Saturday, July 30, 2022

The Epistemic Dimension of Antisemitism: The Case of Navi Pillay

The Journal of Jewish Identities just published my most recent article, "The Epistemic Dimension of Antisemitism." Basically, the article looks at antisemitism through the prism of "epistemic injustice" -- wronging Jews in our capacity as knowers. This is distinct from more "traditional" forms of antisemitism like overt hatred or disdain (though obviously they can be related and support one another). 

To give an example: One can (and many antisemites do) view Jews as a world-dominating cabal that controls critical social enterprises like the media, Hollywood, and the financial industry. Unsurprisingly, those who hold that view often also are affectively antagonistic towards Jews (few think Jews run the world and are thankful for what a bang-up job they think we're doing). But it's also likely that someone who holds this view will take certain stances about Jewish credibility. They're liable to think that Jews cannot be trusted, that we're always working the angles, that our testimonial offerings are likely in service of a deeper game. Even if, for whatever reason, they do not have an explicitly hateful attitude towards Jews, they might be distinctively mistrustful or dismissive towards Jews when we venture opinions in the public square -- even, or perhaps especially, if those opinions are on matters that are central to Jews' own experience.

The essay, of course, goes into more detail. But as it happens, an incident that occurred almost simultaneously with the publication of the essay provides a solid real-world illustration. In an interview with the pro-Palestinian website Mondoweiss, Miloon Kothari, a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council's special commission into Israel and the Palestinian territories, made several remarks which generated a swift backlash from American and Jewish diplomatic officials

In particular, Kothari alleged that the "Jewish lobby" controls social media to the detriment of his work:

“We are very disheartened by the social media that is controlled largely by – whether it is the Jewish lobby or specific NGOs, a lot of money is being thrown into trying to discredit us.”

(Elsewhere, he appeared to question the validity of Israel's membership in the UN -- we'll leave that part aside).

Unsurprisingly, these comments were, to say the least, not well received in the Jewish community. But Kothari's colleague Navi Pillay, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, rose to Kothari's defense and claimed that he was the victim of a "deliberate" campaign to misquote and falsify what Kothari actually said. Kothari's comments, Pillay argued, were "deliberately been taken out of context" and Kothari was "deliberately misquoted to imply that 'social media' was controlled by the Jewish lobby."

Kothari's comment about "the Jewish lobby", expressing frustration by and antagonism towards what he takes to be the "Jewish lobby's" ability to "control" social media, seems an easy case of antisemitism under traditional articulations. Pillay's defense of Kothari, by contrast, sounds in a epistemic dimension. She dismisses the testimonial offerings of Kothari's critics who claim antisemitism by claiming they are engaging in a "deliberate" campaign of falsification. The purpose is to sabotage the basic testimonial validity of those claiming antisemitism by declaring the allegations to violate basic norms that undergird legitimate discourse (e.g., honesty and sincerity).

For starters, Pillay does not actually identify, or even attempt to identify, any misquote or missing context that has undergirded those criticizing Kothari. To the contrary,  most of the media sources I've seen reporting on the story have quoted Kothari verbatim. They haven't, for instance, just said something like "Kothari attacked the 'Jewish lobby'" and left readers to wonder what the relevant sentence actually said. They have by and large included most if not all of the above block quote. Meanwhile, the quotations themselves were taken from Mondoweiss, an outlet which is supremely unlikely to have misquoted Kothari or taken him out of context in a manner that would assist pro-Israel commentators. Pillay's claim of false testimony is not just unsupported, it does not even gesture at anything that might support it. So how could she possibly think her contentions will carry any credence? The most likely answer is that she thinks -- and she's probably correct -- she can draw on a reservoir of epistemic antisemitism where people are predisposed to believe that Jews and those advocating on our behalf are liars, manipulators, cheats, and bad-faith actors. Only in a world where such epistemic beliefs about Jews are taken for granted could such naked and obviously unsupported complaints about misquotes be thought to stand a chance of success.

All of that would be bad enough. But there's also on top of this Pillay's choice to say that these alleged-but-not-demonstrated falsifications were "deliberate". This is a charge Pillay repeats, so it is no stray bit of rhetoric. Supposing, for sake of very strained argument, we did think there was something to the notion that Kothari was being taken out of context. That still hardly would establish that Kothari's critics were acting deliberately. Even if, for some reason, one thought there was a perfectly innocent explanation for what Kothari said, surely it is not unreasonable to think that Jews could in good faith perceive that passage about "the Jewish lobby" as being problematic. The most likely explanation for the divergence between how Jews interpreted what Kothari said and how Pillay does so would be such good faith disagreement. 

But Pillay refuses to allow for anything other than conscious malice. It is not just that Kothari's critics are wrong, they are intentionally wrong, they are lying, they are smearing. In my article, I make the following observation:

[A]ntisemitism allegations are divided into a sharp binary: those which are incontestable and those which are in bad faith. In this binary, there can be no such thing as an antisemitism claim which one, personally, doesn’t agree with but which is accepted to lie within the legitimate boundaries of argument. Every instance of supposed antisemitism that is disputable must be invalid altogether. The “zone of contestation,” where we agree to investigate claims under a posture of open receptivity, because we concede we’re not immediately sure of the right answer, implodes because there’s never actually any controversy: either a claim is so obviously true that it smacks us in the face or it is so obviously false that it can dismissed out of hand.

Pillay defaults to making unsupported, and unsupportable, claims of deliberate lies because the architecture of epistemic antisemitism assumes that the only reason Jews would ever level a claim of antisemitism that one might disagree with is because they're lying about it. Pillay thinks Kothari is not antisemitic, therefore, anyone arguing otherwise simply must be lying. The false allegations of misquotation or missing context flow naturally from this.

Certainly, I don't mean to set up a sharp dichotomy between "traditional" and "epistemic" varieties of antisemitism. One sees elements of each in the conduct of both Pillay and Kothari -- one could easily view Pillay as expressing not just mistrust but antagonism towards the (Jewish or Jewish-coded critics) whom she cavalierly smears as liars, and Kothari's claims about the "Jewish lobby's" outsized influence on social media obviously has epistemic implications about the validity of their discursive contributions to debates over Israel and Palestine. Nonetheless, this incident I think does a decent job of highlighting the distinctive nature of the epistemic strain. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, to see UN officials at the center of such a story. But nobody should be under any illusions that Turtle Bay or Geneva is the only location where it occurs.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Gallows Humor vs. Pure Fear in Political Ad Strategy

Last night, I saw the following ad start circulating by a pro-choice organization targeting Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (and, by extension, the draconian anti-abortion regime that has recently been ushered in).


I'm curious what people think on this (as I've mentioned, cutting political ads is something I'm absolutely irrationally confident I'd be good at).

I fully agree that Democrats should be running and running hard on the demise of Roe. If there is one thing Americans hate, it is changes to settled expectations, and this one was a doozy. Democrats can and should do everything they can to elevate and place at the forefront the anxieties, fears, and trauma that is associated with this settled right being unceremoniously torn away.

I am curious how people view this ad, in particular, as fitting into the strategy. The most striking feature of the ad is the abrupt switch in tone -- from a pure emotional appeal to absurdist gallows humor. The ad has gotten generally positive reception on my Twitter feed, though I can imagine people thinking it's a little too jokey and slapstick for the moment. The alternative, of course, would be to run ads that aren't cut with humor but rather play purely on fear -- fear of women dying, being maimed, being arrested. I want to be clear: those fears are justified. I don't think this is fear-mongering, because these terrible prospects are absolutely on the horizon where they are not already the reality. But the point is there is a different style of ad one can imagine that doesn't flinch away from the raw terror of the moment by interspersing it with a bit.

Consider something like the following: 
A woman is sitting in an examination room in a hospital gown. She's terrified, and has clearly been crying, but she's trying to stifle any sound and keep a brave face. There's blood spotting the gown near her groin. The camera slowly pans over, zooming out so she stays in frame but capturing more of the exam room until it reaches the doorway. Out in the hall, one sees three police officers talking to a doctor or nurse. Eventually, one of the officers walks into the exam room with handcuffs out.
No humor, no levity, no absurdism. Not even any dialogue. Just a terrified woman, in the most vulnerable moment of her life, facing the abusive power of the state. A terrible image. But we are living in terrible times.

Would that be better? Worse? Or should both types of ads be run? I'm not sure. Again, curious what people think about what's the right and most effective strategy.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

"Dems" Who Endorse Third Party Candidates Are Monsters. Zero Exceptions.

Back in 2018, when I was still living in Berkeley, I was really having a difficult time deciding who to vote for in a D-on-D assembly race between Buffy Wicks and Jovanka Beckles. Both seemed like solid people I'd be happy to have representing me in Sacramento, and I struggled to find much distinguishing the two.

Until I learned that Beckles had voted for Jill Stein in 2016. Suddenly, a hard choice became very easy. Wicks gets my vote (and she went on to win the election).

Fast forward a few years, to 2022. I now live in Oregon, a pretty reliably blue state. Except this year, our gubernatorial race includes not just the standard D-R matchup between Democrat Tina Kotek and Republican Christine Drazan. It also includes a well-financed "independent" candidate -- former Democratic State Senator Betsy Johnson,* well-known as among the most conservative Democrats in the caucus. Johnson, who has called Portland a "city of roaches", ran expressly because she couldn't tolerate a more liberal Democrat being the party's standard-bearer. Polling suggests an extremely tight race, and Johnson 's presence on the ballot could let the Republican slip into the governor's mansion with barely 30% of the vote.

The very thought makes me livid. The idea that in Oregon, in 2022, we might have a Republican Governor because some egomaniacal blue dog Dem just couldn't back her party's nominee is outrageous.

Among Johnson's endorsers is outgoing Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, in an obvious sore-loser move after he lost his primary to challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner. I couldn't vote in that election -- I now live in Schrader's district, but I moved here a few weeks after the election -- and I certainly understood the pragmatic argument in favor of Schrader in a swing-y district. But Schrader himself? Absolutely dead to me. I shed zero tears for his demise.

There is nothing I have more contempt for than a nominal Democrat supporting a third party in a contested general election. It is terrible if it is a "from the left" protest vote for a middle-of-three-evils like Jill Stein. It is terrible if it is a "from the center" chin-stroker vote because the Democrat is "just too radical"

The current iteration of the Republican Party is a hairsbreadth away from being actual fascists. Stopping them from attaining political power is a moral obligation of the highest order. Very, very few things can trump that obligation. I can think of essentially no significant Democratic figure whose views or practices are so noxious as to trump that obligation. Yes, that includes every single member of the Squad. Yes, that includes Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema and Henry Cuellar. I don't care how annoying you find them. I don't care how valid your grievances are against them. None of them are worse than your typical 21st century Republican. If they are the general election nominee, and they're running against a Republican, you vote for them, and you do it with a smile.

* In researching this post, I learned the ultimate terrible fact: Johnson is a Carleton College alum. She also got her J.D. at Lewis & Clark. I am devastated.