Tuesday, July 14, 2020

My Thoughts on the Weiss Resignation

You may have heard that Bari Weiss has not-so-quietly resigned from her position at the New York Times. Her publicly-posted resignation letter is a wide-spanning critique of the culture at the Times and what she takes to be a narrowing of the bounds of acceptable opinion and intellectual curiosity.

I have a few thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

  • I have never been particularly impressed with the bulk of Bari Weiss' work, or her general "cancel culture/fearlessly asking the questions" oeuvre. I've often found it to be lazy, self-satisfied, and/or hypocritical. I don't think she has a coherent theory distinguishing "criticism" (good) from "cancellation" (bad), and most damningly, I don't think she seems to even recognize that there's a tension here that appears to be resolved in a partisan way (my retort is criticism, yours is cancellation).
  • That said, Weiss is not even close to the only major political pundit who embodies these vices. The degree to which she nonetheless became, for many, the public avatar of those sins always made me uncomfortable, because it always felt like it was tied up to her identity as a prominent Jewish woman. Call it misojewny, call it antisemisogyny, but it stunk.
  • The eagerness with which people bring up Weiss' college escapades (she participated in projects which exposed the allegedly anti-Israel/antisemitic practices of several professors at Columbia, where she was a student) is a bit to gloating in nature for my tastes (again, many public figures have done things while in college that are not fully thought out or perfectly-tailored to keep a pristine PR file). However, consistent with my above sense that Weiss lacks a theory distinguishing "good" versus "bad" critical counterspeech, she isn't helped by the fact that she hasn't to my knowledge even seriously grappled with the tension in this issue close to her heart. A more thoughtful participant in these debates might have drawn upon her experience seeking to "cancel" figures for alleged antisemitism to be more sympathetic to other actors who seek to "cancel" figures for alleged racism. Weiss did not usually extend that sympathy, and so the juxtaposition is going to reflect poorly on her.
  • In her letter, Weiss claims that the terms which describe what happened to her are "unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge. I’m no legal expert. But I know that this is wrong." She is, indeed, no legal expert. The conduct she describes in the letter -- whether it is "wrong" or not -- would be very unlikely to sustain a legal complaint for unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, or constructive discharge. 
  • Weiss' confusion is in line with something I've noticed from many conservative observers of anti-discrimination law. They wildly underestimate how high the barriers are to winning a discrimination claim -- probably because they're ideologically committed to the notion that minorities get their discrimination claims rubber-stamped (when the reality is such claims are overwhelmingly rejected by the courts, often before reaching a jury). So when they experience something that is in the family of discrimination, they assume that (a) it must be illegal ("if these whiny minorities are winning, surely my very real pain and trauma must present a winning case too!")and (b) if it isn't treated as illegal, that must be because of some latent anti-conservative(/white/male/whatever) bias, rather than the normal functioning of a legal system they generally endorse.
  • On the other hand, if we step away from the legal aspect of it all I think few of the people mocking Weiss' contention that the environment at the Times had gotten so toxic that she had to resign take the same view when members of other minority groups write of toxic environments in their workplaces that end up driving them out of prestigious jobs. Surely, we on the left are familiar enough with, and historically expressed enough sympathy towards, this style of claim such that the current sneering mockery -- LOL, someone claims that coworkers being mean to them made working at their job impossible -- rings hollow. Of course, many of those sympathetic to Weiss would be derisive of claims of this sort when made by members of other minority groups. Hypocrisy, as always, is a double-edged sword.
  • Weiss situates her initial hiring as an effort by the Times to understand Trump voters, and I've seen several writers lamenting her departure defending her presence along that line -- that it's important to have voices like her available to liberals because, after all, almost half the country backs Donald Trump. This argument is a bit odd, though, since Weiss was not herself a Trump-backer either. I've alluded to this problem before in relation to how one justifies hiring "conservative" voices at mainstream newspapers -- is the goal to reflect the views that are held by a large portion of the populace, or is the goal to legitimate certain views which are thought to present genuinely important and worthy contributions to public debate? Weiss' defenders effectively are claiming the former as a defense against the latter -- even if Weiss' opinions aren't objectively all that worthwhile, it's important to hear them lest liberal NYT readers silo themselves off from views which carry support in a considerable swath of the country. But the issue with Weiss is that she doesn't actually reflect the modal example of a pro-Trump opinion in American politics -- the modal pro-Trump perspective would level opinions far more grotesque than anything Weiss ever produced. Ironically, Weiss was hired by the Times because she misrepresents the average content of contemporary conservative viewpoints by giving them a patina of liberal plausibility that makes them more palatable to a liberal audience. Actual conservatives right now scarcely bother with the patina.

Monday, July 13, 2020

ZoomZoom Roundup

I just finished my first week teaching over Zoom (undergraduate Constitutional Law). So far, it's going decently well I think -- considerably more interactive than I had anticipated, which is a good thing. But it does take a fair amount of concentration to keep my eyes on the ball for two consecutive hours. Thank god for breakout rooms (just remember to unmute yourself when you bring people back....).

* * *

British voters think Keir Starmer's competence contrasts nicely with Boris Johnson's ineptitude. Amazing what having a leader who isn't a widely-reviled extremist can do for a left-wing party.

When it comes to whether "Jews are indigenous to Israel", I'm less interested in the tiresome Twitter brouhaha than I am in this really thoughtful essay on the subject in Tikkun Magazine.

Long interview with Harvard Law Professor Larry Tribe on occasion of his retirement. Come for the stories of him growing up in Shanghai as a Jewish refugee, stay for the tale of how the Supreme Court Justices determined whether movies were "obscene".

A very interesting article by Roseanna Summers in the Yale Law Journal asking what everyday people think counts as "consent".

I'd much rather focus on Zach Banner than on DeSean Jackson, if it's all the same to you.

We could have beaten coronavirus, but unfortunately one of our two political parties has turned into a death cult. July is going to be rough.

Word is that Washington's football team soon won't be named after a racial slur.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

What Will Happen That Night?

I can imagine the moment: When the networks agree that Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump and will become the next President of the United States.

But it's hard to imagine the very next moment. Which, in itself, is a sign of how bizarre and precarious our political era is right now.

We all wonder if Donald Trump will actually concede, even if he's clearly losing. Which is a scary thought on its own. But suppose he does concede. What does a Donald Trump concession speech even sound like? I literally can't imagine it. I have no idea what he'd say.

Meanwhile, there are some standard phrases one gives when accepting a concession -- ran a strong campaign blah blah blah thank you for your service blah blah blah unite as a country. But, even as platitudes, can you really say those things about Donald Trump? Joe Biden doesn't strike me as the sort of man to deviate from tradition on this front, but I wonder who will be the first to demand we condemn Biden as soft on fascism because he mouths some meaningless rhetoric of graciousness.

It's a night I can't imagine. So I sure do hope I get to live through it.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Gentleman Jack

I remember seeing ads for Gentleman Jack when Game of Thrones was ending, and being intrigued. The show is about the real-life Anne Lister, and 18th century British landowner who dressed in masculine clothes and lived relatively openly as a lesbian and is often cited as participating in England's first (non-legally sanctioned) same-sex marriage to her partner Ann Walker.

But I never did see it then, and it was only the rapidly dwindling stockpile of television brought upon by the lockdown that finally caused me to watch it (seriously: I think I've seen every good episode of Community -- which is most of them -- at least a dozen times at this point). Should you join me? Some quick thoughts to help you decide:

  • The early episodes (and, as I recall, the advertising), leans pretty hard into a "she's a badass landlady! Look at her collecting rents from the tenants without mercy or tolerating any nonsense!" framing. This is a bit odd to watch in the present political moment.
  • It is a sign of how far we've come as a society that this series could even be made -- not because it features a lesbian relationship, but because even ten years ago I think it would've been seen as homophobic the way that she "recruits" (she may even use the word) Ann Walker to be her lover.
  • Yes, the two characters are named Anne and Ann. It's not that confusing. Usually. But keeping all the other side characters straight is a nearly impossible endeavor.
  • My reaction towards Ann Walker generally took the following arc, occurring over two episode cycles: "Damn, that woman is messed up." "Oh wow, she's had a really tragic life though." "But damn that woman is messed up!" "Oh my gosh, there's just an endless reservoir of tragedy for her isn't there?"
  • The show also features Gemma Whelan, aka Yara Greyjoy, as Anne's far more conventionally feminine sister Marian. It's very interesting to see Whelan play a character that is about as far from Yara as possible. But the show does something I very much like in resisting the cliched juxtaposition of the liberated, modern Anne against the straightlaced, intolerant, conservative Marian. They clearly have a somewhat antagonistic relationship, but it seems to have almost nothing to do with Anne's sexuality. Moreover, it is made evident at various points that Marian is in many respects more liberal than her sister -- particularly with regards to class issues and respectful treatment of servants. In all, Anne's family is shown to be pretty well accepting of her.
  • My head canon is that this show is the prequel to Downton Abbey, and I refuse to be dissuaded on the point.
Jill and I are a sucker for a good period drama, preferably one without gratuitous violence, and Gentleman Jack scratches that itch. Is it transcendent? No. But it's worth a watch if you're into the genre.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Come 2021, Jews Should Prepare for a "Stabbed in the Back" Narrative from the Right

A recurrent feature on this blog are conservative commentators who are just baffled that Jews vote Democrat. Don't we realize that Republicans are our best friend? When we will be come to our senses.

In general, the tone of my posts is relatively jocular -- it amuses me to watch Republicans twist themselves into an emotional knot, unable to grasp why Jews continue to be such a reliable Democratic voting bloc. It's funny because the conservative disbelief is based on their own willful blindness to the priorities of most Jews. They assume that Jews (a) only care about Israel and (b) express "caring" about Israel in terms of providing carte blanche support to the most right-ward manifestations of Israeli politics towards Palestinians. In reality, the eternal mystery of why Jews vote Democrat is not that difficult to solve. It boils down to two things:
First, on every issue aside from Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
Second, on the issue of Israel, Jews prefer Democrats to Republicans.
But I think, if Joe Biden wins in 2020, we might have to brace ourselves for this sentiment to evolve in a more dangerous direction. In 2020, Jews will undoubtedly vote much the same way they've always voted: for the Democrat, in overwhelming numbers. From the vantage of the right, this will be especially inexplicable. Trump moved the embassy. He recognized the annexation of the Golan. He gave the green light to West Bank annexation. He's called Ilhan Omar an antisemite literally dozens of times. What more could Jews want?

If Republicans were truly interested in engaging with Jews as political equals, this might invite some introspection: maybe what Republicans think Jews want (endless occupation coupled with Islamophobic hysteria) is not what Jews actually want. But introspection in the face of Jewish critiques is not exactly a Republican strong suit. So what's more likely is for befuddlement to transform into resentment. The ungrateful Jews -- we gave them everything and yet still they defy us! A philo-semite is an antisemite who loves Jews, the saying goes, and it doesn't take much for obsessive unrequited love to turn into seething passionate hatred. When the turn comes, it will come quickly.

More so than at any point in my lifetime, the Republican Party under Trump has latched onto a self-identification as "friend of the Jews", our bold centurions standing between us and the antisemitic hordes of the radical left and the Muslims. This self-image has thus far been more or less impervious to the Jewish identification of the Republican Party under Trump as the prime driver of antisemitic hate and violence threatening Jews in America today. So when Jews in the next election do what we've done in every other election -- vote Democratic by overwhelming margins -- it will be seen as not just inexplicable, but a betrayal.

The tides of Trumpism have already paved the way for a resurgence of right-wing antisemitism -- we're already seeing it manifest in Soros conspiracies and "globalism" and "replacement theory". I firmly believe that the only reason it hasn't gotten more explicit is the historical accident that Trump has Jewish relatives. But Trumpism after Trump will not be so constrained (one already hears murmurings to the effect that Trump's decaying political fortunes are the fault of Jared Kushner). The right is primed and ready to accept a message of Jewish perfidy, and it will be accelerated by the GOP's wounded insistence that they are entitled to our adoration.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

How To Lose a Primary, 2020-Style

So far in 2020, four House incumbents have lost renomination to their seats (five if you count New York Democrat Eliot Engel, though absentee ballots in New York haven't been tabulated). But there are ... differences between what causes a Republican and a Democrat to lose their own party's nomination.

For example, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) was one of the most conservative members of his caucus -- opposing abortion rights, gay rights, and Obmaa care -- despite representing a D+6 seat. If you're wondering how he got elected in the first place, the answer is that the seat was previously held by his own father who -- in classic machine fashion -- won renomination and then announced his retirement, inducing the local party to hand the nomination to his son. He was defeated by Marie Newman, who narrowly lost a challenge in 2018 and by all appearances is a perfectly normal Democrat. This is not at all abnormal.

Contrast that to what happened last night, where Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO) was stunningly unseated by conservative activist Lauren Boebert. Nobody had the race on their radar because Tipton, who enjoyed Trump's endorsement, hardly seemed to have committed any sins against the conservative movement which would generate primary opposition (The Onion notwithstanding). So what was it about Boebert which caused her to surge to victory? Well, she's a qAnon-endorsing conspiracy theorist whose main claim to fame is running a bar called "Shooters" where the staff openly carries guns and which defied orders to shutdown in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic.

Of course, it's not always better when the incumbent loses because of their apostasies -- particularly when one considers what counts as "apostasy" in the modern GOP. Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA) also enjoyed Trump's backing, but lost renomination in a "drive-through convention" to far-right challenger Bob Good. Riggleman's wrongdoing? He officiated a same-sex wedding for two of his former staffers. That's enough to get you bounced in the 2020 Republican Party.

But I guess Republicans did manage to dislodge their most openly White supremacist member this  year -- so good on them for that.

Monday, June 29, 2020

What's the Right Way To Oppose Annexation?

After last year's Yom Kippur, I wrote about a question I posed to some foreign affairs mavens at my synagogue regarding what is the "right" way to pressure or induce Israel in furtherance of American policy objectives. We spend a lot of time talking about what's off the table (e.g., no BDS) -- okay, fine, but what is on the table?

This question, I think, needs to rise back to the forefront of our mind as Israel contemplates annexation. Annexation does not enjoy the avowed support of most American Jewish organizations, but there is deep ambivalence over what tangibly those organizations will do if annexation nonetheless proceeds. The AJC has already announced it will defend annexation if Israel chooses it (it complained that the headline "We'll defend annexation if needed" was misleading, but the article text literally says "If annexation ... comes to pass, we will make the strongest possible case" for it). The ADL apparently will not defend annexation but is cagey on what forms of opposition it will and won't support (more on them in a second).

But this is a conversation we need to have now. When a foreign nation does something we don't like, opposition can mean a wide variety of things, from "quiet grumbling" to "send in the troops". Hopefully, nobody is suggesting invading Israel to stop annexation; likewise, any serious opponent of annexation needs to agree to something more than just a murmured "it wouldn't be my choice but ...." Between those poles, though, there's a lot of space to maneuver.

Which brings us back to the ADL. A few days ago, Jewish Currents made a big splash when it wrote about a leaked ADL memo outlining proposed strategies for responding to annexation. One reason I often give JC a side-eye is that they let their political slant so nakedly seep into their reporting that I don't have confidence that they're reliable relays of the views of their interlocutors. I don't think they'd falsify quotes or anything like that, but the interpretations they make and they inferences they draw are self-serving and often quite dubious. And unfortunately, here they for some reason did not to my knowledge release a copy of the memo itself, meaning we're relying heavily on them for both content and analysis. Yet reading between the lines, there seems to be a disjuncture between what JC imputes to the ADL, and the words they actually quote from the ADL's memo.

The memo, for example, makes clear that the ADL will not be defending annexation or Netanyahu, and that there must be "space for local and national leaders to express their criticism of Israel’s [annexation] decision." Moreover, it is particularly attuned to the problem where criticism of the critics falls disproportionately on the heads on prominent minority figures, and cautions that this must be avoided as well. On the other hand, the memo also suggests that it will oppose certain legislative actions that would impose more tangible punishment on Israel. The primary focus of the memo appears to be on relationship managing with major Democratic figures (particular in the CBC and other minority caucuses) -- respecting the validity of criticizing annexation while wanting to avoid a brush war akin to l'affair Omar.

Yet you'd barely get any of this from the tone of the JC article (and it is accordingly not at all how the article has been largely received). The article rather presents the ADL as plotting to sabotage anti-annexation politics and undermining opposition to the policy; its concerns about relationship-preservation and avoiding flashpoints seen as a barely-disguised attempt to muzzle all but the most perfunctory and non-threatening murmurs of discontent. In the course of accusing the ADL of seeking to undermine opposition to annexation,  the JC barely even admits that the ADL explicitly indicates it will not be defending annexation (in sharp contrast to the AJC). The tone of the article is that, insofar as it is seeking to moderate language and concerned about preserving relationships, the ADL in effect is running interference for annexation even as it pretends to oppose it. All Jewish organizations have an obligation to support whatever proposals or  rhetoric end up emerging under the banner of anti-annexation politics -- and any organization which doesn't commit to doing that should be seen as disingenuous in opposing annexation to begin with. It is reminiscent to a complaint about "tone-policing" -- that given the major looming injustice of annexation, any attempt to contest particular anti-annexation rhetoric or proposals as too extreme or aggressive should be seen as a means of deflecting attention away from the bigger issue.

The problem is that the ADL is absolutely right and reasonable to be concerned that valid concern and opposition to annexation could spiral into something a lot uglier and less defensible, and that Jewish organizations should absolutely be on the lookout to tamp down on flashpoints. And more to the point, we're already seeing some of this ugliness explicitly defended on exactly the argument the JC proffers. Over in the UK, we're seeing a clear version of this at the intersection of two significant actions by the Labour Party leadership: first, sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Labour shadow cabinet after she praised an article falsely accusing Israel of being behind the chokehold tactics used against George Floyd, and second the announcement that if annexation proceeds Labour will back a settlement boycott. The line from the Corbyn diehards is, more or less, that the decision regarding the former means the latter doesn't count; that in the time of annexation if you're objecting to conspiracy theories about Israel being behind racism in American policing, you don't truly oppose annexation at all (read some of the replies!).

There are, in other words, two horns to the dilemma. On the one hand, it is absolutely reasonable to insist that annexation by Israel needs to be met with real, tangible consequences, and that the ADL and other Jewish groups must not obstruct that. And it's entirely plausible that the range of responses that the ADL deems "acceptable" will be too narrow and too weak, and if that turns out to be the case they should be criticized for it. Theoretical opposition to annexation cannot be paired with practical opposition to any and all tangible moves taken against it. That's why we need to start thinking now not just about our redlines of what goes "too far", but the alternatives of  "what's in bounds". If we can't give a realistic answer to that, then it will indeed be hard to take "opposition" to annexation seriously.

But on the other hand, recognizing the need for tangible action does not entail stepping aside and accepting any policy or rhetoric that styles itself as "action". Any time a foreign nation undertakes a provocation, one will see arguments for taking a hardline and arguments for defusing tensions, and it is a lie that only the hardest of hardliners are taking the provocation "seriously". If "opposition to annexation" spills over into "racism in America is the product of an Israeli plot and how dare you call that out as antisemitic with annexation on the table?", that's the sort of thing which doesn't help anyone -- not Jews, not Israelis, not Palestinians, not Black people. Trying to avoid that outcome -- preventing righteous tailored fury from bursting into an unbounded and uncontrollable conflagration -- is neither illegitimate, nor wishy-washy.

If -- God forbid -- Israel carries through with annexation, my hope is that the response of American progressives everything necessary to clearly communicate its unacceptability and to promise proportionate consequences, and nothing that pours unnecessary fuel on the fire or seeks to sabotage the relationship between Jews and our allies. It's a large ask. But if it is to happen, it will require both moral courage -- to call an injustice an injustice and respond accordingly, as well as empathic connections -- to maintain relationships of care and concern. Both prongs matter, and committing to one should not and must not be seen as sacrificing the other.