Friday, August 06, 2021

It's Not the Positions, It's the Atmosphere: On What To Learn from the OH-11

I feel a bit sheepish even writing a post on the proper takeaways from the OH-11 race, where Shontel Brown upset insurgent darling Nina Turner to win a Democratic primary and (in effect) a House seat. It seems everyone and their mother is doing a bit on this, and there's no especial reason to listen to mine.

But whatever -- either you read me or you don't. The obvious lesson to learn from the OH-11, which I endorse but which you hardly need me to tell you, is "if you're running as a Democrat, don't compare voting for the Democrats to eating shit." Democrats tend to like Democrats! You can't win a Democratic primary running against the Democratic Party.

In addition, I do think there are some naïve views on whether "Establishment : insurgent :: moderate : progressive." Turner is certainly a flag-bearer of the insurgent wing of the party, and there's no doubt Nina Turner's policy views are on the left side of the Democratic Party. But it's not altogether clear to me that Shontel Brown, though definitely favored by the establishment, is a "moderate" in any normal sense of the term. Just how far apart are they on policy? The establishment/insurgent divide very often is more about affective disposition to the Democratic Party as a brand than it is about major policy divides. You can trace it back at least to the Howard Dean campaign -- Dean was considerably more conservative than most of his competitors on most issues, but his campaign surged on the basis of his opposition to the Iraq War, an issue where he effectively was railing against the party apparatus selling out. His base wasn't attracted to him because he was more progressive, they liked him because he channeled their own feelings of frustration that the Democratic Party circa 2003 was failing at its job.

One thing I might suggest, then, is that Democratic voters are entirely willing to vote for candidates with strong progressive policy agendas -- so long as they aren't actively antagonistic to the Democratic Party as an institution. Even as the race slipped away from Turner, there was little evidence that Cleveland voters were turning against Medicare for All.

This, I think, also has some resonance for some Jewish-specific takeaways. David Klion did a fascinating interview Daniel Marans on this subject (this post also had an interesting perspective, though it's anonymous so I can't verify the content), but I'll add a few more thoughts.

The main one will surprise you: Nina Turner actually opened the campaign with perfectly reasonable and acceptable views on Israel. Seriously -- read the questionnaire she filled out on the subject. Everything she wrote was entirely in-bounds for your typical Jewish Democrat. So how did it become so widely assumed that she was and would be in Congress an anti-Israel zealot?

The answer is it's less about her, and more about those around her. Turner might have had perfectly fine views on the subject, but the people who most enthusiastically supported Turner were people who it was clear were itching for a fight with Israel and, often, with the Jewish community in general. It's not the positions, it's the atmosphere -- so much of what surrounds Turner is toxic. When an unremarkable picture of Shontel Brown with a Rabbi is boosted throughout the pro-Turner social media space as proof that Brown is "pro-apartheid", Jews definitely noticed. There was a distinctive swath of pro-Turner backers who seemed to delight in sidling up to Jews and smirking -- "when we win, your reign is over." A vote against Turner wasn't really a vote against her policies, even on Israel; it was a vote against empowering the political coalition that was rallying behind Turner.

This isn't, to be clear, just guilt-by-association. It is fair to think that Turner will be most susceptible to influence by her most enthusiastic supporters -- to the extent many of these supporters seemed to enjoy antagonizing the Jewish community, Jews are entitled to waylay that at the pass. But the disjuncture where perfectly acceptable policy positions become irrelevant in the face of broader coalitional associations is something seen this on several other occasions. How many times has Ayanna Pressley been lumped in with the rest of the squad as an anti-Israel fanatic, even though her positions on Israel are manifestly different and more mainstream than even AOC's, let alone Omar or Tlaib? Hell, look at Sanders himself -- he wrote a very, very good piece for Jewish Currents that I think clearly fell within the Jewish Democratic mainstream, but he's demonized because of who supports him.

In many ways, I view this Jewish-specific angle as a subspecies of the broader "don't hate the Democratic Party if you want to win a Democratic Party primary" takeaway. While in 2016 Sanders could perhaps be accused of being a less-than-enthusiastic team player once he lost the primary, few could argue that he didn't go all out for Joe Biden in 2020. The reality is that Sanders largely doesn't share the "burn the party to the ground" outlook that many of his most zealous supporters do. But the fact is Sanders still surrounded himself with those people and became the standard-bearer for those people, and so it was understood that a Sanders victory would represent a victory for those people and an empowerment of those people. Those people are the atmosphere, and they're choking the underlying political positions' chances at flourishing.

As Marans put it:

Over the past five years, Turner developed an intense following among left-wing activists while saying a lot of things that alienated rank-and-file Democrats. That gave her a false sense of confidence.... There’s a hanger-on problem in the left political subculture—you have a lot of Bernieworld people who end up filling not just volunteer positions, but consulting gigs and major campaign roles. When left-wing candidates aren’t willing to confront uncomfortable truths about the things they’ve said and done in the past, because the people around them keep them insulated, then they’re going to keep losing.

As far as I'm concerned, there's good news and bad news here for the Democratic Party left. The good news is that it remains very possible to elect more candidates with squad-like views into Congress. Democratic voters aren't necessarily averse to the policy per se; they're averse to the affective hostility towards other Democrats. So keep the policies -- run fifty candidates who respond to the Jewish Insider's Israel questionnaire exactly as Nina Turner did -- just don't run candidates who have histories of publicly declaring how much they loathe Democrats who are broadly popular with most Democrats. What could be simpler? Nowhere was this more evident than in the Markey/Kennedy race, where Markey managed to do the not-actually-impossible and straddle the "establishment/insurgent" divide by enthusiastically promoting progressive policy priorities without ever suggesting broader antipathy to the Democratic Party. I absolutely endorse Max Berger's suggestion that progressive Democrats should present themselves as more-Democratic-than-thou.

But that underscores the bad news, which is that squad-like candidates are likely to find their early and enthusiastic support from persons who want nothing more than to be tossed some red meat about how corrupt the Democratic Party establishment is. And when that's your base, it's really hard to shake them off, even though their presence is a huge thorn in the side of most Democrats. The anti-Democratic Party Democrat message can get a very committed base of support, but it isn't scalable.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Making Non-Oppressive Speech Unspeakable

I have a thought (sketched below), which I'm curious as to your views. Specifically, is this thought an at all interesting or novel thought (obviously even if it is either/both it would still need to be fleshed out in much more detail/rigor)? So please read the below and let me know if I'm on to anything.

I recently reread Rae Langton's legendary "Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts" article, and it got me thinking about a case I'm not sure has been fully discussed (related to but also different from what Langton is talking about): one where structural oppression (misogyny, racism, antisemitism) causes an illocutionary misfire by making it impossible (or at least far more difficult) to express an "innocent" thought (one that, in of itself, presents a legitimate argument that does not depend on or appeal to misogyny, racism, antisemitism, etc.) without it actually being misogynistic/racist/antisemitic/what have you.

Some examples to illustrate the problem:

(a) Tim is a defense attorney, representing a client who is charged with sexual assault. He client admits that he had sexual contact with the accuser, but insists that she expressly consented and that she's falsely accusing him now. Tim wants to make this defense, without in any way imputing that women generally lie about sexual assault or that the accuser is lying because she's a woman. Nonetheless, he knows that making this argument will, despite his best efforts, be heard by many as making such a claim; and worse, he knows his defense is more likely to be taken up by a jury precisely because it "appeals" (again, in spite of his own intentions) to this misogyny.

(b) Paula is a politician. She believes that most social ills on the planet -- from Colombia to Colorado to Gaza to Georgia -- are attributable a global class of ultra-rich capitalists, who promote a system that profits them while immiserating others. By "global class of ultra-rich capitalists" she does not in any way mean Jews; she does not argue that Jews are especially likely to be part of this class or that this class has any particular connection to Jews. Nonetheless, she knows that talking about the "global class of ultra-rich capitalists" will be heard by many to talking about Jews (especially when, as will be periodically be the case, when the proximate subject of her ire does happen to be Jewish), and worse, she knows that her political pitch is more likely to be taken up by the public precisely because it "appeals" to this antisemitism.

In both cases, Tim and Paula have an intention regarding what they want their speech to do (or more accurately, not do) -- they want it to not subordinate women/Jews, make accusations against women/Jews, denigrate women/Jews, and so on. In both cases, their speech plausibly will defy their intent and "do" what it's supposed to not do anyway. In both cases, it would be difficult if not impossible to avoid having the speech taken up in the way they do not desire (note that merely disclaiming -- "Just to be clear, when I make this argument I am not talking about 'women'/'Jews'" -- probably wouldn't work: if anything, it sounds like protesting-too-much; it may make the problem worse). In both cases, all of this happens despite the fact that we could not say that the actual intended thought (this accuser is being untruthful; there are rich people who bolster a global unjust system) is one that should be out-of-bounds per se. And in both cases, the unavoidable-undesired misfire actually aids in the direct desired end result -- the unintended misogyny makes it more likely the jury will conclude that this woman was lying about her claim; the unintended antisemitism makes it more likely that the citizenry will believe that the global system is controlled by an elite global ultra-wealthy class.

Notice how this problem eludes some normal attempts to resolve it. We already mentioned that one can't just disclaim the bad intent. Here are a few more possible resolutions that I don't think work: 

(a) Sometimes people dismiss cases like what I'm talking about by claiming, in essence, that because there's no bad intent and because the literal content is innocent, any inference of misogyny/antisemitism is invented or made in bad faith -- "you're just hearing things that aren't there." But that's not quite right -- while it's true that the inference of bad intent may be mistaken, the listeners are in fact hearing something real -- they're aware of and identifying the likely reasons for the idea being taken up by the audience. That's not invented! Likewise, telling the putatively aggrieved group to grow a thicker skin misses the mark -- the problem isn't really with how *they* understand the speech, but with how the speech is taken up in society writ large; their negative reaction is based on accurately identifying the illocutionary misfire that's in process. Even if the speaker was trying not to say anything about Jews, and even if the Jews agreed that the speaker was indeed not trying to speak of Jews, neither of those facts would do anything to affect whether non-Jews were taking up the speech to be about Jews. 

(b) On the other side, we can't reduce the problem to being "unintentionally" misogynist/antisemitic. The problem runs deeper -- it's that certain innocent ideas which it may well be *important* to express become impossible to express without triggering the misogyny/antisemitism problem. It becomes "unspeakable" to critique an international elite of ultra-rich individuals without attacking Jews. One hears glimmers of this in the frustration some people have surrounding "trope" discourse -- *everything* is a trope, they say, and this ends up indiscriminately capturing innocent arguments. And they're right! But they're wrong to infer that this is because of bad faith or seeing things that aren't there. It rather suggests that the ubiquity of structural oppression renders legitimate arguments in certain domains unspeakable insofar as they are intended to be spoken sans a hook with the oppression. Which seems like a serious problem. 

(c) Sometimes people frame this serious problem by saying something like "claims of racism/misogyny/antisemitism" are silencing. But that isn't actually what's happening here -- it's not the claim but the reality of racism/misogyny/antisemitism that's doing the "silencing" (that is, by converting the "innocent" statement so that, against the speaker's intention, it is publicly understood to mean something else and the speaker's actual thought becomes unexpressable). One thing misogyny does is that it makes it so that certain (typically negative) talk that is not meant to be about women-as-a-class is publicly understood to be -- and is accepted as -- indeed about women-as-a-class. It is because there are powerful misogynist narratives about women lying about sexual assault that an attempt to specifically claim this-woman-Jane-Smith-is-lying-about-this-incident unavoidably becomes imbricated with the broader misogynistic narrative, whether the speaker wants it to or not (and whether Jane Smith the individual IS being untruthful about this incident or not).

So: am I thinking a remotely interesting thought here?

Monday, August 02, 2021

Moving Into Port(land)

The movers come tomorrow and Wednesday, and then on Thursday we depart again -- this time for Portland. Knock on wood, we will be there for a long, long time (though ideally not in this apartment -- not that there's anything wrong with it, but we do plan to buy a house in a year or so).

Doubt I'll be blogging much, if at all, until we're settled in. Enjoy the rest of the Olympics!