Saturday, December 30, 2023

Words Have Consequences

I'm still traveling for the holidays, and so I don't anticipate writing anything especially substantive about South Africa's charge before the ICJ that Israel had failed to prevent acts of genocide, and incitement to genocide, in the Gaza Strip. But I did want to observe one thing.

I haven't read the document in detail, but word is that it is buttressed by citation to numerous public statements and tweets by various high-level Israeli government functionaries who've indulged in deeply extreme rhetoric vis-a-vis the Palestinian people. Consider the Ministry of Intelligence "concept paper" proposing ethnically cleansing Gaza's Palestinian population to Egypt, or the Israeli minister who floating dropping a nuke on Gaza. Harrowing stuff. And there's more where that came from.

The response to such rhetoric in many pro-Israel circles, from what I've seen, reminds me of how we were "supposed" to treat similar extreme rhetoric from the Trump administration. Persons on the "establishment" side of the GOP -- not MAGA types, but also not NeverTrumpers -- often acted as if it was unfair, a form of cheating, to treat extreme pronouncements by Trump or has lackies as if they actually were evidence of any sort of substantive intent on the part of the Trump administration. Don't we know he's a blowhard, a rabble rouser, that he's just playing to the base, that it's not serious? How outrageous, to act as if Trump's Muslim ban was a Muslim ban just because he said it was a Muslim ban.

There was something deeply pathetic about this mewling, in how it echoed the broader infantilization of the right. No matter how high it ascends and no matter how much power it amasses, one cannot be expected to treat the right seriously. It can never matter. And certainly, they can never be asked to take responsibility for what they say.

The same sort of apologias seem to percolate around the extremism amongst Israeli government officials. It's not so much people condoning the rhetoric, but they think it's just unreasonable, unkosher, a foul that it be viewed as anything other than the usual blowhards being blowhards. It's unfair that Israel might face consequences for what its ministers are saying aloud.

No. I mean yes, these blowhards are blowhards. But at some point, the price of becoming a president or a minister or a high-ranking government official is that your words have consequences. They aren't the equivalent of just shit-posting for LOLs or edgelording to own the libs. People are absolutely entitled to think that when high-level government officials say something, that something they said is evidence about actual government policy.

So I admit some satisfaction that these words are now being used as substantive evidence, that they are carrying consequences. They should. It's a good thing that they're not cost-free actions anymore.

To be sure: a charge of genocide is a grave one, and a finding should never be used as a means of saying "got 'em" towards even the most repugnant political figures. The findings necessary to establish intent are properly high, and to that extent the apologists are right that one has to actually do the work of showing that this rhetoric -- repellant as it is -- is actually manifesting as operational policy; one can't just cite the tweets and call it day. This rhetoric is evidence that makes it reasonable to look into the charge; it does not establish the veracity of the charge itself. And on the whole, while we may dispute what does and does not count as genocide, I don't think Israel's conduct crosses the threshold of what international bodies have themselves treated as genocide in the past, and it would be a little too in character for the ICJ to decide it needs to lower the bar now.

However. Words have consequences, and one consequence of having major government officials speak the way that they have is that an allegation which might otherwise seem completely outrageous or unfounded now have to addressed. When you've killed as many people as Israel has, and your ministers are speaking the way they do -- well, now you've got to defend yourself. You may have an explanation, but now you've got to actually give it. You lose the prerogative that people just accept on faith that these claims are absurd. That loss, and the need to actually defend against charges like this, is entirely a consequence of the Israeli government's own choices, and in particular the choice of Bibi to elevate the most vicious, far-right extremists imaginable into positions of power. Their words are now carrying a cost, and they should. There's nothing unreasonable, unfair, or unkosher about that.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Free Speech Total War

In the wake of 303 Creative, I argued that one consequence of the Supreme Court's decision would be to supercharge "cancel culture". In a world where a business' decision to serve (or not) a customer is "free speech", then it must be the case that a customer's decision not to patronize a business (and to urge others to follow) is free speech in turn. Indeed, if we follow the metaphor along, "cancel culture" is exactly what the Supreme Court recommends as a remedy for Lorie Smith's homophobic speech, in lieu of enforcement of the anti-discrimination laws the Court struck down. "More speech, not enforced silence" indeed. And what more speech could we ask for than a concerted, express(ive) attempt to boycott her business, to send the message that these views are awful and intolerable and should wither on the vine of the "marketplace of ideas"?

In this way, 303 Creative really did greatly proliferate freedom of speech. But it isn't the freest speech we can imagine. In a Hobbesian sense, the freest free speech regime is one of pure anarchy: anyone can say anything, and anything anyone can persuade anyone else to do is fair game. Hobbes' freedom was the pure war of all against all, with no constraining rules or boundaries whatsoever. Every domain is a legitimate one to wage free speech war. Lorie Smith is wholly within her rights to advocate her views not just by writing a book, but by refusing to serve a customer, by firing an employee, by declining medical coverage -- you name it. And her opponents in turn can advocate their views by boycotting her business, picketing her house, urging her friends to ostracize her -- a war of all against all, with no zones of safety.

We could go further still. In a true free speech total war, if one "persuades" government to punish other speakers for their views, well, one just won a battle of free speech over those parties who oppose such measures (the dissident voices are, of course, free to shout their complaints as they're hauled off to jail, and the majority faction is in turn free to punish them further for their insolence). Nothing is off the table, everything is fair game, when it comes to ideological battles. Even if one can't quite follow me in seeing how express government punishment could be a form of extreme(!) free speech, the point is clear enough even if one takes everything but official de jure censorship off the table (as in the preceding paragraph). 

Of course, this doesn't look much like "free speech" as we typically understand it. Much of the impetus of what is sometimes called "free speech culture" is to remove, less certain topics from discussion, but certain domains from encroachment in ideological battles. Ideological fights should be fought in the arenas of ideology, they should not normally spill over into who one employs (in positions that are not themselves expressly ideological) or who one is friends with or what businesses one patronizes. Even recognizing the pressure that can be placed on "normally" (or "expressly ideological"), the point is generally reasonable enough. 

Consider a world where 303 Creative came out the other way. Someone with Lorie Smith's views continues to hold those views, in private, but as a business owner she dutifully follows the law and serves all her customers as equals. If someone pulled out her private beliefs (shared on Facebook, perhaps), and said "don't patronize this homophobic website designer", that would by many be viewed as a more "standard" case of problematic cancel culture. We might say in that circumstance that taking one's ideological opposition to Smith's views -- however justified -- and bootstrapping them onto whether to hire her as a web designer moves the ideological contest into a problematic domain. To be sure, I can absolutely understand the counterargument: that to give a homophobe money is to "normalize" her, to say her views are "okay", and it is entirely proper not to cooperate in that normalization. And it's not hard to think of cases at the margins where that counterargument may well carry the day. But if it always does, if there is no space between "view I disagree with" and "view whose adherents must be attacked along every possible front," that to me is a very unpleasant place to live in. As I wrote in my 303 Creative post:

One of the virtues of public accommodations law is that it dissipates, under normal circumstances, the inference that basic business transactions are expressive. I very much prefer a world where the bakery that bakes a cupcake for a client isn't seen as sending some sort of message of approval towards the client and the client that eats the baker's treat isn't sending a message of approval toward the baker (beyond "this cupcake is delicious"). That, to me, seems a far more pleasant space to live in than one where every turnip and widget we buy or sell can be taken as some sort of sweeping moral approval for our business partners.

Long story short: Yes, it's true that one can gain ideological victories by not limiting ideological contests to ideological arenas -- attacking them in their profession, their hobbies, their personal life, at every angle. But that world is a very nasty world to live in. Even if we think we might have to do that some of the time, it's very bad if we feel forced to do it all of the time. When social forces move us toward that world -- a free speech total war -- they are moving us towards a deeply toxic and oppressive social milieu.

All of this is lead in to Osita Nwanevu's column this week which, to some extent, endorses "free speech total war" position when it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and in particular campus discourse thereto. In contrast to the normal "free speech" position which suggests that we should protect advocacy of all sorts of views on Israel/Palestine, across the ideological spectrum, Nwanevu pivots sharply in the opposite direction: Progressives shouldn't stop trying to censor "bad" speech on campus, and should accept in turn that they will sometimes themselves be censored. "Students, academics, administrators, and outside influencers with different views will naturally clash and compete. In the end, some institutions will wind up more progressive or more conservative, [and] some institutions will be more or less tolerant of criticisms of Israel." Both "sides" should be free to wage ideological war on the other, and let the chips fall where they may. 

The more workaday "free speech" position on this issue, the one Nwanevu is contesting, holds something like the following: (1) campus administrators should not punish or obstruct university speakers on the basis of their views, no matter how repellant (the prohibition on de jure censorship); and (2) non-administrative actors should largely limit the domains in which they oppose speech they disagree with to appropriate ideological channels (the norm against "cancel culture"). The former lays out, e.g., why one shouldn't prohibit a "bad" speaker from giving a talk on campus. The latter explains why its problematic to, e.g., refuse to hire an undergraduate for a summer internship because one didn't like their column in the campus newspaper.

Both prongs of this position have come under tremendous strain over the past few months(/years). The first position has come under regular fire from various campus actors who demand that bad speech be formally punished -- in the cases of the Milos, the Ben Shapiros, and what have you, but more recently and ironically against the SJP-types. The second position has been said to be under siege by proponents of "cancel culture" who don't just disagree with X Y Z views but insist that their proponents must be fired from their jobs, ousted from campus clubs, and be viciously ostracized online; and likewise is remanifesting when pro-Palestinian students see their employment offers revoked and their likeness plastered on placards declaring them antisemites d'jour.

A popular argument here is that this is the chickens coming home to roost: leftists loudly decried both traditional free speech and free speech culture, and are now reaping what they sowed. Nwanevu takes aim at this account, however:

It is not at all obvious, actually, that defenses of Palestinian resistance, particularly armed resistance, and criticisms of Israel⁠—which has long been neigh-untouchable in mainstream political discourse—would have been more well-tolerated in a world where the campus controversies of the last decade hadn’t happened. We likely would have seen the very same pressure to support Israel after Hamas’s attack; as such, the speech climate likely would have been just as stultifying.

To believe otherwise is to invest fully in an odd precedential logic that regularly leads minds astray in these debates—those who use and abuse power are not always groping around for actions in the past that might justify their actions in the present. Reality is not a judiciary. And believing otherwise gives agency and responsibility over to whataboutism. Israel’s defenders and the right point to campus progressives, progressives might rightly say that conservatives and reactionaries suppressed left-wingers on campus first during the Cold War, defenders of Cold War conservatives might allude to the Soviets and the gulag, defenders of the Soviets might reference the repression of left-wing activists and thinkers by reactionary governments, and on and on backward in time to some creature of the caves who first realized that a club to the head was a reliable way to end arguments.

There is both more and less to this argument than it appears. On the one hand, I think Nwanevu is clearly right that the "precedential" bulwark against censorship would always be one whose robustness would be limited. "Reality is not a judiciary" indeed, there are always counter-precedents to point to, and everything we know about free speech suggests that there are far more fair-weather friends who are perfectly happy to demand freedom for me and censorship for thee than there are truly committed free speech ideologues who may, regrettably, falter in their commitments due to their opponents' hypocrisy. I agree that no matter how fastidious campus leftists may have been regarding free speech in 2022, it would not have stopped some people calling for the censorship of certain pro-Palestinian views in 2023.

That said, I also think Nwanevu is understating the degree to which the progressive development of free speech institutions is serving as a genuine bulwark against more censorial impulses, even now. Much as I think the levels of antisemitism on campus are overstated by alarmists even as they are no doubt real; it also must be said that the degree of censorship directed towards pro-Palestinian advocacy is simultaneously real and overstated by alarmists as well. Everything is a matter of margins: the question isn't whether commitments to free speech would eliminate all calls for censorship (or even successful instances of censorship), it's whether they are comparatively better at providing protection than alternatives.

In that vein: it is frankly absurd to contend that "criticism of Israel" is or has been "well-neigh untouchable" in campus politics. Take your average academic open letter savaging Israel signed by 1000 university professors, and 99.98% of them will not experience any tangible administrative blowback whatsoever. There's a ton of pro-Palestinian speech that does not and should not get any no pushback at all, and that's largely attributable to free speech commitments working.

Even looking at the list of exceptions proves the rule. Students for Justice in Palestine got targeted after it called the October 7 massacre a "historic win" that would augur a righteous campaign whereby Jews would be ethnically cleansed from Israel (yes, they did). Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure after writing a book titled "The Holocaust Industry". One can (like me) think that views like these are nonetheless protected while also zeroing in on exactly what is triggering the censorship -- not "pro-Palestinian speech" generally, but whooping and cheering a mass rape campaign specifically, or stating that Holocaust remembrance was an industry Jews exploit for profit, specifically. If that speech is coterminous with "pro-Palestinian" speech, that's a far more searing indictment of the field than I could give. And the notion that a more stultifying free speech environment than what we're seeing now is impossible to imagine -- well, I don't think it takes much in the way of imagination at all.

All that said, Nwanevu deserves credit for being willing to pay the piper. In the free speech total war "clash" between various stakeholders, sometimes, progressives will lose, not just in the realm of ideas, but lose quite tangibly -- their jobs, their social positions, their livelihoods. If one wants to extract those costs on others, one has to accept them for oneself.

Taking the freedom of institutions seriously in this way is not without costs for progressives. Bill Ackman and the captains of Wall Street do, in this framework, have the right to bar pro-Palestinian activists from employment at Scrooge McDuck Capital. The purges we’re seeing now are not incompatible with sound liberal principles—advocates for the Palestinian cause will not find refuge in them or in a fuzzy speech maximalism defined and defended inconsistently by most of its own proponents.


The only recourse is politics—the sturdiest argument against the repression of those speaking for Palestine isn’t that institutions and the billionaires and propagandists pressuring them don’t have the right to try suppressing Israel’s critics but that the Palestinian cause is substantively just, and Israel’s defenders are backing a senseless and immoral war, a stance more and more Americans are coming to agree with.

The "Scrooge McDuck" shot is a bit cowardly -- not because Ackman deserves any special deference, but because right after admitting that it's fine for pro-Palestinian activists to be subjected to the full blast of modern cancel culture it then slyly suggests that the only actual "costs" they might face are withdrawal of opportunities a good cadre member shouldn't desire anyway. The reality is far worse: the costs we're talking about aren't just loss of a chance to engage in rapacious vulture capitalism; they extend to every nook and cranny of the good life, every hobby and professional ambition a young person might have. That's what's on the table here -- for everyone, on both sides. The whole point is that Bill Ackman and SJP are equally entitled to pursue their ideological agenda by any means necessary.  The end game, so bloodlessly described as "some institutions will wind up more progressive or more conservative", is better described as "ideological dissidents will be ruthlessly hounded out of their places of study, of worship, of employment, and of respite" -- dozens of the most caricatured version of Oberlin College being paired with countless New Colleges of Florida. Maybe we might think that, once the dust settles, everyone will be happier sorted into their neat ideological bubbles. But the transitional costs of successfully cleansing out the minorities will be monstrous -- a Tiebout sorting of the most vicious kind. And that really should be an intimidating proposition.

Why does Nwanevu nonetheless endorse going down that road? One possibility is that he doesn't truly believe the war will be as total as he's letting on. But another possibility is that he thinks that, when the dust settles, his side will win. The momentum is on their side. As many of "his" people will have their lives ruined by pro-Israel cancellation, he believes pro-Palestinian cancellation will be able to ruin even more. Is he right? I'm not as sure as he is about who would end up prevailing in a true free speech total war. But I do know that the casualty count will be staggering.

Like in real war, the constraints on free speech total war are fragile. The appeal of total war isn't pure sadism; it genuinely gives one a greater chance to win; it allows one to gain ground and overrun strongholds that otherwise might seem impregnable. But of course, that means that if one side indulges in it, the other must respond in kind -- a vicious circle to a world where everything is fair game and no one and nowhere is safe. And whatever marginal benefits one side or another might get in the conflict, the absolute costs are catastrophic. There's a reason why after World War II we labored as mightily as possible to ensure that a war like that never occurred again -- the world barely survived one war of that degree of fury, and it was far from clear it could survive a second.  

I am inclined to think similarly towards the concept of a free speech total war. Of course, one way of reading Nwanevu's essay is believing that we're already in a world of free speech total war, one impressed upon progressives by conservatives, and they're only playing the hand they've been dealt (indeed, he even alludes to 303 Creative making similar points to what I made in my introduction). As alluded above, I don't think that's true -- I think we're actually quite far from a free speech total war, and we should be very leery about removing the guardrails keeping such a war at bay. A true free speech total war would be cataclysmic, disastrous, and, importantly, would look nothing like even the decayed and damaged free speech culture we have now. It would be far, far worse. We should not run eagerly towards it. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

New Year's Resolutions 2024

It's The Debate Link's longest tradition: New Year's Resolutions! The whole series is here, but we begin as always with last year's resolutions.

Met: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 (and how!), 7, 9, 12 (it's BlueSky though), 13

Missed: 4 (but we might be getting close?), 8, 10, 11

Pick 'em: 14 (it was "fixed", but not really, and then I just got a new one).

* * *

1) Get promoted to Associate Professor.

2) Get a book contract (they can't run forever!).

3) Successfully negotiate terms of leave and/or course release for the 2024-25 academic year.

4) Reach 1200 rating in blitz chess.

5) Attend a non-law academic conference.

6) Complete a Lego set.

7) Visit Las Vegas.

8) Attend a Winterhawks game.

9) Get feedback on my TV script.

10) Continue using my recumbent bike regularly.

11) Incorporate two semi-new vegetables into my diet.

12) Resolve my evening post-nasal drip to my satisfaction.

13) Reach 1000 followers on BlueSky.

14) Create with Jill one new meat-based entree successful enough to enter our dinner rotation.

Friday, December 22, 2023

A "Permanent Ceasefire" is Called a Peace Treaty

Suppose one looks out at the devastation covering the Gaza Strip and thinks "we need an immediate ceasefire".

Nobody should ever fault that instinct. The immense human suffering being endured by Gaza's people should exert a moral pull on anyone who remotely cares about the human dignity of all persons. But, one might be asked, what about the hostages held by Hamas? Shouldn't they also be immediately released? Why should Hamas, in its capacity as the governing entity of the Gaza Strip, be the only beneficiary of a ceasefire that breaks a round of fighting they started?

You're not one of those ghouls who thinks the October 7 attack was justified. You absolutely think the hostages should be immediately released. It seems like a perfectly reasonable pairing: ceasefire in exchange for freeing the hostages.

Except ... you know that Hamas isn't going to release the hostages. And if "ceasefire" is linked to releasing the hostages, then there will be no ceasefire. In fact, Hamas just rejected a ceasefire proposal linked to it releasing 40 more hostages. So even if you think that Hamas is being unreasonable in rejecting this deal, the brute fact remains that tying the hostages to the ceasefire means that the ceasefire isn't going to happen. Which means it will be very tempting for those who think an immediate ceasefire  is the most essential thing to drop the demand; a drop which, in turn, makes it exceedingly unlikely that Israel will agree to a ceasefire.

Here we have the core paradox that afflicts the ceasefire talk: it takes two to ceasefire. Both parties have to agree. And both parties are going to have conditions. But, needless to say, in times of war the prerequisites each party will demand in order to accede to a ceasefire are rather far apart -- they're usually the precise thing being fought over. And that means both parties have veto points that can't be just wished out of existence.

At one level, it would be incredibly easy to get either party to agree to a ceasefire. If Hamas agreed to surrender outright, give up all its weaponry, submit to permanent Israeli dominion, and hand over its leadership for prosecution for the atrocities on October 7, Israel would no doubt end the fighting post haste. And if Israel agreed to dissolve itself as a sovereign entity, ship the "Zionist colonizers back where they came from", and submit to Hamas' suzerainty, I'm reasonably confident Hamas would happily agree to end hostilities.

But of course those conditions aren't going to be accepted. A ceasefire requires an actual deal to be struck, not the fantasized maximalism of one party or the other's most passionate zealots. 

There isn't such thing as a unilateral ceasefire. Check that -- there is, and it's where one party is allowed to strike the other and then cry "ceasefire" upon the ensuing retaliation. The Israeli narrative of what the pro-Palestinian community thinks should have happened vis-a-vis October 7 is (1) Hamas invades Israel, rapes, mutilates, and massacres a thousand people, and takes hundreds of hostages, and then (2) a "ceasefire" goes into effect the moment they leave, preventing Israel from striking back. That's not tenable. There's no such thing as a war where only one side is permitted to show up.

After all, perhaps the most fundamental question behind a ceasefire is "what happens if it is broken?" As Israel partisans like to remind people, there was a ceasefire on October 6, and it was rather suddenly and violently breached. What are the consequences of that action? There has to be something, otherwise "ceasefire" is a semantic nothing. Returning to a state of "ceasefire", where that means Hamas can just continue to launch renewed October 7-style attacks (as they have expressly promised to keep on doing) and Israel just has to accept it, is clearly a non-starter and makes a mockery of the term "ceasefire". But if we say "well, if the ceasefire is broken, then military hostilities can resume", then we're right back to where we are today -- with no ceasefire. We are living through right now "if the ceasefire is broken, then military hostilities can resume".

But suppose you can get around that -- somehow, you achieve some ironclad security guarantees that take military confrontation absolutely off the table. And having prospectively secured that, you say, the important thing now is to just separate the warring parties and have everyone go back to their corners. Israel stops attacking Gaza, Hamas returns Israeli hostages, and as far as possible we just rewind the clock back to October 6 (and just try to ignore all the pointless bloodshed and destruction that we're quite intentionally trying to make utterly meaningless).

Except ... October 6 wasn't exactly a satisfactory place to live. There was still an Israeli blockade on Gaza, still no real recognized Palestinian state, still no real Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state ... October 6 is not good! The Palestinian narrative of what the pro-Israel community thinks should have happened around October 6 is (1) Gaza is besieged forever, with no recognition of Palestinian independence and (2) there is no step two. If a "ceasefire" just freezes the October 6 status quo, that's hardly a good outcome either. The problem with October 6 is that it tends to lead into October 7.

So a durable ceasefire can't just rest upon the declaration "ceasefire!" We need a host of other features -- the aforementioned Israeli security guarantees, instantiation of Palestinian independence, an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza, acknowledgment and recognition of Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state, and ... oh look, you've just described the contours of a permanent peace treaty.

Which won't be negotiated overnight (for example, if you disagree with any part of the litany I gave in the last paragraph, that underscores the problem). And so if we think we need an immediate ceasefire, that's not going to work for you. Which brings us back to the initial problem. For which I don't have a solution. 

It is evident enough that only some form of negotiated solution will provide durable justice for Israelis and Palestinians. Hamas is not going to massacre its way to dismantling the Zionist regime; Israel is not going to bomb Gaza into passively accepting permanent subjugation. There's no way out but through a deal. Unfortunately, the obvious truth of that fact -- which seems like it should provide an impetus for an immediate ceasefire -- doesn't actually end up having much to do with it. We are not at the end; we remain, still, "somewhere in the horrifying middle".

Image from the music video for "Handlebars," by Flobots

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Giving Myself an "Atta Boy"


Confession time: I'm not much of an exerciser.

I played rec sports as a kid, and while I enjoyed it, I was never serious about it. Same in college -- I enjoyed playing intramural floor hockey, but that was really about it. Once I graduated and the sort of automatic opportunities to play sports went away, I was never someone who wanted to join a pickup basketball game or anything like that. And things like running, or going to the gym? Forget about it. Always found them to be incredibly boring.

But without consciously working out, being a professor is a pretty sedentary lifestyle. As a graduate student things were a little better just because I lived about a mile's walk from campus -- just the right amount to get some steps in without it being too much of a drain. But then the pandemic hit, and nobody saw the sun for a few years. That corresponding to me hitting my mid-30s was not a great combo.

I tried a few things. We bought a "RingFit" for the Switch -- didn't really catch on. I tried doing sit-ups each morning or using a "stepper" machine, but they didn't really take. One problem is that I have recurrent knee and lower-leg problems, which meant that the shock even of jogging very quickly caused terrible pain. So it was in particularly really hard to do any cardio, which is what I really thought I needed but could never fully motivate myself to do in earnest.

But this summer, my wife and I bought a recumbent bike. And I really like it. More importantly, I've stuck with it. I can get genuine cardio without destroying my knees, which is something that had always been my white whale. And after years of never getting past (extremely) sporadic exercise patterns, I've been able to commit to riding the bike almost every day. I'm not smashing any records or anything like that; my goals have been modest -- at first, just trying to go 10 miles in 40 minutes (the length of one Hell's Kitchen episode). More recently, I kicked that up to 11 miles in 40 minutes, and today, for the first time ever, I did 12 miles in 40 minutes. Again, nothing objectively impressive. But it was a big achievement for me, and so I'm very happy about it.

One of my initial ambitions when I started using the bike admittedly was to lose some weight -- not so much for aesthetic reasons, and more that I have a whole closet full of perfectly good pre-pandemic suits that I'd love to fit back into rather than having to buy a new wardrobe. That hasn't really happened -- my weight has stayed remarkably stable, which is less of a disappointment than a source of profound confusion: I don't feel like I'm eating any differently, so it seems to defy physics that I have the same inputs, can add working out six days a week to my daily routine as outputs, and yet not have it have any effect on my body mass. Newton, hold my beer. But I've decided to stop thinking of it as "not losing weight" and start thinking of it as "a heroic holding-of-the-line against the ravages of middle-aged metabolism."

But really, that's all of secondary concern. The fact is that after years of essentially not exercising at all, I have for the past several months been extremely diligent and reliable in exercising most evenings, and I feel really good about that. So I'm giving myself an "atta boy".

What are you atta boying yourself for this year?

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

What the UAW's New Leadership Means for Campus BDS

The United Auto Workers (UAW), fresh off their huge contract win with the "Big Three" automakers following their strike, have joined a petition calling for a ceasefire in Gaza (the petition also expressly calls for the immediate release of Israeli hostages). They are (I believe) the largest union to sign on to the statement as a full union (as opposed to via individual locals).

I think Spencer Ackerman might be a little ... optimistic (from his vantage) about what this augurs for the UAW going forward (h/t: LGM). Still, at one level, endorsing this petition is very much in line with the UAW's new, more aggressively progressive leadership. And at another level, I hardly expect the UAW to go full BDS or anything like that (as Ackerman notes, a pretty sizeable chunk of the UAW's workers are Trump-voting "economic nationalists", which may or may not put a brake on the union as a whole going too lefty on foreign policy or anything else). Ceasefire + return of the hostages is a far cry from the hyper-left politics many fantasize about the union vanguarding on Israel and Palestine.

But I'm just going to quickly flag a sideline here that's of interest to me. For obscure reasons, the UAW is the union that represents graduate students at the University of California (though strangely enough, people always gave me odd looks when I called myself "an autoworker"). My recollection from my time back at Berkeley is that the UAW national office intervened to put some brakes on BDS activity by the graduate student local when the latter got a little too frisky on the subject. But that was under the old regime. And again, while I don't expect the UAW as a whole to suddenly endorse BDS, it would not surprise me if the new leadership took a more laissez-faire attitude to what their locals did on the question -- including their grad student locals.

Just something to keep in mind.

UPDATE: For example, the Association for Legal Aid Attorneys (a union for public defenders), which is also under the UAW umbrella, just passed a resolution which not only call for an immediate ceasefire but also endorses full BDS and a Palestinian right of return while not mentioning the Israeli hostages at all (indeed, it only gives one very passing passive-voiced mention to "the violent tragedy on October 7, 2023").

Endless Stunt Investigations is All the House GOP Has Done, Because It's All They Can Agree Upon

Back in January, I registered a prediction that the only thing the new House GOP majority would do with its newfound power would be launch endless stunt investigations into the Biden administration because they literally can't agree on anything else.

That's the shot, here's the chaser.

That chart is obviously a bit misleading in presentation, but the ultimate payoff is still right: this House has been historically unproductive in actually enacting laws. Unsurprising, given that the governing party is a completely dysfunctional mess. The only thing they can do is authorize blatant fishing expedition impeachment inquiries literally justified by the fact that they haven't actually found any evidence of an impeachable offense yet.

How embarrassing for them. But how heartening for my predictive capabilities! (nb: this was actually an incredibly easy prediction to make).

Monday, December 18, 2023

Gone Fishin'

I just returned from the Association for Jewish Studies' annual conference, which I very much enjoyed (though unfortunately I had to bail early).

A thought I had while I was there -- and in retrospect, I maybe should have asked fellow attendees -- relates to the relationship of Jewish identity and anti-Israel sentiment amongst left-of-center Jews. Basically, my hypothesis is that this relationship looks like a fish hook: anti-Israel sentiment is highest amongst Jews who are least connected to their Jewish identity, drops as one moves to those with some connection, but then goes up again (albeit not as extensively) amongst those who feel very strongly connected to their Jewish identity.

Some of this is anecdotal. Certainly, the sense that persons who lack substantial connection to their Jewish identity tend to hold Israel in the lowest regard is well-known. But one also cannot ignore the growing Israel-critical sentiments amongst persons whose Jewish identity is clearly central to their personal and professional lives. The absolute panic one is seeing in some quarters claiming that "Jewish Studies" has become an anti-Israel hot house, though wildly overstated quantitatively, is certainly testament that there's some phenomenon at work here.

Here's my theoretical model. Israel, and connection to it, is descriptively speaking an important part of Jewish life even in the diaspora. Disassociating from it therefore comes at a cost for people connected to the Jewish community. For Jews who have relatively little in the way of connection to their Jewish identity, this cost is functionally absent -- they weren't especially linked to the broader Jewish community to begin with, so they aren't really losing anything by dropping this aspect of Jewish identity. For Jews whose Jewish identity is comparatively stronger, by contrast, the sacrifice is real and is substantial, and indeed may be overwhelming for persons whose connections to organized Jewish life are modest. If one does care about one's Jewish identity but does not overflow with avenues for expressing it, losing even one prominent modality of connection to Jewish peoplehood may swamp everything else. But as we move to the most-connected Jews, their Jewish identity is rich and secure enough that they can afford to jettison individual elements that are not working for them. They have plenty of ways of being Jewish that can replace affinity for or connection to Israel.

I offer this hypothesis purely descriptively -- I'm not saying any Jew of any level of connection to their Jewish identity is behaving "rightly" or "wrongly" in associating or not with Israel to any particular degree. And so mostly, I'm curious if the hypothesis has descriptive accuracy to it. I know the general data suggests that degree of connectivity to Judaism is negatively associated with anti-Israel sentiment, so I'm really curious if its a pure downward slide or if there is that "fish hook" bump at the right edge of the graph.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

See No IDF Evil

I'm in the throes of grading and I'm traveling for most of the period from now through New Year's. But I did want to quickly (for me; it's all relative) speak a bit about the way the American Jewish community is adopting a "see no evil" approach to IDF activities in the Gaza Strip (and beyond).

There are plenty of reports of IDF soldiers targeting non-belligerents. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem just accused IDF snipers of killing two women sheltering in a convent "in cold blood". Reuters claims IDF tank fire deliberately targeted its journalists in circumstances where there were no nearby belligerents. MSF likewise claims Israeli forces deliberately targeted its medical personnel (I remember this one because MSF initially did not accuse any particular party of responsibility, which gives credence to the notion that it was not reflexively lobbing out an allegation but rather actually engaged in some measure of investigation). One could go on.

One thing that often isn't part of these conversations is the catastrophically high levels of overt racism that exist towards Arabs in the young (which is to say, military-age) Israeli population. If roughly a third of population from which Israel is drawing its soldiers endorses things like "stripping Arab Israelis of their citizenship" and otherwise endorsing hate against Arabs, it would be stunning if we didn't see significant instances of at the very least indifference towards protecting Arab civilian life, if not outright infliction of war crimes. That'd be true in all circumstances, but particularly in the context of this conflict and the brutal Hamas massacre that precipitated it. Meanwhile, David Ignatius reports what many have seen, which is that soldiers drawn from the more radical parts of the settlement project basically view their IDF service and their status a price tag raiders as more-or-less interchangeable. Given all that, the denialism that IDF forces likely are in a non-trivial number of cases either deliberately attacking protected persons, or at the very least not paying due heed to Palestinian life is absolutely incredible.

One place one "pro-Israel" American Jews could retreat to would be to concede abuses may be occurring, but say that they (a) are not policy and (b) should be investigated and punished as appropriate. The first part is likely true (or true-ish; whether the rules of engagement are properly respecting the legal boundaries about proportionality and distinction is an open question). The second part causes problems. Even before the current conflict, it was increasingly apparent that potential war crimes that occur in the midst of combat operations will never be significantly investigated or punished by the Israeli government. Just convicting and then commuting the sentence of Elor Azaria almost ripped the country apart; the current government is full of zealots one whose general approach to vigilante Jewish violence targeting Arabs is to propose giving the perpetrators medals. Nobody actually expects significant or serious Israeli investigations into alleged war crimes committed by its soldiers.

But accepting that IDF soldiers likely are, in non-trivial numbers of cases, engaging in criminal conduct towards Palestinians during combat operations would put into stark relief the paucity of actual investigation and punishment, at which point it'd be virtually impossible to defend the Israeli government's conduct. Far easier to take advantage of the fog of war to cover one's eyes to the primary instances of abuse. That such denialism relies on almost impossibly optimistic presuppositions about the IDF's professionalism and its putative status -- more of a slogan than an empirically-testable proposition -- as "the most moral army in the world" is besides the point.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The Day After Hamas

The New York Times reports increasing "daylight" (to use an old term) between President Biden and Netanyahu regarding what the aftermath of the Gaza campaign will look like -- specifically, regarding the role that the Palestinian Authority might have in governing Gaza once (knock on wood) Hamas is defeated. 

Paul Campos thinks this is reflective of the worries regarding "the administration’s up until now very muted response to the siege of Gaza, and the gathering human rights and public health catastrophe that it represents." I'm not sure that's quite right, though it's perhaps lurking in the background. The more prominent instinct, I think, is that Biden fundamentally agrees with Israel regarding the merits and necessity of destroying Hamas, but fundamentally disagrees with Bibi regarding "the day after". The more "the day after" becomes salient in our minds and we start thinking not in terms of the war's prosecution but its aftermath, the more we're going to see latent but always-present disagreements between Bibi and Biden come to a fore. One sees this dynamic particularly in how Biden relates his response to Bibi's claim that the allies "carpet bombed Germany" -- "I said, 'Yeah, that’s why all these institutions were set up after World War II, to see to it that it didn’t happen again.'" The former point is about prosecution of the war, the latter point is about how we handled the aftermath.

For Biden, destroying Hamas has to be followed by aggressive state-building efforts meant to provide a real future (economically, socially, and politically) for the Palestinian people. The allusion to the Marshall Plan after World War II is clearly part of this, and other relevant players are also insisting that any plans for rebuilding Gaza credibly commit to a realistic pathway for Palestinian statehood. For Bibi -- well, I really have no idea what Bibi's "day after" plan is. I don't think he actually wants to fully reoccupy Gaza; but he also doesn't want the PA involved; or international involvement; and certainly Hamas is out the question; so ... where are we left? He seems much more interested in what he'll say "no" to than what he can plausibly say "yes" to, because at this stage in the game reality has become Bibi's unconquerable enemy. And Biden, in turn, isn't going to have a lot of patience for Israel post-war simply refusing to let Gaza rebuild itself or have any sort of self-governance structure whatsoever just because Bibi can no longer square the circle of "no formal occupation" and "no Palestinian independence" by building a castle around Gaza and then never thinking about it again..

Even if one accepts that Israel is pot committed to destroying Hamas, that doesn't obviate but rather accentuates the need to have a serious answer to the "day after" question. Anyone remotely serious figure understands that the war in Gaza is the middle of the story, not the end, which makes it unsurprising that Bibi wants to treat it as an end and just close his eyes to what happens in the aftermath. Biden is a more serious person, and so he's actually contemplating these questions. 

Monday, December 11, 2023

Texas' Great Abortion Compromise

The GOP's "compromise" position on abortion has always been clear.

(a) It will include in its categorical abortion bans exceptions for threats to the life or health of the mother; and in exchange

(b) It will threaten to jail any woman or doctor who dares try to use those exceptions.


The Texas Supreme Court has vacated a lower court ruling that enjoined the state from prosecuting a doctor who was set to give a woman a medically-necessary abortion. Even when the injunction was in place, state Attorney General Ken Paxton threatened to prosecute any doctor or hospital which abided by its terms and provided the procedure. And that threat remains on the table for future persons in this position (the plaintiff in this case, Kate Cox, has subsequently fled the state of Texas to receive the emergency care she needed. One presumes that the instant she returns, the bounty hunters licensed by Texas' ghoulish "pro-life" inquisitors will be hounding her).

Cox had a nonviable pregnancy -- her fetus had been diagnosed with trisomy 18, a fatal chromosomal condition -- and she had already faced severe health complications that repeatedly sent her to the hospital. Her doctors accordingly concluded that continuing the pregnancy would threaten her health and future fertility. But the state of Texas swung into action to do everything it could to ensure that she could not get the medical care she needed, insisting that Kate Cox's continued mortal peril was a legal obligation, and woe befall anyone who dared try to rescue her from it.

The Texas Supreme Court's opinion is a sterling encapsulation of the "compromise" laid out above. Over and over again, it asserts (in what would be comic if it weren't so dire) that decisions regarding whether an abortion is medically necessary are to be made by doctors, not judges. Doctors, not judges; doctors, not judges; doctors, not judges. And the court purports to confirm that doctors need not attain a pre-procedure judicial injunction before they perform a medically-necessary abortion; nor must they wait until death is "imminent" before performing the procedure.

So why are we here? Well, because after repeating "doctors, not judges" for the umpteenth time, the Court says "buuuuuut the doctor needs more than a good faith assessment, his or her judgment has to be 'objectively reasonable.'" And who decides that? It will be judges, after the fact! And what are the markers of "objectively reasonable" in this context? The court throws up its hands -- your guess is as good as mine! Except it isn't, because if you guess wrong, Ken Paxton has a prison cell waiting for you!

The way the "compromise" works out is that Republicans earnestly promise in theory all the exceptions and carveouts that make an abortion ban regime even remotely compatible with respecting women as humans, then do absolutely everything they can to make all of those provisions completely inaccessible in practice. Here the Texas Supreme Court makes three such promises: the decision regarding "medically-necessary" is one for doctors, not judges; the decision does not require advanced authorization by a judge; and the decision does not have to wait until the patient is bleeding out on the operating table. Each of these is less than "reasonable", they are the absolutely bare sub-minimum Texas women should be entitled to. And all three of them are lies.

The reason why Kate Cox and her doctors went to court is because they had absolutely no way of knowing if their judgment about the medically-necessary character of this abortion would be respected by the state of Texas, and if they guessed wrong, they were facing serious criminal penalties. So they needed a judge to confirm they were in the statutory safe harbor. The Texas Supreme Court's response was to say "try it and see" -- knowing full well that the entire problem is that doctors will be too terrified to try with the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head. In those circumstances, of course doctors will be hesitant to move until the case for a health-exception is rock-solid, not from their own "judgment", but in terms of whatever firebrand yahoo anti-women extremist is gazing over their shoulders from the Attorney General's office. And that's going to mean wanting to wait until one has formal judicial approval; or wait until the patient is bleeding out on the table. The promises are lies, and they are meant to be lies. The reality is exactly as ghoulish and inhuman in its cavalier indifference to women's life and health as it has always been presented, and that's fully intentional.

There is one little bit of the Court's opinion I will defend. At the outset, the Court characterizes the Texas laws at issue, which effectively ban abortion in all cases and in this case effectively compelled a woman to carry a non-viable, life-threatening pregnancy to term in the face of excruciating agony and serious medical danger, as "reflect[ing] the policy choice that the Legislature has made." That they did. Texas has made a policy choice that women, in their capacity as vessels, have essentially no rights over their bodies even in the face of excruciating pain, unfathomable injury, or devastating risk. There should be no pretending that it was doing anything different; no illusion that outcomes like this are not exactly what Texas hoped would happen when it enacted its law. 

The point of Texas' law was to ensure that women would be placed in mortal peril and then left at the arbitrary mercy of the state to determine whether their lives would be preserved, and to that extent the Texas Supreme Court was doing nothing more here than faithfully enforcing the will of the Texas legislature. The United States Supreme Court has decreed that, after fifty years where women were acknowledged as human, the judiciary must respect that "policy choice". There remain many avenues through which that choice still can be resisted. But the very least, we can accurately name what that choice is: a choice to endanger women and to make it functionally illegal to give them desperately-needed medical care. What Kate Cox went through is what local and national Republicans hope and demand women around the country should be subjected to, over and over and over again.

Saturday, December 09, 2023

Bad Faith Grandstanding on Campus Free Speech is Rewarded

The President of the University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Magill, has resigned in the wake of her testimony before Congress about university responses to campus antisemitism.

This is terrible news. To be sure, I don't think Magill is obligated to stay in a position where she feels she either can't be effective or can't function; she has no obligation to stick things out in what I can only imagine is right now an impossibly toxic atmosphere. But still, Magill deserved better; she said absolutely nothing wrong in her testimony. Yet the bad faith grandstanding of the likes of Elise Stefanik -- an antisemitic conspiracy-mongerer in her own right -- has claimed a high-profile victim.

I published my post Thursday before reading Ken White's more colorful response to those smearing Magill, but I endorse it in full. There have definitely been other prominent free speech advocates who have taken the right line here, including Eugene Volokh and David Lat

But others are not rising to the moment. I flagged in my last post Keith Whittington for wrongly and misleadingly making Magill rather than Stefanik into his standard-bearer for greater campus restrictions on speech -- even if we think Magill was wrong to begin bending to Stefanik's threats, it's evident that Magill did not originate them. To the contrary, the backlash against Magill -- which Whittington tacitly tried to latch on to -- was and is entirely about her perceived unwillingness to bend sufficiently on protecting free speech. Anyone who was joining the dunk party on Magill was, implicitly or explicitly, endorsing the very unambiguous politics of free speech censorship that Stefanik was explicitly promoting. I can't top Ken White here: "You — and I say this with love — absolute fucking dupes."

Now that Magill has resigned, here is how Whittington reacted to the news:

It's hard to imagine missing the point by a wider margin than this. Whittington's worried that Magill's resignation will be "construed" as a "mandate to shrink the space for free speech" and to "cater to the sensitivities and political preferences of donors and politicians"? Yeah, no kidding -- it will absolutely be "construed" as doing both of those things because that's exactly what prompted it. The lesson that was meant to be sent and which will be learned is "shrink the space for speech when politicians and donors demand that you do so." There's no ambiguity here; that's the entirety of what happened. Anyone who didn't want that to happen should have come out firing in defense of Magill and in opposition to the roiling censorial mob that Stefanik effectively incited.

Magill felt compelled to resign because she publicly articulated -- in the most hostile room imaginable -- the free speech values that Whittington claims are essential. That's it. And that Whittington still cannot name the actual enemy here -- cannot state clearly that Magill got it right, is being punished for getting it right, and it is rabble-rousing Republican demagogues who showed their whole face in terms of demanding censorship under the guise of protecting Jewish students -- is shameful.

I'm also not feeling especially patient towards some of the other common lines I've heard that try to rationalize why it's okay to blame Magill as having done something wrong. One common response I've seen is to say that the witnesses were poorly prepped for the particular environment of a congressional hearing; with better preparation, they could have avoided the "traps" laid out in front of them. I'm doubtful: I think it is the hubris of very smart people in particular that think they can go into a demagogue's home turf, where they're entirely in control of the proceedings, can control the flow of questioning, can reclaim time whenever they want, and outmaneuver their "traps". It's the same hubris that makes liberals think they can go on Fox News and "outdebate Hannity". No you can't, and it's not because Hannity is some secret genius. It's that he has the home field advantage -- he knows how to play this particular game better than you, precisely because it's a "game" that does not in any way reward intellectual honesty or virtuosity.

A similar argument is that, while the responses of Magill et al may have been formally, legally, correct, they were inappropriate in this context -- their role was not to be lawyers but public advocates for their university, and their sin was misapprehending what was called for from their position in this context. My former colleague at Berkeley Steven Davidoff Solomon, for example, described the university presidents as "prepared to give answers in the court — and not a public forum,” and that was their undoing: their job here is “not to give legal answers, it’s to give the vision of the university."

Once again, I'll cry foul. Yes, there are many situations where a technically correct answer nonetheless can be a bad answer because it skirts some larger truth or is inattentive to important surrounding context, which a good answer would pay heed to. But this argument only works if the problems with the "technically correct" answer are not the facts which make it correct. The people who are mad at Magill are not mad based on something like "yes, maybe it's technically true that there are some circumstances where 'calls to genocide' are protected from formal sanction, but it's more important right now to emphasize how heinous those calls are even if they always be literally punished." The thing they're mad about is the thing that Magill said which was true: there are some circumstances where even 'calls to genocide' -- and we're not even getting into Stefanik's attempt to frame the at the least more ambiguous case of 'intifada' chants as a "call to genocide" -- are protecting from formal punishment. As Howard Wasserman wrote:

Magill, Gay, and Kornbluth did not fail to denounce calls for genocide as antisemitic. No one asked whether calls for genocide or "river to sea" are antisemitic; Stefanik asked whether those statements constitute protected speech and they gave the correct answer of "it depends on context," because it does. In fact, they did at points condemn the message, just without expressing intent to sanction the speech where it remained protected.

Put differently, it's fine to say that in some cases a "technically correct answer" isn't good enough, but only if your proposed alternative is not to demand the speaker be overtly and substantively incorrect.

The last thing I'll say is that I'm not generally interested in point-tallying of the "this is the real cancel culture" variety. Free speech, as I've often said, has mostly fair-weather friends, and no camp has covered itself in glory across the board. What I will say though is that no matter how one tallies the overall scoreboard, this absolutely is an incident where the forces of censorship won and those demanding respect for free speech principles lost. The next time we face an incident where some controversial right-winger comes to campus, it will be a lot harder to persuasively lecture our students that as hateful and heinous as this figure may be, this is the demand of free speech protections etc. etc. etc., because they will have seen in vivid detail just how easily those principles can be forced to bend. 

Maybe you think that's a good thing. I still think it isn't. And at the very least, the practical shakeout of who will in practice see their speech censored and who in practice will be able to access administrative protections remains to be seen. I have zero confidence that this will either find a stable and accepted equilibrium or ultimately redound to the benefit of young Jews enduring antisemitism on campus.

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Hebrew Letters in Portland

Earlier today, I was chatting with a friend on the subject of whether we felt "afraid" as Jews. I said that I didn't personally feel especially "afraid" as a Jew, but that I acknowledged that others in my circle (students, colleagues) were articulating different experiences from mine, and that I didn't want my own relative lack of fear to imply that their experience was inauthentic, concocted, or an overreaction.

A few hours after that exchange, Jill asked if I wanted to go out and get donuts for Chanukah. I looked down and saw I was wearing that shirt -- the one that says "Carleton College" in transliterated Hebrew letters. And before I left the house, I changed shirts. While it's not that I was sure something bad would happen if I went out in public wearing Hebrew letters, I felt in no uncertain terms that it was unwise -- a risk not worth taking -- and that if I did wear it I'd certainly feel anxious from the moment we stepped into the car until the moment I got home.

What changed? Obviously, nothing -- there was no event over the interceding two hours that precipitated fear in me that I lacked before. The sense that wearing that t-shirt outside might be an Unwise Idea was already latent inside me (there's a reason why the "Hebrew Letters in ...." post is an ongoing series) -- I just sort of ... forgot about it. The fear was simultaneously always present and yet so sublimated that even in this moment I could earnestly assert in perfect good faith that I wasn't feeling it.

I'm reminded of a phenomenon Albert Memmi wrote about where Jews who experience antisemitism often simultaneously say things like "this is the first time I've ever truly faced antisemitism" and then, if you press a half-inch on the matter, will kind of belatedly remember a dozen prior instances where they also faced antisemitism. As much as there is, in some circles, pressure on Jews to trumpet our vulnerability and insist that everyone Acknowledge Our Peril, there's also, in a different register, a ton of pressure on Jews to downplay antisemitism, to show that we're not one of Those Jews who jumps at every shadow, to not make a big deal and agree to lump it on the small stuff (this dichotomy is, too, one that I think is very much one that is experienced not just by Jews but by many minority group members).

But still, I'm not sure what to make of all of this. What does it mean that I said -- again, perfectly earnestly, not as an exercise of bravado -- that I didn't feel significant "fear" right now as a Jew in a moment where at some level I knew full well I didn't feel comfortable being visibly Jewish in public? Perhaps my understanding of what it meant to be "afraid" as a Jew was one that envisioned something more visceral and panicked -- feeling as if any second now someone would jump me, terrified that we're an instant away from a mob demanding the evil Jew be removed from campus. The more workaday experiences of not feeling comfortable wearing a Hebrew t-shirt, or idly wondering (as I sometimes do) "what would happen if someone graffiti-ed my house with a swastika" -- that I've just internalized as a baseline state of being, it surely is not serious enough to qualify as being afraid. That seems a problematic thought -- the idea that as Jews we've just so thoroughly normalized a level of anxiety over antisemitism as the default setting that it feels wrong to even identify it as "fear". But clearly there's something to it -- recall my posts on how "schoolchildren shouldn't have to live like Jews", which also relates to how Jews just accept as normal certain orientations towards threat and danger that objectively speaking should be seen as intolerable.

Nonetheless, when I say I'm not sure what to make of all of this -- I mean it. I'm not fully convinced that the "right" answer is that actually, I am afraid as a Jew and I should embrace that sensation. Just the other day I was talking about how, in contrast to the zeitgeist, I haven't felt like my personal social media feed (Facebook and the like) has been overrun with extremists or monsters either cheering dead Israelis or gushing over dead Palestinians. There've been a few, but not all that many in the scheme of things. "What am I doing wrong?", I joked. "Am I being shadowbanned from all the bad content? Or am I just that good at picking friends?" But the point is that in the main the notion that my status as a Jew right now is defined by fear and alienation just doesn't resonate with me. I respect that it does for others, but it isn't how I'd generally characterize my experience, and I don't like the thought of being conscripted into endorsing an affective state that doesn't actually resonate with me.

But then again, I still took the shirt off. So am I just self-deluding? Or is there some middle ground? I don't have a good answer.

Bad Faith Grandstanding on Campus Free Speech Shouldn't Be Rewarded

Many of you have seen the fallout over recent congressional testimony about antisemitism on college campuses, featuring the presidents of MIT, Penn, and Harvard. A particularly high-profile exchange came from Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), demanding to know if calling for "genocide" of Jews violated these university's conduct policies. 

The context of this questioning was the use of "intifada" in campus protests, which Stefanik suggested should be viewed as "genocidal". Right from the start, that should give us pause -- the ambiguity of "intifada" being conflated into "genocide" on its own gives ample reason for the university presidents to demur over committing to formal penalties. And certainly, in a world where its increasingly common to claim that Israel is pursuing a policy of genocide towards Palestinians, Jewish leaders should think long and hard about whether they really want to institute a rule that speech "advocating genocide" can be banned from campus. As Justice Black put it in his Beauharnais dissent, warning minority groups about the "victory" of securing a ban on hate speech: "Another such victory and I am undone."

Nonetheless, I've seen many people praising Stefanik for her "hard questioning", and dismissing the university presidents' responses as "dodges" or missteps. As grandstanding, I might concede that Stefanik was effective. But on substance, she was dead wrong, and the university presidents got it right. What we had here was a textbook example of an effective demagogue putting her targets in an impossible situation, and resolutely refusing to allow them to give a "good" answer, and I'm annoyed that this is being viewed as anything other than the bad faith rabble-rousing that it is.

Jon Chait has an excellent piece on this that strikes exactly the right notes. Here's his reprint of the relevant exchange between Stefanik and UPenn President Elizabeth Magill.

STEFANIK: Ms. Magill, at Penn, does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?

MAGILL: If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. Yes.

STEFANIK: I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?

MAGILL: If it is directed and severe, pervasive, it is harassment.

STEFANIK: So the answer is yes.

MAGILL: It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.

STEFANIK: So calling for the genocide of Jews is, depending upon the context, that is not bullying or harassment. This is the easiest question to answer. Yes, Ms. Magill. So is your testimony that you will not answer yes? Yes or no?

MAGILL: If the speech becomes conduct. It can be harassment, yes.

STEFANIK: Conduct meaning committing the act of genocide. The speech is not harassment. This is unacceptable. Ms. Magill, I’m gonna give you one more opportunity for the world to see your answer. Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s code of conduct when it comes to bullying and harassment? Yes or no?

MAGILL: It can be harassment.

This has been treated as Magill being evasive and Stefanik trying to nail her down. But in reality, everything Magill is saying is exactly correct. What she said is pretty similar to how I would've responded to my own students if they asked what the rules were surrounding such speech in a campus environment, and I resent the notion that giving an accurate answer to that question should be characterized as a faux pas. 

The truth is that even hateful speech -- and a call to genocide certainly qualifies as one -- is not the subject of proscription on university campuses. This is not some rule that was just made up when Jews got antsy; it was the same principle that demanded UC-Berkeley permit an unabashed racist like Milo speak on campus and insisted that avowed White supremacist Richard Spencer be allowed to give talks at campuses nationwide. Antisemitic speech is antisemitic, but when it is just speech and not conduct, it is still protected by principles of free speech. In her testimony Magill held the line admirably, and now she's being pilloried for it.

This is why I'm actually a bit annoyed at this Chronicle article by Keith Whittington, speaking as founding chair of the Academic Committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance. Whittington presents a choice looming for college campuses on speech, between holding fast to free speech principles versus seeking to restrict speech on basis of content in the name of "safety". The former position (which is also Whittington's) he associates with Stanford Law Dean Jenny Martinez, and how she handled the aftermath of the anti-Kyle Duncan protests on her campus. The latter position he ties to Magill:

A quite different path is suggested by the University of Pennsylvania’s president, M. Elizabeth Magill. Magill has come under particularly intense pressure to address perceived antisemitism on her campus. In her testimony to the congressional committee, she emphasized that “Penn’s approach to protest is guided by the U.S. Constitution” and gives “broad protection to free expression — even expression that is offensive.” But when confronted with questions about whether calls for genocide violated university policy, Magill and her fellow presidents stumbled in their replies. As a result, Magill released a short video. There she repeated that “Penn’s policies have been guided by the Constitution,” but she added that “in today’s world … these policies need to be clarified and evaluated.” She promised a “serious and careful look at our policies” with an eye to ensuring a “safe, secure, and supportive environment.” She will, she promised, “get this right.”

Magill’s implication is clear: The university’s policies need to be revised so that they do not so closely follow the Constitution; they should instead prioritize students’ sense of safety. Protections for free expression and perhaps even academic freedom might well be pared back in the process.

Here's why I'm mad about this. It's true that Magill has backtracked on the commitment to absolutist free speech protections in the wake of the fallout over her testimony, and that's unfortunate. But Whittington's framing implies that Magill from the outset was hesitant to forthrightly defend the free speech rights of "offensive" speakers on campus, and now has gotten even worse. That's the opposite of what happened: Magill in her testimony said exactly what Whittington thinks she should have said -- and she's getting hammered for it. Contra Whittington, she did not "stumble" during the testimony itself -- or if she did, it's only from the vantage of those who take Stefanik's view that it is a misstep not to endorse paring back academic freedom and free expression in deference to students' sense of safety. 

For those who adopt Whittington's view on free speech, Magill's congressional testimony was not a "stumble" but a clear articulation of the proper position of the university. Whittington accordingly should have had her back; he should have said explicitly that the university presidents got it right in their congressional testimony and the backlash they're enduring for it is the real threat to free speech. Instead, he hung her out to dry as she takes the brunt of public heat for the position Whittington purportedly wants to see more university presidents defend. What do we expect will be the result of this? Unfairness to Magill aside, what does Whittington expect will happen -- what incentives are university administrators given -- when they see that putative "free speech" allies won't give them credit for saying the right thing on campus free speech rules. It's hardly a shocker that Magill is yielding in the face of overwhelming public backlash if even her "allies" refuse to back her up. As De Tallyrand put it, "it's worse than a crime, it's a blunder."

At the very least, Magill does not deserve to be the namesake of the censorial impulse. That dubious honor should have been attached to Stefanik (who isn't even named in Whittington's piece). As Chait writes:

What Stefanik was demanding was the wholesale ban on rhetoric and ideas that Jews find threatening, regardless of context. A university should protect students from being mobbed or having their classes occupied and disrupted. But should it protect them from an op-ed in the student newspaper calling to globalize the intifada? Or a demonstration in an open space demanding “From the river to the sea”? That would entail wholesale violations of free speech, which, in addition to the moral problem it would create, would likely backfire by making pro-Palestinian activism a kind of forbidden rebellion rather than (as many students currently find it) an irritant.

The presidents’ efforts to deflect every question about genocide of the Jews into a legalistic distinction between speech and conduct may have sounded grating, and Stefanik’s indignant replies may have sounded like moral clarity. But on the whole, they were right to focus on the distinction between speech and conduct, and Stefanik was wrong to sneer at it.

It may be unfortunate that, after the fact, Magill is bending on this important point. But as disappointing as that failing is, she isn't the originator of the threat. The actual villains of the story are the likes of Stefanik -- they're the ones proactively, not reactively, demanding that university's sacrifice free speech protections in service of student safety. If we can't name that wrongdoing; if we can't push past misbegotten awe at Stefanik's accomplishments in demagoguery, then the situation is going to get worse far before it gets better.

Wednesday, December 06, 2023

The Fantasy of Fighting Antisemitism Without Jews

A few years ago, I lamented the way in which popular discourse about antisemitism seems utterly impervious to what most Jews actually want to talk about. That sense has only grown in recent years, and it's certainly come to a fore over the past few weeks. Rep. Max Miller (R-OH) and David Kustoff (R-TN)'s recent House resolution against antisemitism that, among other things, "clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is antisemitism," is part of this trend -- it got the support of a majority of the House's Jews, but barely, and with palpable discomfort. At the very least, it seems evident that this resolution is not the one that would have been written if the resolution was driven by a consensus effort of the House's Jewish caucus. Were the Jewish House caucus as a whole taking the lead in articulating what antisemitism is right now, the resulting resolution almost certainly would have looked quite different.

But of course, Jewish discomfort doesn't matter when the goal isn't actually to help Jews. Certainly, this has been the campus trend. From UC-Berkeley to Michigan, interventions meant to "support" collegiate Jews from antisemitism display a brazen, almost taunting, disdain for the actually Jews going to school there. Do Michigan Jews think the "Canary Mission" is helping improve the campus climate? Who cares! Is a massive Hitler-displaying billboard truck across from the law school desired by Berkeley's Jewish students? Doesn't matter!

Through all of this, one gets the distinct sense that many self-anointed warriors against antisemitism view the actual Jewish community as a sort of inconvenient speedbump they'd rather avoid. For conservatives, it is equal parts infuriating and annoying how Jews regularly expressing criticism of the Netayanhu government and its illiberal militarism keep on ruining their well-crafted talking points about how if you don't think Israel should "bounce the rubble" in Gaza, you're a Hamas apologist; or how Jews insisting on including the rampant Soros-conspiracy mongering that gets synagogues shot up in Pittsburgh disturbs the notion that antisemitism in America starts and ends at the Squad. How nice it would be, for the right, if they could fight antisemitism without those pesky Jews getting in the way!

But, as always, there's also a left-wing version of this. Dave Zirin in the Nation, responding to the Miller/Kustoff resolution, states that the fight against antisemitism -- far from declaring that anti-Zionism is antisemitism -- must instead unequivocally state that Zionism is a form of racism and colonialism. "What Jews need," Zirin argues, "is a mass left resistance to antisemitism, and that resistance also needs to be against Zionism."

Once again, the pleasant ideological concordance envisioned by this passage is ruined by the harsh reality of the Jewish community's actual constitution. Almost half the world's Jewish population lives in Israel, and most of the diaspora retains significant measures of connection and affinity towards it -- by no means unwavering or uncritical support, but not blithe dismissal of Israel as a "150-year-old colonial project" either. Most Jews, to some extent or another, still see the project of Jewish self-determination in Israel as a conceptually valid one, regardless of their opposition to the increasingly right-wing and authoritarian practices of the Israeli government. I can't imagine that Zirin is unaware of this view or its prevalence, and one would think its too obvious to need saying to point out that a "mass left resistance to antisemitism" which is centered around the notion that most Jews are either racist colonizers or apologists for it is not going to be effective. But again, here we are. Here too, actual Jews annoyingly get in the way of protecting the Jews. How obnoxious of us.

Now clearly, when I say that there is a fantasy of "fighting antisemitism without Jews", it overstates the case. Miller and Kustoff, who authored the House antisemitism resolution, are both Jewish; Zirin, who wrote the Nation article, is as well. It's not the case that Jews aren't present at all. But it is the case that, in either case, the discourse around antisemitism that is being promoted is one that seems studiously indifferent to where the Jewish community as a whole places itself or what it actually seems to desire. The reality is that both the left and the right are going to have to make adjustments if they're interested in their fight against antisemitism actually bringing along the Jewish community as it is currently constituted. 

The right is going to have to accept that the American Jewish community is, by and large, a liberal one, that it is not desirous of or enamored by all-in rah-rah Israeli maximalism, that it shares deep concerns with the current conduct of the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians (among other issues), and of course that our worries about antisemitism are not exhausted by Israel-related agenda items but very much include right-wing initiatives, rantings, and policies -- from abortion bans to Christian takeover of public institutions to "great replacement" conspiracy theories -- that threaten Jewish equality in a real and tangible way.

But the left is also going to have to come to terms with the fact that Jewish ties to Israel are real, authentic, and not simply some sort of warped indulgence in white privilege, that acknowledging the reality of these ties cannot be dismissed as a fallacious "conflation" of Judaism and Zionism, that we're entitled to be protected from antisemitism even if we do hold these ties and cherish those connections, and that Jews -- even those who have extremely sharp criticisms of Israeli policies -- overwhelmingly think that Israel's existence as a Jewish state is important and needs preserving.

In concept, I don't think any of these "adjustments" are unreasonable or should be difficult to manage. In practice, well, in practice people -- Jewish and not -- have long since learned that there is little cost to leaving the bulk of Jews out of the discourse against antisemitism. So people still can live in their fantasy world, organizing a struggle against antisemitism without paying much mind to what the broader Jewish community wants, needs, or thinks. If the goal is to actually fight antisemitism, this indifference probably will be fatal. If that isn't the goal -- well, that's a different conversation.