Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hungry for Apples?

There's an episode of Rick & Morty where Rick is trapped in a simulation by alien scammers seeking to steal some of his scientific discoveries. But somehow, Rick's idiot son-in-law, Jerry, is in the simulation too. Not wanting to be distracted from the primary mark, the aliens cap Jerry's part of the simulation at 5% power and let him be.

The result is a "simulation" of a human experience that is comically skeletal. Jerry's coworkers respond to every question with a simple "yes!" A few pedestrians (bodies reused) speak a single phrase on loop when they're not phasing into and out of trees. The radio plays "human music", a series of isolated beeps and boops.

Jerry loves it. He "sells" an ad campaign ("Hungry for Apples?"), has sex with his barely-mobile wife ("the best sex I've ever had!"), even talks himself into a promotion and an award for his apples slogan. Eventually, he declares it not just the best, but the most meaningful day of his life -- at which point simulation suddenly ends. Jerry is devastated; Rick patronizingly consoles him by asking "So what if the most meaningful day in your life was a simulation operating at minimum complexity?"

I was thinking about this in relation to the Russian bots which spread pro-Trump and pro-Putin propaganda throughout the right-wing ecosystem. The people who write these posts can barely speak English. They by design have no grasp on reality. It's not just that they appeal solely to people's baser instincts, it's that they appeal to these instincts in a transparently moronic way. They are a simulation of political reality, running at 5% complexity.

And yet a huge chunk of Americans are never happier than when they are gobbling it up. They love this. It's not just that they don't realize that it's all fake. It's more pathetic than that: they've never found more meaning than that which they get from automated Russian twitter accounts spitting out half-literate reactionary fantasies too stupid for Rush Limbaugh to run.

Basically, Trump's base is a bunch Jerrys. That was today's epiphany.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Two Jewish Stories

No substantial commentary. Just felt like linking to the following stories about some very different Jews.

Ha'aretz does a feature where they interview people coming and going at Israeli airports. This one features a discussion with a Ugandan Jew who just finished his first trip in Israel.

Meanwhile, the Forward ran a piece by a woman raised in the ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryas Joel who ended up attending Wellesley, and what happened when her father came to visit her at college.

Both  are interesting reads. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Asking Jews To Be More Anti-Nazi

The second job I wanted to be when I grew up was a cartoonist (the first was omelet chef at a Marriott. Little kids have weird goals). I loved Calvin & Hobbes, and later Dilbert, Doonesbury, Foxtrot, The Boondocks, and many others. My ambition, alas, quickly foundered against the reality that I have no artistic talent whatsoever. But occasionally I still draw cartoons in my head (where their artistry and technical virtues are unimpeachable).

My most recent imagined cartoon is set in Auschwitz, 1944, where a portal opens up and a time-traveler steps through. It is a literal "Social Justice Warrior" -- from the future, armed to the teeth, and ready and eager to "punch some Nazis". After completing his task, some Jewish inmates approach to thank him for rescu--


He clocks them too. "Did I say 'Zio-Nazis excepted'?"

I was thinking about this after reading this tweet by Ferrari Sheppard, where he says "Can't be anti Nazi pro Israel."

I read that tweet, in turn, shortly after reading this thread by Sophie Ellman-Golan urging White Jews to "join" the fight against the neo-Nazi resurgence we saw in Charlottesville.

It is, she says, a fight Jewish institutions have been "shamefully late" in adopting as our own.

I reflect on this, and I'm torn. My thoughts are scattered; they fly all over the place.

Consider the ADL -- called out by name by Ellman-Golan. I recall excoriating them for selling out liberal Jews in their appalling silence on David Friedman's "kapo" comments. Then I think of the immense pressure the ADL has come under from the right, which accuses it of taking too hard a line on right-wing racism. I remember the shamefully equivocating tweet ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt put out yesterday, drawing equivalence between Nazi and "antifa" violence. Then I remember the following tweet thread which was so much better. I also remember how a sizable chunk of the negative responses to Greenblatt's original equivocation somehow managed to work "Israel" into the message -- because that's what it's always about, isn't it? I consider how it seems many of the ADL's critics are eager, even happy, to infer the worst about it. They like the idea of "Jews who don't really oppose Nazis". They seem to revel in the idea that the Jews aren't anti-Nazi to their satisfaction.

The Jewish community -- institutionally and otherwise -- is a varied and diverse bunch. That variation and diversity applies as much to our presence in social justice organizing as anything else. The explanations for this diversity will be similarly varied.

After all, I, too, have written fusillades decrying the tepidity of many Jewish groups in calling out the ascendant tide of right-wing racism. So clearly I concur there's a problem here.

At the same time, I also think that there's something truly grating at the idea that Jews have to prove themselves "anti-Nazi." Mia Steinberg wrote something very telling about how this debate plays out for Jews: "Instead of 'would I have stood up to Nazis in WW2', the thought experiment for me has always been 'would I have survived?'" The Holocaust was not an arena for Jews to prove our moral valor, and when our reaction to Nazism doesn't adopt appropriately heroic tones that is not proof of Jewish "complicity" in anything. The celerity with which people seem eager to tell Jews we're the new Nazis, or we don't care about Nazis, or we're not responding to Nazis in a way that gives non-Jews sufficient confidence that we're really anti-Nazi, is degrading and infuriating.

Yet again -- I can't fully go down that road either. Surely, the groups like ZOA who have explicitly lined up behind the Trump/Bannon alt-right wing have no moral legs to stand upon. And even as I bow to no one in downplaying the seriousness of the growing clouds of antisemitism, Ellman-Golan is simply right -- I refuse to tolerate people denying this -- that in its current manifestation in the United States Black people are more violently targeted by the forces of White supremacy than are Jews. That doesn't mean Jews aren't targeted, and aren't targeted in ways that are worthy of genuine fear and concern. But it is not wrong for there to be a focus on racist violence, so long as that focus doesn't come via denying the reality of antisemitic violence.

But  (once more around, and here's where I really want to land) can we honestly say -- unblinking, looked-in-the-eye, full-stop -- that when Jews don't throw themselves into these movements that the primary explanation ought to be "because Jews don't care about Nazism"? Can we be so confident that the movements in question "will fight for us"? The fact of the matter is, too often Jews -- from Chicago Dyke March to Creating Change to Slutwalk -- do try to participate in these movements, and are cast out, or turned aside, or subjected to humiliating ideological litmus tests where we're guilty until proven anti-Zionist. That's part of the reason -- not the sole reason, but part of the story -- why I shy away from protest movements. I don't know that they "will fight for us". That is not something that simply can be wedged into our presuppositions as a demanded default. Much the opposite:
As a Jew, I can't completely cheer at these expressions of left-wing activism because I know there is a real and non-negligible risk that in that crowd someone wants to say the whole thing they're fighting against is a Zionist plot, and there is a real and non-negligible risk that if that person gets a hold of the mic and says so the crowd will erupt in cheers. 
It grates when this is denied, when people act as if the only reason Jews "don't show up" for social justice (to the extent that we don't) is because we're too indifferent or too fragile or too embedded in our own privilege to really care. Such a view doesn't take seriously real practices of exclusion; it assumes them away because it takes "they will fight for us" as an axiom rather than a (often quite dubious) proposition that must be demonstrated. It's the "why do all the black people sit together in the cafeteria" question of Jewish social activism. If Jews are "late" to the social activist party -- and I don't necessarily concede that we are -- perhaps part of the reason is that social convention requires a truly grotesque amount of preparation, costuming, covering, hedging, eliding, and self-effacing before the Jew is admitted through the doors. It's exhausting. And it's hard to blame people for not wanting to show up, when those requirements are allowed to persist unexamined.

Finally, when talking of these exclusions we should be clear that this is not even primarily, let alone solely, a POC thing. Indeed, Black people in America have consistently demonstrated their intolerance of antisemitism and their willingness to stand with Jews against antisemitism even in their own community. That history has to be part of the story too. The story of Black-Jewish relations simply isn't -- much as conservative hagiographers might wish it so -- one of self-sacrificing Jews altruistically defending civil rights only to be sold down the river by ungrateful African-Americans who dived headfirst into antisemitic conspiracy-mongering.

What it boils down to is this:
  • Jews are genuinely threatened by the rise of the alt-right. This is a movement that affects us in a real, tangible way -- not as allies, not as "fragile" White people, but as a vulnerable group that is genuinely imperiled by these social forces. Acting as if Jews don't have skin in this game is a form of antisemitism denial.
  • Currently, the tangible manifestations of extreme-right identity politics have a greater impact on the material conditions of black and brown lives than they do that of White Jews. That assessment in no way falsifies the first bullet point.
  • All non-Jews, to varying degrees, benefit from the social privileges and prerogatives that exist under conditions of antisemitic domination. This assessment in now way falsifies the second bullet point, it merely establishes a kyriarchical relationship where (in the contemporary American context) racial domination has greater punch than also-extant antisemitic domination does.
  • The relationship between (proximately-European) Jews and Whiteness is a complex one. Such Jews clearly do not enjoy an unadulterated White privilege (as the seething hatred of White supremacists makes clear). But it is also clear that we enjoy a great many of these privileges and prerogatives on a day-to-day basis. While possession of these privileges does not falsify the existence of antisemitism, neither does experiencing antisemitism falsify the existence of these privileges.
  • Some Jewish groups have been derelict in their duties to combat this right-wing menace. It is our obligation as Jews to insist that our communal representatives fight against far-right extremist movements both because they threaten us as Jews and because they threat others -- Black people, brown people, queer people, and more -- who may or may not be Jewish.
  • To the extent that some Whites Jews haven't partaken in anti-right resistance movements in the stock ways typically demanded of White allies, the explanations that apply to White people generally who don't "show up" are not always inapposite. But they are frequently incomplete, and a serious conversation needs to be had about the politics of antisemitic exclusion that afflicts Jews who very much do wish to be involved in left-wing activist spaces or otherwise participate in contemporary progressive politics. This conversation cannot take "they will fight for us" as an axiomatic entitlement.
Do these not fully fit together? Then they don't fully fit together. As I said, I'm torn. I don't claim to fully fit together on this.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Nothing About Charlottesville is Shocking

People keep saying they're "shocked" by what's happening in Charlottesville.

Or they're shocked by the failure of the President to give a clear, unambiguous condemnation of White supremacist and neo-Nazi violence. I saw someone on TV say he "could not understand" how the President of the United States could sit back and keep quiet on vicious White nationalist violence done as part of his movement and in solidarity with him.

I don't find it shocking. I don't find it difficult to understand at all. It's only shocking, it's only hard to understand, if one cannot allow yourself to fathom racism as a live explanation.

We've made it so that "racism" is a charge so serious it cannot be spoken. It's so extreme that the very fact that an event is happening in America or a person of even moderate prominence is saying something automatically falsifies the hypothesis. And so when overt racism crashes to the surface, we're left dumbfounded -- unable to understand. This thing that by stipulation cannot be, is. And so we're shocked.

We shouldn't be. Objectively, there's nothing shocking about a country which has been explicitly White supremacist in structure for far longer than it's even been nominally egalitarian seeing White supremacy manifest. There's nothing shocking about a people who have never been forced to seriously reckon with having committed treason-in-defense-of-slavery to proudly carry up that mantle today. There's nothing shocking about a political movement that was built entirely around "White racial resentment" showing the colors of "White racial resentment."

Likewise, there's objectively nothing shocking that a man who rose to political prominence via racist demagoguery and conspiracy-mongering being fine with racism. There's nothing shocking that a President who craves adoration and is adored by nobody more than White supremacists will side with his adorers. There's nothing shocking that Mr. "Obama was born in Kenya" and "grab 'em by the pussy" and "build that wall" and "total shut down of Muslim immigration" and "sheriff's star" will act exactly how he's always acted, every time he's had the opportunity to do so.

Nothing about Charlottesville should shock us. It is entirely in keeping with the character of the ascendant political movement in America, the one that currently helms the Republican Party, the one that currently occupies of the office of President of the United States. To be "shocked" at this is to be in willful denial of the reality in front of us. It is symptomatic of a sort of pale innocence that, as Baldwin put it, itself constitutes the crime.
As we saw the dead dimly through rifts of battlesmoke and heard faintly the cursings and accusations of blood brothers, we darker men said: This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration nor insanity; this is Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture—back of all culture,—stripped and visible today. This is where the world has arrived,—these dark and awful depths and not the shining and ineffable heights of which it boasted. Here is whither the might and energy of modern humanity has really gone.
-- W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Souls of White Folk," Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920).
I always found it a disservice that we only read Du Bois at his most conciliatory. His later work has more bite and more sting. Does his indictment hurt? Do you find it too simple or too sweeping? Well don't boo -- vote! It has always been in the power of White folks to falsify this hypothesis. We had the option in Reconstruction, and we didn't take it. We had the option in 1920, and we didn't take it. We had the option in 2016, and we didn't take it.

There are of course other moments when we came closer to taking it; Du Bois, sadly, didn't live to see them. We can be proud of those moments, but can we honestly deny that they were our aberrations? We can, actually, but it is up to us to supply the proof -- not by reaching back into a glorified history, but by stretching forward and crafting a future that is so consistently egalitarian, so bereft of racial strife and struggle, that we could justly say that a future Charlottesville is an act of madness. It's possible. Such is the virtue of democracy, that it always continues to be in our power.

But that is a possible future, and if present trend lines hold not the most probable. Right now, there's nothing shocking.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Boycott .... or Else

One interesting but often-overlooked aspect of the debate over the proposed Israel Anti-Boycott act is how it merges two very distinct cultural arenas where Israel boycott politics play out. In the United States, the BDS movement is (for the time being) largely about individuals or small organizations making their own decisions of conscience. Now to be clear, one can make a bad decision "of conscience" -- a baker who refuses, as a matter "of conscience", to bake a cake for a gay couple would be a great example. So I don't mean that as an apologia.

What I mean is that Israel-boycotters, in the US, are making a decision that by and large is not tied to state-coercive power. That may well be less the result of any principled limitations and more because prospective boycotters do not have the political power to enlist state-coercive power, but it is a descriptive quality that is fairly noted. Likewise, the line between "boycotts" or "conscience" and "discrimination" is a thin one (as the anti-gay cake-bakers demonstrate). But there is at least a plausible claim that liberty allows one to expressively refuse to associate with those one hates -- even if one's hatred is nothing but hatred, even if the expression is naught but prejudice.

Internationally, things are different. "Boycotting" Israel, in many parts of the world, is an exercise of governmental-diktat, a feature of state coercion and an impediment to human liberty. Iran, for example, just handed down a lifetime ban against two soccer players who (while on the roster of a Greek team) participated in a match against an Israeli squad. Another Iranian journalist just was granted asylum in Israel after Iran threatened to prosecute her for "spying" due to her publication of articles in an Israeli newspaper. A Bangladeshi politician was charged with sedition after meeting with an Israeli official in neighboring India; Bangladesh has no diplomatic relations with Israel and citizens are forbidden from traveling there. The original law that the Israel Anti-Boycott Act is modifying was addressed to the latter problem -- states which were seeking to mandate a boycott against Israel as an exercise of coercive state power (in my post, I discuss this as the secondary boycott problem).

In these contexts, the movement to boycott Israel takes on a (more) unambiguously illiberal bent. It's primary function is as an annex to state repression. To speak of the movement to boycott Israel as an international movement without considering these contexts is badly incomplete. To be sure, one can, I think, defend the right of individuals to boycott whomever they like as a form of free expression (subject, of course, to the difficult parsing that requires vis-a-vis anti-discrimination requirements -- a parsing that itself has not been addressed with requisite seriousness). But a discourse about boycotts that takes "free speech" as its foundation but which does not account for these cases is fundamentally dishonest. The fact that the movement to boycott Israel has, in its original (and longest-standing) manifestation taken such a clearly oppressive form is something that should be dwelled upon.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Israel's First Arab Supreme Court Justice Retires

Salim Joubran, the first Arab Justice on the Israeli Supreme Court, has retired (he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70).

I had the pleasure of getting to hear Justice Joubran speak at the University of Chicago Law School, where he was an engaging and witty presenter (I particularly liked his musings on what would happen if he became the deciding vote in a case determining "who is a Jew" under Jewish law). As a Justice, he's been a defender of gay rights and a skeptic of Israel coddling illegal outposts in the West Bank. He's also been, unsurprisingly, the subject of attacks from right-wing ultras, but hearteningly he was backed by none other than Bibi himself (and other Likud heavy-hitters).

Best wishes to Justice Joubran on his retirement.

Monday, August 07, 2017

They Would Say It About Jews; They'd Say It About Others Too

An apparel company is on attack for selling a t-shirt with a rainbow Nazi swastika and the caption "peace". It says its goal is to reclaim the symbol as a positive one -- but that's rather belied by the shirts it's selling with captions like "Hitler did nothing wrong ever" and "We're all Hitler now." [UPDATE: Apparently the rainbow swastika shirts are made by a different designer than the "We're all Hitler now" shirts. Only the former says their project is to "reclaim" the image. To which I still say "bullshit", but, you know, context is context].

Why do I bother sharing this? Sometimes, people say that things like this would never happen to the Jews. In contrast to other groups, everyone knows the Nazis are terrible and the Holocaust was awful and Hitler is evil.

That's not true. As we see, these things most certainly do happen. Those things we think nobody would ever say when it comes to the Jews, are in fact said.

Others, perhaps reading this story, have the opposite reaction -- people would never do this about other minorities. In contrast to other groups, its acceptable to say this about the Jews -- to throw Nazism in our face, to insist that we're overreacting, to tell us we should just get over a genocide that was, what, a half-century ago by now?

And that's not true either. Things akin to this most certainly do happen to other minorities (as anyone paying attention to continued Confederate glorification can attest to). Those things we think nobody would ever say when it comes to people of color, are in fact said.

Last year, I commented on the odd mirror-image that's developed whereby (some) Jews contrast the supposedly tepid response certain institutional actors take towards alleged antisemitism to the supposedly swift condemnation that occurs in cases of racism; and (some) people of color contrast the supposedly tepid response certain institutional actors take towards alleged racism to the supposedly swift condemnation that occurs in cases of antisemitism. My observation was that both sides were right and wrong -- we see the obstacles in our own path, and are less attuned to the travails of others, and wrongfully conclude that they have it easy while we have it hard.

So my goal is simply to reiterate my call for humility and empathy. Those who are confident that Jews are uniquely protected from the slings and arrows of racist bigotry are wrong; those who are confident that Jews are uniquely vulnerable to such viciousness compared to other minority groups are also wrong. The truth is, they would say it about Jews. They'd also say it about all the others too.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Arbitrary Candidate Disqualifications are Arbitrary

I've staked out a rather unique position in the last few contested Democratic primaries, in that -- while having a preferred candidate -- I've strongly felt that many of the front-running contenders would make fine elected officials and I'd happily support the lot of them. This, of course, puts me in a decided-minority particularly in our post-2016 world which still sees the Democratic world divided between "neoliberal Shillary" and "Bernie was a traitor". And by all accounts, as we approach 2020, we're in for the same set of shenanigans.

Hence my endorsement of Scott Lemieux's views on "arbitrary dealbreakers" when assessing potential 2020 presidential candidates. It is perfectly fine to have a preference for one candidate over another, and it's perfectly fine to fairly call out a candidate for having weaknesses. If you think that Kamela Harris' record on criminal justice issues as California Attorney General was weak, it's entirely fair game to point that out. But what you can't legitimately do is come up with a hodgepodge of supposedly dispositive "standards" which fade into and out of existence as befits your preferred love or hate of a particular politician, or which decides that only weaknesses count. If Harris' weaknesses on criminal justice matters are your "dealbreaker", then you have to give due credit to Cory Booker for being strong at the issue -- to turn around on him and say "but Wall Street!" defines ad hoc (see also: it's more outrageous that Clinton supported the 1994 crime bill than that Sanders voted for it).

I'm not sure it's intentional that the candidates most frequently subjected to get this sort impossible purity test seem to be women and minorities (Harris, Booker, Deval Patrick, are mentioned in this post, and I've also seen it applied to Kirsten Gillibrand and, of course, Hillary Clinton), but it perhaps isn't quite coincidental either. In any event, I will continue to oppose it (no doubt in vain) for the next three years. As the 2020 field develops, there will be perfectly adequate grounds to favor certain candidates and discount others. But the desire to preemptively exclude everyone (or everyone but one anointed saint) as insufficiently pure is poisonous.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Flagging Principles

Some of you may have seen the story of a Conservative Jewish day camp which hosted a group of Palestinian youth from "Kids4Peace" and, as a gesture of welcome, hoisted a Palestinian flag alongside its usual American and Israeli flags. Right-wing Jews reportedly went ballistic (though I've seen little evidence any of them are affiliated with the camp or its campers), and the camp -- to its great shame -- apologized.

That the camp apologized rather than stand behind what ought to be a completely uncontroversial display of hospitality and welcoming is, of course, disgraceful. It's perhaps noteworthy that -- until this screed hit my inbox this morning -- the only commentary I'd seen from the Jewish press was dismay that the camp did apologize (e.g., here and here). Perhaps that generates some hope that, in the feature, the camp will model more of a backbone and not kowtow to the frothing right fringe. We could also talk, as several people have, about the sheer irony of throwing a fit about showing a Palestinian flag within a shouting distance of the Dyke March ban of Israeli (or "Israeli") flags. It's always nice to see just how fast some people reveal their ever-so-deeply-felt principles to be tickets good for this ride only.

But for me, the real thing to concentrate on is the tremendous bad faith of the conservative objectors in terms of what they purportedly expect out of Palestinians. Their argument is that it is wrong to raise a Palestinian flag insofar as Palestinians refuse to accept Jewish equality or relate to Jews on any basis but hate. The problem being, of course, that the flag was hoisted precisely to greet a contingent of Palestinian youth who were committed to doing just the opposite -- coming to a Jewish space in the spirit of friendship, equality, and respect.

In essence, the conservative demand of Palestinians is "you don't deserve acceptance until you start treating Jews with decency, respect, tolerance, and love, and if you do all of those things go fuck yourselves anyway."

It's grotesque and it's embarrassing. And it's a shonda that it carried the day.

UPDATE: I happen to know, from painful experience, that authors do not choose the headlines for their columns. So I really, really hope that whichever editor titled this piece "In raising the Palestinian flag, Jewish camp disrupts a safe space for Zionism" was making a sly jab at conservatives who proudly ride their high horse about the horror of "safe spaces" right up until the sight of red-white-and-green sends them into panicked whimpers about the existential threat to Jewish self-determination.

Honestly, if your Zionism is so weak that the mere presence of a Palestinian flag leaves you dazed and shaken, maybe it's time for you to take a break and leave the struggle to those of us with a bit more moxie.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

I Have Some Terrible News About What Law Schools Do

A prominent clinic at the University of North Carolina law school looks likely to be functionally shuttered after a committee of the UNC Board of Governors voted to bar it from representing any future clients. The Center for Civil Rights, which enjoyed the strong backing of campus leaders, had drawn the ire of conservative forces in the state when it took cases in contentious environmental, land use, and racial segregation controversies.

This is a huge blow to academic freedom, as it is beyond evident that the center is being attacked because of its perceived politics. But the attempts to justify the decision in neutral or even pedagogical terms is, if anything, even more pathetic. Here's how one official justified his vote:
[Marty] Kotis, a real-estate developer and UNC-CH alumnus, indicated that he thinks lawsuits in general are a waste of money and that people should look for other ways to resolve conflicts. Putting the center out of the business of representing clients is “simply about reducing the amount of litigation out there,” he said.
Marty, I have some terrible news for you regarding what law schools train aspiring lawyers to do.

Another official -- this one a lawyer -- took almost the precise opposite stance of every boomer-complaint about impractical law schools and their Ivory  Tower cloud-headedness to say that law schools should offer no clinical practice whatsoever. "A law school is one thing; a law firm is another thing," he said, and then suggested that the only role of the former is to aid students in coming "to a deeper understanding of the philosophical roots behind each case and the cultural implications they have." Speaking as someone very much on the theory side of the theory/practice legal spectrum, I nonetheless am stunned to see such a full-throated dismissal of the practice side of legal training from a practitioner.

While there remains another vote to be taken, most observers expect that the end of the Center for Civil Rights' days representing clients is nigh. That's a major blow to UNC's law school -- not just because it is losing a well-regarded clinical center, but because it emphasizes the entire school's vulnerability to political piques from well-connected outsiders. A law school -- a university -- cannot function as it is meant to in such a case.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

'Cause You Know That You're Toxic

Google has a new gadget that tries to gauge how "toxic" a given comment is. It has a lot of learning to do. "Dogs are animals" is rated at 87% likely to perceived as toxic. "Muslims control the world", by contrast, clocks in at 30%. "Nazis are evil" gets a whopping 98%, while "Nazis are great" gets only 66%.

I found out about this little toy from Liel Leibovitz, who claims it has a particular problem with Jews. Based on my fiddling around, it seems to have a problem with everyone, but he's not wrong that its performance re: the Tribe leaves a lot to be desired. "Zionists control the world" gets only an 18% rating, and if you change it to "Zios" that drops to 1% (I guess Google doesn't know it's a slur either). "Jews run Hollywood" falls in at 27%. On the other hand, "I hate Jews" gets a perfect 100% score, so there's that.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Liel column without some hysterical allegations about how this is really the fault of the New York Times, rather than the predictable (and not-unique-to-Jews) set of kinks in a new machine-learning device. But the best part of Liel's column is when he takes issue with the term "toxic" itself:
The very term itself, toxicity, should’ve been enough of a giveaway: the only groups that talk about toxicity—see under: toxic masculinity—are those on the regressive left who creepily apply the metaphors of physical harm to censor speech not celebrate or promote it. No words are toxic, but the idea that we now have an algorithm replicating, amplifying, and automatizing the bigotry of the anti-Jewish left may very well be.
Interesting hypothesis, Liel-of-July-2017! I wonder what Liel-of-June-2017 has to say on that?
If the Times really wants to correct the record, it would follow up by taking a hard look at why it made the mistake in the first place. That is, it would examine the knee-jerk assumptions and overheated language that have crept into both its opinion and its news pages lately, both of which regularly offer space not just to legitimate newsgathering about Trump’s very real misdeeds and the rank incompetence of his administration, but also to wild-eyed conspiracy theories in which the Kremlin or some other malign foreign entity controls the White House. These theories are toxic nonsense, cooked up by political operatives who use social media and the press to attain political ends through means that are inherently extra-constitutional and undemocratic—and that have been quietly and systematically debunked, sometimes by the paper’s own reporting.
Now, with the shooting at the GOP baseball practice in Virginia, the same toxic logic comes home.
And here too: "This sort of bigoted nonsense is toxic to all Americans, but it’s particularly hazardous to Jews, whose suffering is too often explained away these days as an acceptable byproduct of excessive power and influence." Or here: "Like Israeli lefties—but not, say, like the toxic creeps who rant about Israel in the anthropology departments of large American universities or the anti-Semites who pack the British Labour Party—Waldman and Chabon believe that Israel is in dire need of saving from what will ultimately be its downfall."

But maybe Liel-of-June-2017 is an outlier. Where does Liel-of-March-2017 come down?
It didn’t take long for me to learn the same lesson Chris does in the movie, namely that the point of this new strain of toxic liberalism isn’t really to help victims of racism or anti-Semitism or any other sort of discrimination; rather, it’s to reconfigure the identities of white people so that they may go on and enjoy the same exact comforts to which they’re accustomed.
 One can keep going. And going and going and going.

Sometimes I think the job of editors is to save writers from embarrassing themselves this way -- surely, it would not be too hard (and it was not too hard) to figure out if Liel had repeatedly used the term "toxic" a mere month before claiming that nobody but the "regressive left" did so. But perhaps here the right move was to give him enough rope to hang himself with. If he can't keep track of his own shibboleths and no-no words, nobody else should do it for him.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

What's the Difference Between Accent and Pronunciation?

Errol Spence Jr. is a former U.S. Olympian, a current titleholder in the welterweight division, and a rising star in the world of boxing. When announcers pronounce his name, they give it two syllables -- ERR-roll -- like the actor Errol Flynn.

But Spence is from deep in the heart of Texas. And he has such a drawl that, when he says his name, it's one syllable: "Earl."

So here's my question: If he pronounces his name "Earl", why isn't that just the right way to pronounce his name?

Put another way, we view him saying "Earl" as just an accented way of saying "ERR-roll". If I go to the south and pronounce things like a Yankee, they might find my strange speech amusing, but outside extreme circumstances they'd recognize we were saying the same words. An analogy might be if someone with a speech impediment said his name was "Yonny", we might still say his name is "Johnny." That said, if, say, an Israeli told us his name was "Dah-veed", we wouldn't use the American pronunciation of "David." There we'd simply say that name was pronounced differently, and it would be expected that Americans would say "Dah-veed."

So when is it one, and when is it the other? Genuine open question for the crowd.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Conservatives No Longer Can Conceive of Non-Partisan Motives

There's something very odd about how conservatives frame calls for investigating Russia's attempted interference in our election. They insist that it is a product of Democratic self-delusion that Russia was the cause of Hillary Clinton's defeat. They crow that this is proof of liberals' inability to accept responsibility for their own policy decisions. They mock Democrats for supposedly believing that Americans will care about Russia in the midterms.

That might all be true. Counterfactuals are hard, and voter attention spans are fickle. But what's strange about this apparently widespread conservative view is that it seems utterly perplexed by the idea that one might want to look into attempted Russian interference into our elections simply because it's a good thing for America to guard against attempts to subvert our democracy from hostile foreign governments -- regardless of whether they redound to the clear benefit or detriment of any particular political party. In fact, "perplexed" isn't even the right word -- it doesn't seem to occur to them that such a motive could possibly exist. They don't respond to it, or even ignore it -- it's just beyond the horizon of their understanding that a political actor might try to do something for no greater reason than the good of the country.

If conservatives are right that the issue of attempted Russian interference isn't a political "winner" for Democrats -- and they may well be -- that should make the case for an investigation easier, not harder. After all -- if it's not something that will make a partisan impact, than it's simply a matter of good governance. But Republicans have lost the ability to understand that as even a theoretical motive for action. As far as they're concerned, once partisan politics falls out the picture, we're left with nothing but a gaping empty void.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Another Tentacle Roundup

The JTA just published my thoughts on the Israel Anti-Boycott bill (adapted from this post). Let's see -- I've done Tablet, Forward, Ha'aretz, and now JTA. We all know the Jews run the media, but what do you call the Jew who's taking over the Jewish media?

Anyway, world domination is distracting, and it's causing my browser to clutter up. Let's deal with that, shall we?

* * *

While the hook for my Israel Anti-Boycott bill is "everyone is going crazy", I should say that I found J Street's statement to be measured and thoughtful.

The Dean of Yale Law remarks on why law schools have largely avoided the anti-free speech hysteria that is (perhaps to an exaggerated degree) encompassing other sectors of academia. Short version: law school relies upon a series of deliberative virtues, like hearing out your opposition and considering both sides of an argument, that encourage people to take arguments seriously. Strongly endorse.

In Fathom (haven't gotten them yet!), John Strawson reviews a new book on Colonialism and the Jews.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) blames "female Senators" for holding up Obamacare repeal, says if they were men he'd challenge them to a duel. Blake Farenthold kind of has a problem with women.

Sarah Ditum: Why Does Labour Have an Abuse Problem? A strong, thought-provoking essay.

Far-left French leader Jean-Luc Melanchon denies that the French (through the Vichy government) have any responsibility for the Holocaust.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Non-Hyperbolic, Non-Apologetic Analysis of the Proposed Israel Boycott Law

Some of you may have read a recent Intercept post claiming that Congress is considering banning support for the boycott of Israel (by "some of you", I mean half my twitter feed). Unsurprisingly, this piqued my interest. On the one hand, the Intercept is not exactly an outfit known for letting accuracy get in the way of hyperbole. On the other hand, plenty of bad/regressive/poorly drafted laws are introduced in Congress, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in particular tends not to bring out people's sense of care and proportion.

So in my ongoing effort to help reintroduce the endangered species of calm, non-hyperbolic discussion of Israel on the internet, here's my best attempt at a calm, non-hyperbolic analysis of what this bill actually would do. But first, a bit of background.

American law already prohibits the boycotting of a country friendly to the United States where it is done at the behest of a boycott call by a foreign country. This law came about for a very particular reason: the threat of secondary boycotts by Arab countries. Companies which might have no interest in boycotting Israel might do so if, say, Qatar (whose business they value much more) said "you can't do business with us if you do business with Israel." The U.S. law counters by saying "you can't follow the Qatar boycott if you want to stay within American law". Even for companies where Qatar > Israel, the U.S. is > > > Qatar, so the law effectively neutralizes foreign calls for a secondary boycott.

The most anodyne way of describing this new law is to say that it merely extends the preexisting ban on boycotting an ally of the United States at the behest of a foreign country (e.g., Qatar) to include doing so at the behest of an International Governmental Organization (e.g., the EU and UN). If the current law isn't unconstitutional (and it's been upheld against challenge, see Briggs & Stratton Corp. v. Baldrige, 728 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1984)), why would this one be problematic?

One substantial contextual difference is that there's no serious threat that I'm aware of that either the UN or the EU is planning on calling for a secondary boycott. Whereas the current law is reasonably categorized as a protective measure for American corporations, this law really isn't. Does that affect the free speech analysis? Maybe -- that aspect of the law was specifically relied upon by several courts in explaining why the regulation was permissible, see Karen Maritime Ltd. v. Omar Intern., Inc., 322 F. Supp. 2d 224, 227 (E.D. N.Y. 2004). But I can see the argument either way.

Regardless of the legal effects though, the absence of a serious secondary boycott threat does significantly undermine the law's policy rationale. Most of the litigation over the initial law came because companies were providing documentation to Arab countries showing that they were boycotting Israel in order to avoid the former nations' secondary boycott. But if the UN or the EU aren't imposing a secondary boycott, there'd be no occasion to furnish this information and thus virtually no situation where anyone could violate the law unless they were dumb enough to admit "we are boycotting Israel because the UN is telling us to" (even "we are boycotting Israel because PACBI is telling us to" would be fine under this law, as PACBI is neither a foreign country nor an IGO).

For that reason, I find this law to be strange and kind of chest-thumpy. But is it worse than that? Does it ban boycotting Israel, or the request to do so? I do not think it does, though I understand why people thought it did. In fact, this is a good example for all you aspiring lawyers out there about the need for close and careful reading of statutory texts, because I very nearly got tripped up too.

The key language in the law comes in Section 4, subpart (b)(1) (subpart (a) deals with the policy of the Import/Export bank, and surely there's no trouble with the US as a matter of its own policy being opposed to boycotts of Israel; subpart (b)(2) modifies preemption language). This is the part of the law that regulates private business practices. One of the things it purports to prohibit is a "request to impose any boycott by a foreign country [or IGO]". Wow, that sounds bad! After all, whereas the practice of boycotting, or furnishing information proving one has complied with a boycott, is an action, requesting something is pure speech. That matters -- even in upholding the law, the Briggs & Stratton court observed that companies retained their freedom to agree with the boycott call as a matter of political speech. Take that right away, and this provision looks very different as a matter of constitutional law. A similar worry applies to new language: "or support any boycott fostered or imposed by any international governmental organization against Israel" -- to support something is expressive language, there can't constitutionally be a bar on expressing support for an Israel boycott.

So I was all set to chide the drafters for being at best sloppy, and at worst censorial. But then I read the section more closely. One reason it's really hard to properly interpret congressional bills is that they are out of context by design: it's all "insert this phrase" here and "add this sentence" there, without giving much context on what those sentences would do or modify in the context of the already-existing law. So here is how 50 U.S.C. § 4607(a)(1) would read as amended by Section 4(b)(1) of this law (italics/underlines are newly-inserted text, bold is my emphasis):
For the purpose of implementing the policies set forth in subparagraph (A) or (B) of paragraph (5) of section 4602 of this title, the President shall issue regulations prohibiting any United States person, with respect to his activities in the interstate or foreign commerce of the United States, from taking or knowingly agreeing to take any of the following actions with intent to comply with, further, or support any boycott fostered or imposed by a foreign country, or request to impose any boycott by a foreign country, against a country which is friendly to the United States and which is not itself the object of any form of boycott pursuant to United States law or regulation, or support any boycott fostered or imposed by any international governmental organization against Israel or request to impose any boycott by any international governmental organization against Israel:
(A) Refusing, or requiring any other person to refuse, to do business with or in the boycotted country, with any business concern organized under the laws of the boycotted country, with any national or resident of the boycotted country, or with any other person, pursuant to an agreement with, a requirement of, or a request from or on behalf of the boycotting country or international governmental organization (as the case may be). The mere absence of a business relationship with or in the boycotted country with any business concern organized under the laws of the boycotted country, with any national or resident of the boycotted country, or with any other person, does not indicate the existence of the intent required to establish a violation of regulations issued to carry out this subparagraph.
(B) Refusing, or requiring any other person to refuse, to employ or otherwise discriminating against any United States person on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin of that person or of any owner, officer, director, or employee of such person.
(C) Furnishing information with respect to the race, religion, sex, or national origin of any United States person or of any owner, officer, director, or employee of such person.
(D) Furnishing information or requesting the furnishing of information about whether any person has, has had, or proposes to have any business relationship (including a relationship by way of sale, purchase, legal or commercial representation, shipping or other transport, insurance, investment, or supply) with or in the boycotted country, with any business concern organized under the laws of the boycotted country, with any national or resident of the boycotted country, or with any other person which is known or believed to be restricted from having any business relationship with or in the boycotting country or with the international governmental organization (as the case may be). Nothing in this paragraph shall prohibit the furnishing of normal business information in a commercial context as defined by the Secretary.
(E) Furnishing information about whether any person is a member of, has made contributions to, or is otherwise associated with or involved in the activities of any charitable or fraternal organization which supports the boycotted country.
(F) Paying, honoring, confirming, or otherwise implementing a letter of credit which contains any condition or requirement compliance with which is prohibited by regulations issued pursuant to this paragraph, and no United States person shall, as a result of the application of this paragraph, be obligated to pay or otherwise honor or implement such letter of credit.
So here's the thing: The law has always been written to prohibit a set of actions taken with a particular motive (that's why that bolded text matters -- the "following actions" are the things laid out in subparts (A-F)). In the original text, that motive was "boycotting Israel at the behest of a foreign country." In the new text, that motive is expanded to include "boycotting Israel at the behest of an IGO." But the set of prohibited actions hasn't materially changed.

The simple way of putting it is that the stuff in subsection (a)(1) prior to subparts (A-F) -- boycotting, requesting to impose a boycott, supporting a boycott -- is not prohibited under the statute. Those are the motives that determine whether the actions listed out in subparts (A-F) become illicit. So, for example, you can't "Furnish[] information with respect to the race, religion, sex, or national origin of any United States person or of any owner, officer, director, or employee of such person"  (subpart C) only if your motive in doing so is "to comply with, further, or support any boycott fostered or imposed by a foreign country [or IGO]." But it is not the case that something not covered in subparts (A-F) is unlawful just because it "compl[ies] with, further[s], or support[s]" a boycott of Israel.

Does this cure the law of censorial implications? Even with the proper context of what the "requesting" language is doing, I still don't like it -- there seems to me still a marked difference between handing over information about whether a person is associated with Israeli charities (subpart F) in order to comply with another country's boycott regulations, and doing so because you yourself believe they should be boycotted -- the latter case being more clearly expressive all-the-way-down.

So, in sum: at the very least I think the "request" language should be eliminated -- it's only causing trouble. And on the whole I find this a strange law because the key rationale for the initial law -- the secondary boycott threat -- doesn't really seem to be at issue here. Consequently, I'm not convinced this new amendment is necessary or worth the tempest it is stirring up. But the more hyperbolic readings -- that it bans the call for a boycott against Israel outright -- seem to be wrong and based on a poor reading of the bill in conjunction with the statute it is modifying.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Message on Internalized (and Externalized) Antisemitism from 1982

Evelyn Torton Beck's Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology arrived in the mail today. Originally published in 1982, it remains both wonderfully and infuriatingly relevant today.

Here is an excerpt from Irena Klepfisz's "Anti-Semitism in the Lesbian/Feminist Movement," offering a serious of questions that "both Jewish and non-Jewish women might consider asking in trying to identify in themselves sources of shame, conflict, doubt, and anti-Semitism." (pp. 49-51)
  1. Do I have to check with other Jewish women in order to verify whether something is anti-Semitic? Do I distrust my own judgment on this issue?
  2. When I am certain, am I afraid to speak out?
  3. Am I afraid that by focusing on anti-Semitism I am being divisive?
  4. Do I feel that by asking other women to deal with anti-Semitism I am draining the movement of precious energy that would be better used elsewhere?
  5. Do I feel that anti-Semitism has been discussed too much already and feel embarrassed to bring it up?
  6. Do I feel that the commercial presses and the media are covering the issue of anti-Semitism adequately and that it is unnecessary to bring it up also in the movement? Am I embarrassed by the way anti-Semitism/the Holocaust is presented in the media? Why?
  7. Do I have strong disagreements with and/or am ashamed of Israeli policies and, as a result, don't feel that I can defend Jews whole-heartedly against anti-Semitism? Is it possible for me to disagree with Israeli policy and still oppose anti-Semitism?
  8. Do I feel guilty and/or ashamed of Jewish racism in this country and, as a result, feel I can't defend Jews whole-heartedly against anti-Semitism? Is it possible for me to  acknowledge Jewish racism, struggle against it, and still feel Jewish pride? And still oppose anti-Semitism?
  9. Do I feel that Jews have done well in this country and, therefore, should not complain?
  10. Do I feel that historically, sociologically, and/or psychologically, anti-Semitism is "justified" or "understandable," and  that I am, therefore, willing to tolerate it?
  11. Do I feel that anti-Semitism exists but it is "not so bad" or "not so important"? Why?
  12. Do I believe that by focusing on the problems of anti-Semitism I will make it worse? Why?
  13. Do I feel that Jews draw too much attention to themselves? How?
  14. Do I associate the struggle against anti-Semitism with conservativism? Why?
  15. What Jewish stereotypes am I afraid of being identified with? What do I repress in myself in order to prevent such identification?

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Jennifer Rubin on the GOP's Rot

Holy moly, Jennifer Rubin is speaking sense:
Let me suggest the real problem is not the Trump family, but the GOP. To paraphrase Brooks, “It takes generations to hammer ethical considerations out of a [party’s] mind and to replace them entirely with the ruthless logic of winning and losing.” Again, to borrow from Brooks, beyond partisanship the GOP evidences “no attachment to any external moral truth or ethical code.” 
Let’s dispense with the “Democrats are just as bad” defense. First, I don’t much care; we collectively face a party in charge of virtually the entire federal government and the vast majority of statehouses and governorships. It’s that party’s inner moral rot that must concern us for now. Second, it’s simply not true, and saying so reveals the origin of the problem — a “woe is me” sense of victimhood that grossly exaggerates the opposition’s ills and in turn justifies its own egregious political judgments and rhetoric. If the GOP had not become unhinged about the Clintons, would it have rationalized Trump as the lesser of two evils? Only in the crazed bubble of right-wing hysteria does an ethically challenged, moderate Democrat become a threat to Western civilization and Trump the salvation of America.
Indeed, for decades now, demonization — of gays, immigrants, Democrats, the media, feminists, etc. — has been the animating spirit behind much of the right. It has distorted its assessment of reality, giving us anti-immigrant hysteria, promulgating disrespect for the law (how many “respectable” conservatives suggested disregarding the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage?), elevating Fox News hosts’ blatantly false propaganda as the counterweight to liberal media bias and preventing serious policy debate. For seven years, the party vilified Obamacare without an accurate assessment of its faults and feasible alternative plans. “Obama bad” or “Clinton bad” became the only credo — leaving the party, as Brooks said of the Trump clan, with “no attachment to any external moral truth or ethical code” — and no coherent policies for governing.
Out of its collective sense of victimhood came the GOP’s disdain for not just intellectuals but also intellectualism, science, Economics 101, history and constitutional fidelity. If the Trump children became slaves to money and to their father’s unbridled ego, then the GOP became slaves to its own demons and false narratives. A party that has to deny climate change and insist illegal immigrants are creating a crime wave — because that is what “conservatives” must believe, since liberals do not — is a party that will deny Trump’s complicity in gross misconduct. It’s a party as unfit to govern as Trump is unfit to occupy the White House. It’s not by accident that Trump chose to inhabit the party that has defined itself in opposition to reality and to any “external moral truth or ethical code.”
The cheeky part in me wants to ask if this means Rubin wants to retract her infamous "Jews don't like Sarah Palin because our men are intellectual snobs and our women are frigid bitches" essay. But I'm feeling magnanimous, so I'll just give her credit for taking some personal responsibility and applaud (the uncompromising sections in bold certainly helped brighten my mood towards her).

Friday, July 14, 2017

Not Knowing "Zio" is a Slur is an Indictment, Not a Defense

The Chicago Dyke March, an alternative to Chicago Pride that is meant to have a more "social justice" orientation, caught a heap of bad press when it expelled several Jewish marchers for carrying rainbow Jewish pride flags featuring a Star of David on them. The march has defiantly resisted any and all calls to apologize, and insisted that it was only being "critical of Israel" (isn't everything?).

Yesterday, it popped back into the antisemitism news beat by posting a tweet: "Zio tears replenish my electrolytes!" "Zio" is an antisemitic slur popularized by David Duke; even the milquetoast Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism in Labour agreed it was a racist term (and St. Jeremy Corbyn himself agreed: "'Zio' is a vile epithet that follows in a long line of earlier such terms that have no place whatsoever in our party.").

The March is defending itself from renewed antisemitism allegations by saying it "Definitely didn't know the violent history of the term."

They mean this as a defense. It's actually an indictment. Let me explain why.

I'll accept, for sake of argument, that the Chicago Dyke March did not "know" the term "Zio" was antisemitic. Nonetheless, the March almost certainly did not stumble across the term "Zio" by accident. It got it from somewhere, from sources it felt confident enough in that it felt comfortable emulating. In other words, one of the ways the Chicago Dyke March learned to speak about matters of Jewish concern was from people who think it is okay to toss around terms like "Zio." The odds that everything else it learned about those matters from this same social network was magically uninfected by this obvious antisemitism is incredibly scant. It's the thirteenth (or in this case fourteenth, or fifteenth, or seventieth) chime that calls into question the other twelve.

There are many places in this country where people grow up hearing racial slurs that they don't "know" are derogatory -- they're "just what people say." When they move into the wider world and use such terms, they sometimes claim ignorance -- and in some sense, they might be right. But the implication of their apologia is that not that they are free from racism -- far from it. It's that they grew up in an environment where racism was so normalized that they didn't even know how to recognize it. Such a situation demands some very hard work of unlearning, of radically questioning one's own presuppositions and acknowledging that one needs to acquire substantial new information before one can feel confident in one's ability to relate to the other group in an ethical manner.

But let's give the Dyke March even further benefit of the doubt. Suppose they somehow magically stumbled upon "Zio" through entirely innocent means -- nobody in their social network was using it, they came up with it all by their creative selves. Even still, all that would demonstrate is that they don't know crucial information about a subject they nonetheless feel fully confident to opine on. Put another way, if they didn't "know" that "Zio" was antisemitic, shouldn't the next question be "what else don't we know?"

I've long thought that the heart of oppression as a discursive practice is a perceived entitlement to talk about a group without knowing about the group. The Chicago Dyke March pleads ignorance about Jews and antisemitism, but that ignorance in no way dissipates their belief that they are absolutely entitled to talk about Jews and Jewish institutions however they want and be treated as credible and legitimate entrants to the discussion. It's not a valid move. If you don't know enough about Jews or antisemitism to know that "Zio" is an antisemitic term, then you don't know enough to be confident that any of your other opinions about Jews or antisemitism are worthwhile.

The Dyke March, in short, wants the innocence of ignorance without the responsibility. It wants to be able to say, on the one hand, "we didn't know that this term we used was a prominent antisemitic slur", while on the other hand it equally wants to say "we do know that in all other cases everything else we've said or done vis-a-vis Jews is entirely above-board and not antisemitic." They can only have the first if they're willing to disturb the second.

The Wasted Potential of Ben Sasse

Last fall, I noted that if there was any hope that Senate Republicans would actually exercise meaningful oversight over the Trump administration, it would almost certainly have to be led by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE).

Since then, Senator Sasse has talked a good game about being upset by this or that Trump administration action. But in terms of tangible actions, he's done absolutely nothing.

This Slate profile of Sasse says everything I've wanted to say about Sasse and more. It's good not because it's brutal but because it's fair -- it really does recognize that Sasse is in many ways different from other Republicans, and at the same time, it recognizes that "if Nebraskans had elected a cravenly partisan alt-right bozo as their senator in 2014 instead of a genial Ph.D. [Sasse], American public life would be little different today." In terms of actual votes, hearings, procedural practices -- everything but words-of-concern on major media platforms -- Sasse is entirely indistinguishable from a standard-issue Republican flack. That he clearly knows better makes him in many ways worse, not better.

I wonder if the Washington Post or another major media outlet will ever run a story on putatively "moderate" or "reasonable" Republicans' reputations running ahead of their voting record. With a few stray exceptions, after all, a moderate Republican in Congress is one who "talks about voting against Republicans before voting with Republicans."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Afghan Girls Robotics Team Allowed To Compete in US; Supervillain Origin Story Foiled

When I read that an all-girls robotics team from Afghanistan had been denied a visa to come to the US and participate in a robotics competition, my first thought was to fume about the injustice of it.

My second thought was to be perplexed at the logic. Even if you're a raging Islamophobe, surely you recognize that "six Muslim girls who are experts in robotics and have an ax to grind against America" is the start of a supervillain team, right? Why play with fire?

But the story appears to have a happy ending. Apparently at the intervention of President Trump, consular officials have reversed their decision and the girls will be allowed to come to America for the competition. Which is the right decision, and good news.

Kudos to President Trump (with appropriate discounting for the degree to which President Trump's rabidly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies were responsible for the initial exclusion).

How About We Declare a Moritorium on Concert-Cancellation Calls?

Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters supports BDS. Consequently, he wants Radiohead to cancel their concert in Israel.

Nassau County, New York has passed legislation opposing BDS. Consequently, some politicians on Long Island want to cancel Pink Floyd's concert at the Nassau Coliseum (the stadium is owned by the county).

While I fully expect 80% of commenters to be delighted by one of these calls while aghast at the censorial suppression of the other, put me in the camp of not supporting cancelling concerts as a means of grinding political axes.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Avi Gabbay Doo!

Avi Gabbay is the new head of Israel's Labor Party, defeating former Labor head and former Defense Minister Amir Peretz in a run-off (both advanced past current Labor chief Isaac Herzog, who placed third in the initial round of voting). Gabbay is a political novice who is not currently in the Knesset, although he did formerly serve as Environmental Protection Minister.

I don't really know a lot about Gabbay's politics, so I won't say anything more there. But I did want to point out that the run-off between Gabbay and Peretz featured two Israelis of Moroccan descent. That's especially noteworthy given Labor's long history as the redoubt of the old Ashkenazi elite in Israeli society -- a feature which is not unrelated to Likud's rise to power starting in the 1970s and to political dominance since the end of Ehud Barak's tenure as Prime Minister in 2001.

So congratulations to Gabbay, and here's hoping that he can help reinvigorated a genuine liberal alternative in Israel.

Nuclear Power: The Macho Man's Manly Path to Global Salvation

I've written a bit about nuclear power before, and how it may be our best hope at achieving deep decarbonization in a reasonable time frame while still meeting our electricity needs. Put simply, nuclear power has three characteristics that make it extremely attractive from a decarbonization perspective:
  1. It's high capacity.
  2. It's zero-emission.
  3. It's dispatchable.
Back in the day, nuclear energy was attractive for a fourth reason -- people thought it would be inexpensive. Nuclear energy would famously be "too cheap to meter". This turned out to be a less than oracle-esque prophecy. Nuclear power plants have long been plagued with cost overruns, and their skyrocketing expense (along with a few very public safety scares) is what caused a long freeze in nuclear construction from which we are only just beginning to see a thaw.

But from my vantage, the issue blocking us from pursuing necessary anti-climate change action isn't monetary. We have the resources to do it. The problem is, for lack of a better word, cultural. Conservatives have gotten it into their heads that fighting climate change and promoting renewable power is something only woolly liberal hippies care about, because they hate capitalism or something. And since Cleek's Law states that "Today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily," that means conservatives oppose pretty much anything on the clean power agenda.

Enter nuclear energy. Nuclear power is not coded as liberal -- if anything, its public valence is probably still more anti-environmental stemming from "nuclear-free zone" politics emerging out of the 70s and 80s (nuclear waste controversies stemmed from whether holding sites designed to last 10,000 years were sufficiently permanent. Given that we're staring down catastrophic climate change by the end of this century, that timeframe looks adorably quaint). It's muscular -- nuclear energy is something big, bad-ass countries produce -- unlike solar power which might turn your calculator on if you're not in a dark room. Sure some people fret about "safety" (although nuclear power is on net actually quite safe), but conservatives actually tend to be less risk-averse when it comes to nuclear energy than liberals. And conservatives actually have no problem expending resources when it comes to things they care about -- like funneling money to really rich people or building jet fighters.

Basically, nuclear energy is culturally coded in a way that makes it acceptable to conservatives in a way that other clean power sources aren't. And so regardless of whether it's theoretically possible to go 100% clean power without resort to nukes, nuclear energy is unique in its ability to not be rejected out of hand by conservatives who hate what renewable energy represents -- limp, paternalistic liberalism that wants to take away American muscle and replace it with some Dutch windmill and hippie solar communes.

Now I want to be 100% clear: This is a profoundly stupid reason to push for nuclear power (there are good reasons, but "nuclear power is manly" is not one). As a human, I'm embarrassed that the argument has come to this -- that we can only convince people to endorse global salvation if we can frame in a way that allows them to feel sufficiently manly about it. But we're past the point where my pride matters. If conservatives need to feel like they're sticking it to liberals and environmentalists by promoting nuclear energy, har-dee-harharhar, I say we indulge them.

So let's go, conservatives. Make electricity great again. Back a big nuclear energy push. That'll show me and my liberal pals what's what. It's the macho, manly way to save the planet.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

The Next Wave of the Net Metering Wars

The New York Times has an article about utility efforts to roll back "net metering"* for solar power.

The article is pretty clearly slanted -- utilities aren't making up the free-riding problem. But it's also evident that utility companies aren't just interested in insuring grid stability but want to kneecap solar outright, because it is a threat to the monopoly utility model. In many of the states, rooftop solar is so nascent that it's almost impossible to imagine it poses any serious immediate threat to utility business models.

The fact that very liberal states like Hawaii have rolled back net metering should suggest that there's more to it than just greedy conservatives hating renewable power and protecting incumbent power producers (recall that Hawaii has actually set a 100% renewable power goal they plan to meet by 2045). But the Trump administration and allied conservative state governments are certainly sympathetic to net metering "reform" proposals which are best characterized as "greedy conservatives hating renewable power and protecting incumbent power producers."

* Net metering is the practice where households with solar panels get paid retail price for any excess power they return to the grid. If my house consumes 1,000 kWh of power, and the panels on my roof produce 1,000 kWh of power, my electricity bill nets out to zero. The reason it's a "net" is that, on a minute-to-minute basis, there will be times when my solar panels are producing more than I'm using (and the excess gets sold onto the grid) and likewise times when the panels aren't covering my usage (e.g., when it's cloudy) and I need to draw from the grid. The reason this aggravates utility companies is that my house is still hooked up to and uses the grid (to sell the excess power, to draw from non-intermittent dispatchable power at night or in the rain), but it isn't paying for any of the costs of maintaining it. As rooftop solar becomes more prominent, this becomes a genuine regulatory puzzle for utility commissions. But in most jurisdictions, we're nowhere near the point where it will make a dent.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Root Beer Taste Test

I love root beer. As a non-alcohol drinker, it's the closest thing I get to experiencing the varieties of real beer. And so, for years, I've had a dream of performing a root beer taste test. And now that dream is coming true.

Over the course of several days, I've drank a variety of different root beers -- both commonplace and artisanal. I've given them all a grade and some brief commentary. It's my gift to you, but more than that, it's my gift to me.

* * *

A&W: I bought a bottle of A&W for sake of completion, because I already knew I didn't like it. But its one of the big names in the root beer business, so I figured I had to give it a shot. And to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised. I always felt like A&W tasted like it had been left out in the sun for too long, but this was sweeter and crisper than I remembered (although a molasses-type sweetness -- the bottle says "aged vanilla" -- which I wasn't a huge fan of). It does depend on it being fully carbonated -- once the carbonation fades, it start to taste like liquified brown sugar -- but again, not terrible. Still not great though. C+.

Barq's: With all this stress on small, artisanal root beers some may be surprised that I fully expected Barq's to do very well in this challenge. Of the "big three" mainstream root beer brands (A&W and Mug being the other two), Barq's is by far my favorite and is the root beer that is always in my fridge. The famous "bite" isn't anything too extreme, but certainly gives it a personality that one wouldn't expect from a Coca-Cola product. The main downside is that there isn't a ton underneath the bite -- once the snap wears off, it goes downhill really quickly -- but as long as you don't linger while drinking it Barq's is very crisp and refreshing. A.

Mug: Good. Generic, but good. Not a lot to say about this. I last got a bottle of Mug when it came with a Dominos Pizza, and that feels entirely appropriate somehow. B+.

Bedford's: Surprisingly watery. I had tried a bunch of "darker" flavors prior to drinking Bedford's, and when I first sipped it I couldn't quite put my finger on what its distinct flavor was. A full bottle later, and I still wasn't sure, and had no recollection about what it was. There's nothing particularly offensive about this drink, but there's nothing remotely memorable about it either. C-.

Dad's: It was difficult for me to place Dad's flavor (mint? No, that's not right), but it was generally quite pleasant. The problem was there was nothing going on underneath it -- in fact, it was pretty watery. I've heard that some people get "Dad's" as a cute Father's Day gift, and I have to say that it's far better than what one would typical expect for a "gimmick-grade" product. B.

Frostie: Frostie has a cartoon Santa on its bottle. And it tastes like Christmas! I can't even describe what that means; hell, I don't even celebrate Christmas. But it tastes exactly like what I imagine Christmas to taste like. It's a very particular sort of sweet that's pleasing and wintery and not too strong. That taste overlays a pretty forgettable base, but overall this is a strong entry. A-.

Henry Weinhard's: This has a flavor that I imagine is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. For me, it tastes a little like cough syrup. Now, I have to say that if cough syrup tasted like this I'd be really happy -- it'd make a darn tasty cough syrup! But in the root beer category, that's a downgrade. It does foam very impressively though. B-.

IBC: Tastes like a darker version of Barq's. It has a bite as well, though not as distinctive. The flavor is a little richer, and I can imagine people going both ways on it. But I'm a big fan. A.

Sioux City: One taste of this and I was like "we've got a contender." Two tastes and I immediately recanted. This has a dreadful aftertaste -- truly foul. I'm not sure where it comes from, because it has a very nice taste when it hits your tongue. This must be what drug addiction feels like -- a momentary great feeling, followed by awfulness. D+.

O-So Butterscotch Root Beer: As the name describes. This has a very strong -- I'd argue overpowering -- butterscotch flavor that feels incongruous. Like, I can see how someone might think it goes with a root beer base, but they turned out to be wrong. Root beer is sweet enough as it is, this turned it positively sickly. Would not recommend unless you're a true butterscotch fan (which I admittedly am not). C-.

Red Arrow: Like A&W without the sweetness. This is what I imagine dark beer to taste like. Unfortunately, it lacks the smoothness of A&W. In fact, the more I think of it, the more this tastes like my bad memories of A&W. Not a fan. C-.

Monday, July 03, 2017

For the Left, the Kotel Controversy Shouldn't Be Nyah-Nyah Moment

When the Israeli government reneged on its promise to promote equal space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall -- and moved forward a bill that would further cement the Orthodox movement's stranglehold over conversion in Israel -- liberal Jews in America were very, very upset. They were not shy about denouncing the decision in the sharpest of terms.  The head of the Chicago Jewish Federation said lawmakers who voted for the conversion bill wouldn't be welcome in his city. An AIPAC board member threatened to cut off all philanthropic giving to Israel.  It's fair to say that we haven't seen this much unified fury directed at the Israeli government from mainstream American Jewish organizations in years.

Some anti-occupation activists are rolling their eyes at this -- oh, now you're protesting Israeli government policy. Now, when it's about you, you're suddenly threatening to cut off donations or shun unacceptable Israeli MKs? Where were you when Israel's right-ward tilt was affecting people-not-you -- that is, Palestinians? Where was your consternation and outrage when Israel lets settler violence proceed unchecked or demolishes Palestinian homes for "improper permits" while letting outposts proliferate like wildfire? But now, now you find your voice?

I get this reaction. Really, I do. It's an entirely understandable, visceral response. I even feel it myself, to a degree. I really, really empathize with the cathartic desire to lash out like this.

But being a good activist isn't about doing what feels good or righteous or cathartic. Being a good activist means taking the steps that move the ball forward, even if that means foregoing a good "gotcha" moment. Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue, and this is one of those moments.

For starters, the groups engaging in this nyah-nyah reaction generally purport to agree with their targets on the injustice of the Kotel backtrack and the conversion bill. So right from the get-go, there's the ill-advised look of being angry that people agree with you on an issue.

But there's a larger short-sightedness here, that goes more directly to the issue of the occupation and moving the needle on how American Jewish organizations treat that issue. Let me lay it out in simple terms:
From an anti-occupation perspective, anything that makes clear to mainstream American Jews that Bibi is not your buddy is a good thing.
Simple as that. An American Jewish organization that is annoyed at Netanyahu and his coalition partners is an American Jewish organization that will be less likely to reflexively defer to them the next occupation-related outrage that comes down the pike. An American Jewish organization which doesn't trust Bibi's views on matters of justice or fairness is an American Jewish organization more likely  to follow their own instincts going forward.

I've written before about the importance of social psychology in understanding how views about Israel develop and change. One of the most important considerations in how people form their own beliefs is their sense about how their friends, how the people on their "side", perceive the issue. The Kotel controversy is a moment where many American Jews have suddenly come to the realization that Bibi is not "on their side". They're casting about, looking for new allies in the Jewish community that will validate their feelings about how important this issue is and do understand how objectionable the Israeli government's decision was.

This offers a huge opportunity. American Jews are searching for something to do, a way to vent their anger, at the current Israeli government. Right now it's rather disorganized and inchoate, and as a means of protesting the Kotel decision pulling funding from an Ethiopian-Israeli soccer team seems rather far afield. But you know what could make Netanyahu stand up and take notice? If donors and givers and Jewish support started flowing to liberal organizations within Israel that -- by and large -- want religious pluralism in Israel and an end to the occupation.

But that only works if the door is held open. So, in this particular moment, the decision of the anti-occupation left to wag a finger in these Jews' faces and yell "hypocrites" could not be more profoundly idiotic. It is a sign of the immaturity of these groups and their preference for posturing over effective coalition-building within the Jewish community -- a shortcoming that has bedeviled the Jewish anti-occupation left from its earliest days.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

A Muslim in Rural Minnesota

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has a gripping profile of a Muslim doctor living in Dawson, Minnesota -- why he moved there, how the election shook his faith in his neighbors, and his reluctant efforts to explain not just what Islam is, but why he experienced the widespread support for Donald Trump in his community as a deep and personal betrayal. It is a compelling and necessary read.

I've mentioned that my fiancée is from Owatonna, Minnesota, and that I regularly am out there visiting her family. Owatonna is about three hours from Dawson (it's in the southern part of the state, while Dawson is out west), but they both are in rural areas that swung hard to the right this election. Owatonna, too, had a hateful incident in the immediate aftermath of the election (a middle-aged man followed a Muslim teenager around a Kwik-Trip and asked "Now that Donald Trump's president, why do I still have to see Muslims? Go back to your own country.").

I don't mean to imply this is just a rural phenomenon -- after all, my very suburban elementary school got tagged with swastikas just before the election. This isn't about playing gotcha, or kick the hick.

But in both the Dawson and Owatonna cases, Muslim community members specifically suggest that there is an extra degree of alienation knowing that many, if not most, of their neighbors, classmates, or colleagues voted for Trump. Voted to put him on a registry. Voted to ban them from the country. Voted to demonize them and consider them all terrorists seeking to impose Sharia law on the country.

Now, frequently they'll deny that. It was about insurance premiums, not race or religion or ethnicity. Put aside the ludicrous notion that Donald Trump is going to make insurance more affordable. There's a deeper problem, for it's a less of a defense than one might think to say "demonizing you, rendering you a second-class citizens, labeling you an enemy of the state -- all on account your faith -- these didn't matter to me." There's a sort of negligence at work here, where people look at what Donald Trump said about their fellow Americans and said "that's not important to me. I'm willing to accept that for the sake of demolishing Obamacare."

This is why there's a sense of betrayal here that goes beyond simply one's preferred candidate losing. When we vote, we are making one of the most consequential statements about not just our own priorities, but our vision of care and concern for everyone in our community and country. It is not and should not be thought of as the equivalent of a consumer selecting their preferred brand of grapes. When people reveal their values in this way -- "I'm not saying I like the Muslim ban, but her emails" -- it is not wrong for those persons whose lives and equality are so grossly undervalued to take exception. And it isn't wrong for them to insist that their classmates, colleagues, and neighbors look them in the eye and be made to reckon with what they did.