Thursday, October 31, 2019

Patterns of Discourse and Omar's "Present" Vote

As you've probably seen, Rep. Ilhan Omar voted "present" on a House resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. She contended that the resolution, which passed 405-11 (not including the "present" votes of Omar and two of her colleagues), was a "cudgel in a political fight" and that recognition and accountability for human rights atrocities "should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics." She also suggested that the U.S. had no standing to speak out on the Armenian Genocide without recognizing the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide.

This explanation did not seem to satisfy many people. That includes me -- I think this was a terrible vote paired with a terrible apologia for the vote, and she deserves to be raked over the coals for it.

But since, apparently, a bit of genocide wishy-washiness is less hot and emotionally fraught than a debate over "Benjamins" (seriously: this is The Bad Place), I wonder if we might take this opportunity to reflect -- with cooler heads -- on some patterns that I think are repeating themselves

On the one hand: A great many people otherwise fond of or sympathetic to Ilhan Omar have been very sharply critical of her vote. She does have some defenders, but at the outset they seem to be relatively few and far between. On the other: many of Omar's critics are not people "otherwise fond of or sympathetic to" Ilhan Omar, and are less disappointed than they are elated to have a valid excuse to launch another pile-on.

People in the first category have certainly observed the fact of the second category and are uncomfortable contributing to the "pile-on", which they see as reflecting particular anti-Black and Islamophobic biases. After all, why is there such intense focus on Omar's "present" vote, as compared to the eleven Representatives who actually voted "no" (all Republicans) or even the other two "present" votes (Republican Rep. Paul Gosar and Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson)? For example, Rep. Johnson, who apparently has gone on the record saying she denies the Armenian Genocide outright, would seemingly deserve an even greater degree of scorn. And of course, those who outright voted against the resolution should face even more intense condemnation.

There is, to be sure, an answer to the "why Omar" question that doesn't boil down to "because of her identity". She has a much higher profile than does Eddie Bernice Johnson or Paul Gosar, she styles herself as a human rights advocate, there are many people who are disappointed in her that probably have no particular interest or hope in what Virginia Foxx does. Nonetheless, it is hard to say with a straight face that Omar's identity is playing no role in the dynamic. And the effect remains that the Black Muslim women makes a mistake and gets obliterated for it even as other, predominantly White colleagues effectively get a free pass for the same or worse conduct.

And here's the real kicker: the genuine, non-prejudicial, fairly-motivated critics of Omar who are speaking out based on sincerely held and non-opportunistic commitments to human rights? I don't think there is anything they could have reasonably done (save not speaking out at all) to prevent their condemnation from contributing to the pile-on effect. Even if that's not what they want, even if it makes them queasy. The dynamics in play here go beyond them; in the current moment there is not a way to in any robust sense speak critically about Omar (including justifiably critically) without carrying the risk that it will be harnessed by more primordial political actors eager to hoist up the pinata again. It would be wrong to say that this outcome was desired by the genuine critics; it would I suspect be equally wrong to say it could have been avoided by those critics.

Do you get it? Do you see the pattern? In l'affaire Benjamins, it was often claimed that Omar's critics were wholly and entirely right-wing smear merchants, and that it was their fault -- or more than that, their desire -- that she be subjected to a completely over-the-top orgy of histrionic condemnations that seem far disproportionate to her offense. This allegation, in turn, infuriated those of her critics who were genuinely motivated by non-opportunistic liberal instincts and concerns about antisemitism, and who wanted to both send a clear message that "this is not okay" but had no desire to endorse a witch-hunt.  Yet Omar's defenders, in effect, viewed that entire posture as disingenuous -- crocodile tears by political arsonists. Omar's critics are her critics -- some just put on a better figleaf of respectability than others.

One might hope that this go-around might offer some critical distance illuminating the pattern. Some of Omar's defenders in the last controversy are among her critics this time; perhaps they can learn to empathize with their peers in recognizing the genuinely uncomfortable position they find themselves in, and the difficulty (if not impossibility) of insulating their valid criticisms from enlistment into more unsavory political projects. And I'd also hope that some of Omar's critics, for those whom this issue has a less immediate pull on their psyche, can see how she really is being singled out in a way that seems anomalous given her degree of offense compared to other wrongdoers (a recognition which by necessity acknowledges there is a degree of offense!). In the history of debates over recognizing the Armenian genocide, after all, she is by no means the only actor to have gotten it wrong.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Booing Trump in Washington: The Appearance isn't the Reality, But the Reality May Become the Appearance

Many of you saw that President Trump, who attended Game Five of the World Series in Washington yesterday, was roundly and loudly booed.
When the president was announced on the public address system after the third inning as part of a tribute to veterans, the crowd roared into sustained booing — hitting almost 100 decibels. Chants of “Lock him up” and “Impeach Trump” then broke out at Nationals Park, where a sellout crowd was watching the game between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros. 
For many of the folks on my Twitter feed, this was not just a feel-good moment (though it was). It was also highly symbolic -- proof that the President is weak, that he has lost the support of the people, and that maybe his grip on the GOP in the Senate might weaken just enough to make impeachment actually viable.

I remain skeptical. Partially, that's because I don't think congressional Republicans are responsive to anything remotely resembling "the popular will" at this point. But partially, it's because I know the demographics of the areas surrounding Washington DC. Below are the 2016 electoral margins of DC and surrounding counties (all went for Hillary Clinton):
Washington (DC): 91/4
Montgomery County (MD): 75/19
Prince George's County (MD): 88/8
Fairfax County (VA): 64/29
Arlington County (VA): 76/17
Alexandria City (VA): 76/18
This is an area of the country where (to its credit!) Trump has always been despised. And if anything relatively wealthy suburban professional counties have gotten even more sour on Trump since 2016, and I'd suspect relatively wealthy suburban professional counties surrounding DC to be "even more so" on that front. So it maybe doesn't tell us that much about the views of America as a whole if a stadium full of fans from places like DC, Montgomery County, and Fairfax loudly booed Donald Trump.

But if one is looking for a silver lining, here it is: it might not have to.

The appearance of widespread revulsion at Donald Trump doesn't match a reality where Americans, as a whole, are very different from DC metro residents, specifically.

But it is also the case that, as a matter of psychology, the appearance of widespread revulsion at Donald Trump can help move the needle on the reality, even in circumstances where that appearance is in many ways an artifact of local demographics.

Most people don't know the particular political orientation of the metro DC area. Most people just see a crowd full of regular Joes and Josettes who roundly despite the President, and take that as a data point that the President is despised by many, many regular folks. And we know in politics that people often follow herds -- the political positions they take are constrained by the set of political positions they know to be acceptable. Trump appearing weak can easily cascade into Trump being weak. And given that Trump really is weak -- perhaps not as overwhelmingly disliked as he would be at National Park, but certainly sporting consistently mediocre poll ratings -- a high-profile, high-salience event where Americans seemed to unite around thinking Trump is awful may well actually do real political work. Even if the appearance mostly is artificial.

Things People Blame the Jews For, Volume LIV: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

You may have heard that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed.

You may not have heard that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is actually a Jewish Mossad agent by the name of Simon Elliot.

Hopefully, the reason you haven't heard the latter is because it's ridiculous. It's been floating about the more conspiracy-minded portions of the internet for years now, and of course is bubbling back up now that al-Baghdadi has been killed.

And if al-Baghdadi and ISIS really are Israeli/Jewish/Zionist plots, doesn't that mean America has spent the last several years bombing Israeli agents? You'd think that the anti-Israel conspiracy theorists would be thrilled!

In any event, I'll just quote the well-spoken words of a U.S. Congresswoman on the occasion of al-Baghdadi's death:
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was an evil man and a terrorist, who terrorized the world with violence and a message of hate. 
The world is a safer place without him.
We have deep gratitude for the brave men and women who carried out this dangerous operation.