Friday, December 03, 2021

We Chose This

I was in middle school when Columbine happened.

At the time, it felt like a national watershed. In hindsight, I actually don't know the degree to which Columbine stood out from other school shootings, versus whether it just happened to be "the" big shooting that occurred in the formative part of my life where I began paying attention to such things. Maybe for people born a few years earlier or a few years later, a different school shooting was "the" shooting. Lord knows we don't lack for choices.

Nonetheless, I remember thinking then that obviously Columbine was going to prompt us to do something about gun violence. There was no chance that our collective response to that tragedy would be to do nothing. As a kid, you believe adults are interested in protecting you. Perhaps as an adult, without strong evidence to the contrary, you also believe other adults will take the steps necessary to ensure children aren't being gunned down in schools or in streets.

But, more than 20 years later, our response to school shootings has indeed been: essentially nothing. We can't say we're still "working on it", or that we're still processing. At this point, it is fair to say America has made a conscious choice as a polity that we find school shootings to be an acceptable price to pay in exchange for allowing guns everywhere.

Twenty years after Columbine, nobody can pretend as if we don't know the consequences of our choices. We chose to let Oxford happen. We'll no doubt choose to let the next one happen too. There is nothing surprising or shocking or even unexpected happening anymore. Each of these deaths is attributable not just to the loathsome gunmen who pull the triggers, but to choices we've made collectively as a community. We are committed to an open highway of free, unfettered access to guns, and these bodies are the change the NRA throws into the tollbooth on the way.

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Sovereign's Grace, Kosher Food, and BDS at UofT

A BDS resolution passed by students at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus is in the news, primarily because of one interesting wrinkle: it specifically addresses the matter of Kosher food sources. In particular, while the resolution sweepingly targets goods, services, and events which it deems implicated in Israeli apartheid, it offers a narrow carve-out for Kosher food products if "no alternatives are available." The specific policy language is this:
Efforts should be made to source kosher food from organizations that do not normalize Israeli apartheid. However, recognizing the limited availability of this necessity, then exceptions can be made if no alternatives are available.

The resolution was, for what it's worth, sharply criticized by the President of the University.

I do want to focus on this Kosher food issue, though, because it raises some interesting issues. The specter of the student government policing how Jewish students gain access to Jewish food -- seeking to ensure that Jews obeying the dictates of their faith do so in a way that satisfies a political litmus test set by the student union -- understandably rankles many Jews on campus (not the least because one suspects there are sharply different opinions between the student government and the median Jewish student about what it means for a food organization to "normalize Israeli apartheid"). Yet, at one level, this language was almost certainly meant as a conciliatory gesture -- an accommodation meant to alleviate burdens placed on Jewish students by the resolution by treating Kosher food options more leniently and opening the possibility of exemption. There is history here: a few years ago the UofT graduate student union made headlines for refusing to support Kosher food access on campus, on the grounds that the campaign was allegedly incompatible with BDS commitments. This was highly embarrassing for the union, which was forced to issue an apology. I strongly suspect that this provision of the new resolution was meant to avoid, or at least, ameliorate, the prospect of a repeat. I can even imagine the student union being surprised and hurt that their kind-hearted, magnanimous gesture is being thrown back in their face with such revulsion.

And yet. Often times, supporters of BDS lean so hard on the trite truism "Israel and Judaism are not synonymous" that they begin to act almost as if any connections between the two are wholly  idiosyncratic and coincidental. It can end up verging on the comical: "Israel is related to Judaism? Why, I had no idea -- in any event, that interesting factual tidbit, which never occurred to me until just now, certainly has nothing to do with anything I'm doing." But increasingly, it is becoming impossible to overlook the obvious fact that BDS commitments, interpreted expansively, necessitate significant regulation of Jewish political, social, cultural, and religious life, including aggressive and systematic policing of which Jews are okay to talk to or work with. The SunriseDC fiasco was one manifestation of this, the AMP position paper seeking to establish rules regarding when it is okay to collaborate with Jews is another. The myth that "BDS" will or perhaps even could be pursued in such a way that only incidentally and idiosyncratically affected Jews qua Jews (as opposed to "Zionists" or "settlers" or "occupiers") is collapsing.

Even if in the minds of the resolution drafters they were resolutely thinking about Zionists, Zionists, Zionists, and not Jews, Jews, Jews; there was no avoiding the reality that in practice the brunt of the impact would be felt far more in the latter capacity than in the former. Indeed, while virtually none of the entities which support BDS are in a position to impose regulatory burdens on the Israeli state, they absolutely can regulate their local Jews, and so it is the local Jewish community that in practice will predictably be the main venue through which these campaigns actually regulate conduct (I am hardly the first to note that BDS does far more to injure diaspora Jews than it does to harm Israel in any concrete way, let alone motivate Israel to alter its conduct). Who is most likely to have a speaker, or a food product, or a program, that potentially runs afoul of the guidelines (and who is most likely to have their speakers/foods/programs checked and rechecked and placed under the finest microscope to ensure they satisfy the relevant political litmus tests)? It's the local Jewish groups (and not just on matters that directly relate to Israel, either). The effect of these mandates is to place Jewish groups under constant, humiliating surveillance and interrogation to ensure they're not stepping out of line ("Wanna support the miners--what's your position on Zionism?" Or for a campus example, just ask Rachel Beyda). 

Critics sometimes argue that if the Jewish community in North America is that tied up with the Jewish community in Israel, that's an "us" problem. But it is simply not reasonable or feasible to expect the Jewish community writ large to wholly disentangle itself from a place where nearly half the world's Jewish population (and well more than half of the non-European Jewish population) lives and which is central to Jewish religious worship, history, and culture -- particularly given the depth of the "disentanglement" demanded (whereby nearly any connection whatsoever is sufficient to be deemed "complicit" or "implicated"). And again, that sort of insistence on a sweeping and dare I say revolutionary reorganization of Jewish public life is necessarily one that represents a "significant regulation of Jewish political, social, cultural, and religious" affairs. Even if one supports that revolution, and even one supports it so fervently that one is fine with it taking place via external non-Jewish compulsion, at the very least those making this demand cannot plausibly hold to the comforting myth that "we're not talking about Jews". They are, inescapably, and Jews are not doing anything unfair or unreasonable in calling it what it is (a few proponents of the revolution -- some Jewish, some not -- are open in saying "yes, we are targeting the Jews for compulsion because the Jews need and deserve to be compelled", and at the very least I appreciate the honesty).

History provides many examples of edicts placed upon the public whose effects would be to make Jewish public life difficult or potentially impossible. And sometimes, the sovereign in his grace would agree to the possibility of dispensation or exemption for Jews, or at least worthy Jews or sufficiently well-connected Jews, or for the Jews who impressed him and garnered his favor. Much of Jewish political history has been the project of begging for the establishment of these exemptions, begging for them to actually be effectuated, and then begging for them not to be removed or retired when the sovereign's mood changed. And on the one hand, the prospect of these exemptions existing is better than them not being available at all. On the other hand, their presence really hammered home the degree to which the Jews were at the mercy of the sovereign's whim; it illustrated in stark tones who was the law-maker and who was the supplicant subject.

The UofT clause on Kosher food is heir to this tradition. The broad sweep of the resolution risks making Jewish qua Jewish life on campus intolerable (there is a reason why the Nexus definition of antisemitism specifically includes as a species of antisemitism "conditions that discriminate against Jews and impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic, or social life."). The law-makers in their beneficence thus offer the possibility of an exemption, if those seeking it come with the right amount of supplication and prove their worthiness by demonstrating to the student union's satisfaction that there is absolutely no "alternative". How gracious! But in its grace, it actually lays bare something previously obscured. In so many words, what the student union is doing is developing an official bureaucratic apparatus whose job specifically is to regulate and oversee Jewish religious life -- with no question regarding who ultimately holds the power and who comes in as a mere petitioner.

Ironically, when there was no exemption at all it would be perhaps easier to cling longer to the myth that the impact on Jews qua Jews is mere idiosyncratic coincidence. The drafters surely would concede that there might be some people who might happen to be inconvenienced by the resolution and it just so may happen that some number of them (who can really say how many) might be Jewish -- but such is life! These things happen! Here, by contrast, the prior history of the Kosher food issue meant that the student union here finally had to admit to itself "yes, thinking about Israel and Zionism means also thinking about Jews" (lack of definitional identity notwithstanding). And in doing so, and in actually being somewhat responsive to that thought, it made visible the actual power dynamics in play that perhaps previously could be denied.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Journalistic Defectors

One of the more dangerous players in contemporary discourse -- or at least one of the types that makes me the most nervous, anyway -- are people who are trained as journalists, who know the forms of the genre, but now are working consciously and intentionally as advocates.

Adam Kredo -- he of Kamala Harris' pot-gate -- is one example. Before joining the Washington Free Beacon, he was a relatively well-respected "neutral" journalist working for the Washington Jewish Week. Now, nobody confuses what he does for the Beacon as dispassionate journalism (except maybe Kredo, who claimed -- apparently with a straight face -- that at the Beacon he remains a straight news reporter who is "not in the opinion biz"). Nonetheless, there's little question that Kredo is more effective as a purveyor of partisan hit pieces precisely because he knows how to write an article in a way that follows journalistic conventions. Get quotes from alternative sources, ask subjects for comments (that they're damned if they do and damned if they don't is a bonus), do much of the heavy narrative lifting not by direct accusation but in terms of presuppositions and framing -- it works in a way that more direct propaganda doesn't. I suspect the "news-ier" side of Fox News (not Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity, but the parts that present themselves as straight coverage) fits this mold too.

On the other side of the street, one can see similar characteristics at Jewish Currents. Again, many of the people writing for Currents have clear talent as journalists, and their stories track journalistic conventions. They aren't obvious agitprop. But they're great examples of how, if you know what you're doing as a journalist, you know how to push every convention to the limits of its tolerance band in a way that gets you to something pretty close to agitprop while still looking on face like a regular investigation. If every choice of framing is meant to accentuate one side's story, if every presupposition of the relevant political climate or social atmosphere reaffirms a particular point of view, if every inference or interpretation is just a little credulous to the right people and cynical to the wrong ones, the result is an article in which all the constituent elements are defensible as fair but the net result is intentionally one-sided (their piece on Ritchie Torres I think works as a decent example of what I mean).

I've sometimes said that the "evil" version of me would make a good press secretary, because I think I'd be very good at spinning effectively. This is a version of that -- if you're a journalist, you know how the narrative machine works, and knowing how it works you also know how to break the machine. And as parts of a political toolkit this is very effective; arguably even necessary, even as it is also intentionally manipulative and kind of hackish. The reason "evil" me is a Press Secretary rather than actual me is that in real life I don't have the stomach for that sort of work. Which is not the same thing as saying that either I or the people I admire are perfectly virtuous or fair-minded in how we relate to our own interlocutors. We have times our biases shine through too. But there is, I submit, a difference between unknowingly being swayed by one's personal biases, or even a temporary lapse acknowledged as a wrong, and knowingly and self-consciously trying to align one's work product with one's biases to the maximum extent possible.

In any event, I suspect the people who do this are in fact decently self-conscious about what they're doing -- they don't (contra Kredo) actually think they're not engaged in opinion; they're relatively open about their agenda. Press them, and they might say something like "all news coverage has a political agenda behind it; the difference is that we are self-conscious about it, whereas the people who think they're doing straight news are more likely to be unconsciously parroting orthodox Pablum without recognizing that's a view too." And I have some sympathy for that critique, actually. We all could stand to be more reflective on what our biases and presuppositions are. But I also think there is a difference between actually trying to understand issues on their own terms and be fair to subjects one is covering, versus just going through the motions of it because "hey, everyone has an agenda right?" Such is the curse of many liberal values (objectivity, neutrality, even-handedness, etc.): they're simultaneously impossible to achieve, and yet things are so much worse when people stop even trying to achieve them.

Demystifying the very much non-neutral "mainstream" coverage norms need not necessarily take the form of "replicating those norms, but intentionally and in service of a different political program." But in practice, it often does, and the result is I think work product that is very slick, very effective for its chosen audience, and very dangerous for the project of fair-minded discourse.