Monday, July 08, 2024

"Us Too-ism" Turns Off the Normies

You may have heard that a group of Columbia University administrators were sacked after someone posted screenshots of text messages where they were snarking at a panel on campus antisemitism they were in the audience for.

When that story broke, I was (and largely remain) of two minds on this. On the one hand, all of us have snarky texts that ripped out of context probably look pretty bad -- this sort of policing really doesn't end well for anyone. On the other hand, university administrators have a pretty grim reputation right now of treating antisemitism claims as trivial annoyances by bad faith actors, and these messages fit into that paradigm. There's a fundamental trust problem: many Jews do not trust that Columbia administrators are interested in seriously tackling antisemitism, and see these texts as verifying that disdainful dismissal; many academics do not trust Columbia's leadership to respond to antisemitism complaints with anything but reflexive brute force, and see this response as yet more kowtowing to an unappeasable media feeding frenzy. Both camps, in all honesty, have reasons for their mistrust.

But that's not what I what to concentrate on here, exactly. Rather, I want to take stock of one response in particular -- that of Kevin Drum. I'm a longtime fan of Drum's writing, which I think is a good exemplar of reasonably thoughtful and well-informed center-left "normie" politics. Seeing how he was responding to Israel's Gaza campaign was a good barometer of what people not in the hothouse of terminally-online left politics were thinking; in particular, it suggested that the belief that the current Israeli government is a fundamentally bad actor is not one confined to the "usual suspects" on the far-left.

In any event, one component of the Columbia controversy was the claim that the administrators themselves indulged in an antisemitic "trope" -- the suggestion that the panelists were hyping up instances of antisemitism as a "fundraising" opportunity allegedly feeding into claims about Jewish greed and/or perfidy. To this, Drum gave the textual equivalent of a giant eyeroll. He explained that he's long been suspicious of the word "tropes", which he said "in practice [is] used exclusively to imply someone has said something vaguely offensive without having the receipts." And this case, for him, fell squarely into that category:

I took a look at these text messages a couple of weeks ago and came away believing there wasn't much there. Since then the entire text conversation has been released, but it doesn't change things. During a panel discussion about antisemitism, the three deans in question shared private texts that you could fairly describe as snarky or irreverent. But that's about it.

To the Columbia administration, however, which was under siege from outraged alumni demanding that the three deans (plus a fourth) be fired immediately, the texts conveyed "a lack of seriousness about the concerns and the experiences of members of our Jewish community."

This is precisely backward. What the deans did was fail to show unconditional earnestness and obeisance toward every last grievance lodged by a particular community, no matter how ridiculous or overstated. This is apparently the price of admission to progressive society these days.

This whole thing is bonkers. The grievances of specific communities deserve to be given fair consideration, but they don't automatically demand absolute deference. In this case, the deans privately exhibited moderate skepticism toward a few of the claims from the panelists, some of it expressed a little bit caustically. None of it could reasonably be called antisemitic, and at most they deserve a verbal reprimand. Instead they're all out of jobs.

Drum thinks that antisemitism allegations here are thin gruel. Maybe you disagree. But one argument I've often heard, as against the claim that Columbia is overreacting here, is to say in essence "maybe so, but that ship has sailed -- every other group gets this sort of response when they claim to be the victims of discrimination, so it's only right that we the Jews do too." It's a version of what I've termed "us too-ism", and I've already outlined many of its pitfalls, not the least of which is the fact that the perception of what "every other group gets" is often not matched by reality. 

But Drum's reaction illuminates yet another problem: for many of the people who do perceive that this is what colleges "normally" do, they don't view that as a good thing. They view it as a bad, toxic practice they at best generally roll their eyes at. Indeed, I suspect most of the "normie" center-leftish Jewish commentators take that general perspective: when we're not talking about antisemitism, they view this sort of heavy-handed administrative response as indicative of wokeness gone wild, which is why when we are talking about antisemitism they defend similar behavior not on its own merits but rather via the us-too bank shot of "well, it's what everyone else gets." The problem is that when non-Jewish normies see this happening, they don't think "aha -- now the chickens have come home to roost, for the Jews also get to claim this bounty!" They think "oh great, yet another instance of overzealous activists peddling a grievance scoring one for cancel culture," and just slot Jews and anti-antisemitism politics into their mental category of "minorities who face some genuine discrimination but are taking things too far."

Again, all of this is aside from whether Drum is right "on the merits" to dismiss the antisemitism angle here. The point, rather, is to emphasize yet another problem with the "us too" argument -- more often than not, its reception outside the Jewish community is not going to be "well, fair is fair"; it's going to be to associate Jews with whatever malformed and exaggerated perception of identity politics gone wild already prevails within the broader public. It still might be a hit worth taking if one genuinely can defend the practices and arguments in question on their own merits, without relying on the crutch of what other groups are imagined to get. But if one's main basis for trying to draw blood is simply the "us too" entitlement, then it's definitely a fool's errand.

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