Thursday, April 18, 2024

"Us Too-ism" at USC

You've probably heard about a brewing free speech incident at USC, where the provost canceled a planned speech by the student valedictorian that pertained to prior pro-Palestine/anti-Israel content on her social media profiles (I've seen conflicting reports on what was "her words" versus words on sites she was linking to). The USC administration insists that it is not opposed to the student's speech per se, but rather had vague "safety" objections. 

To that end, my main comment is that (a) the "safety" concerns smack of pretext and (b) if there are actually safety concerns sufficiently extreme so as to make it impossible for a South Asian Muslim student to deliver a speech, that is a five-alarm fire crisis for the state of free speech at USC that should be addressed with exactly that level of urgency. But again, my strong suspicion is that "safety" is a red herring here, and this is really USC preemptively bowing to pressure from various pro-Israel groups (some on campus, presumably some alumni/external actors as well) demanding the cancellation. I also endorse Paul Horwitz's thoughts on this (not just because he kindly links to some of my own recent work on campus speech regulation).

To me, though, the effort by some Jewish groups to cancel this student's speech smacks of what I've termed "us too-ism". "Us too-ism" is when one group that has a colorable claim of being marginalized or oppressed sees some sort of movement, practice, or trend that is demanded by or responsive to the needs of another marginalized group and reflexively demands that they receive it as well ("us too!"). The problem with "us too-ism" is that it's almost entirely reactive. It isn't motivated by some organically-generated understanding of what a group actually desires or what it feels it is lacking; it rather stems from a more abstract "this is how society shows it is responsive to oppressed groups, we are oppressed, therefore we must get this" logic. That this imagining of how other groups are being responded to is often caricatured or stereotyped only exacerbates the problem. If the metric for our equality is solely a 1:1 matching of what other groups are thought to get, and what other groups are thought to get is grossly exaggerated or misimagined, then what will be demanded by the "us too" contingent will inherently be unreasonable or excessive precisely because it's demanding mimicry of a "response" that largely exists in the minds of the "us too-ers".

In my other post, for example, I analyzed the "us too" concept with respect to the "Jewface" allegations surrounding non-Jewish Steve Carrell playing a Jewish character in the movie "The Patient". The rise of the "Jewface" complaint, at least with respect to male actors (I acknowledged Jewish women may be differently situated), did not seem to me to stem from an organic complaint of how Jews were being represented in Hollywood, or even a more inchoate sense of offense. Rather, it seemed to primarily be a copycat of complaints surrounding racial representation in cinema: racial minorities had been complaining about White actors being cast to play non-White characters as a form of racism, and that sufficed to mean that Jews should complain about non-Jewish actors being cast to play Jewish characters as a form of antisemitism.

The USC case, I think, may stem from something similar. Some Jews perceive, rightly or not (for my part, I think the perception is overstated albeit not stemming from nowhere, but again, it's the perception that matters here), that other minority groups demand and often receive the cancellation of "offensive" speakers at campus events and that receptivity to this demand is taken as a litmus test for the degree to which the campus is responsive to the minority group. Hence, Jews who also feel vulnerable on campus decide that they are entitled to this same treatment, and the degree to which the campus is receptive to their demands is the yardstick by which they can determine if their oppression is treated with equal seriousness compared to other campus groups making analogous claims.

As should be clear by now, I think this is a very bad way of going about things. I think the "perceived" demands of other groups are often in fact misperceived, and I think the purely reactive framework of us too-ism ends up occluding very important and necessary steps of self-reflection regarding what we actually want and what would actually make us feel secure on campus. It's hard to argue that the cancellation of this speech at USC has made Jewish students -- even those who do view their safety as Jews as intricately bound up in their Zionist self-identification -- any safer, and it's hard to argue that cancellation of the speech is actually a proportionate response to what harm (if there is any) this student might have caused. But again, "us too-ism" doesn't consider any of that -- its analysis starts and ends at what it imagines other analogous groups are getting, and so it can't surprise that the resultant conclusions are shallow and misdirected.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Submission is the Point

The Venice Biennale is an annual art exhibition designed to showcase the work of artists around the world. Open to exhibitors from any country with diplomatic relations with Italy, the event includes an official Israeli exhibit -- a fact which has unsurprisingly drawn the ire of those demanding a complete cultural boycott of Israel.

This year, though, there was a bit of a twist on that tale: the Israeli representative, Ruth Patir, elected to close her own exhibit "a cease-fire and hostage release agreement is reached."

Patir -- who has been a regular participant in pro-ceasefire/anti-Bibi protests in Israel -- is not characterizing her decision as endorsing a boycott of Israel, which she emphasized she opposes, and I think we should respect her framing of her own actions. Much like with Natalie Portman, there's no reason to think that Patir does not know or understand the choices she's made.

But I don't really want to focus on the what Patir did, exactly. Rather, I want to take a look at how her decision was received by those who were demanding the removal of the Israeli exhibit. Consistent with the above, it would not be right to say that Patir was joining the boycotters. But it certainly seems like her actions were aligned with what the boycotters seem to want. 

Yet their reaction is, well, I would say it is very interesting and very revealing. What it reveals, in particular, is how the goal of this campaign is very clearly not to create a space where Israelis come out in opposition to the violent practices of their government, or more broadly one that creates space for an imagined future where Israelis and Palestinians relate to one another as equals. They do not see Israelis as potential partners even in an imagined futures. They see Israelis as enemies who must be made to submit. The submission, above all else, is the point.

Here's how they characterize Patir's decision vis-a-vis their campaign:

“The artistic team of the Israeli pavilion has retreated as a direct consequence of widespread pressure and our collective campaign.”

Note the framing. Patir "retreated" in the face of "pressure". She did not, under this telling, voluntarily align with -- even partially -- the effort to end the war in Gaza. She is not an example of someone stepping out from an (under this telling) benighted framework to see the essential need to speak out. She did not even make a volitional choice on her own. She was forced, coerced, compelled to back down. That's the victory -- not "Israeli publicly demands ceasefire", but "Israeli publicly forced to yield."

And having secured the dominant position, are the boycotters magnanimous in their claimed victory? Not at all. Her will may have been bent; but it must be broken. Referring to the fact that the closed exhibit can still be seen through the windows, the boycotters make clear that Patir remains firmly in the camp of an enemy to be crushed:

The Genocide Pavilion has been forced to respond to 24,000 signatories who condemn the Israeli genocide against Palestinians in Gaza but, contrary to the artistic team’s claims, they have not withdrawn, the pavilion has not been closed. 

ANGA reiterates its demand to shut down the pavilion in its entirety.

ANGA does not applaud empty and opportunistic gestures timed for maximum press coverage, and leaving video works on view to the public....

Leave aside the almost absurd richness of complaining about "gestures timed for maximum press coverage" (how is that a bad thing in this context?). The boycotters will not be satisfied until it is clear that Patir has yielded, that her choices are not her own, that what happens to her is something imposed upon her against her will. It is not elevating the call for a ceasefire, it is not even (really) the closure of the exhibit, that was desired here. It is the submission that is the point, and that has not yet adequately been achieved.

This type of politics rings familiar. It called to mind Justice Alito's contradictory desire "to bludgeon the legal community into freely accepting his preeminence." It's not enough for him to prevail on the formal terrain of saying what the law is, the legal community must yield to his superiority. I saw a similar dynamic in some circles of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign -- when it looked like he was on the path to victory, some of his backers looked ecstatically at the prospect that the Democratic Party establishment would be forced to "bend the knee". They were less excited about winning the Democratic primary than they were about defeating the Democrats. The submission of the enemy was the point.

This politics, fundamentally, demands not just victory but domination over the enemy. And as a result, it cannot tolerate -- it is infuriated by -- possibilities of agreement or reconciliation from the putative enemy. Often, the substantive issues supposedly being fought over are besides the point. If you wonder why some parts of the left can't seem to take "yes" for an answer, this is why: for Democrats to simply agree to some progressive proposal, without it being seen as somehow wrested from the party over its most primal objections, deprives these persons of the visceral sensation of domination -- it cheats them of their victory. So the framing will never be "I'm happy that they've moved closer to what I want," it can only ever be "they've retreated as a direct response to our pressure and collective campaign." The submission of the enemy was the point.

That's what's happening here in Venice. Some might naively argue that the message of the boycotters to Patir's decision is "counterproductive" -- why are they responding with such hostility and negativity towards an Israeli who is publicly stepping forward to demand a ceasefire? But as I often say, what's counterproductive depends on what you're trying to produce. If what you're trying to produce is more Israelis recognizing the imperative of a ceasefire, a collective change in Israeli outlook to alter the current bloody course, then yes this response might be counterproductive. But if what you're trying to produce is a world in which Israelis are stripped of autonomous choice entirely, are no longer in a position to self-determine at all or even be one agential part of a broader collective movement, then the boycotters' choice of action is entirely productive -- Ruth Patir's choice to close her exhibit, precisely because it was her choice, is just as threatening to that vision and equally must be crushed.

And just so we're clear: there's an Israeli parallel to this horrible political approach. There's a significant channel of right-wing Israeli thought which insists that peace can only occur when Palestinians acknowledge they've been beaten, that they've lost. From that position of submission, Israel can impose a new state of affairs that is vaguely and magnanimously promised to be just. But no deal can be reached under any terms if it is a deal made amongst equals, because the very notion of Palestinian equality is incompatible with them accepting they've been thoroughly defeated. Indeed, the whole idea of a deal that's agreed to by the Palestinians itself becomes automatically suspect -- if they agree, then it was not imposed, and if it was not imposed, then there was not truly submission.

But if your politics demands submission on a national or collective level -- Israelis or Palestinians as a whole forced to yield, forced to accept dominance, it is almost by definition not going to be one that actually is centered around equal respect for all. At most, it will promise to magnanimously dole out justice (more than they deserve) onto the vanquished party once it is well and clear that they are vanquished. But the vanquished will not be seen as candidates for equal participation in the future community. Indeed, any efforts they might make to participate -- even in ways that might superficially suggest they are aligned with one's own vision of what just equality might look like -- will only confirm that they have not fully submitted, and must be crushed further. The submission is the point.

To reiterate, this sort of toxic politics is not unique nor does it fully characterize the desires of either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian actors. But it does seem like this particular campaign in Venice is one whose politics take this form of demanding complete and total Israeli submission above and to the exclusion of all else. And the results are exactly what one would expect.

As They Do

The ongoing fallout of the Dobbs decision, and the way it's made manifest the GOP's extreme and retrogressive anti-abortion priorities, has caused no small amount of soul-searching amongst Republican politicians. We saw, for example, a slew of Arizona Republicans race to disavow their own hand-packed-picked supreme court's decision to resurrect a pre-statehood near-total ban on abortion. Donald Trump also came out and said he opposed a national abortion ban. What should voters make of this about-face?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Why not? Because Republicans are, to be blunt, lying. No matter what they say, no matter what press releases they write, no matter what interviews they give, when push comes to shove, they will absolutely either endorse or acquiesce to the most draconian possible limitations on female reproductive autonomy. That's the full truth.

The list of supporting evidence on this is essentially endless, but I'll just give two examples:

Exhibit A: Arizona, where the GOP-controlled legislature -- fresh off their oh-so-pained public squirming over the aforementioned state supreme court ruling -- has continued to block legislative efforts to actually, you know, repeal the offending law.

Exhibit B: Florida, where Senator Rick Scott rapidly backtracked from his own heresies calling for greater moderation on abortion after that state's supreme court reversed decades-long precedent clear the way for abortion bans by clarifying that of course he'd support even a six-week ban if given the opportunity.

These are two among many.

I suspect that over the next few months, we will continue to see more Republican rhetoric that gestures at some sort of "moderate" or "compromise" position on abortion, occurring right alongside more extreme tangible implementations of the right's extremist anti-choice agenda (what's going to happen when the Supreme Court permanently allows states to murder pregnant women in defiance of federal law). Even as rhetoric, it's hollow -- the "exceptions" they promise are nugatory or impossible to implement, the "deals" on offer are to impose unwanted bans on blue states while letting red states be as extreme as they desire -- but more than that they're lies. No matter what they say, no matter what they earnestly promise, no matter what soul-searching they might promise, where Republicans are in charge what they will do is push for and defend the most draconian abortion bans they can possibly get away with.

There's no lever that will get Republicans to behave differently; no weird trick that can change their minds. Where they have power and hold office, this is what they will do. Our only option is to deprive them of that power. No matter what they say, no matter what they believe, anyone who is taking any steps right now to assist Republicans taking or keeping office is tacitly endorsing extreme abortion bans. There's no way around it.

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.