Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Effects of Whitening Jews

The ADL just released some interesting new data its compiled on antisemitism. I'm still working my way through it, but I did want to flag one experiment it did which to my mind led to some fascinating results on the interplay of Jewishness and Whiteness.

Before I talk about the study, some background. Many -- myself included, in my "White Jews: An Intersectional Approach" -- have hypothesized that in the contemporary American context Jewishness is viewed as amplifying Whiteness. That is, whereas in years past Jews were seen as paradigmatically non-White, today Jews are seen as paradigmatically White -- so much so, that even persons who might otherwise be identified as non-White will instead be coded as White once it becomes known they're Jewish. I quote one writer as arguing explicitly that "the simple attribute of being Jewish functions to whiten Sephardic and other non-white Jews,” and suggest that "All Jews are 'White Jews' in this sense—non-White Jews are deemed White in their Jewishness."

From this, we can generate a hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: All else equal, respondents will be more likely to perceive someone they know to be Jewish as White than a person whom they know not to be Jewish.

But what is the impact of this Jews-as-White association?

Here, we can think of two stories, which I'll dub the "traditional" and "revisionist" accounts.

The traditional account suggests that as Jews became perceived as White, it opened doors and diminished antisemitic prejudice. Being seen as part of the "in" group ameliorated antisemitic otherization and reduced antisemitic stereotype, as Jews became viewed by the White majority as "one of us".

The revisionist account, by contrast, suggests that Jews being perceived as White licenses certain forms of antisemitism. As Jews become seen as White, they're no longer viewed as a marginalized group worthy of protection and instead become "fair game" for otherization and discrimination that would allegedly not be tolerated if they remained recognized as a distinct minority.

These two accounts aren't necessarily competitive. In most renditions, the revisionist account is sequential to the traditional one: that is, the argument goes that in the mid-20th century "Whitening" Jews may have been a boon for Jews, but in the 21st century (with the rise of multiculturalism and "woke" politics) it has become a liability. Or one might believe that both hypothesis are true for different sorts of persons: White people viewing Jews as White diminishes antisemitism (since it implies viewing Jews as part of their group); while non-White people viewing Jews as White will enhance antisemitism (since it implies Jews are not part of their group and are part of the dominant White group)

So we have two more hypotheses:

Hypothesis 2a [traditional]: Perceiving Jews as White will result in comparatively lesser levels of antisemitic stereotyping.

Hypothesis 2b [revisionist]: Perceiving Jews as White will result in comparatively greater levels of antisemitic stereotyping.

Keeping this in mind,  here's what the ADL did. First, they showed subjects the following photo of a racially-ambiguous person:

Some subjects were told the subject was Israeli Jewish, some were told he was Iraqi Arab, and some were told he was American. They were then asked to answer whether the pictured person was "White" or not.

Respondents were far more likely to code the person as White if he was identified as Jewish. That there was no significant distinction in answers between the "Iraqi Arab" and "American" labels suggests that this is a function of Jewishness "Whitening" the subject. This, in turn, provides strong evidence in support of Hypothesis 1.

But what was the result of this perception? Hypothesis 2a (the traditional account) suggests that viewing the person as White should be associated with reduced antisemitic views (he's an "insider", "one of us", or a member of a respected, preferred group). Hypothesis 2b (the revisionist account) suggests the opposite: that viewing the person as White should be associated with increased antisemitic views (he's a member of the dominant caste, an oppressor).

The study found that for White respondents, viewing the pictured person as White was associated with significantly lower levels of antisemitic sentiment -- supporting the traditional account. But perhaps this is not too surprising -- the sorts of White persons invested in denying Jewish Whiteness may be especially prone to antisemitic aggression. We might think that non-White persons, for whom being White is of course not an assertion of commonality,  would push in the opposite direction. But the study found that, for non-White respondents, viewing Jews as White had no relationship to the prevalence of antisemitic attitudes. This significantly weakens the evidentiary support for the revisionist hypothesis even in its supposedly strongest turf (21st century non-White respondents).

I'll want to dive into this in more detail, of course. But what a fascinating contribution!

Thursday, March 16, 2023

We're Grown-Ups Now, And It's Our Turn To Decide What That Means

Years ago, I wrote a review of a greasy spoon diner I ate at in Oakland called "Pretty Lady". My wife and I had intended to go to a trendy spot called "Brown Sugar" which specialized in contemporary twists on classic American blah blah blah, but the wait was two hours, we were hungry,  and so we just found a random restaurant nearby that sounded like it could cook a decent brunch. Pretty Lady was a small place, and its shtick was that the older Asian lady who ran the place would insist on giving every patron a fist bump before she took their order. It was corny and ridiculous, but it made me smile. So we both gave her a fist bump, and then we ordered our fried egg sandwiches, which were perfectly fine but nothing remarkable or especially distinct from any other reasonably competent fried egg I've had. 

Anyway, in my review I gave the place four stars -- remarking that while based on food quality alone, it was probably more of a three star, "there is something to be said for a nice hole-in-the-wall that just makes you feel happy from the moment you walk in to the moment you leave." It's possible that the highly accoladed Brown Sugar and its fancy, deep, sophisticated takes on the American brunch, would have been a life-altering experience. And perhaps giving plaudits to a restaurant for a fist-bump and a basic fried egg dish isn't as sophisticated as uncovering the sublime flavors and textures of this year's James Beard award chefs. But I was just happy to be happy, and I thought Pretty Lady deserved to lauded for the simple act of inspiring happiness.

James Greig in Dazed has an article criticizing "adult babies" who, even into their 20s and 30s, enjoy childlike things (Harry Potter, action movies, stuffed animals, etc.). His is not primarily an aesthetic critique, though. He thinks this is politically objectionable. The propensity of adults to consume child-culture -- which covers everything from young adult novels to acting "cute" -- is part of a broader pattern of self-endorsed helplessness; a way for people to come to terms with (rather than challenge) their lack of agency and take pleasure in failing to accept responsibility:

[E]ven if the economy is foisting an extended adolescence on us, we can still choose to assert our dignity and refuse to become “baby adults” or 26-year-old teenagers, helpless and dependent. Make no mistake: the capitalist elites want you to think of yourself as a silly little goose. “From a psychoanalytic perspective, self-infantilisation makes uncannily good sense. It is a kind of identification with one’s own powerlessness, and so gives it a veneer of active choice,” says [philosopher Josh] Cohen.....

What would rejecting this helplessness look like? The right see adulthood as a process of settling down, getting married and having children; in effect, conforming to conventional gender roles and being productive members of the workforce. We obviously don’t have to buy into that, at any age. But we can aspire towards a different form of maturity: looking after ourselves, treating other people with care, being invested in something beyond our own immediate satisfaction. Infantilising yourself can often seem like a plea for diminished responsibility. Most of us will have encountered someone who, when criticised for behaving badly, appeals to their own vulnerability as a way of letting themselves off the hook. No matter what they do or the harm they cause, it’s never fair to criticise them, because there’s always some reason – often framed through therapy jargon or the language of social justice – why it isn’t their fault. Childishness grants them a perpetual innocence; they are constitutionally incapable of being in the wrong. 

But we will never make the world better if we act like this. Thinking of yourself as a smol bean baby is a way of tapping out and expecting other people to fight on your behalf. 

So here's the thing: the purely political register of this, I endorse -- indeed, I've written regularly about the "infantilization of the American right", in terms that largely echo Grieg's. I absolutely agree that we each have a responsibility to make our own choices in fashions that care about our loved ones and those around us in a respectful fashion; we can't just throw up our hands and act as if we lack agency altogether. But once this political observation proceeds into a cultural critique -- grouchy assertions that kids adults these days are watching the wrong movies/listening to the wrong music/adopting the wrong hobbies -- then I think it is exactly as tendentious and dull as any other moral panic which adopts largely the same tenor.

For starters, one of my bedrock social principles is a strong presumption against begrudging people joy where they find it. There's not so much happiness in the world that we should be too keen on finding reasons to take away people's joy. In this, I think Grieg significantly misdiagnoses why it is that this "childlike" properties hold appeal for many adults. I don't think it is wholly or even predominantly about some fetishization of our own helplessness. I think we're seeing instead an appreciation for uncomplicated joy (and the parallel inability of some progressives to understand why joy-qua-joy is good)

Not everything has to be a grimdark march through serious themes where every halfway decent character ends up brutally murdered by an uncaring universe. Nor, for that matter, does it have to be a complex and shaded exploration of deep philosophical precepts that can generate a dissertation or twelve. Some people do enjoy these things (I often do), and that's great! But other people enjoy other things, and that's fine too. People like Star Wars because it's fun, and it makes them smile, and it doesn't need to do more than that. To be clear: we need to do more than that in the totality of our lives. But that doesn't mean every constituent element of our lives must be a complete balanced diet all in itself. That something "just" sparks joy is absolutely a sufficient reason to like it. Grieg seems to view unmediated joy as the experiential equivalent of empty calories -- we should strive to consume more nutritious fare. I'm inclined to think of joy as an essential vitamin that is an indispensable part of this complete breakfast. How one ingests that vitamin is fundamentally up to us.

The link between the cultural and political critique presumably is that the consuming the "merely" joyful leads to the sort of political infantilization that we both agree is so toxic. But there is no reason why simply "taking joy in things" necessarily leads to the sort of self-infantilization that Grieg critiques. And that's true even if part of its appeal is harkening back to moments of fewer responsibilities and concerns. We go to baseball games in part because it reminds us of bonding moments with our parents, or of how simply meeting your favorite player could be enough to send you into a happy tizzy for a week. Does this nostalgic appeal mean that adults who remain baseball fans are indulging in "a way of learning to love your oppressor"? Is the best way of describing baseball fandom "tak[ing] an acute loss of agency and control and transform[ing] it into a state to be desired and enjoyed"? Or is the small-brain description -- that adults watch baseball because it makes them happy, and that's quite the sufficient justification on its own -- perfectly comprehensive? Some people can write epic narratives that connect baseball to the weighty philosophical themes of life -- some do the same for Star Wars or Harry Potter -- but realistically speaking that's not why most people watch baseball. But good news! That baseball is mostly enjoyed for simpler reasons doesn't mean that baseball fans are progressively losing the ability to take responsibility in other domains! We're perfectly capable of partitioning here.

Generational grousing notwithstanding, there is not anything new about most adults regularly enjoying the simpler pleasures (medieval jousts, too, largely demurred from exploring complex and morally shaded themes). Other than adjusting the relevant titles, there is no time period where pompous sniffing about the need to put down Harry Potter and pick up Henry James could not be heard. But the best thing about being adult is our capacity to choose for ourselves what makes us happy -- nobody forces us to play the piano or go to karate practice; we do those things or not because we are in a position to decide what fulfills us. When an adult enjoys Super Mario Brothers, that's not them "choosing" helplessness, it's them choosing joy. Our obligations in a political register extend well beyond this. But in terms of culture, hobbies, and pastimes, Grieg more or less is indignant because people are being happy wrong -- and that's a criticism I just refuse to share.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Woke Freeze

The internet is cackling about prominent "anti-woke" conservative Bethany Mandel drawing a complete blank when asked the simple question "what is woke".

Jon Chait objects to the pile on of someone who just "froze" on TV.

At one level, he's probably right that Mandel froze, and freezing could happen to anyone. But that doesn't mean it isn't something she should take her lumps for. The context matters here, given that Mandel holds herself out as a subject-matter expert on this exact issue. If I forget the capital of Ukraine, that's embarrassing. If a guy who just spent 30 minutes engaging in Putin-apologism for Russia's invasion then can't recall the capital of Ukraine, that's, well that's a lot more embarrassing.

But the deeper problem is that while at one level sure, Mandel obviously has an idea of what she means by woke and just froze up in articulating it, at another level Mandel has no idea what she means by woke because her definition is utterly unsuited for the political hackwork she's trying to do.

"Woke" is when a radical belief in absolute endpoint equality, deviations from which can only be the product of discrimination, is violently enforced at mobpoint. Okay, but if that's the definition it doesn't actually capture any meaningful behavior. There's no universe in which Silicon Valley Bank was committed to absolute endpoint equality which it sought to enforce by a violent mob; hence, Silicon Valley Bank cannot possibly be woke. Which is why the argument for SVB being woke doesn't rely on anything like that definition, but rather skips to things like "woke is giving to a charity" or "woke is when any Black person is in the room". Seriously -- has there ever been a more naked motte-and-bailey play than this?

The problem is that when you put the right-wing definition of "woke" (crazed radicals fomenting an angry mob to impose absolute economic equality!) next to the right-wing examples of "woke" (Silicon Valley Bank had a single Black guy on its board!), the mismatch is too evident. And that, I suspect, is the real reason why Mandel froze up -- giving the definition would have ultimately shown how ridiculous her arguments were; and she couldn't hack together a new definition on the fly which would have resolved the dissonance.

UPDATE: Great example of the bait-and-switch. What does Victoria's Secret switching its brand ambassadors from the supermodel "angels" to female "icons" like Megan Rapinoe have to do with Mandel's definition of "woke"?

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Wall Street Journal's New One Drop Rule

I won't claim to be an expert on what transpired with Silicon Valley Bank. I suspect the causes of the failure were complex and multifaceted, and hopefully a post-mortem can help point us to areas of insufficient oversight or regulatory gaps that can be filled to forestall such events in the future.

Of course, we can skip all that hard work if you can go to the old chestnut of "it's minorities fault". And low and behold, enter Andy Kessler in the Wall Street Journal!

“In its proxy statement, SVB notes that besides 91% of their board being independent and 45% women, they also have "1 Black," "1 LGBTQ+" and "2 Veterans." I’m not saying 12 white men would have avoided this mess, but the company may have been distracted by diversity demands.”

What's striking about this -- okay, there's a lot that's striking about this. But one thing that stands out in particular is that Kessler is literally flagging as his problem that SVB had one Black person on its board. One! (And one queer director! And two veterans!). One drop of Black blood directorship suffices to lead SVB into ruin.

In his "Chronicle of the DeVine Gift" essay, Derrick Bell posited that even in cases of incontestable candidate quality, predominantly White institutions would start getting skittish about hiring more Black candidates past a certain threshold. Bell is rarely accused of being insufficiently cynical, but even he didn't argue that this threshold would be "one" (for what it's worth, in the story it was the seventh extraordinarily well-qualified Black candidate under consideration at a historically White law school that set off alarms).

But such is the time we live in. As Ron DeSantis has made abundantly clear, the working conservative definition of "wokeness" is "any non-White or non-straight person present in any capacity." Hence why the mere presence of a gay penguins suffices to ban a book in the Sunshine State. And hence why the Wall Street Journal can see a single, solitary Black director at SVB and conclude "aha -- well there's your problem."