Saturday, August 22, 2020

What Should We Think About "United Against Hate"?

A coalition of left-wing groups has announced a new initiative, "United Against Hate", seeking to counter antisemitism in American society. The Jewish organizations involved are IfNotNow, The Jewish Vote, Bend the Arc: Jewish Action, Never Again Action, and JVP. The non-Jewish groups associated with the endeavor include the Movement for Black Lives, Dream Defenders, Mijente,  United We Dream, the Arab American Institute, MPower Change, Emgage, and the People’s Collective for Justice and Liberation.

What should make of this?

At one level, it's hard to say because the website associated with the endeavor appears to be broken. Moreover, there is certainly something a bit brazen about launching a new counter-antisemitism initiative titled "United Against Hate" the same week as many of the same groups pushed "Drop the ADL". Be united, but not that united, I guess.

In my view, though, an initiative like this could have four different priorities in a variety of different mixes,  and how they prioritize among them will ultimately dictate how beneficial or detrimental it is. Those priorities are:

  1. Combating right-wing antisemitism, which is a violent threat to Jews and -- through conspiracy theories like QAnon and various "Soros" theories -- is increasingly becoming mainstream in American conservative politics.
  2. Combating left-wing antisemitism, which debilitates progressive movements and marginalizes Jews in the political community most of us call home.
  3. Shielding left-wing antisemitism, by providing a Jewish seal of approval to progressive actors accused of more mainstream actors of antisemitic activity.
  4. Punching at mainstream Jewish groups, seeking to further decay their clout in American politics and redistribute their influence and power to more left-wing alternatives.
As you can imagine, I think the first two priorities are salutary and the latter two malicious. The group members have experience with all four. Some have consistently fought against right-wing antisemitism, some have made contributions in undermining left-wing antisemitism. JVP has a long history of declaring alleged left-wing antisemites "not guilty (with a Jewish accent)", and IfNotNow's raison d'etre is centered on seething hatred for mainstream Jewish outlets.

A coalition like this doesn't necessarily have to choose -- the question is how it will balance these potential missions. But -- speaking from a purely realist, cold-blooded political calculus -- one way they could be very effective is by only focusing on right-wing antisemitism. A relentless, one-sided, unshaded, nakedly partisan attack on right-wing antisemitism could have a real impact on how antisemitism is perceived in the US.

I say this would be good only from a "cold-blooded" perspective because it reflects an attribute of politics that I hate: the necessity of "bad cops". In this case, that means intentional, partisan bias against the right on the subject of antisemitism -- all attack, no defense; against targets fairly and unfairly identified. This, after all, is how the right has treated antisemitism for the past few years -- hammering its existence on the left while refusing to even acknowledge its presence at home. Unlike the progressive community, which has (haltingly and unevenly) sought to grapple with antisemitism in its ranks, the right simply does not take up the issue at all. They're assisted by the fact that, up to this point, the left hasn't made fighting right-wing antisemitism a direct priority -- too often their response when it pops up is instead make an indirect whine about media bias ("can you imagine if Ilhan Omar said this?"). Even if the complaint has some merit, it suffers from the same defect as all other charges of hypocrisy: if Ilhan Omar said it, we know these same voices would be defending her to the hilt and calling the whole thing a smear. Attacks of this sort aren't actually attacks on right-wing antisemitism, they're attacks on paying attention to antisemitism at all. So it's not surprising that they don't yield sustained attention to bad conservative actors.

The result of all of this is that antisemitism controversies on the left stay in the news for weeks, while right-wing controversies fade after a day or so. I very much believe that one of the gravest mistakes the American Jewish community has made in recent years is that we've made it so that an honest though incomplete attempt at redressing antisemitism is viewed as worse than refusing to reckon with it at all. But that is, sadly, the world we're in. And in that world, United Against Hate offers the potential of shifting the narrative a little bit -- if it can maintain message discipline. That means mostly ignoring antisemitism on the left -- not defending it, not attacking it (you'll note that the RJC spends very little time defending someone like Jason Lewis -- whenever his name comes up, they ignore him and start talking about Ilhan Omar again). It means resisting the cry of "hypocrisy" -- a sword that nearly always cuts both ways -- and a simple, relentless concentration on right-wing antisemitic activity in America. Over and over, until the drumbeat becomes irresistible.

There is room for a movement like this, because to some extent the United Against Hate people are right -- mainstream Jewish groups haven't fully risen to the occasion of the moment. Of course, neither have the groups in this coalition: for the most part, they've manifestly failed to be productive actors in the fight against antisemitism; until now the overwhelmingly majority of their contributions to the subject was denying that the problem exists in non-trivial quantities. And there is very good reason to be skeptical that they will not be able to resist falling into old habits -- spending 90% of their time explaining why attacks on antisemitism in the Women's March are "smears" or insisting that blacklisting the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community is wholly compatible with fighting anti-Jewish hate.

But -- maybe they won't do that. Maybe they'll "just" attack right-wing antisemitism in a single-minded, unmediated fashion. In its best possible form, United Against Hate will likely be aggressive, one-sided, unnuanced, and occasionally even unfair. And in the terrible world that is 2020, that still might make them a useful corrective to our scarred discourse about antisemitism.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Unnecessary Fratricide: Markey vs. Kennedy

If I were in Massachusetts, I'd vote for Ed Markey to return to the Senate.

It's a pretty easy call for me, honestly. Markey has been a good progressive voice and leader in the Senate, and as a rule I don't generally support taking out incumbents who have good progressive voting records. Meanwhile, Joe Kennedy's voting record is also quite solid, but at best that puts him and Markey in equipoise -- which means I still haven't gotten a good account of why he should be replacing Markey other than "I'm a Kennedy and thus I should be a bigger deal than I am right now."

That said, I don't bear any ill-will towards Kennedy (except that which derives from him launching a seemingly-pointless primary challenge -- and I will say I agree that there is no good justification for Pelosi endorsing him). He seems like a perfectly fine Democrat as well. But of course, this is belatedly turning into yet another proxy war of "the Establishment" vs. "the outsiders" (whatever that means in the context of a guy who's in his fourth decade of congressional service). Now Kennedy is a tool of big oil or special interests or centrist lobbyists and we have to not just vote against him, but hate him as a threat to the Soul of the Party (one has to assume that DMFI is going to come in with a pro-Kennedy ad buy, because this is exactly the sort of fustercluck they seemingly can't resist jumping into for no reason).

In a way, this for me is the mirror-case of Engel/Bowman. Just as with Ed Markey, my view with Engel was that he had a good history and a good voting record, and in general I don't support taking out incumbents who have good histories and good records. But that didn't mean I bore any ill-will towards Bowman, who also seems like he is a good guy and will be a strong Democratic in the House. Yet there too, people just jammed the contest into these tired old boxes where either Engel is a tool of centrism and sell-outs (nope), or Bowman is a wild-eyed radical looking to personally deliver Iran a nuclear weapon they can drop on Israel (also nope).

I just can't stand it. I'm tired of intra-party fratricide. Even the worst Democrats -- and neither Ed Markey, nor Joe Kennedy, nor Eliot Engel, nor Jamaal Bowman, are anywhere close to "the worst Democrats" -- are light-years better than the death cult that is the Republican Party currently occupying the Oval Office and holding the majority in the Senate. The energy being expended over ultimately small-ball intra-party fights is a distraction, and it's a distraction we don't have time for.

At the end of the day, that's what Joe Kennedy's primary challenge is -- a distraction. It's a fight that isn't worth having right now, and one that he therefore does not deserve to win. So even though I don't find the concept of Senator Joe Kennedy to be outrageous, I hope Ed Markey wins, and I hope he does so decisively. And then I hope we can return to focusing on the big game.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Final Fantasy VII Remake: Review

My current time suck activity is the remake of Final Fantasy VII. The original was one of my favorite games as a kid, and like many in my generation I was ecstatic to hear it was getting a new version. Yet for some reason -- and I couldn't tell you what it was -- I held off getting it upon release. Even after I bought, I had to delay a few days because the disc was defective (I returned it and downloaded it from the online store instead). But now I'm finally waist-deep in the game (I just completed the battle at the Sector 7 pillar), and I'm very much enjoying it.

For those of you who don't know, the new game only covers a small fraction of the 1997 game -- the part that takes place in the giant metropolis of Midgar. This is only the first disc in the original, and it was a controversial decision when it was first announced -- is this just a cash grab to stretch out sequel after sequel? Or is it, as the creators insisted, a necessary step if Midgar was to be given its full color and splendor?

The answer, in my view, turns out to be some of both. There's no question that, as many others have noted, there's a decent amount of filler in the game in order to make it into a full-sized game. That being said, Midgar was always a location that screamed for more detail, and this game offers it. Now I want even more -- a complete open-world game set in Midgar, where I can visit every corner of every sector on the plate and in the slums.

Of course, that would be a different game than Final Fantasy VII, which is iconic as a relatively linear JRPG. So what do we make of the game we have?

  • It is beautiful. That's one of the first things you notice -- it is just a visually stunning game.
  • There's significantly more depth given to the main characters as characters. One thing I noticed in particular was that the age of the characters really seems more noticeable. Canonically, most of the story characters in the game are in their very early twenties. As an adolescent, that makes them adults, and one views them as basically confident, have-it-all-together heroes. Now, playing as a thirty-something, it's really obvious how they're basically kids. Cloud is awkward around women because he's 21 years old. Aerith is girlish and spritely because she's a girl.
  • On the other hand, there are virtually no memorable side quests, tertiary characters, or events that occur outside the main storyline of the game. That's a shame, since JRPG's should shine on the story side. I think the overall weakness of the side quest game, in particular, is what yields complaints about the game being padded. But the fact is there's nothing in here that comes anywhere close to, say, the gut-punch that is Witcher III's "Black Pearl" side quest.
  • The combat is a blast, and really seems to marry the best parts of a traditional turn-based system with the live action demanded by a modern game. It reminds me quite a bit of Final Fantasy XII (and it probably could have benefited from FFXII's "gambit" system).
  • The one serious drawback of the combat is the inability to swap materia (magic) mid-fight. Particularly for difficult boss battles, a proper materia layout is crucial -- yet there's no way to know what it should be until you get into battle. The functional effect is that you start a fight, assess your enemies weaknesses, die, and then swap out your materia as appropriate on the reload. But there should be a better way. Let your characters use a charge to change their materia, or use assess when you can see enemies on the map but before you engage ... something.
  • Voice acting settles a bunch of controversies -- for example, I'd been pronouncing "mako" wrong my whole life (I rhymed it with "may", but it actually rhymes with "mah"). The big choice, though, was "Aerith" over "Aeris". This makes sense on one level -- the fans who'd rebel if "Aerith" wasn't chosen are, I suspect, somewhat rowdier than the one's who'd rebel if "Aeris" wasn't picked -- but it still just sounds like everyone has a lisp when pronouncing her name.
  • I don't know if Don Corneo was modeled expressly on Jeff Ross, but that's my backstory and I'm sticking to it.