Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Fruit Stand: A Mediocre Artistic Journey (And That's Okay!)

I consider myself a very creative person. But I don't have a lot of traditional creative outlets. I've always had very high expectations of myself, and as a corollary I didn't enjoy things I wasn't "good at". This would be so even if, under any reasonable adjustment for context/age/time/whatever, I was in fact "good at" the thing. I've talked a bit before about my math journey, for instance, and how I quickly self-identified as "bad at math" because it didn't come as easily to me as some other subjects, even though under any objective metric I was actually very good at math.

In the creative realm, this was if anything even worse. We'd get assignments to write a short story in English class, and my parents would always be so proud and want to read mine aloud. I hated that, not because I necessarily disliked the attention, but because I thought all my stories were terrible. I was ten years old, but I was absolutely assessing myself against both the actual books I was reading and the vivid adventure I was playing out in mind. As against either metric, my stories were sorely lacking -- which, of course they were, it'd be absurd if they didn't, but it still was something I found frustrating to point of feeling actual, physical pain.

The same would be true in art class. I liked the idea of art and creation, but there was a huge mismatch between the vivid ideas I had in my imagination and what I was physically capable of transmitting onto a page. I didn't (don't) have great fine motor skills, and every time I'd draw something or make something it would never come anywhere near the mental image I had in mind, and that constant failure was deeply unpleasant.

Of course, some people take that feeling of frustration as fuel to practice, improve, get better. Alas, I'm made of flimsier stuff, and so my takeaway was to instead concentrate on things that I had more of a natural knack for. And while I'm very lucky that I've found things that I both love and which come easy to me, I don't think the overall mentality of just hating doing things I'm not already good at is a healthy one. It's stilted my growth as a person, it has blocked off avenues I'd like to explore, and of course it is a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of never actually improving or developing new skills I would very much like to possess.

So, in keeping with the art kick I've recently been on, I decided to try my hand at making some art. I set several mental ground rules for myself. The first was simple: it is allowed to be bad. In fact, it almost certainly will be. What I create will not match the image in front of me or in my head. And that's okay. What I'm doing is diagnostic -- a test. What would happen if I tried to make something? What can I do and not do? Is there potential here? Is this enjoyable?

That last point led to the other ground rule: I didn't have to enjoy it. That doesn't mean I was committed to slogging through while hating myself. But I was going to make a good faith effort to complete the projects I started, even if I wasn't getting the immediate "I'm great at this, hurray for me" dopamine hit. It was okay to struggle and not especially enjoy that feeling of struggling, but -- within reason -- I was going to persevere.

I started with this: 


The original model

Just so we're clear: I did not make this. This is a tchotchke my parents got years ago when traveling -- a small model of a fruit stand. Rather, I decided that I would just put this in front of me and try to draw it with a colored pencil set as best I could. I liked the bright colors, it was three-dimensional without being too complex, and it had some "flat" details that I thought I'd be better capable of replicating. The result was this:

"The Fruit Stand"


I will be honest: this is far, far better than I expected, given that I hadn't tried to draw anything more complex than a doodle in twenty years. My approach was very much in the "start with a slab of rock and then remove everything that isn't an elephant" vein: just draw what you see, and nothing you don't. It worked okay: I liked the overall color choice, the yellow and red lettering looks nice, the roof is fine, and I think the ombre effect on the bottom left of the building is decent enough. On the other hand, the small details of the three-dimensional fruit were completely beyond me -- in fact, pretty much all the three-dimensional components other than perhaps the building itself are pretty weak-sauce. I also didn't really like how obvious the pencil strokes were -- they felt so clearly drawn, even in the areas that were not especially detailed at the top of the building (again, my mental metric was basically a photorealistic depiction. Did I expect to come anywhere close to that? No. Did I view anything that fell short of that goal as something to be improved upon? Yes. I told you -- high standards).

There is one part of this drawing, though, that I genuinely like liked: the chalkboard. Ironically, that was the place where I was most intentional in departing from "try to draw exactly what you see", since I didn't have a tool that could "draw" in white over the black chalkboard. Instead, I got the desired effect by under-shading small splotches of the "board" with my black colored pencil, and then vigorously erasing those portions. I had discovered that erasers don't really erase colored pencil marks, but they did create a nice smearing that I think actually evokes a chalk board pretty well.

With one creation in the bag, I took stock as to where to go next. Well, I still have bad fine motor skills and I can't do anything with three-dimensions or tiny details. How about try a version as an abstract? Every detail that was too difficult for me to render, I could just turn into a block! Instead of using colored pencils, this time I'd use magic markers, which I thought would allow for more saturated color that wouldn't look as obviously "drawn" -- an even rectangle of blue, rather than a rectangle with blue strokes scribbled in. That got me this:

"The Fruit Stand" (abstract, in marker)

Despite committing to the concept of an abstract, I had a lot of trouble sticking to it -- I kept on being like "well how do I add this detail", and having to remind myself that the point of the abstract was that I wasn't going to incorporate every detail.

The markers didn't quite yield the even tone I was hoping for. I forgot how much markers bleed (that I was drawing on regular printer paper didn't help). I ended up using the unevenness of the marker to decent effect on the "roof", though I still can't decide whether that was in keeping with or pulling against the "abstract" theme. The red marks on the yellow (to evoke the lettering) was not as successful as I had hoped, and I wasn't able to replicate the chalkboard effect at all. That said, I think the "fruit" was much better, if only because it was at least a choice to render it as geometric shapes rather than (failed) literal depictions.

Ultimately, though, I thought the markers didn't work out as well as I hoped. So I tried the abstract again, but this time switched back to colored pencils:

"The Fruit Stand" (abstract, colored pencils)

I think this was a net improvement, though it still had the same benefits and drawbacks of the colored pencil medium vis-a-vis the markers. Once again, I loved the effect I was able to get on the chalkboard. Once again, I didn't find the red hash marks on the yellow to work as well as they did in my head. And once again, I didn't really love the lack of saturation in the colors. It worked okay in the dirt and wood chalkboard stand, because those felt like they should be more textured anyway, but even there that felt like I was again straying away from the idea of the abstract. For the most part, the colored pencils made it too obvious that this was a drawing.

I returned once more to the core question: how I could improve on the problem areas constrained by limited resources and skillset? At this point, I felt like I had tapped out the potential for the colored pencils. Instead, for my final iteration, I skipped out of drawing entirely. Instead, I decided to do a collage.

"The Fruit Stand" (abstract, collage)

This version, I think, was the most successful. It is the only one where I think the red marks on the yellow come close to what I hoped to see. The colors are even and fully saturated. The "fruits" all look nice, especially the grapes (on top of the pink bag). I don't like the chalkboard as much as I did with the colored pencils, but it still probably is objectively my favorite part.

Is any of this reaching the full depths of my imagination? No. Is any of it even good? I'll be generous and say that is in the eye of the beholder. Am I proud of what I did? Kind of -- I do like them (all of them), and I'm proud that I saw the project through. I also think the progression from the original model through the "literal" drawing and into different iterations of abstract is pretty neat. But the broader point of this exercise is that not everything has to meet sky-high expectations. Not everything has to be a home run off the first pitch. I'm okay with what I made, and that's okay. And being okay with okay is step for me that I am absolutely very proud of.

What To Make of Trumpist "Genocide Joe" Chants


Yesterday, political observers witnessed the seemingly-odd phenomenon of a bunch of Trump supporters at one of his rallies chanting "genocide Joe" as the former President spoke on current goings-on with Israel, Palestine, and Iran. "Genocide Joe" is a term used generally by pro-Palestinian leftists who think President Biden is complicit in what they deem a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. So why were Trumpists echoing the chant, given the widespread view that Trump would be an even more full-throated and brutal backer of Israeli policies towards Palestinians?

First, I'll give the obvious answer and the one that I think is right: Trump and Trumpists relate to "genocide Joe" on no deeper of a level than "this is an anti-Biden chant by people who hate Biden, and which seems to tweak off Biden supporters." There's no substance here, no evidence of some important policy shift. The instinctual "let's go Brandon"-ness of it all, and that alone, is enough to make it appealing to Trumpists whose politics run no deeper than Cleek's Law.

That being said, there is something to be said here about the possible injection points of pro-Palestinian politics into the modern conservative movement in general and Trumpism in particular.  There's a superficial consilience, of course, between the claims by more normie libs that the "genocide Joe" leftists are functionally pro-Trump, and the imagery of actual Trump rally-goers adopting the chant. And I also think that the growth of anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian sentiments coming out of the hard right (which comprises, of course, an influential segment of Trump's base) is still being underestimated -- it is a burbling movement that will stay largely under the surface right up until the moment it isn't. 

But it's also worth highlighting something more basic: Trump is really impressionable. Like, almost comically so. He is so devoid of substance that his politics are basically that of a Skinner box rat: he just gravitates towards whatever he feels garners him adulation and/or that which feels painful to his enemies. To that end, it's often occurred to me that one could probably exert an unreasonable amount of influence over Trump's political trajectory just by priming him with the right leading interview questions: "The people sure do love you when you do X!" "Isn't it terrible how Biden and the Democrats are doing Y?" Fill in any X and Y, and I'm pretty confident you could elicit public responses from Trump talking about the greatness of X and the horrors of Y. 

It's no wonder that Trump heard his adoring fans chant "genocide Joe" and immediately agreed with them: "They’re not wrong, they’re not wrong. He’s done everything wrong." Everything can found in that simple passage: the people who love him are right, Biden's done everything wrong. "Genocide Joe" is being chanted by the people who love him; it is a chant that communicates that Biden is doing wrong; and that's all it takes to earn an endorsement.

It's one reason why I think even relatively conservative Jews are idiots if they think Trump is a reliable friend. He's not a reliable friend to anyone, he's far too mercurial for that. And likewise, it does make me think that if the right people manage to whisper the right things into his ear at the right time -- give him the relevant positive feedback loops, make that lizard-brain develop the right set of associations -- one really could see Trump adopt a very different tone on Israel and Palestine than what we've seen so far.

Friday, April 12, 2024

West Bank Settler Terrorism Continues Unabated

At least one Palestinian has been killed and 10 have been injured in an attack by Israeli settlers in the West Bank village of al-Mughayyir, the official Palestinian news site Wafa reports.

Footage shows cars and homes torched, allegedly by the settlers, as the IDF fails to gain control over the situation.

The settler raid of the Palestinian village comes amid a manhunt for a 14-year-old Israeli boy who has gone missing from a nearby illegal outpost.

Palestinians say the settlers have used live fire against them, in addition to hurling stones, damaging dozens of homes and cars.

There's a lot of discussion about when and in what contexts we can use terms from Jewish oppression (e.g., "pogrom") to describe contemporaneous acts of oppression by Israel against Palestinians. I won't wade into that debate directly; all I'll say is "child goes missing and locals respond with a wave of violent attacks on local religious outgroup" is a chapter of history I am familiar with.

Assorted Thoughts on the Chemerinsky Incident


If you're in my neck of the internet woods, you've no doubt heard about the incident in Berkeley where a small group of students conducted a pro-Palestinian protest in the backyard of the Dean Erwin Chemerinsky's house

To make a long story short, Dean Chemerinsky had invited the 3L class over to his home to celebrate their impending graduation (he normally invites the 1L class at the start of their law school journey, but since this crop of graduating students spent their 1L year mid-pandemic and so wasn't able to come, he invited them before graduation instead). The local SJP chapter issued a demand that Chemerinsky cancel the dinner, distributing a poster showing a caricatured image of the Dean with a bloody knife and fork over the message "No dinner with Zionist Chem while Gaza starves." Chemerinsky refused to cancel the dinner; so some of the students RSVP'd and, once they arrived at his home and were welcomed into his backyard, stood up with a microphone and began delivering a speech about Gaza. Chemerinsky and his wife (Prof. Catherine Fisk) asked that they stop and leave, as guests in their home; the student with the microphone initially declined, asserting she had a "First Amendment right" to engage in her conduct. At one point, Prof. Fisk placed her hand over the shoulder of the student to try and take her microphone away (the student has characterized this as an assault -- even going so far to imply it was a sexual assault -- and has indicated she wants to file legal action against the law school). Eventually the students left, the Dean released a statement, and the internet was set ablaze.

From my vantage point, the students' behavior was abhorrent and very possibly a violation of the university's code of conduct (and the notion that they are the victims here is farcical). Beyond that bottom line, my emotional reaction to this story has been stronger than I might have anticipated, and it's worth talking through why. I do have a Berkeley connection, and though I've never met Chemerinsky personally, his reputation for both kindness and brilliance is unrivaled in the academy. I also have former students currently at Berkeley Law, and while I cannot imagine they participated in this fiasco, I would be disappointed and crushed if I found out otherwise.

On a more personal level, I suspect my views on Israel are quite similar to Chemerinsky (two-stater, sharply anti-Bibi but pro-Israel existing), and I also have been known to host students at my house for dinner (typically my small-group seminar students at the end of the semester). I view the dinners as a nice way to cultivate an environment of care and welcoming in the often-impersonal environs of the law school, and as a way of pay forward the sort of collegiate community I was lucky enough to enjoy as an undergraduate to another generation of students. If that gesture of welcoming students into my home were to be exploited in a manner akin to what the students did here, I'd be devastated. Protests like this are exploitations of trust, they rely on and take advantage of the host's unguarded openness and welcoming. We're not screening people based on ideology, we're not making people fill out political questionnaires, we just -- welcome students into our homes, without reservation. To take advantage of that, to extract costs on that openness, invariably leads to more closedness, more guardedness, and more cloisteredness -- a loss for everyone, and one that can and should be mourned (I saw someone argue on social media that if the Dean didn't want to be protested in his own backyard, he shouldn't have invited these students in the first place and instead tried to screen out whichever students he thought might be likely to protest him. That to me bespeaks an almost impossibly short-sighted and narrow attitude that is utterly toxic to the sort of university community anybody should want to cultivate).

Meanwhile, there's the question of "why was Chemerinsky picked for this protest?" That question has two related dimensions: why Chemerinsky, and why this protest (since virtually everyone seems to think that something as extreme as protesting in your host's own household should be reserved only for the most malign and irredeemable actors). Chemerinsky very much views himself as being targeted as a Jew, citing the bloody fork caricature and its resonance with the classically antisemitic blood libel. The immediate demand of the protesters is for Berkeley to divest from Israel; but the law school dean doesn't make investment/divestment decisions, so they're limply left arguing that Chemerinsky doesn't personally support divestment -- true, but a feature he shares with thousands of other members of the Berkeley community who also don't make investment decisions on behalf of the university. He also has beliefs on Israel that, while anathemas to the SJP crowd insofar as he rejects Israel being wiped off the map, are by no means some sort of Israeli maximalist/anti-Palestinian eliminationism and are entirely mainstream amongst both liberals and Jews (and are again widely present in the Berkeley community and beyond). Again, even if one opposes that stance, there is (or should be) a gap between "what we oppose" and "what we deem protest-worthy", and even among those who are protest-worthy, there is (or should be) differentiation as to when and where a protest is justified.

The most specific thing I've seen people point to in justification of "why Chemerinsky" is an editorial he wrote this past October -- just a few weeks after 10/7 -- recounting the antisemitism he's experienced as a Jew at Berkeley in the wake of the Hamas attack. The usual suspects make the usual claims in response: that Chemerinsky's claims about antisemitism are wrong, unfair, smears, conflations of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and those sins justify what might otherwise seem an obviously abusive overreach of a protest. On that point, one thing I haven't seen commented on much is the deep and dangerous chilling effect this sort of position has (and is intended to have) on Jewish faculty speaking on the subject of antisemitism. I've written on this in the context of academic freedom, but there is a very significant contingent in American and global society who deeply believe that if you are a Jew and you speak on antisemitism in a way that they don't approve of, it is open season -- you have removed yourself from any and all protections (certainly norm-based, possibly law-based) one might enjoy in a liberal, tolerant society. Needless to say, as a Jew whose academic work centers in large part on antisemitism, this is a tremendously dangerous trend for me personally, and so of course I notice when it rears its head in such an explicit fashion.

Those are the more personal reflections I have. But there are a few more scattered issues I've seen that I might as well address here as well.

  • One area where I think the internet breaks our brains is how it interferes with our sense of proportion -- literally, in terms of "how many people are doing/believe in this thing we're upset out, compared to how many don't." The protesters appeared to number about ten students. That's not negligible, but it's also a very small percentage of Berkeley Law's total enrollment. Online, the consensus view from what I'm seeing is pretty strongly that the protesters were out of line here -- and while my internet circles are of course not perfectly representative, my read has been that one has to go pretty far out towards the fringes and randos before one starts seeing folks defending what the students did. But the thing is, even if the breakdown is, say, 80/20 against the protesters, if I'm reading one hundred posts about this event, that means I'm reading twenty people announce they support it. That feels like a lot, even though objectively an 80/20 split is actually extremely lop-sided!
  • The students' claim that her conduct was First Amendment protected is ludicrous save for the sheer moxie of lecturing Erwin Chemerinsky on First Amendment doctrine in his own house. One issue some people have flagged is this dinner being an "official" Berkeley Law event, and asking whether that changes thing insofar as Berkeley Law is of course bound by the First Amendment. But there's less here than meets the eye, because even if we view this as a "government" event, not all government events or property are public forums. Even on the Berkeley campus, areas like the administrative back offices or the classroom when classes are in session are not public forums (hence why a professor could remove a heckler from her classroom without it being a First Amendment violation even where that same speech would be protected from sanction on the campus quad). A professor's personal domicile is, if anything, a clearer case -- if public forum analysis applies at all, it is clearly a non-public forum and so the student's protest is not First Amendment protected once she is asked to leave.
  • Many people have criticized the protest against Chemerinsky in terms of it being "counterproductive". Who is this supposed to persuade? Don't they realize the protesters are the ones who look bad here? Antisemitism discredits the cause! I understand where this sentiment comes from, but I think it is at least partially misguided. First of all, whether it's "counterproductive" depends on what it's trying to produce. If the immediate goal is sympathy from either Chemerinsky himself or even the public at large, maybe it's ineffective. But if the goal is just "make an enemy miserable", then it may be perfectly effective. Second, there are many theories of protest whose model of change does not depend on the protest immediately swaying popular opinion in their favor. Without overstating comparisons to disanalogous contemporary events, we should all at this point understand how a shocking breach of basic social rules and norms can, even where it's immediately the subject of revulsion, generate a series of events that may ultimately redound to the violator's benefit. Ultimately, while it may be that this protest is counterproductive (though again, that depends on what one is trying to produce), I think the immediate declaration of counterproductivity, insofar as it is paired with a more moralistic condemnation of this sort of protest, is a means of eliding a more worrisome possibility: what if morally-contemptible norms violations are in fact quite productive means for certain social groups to achieve their goals? I've said it before and I'll say it again: antisemitism is a productive ideology. It builds things, engenders alliances, and motivates action. And so opposition to antisemitism, or other norm-violative behaviors, must be willing to oppose such actions even when they're productive -- because they often are.
  • Joe Patrice at Above the Law makes clear that he thinks this sort of protest is unjustified, but mentions in passing the "authoritarian" free speech position coming out of the right whereby it is a "free speech violation" if, say, a social media platform blocks or bans you. In many ways, the incident at Chemerinsky's house is the meatspace version of this: Chemerinsky is literally hosting, and a speaker is claiming a First Amendment entitlement to retain access to Chemerinsky's space in defiance of the wishes of the host. It's a bad First Amendment argument as applied to Twitter, and it's a worse First Amendment argument as applied to someone's backyard.
  • I'm certainly not the first person to say this, but part of civil disobedience is accepting consequences. While it's true that a good protest will often be disruptive and a breach of the normal rules of operation, it's also the case that the reason a protest is disruptive and a breach is that it violates normal, enforceable rules. To engage in that sort of breach, but then to act scandalized that the relevant authorities treat it as a breach, is to have one's cake and eat it too. And so I get someone feeling strong enough about a particular issue to say "it's worth it to me to violate this rule and face these consequences." I do not get -- or at least don't respect -- someone simultaneously expecting plaudits for being so bold as to defy the rules and demanding exemption from having those rules enforced.
  • Finally, I'm increasingly tired of the way these sorts of student protesters weaponize their status to act as if it's unreasonable to hold them to basic norms of conduct, or some sort of authoritarian imposition to subject them to consequences that can be wholly anticipated. It's true that, as we age, it's easy for professors to forget that young students are young and are still learning, and are going to make some foolish choices and say some foolish things because they haven't learned better yet. But it's also the case that as we age and our students seem ever-younger relative to us, we can also forget that the students are in fact adults and are perfectly capable of understanding how to behave as well as eminently-predictable consequences of their actions. I am not someone who thinks student discipline has to be overly punitive, and I respect that student conduct officials often find themselves in difficult spots. But unlike other recent Berkeley events, here we know who the perpetrators are; there does not seem to be much reason for why a conduct investigation shouldn't be opened here other than the administration either not wanting to or being scared to. Formal disciplinary responses are not always the first resort or the best resort, but they are a valid resort, particularly in cases where student behavior seems to be at least partially encouraged by a culture where the very idea of facing consequences for breaking rules is viewed as a form of oppression. There are people who basically immediately say student conduct violation related to speech warrants expulsion and anything short of expulsion tacitly assents to the violation. I don't agree with that, but I also don't agree with the view that every student conduct violation should be assessed solely as a "learning experience". Law and graduate students, in particular, are not smol, they are adults, and adults on the precipice of exercising significant political and social authority -- and part of entering into that latter role is accepting their status as responsible actors who can be held responsible.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Who Has What Leverage Over Hamas?


Ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Gaza continue to grind along, and Hamas has responded negatively to the latest offer on the table. Which makes me wonder -- what are the leverage points that exist on Hamas that might help pressure it towards accepting a ceasefire deal?

Since I was recently pancakes/waffled on this, I want to clarify that I'm not saying that Hamas is the only obstacle that has or does exist in front of a ceasefire. My position continues to be that neither Hamas nor Israel seems especially interested in a ceasefire deal, and since both parties need to agree, that relative lack of interest represents a significant problem.

That problem, in turn, suggests that making progress on a ceasefire deal may -- at different times and contexts -- require exerting pressure or leverage on Israel and Hamas. If what you actually care about is ceasefire now -- that is, it's not a stalking horse for "keep the war going unless and until my side gets what it wants" -- then one needs a model for how one can, where necessary, pressure Israel to move off certain lines as well as a model for how one can, when necessary, pressure Hamas to move off some of theirs.

For Israel, it's pretty clear what the potential pressure points are -- in fact, there's a superabundance of them. Military aid, international legal rulings, even western protest movements all in various ways are mechanisms through which outside actors can exert pressure to get Israel to change its behavior and agree to things that it might otherwise be disinclined to accede to. There are all sorts of debates we can have about which levers it is proper to pull and what the un/anticipated effects of our decisions might be -- Dan Nexon had what I felt was a very thoughtful post on this -- but it's not especially opaque where the leverage points are.

For Hamas, though, things are a lot blurrier. There is an interesting Foucauldian dynamic at work here where Israel's greater power paradoxically also makes it more vulnerable -- being far more tied into American and global centers of power means there are a lot more touch points between Israel and the international community that can converted into areas for exerting pressure. Power and resistance are two sides of the same coin. But when we're talking about Hamas, it's not clear where those touch points are.

This is not, to be clear, the normative argument one sometimes hears whereby because Israel is more powerful it deserves to bear the brunt of pressure or it has the responsibility to take the leading role in changing course. My point is that even if we wanted to "pressure Hamas", how would we do it?

In a military conflict, military force is of course one answer. Problem one with that answer is that the point of this exercise is to try to end the military conflict, not intensify it. But the bigger problem two is that Hamas doesn't actually seem that influenced by military damage. On any conventional metric, after all, Hamas is enduring catastrophic losses on the battlefield -- the sorts that would under normal circumstances constitute significantly losing a war and seeking to sue for peace. But Hamas doesn't seem especially bothered by its battlefield losses, and doesn't seem to view its military defeats as demanding a change in the status quo.

In any event, our whole goal here is to figure out points of leverage that aren't More War (with Israel, for instance, the American pressure points are more diversified and do not take the form of "do it or we start flattening IDF bases"). So what are they? Who has the leverage points over Hamas, and what are they? We can't withhold military aid we don't have. Withholding humanitarian aid is morally abhorrent (and frankly also has not seemed to significantly affect Hamas' behavior). Do people think protests would work? By whom, and where? Are their nations who have more "touch points" with the Hamas leadership that can be brought to bear? If so, how can they been induced to wield their leverage. And if all of this seems far-fetched or fanciful, don't we have a serious problem?

Of course, some people will accuse me of being naive in thinking that the "ceasefire now" crew actually is interested in a ceasefire; others will no doubt think that even suggesting Hamas is not fully committed to stopping the war is a Zionist apologetic. 

(I need to digress a bit to talk about this story on a proposed ceasefire resolution that got tabled by the Yonkers City Council, because it has strong "In a Nutshell" vibes related to this whole problem. Basically, pro-Palestine groups loudly demanded a ceasefire resolution; pro-Israel groups equally vocally opposed it. After a bunch of negotiations and rewrites, the city council came out with a compromise resolution that called for a ceasefire, release of Israeli hostages, and recognition of both Israel and Gaza's right to exist and exercise self-determination. And the result was that the pro-Palestinian groups switched to opposing the ceasefire resolution because it acknowledged Israel's right to exist, and the pro-Israel groups remained opposed it because it called for a ceasefire. By the end, the only groups that seemed to actually support the ceasefire resolution were mainline liberal Jewish groups, who needless to say were catching fire from both sides of the spectrum.)

All of which was to say that while there are plenty of people for whom "ceasefire" is a talking point rather than an actual goal, I also do think there are plenty of people who really are genuinely motivated to see an end to the bloodshed and an immediate-term resolution that is, if not ideal, then at least tolerable as a holding pattern for building a more durable just peace going forward. For that cadre, we need to have theories and ideas regarding how to dislodge Israeli intransigence and Hamas intransigence. The former we basically have, at least at the ideas level. The latter we don't seem to have even in concept, and that's a problem.

And one more thing just to be clear -- one dimension of why this serious problem is serious is that the inability to influence Hamas' behavior does not justify just indefinitely blitzing Gaza into dust. The only thing worse than dropping bombs on Gaza until Hamas changes its behavior is dropping bombs on Gaza without it having any impact on Hamas' behavior, but just doing it anyway because it's something. The lack of meaningful points of leverage over Hamas represents I think a genuine puzzle for folks working in this arena that I'm not sure how to effectively resolve, but it's something that has to be dealt with by anyone who thinks Hamas has even a share of responsibility for ending the current state of affairs.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

You Can't Accept Me If I Reject You Second!


There are many instances where I think BDS protests are misguided, problematic, or even morally abhorrent. But I'm not sure I've ever seen a case that more exemplifies BDS in its most petty, penny-ante self-aggrandizing form than this story coming out of San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, where seven anti-Zionist Jewish artists withdrew accepted pieces from a scheduled exhibition:

In a statement posted Friday on Instagram, the artists said they responded to the museum’s open call for works “to make visible the existence of anti-zionist Jewish artists in California.” They anticipated that curators would reject their pieces, which included explicitly pro-Palestinian messages such as “Free Palestine.” Several of the artists openly identified as anti-Zionists in their statements. They were surprised when guest curator Elissa Strauss accepted pieces by seven of the artists in the collective.

Following this "surprise" acceptance, the anti-Zionist artists fired off a list of demands in an obvious attempt to concoct an excuse to withdraw from an exhibition they never intended to join in the first place: 

In addition to demanding that CJM divest from pro-Israel funders, the artists sought extraordinary control over their artwork. They requested that the museum amend the terms they agreed to by giving them the ability to modify or withdraw their works from the exhibit at any time, and to have autonomy over wall texts, artists statements and other framing. (In their Instagram statement, the artists wrote that they were concerned about “potential curatorial both ‘sides-ism’” and about the possibility that their pieces would appear next to ones that “grieve Jewish deaths without acknowledging the genocide of Palestinians.”)

The museum, which communicated to all the artists in the exhibit that their work might be "presented in proximity to artwork(s) by other Jewish artists which may convey views and beliefs that conflict with [their] own", refused to accede to these demands, and the anti-Zionist artists subsequently announced their withdrawal from the exhibition.

So just to recap what went down:

  1. A bunch of anti-Zionist artists submitted works to a Jewish museum convinced that they would be summarily rejected, because of course the Zionist Entity would never permit their bold dissenting vision to see light of day.
  2. The museum accepted their proposals because it wanted to present a range of contemporary Jewish voices, which included anti-Zionist perspectives.
  3. The artists, clearly stunned to see their bluff called, followed up by demanding the museum kick out pro-Israel stakeholders and that their work not be displayed in the proximity of the Zionist artists.
  4. The museum refuses the demands, and the artists storm off in a manufactured "huff" -- in quotes because they very clearly did not want to be part of this exhibition to begin with and were hoping to make some sort of statement about Zionist censorship, only to have the tables turned and have it made quite evident that they were the ones trying to thwart representation of the diverse range of Jewish perspectives.
The museum, incidentally, will display prominent blank spaces where the artists' works would have hung, to symbolize their non-presence and draw attention to their decision to withdraw from the relevant community, which I think is fabulous. It also more concretely demonstrates the value of responding to the stilted, cloistered demands of BDS with a genuine commitment of openness and receptive engagement. Had the museum simply summarily rejected the artists, they would have no doubt issued one of those classic disappointed-ecstatic statements about how they were being censored and the hegemony of Zionist in the Jewish world leaving no room for alternatives. Instead, they were caught bluffing, it being obvious that they were the ones seeking censorship and narrowness, and that their non-presence in this community event was entirely a function of their own choices. There's a lesson to be learned here; though I'm unconvinced that many of the Jewish entities who may be faced with similar choices will internalize it.

And for what it's worth, I don't think the Contemporary Jewish Museum was (counter-)bluffing here -- "accepting" the anti-Zionist art pieces only in the expectation that the artists would do exactly what they did and withdraw -- and I hope they weren't. There are a range of Jewish voices on matters of Israel and Zionism right now, and works which are otherwise meritorious but express dissident views should be permitted their place in our communal conversations. Had the works been put on display, I would hope that everyone crowing about how the CJM sure showed those BDSers what's what would have been equally emphatic in defending the CJM's right to include those voices as part of a larger exhibit. Speaking as someone who recently helped organize a collective Jewish event whose contributors adopted a range of views, not all of which I personally agree with, I very much object to the notion that the right standard for inclusion in collective affairs is bounded by my personal ideological preferences. The CJM adopted the right approach, and should be lauded for its commitment to Jewish representation irrespective of a lack of similar commitment from other members of our community.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Glass House Cleaning


Anecdotally, the Israeli attack on WCK humanitarian aid workers delivering food in Gaza appears to be a tipping point for some people. On some of the (ostensibly) liberal Zionist forums I frequent, I saw people who just last week were arguing that the entire concept of "proportionality" shouldn't constrain Israel's military response now are shocked and appalled, and they aren't buying Israeli excuses about "maybe we thought a Hamas operative was in the area." Query why this event triggered the shift, but change is change.

The JTA has a story on the reaction of various Jewish institutions to the strike. It breaks down pretty much exactly as you'd expect: the liberals being clear-eyed in condemning the killing, the leftists condemning the killing and situating as part of the broader allegation of Israeli genocide, the centrists expressing sadness for the deaths while obscuring responsibility. And then there's ZOA:

Morton Klein, the president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, said that he did not know about the incident before being informed of it by JTA on Tuesday in the early afternoon. He said, “Now that you’ve made me aware of it, obviously I’m devastated that totally innocent people trying to do humanitarian work have lost their lives, I’m sure unintentionally.”

He also said the ultimate responsibility for the aid workers’ death belongs to Hamas.

“I blame Hamas. Every single fatality is blamed on Hamas for launching this war,” Klein said. “In any war you’ll have deaths of civilians that are unintentional. In a war, mistakes are made, targets are missed. if one takes the position that one doesn’t go to war if any innocents will be killed, you won’t go to war and Hamas tyrants will win.”

I happened to read this right at the same time as I read Bret Stephens' latest column on "the appalling tactics of the 'free Palestine' movement." The thesis of his article is that "the mark of a morally serious movement lies in its determination to weed out its worst members and stamp out its worst ideas"; among his examples of the worst members/worst ideas was the infamous statement by a coalition of Harvard student groups, immediately after October 7, which held "the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence."

One notices, of course, that this is exactly -- exactly -- the formulation that Mort Klein adopted vis-a-vis Israel killing the WCK workers: "I blame Hamas. Every single fatality is blamed on Hamas for launching this war." So one might ask if this "member" of the pro-Israel will be weeded out, and if his ideas will be stamped out. As someone who has watched repeated endeavors try and fail to hold ZOA accountable, I can tell you the answer: they're not. Stephens isn't wrong, exactly, when highlighting some of the repellant extremism that sits largely unchallenged in the pro-Palestine movement. But if the mark of a morally serious movement is its determination to weed out one's worst members and worst ideas, the pro-Israel movement is sitting in a terribly fragile glass house.

The Israeli attack on humanitarian aid workers is about more than just the seven innocents Israel killed. It is another boulder on the scale of evidence which overwhelmingly suggests that -- "most moral army in the world" protests notwithstanding -- Israel's orientation towards innocent life in this conflict has been one of cavalier indifference at best, malicious destruction at worst. Protestations that "war is hell" and "don't second-guess the generals" are ringing increasingly hollow as against the near-uniform conclusion of media, eyewitness accounts, NGOs, international observers -- you name it. Some may be biased (but then, so are Israeli government figures and their apologists). But people are entitled to draw conclusions from the reality before their eyes.

(Oh, and you should read the op-ed Jose Andres published simultaneously in the New York Times and Yedioth Ahronoth).

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Free Fire



An apparent Israeli air strike killed seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen who were distributing food supplies in the Gaza Strip in what the IDF is calling a "tragic incident". The IDF is already promising an investigation at the "highest ranks", but the facts already don't look good. The car carrying the workers was clearly marked (as one can see in the picture above), and the World Food Kitchen claims it was coordinating its movements with IDF officials.

"Despite coordinating movements with the IDF, the convoy was hit as it was leaving the Deir al-Balah warehouse, where the team had unloaded more than 100 tons of humanitarian food aid brought to Gaza on the maritime route," the [WCK] statement said.

"This is not only an attack against WCK, this is an attack on humanitarian organizations showing up in the most dire of situations where food is being used as a weapon of war. This is unforgivable," said World Central Kitchen CEO Erin Gore.

According to the statement, "the seven killed are from Australia, Poland, United Kingdom, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada and Palestine."

One thing this demonstrates is that the current apologia regarding the food situation in Gaza -- that it's not a supply problem, it's a distribution problem -- fails even on its own terms. "Distribution problems" are not acts of God; in this case, they plausibly emerge in significant part from the fact that the people doing the distributing have an alarming propensity to become targets for IDF strikes. If distribution requires security, and security requires people with some measure of military hardware (whether that be guns or armor or flak jackets), and IDF commanders are deciding that everybody bearing military hardware is a Hamas terrorist and is fair game to take a missile to the throat, well, small wonder food isn't being distributed.

That, in turn, underscores a larger point: this attack is only the latest in an avalanche of evidence demonstrating, at the very least, that the IDF's rules of operation seem unacceptably lax. The killing of three Israeli hostages by Israeli fire was perhaps the most obvious exemplifier of the problem, but it doesn't stand alone -- among other incidents, Israel also has been accused of targeting a "clearly identifiable" Reuters journalist with tank fire in Lebanon, and a Doctors Without Borders shelter whose "precise location" was known to military authorities. Haaretz reported this weekend on "free fire" zones that Israel has set up throughout the Gaza Strip, where essentially anyone who crosses the vicinity is deemed a valid military target and shot (this was what reportedly led to the hostages being killed -- they inadvertently crossed into one of these unmarked zones while fleeing their captors). The article suggests that some portion of the reported terrorist casualties Israel is reporting are derived from the uncorroborated assumption that anyone (or at least any military-aged male) killed in one of these free fire zones is a terrorist. As much as we hear about how we can't trust the "Hamas-run Health Ministry statistics" regarding the total number of Palestinian deaths (notwithstanding the fact that these figures have been born out in the past and Israel is not to my knowledge contesting them), we also have to take seriously the notion that right now, in this context and with this government, there is ample reason not to blindly trust Israeli figures and conclusions regarding casualty counts too.

And the conclusion that Israel is acting with cavalier indifference to civilian life is, perhaps, the most generous of the plausible inferences from the evidence. The alternative, of course, is that these attacks are not matters of recklessness but rather are deliberate. This does not require the implausible belief that Bibi has enacted some secret policy to kill all aid workers. It rather relies on the sadly not-implausible notion that some portion of midlevel and field commanders who've imbibed the drumbeat of "the media is the enemy, the NGOs are the enemy, everyone is the enemy, they're all conspiring against us" that is omnipresent in the right-wing press actually take that narrative seriously and are deciding to act on it. It doesn't take the entire army apparatus for this to be a problem -- just a few well-placed people who decide to take lines like "Al-Jazeera is a Hamas mouthpiece" seriously and literally, who feel secure in the knowledge that they'll never face meaningful consequence or punishment for their endeavors.

Either way, this cannot be allowed to continue. The Israeli government has nobody to blame but itself for putting itself in a position where an obviously just struggle against Hamas has become converted in the world's eyes into an indiscriminate pulverizing of the Palestinian people, because over and over again the evidence bears out that this is exactly what Israel has elected to do. Those choices were not inevitabilities, they were choices; and Israel has no cause for protest that it is being held responsible for those choices. It could have chosen differently. It opted not to. People are entitled to draw reasonable conclusions from the facts before their eyes.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

A Bridge Too Far


Immediately after the Key Bridge collapse, I wrote the following:

Congress needs to pass $$ for the Key Bridge rebuild ASAP. The longer it waits, the more likely some insane r-w conspiracy develops about how “bridges are DEI” and suddenly the funds are being tied to burning Pride books or something. 

Sigh

This week, Pennsylvania GOP Representative Dan Meuser slammed President Biden for calling on Congress to fully fund the response to the Baltimore collapse. Meuser insisted it’s “outrageous” that Biden wants to fund repairs in their “entirety,” and even demanded that some of this money must be taken from “ridiculous EV expenditures.”

[....]

Some GOP lawmakers are already treating future funding of the Baltimore response as a future concession on their part. Representative Jeff Duncan says Congress should not spend “one more dime” of additional infrastructure money before a border wall is built, as if the need for disaster relief can be used to extort Democrats into funding MAGA priorities in return.

[....]

It gets still worse. Some right-wing media personalities are floating whackjob theories blaming the collision on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, on our supposedly open borders, and other MAGA preoccupations. Some “online influencers” and GOP politicians indulged in trivializing nitwit speculation and targeted Baltimore mayor Brandon Scott and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg with other assorted hateful smears.

Some predictions are too obvious to get credit for nailing.

(H/T) 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

March Badness


A GOP state legislator in Michigan, Rep. Matt Maddock, saw a bus with too many brown people near at the airport and jumped to the obvious conclusion: "Happening right now. Three busses just loaded up with illegal invaders at Detroit Metro. Anyone have any idea where they’re headed with their police escort?"

It was Gonzaga's basketball team, headed to the Sweet 16 round. But don't let facts get in the way of some good racism and red-baiting:

Maddock made his false claim in a month during which false and misleading claims about airplane flights involving migrants have proliferated on the political right.

Hundreds of social media users quickly disputed Maddock’s post on Wednesday, but Maddock refused to concede. He replied to one of the many people who pointed out the plane and buses were likely for NCAA basketball teams: “Sure kommie. Good talking point.”

Maddock continued to dig in on Thursday morning. He wrote a new post saying, “We know this is happening” and that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants are “pouring into our country.” He added: “Since we can’t trust the #FakeNews to investigate, citizens will. The process of investigating these issues takes time.”

Meanwhile, in Idaho the Utah women's basketball team was essentially chased out of the state after they endured repeated racial abuse at the hotel they were staying at in Coeur d'Alene (they switched to a different hotel in Spokane).

It's nothing novel to say that athletics (and college athletics in particular) represent a prominent arena where young men and women of color are placed in the (nominally positive) spotlight of predominantly White institutions, and there are a lot of White people who really can't handle that.

The Looming(?) Haredi Draft


For many years, Israel has effectively exempted Haredi youth from the otherwise universal requirement (for Jews) of IDF service. This has been a serious source of tension and strife in Israeli society -- a rallying point for secular and moderate Jews who view the Haredim as failing to pull their weight, and an absolute bedrock priority for Orthodox parties for whom avoiding military service is their number one policy demand.

The blockbuster decision out of the Israeli supreme court you might have read about doesn't quite compel the draft to start, but it does say that Haredim can no longer get their governmental stipends if they don't serve. In practice, the Haredi community is going to view it as the same thing -- an end to the system where they got paid to study Torah instead of serve in the army.

I won't claim to be an expert on this issue -- this is where I comment as an "interested amateur" -- but here are some initial thoughts.

  • One immediate way to identify a complete know-nothing hack is if you see anyone saying this ruling demonstrates that the Israeli government is starving for manpower or some other vulgar materialist explanation. The current government, which depends on the support of Orthodox parties for its majority, was and is absolutely dead-set against this ruling.
  • That said, the current war and the strain it's placed on Israel's military capacities has certainly even further elevated this issue's salience amongst the opposition, and that may have helped create a further permission structure for the court to rule as it did.
  • It is entirely possible that this ruling could bring down Bibi's government. The mercurial nature of the Orthodox parties is I think a bit overstated (people are so proud for knowing better than the naive story about the ultra-Orthodox being the primary drivers of Israeli right-wing extremism -- "they've joined left-wing governments before! Shas backed land for peace!" -- that they skip past the ways that this social cadre has genuinely shifted rightward in recent years). But this issue really is the sine qua for the ultra-Orthodox, and if the current government can't secure it, that's going to create a yawning fissure in an already creaky coalition.
  • It might be weird to think of "more militarization" as helping bolster pro-peace impulses in Israel. But we might see some shift in that direction, for at least two reasons. 
    • Number one, in general, if every social sector is sharing the burden of military service, that may put a damper on needless military adventurism. Parties that are happy to risk the bodies of other Israelis to defend settlement outposts may be less willing to do so once their bodies are on the line. 
    • Number two, for the Haredi parties in particular, the only way they might plausibly get their exemptions back is in a world where Israel is less reliant on constant militarization. So that could create some possibility for working relationship with more liberal forces in the state; albeit an "alliance" that will always be on shaky footing.
In any event, stay tuned -- this is a big deal.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

End Spoofing


The Portland JCC, which also houses the local Jewish Day School, was swatted today.

Elsewhere, the mom of a friend of mine nearly got victimized by a scam where someone used voice-altering software to impersonate her daughter and beg for money after she was "in a car accident".

It's no mystery that these sorts of scams seem to be on the rise, and seem to be increasingly sophisticated. And I doubt I'm giving any hot take when I say that these scammers are absolutely, 100%, the lowest of the low.

One common tactic in these thugs' repertoire's is "spoofing" -- basically, impersonating another number when they call you, so it shows up on Caller ID as your doctor or the IRS or a customer support center (or just hides the actual number that the person is calling from). 

I don't know whether spoofing was involved in either of the above incidents. But I'm increasingly of the mind that we might need to just ban spoofing outright.

I'm aware of the legitimate reasons for spoofing. A business wants a call to register as emanating from their main line, not whatever back office is calling you. Or someone working from home still wants to be identified as calling from their company, not their personal cellphone. I even can understand some cases where spoofing may have anti-fraud properties (it lets me know that the call is coming from someone at Aetna, which I may be disinclined to believe if the phone number is the random area code of wherever the nurse went to high school).

But at this stage, I just don't see those real benefits as outweighing the costs. It doesn't seem like the phone companies have any real way to distinguish "bad" spoofing from good. And while I don't actually know the mechanics (so what I say next might be entirely wrong), it seems to me that it would be technologically-easier to simply ban the practice outright -- create no mechanism through which phone calls can "identify" themselves as anything but their unique actual phone number -- than to engage in what seems to be a losing game of whack-a-mole.

And sure, I know in my heart that this is probably a lot more complicated than I realize (though I do genuinely believe that it's one of those things where, if there was some serious government regulatory muscle behind it, you'd see the telecom providers hop to it). But one of the joys of aging is that I get to cantankerously grumble about problems and just demand they be fixed, and I'm leaning in. 

Friday, March 22, 2024

Jewish Protests at Berkeley, a Follow Up and Victory Lap


UC-Berkeley Political Science professor Ron Hassner has ended his sleep-in protest, stating that the university administration has agreed to all of his requests. In particular he flagged the following:


(1) First, he asked that "all students, even the ones wearing Stars of David, should be free to pass through [Sather Gate] unobstructed. The right of protestors to express their views must be defended. It does not extend to blocking or threatening fellow students." The university has since "posted observers from the Division of Student Affairs to monitor bullying at the gate. These are not the passive yellow-vested security personnel who have stood around Sproul in prior weeks. The Student Affairs representatives are there to actively document bullying, abuse, blocking, or intrusion on personal space."

(2) The second request was for the Chancellor to "'uphold this university’s venerable free speech tradition' by inviting back any speaker whose talk has been interrupted or canceled. The chancellor did so gladly and confidently. The speaker who was attacked by a violent mob three weeks ago spoke to an even larger crowd this Monday."

(3) The third request was to fund and implement "mandatory Islamophobia and anti-Semitism training on campus". This has also apparently been arranged.

I give Ron a lot of credit. First, he's not dunking on the administration here, in fact, he gives them a lot of credit: "It is my belief that campus leaders would have fulfilled all these requests of their own accord even in the absence of my sleep-in.... At best, our sleep-in reinforced the university’s determination to act and accelerated the process somewhat."

Second, it's important to emphasize that Ron's protest did not ask or come close to asking that Berkeley silence anyone else's speech, including that of the protesters at Sather Gate. While they should not be able to obstruct Jewish students seeking to travel to campus, they have the right to present their views as well as anyone. It is not a concession but an acknowledgment of the proper role of the university administration that he did not press for them to end the protests outright.

Third, one might notice that Hassner's last demand was for antisemitism and Islamophobia training to be implemented on campus. In recent years, it has become almost cliched to hear certain putative anti-antisemitism warriors express fury whenever the fight against antisemitism is paired with the fight against Islamophobia, racism, or other forms of bigotry. They call it "All Lives Mattering" (although, when these coalitions against hate form and antisemitism isn't included in the collective, they call it "Jews Don't Count"). I've long thought that this was an abuse of the "All Lives Matter" concept, and it is notable that Hassner -- who not only has a ground-level perspective but who is actually putting his money where his mouth is in terms of combatting antisemitism -- doesn't see the pairing as a distraction or diminishment of what he's been fighting for but as an asset. More people could stand to take note.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Art Maven Roundup

All of the sudden, I've been on an art kick. The below image is a silkscreen I recently purchased from DC-based artist Halim Flowers. Flowers was convicted of felony murder as a juvenile and sentenced to two life terms. He was released after serving 22 years following statutory reforms aimed a juvenile offenders who had received life sentences, and now is showing in galleries around the world.


Pictured: "Audacity to Love (IP) (Blue)" by Halim Flowers. The colors are meant to be reminiscent of the Israeli and Palestinian flags (blue and white, and red, white, and green).

* * *

Trump continues to show his contempt for American Jews, saying any Jew who doesn't support him "hates their religion" (and Israel).

An in-depth story about a White supremacist who was elected to city council in Enid, Oklahoma, and the recall campaign to try and remove him.

Given the well-covered softness in Biden's support in the Muslim community, it seems suicidal to me for Democrats to give into the repulsive Islamophobic attacks holding up the confirmation of Third Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Adeel Mangi (the story indicates that Biden has remained rock-solid in backing his confirmation, but there may be some misgivings in the Senate Democratic caucus).

Writing on the sudden "heterodox" support for revisionist accounts justifying George Floyd's murder, Radley Balko flags what has been obvious for a long time: as much as this cadre likes to bleat about respecting truth, free-thinking, and rationality, it is as if not more beholden to ideologically-convenient narratives at the expense of reality. Pretty much everyone on the internet has been sharing this with their own story of the alt-center blowing past truth in order to push conservative grievance politics; mine was watching them stand in unblinking support of a hit piece on California's Model Ethnic Studies Curriculum even after it was revealed the author completely fabricated the inclusion of a seemingly-damning antisemitic quote.

Interesting retrospective on the Israeli Black Panthers in JTA.

The Supreme Court's frosty reception to the contention that government officials privately lobbying social media companies to take down misinformation is a First Amendment violation is the latest suggestion that the Court is finally losing patience with the regular drumbeat of insane legal theories emanating out of hyper-conservative Fifth Circuit.

Conversations with Normies


I enjoy talking to my brother about politics because he is, for lack of a better way of putting it, far more normal than I am. He is not passionate about politics, but he's not ignorant about it either. He pays some measure of attention because he's a good citizen who cares about the world around him, but it's not something he's independently especially interested in. There are, of course, a lot more people like him than there are people like me, even though there are a lot more people like me talking about politics online. So chatting with my brother feels like getting a sense of the pulse of normie America (even though of course he's not necessarily representative).

In terms of ideology, my brother is probably best described as a moderate Democrat. His line for the past several years has been pretty consistent in saying that there is a universe where he could imagine voting Republican, but it is not our universe because he fully recognizes that the Republican Party in America today is fully captured by insane people. 

So there was never any question that he'll be voting blue come November. But we happened to have a chat about his current political outlook on things. I present these not as endorsement or non-endorsement, but simply because what he said may be of interest to a readership who I suspect is (like me, unlike him) very much not of the normie bent.

1. He loves Joe Biden. One of the first things he said was that he's annoyed and frustrated by the notion that Biden is "the lesser of two evils" or a sort of shit sandwich you have to swallow given the alternative. My brother thinks Biden is great! He thinks he's had a tremendously successful presidency! In particular, my brother gave Biden a bunch of credit for lowering political temperatures and trying to pursue actual solutions to problems rather than demagoguing and grandstanding. 

Admittedly, my brother started off as a Biden supporter -- he was his favorite candidate at the outset of the 2020 primary (back when David was deciding between Booker and Warren). But now he wonders if he's really alone in that assessment, because so much of the prevailing narrative is centered around how nobody actually likes Joe Biden, they at best tolerate him. My brother is a loud and proud "I like Biden" guy.

2. He's lost patience with Israel's Gaza campaign. We're both Jewish, and while neither of us is super religious, we've both stayed involved in Jewish life as adults (and unlike me, he's visited Israel). He was obviously repelled by what happened on October 7 and thinks Hamas is a despicable terrorist outfit. Nonetheless, his take on the current status of the conflict in Gaza is that at this stage it feels to him as if it is no longer (if it ever was) about Israel's security, and now is just unconstrained vengeance being taken out upon the Palestinian population. He has no trust in or love for Bibi, and thinks he needs to go.

3. He's interested in Freddie DeBoer. That was, of all the names, the person he said he'd been reading recently whose work had been resonating with him -- didn't agree with all of it, but found him thought-provoking particularly on matters of mental health and "wokeness". I confessed that I hadn't thought about Freddie DeBoer in ages, so I couldn't really react to it. I suggested reading Matt Yglesias' "Slow Boring"; he laughed because Yglesias and DeBoer apparently despise each other even as they (in his mind) didn't seem too far apart when it came to tangible policy beliefs.

4. He's skeptical about the impact of "woke" trends. He doesn't identify with the efforts to destroy trans health care or anything like that (again -- he recognizes the GOP is crazy). But he did express concern about what he described as "wokeness", even though he also said he thought that term was clearly imprecise for what he was speaking of since it also captures plenty of activity he fully approves of. 

At first, I assumed he was talking about certain cringy performative activities that I could imagine being grating to someone of his views. But he emphasized that it wasn't just a matter of performance -- in his space (the non-profit world), he felt as if impactful programs that were doing a lot of good in marginalized communities were getting short-changed as donor priorities redirected towards initiatives that could more easily packaged as messaging DEI values (even if they didn't tangibly improve as many lives in the communities they purported to be uplifting). So his grief was partially an objection to performance, but with a tangible kick. I recommended he read Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else) by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò; he said he had heard of it but hadn't had the chance to read it.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Is Originalism a Sandwich?


In the latest iteration of her "notable sandwiches" series, Talia Lavin tackles the age-old question "Is a hot dog a sandwich?" She gathered a host of experts from a range of different disciplines to give their take, and while there wasn't a consensus, it seemed to me (I didn't count) that more leaned against it being a sandwich. The general thrust of the argument that most resonated with me, from sociolinguistics professor Matt Garley, was to frame the question as "Do people commonly or regularly refer to a hot dog (outside of this particular debate) as a sandwich?" In that light, the answer seems to be generally "no", even if it seems to formally meet the dictionary definition of a sandwich ("two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between.").

Later in the post, Talia gets a quote from Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who gave some insight on how dictionaries themselves approach this problem. Contrary to (perhaps) popular belief, dictionaries are not in the business of trying to give precise definitions that perfectly include and exclude everything that descriptively falls within the category-type of a given word. I'll quote him at length:
The general thing to know about dictionaries is that you're usually not trying to capture the complete and exact description of something; you're trying to get a general picture of what something means. This is hard enough for concrete nouns that we more or less know, like "horse" or "sandwich"; it's impossible with abstract nouns like "freedom" or "beauty". One of the most famous definitions in lexicography is the one for "door" in Webster's Third of 1961:
"a movable piece of firm material or a structure supported usually along one side and swinging on pivots or hinges, sliding along a groove, rolling up and down, revolving as one of four leaves, or folding like an accordion by means of which an opening may be closed or kept open for passage into or out of a building, room, or other covered enclosure or a car, airplane, elevator, or other vehicle."
This is what happens when you try to be exact—you get something useless.

So most dictionaries, that are written for native speakers and that assume a good-faith effort to understand the definition, give a reasonably broad definition, that will include most things that should be included and exclude most things that should be excluded.

There are, conventionally, two main types of lexicographers: lumpers and splitters. Lumpers include as much as possible ('liquid food' for soup); splitters write a dozen super-narrow definitions, and when a new variant comes up, they write another one.

Dictionaries are generally more lumpy than splitty. A sandwich is a food with something inside a bready thing. Trying to be super-precise is only going to lead to frustration (or the "door" definition above): Most people feel that a meatball sub is a kind of a sandwich but a hot dog isn't, but that's very hard to explain, so unless you have a definition like "… or a split roll having a cold or hot filling (that is not a solid length of sausage)…", you're kind of stuck.

If I can turn serious for a moment—and this is very serious—the reason that this is genuinely important, and not just a parlor game, is that people sometimes put a lot of faith in dictionary definitions. In particular, courts use old dictionaries to try to determine what words meant at a time when laws were written. But that is very much not how dictionaries should be used. If it's this hard to determine what a "sandwich" is, what are we supposed to do about words like genocide, or to bear arms? Or woman in reference to a trans woman? People literally die because dictionaries are misused. There are ways to attempt to answer these questions—corpus linguistics, sociolinguistic interviews—but thinking that a dictionary is an exact map of reality is not a correct one of these.

I wasn't expecting to see this point made in a fun post about the concept of a hot dog, but here we are. And it did crystallize for me an objection I've been flagging recently about "vulgar" textualism or originalism; a practice of judicial interpretation that purports to distinguish itself by close and careful reading of texts, but actually is just very bad at reading texts. Many of the cases that take this approach begin with a very close parsing of dictionary definitions in order to fix textual meaning. But this from the jump misunderstands what dictionaries are even trying to do. Even at the moment they are written, dictionaries are an at best imperfect map onto actual public meaning (the idea being that even if we were looking at a dictionary published today to answer the question "is a hot dog a sandwich", we'd likely be heading off in the wrong direction). And that gap only grows wider as time passes, because the actual meaning of words depends on a host of agreed-upon implicit assumptions and cultural horizons that are constantly shifting and temporally-contingent. 

We run into this question when trying to figure out how to apply an old word ("search") to technology that hadn't been invented yet when the word was written ("heat scanning"). One way of answering "is heat scanning a search under the Fourth Amendment" is to look at the dictionary definition of "search" circa 1789 and figure out if it fits. But that actually wouldn't really be the accurate answer, because what we'd actually want to know is if the relevant interpretive community would have generally used "heat mapping" as falling under the category of search. And that question, in turn, is essentially incoherent unless we also import into that community a host of surrounding cultural and linguistic practices that make "heat mapping" a legible concept that could be part of a robust linguistic pattern to begin with (if you plop down a heat mapper into 1789 without all of that context, then it's going to be seen less as a "search" and more as "eldritch magical witchcraft"). So what we're really asking when trying to figure whether heat mapping qualifies as a search today is "how would the relevant class of interpreters understand the relationship between these words, if they had the full cultural and linguistic context that we have today -- and at that point, our "originalism" is essentially just living constitutionalism.