Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Bye Bye Bibi

Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, has officially announced he has successfully formed a governing coalition that will send long-reigning Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to the back benches. The coalition is an eclectic mix of left, center, and right-wing parties, with Lapid and Naftali Bennett rotating as PM (Bennett will go first). I have plenty of thoughts on the new government, but I've been resisting writing on it until it actually happened. Part of me still doesn't want to jinx it until a new butt is physically sitting in the Prime Minister's chair. But at this point, I think it's safe to say it's happening.

So -- what do you need to know about the new team running the show in Israel?
  • Everyone and their grandma has said "don't be too quick to celebrate Bennett as PM -- he's even more right-wing than Bibi!" And at one level, they're right: anyone on the left is solely celebrating Bibi being out, not Bennett being in. That being said -- it's a big deal that Bibi is out, and that's very much worth celebrating.
  • In 2021, is Bennett more right-wing than Bibi? I'm actually not sure. This was absolutely a true statement five years ago, but much of it was based off the fact that Bennett was expressly opposed to a Palestinian state while Bibi was occasionally only implicitly opposed to it. That seems like a relatively thin reed to me. And meanwhile, Bibi has surged further and further into the recesses of right-wing authoritarianism, which is part of why Bennett broke with him. Someone made the analogy that Bibi is like Trump and Bennett is like Pence -- who is more conservative of the two? Depends on how you measure it. Bennett's probably more of a true-believer, while Bibi is more of an opportunist -- but in his capacity as an opportunist Bibi broke through more taboos and barriers than many thought possible. I don't think it's clear-cut anymore.
  • It's also possible -- not guaranteed, or even likely, but possible -- that Bennett will moderate now that he's in charge. As Ariel Sharon reportedly put it: "things look different from over here." The trajectory of right-wing leaders tacking to the center once they see things from the top is not uncommon in recent Israeli history -- see Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Tzipi Livni -- and perhaps Bennett will follow, if only by a few steps. I'm dubious, but it's not out of the question.
  • Irrespective of Bennett's own politics, the bigger constraint on him is that his faction is certainly the most conservative member of the new governing coalition. There's a big difference between someone like Bennett being smack in the middle of the ideological pack (as he'd have been in a Bibi government) versus someone like Bennett being at the right-most edge of his cohort (as he is in this government).
  • Speaking of, let's talk about the rest of the coalition. The biggest news: an Arab party will supporting the government from the inside, in what I believe is a first in Israeli history. Irony bit number one: it's the most conservative of the Arab parties -- the Islamist United Arab List, headed by Mansour Abbas. Irony bit number two: Bibi probably paved the way for this, as in his desperate search for 61 votes he courted the UAL, thus legitimizing such courtship for other parties as well.
  • It is a big, big deal that an Arab party will be part of the government. In recent years, the Arab public in Israel has started flexing its muscle in unprecedented ways -- starting, ironically, with Bibi trying to lock them out of politics altogether by raising the electoral threshold. That prompted the diverse Arab blocs to unify into the Joint List, which catapulted them overnight into one of the largest factions in the entire Knesset. Kicking and screaming though they may have been, the Israeli center and left finally seems to have internalized that there's no path to power for them without some support from the Arab parties. And even though the UAL broke from the Joint List this past cycle, it managed to squeak back into the Knesset and now has a place in government. Priorities include increasing funding for Arab towns, recognizing Bedouin villages in the Negev, and ending underpolicing (yes, underpolicing) of Arab communities. For what it's worth, Bennett has always taken the view that Palestinian equality can be bought off with economic development. Morally repulsive, yes, but it means he likely will be perfectly receptive to these demands.
  • Another significant accomplishment for Israel's Arab community -- Meretz's Issawi Frej looks set to become Minister of Regional Cooperation. This would, I believe, mark just the second time an Arab MK has had a ministry with portfolio in Israel's history. Likewise, Pnina Tamano-Shata, a member of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community, looks to be on tap to be Minister of Immigrant Absorption -- and position that is important both substantively and symbolically for her community.
  • Two other minister positions worth noting. Labor leader Merav Michaeli -- perhaps her party's last, best hope at staying relevant -- will be Transportation Minister. That may not seem like a big deal, but settler leaders are in a panic that Michaeli won't approve various new highways slashing through the West Bank to connect far-flung settlements with Israel proper. Good -- let them stew. In less happy, though inevitable, news, Bennett's number two, Ayelet "Eau d'Fascism" Shaked will be heading the Interior Ministry.
  • So much has happened in Israel that we've all almost forgotten why Bibi was fighting like a rabid weasel to stay in charge. It's not (just) because he's power-hungry -- it's that he's under indictment, and was desperate to have an immunity law passed that could save him and his wife from prison. That's not happening now. Shed a tear if you can.
  • Aside from Bibi, who else is on the outside looking in? Most importantly, the fascists from Otzma Yehudit and National Union that Bibi recruited to try and shore up his right-flank -- thank goodness. But also the Haredi parties, Shas and UTJ. These two parties had historically been ideologically "flexible" and so typically found themselves in most government coalitions -- give them the rabbinate, army exemptions, and subsidies, and they were perfectly happy to go along with whoever was in charge. But in the past few years they have more overtly aligned themselves with the political right, and the result is that now they're on the outs facing a government coalition that may be the most inclined towards supporting religious pluralism Israel has ever seen. The prospect of substantive reforms along this axis is genuinely exciting. And it's also possible that some time in the wilderness will inspire the Shas and UTJ chieftains to rethink whether going all-in with Israel's right-wing is to their benefit.
Ultimately, I have two main takeaways. One is to keep expectations in check. This is not a "left-wing" government, it's not going to revolutionize Israel, and it's unlikely to make significant headway in bringing peace and justice for Palestinians. But the second is that this is a real and material step forward along many dimensions, and can be legitimately celebrated. There's a branch of the commentariat eeyoring about this development mostly because they are ideologically committed to the notion that nothing that happens in Israel can be good news. They are wrong -- this is good news. It's not spectacular, it's not paradise, but it's good news, and can be celebrated as good news.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

What To Over-Extrapolate From the NM-01 Special Election

Democrats easily held New Mexico's first congressional district in a special election tonight, with state Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D) currently leading state Sen. Mark Moores (R) by a 62-34 margin. The seat was vacant after former Rep. Deb Haaland was appointed Secretary of the Interior.

The result is not a surprise. The NM-01 is a solid blue seat. But in the grand election coverage tradition of over-extrapolating from a single data point, what can we learn?

The reason people were paying attention to this district was not because anyone seriously expected the GOP to flip the seat. It was the margins that mattered, and in particular, whether Democratic turnout would fall off with Donald Trump no longer serving as our common enemy (the other question was whether Republicans could effectively leverage a "rising crime is the fault of defund the police" narrative). Mid-term and off-cycle election turnout has long been the Democratic bête noire, with the conventional wisdom being that Team Blue struggled more to get its voters to the non-presidential polls compared to the GOP. Hence, Dave Wasserman set the following benchmarks for what should count as a "win" in this blue seat:
  • Win by >15: Dems should be very happy
  • Win by 10-15: about what we might expect
  • Win by <10: sign of a Dem turnout problem post-Trump
For comparison's sake, Biden won this district by 23 in 2020, and Haaland (with the benefit of incumbency and Biden's coattails) won it by 16.

Stansbury is currently up by 24 -- not just blowing Wasserman's benchmarks out the water, but overperforming Haaland and at the moment even Biden (it's possible these margins might narrow a bit as the last few votes come in).

This makes me wonder if we might be missing a shift in the relevant dynamics. Is it still the case that Democrats are disadvantaged by off-cycle turnout dynamics? With the almost complete transition of party polarization away from class and towards education, I wonder if the opposite may be true -- if Democrats might start being better-positioned to hang onto their voters in low-turnout elections (high-education voters also tend to be high-turnout voters). I've been flagging this possibility for awhile now, and count this as another data point. One bonus bit of irony is that this likely means many of the GOP voter suppression techniques will actually end up backfiring -- doing more to deter their own base than the Black Democratic voters they're so nakedly targeting.

In addition, I think it's worth asking whether Trump on the ballot was doing more to boost GOP turnout compared to Democratic turnout -- and, in turn, whether the lack of Trump topping the ticket will see more of a red fall-off than a blue one. In the above post, I noted how the needle barely moved on Texas in 2020 not because Democrats failed to get their voters out -- they did, and then some -- but because Trump managed to match increased blue turnout step-for-step. Take Trump out the equation, and it's far from clear the GOP can rally its base as effectively.

All of this points -- and again, "points" is very much about over-extrapolation -- to the GOP being the one to struggle mightily as we head into 2022. Midterms are often a referendum on the presidential incumbent, and Biden's approval line has been ramrod straight throughout his term at around 53%. If he can hold onto that, and benefit from a post-pandemic recovery, he and the Democrats will be very well-positioned for a good outcome next November.

Oh, Farts

I've studiously refrained from commenting on that Tablet article by Eve Barlow (in lieu of a link, please send flowers to the gravesite that marks Tablet's death as a reputable journalistic enterprise). I've been blocked by Barlow since before it was cool (as best I can tell, it's because she was unhappy that I revealed the fabrications in a different "that Tablet article"), and suffice to say I do not find her especially impressive as a public thinker. She has plenty of bad takes, and she has nobody to blame but herself that people recognize her bad takes as bad.

Moreover (this is someone else's point, but alas I can't find it), I'm old enough to remember when people were aghast at the disrespect shown when immigrant detention centers were referred to as concentration camps; those persons seem oddly less perturbed at describing social media harassment as a "pogrom". It is hardly an accident -- but still embarrassing -- that here, of all places, some amount of hyperbole or metaphor drawing on the well of violent antisemitic oppression is accepted.

But having said all that, I have been a bit uncomfortable with how this discourse is being played out. For starters, we're seeing a clean violation of my ninth rule of good internet citizenship:

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.

That's definitely in play here. Yes, Barlow is a deeply unsympathetic actor. But eventually, wave after wave of people bombarding here with farting puns and icons and whatever else really does cease to become "accountability" or "critique" and just turns into a harassment campaign. Likewise, I'm sure that anyone whose name starts with an "-ar" sound has gotten a few stupid "fart" puns from some of the internet's more juvenile actors.* But the difference between a couple stray morons who can be easily shrugged off and harassment is quantity, and there are people who should know better who are eliding that distinction.

Most importantly, there is a great risk -- I think it's already happening -- of people functionally sending a green light to a particular form of style of antisemitic harassment. There are, it should not be controversial to say, plenty of trolls online who like nothing better than to harangue and harass Jewish public figures. And such persons are very much on the look out for styles of harassment which will garner them praise, or at least defense. If there's a way that they can make Jews miserable and be lauded for it, they'll seize upon it faster than you can say "status-production". There is little doubt that this is driving a non-trivial portion of the pile-on -- the raw glee that one can indulge in the decadence of making a public Jewish figure miserable as a Jew, and feel righteous in doing so, and be lauded as righteous for doing so. Does it help that Barlow is an unsympathetic figure? Sure. Does that suffice to explain the totality of what's happening here? No.

And -- putting aside the point that Barlow, as unsympathetic as she is, doesn't deserve harassment -- the utility of a mode of harassment that gets lauded rather than condemned will not stay confined to the likes of Barlow. While I expect this particular moment to peter out sooner rather than later, it certainly was not hard to spot "fart" responses targeting other prominent Jews as a means of demeaning them or denigrating their experiences with antisemitism. Some of the targeted Jews were also raising hyperbolic or foolish points. Others were being entirely reasonable. But the commonality, the trigger that made this response responsive was solely that the targets were Jewish or Jewish-identified, and the belief by their "interlocutors" that if they jumped on them in this way, they'd be immunized from any condemnation or critique. That should worry us.

The fact is, the mechanics of internet harassment and brigading campaigns are not new or novel at this point, nor is the easy dismissal of them by calling them "juvenile" or "just words", or insisting on the  recipient's need to "grow a thicker skin". In all cases, there will be a mix-in of explicit calls for violence or open ethnic, racial, or gendered slurs; but these are the accent points upon a base of "replies" which do not do any of that, replies which, taken as individual, can and should be easily dismissed, but as part of a larger whole and as a constant drumbeat, become intolerable. It happens to people we like, and it happens to people we don't like. But no matter who the proximate target is, we should be very, very leery of cheering it on.

* The juvenile nature of the retort is part of its insulation -- it feels ridiculous to treat it with any sort of seriousness, and that includes writing this post. This is, in a way, a very literal application of Sartre's warning about the antisemites:

They know that their remarks are frivolous ... But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. 

Sunday, May 30, 2021

When "All" Isn't Enough

The purpose behind "All Lives Matter" was not to include "Black Lives Matter", but in more universalistic fashion. To the contrary, if "All Lives Matter" ever was understood as including Black lives, it would be a failure as a slogan. "All Lives Matter" exists entirely as a reflection of conservative rage at the idea that Black people and other minorities might feel included and valued; if a motto of that form ever actually did start to carry the public meaning of including non-White Americans, the polemicists who had been pushing it yesterday would tomorrow rebel against it just as hard.

“When we choose to isolate and elevate one group of people over another, that’s discrimination,” said Supervisor Craig McEwen, a retired police officer who is white [and voted against the resolution].


The “community for all” story began last summer when a small group of county officials began drafting a resolution they hoped would acknowledge disparities faced by local people of color. The original title, No Place for Hate, was deemed too inflammatory, so it was renamed A Community for All. 


“They’re creating strife between people labeling us as racist and privileged because we’re white,” Supervisor Arnold Schlei, a 73-year-old retired veal farmer who has been on the county board for 11 years, said in an interview. “You can’t come around and tell people that work their tails off from daylight to dark and tell them that they got white privilege and they’re racist and they’ve got to treat the Hmongs and the coloreds and the gays better because they’re racist. People are sick of it.”

He and others opposing the resolution argued that to acknowledge disparities faced by people of color would tilt social advantages to their benefit. The word “equity,” which was included in the resolution, served as a trigger for many, who made the false claim that memorializing it as a goal would lead to the county’s taking things from white people to give them to people of color.

Those opposed to the resolution made far-reaching claims about its potential impact. The local Republican Party chairman, Jack Hoogendyk, said the resolution would lead to “the end of private property” and “race-based redistribution of wealth.” Others have argued that there is, in fact, no racism in Marathon County, and even if there was, it’s not the county board’s business to do anything about it.

"A community for all" is semantically virtually identical to "all lives matter". The only difference is not in the words, but in the publicly understood meaning -- the former understood as a measure signaling the inclusion of non-White members, the latter understood as a slogan reacting against the inclusion of Black people. And that difference made all the difference: even though its rhetoric was explicitly a compromise for those for whom "No Place for Hate" was a bridge too far, "A community for all" was opposed with the same fury and fervency as Black Lives Matter was.

And then they have temerity to say racism doesn't exist.