Monday, September 26, 2016

2016 Presidential Debate #1: Quick Reactions

First things first: Under any definition of "winning" that goes beyond "did Donald Trump manage to stay coherent and under control for a single 90 second span", Hillary Clinton won this debate hands down. There's simply no question. No, Donald Trump did not spontaneously combust in a paroxysm of rage (though there were a few moments where I genuinely wondered if he was having a panic attack). Yes, he did manage to emphasize a few effective tropes, such  the alleged mismatch between Clinton's rhetoric now and her record of accomplishment. But the overall effect was of a blustering, out of his league lunatic who could not stop interrupting, could not stop snorting, could not stop eye-rolling, and for much of the evening could barely string two coherent sentences together. That's just not going to fly on this level.

Of course, I'm biased -- but even the Republicans I've seen have scored the debate either a Clinton win or, at best, a draw. Their main complaint, of course, is to blame the refs -- the moderator, we're told, was biased! They point out that far less time was spent on Clinton's emails than on Trump's birtherism.

You want to know why that is? It's because Clinton's answer on emails was simple: she acknowledged a mistake, and left it at that. No attempt at a convoluted justification, no complaints that the whole thing was blown out of proportion, no conspiracy theory about how it was all in her opponent's head. And if you contrast that to Trump, you get what might have been his biggest problem all night: he could not let anything go. Birtherism? It was all Clinton's fault, and Trump actually did Obama a favor! Iraq war? An endless stream of consciousness demanding that we call Sean Hannity to verify that he was too an opponent. Racial discrimination? "We never admitted any guilt," and by the way, did I tell you about the time my club admitted Black people? It reached a peak when Trump started going off on how actually he had the better "temperament" compared to Clinton, and I was like "really dude? Is this the hill you want to die on?" Even Trump's supporters must have been groaning.

Clinton performed well because she actually possesses some self-discipline and was able to blunt potential problem areas early, sucking the air out of the issue. Trump was like a frenzied chihuahua on Adderall, chasing down anything and everything and hobbling himself with assertions that ranged from ludicrous (everything was "the worst deal ever") to self-sabotaging (did he just admit he paid no federal taxes?). And I have to think that every single woman watching that debate had their blood pressure rise in empathy each time Donald Trump insisted on talking over the calm, collected, prepared woman next to her.

The only thing that seems to be causing people to hesitate in awarding Clinton a total victory is the idea that "Trump is different." We thought he got eviscerated in the primary debates too, and his people loved him even more for it. I saw Nicolle Wallace make that point on NBC, and Kevin Drum said the same in his recap. To that, I simply observe that the GOP primary is not the general, and the same rules don't apply. GOP primary rules get you Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell. General election rules get those candidates annihilated as independents flee in terror.

This debate was the first time Americans really got a chance to see their 2016 choices side-by-side. It presented a stark choice, and not a particularly difficult one. I predict that when the full reactions are in, independents and swing voters will not react kindly to what Trump was selling.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Our First Jewish President

Harold Pollack, responding to Barack Obama's declaration that no one over the age of eight should ever put ketchup on a hot dog, tweeted #FirstJewishPresident. Really, it just marks him as a man of Chicago.

But it did get me to thinking: In the same vein that people once called Bill Clinton our first Black President, could one say that Barack Obama was our first Jewish President?

In introducing that argument with respect to Bill Clinton, Toni Morrison argued as follows:
After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.
Morrison's argument mixed elements of Clinton's background, his personal style, and the particular way he was targeted and maltreated by his opponents. I think a similar connection can be made between Obama and the Jews.

I noted before he was even elected that Obama seemed to "get", in his bones, the Jewish connection to Zionism in a way that is rare to see among non-Jews. In terms of background, Obama initially rose to prominence through scholastic excellence, most prominently embodied when he was elected President of the Harvard Law Review. His cerebral style -- concerned with argument and persuasion, believing that we can reason our way through problems while being a bit uncomfortable with the back-slapping, good-ol'-boys club mentality of Washington politics -- seems quintessentially Jewish. In terms of how he handles himself, in terms of what he values, and in terms of how he approaches politics, Barack Obama could very easily pass for a Jew.

And then there are the conspiracy theories. Obama's political career has been beset by a series of ever-more ridiculous conspiracy theories. Birtherism is just the tip of the iceberg. We saw Obama launching Jade Helm as a prelude to taking over TexasObama seeking to become UN Secretary General in order to take over the world, and of course Obama revealing himself to be the Antichrist and taking over all of human existence. I could go on more or less indefinitely.

This particular form of oppression is very much Jewish in character. A few years ago, I joked that if you ever get "conspiracy theories" as a pub trivia category, you can save time by just putting down "Jews" for every answer -- odds are that, whatever the theory, somebody has pinned it on us. The conspiracy theory may well be the central organizing feature of anti-Semitism, and it may well also be the central distinctive component of the opposition to the Obama presidency -- managing to ramp up even the fevered "Clintons had Vince Foster murdered" pitch that prevailed at the end of the prior Democratic administration. On this front, Barack Obama -- presumed to be at the forefront of every domestic and global calamity, secretly plotting with shadowy cabals and foreign enemies to bring us into ruin -- was very much the first Jew in office

Finally, there's the fact that -- while Obama is overwhelmingly popular among most Jews -- about 25% loudly declare the man utterly detestable. Which is pretty Jewish in its own right, come to think of it.

As the days of the Obama presidency come to a close, I grow ever more impressed by all he accomplished in office, and proud that my community stood firmly and decisively beside him in two successful elections. One day, hopefully in my lifetime, we will have an actual Jewish President, just as we eventually got an actual Black President and how we'll soon (knock on wood) have an actual female President. But until that day, we could do far, far worse than to identify ourselves with the Obama legacy.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Veil of Ignorance

Last month, in Tablet Magazine, Paul Berman attempted to mount a defense of the French prohibition of Muslim veils (the infamous "Burkini" ban, or, earlier, forbidding headscarves in schools). There is a faint bit of cheekiness to it, in its appeal to French cultural as the be-all-end-all of the argument. Why don't we respect their culture? This is just the way the French do things! Maybe it is time to check our American egos, and acknowledge that other countries have valid ideas of governance in their own right? To ban the veil is, Berman argues, simply an example of the French value of secularism -- sometimes referred to be its French term, laïcité. 

If his is meant to be a subtle jab at the lazy invocation of cultural relativism that some members of the left regularly indulge in, then well done. If it is meant to be more than a satire, though, there is a problem. The French ban on the veil is indeed an example of laïcité, though Berman actually objects to the use of the term since for him laïcité is nothing more than "the Jeffersonian principle of a wall between church and state, in its French version." This is true, in the same sense that the Revolutionary Courts are the "Marbury principle of judicial review, in its Iranian version." It may fill a similar niche, but it is shorn of all the limitations and checks that make the concept worth emulating. Laïcité is "separation of church and state" in the exact way that hyperbolic American conservatives have breathlessly condemned it: taking out the "state" and substituting in "public life." A ban on headscarves in public schools (or kippot -- oddly unmentioned by Berman given that they too are covered under the French law) would not be an example of separating church from the state --it is an effort to excise religion from public life. It does not govern statecraft, it governs individuals exercising their religion as individuals on those occasions where they step outside the home.

The reason why American (and French) liberals object to the ban on religious garb worn by private citizens who have the temerity to enter the public square is that this sort of compulsory secularism is not liberation even (in Berman's oh-so-vague clawback) "in principle". It is not compatible with religious equality for anyone, and in practice its burdens fall heavier on minority groups whose religious practices will always seem louder simply because they are different (notably, crucifixes are not banned so long as they are not "obtrusive"). If secularism takes this form, it is simply a different form of theocracy -- our personal rights stop to the extent they offend the (ir)religious orthodoxy.

If Berman is looking to build opposition to the veil, a misshapen argument that butchers liberal values of secularism is unlikely to do the trick. Perhaps he would do better to make common cause with an Egyptian MP who is pitching a veil ban on the grounds that it is a "Jewish" practice. After all, just as in certain circles it is sufficient to argue against a practice by labeling it "Islamic" (or "Islamist", which -- whatever merits it might have as a carefully-used term, here is not being used with care), in others there isn't any more powerful argument against a given behavior than persuading everyone that "its Jewish".

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Roundup of Conversations Had and Not Had

Just for the record, I feel guilty about relying on roundups so much of the past few weeks.

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Vox interviews Brown University professor and eclectic right-of-center Black academic Glenn Loury. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Loury earlier this year, and he is a very thoughtful man whose ideas are worth reading even when one disagrees. This interview is no different.


Ruth Smeeth's testimony regarding the anti-Semitism she's faced at the hands of Jeremy Corbyn supporters -- and Corbyn's own blithe indifference to the atmosphere of hate he's birthed -- is heart-breaking. Corbyn's movement really is just a left-wing version of Trumpism.

Reports are that Israel has blocked a British academic scheduled to give a series of lectures at Birzeit University from entering the West Bank. I know nothing about the professor or his scholarship, but such decisions are an anathema to academic freedom and deserve full-throated condemnation.

Well, the Oberlin Student Senate finally found a Mideast related event that demanded condemnation: the one where my friend Stacey Aviva Flint, an African-American Jew from Chicago, will talk about her experience as a Jew of color and issues of intersectionality. Flint -- a member (like me) of the left-wing Third Narrative organization -- will be joined by Kenneth Marcus of the Brandeis Center and Chloe Simone Valdary, a non-Jewish African American woman who has been active in (generally right-wing) efforts to cultivate solidarity between Israel and the African-American community.

Massachusetts Supreme Court concludes (a) that vague descriptions that a criminal suspect is a Black man wearing dark clothes is insufficient to justify a stop of any Black man wearing dark clothes and (b) that, given realities of racial profiling, the act of running from the police does not, in of itself, establish probable cause for a stop either.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Maybe It's Time To Concede This Doesn't Work

Our constitutional jurisprudence surrounding legislative prayer is a two-step dance. In the first step, the judiciary tells legislatures that they can have prayers so long as the process for selecting them is not biased with respect to particular denominations or sects. In the second step, legislatures do everything they can to be biased with respect to particular denominations and sects.

The latest remix of this everlasting beat is a 4th Circuit decision in Lund v. Rowan County, where a county commission simply had its commissioners choose the prayer leaders it preferred -- unsurprisingly, leading to an overwhelmingly Christian bent. Ian Millhiser has commentary, but I'll be honest and say that I'm not convinced the decision is obviously wrong under either SCOTUS or 4th Circuit precedent. Indeed, its not even the worst 4th Circuit legislative prayer decision since the inception of this blog -- a distinction still unquestionably held by Simpson v. Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors.

The problem is that the demand for religious neutrality contained in step one founders upon the obvious fact that the upshot of step one is that legislatures might have to admit prayers by religion groups they dislike. Which means they do everything they can to channel who gets to say the prayers, which means that the "neutrality" principle immediately collapses.

It's not that there is a conceptual incoherence to the idea that legislative prayers are permissible so long as they do not discriminate in favor or against a particular sect. But it is clear that many if not most legislative bodies aren't really willing to pay that piper -- admit prayers from Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Wiccans and Satanists. And so perhaps its time to concede that the doctrinal rule we've set up just isn't going to work. There are plenty of opportunities to pray without relying on bureaucratic set asides, and some of us don't need government-sponsored training wheels before we feel secure in our faith.

Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy: The Berkeley Palestine Class

A few days ago, Berkeley administrators suspended a course in progress titled "Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis". As it happens, I'm relatively familiar with the course, and became aware of it well before it found itself in the middle of a national controversy. And so observing this chain of events has been like watching a car crash in slow motion. I knew it was coming, and knew it would be awful, but there was a depressing inevitability about the destruction.

I first became aware of the class when I spotted some advertisements for it which prominently featured those ridiculous maps. That inspired me to look into and read the syllabus, and what I saw was not exactly impressive. It was indeed entirely one-sided, taking a single conclusion as a given and not demonstrating an iota of interest in alternative vantages. Basically, it was not a course that did Berkeley proud in terms of its pedagogical merits.

At the same time, I also found out that the course was a "Decal"  offering -- courses designed and led by undergraduates, for undergraduates (this also put an end to my brief consideration of enrolling or auditing -- they're not open to graduate students). My understanding is that faculty review and oversight of these courses is relatively minimal (though I'm not sure about the exact amount of standard supervision). Most of the classes are on relatively fluffy topics, really more of a way to secure a few easy credits and explore a fun topic. They are not representative of the standard Berkeley offering; they don't say much of anything about Berkeley as a whole other than that we let undergrads design some courses, and some undergraduate-designed courses won't wow me with their sense of depth or nuance. So I figured there really wasn't much worth saying. You give undergraduates power to design classes, and some of those classes won't perfectly embody recognized pedagogical ideals. Quelle surprise.

Then, a few days later, mention of this course started to burble up on my Twitter feed. I did my best to give a fair, non-alarmist description: Yes, the class looks pretty one-sided, no, it's not reflective of Berkeley as a whole -- it's an undergraduate-designed class that will only enroll a dozen or two. At the same time, the subliminal message I was trying to send was much more straight-forward: Let it go. Just let it go. LetItGoLetItGoLETITGO.

Alas, nobody ever lets these things go. The hysteria machine spun into action, and then the class was suspended. The official rationale is that it failed to get certain approvals. This reeks of pretext, and it might not even be that -- this post, though overwrought at times, proffers compelling evidence that the class in fact fulfilled all the procedural requirements it needed. And the thing is, every step in the process was eminently predictable. Of course Berkeley is the sort of place that would produce a class like this, and of course we have faculty members who don't care enough inculcating good pedagogical habits that they'll give it their unmitigated approval. And then of course it will get out, and of course the usual suspects on the Jewish right will blow up in a hysterical overreaction to a tiny undergraduate seminar. And then of course Berkeley administrators rush into the worst, most panicked response possible and suspend the class without even contacting the course facilitator, making a mockery of academic freedom in the process, and then of course that suspension will become proof that it is impossible for even the meekest "criticism of Israel" to be aired in academia. (And then of course someone will call for a sit-in, because this is Berkeley and every damn thing needs to be a sit-in, and then of course Simone Zimmerman will propose having it at Berkeley Hillel, as opposed to the university office that actually made the decision, because some people haven't met a forest fire they didn't ache to pour gasoline on).

So my basic position at the moment is that I hate everyone. This is not for me an uncommon sentiment when it comes to either Berkeley decision-making or discourse about Israel and Palestine, so I guess you could say I'm used to it. But now that this bonfire has well and truly surged out of control, I guess I'll offer my two cents after all.

Right now, the debate has fallen into the usual rut: either the class was great and thus canceling it was an academic freedom violation, or the class is awful and thus canceling it was no academic freedom violation whatsoever. This dichotomy conflates two separate questions -- "was the class pedagogically sound" and "was Berkeley justified in suspending it" -- and it is that conflation which is worth breaking down. A few years ago I wrote a very short essay entitled "Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy", and I've analyzed a few academic freedom controversies through that lens. The basic thrust of the article is that "academic freedom is a constraint on remedies": It does not block criticism of bad academic choices -- the decision to invite a certain speaker, or to construct a one-sided syllabus, or to forward a terrible argument -- it simply takes off the table certain responses. You can't ban "bad" speakers, or punish those who invite them. You can't fire tenured academics for publishing awful arguments. And you can't cancel classes just because their design is pedagogically objectionable.

So, on the one hand, it is perfectly valid and legitimate to raise concerns about this course and how it was constructed. As I said, I read the course's syllabus, and it had plenty in it to object to. The problem was not that it adopted a "colonial" or "settler-colonial" analytical frame -- I think there is a very interesting course to be written along that dimension. The problem was that it adopted that frame in a remarkably narrow, ideologically-blinded way. "Balance" is an impossible goal, but good pedagogy demands that when one centers a course around a given theme, one at least acknowledge a range of views that properly bear on its complexity. The course as it stands is akin to a class titled "Palestinians: A Made-Up People?" with 15 weeks of readings all answering "yep." A class like that would be an embarrassment, a joke, an obvious failure to meet reasonable pedagogical standards.

This is why when I teach my seminar on anti-discrimination, my syllabus includes an array of thinkers ranging from Cheryl Harris to Gerald Rosenberg to Charles Lawrence to Antonin Scalia to (a whole unit on) Clarence Thomas. Anti-discrimination is a big, important topic, and while I can't expose my students to all views (let alone all views "evenly"), I would be embarrassed if I only relayed to them those arguments which mirrored my own. To do that would be to confuse being a teacher with being an advocate; it would represent a failure to meet basic standards of pedagogy and intellectual inquiry.

But on the other hand, these objections simply have no bearing from an academic freedom standpoint. Academic freedom means that, sometimes, people are going to teach classes that I think fail to meet basic standards of pedagogy and intellectual inquiry. That comes with the territory. Academic freedom is a constraint on remedies; it means that, whether warranted or not, objections that a class is "imbalanced" or "biased" or even just pedagogically terrible cannot be rectified with a suspension or ban. That option is (or should be) off the table. The decision to suspend the course is flatly incompatible with any legitimate understanding of what academic freedom entails. and Berkeley should be embarrassed that it did it.

To be sure, it is reasonable to demand of members of the Berkeley academic community that they try to meet certain basic pedagogical standards when designing courses -- that they at least try to avoid narrow and ideologically lazy course constructions and present topics with an eye towards their full nuance and complexity. Decal, in particular, should be a venue where we try to inculcate young students with these academic values -- namely, that one's role when designing and teaching a class is different than when one is participating in one (let alone leading a protest rally). It demands something different out of us, and what it demands can be especially difficult to give if one is personally close to the subject matter. To the extent that a significant portion of the Berkeley academic community is indifferent to those values -- simply does not care about courses being thinly disguised agitprop or forums for indoctrination -- that would indeed suggest a deep and serious failing in our university. But again, "academic freedom" means that we are limited in the remedies we can bring to bear against such failings. Right now any conversation we might have about these "cultural" failings will be drowned out, appropriately so, by the more obvious breach of academic freedom.

And let's be clear: the erosion of academic freedom norms has ramifications far beyond Berkeley. Sometimes, as here, it will be a "pro-Palestinian" course offering that is suppressed; elsewhere, it will be "pro-Israel" or Jewish or Zionist scholars who are threatened with exclusion from the academic community. Too many people are quick to cheer one while angrily crying "censorship!" at the other. But true academic freedom has no fair-weather friends. Either you back it, or you don't. The decision by the Berkeley administration to suspend the class was wrong. I suspect it will eventually be overturned (perhaps with some token modifications to the course; almost certainly with quintuple the attention paid to its offerings than would have resulted if the "pro-Israel" right had Just. Let. It. GO.), and it should be. That doesn't mean it wasn't a problematic offering, or that it adequately embodied the ideals we should aspire to as teachers and scholars. But academic freedom is not restricted only to those curricular offerings which meet my standards of ideal pedagogy. If we have a problem with a Berkeley undergraduate course, our solutions must be consistent with the basic ideals of academic freedom that enable open inquiry and free discussion in the modern university.

UPDATE: I have on good authority that the course has been reinstated. There may be some minor changes to the syllabus wording, but apparently no changes in the reading. More (linkable) information once I obtain it.

UPDATE x2: Here is a Forward article on the reinstatement. Hopefully that brings this sorry episode to a close.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Man Arrested in Terrorist Attack on Florida Mosque

A 32-year old Jewish [See update -- DS] Floridian has confessed to an arson attack on the Florida mosque that was home to the Pulse nightclub shooter. Since this is being investigated as a hate crime (which, I've often argued, is just another way of saying "terrorism"), he faces a mandatory 30 year minimum prison sentence. That sounds entirely appropriate, under the circumstances. The suspect, in addition to a prior criminal record including armed robbery, also was apparently a prolific writer of anti-Muslim social media posts.

The man claims to be "embarrassed" by what he has done. Good -- he can be embarrassed for multiple decades behind bars. Terrorist violence against Americans of any religion, ethnicity, or creed is absolutely unacceptable and should be met with the full force of our justice system. I'm glad they caught the guy, and I look forward to him being sentenced. Good riddance.

UPDATE: According to the Daily Beast, the man in question is actually a Messianic Jew -- which is to say, not a Jew at all. Good news for Jews; does not alter his scumminess in the slightest.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Palate-Cleansing Roundup

My Tablet article on Brooklyn Commons, and the follow up posted here, really pulled me away from a lot of my other reading -- including some planned posts. So here's a palate-cleansing roundup for your pleasure -- fewer entries than normal, but with more meat per bite.

* * *

An interesting piece at Deadspin exploring why hijab-wearing fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, rather than uncovered hurdler Dalilah Muhammad, became the "face" of Muslim women among American Olympians. At one level, I think it is absolutely fair to suggest that minority groups -- of all sorts -- tend to face greater barriers to inclusion the more they are differentiated from majoritarian norms (e.g., by waring a hijab). On other, though, I think it is not improbable that there is a degree of exoticization going on here, where we recognize as "authentic" cultural enactments which play to our pre-existing stereotypes.

In +972 Magazine, Assaf David argues that Israel is simply another Middle Eastern nation struggling to find its way in the wake of the colonial withdrawal from the region. None of Israel's problems: it's identification with a particular religious and social group to the chafing of minority members of the state, to its ongoing struggles with sub- and super-national identities like religion, ethnicity, and community, to border disputes brought upon by indifferent colonial line-drawers and chaotic independence, is particularly novel in the Middle East. And indeed, with a largely Mizrahi Jewish identity, Israel's own cultural heartbeat is at this point more Middle Eastern than Ashkenazi-European (via).

DOJ and Army Corps of Engineers announce a moratorium on pipeline building protested by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. More importantly, they look to be launching a more formal consultation process with tribal governments regarding how (either through current or new legislation) to better involve tribes in the planning and review process of infrastructural projects that touch or affect tribal lands or treaty rights.