no plausible pathway through which our anger can sated. 

Consider reactions to the Democratic leadership delaying a proposed antisemitism resolution, with the suggestion that it be redrafted to more explicitly tie the fight against antisemitism to other forms of bigotry. 

One interpretation of this move is that it helps dissipate the notion that Ilhan Omar is being unfairly singled out, and sends a decisive message that the fights against antisemitism, racism, and Islamophobia are united struggles -- they are not in competition with one another. Another interpretation is that it "All Lives Matters" antisemitism, implies that antisemitism cannot be opposed for its own sake but must be laundered through other oppressions in order to matter, and overall represents a capitulation to those who are upset that Democrats are acknowledging the existence of left-wing antisemitism at all.

Which interpretation is right? Well, one would have to see the newly-drafted language, first of all. But I suspect that the answer will be that there is no one right answer. Either interpretation will be plausible. 

So it's up to us to choose which hermeneutic world we want to live in. We could declare, decisively, that we view such a resolution as not excusing left-wing antisemitism but also not singling it out; not suggesting that antisemitism only matters insofar as it can be tied to racism and other bigotry but rather rejecting the claim that vigorous opposition to antisemitism in any way, shape, or form is hostile to opposing these other hatreds. 

And to some extent, our declaration of interpretation will generate its reality. If we choose to believe that this is what the resolution means, that it is an expression of solidarity and of unity, then that is what it will come to mean. If we choose to believe that it means something else, that it is an insult and a capitulation, then it will mean that instead. It is both weird and, when you think about it, not so weird that it is fundamentally up to us whether any such resolution is an act of solidarity or not.

Viewed that way, the right answer is clear. But I think anger is pushing us toward the wrong choice. Yet know this: there is no resolution the Democratic leadership could write that would make it so that we weren't in this anger-inducing reality where such a resolution felt necessary to begin with. If that is our standard, we will never be placated. So the question is how do we move forward in a damaged world? Does anger get us there?

I think not. Anger doesn't look for common ground. It doesn't look for the positive or the best in people, it doesn't offer much foothold for rebuilding. It hurts those we don't actually want to hurt. Like a fire, it rages past borders and over barriers. Even when anger does do its "job" of mobilizing or organizing or signaling the degree of woundedness a given practice is generating, it doesn't easily return to its cage. Often, anger slaps at hands that really are just trying to reach out, really are trying to figure out how to do better. Which, of course, generates anger of its own. And so a cycle emerges, that is very hard to escape from.

As I mentioned above, one of the most difficult aspects of anger as a political emotion is that telling people to be less angry only makes them more angry. Even still, and even recognizing that we have grounds to be angry, I still find myself imploring my community that we need to let go of our anger here. It's rapidly losing whatever productive attributes it has, and I fear that if we don't bottle it back up now, we will completely lose control over it. 

And that thought terrifies me, because I cannot imagine that a Jewish community that is uncontrollably angry at the political community we've long called home will be a healthy, or happy, or productive place to live.


David Bernstein said...

"media sources who are utterly indifferent when we try to talk about right-wing antisemitism only perk up when we talk about left-wing antisemitism" Surely there are some sources, on the right, that act this way. But you're not seriously maintaining that the "mainstream media"--NPR, NY Times, Wash Post, legacy network news networks, etc., are more interested in left-wing anti-semitism than right-wing? Even after a few hundred losers gathered in Charlottesville, and instead of ignoring it as it ignores thousands of other rallies of 300 or 400 people every day, the media descended on Charlottesville as several hundred thousands Nazis were about to march on DC?

David Schraub said...

Sorry, I should be clearer. When it comes to antisemitism by major elected officials (e.g., US Congresspersons), the media is basically indifferent to it when it comes out of the right (see, e.g., McCarthy, Hagedorn, Gaetz ....)