Friday, June 07, 2019

When It Comes to Demographic Doom, Conservative Pundits Really ARE Whistling Dixie

Responding to David Brooks' fear of an upcoming GOP apocalypse, Daniella Greenbaum Davis might have written the least self-aware pollyanna account of Republican prospects I've ever read. It's almost -- not quite, but almost -- Liel Leibovitz-level bad.

Brooks' argument is simple: young people hate the Republican Party. And as this generation becomes the dominant force in American politics, it becomes a bigger and bigger problem if they hate the Republican Party. If there is to be a conservative appeal to this generation, it has to be one that can speak in the language of pluralism and diversity -- a project that the contemporary Republican Party is racing away from at top speed.

Davis is not convinced. First of all, we get the standard chestnut that even if Trump alienates the youth, he doesn't count because he isn't really "conservative". Specifically:
Trump is not conservative in the strict sense of the word; he’s a libertarian and a libertine.
Trump is a libertarian? Are you kidding me? Trump represents conservativism at roughly its furthest possible distance from libertarianism. His signature policy is a massive increase of state repression at the border. Most recently, he's wreaking havoc on the economy with a threatened tariff war. He pairs a massive ramp up of the security apparatus with targeted economic bailouts and distortions aimed to assist politically-connected and favored industries (like coal). This is the least libertarian posture imaginable.

Moving on:
We don’t need data to show us that young Americans are over-represented on the left. But it was a wise someone — not Winston Churchill, who usually gets credited, but the French historian and prime minister François Guizot — who coined the Burkean insight that anyone who is not a liberal at 20 years of age had no heart, and anyone who is still a liberal at 40 has no head.
Well, I'm glad we got it straight that it wasn't Churchill who said it! What's amazing about this is that Brooks directly addresses this point: He specifically observes that the popular belief that young are always more liberal is actually a myth (see: Israel). Instead, the first few elections a person votes in tends to calcify their political affiliation for the rest of their life -- so if young people learn early on to vote Democrat, it becomes much harder to dislodge them from Democratic affiliation later on.

So the GOP can't just wait for the kids to grow up and get more conservative. Indeed, the reason the younger generation is more liberal is because it is (a) more diverse and (b) more likely to have personal encounters with people of other backgrounds, races, etc. on a regular basis. But that's not going to change over time -- the youth might be older in fifteen years, but they're not going to become Whiter.

In any event, Davis thinks that the growing progressive bent among the youth will eventually implode on itself because it will be too socialist and, as time goes by, will eventually "consume its young". Of course, this directly contradicts the "young people will mellow out as they age" hypothesis, which would instead suggest that the harder edges of Millennial politics will instead get filed off as time goes by -- a more sustainable progressivism replacing certain youthful idealisms. It also has the convenient property of not necessitating a GOP response, since the failure of the progressive wave is axiomatically assured. So no need to tamp down on nativist or flatly racist elements in the GOP coalition -- which one would think would be a necessity if they're ever going to appeal to a generation that either is or is friendly with immigrants and either is or is friendly with non-White people. Instead, it allows the GOP to continue to respond to growing diversity in America by literally whistling Dixie.

Regardless, Davis foresees a purge where the radicals oust the moderates, who are left looking for someone -- anyone -- to carry the torch of classical liberal values. And enter the GOP!
Those exiles might abhor social conservatism, but they would be wrong to define conservatism purely by a handful of socio-religious issues, some of which exercise only the GOP’s powerful but numerically small Evangelical wing. It’s those other conservative specialties — defending free speech, championing a diversity of opinion and faith, defending free-market capitalism — that are the issues that can win back the voters.
This might have some plausibility except that the contemporary Republican Party has never been less well positioned to attract an "exile" interested in these values. We already noted that Trump -- with eager buy-in from the GOP caucus -- has pursued an economic policy of crony capitalism and a social policy of big government repression. And now we see a growing faction of conservative voices -- like Sohrab Ahmari and  Liel Leibovitz -- just openly declaring war against whatever remains of classical liberal conservatism. The ideology that wants to upend libel laws, ban entire academic disciplines, and wreck energy markets to protect polluters can no longer claim to "specialize" in free speech, diversity of thought, or even free markets.

Davis does allow that, eventually, Republicans will have to offer an agenda beyond opposing progressive "nihilism". But it speaks volumes that her survival plan for the GOP depends less on anything they might do, and instead relies on the unshakable faith that eventually Democrats will destroy themselves. Growing progressivism won't last because it can't last. That sort of outlook, ironically, is exactly the sort of docile quiescence that's allowed modern conservatism to decay into the shell of an ideology that it is today. Not free markets, not free speech, not free movement, and not free people. Just Cleek's Law, in ever-purer forms.

The Constructed Semiotics of Flags

Some Jews are uncomfortable when they see a Palestinian flag.

For some, that's due to naught but raw prejudice.

But there are some Jews -- queer and not -- who have directly experienced violence, harassment, displacement, and even death that has occurred under the auspices of the Palestinian flag, whether literally or, as a stand-in for anti-Zionism, symbolically.

For these Jews, I can imagine how seeing a Palestinian flag might be triggering or traumatic. They see people wave it, and they interpret it as a threat.

And to them, in the interest of sensitivity, I have a simple message:

Suck it up.

I'm not saying your trauma isn't real. But the Palestinian flag is much more than, and means much more than, your particular narrow experience, and there isn't any justifiable way to ban Palestinian flags in deference to these "sensitivities" that is compatible with allowing Palestinians to take pride in their identity and peoplehood. So suck it up.

This, of course, is also my posture towards those who see a Magen David and can only imagine it as a symbol of Israeli state repression. It's not that these associations aren't real. But they also by no means represent the totality of what the Magen David represents, and allowing this particular and narrow interpretation of the symbol to occupy the entire field is incompatible with allowing Jews to take pride in our identity and peoplehood. So suck it up.

The point is, we can say that these negative meanings are extant and say there is no need to privilege this particular, negative interpretation. And so one of the great sins of the DC Dyke March's position on the Jewish Pride flag is that it helps construct and bolster a semiotic meaning of the Jewish Star of David and the Jewish Pride flag as a form of aggression against Palestinians and Arabs. I'm not saying that potential meaning was wholly absent before -- obviously, there are people who really have experienced violence, harassment, displacement, and death under (literally or symbolically) a Magen David.

But in privileging that semiotic interpretation, the DC Dyke March enhances its power. It makes it so that more people are more likely to see this flag as more intensely expressing that message. And it won't just be in the eyes of the beholder. No doubt some people who bring a Star of David pride flag to a LGBT rally now do so not simply to express Jewish Pride, but also as a point of defiance -- "you hate this flag? Well nyah nyah nyah."

In a sense, it's like that time a Texas Republican put out an Israeli flag on her desk to ward off Muslim community members coming to visit her office. The sheer pettiness of the action -- as if an Israeli flag scatters Muslims like Vampires and the cross -- masked a deeper evil: the politician, by using the Israeli flag in this way, was constructing a meaning of the flag where one of its uses is to signal "I don't want Muslims to be comfortable here". That's terrible. But it is not, at the end of the day, much different from what the DC Dyke March is doing -- entrenching and congealing a meaning of the Jewish Pride flag whereby its symbolism is "aggression towards Muslims, Palestinians, and Arabs."

And as it generates this semiotic meaning for the Magen David, it does something similar to the semiotic meaning of a Palestinian flag. It bolsters its symbolic meaning as a gesture of defiance against the Jews, against those who would proudly carry a Star of David. If -- as I suspect is likely -- more Dyke Marchers carried Palestinian flags upon hearing that Jewish marchers were going to insist on carrying a Jewish Pride flag, part of the reason they're doing so is to communicate this reactive, aggressive posture: "You're coming in, with that flag? Well I've got my own flag for you right here!" Again, it's not that these meanings were wholly absent before. But actions like that taken by the DC Dyke March help congeal and entrench them, they create a world where they may well be the primary meaning -- and that's destructive.

Each time this happens, this antagonistic, deleterious meaning gets further amplified, and so each time it becomes harder and harder to say "suck it up".

But that's all the more reason why we have to hold the line now. The more controversies we have like the DC Dyke March, the more difficult it will be to ever extract ourselves and our symbols from these horrible semiotics.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Manny's: The Go-To Spot for Democratic Presidential Candidates in San Francisco

Even if you don't live in San Francisco, some of you might have heard of Manny's. It is a social justice oriented cafe and civic gathering space in the San Francisco Mission whose owner (the eponymous Manny, an Afghan-American Jew) committed the terrible sin of wishing Israel a happy birthday. For this, his establishment has been the subject of protests by an extreme-left fringe.

The protests are not exactly big, and they haven't stopped Manny's from thriving. Nonetheless, the story made the national Jewish press, as tales like this are wont to do. A progressive Mizrahi Jewish social activist creating an affordable cafe that employs formerly homeless individuals being set upon by far-left protesters as a "Zionist gentrifier"? I know click-bait when I see it.

But today, I saw another story about Manny's, one not reported in the Jewish press but just the local San Francisco CBS affiliate: Manny's is, by far, the biggest go-to venue in the city for prospective Democratic presidential candidates. He's already hosted or scheduled to host Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Seth Moulton, Beto O'Rourke, Eric Swalwell, Cory Booker, Steve Bullock, and Kamala Harris. It's a roster that apparently dwarfs any other similar venue in the city. If you're a Democrat and you've got national ambitions, Manny's is the hot spot in San Francisco.

The thing is -- I don't even view this as Democratic candidates bravely defying the hard left which sought to marginalize and degrade Manny's. Why? Because I doubt their protest frankly even hit the radar screen of your average Democratic presidential campaign. There's a version of this narrative where the Democrats are visiting Manny's in "solidarity" against the protesters, but I doubt this is even a case of that. The protest movement against Manny's, in terms of its ability to exert influence on mainstream Democratic politicians, is almost certainly so marginal as to be utterly irrelevant. The CBS story didn't even mention the boycott movement (which, to be honest, may have petered out anyway). It was literally a non-story in this story.

When we talk about the supposed creeping influence of the extreme anti-Israel left on Democratic Party politics, this really needs to be kept in mind. There are chicken littles who view every crank carrying a "Zio-Nazi" poster or campus activist calling Hillel an instrument of Zionist repression as the next head of the DNC. And then there's my position is that fringe is fringe, and that the breathless coverage such groups get by the Jewish press massively overstates their influence on anything that remotely approaches a mainstream liberal institution. The popularity of Manny's among visiting Democratic luminaries certainly seems to be powerful evidence in favor of the latter posture. This big scary far-left protest that got coverage across the national Jewish press? Turns out, it didn't even register as a blip in terms of Manny's viability as a Democratic organizing space.

I can't say I blame the extreme-left protesters for trying to portray themselves as bigger than they are -- the voice of the people! (What's the alternative: "We're a tiny fringe that has no real constituency but nonetheless ought to be viewed as the sole authentic representative of the people, because something-something-revolutionary-vanguard!"?). But we certainly don't have to indulge them.

We should struggle against the availability heuristic on our own time. Fringe remains fringe.

Monday, June 03, 2019

New Congressional Black-Jewish Caucus Announced: Will It Go Anywhere?

Apparently brokered by the AJC, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) announced the creation of a new bipartisan Congressional Black-Jewish Caucus. The other co-founding members are Reps. John Lewis (D-GA), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Will Hurd (R-TX), and Lee Zeldin (R-NY). Its stated goals are to:

  • Raise awareness of each community's sensitivities and needs, in Congress and around the country.
  • Provide resources to members of Congress to empower them to bring African-American and Jewish communities together, combating stereotypes and hate and showcasing commonalities.
  • Support stronger hate crimes legislation and advocate for increased government resources to confront the threat of white supremacist ideology.
  • Support legislation and work to expand access to democracy and protect election integrity.
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what to make of this. The concept is great, but I have to wonder whether initiatives like this ever do anything substantive beyond the press release.

I also find the list of founding congressmen and women to be interesting (are they seeking out additional members?). The list includes two Black Democrats (Lawrence and Lewis), one Black Republican (Hurd), one White Jewish Democrat (Wasserman-Schultz), and one White Jewish Republican (Zeldin).  Let's quickly run through who they are:

Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI)

Lawrence is a third-term congresswoman from Michigan; holding the seat previously occupied by now-U.S. Senator Gary Peters. Prior to entering Congress, she was the first African-American woman to serve as mayor of Southfield. She also was a member of the unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial ticket in 2010, serving as Virg Bernero's running mate. 

In Congress, she's a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus. I honestly don't know much about her, and don't think of her as a particularly high-profile member of Congress. But Lawrence's district has both a large Black and Jewish population, so it makes sense for her to try and take a leadership position on this question.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)

Former head of the DNC, Wasserman Schultz is probably best known as the favored target of 2016 Bernie dead-enders after they level up. That made her a target for a primary challenge from Sanders-backed Tim Canova, which got pretty nasty actually, but she ended up prevailing with 57% of the vote. She is one of the most high-profile Jewish Democrats in the House, and has what I consider to be a pretty standard political posture for a Jewish Democratic politician -- generally progressive voting record, while also being "establishment-friendly". Unfortunately, the 2016 election history means she is positively despised by the insurgent wing of the Democratic Party.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)

One of the legends of American politics and a civil rights hero, John Lewis has massive respect within the Democratic caucus and within the CBC in particular. He's also, throughout his career, been a stalwart friend of the Jewish people -- there's probably no more common "go-to" in Congress for Jewish-Black relations than Rep. Lewis. If anyone was going to join a cause like this, it'd be him. Unfortunately, that cuts both ways -- it is in many respects less interesting that John Lewis joined this caucus, because "of course he would". It doesn't actually signal the sort of broader buy-in one would hope for.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY)

I was honestly surprised to see he was onboard with this, as Lee Zeldin is -- how to put this gently -- a monster whose spent the past year gleefully tossing molotov cocktails all over the "Black-Jewish relationship". Ideally, being part of an initiative like this will tame Zeldin's wilder instincts -- someone can perhaps explain to him why taking an antisemitic voicemail left at his office and randomly demanding Ilhan Omar (who is never cited, mentioned, or alluded to in the message) denounce it is not how we play nicely with others. More likely, Zeldin will simply end up blowing this thing up from the inside.

What's really going on here, I imagine, is a stark example of the limits of trying to form a bipartisan caucus of Blacks and Jews. If one is simply looking to foster healthy relations between the Black and Jewish community in Congress, Republicans are, with all due respect, kind of irrelevant. But if you absolutely insist on having a Jewish Republican in the mix, Zeldin has the almost singular virtue of, well, being one (the only other Jewish Republican in Congress is Tennessee Rep. David Kustoff. He's a right-wing extremist too, though I still suspect he'd have been a better choice).

Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX)

Speaking of slim pickings, Hurd is who you get when you decide you also need a Black Republican -- he's the only one in the House (swing over to the Senate and you've got South Carolina's Tim Scott as well). He is, to be fair, a much less offensive figure than Zeldin. He also barely squeaked out re-election last cycle against Gina Ortiz Jones, who's already gunning for a rematch, so he might not be around Congress next cycle.

* * *

What do we make of this set? Leave Hurd and Zeldin aside -- they're there for obvious reasons but otherwise are non-important. We'll even assume for sake of argument that Zeldin doesn't torpedo the whole deal.

Well, Wasserman Schultz is well respected in the Jewish community but also is a lightning rod for the Bernie-supporting wing of the party. With all due respect to the Florida Congresswoman, whom I actually rather like, she's carrying a lot of weight as the only Jewish Democratic Representative in the group, and I'm skeptical of the vitality of representing the "Jewish" side of Congress through her and Zeldin. Meanwhile, Lawrence is not high-profile, and I don't think really will do much to bring in more support from the CBC more broadly. Lewis is, of course, very high-profile, but he's also in some ways uniquely ill-positioned to signal buy-in from the CBC writ large for the reasons given above.

What's more interesting, then, is who isn't in the caucus. Now again, this was just launched, and so it's entirely possible more people will join. But the question is, who are the sorts of people who, if they did join, would signal that there might be a potential for success here?

On the Jewish side of the equation, you'd want to see both someone from new generation -- say, Elissa Slotkin or Max Rose, or perhaps Jamie Raskin -- and/or a less polarizing member of the old guard (like Jerry Nadler or Jan Schakowsky). Andy Levin -- newly-elected, but part of the Levin political dynasty in Michigan -- would be a great bridging figure here too. Another obvious name to look out for is Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, who actually represents a majority-Black district. If he joins, it suggests that this sort of initiative is actually being viewed as a positive. If he doesn't, well, it sends a different signal.

With respect to prospective Black members, you'd want to see something similar: someone from the old guard beyond Lewis, and then someone from the new wave. On the latter, I won't even bother mentioning she-who-must-not-be-named (though again, what does it say that Zeldin can be a member but she can't?). But Lauren Underwood, Lucy McBath, or (dare to dream) Ayanna Pressley would be outstanding additions. With respect to more senior figures, Karen Bass or Elijah Cummings or even my own Congresswoman Barbara Lee would be great. There's also a "middle seniority" group that contains some promising figures, like Andre Carson (he'd be a fantastic pick-up, as the other Black Muslim serving in Congress right now) and Hakeem Jeffries (Jeffries, sadly, seems to be at risk of becoming a new Wasserman Schultz or Tom Perez -- which is to say, someone with a solidly progressive voting record who gets identified as a barrier to the advancement of some further-left hero and therefore is transmogrified into a tool of the neoliberal neoliberalist's neoliberalism).

In particular: I see the point of a caucus like this as not just comprising of itself of people who already agree on everything, but also ones who can fairly and effectively communicate their respective community's "sensitivities and needs" -- a project which often will involve explaining why practices by the other community which might internally seem innocuous are actually hurtful. In the Omar dialogues, for example, this is where we get Jewish members explaining why Omar's comments -- perhaps seen as just making the anodyne point that "AIPAC has influence in Washington" -- were harmful and seemed to leverage antisemitic tropes; and also where we get Black members explaining why the unyielding fury of the backlash -- perhaps seen as just "calling out antisemitism" --  were harmful and seemed to reflect a minute policing of Black politicians.

In other words, if you're running through potential members of the caucus with a red pen and looking for all the heresies that should bar them from membership, I'd urge you to stop. Yes, some level of overt antagonism is probably incompatible with productively participating in a project like this (but then: see Zeldin, apparently). But not all disagreements are akin to "overt antagonism", and I don't think any of the names I've listed stand outside the realm of regular disagreement. A functioning caucus that is designed to be a space where both community's can communicate their respective concerns and sensitivities can and probably should have some people who do not start out on precisely the same page. Speaking from the Jewish angle, it is in particular not reasonable to expect this caucus be "Black politicians come into the room and agree that everything the Jewish community has been saying and doing vis-a-vis the Black community is correct and laudatory" (and, of course, neither vice versa).

Finally, I don't want to say any of the people I mentioned above are obligated to join this caucus, or that it reflects badly on them or signals they "don't care about Black-Jewish relationships" if they don't. Congress is a busy place, and these people have things to do. This is one cause among many -- it's one I happen to think is important, but there are lots of issues lots of people think are important. And of course, these Congressmen and women are almost certainly better positioned than I am to see if this caucus has even the potential to turn into something "real" beyond the press release. If it's going to be a waste of time anyway, there's no need for them to cede their limited time to be wasted.

All I am suggesting is that, for a caucus like this to actually succeed, it needs to gain a membership that signifies buy-in from a solid cross-sample of the relevant communities. I don't think the initial membership group does that on its own.