Friday, August 12, 2016

On the History of the Word "Genocide"

For the past few days I've been meaning to sit down and write about the current fractious triangle between Black Lives Matter, progressive Jews, and the word "genocide." But last night I sat down to do some research, and it turns out I don't have to write much of anything at all--someone eminently more qualified has already written it for me. And that person is the person who invented the word to begin with.

Just to frame what I'll quote below--I think a lot of English speakers, and certainly many Jews, find the word "genocide" particularly offensive as applied to a Jewish state because they associate the word with the Holocaust.It might surprise you (it surprised me) to learn that the word was created in response to the Ottoman Empire's massacre of the Armenians starting in April 1915. The term was coined by a Polish Jewish lawyer, Rafael Lemkin, in 1943, to refer to a phenomenon that he had been steadily pushing the international community to recognize since the 1930s. This was essentially his life's work, even his obsession. Tragically, while he was traveling around the world lobbying for governments to recognize genocide as a crime, most of his family back in Poland were killed by the Nazis(1).

Since Lemkin was the one who created this word, I think we have to turn to his writings to find out what it means. And here's what he wrote in 1944, emphasis mine (2):
 "...the term does not necessarily signify mass killings, although it may mean that.
More often it refers to a coordinated plan aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups so that these groups wither and die like plants that have suffered a blight. The end may be accomplished by the forced disintegration of political and social institutions, of the culture of the people, of their language, their national feelings and their religion. It may be accomplished by wiping out all basis of personal security, liberty, health and dignity. When these means fail, the machine gun can always be utilized as a last resort."
In 1948, Lemkin got the UN General Assembly to ratify the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. He'd earlier put similar ideas before the League of Nations--his main idea was that genocide hurts all countries, and that therefore it should be punished internationally. Here is how the UN Convention (still in effect)  defines genocide (again, emphasis is mine):
"In the present convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
(a)killing members of the group,
(b)causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,
(c)deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,
(d)imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,
(e)forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."
It's also worth noting that the UN Convention criminalizes not only these acts (actual genocide) but also "[d]irect and public incitement to genocide." You'll notice that the definition of genocide here is more limited than Lemkin's original (it doesn't include what he said about the destruction of political and social institutions), but still more expansive than the way I think most Jews are using it now, to mean "physically killing people en masse so that their group will be exterminated."

"But, but," I can hear some saying, "what if the Palestinians are committing genocide against the Israelis?? Ever think of that?" I have. But more importantly, Lemkin did too. Here he is again, writing in 1944-parens and bolding mine(4):
"Minorities of one sort or another exist in all countries, protected by the constitutional order of the state [this was largely the case in European countries pre-WWII, although not always today--usually it meant that minorities like the Jews did have protected, although second class, status]. If persecution of any minority by any country is tolerated anywhere, the very moral and legal foundations of constitutional government may be shaken."
Lemkin could not have been more clear. Genocide is something majority populations do to minorities. It does not work the other way around. You can say a lot of things about Jews in the state of Israel, but one thing you can't say is that they're the minority population. Numerically and in terms of political power, it's just not true.

If you're a person who either doesn't acknowledge that Israel perpetrates human rights abuses against Palestinians, or if you're a person who thinks they're justified in doing so, then I don't think this linguistic history will matter to you (and you probably also do not read my blog). But if you're one of those people who's been saying, like many progressive Jews are,"I know Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is bad, but I just don't think it rises to the level of genocide," then I'd ask you to take a long look at these quotes, particularly the one's I've bolded, and be real with yourself about whether these are parts of Israeli policy towards Palestinians. Not even whether they've always been, but whether they are right now. I think most people who already recognize that bad stuff is going on there will recognize that they are. And in that case, I think you'll see that Black Lives Matter has used the term genocide correctly as applied to the state of Israel. And when you consider that the US is funding a lot of this activity, you'll probably also see that mentioning this has less to do with anti-Semitism and more to do with a feeling of American culpability.

Maybe you're still uncomfortable with that--maybe it'll turn out that your objection to that term was really more about objection to criticism of Israel than to the term itself. In that case, at least you'll know that, and you'll be able to think it through in whatever way seems appropriate to you. I don't say this to say that balancing Jewishness and progressiveness and attachment to Zionism or the state of Israel is simple. But I think it's worth considering what Lemkin believed--that once you allow people to be killed based on their group identity in one place, you make that acceptable in other places too. In other words, you can't be against it in one place but for it in another. If he can see Jews turning away from Black Lives Matter because of his word, genocide, I can only imagine he's rolling over in his grave.

(1)Power, Samantha (2002) A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.  Harper Collins.
(2) Lemkin, Rafael (1945) Genocide - A Modern Crime. Free World, Vol. 4, pp. 39-43.
(3)UN General Assembly, 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
(4)Lemkin, 1945.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Some Context from the World of Police Misconduct and Bias

For your general information, it turns out that there's some other stuff going on right now in US policing that for some reason isn't being brought into the current discussion of policing practices:

New Video Shows Off-Duty Cop Fatally Shooting Black Man Delrawn Smalls, from Democracy Now! This is going on right now. It's interesting because the cop was out of uniform and off-duty--it appears the whole thing was a wild overreaction (on the cop's part) to road rage. The version of the event he gave after the fact is demonstrably false based on the video, but it seems like he's still being given "police protection." Even if you feel that the police have a uniquely hard job and therefore are justified in using force the rest of us would be arrested for using, how far does that extend? Does it mean that killing or violence in the private life of cops also gets a pass?

Wall Street Journal story on the same incident when it happened (the video of the incident was just released).

Judge threatens City of Chicago over Failure to Turn Over Documents (Chicago Tribune) The city's attorneys failed to disclose that the same guy who is currently being sued for using a Taser on a pregnant woman was declared unfit for duty twice and has killed someone before. Apparently the judge is partly distressed because the City of Chicago often has to be threatened to turn over evidence when police are sued.

And, in other "current police practices don't serve police officers well either" news:

May: Settlement in Chicago Cops' Lawsuit Spares Emanuel from Testifying on Code of Silence
Two whistleblower cops sued because of retaliation after they had exposed police corruption--the city (it appears, I haven't been following this case) decided to settle after the judge ruled that the cops could call Mayor Rahm Emanuel to testify on the police "code of silence." Now he won't have to testify. And the same story from the Chicago Tribune.

May: Gay officer sues the Memphis police department for discrimination.

May: Two Michigan State Troopers sue for discrimination and retaliation allegedly because they won their original lawsuit about discrimination. (OK, this is slightly funny to me, although I assume not to them)

May: New Haven's first black female police captain sues for discrimination and hostile work environment.

June: Whistleblower cops facing retaliation and suing in Baltimore

June again: Whistleblower assistant chief of police in Kauai sues because of retaliation

June, from the BBC:  A former officer sues the Cleveland Police Department for racial discrimination and bullying.The officer was Asian--he said Asians were widely treated as corrupt by other officers and the department didn't want to hear about it.

June, NYT: Muslim cop suing the NYPD because they wouldn't let him keep his beard as his faith dictates.

OK, are you noticing a pattern??? I only looked at newspaper articles since May 2016. These are not even all of the articles I saw in which cops are suing their departments, either for discrimination or retaliation after whistleblowing. There are a lot of similar cases going on in a lot of police departments. It turns out that police do this a LOT. I have no way of knowing if this is true anymore, but here's an article from 2014 claiming that at least in New Jersey, police departments are sued more often by their own officers than by civilians.

So why is that? It looks to me like that is in part because Internal Affairs Bureaus, which are supposed to investigate misconduct, retaliation, and discrimination when they're reported, are rarely responsive to complaints. In most areas that's the end of the line for any kind of internal complaint, because state, city, and county governments have virtually no oversight role in police department governance (and if they do, it seems like it's not exercised very well).  So the civil courts are essentially functioning as outside oversight, which is costly (for taxpayers, not for the police department itself--this is one reason why just suing as opposed to trying to bring criminal charges may not be an awesome idea, although it's recommended by a frustrated sounding Appeals Court judge in a recent Washington Post article here.). In a couple of newspaper reports, the litigants are explicitly quoted as saying that they tried internal channels first, but got no response: here are two black officers in Brookline, MA, who sued for racial discrimination who talk about this.

The point I'm trying to make is that it looks like (admittedly, based on media coverage, but again--did I say how many of these articles there were?) the debate about whether our "men and women in blue" deserve our support, love, and unquestioning obedience is the wrong one to be having. The complete unwillingness to hold police departments accountable for how they treat women and minorities and how they address misconduct and brutality in their ranks isn't just bad for civilians--it's also really bad for the cops themselves. Everyone keeps saying the cops shouldn't have to change because they're sacred and we should all be so grateful to them, etc--but an uncompromising system that doesn't allow critique or change, even from the inside, is a problem for the people who do that job. So let's stop defending the right of police departments to be autocratic and discriminatory and not to respond to critique in any way-whether it's about the treatment of employees or the brutalization of civilians. Let's have civilian oversight with real teeth. Let's have real oversight of employment practices by government officials who aren't in bed with politically powerful cops, if they can be found. A police system that was held accountable would actually help everyone.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Another Look: Why HB2 is bad for you even if you're not trans

With all the insanity right now surrounding the "North Carolina bathroom bill," especially given McCrory's decision to wait until after 5 pm on the day of the federal deadline and then decide to sue the federal government, it seems like a good time to write about what this bill does to those of us who are not transgender. This is something I've been thinking about for a few weeks, and in fact Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks (with which I have a love/hate relationship), mentions it briefly here. But I don't think it's gotten nearly enough attention (and I say this not to detract from the impact of this law on transgender people. I say it to remind us that segregation is bad for us all).

I grew up in a place (Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn) where a lot depended not on what you did, but on your category of person. Whether you were male or female mattered a LOT. Whether you were Jewish or not Jewish mattered a LOT. Whether, even if you were Jewish, you adhered to a particular brand of being religious mattered a lot too. These three things pretty much determined almost everything about your life--who would talk to you, who wouldn't, who could be your friend, who would be willing to marry you, what school you could go to, where you could work. The result was that a huge amount of effort went into policing boundaries and appearances. As ultra-Orthodox Jews, we were already subject to a fairly stringent set of limits on what we could do and wear, but the fact that your ticket to almost anything depended on what kind of person you were made it worse. Nothing in Jewish law says that a woman can't wear a kerchief to keep the sun off her head if she's working outside-but I wasn't allowed to. Because it made me look like I was married but allowing part of my hair to show (in my parent's community, married women's hair was expected to be completely covered). There's no Jewish law against wearing those long chiffon skirts that used to be in style, but my friends and I got in trouble for it in high school. Because they were in style in the "outside world," so they made us look like goyim. We weren't allowed to wear even loose pants (which some Orthodox communities allow women to wear instead of skirts), because it made us look like we were trying to be men. The point is, we already were what we were--women, Jewish, Orthodox.  But it wasn't enough to be those things--we had to embody someone else's idea of what an Orthodox Jewish woman was, just to make sure that it was obvious to all possible people. The consequences of being mistaken for something else were just too great.

Of course, you could say that this narrowing effect when people are sorted by group only happens to those with less power, as women were less powerful than men where I grew up. But no, I don't think so. My girlfriend, who grew up white in a small Southern town, told me a story about how the music director at her (white Baptist) church was fired for having the church choir sing a song about Noah's Ark. (I happen to know this song from being the nursery teacher at a UCC church one year. It starts "God said to Noah, there's gonna be a floody, floody..."). He got fired because the song is catchy and fast and happy and was therefore too black. In the small town South, if you are white, most often your whiteness is your most precious possession. Like maleness or femaleness where I grew up, it determines almost everything about your life. But because it's so important, the members of the church couldn't take the risk of conflicting with anyone's idea of what a white person is or how a white church sounds. Of course white people can certainly prefer snappy church songs, just as black people can prefer slow ones--and if you live in a place where people are individuals first (if such a place exists, which it probably really doesn't), that's not a problem. But if you are first and foremost a member of your race, with privileges and oppression distributed accordingly, you lose that right to have a preference. What's most important is that you look and sound like the prototype of what you are.

So now back to HB2 and the bathroom situation. I am a woman who has short hair and likes to wear jeans and T-shirts. You could say that's because I'm a lesbian, but I don't think that's necessarily true--I've met straight women with the same style preferences, just as I've met lesbians who prefer to wear skirts and makeup. In theory I am not the target of HB2--yet every video I've seen over the past couple of weeks of a cop chasing a woman out of a woman's bathroom...has featured a woman who looks and dresses like me. I know that if I say, I was born a woman but have sometimes been mistaken for a man, conservatives would say, well, it's your own fault. You shouldn't wear your hair that way. And so the message spreads...it's not that you're safe if you were born a woman and are in the "right" bathroom . You're safe if you're careful to look, dress, and sound like someone else's narrow version of a woman. And so the allowable range of expression for women gets smaller, because our access to the women's room, no matter what genitals we were born with, now depends on whether we "pass."

Let me be clear about this--it's important to fight HB2 whether you feel you're the target or not, because it is an injustice against our transgender friends and family members and comrades and colleagues. Because it's an injustice, period. But lest you think, if your birth certificate matches your gender identity, that this fight is purely altruistic for you, I write this post to remind people of the impact of segregation even on those who are theoretically privileged by it. The rhetoric surrounding this bill is supposed to convince us that it makes "good" cis people safe by ensuring  that only people who were born of their gender are allowed into their bathrooms. But the real impact on cis people is likely to be that the gender codes they have to follow to be recognized as "real" men or women will get more rigid, and thus the range of options in terms of what people of a certain gender can be like will narrow for all of us.  Don't let the pols fool you--we've all got skin in this game.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

What it Means to be Part of the Establishment: Hillary is a Product of Her Environment

For all 5 of you (and that's an optimistic estimate!) who are still following this blog, I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that I think Hillary is a bad person. I don't. I do, however, think she's a product of her own bubble, as we all are. It just happens that her bubble doesn't correspond very well with the bubbles of most of her constituents...and yet she has to make policy for those constituents. It's very difficult, nearly impossible in fact, to succeed in American national politics unless you are either wealthy or appeal to wealthy people--or at least that's been the consensus for my political lifetime. She's not the only one who faces this issue; I think most American politicians do. It's a real problem with our system, and the more money there is in politics and the more income inequality grows, the worse it becomes. So no, I don't think Hillary is a bad person. I do, however, think that she responds to the consensus of her social circle, her community--which consists, as in most cases it has to, of Washington elites, lobbyists, and other wealthy politicians. It's a whole ecosystem of connections, and we kind of take it for granted that that's where our politicians move, but it has important impacts on the policies they make. We don't often talk about that real side of privately funded elections and the two party system, but it means that we are ruled by people increasingly segregated from us by class.

For example, public schools. The Clintons were not the parents of public school students. It doesn't matter why they didn't send Chelsea to a public school, but the fact remains that they didn't. That means they themselves didn't have the same concerns as many public school parents do, and it also means they don't know people who have those concerns. Given their income level, it's unlikely that they'd encounter any such parents except in a scripted constituent contact moment. Hillary does, however, know a lot of parents who send their kids to private schools, and a lot of people who lobby for the testing and charter companies--both major Washington powers at this point. Her campaign chairman, John Podesta, is a huge supporter of rewarding/punishing teachers based on standardized test scores, pushing charters, and allocating federal education funding based on competitions like Race to the Top. Now, I don't think that's necessarily why she chose him--he's worked for the Clintons (and in fact for Obama) for a long time. He's part of the establishment ecosystem, and probably a friend of Hillary's. I think it's just an illustration of how the ecosystem can have unintended consequences. Many of Hillary's constituents are growing more and more concerned about the uses of standardized tests and the inequities caused by the way charter schools are implemented. But it's going to be hard for them to be heard because when Hillary hears those constituents voicing problems, her first reaction isn't going to be, oh yeah, I heard something about those problems (from other people I know). Her first reaction is going to be--no one I know in my personal life says that. Why are you making such a big deal about this when every person I talk to says charters are great and test scores are about accountability? Why are you whining about this thing I have never had to think about? I mean, almost all of us do it when we're confronted with views from outside our social circles. But the problem is, Hillary as a politician has to make policy about this, and she does so from within an elite ecosystem that many of those she serves do not belong to.

Why is Bernie different? I think his personal history and political commitments make him different on some level-he went to the public schools in Brooklyn as a poor kid. And his commitment to left-wing politics means that he's committed to at least trying to make that imaginative leap, between the consensus of his social circle and what happens lower on the socioeconomic scale. But he's also structurally anomalous in a way that has allowed him to maintain his difference and still function as an American politician. He represents a state where it's still relatively cheap to run for office--air time is cheap, for example. Vermont is sparsely populated and has harsh winters, so people are more likely to have to cooperate with others who they might not necessarily choose in order to get out and around than they are in, let's say, New York. Bernie is also an independent, which means that the structure of US party politics, where people who are good at fund-raising events for wealthy donors move up in the hierarchy, hasn't impacted him too much. He's managed to serve in Washington without needing to be part of the elite.

I could say a lot about why this election cycle has turned out to be such a perfect storm. Certainly Citizens United and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act are part of it. The jobless recovery, Wall Street getting away with causing the housing crash, the replacement of the few remaining good working class jobs with service jobs, the Republican assault on the states...a lot has been going on to make non-elites aware of just how poorly we are represented by the people in power, and how badly we need something to change. Bernie has the capacity to bridge the gap between the government and the governed, partly because of his political commitments, partly because, as I say, he's a structural anomaly. But for people who are trying to convince Bernie supporters that his policy positions and Clinton's are virtually identical....it's just not true.

Even if you ignore the policy differences they talk about on the campaign trail: the fact that she's a hawk and he wants to end wars, the fact that she wants to support Israel doing whatever it does and he's worried about Palestinian rights too, the fact that he wants free college and she doesn't, he wants single payer health care and she doesn't, etc etc--you need to pay attention to the policy ideas they don't talk about. Or, to be more exact, the policy ideas that they're likely to view as unquestionable based on the people they know and the ecosystems they are or aren't part of. If you think that Hillary Clinton won't consult John Podesta, her friend, about education policy before she consults someone like you or me, I think you're wrong. If you think she won't talk to the people she knows in the prison industry about criminal justice policy before she talks to someone who's been inside a prison, I think you're wrong. Again, it's human. It doesn't make Hillary a bad person--but it does make me not want her to be the president. We need someone who can actually move outside of the elite consensus, which has created much of the situation we're in. Bernie, partly because of his structural position, as I say, can do that. Hillary, like almost every other politician in Washington, just can't. She's too enmeshed in that world.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

"Just Shut Up and Vote:" Pragmatism, Tone, and the Silencing of the American Left


So I've been following with interest, as I'm sure other Bernie supporters have, the brou-ha-ha surrounding Hillary's campaign withholding debates based on Bernie's "tone." In particular, I've been kind of surprised at how the issue of gender is playing out in online discussions--I mean, I expected the observation that if Bernie had made an analogous reference to Hillary's "tone," he would have been blasted for sexism. What I didn't expect was the connection some female Bernie supporters are drawing between the silencing of women by men and the silencing of the left/the non-wealthy by the Democratic establishment. When I went on Facebook and Twitter and looked at messages posted with #tonedownforwhat, I saw women saying things like, that's how my ex talked to me to make me seem ridiculous. Or, I've been told as a woman not to hope for things and now I've been told that as a Bernie supporter. I thought it was really interesting how many women were expressing their familiarity with this technique of belittlement, and how many of them were openly determined not to be silenced, particularly in that way, again.  I've been thinking a lot recently about how the Democratic Party typically convinces the left, whose interests they do not serve, to vote for them, and reading those #tonedownforwhat posts crystallized some things for me.

I've been pretty infuriated by the media's framing of Bernie's campaign, perhaps not surprisingly. But what bothers me most about it is the constant implication that Bernie's policy stances are fantastical, pie-in-the-sky, impractical fairy tales, and that Bernie's supporters are both childish and deluded to believe that they're possible. I've seen quite a few Hillary supporters posting comments that basically command Bernie supporters to grow up, give up our fantasies, support Hillary, oh, and, by the way, don't dare to expect that she'll change any of her actual policies in exchange for your vote. Because your wants and beliefs are childish. Because we have to be pragmatic about what's possible in this country. Because incrementalism is the way things work. Because you, the Bernie supporter, just have no ideas about the real world.

No matter who you're voting for, if you're a woman I'm willing to bet that you recognize all those rhetorical tactics. If you're a person of color, I bet you recognize them too. That's how people in power pre-silence other people, by devaluing what they say without addressing it. You're too emotional. You're too angry. You need to be quieter and more polite. You need to change your tone. Why are you making such a big deal about something that isn't a real issue (I.e., is not a big issue to me, the speaker). Ironically, given that Bernie is supposed by the popular press to be supported only by white men, his supporters are talked to and about as though they were irrational women. Which is to say, as though they were people who needed to be cut down to size. (I could go into a whole analysis of the framing of progressive as female, and that would be interesting, but it's not my point at the moment).

This treatment isn't unexpected if you really think about it--I mean, in a corporate based two party system, each party has to get slightly more than half the vote to win, which means they have to appeal to a wide range of people. On the other hand, they have to keep their policy discussions on economic issues within the boundaries of what Big Business finds acceptable, and that's only intensified since Citizens United.  So you have a couple of options. You can do like the Republicans, pick out a few issues that Big Business doesn't care about (abortion, gay rights, guns--part of the problem they're having right now is that businesses have started to care about gay rights), and focus your base on those, while teaching your constituents to view corporate friendly policies as good for them ("freedom," "success"). Or you can do like the Democrats and tell your constituents that of course you share their values, but it's just not pragmatic to hope for....anything that Big Business doesn't want (only you don't say it that way). You cut food stamps, but not by as much as the Republicans want, and you present that to those of your constituents who are progressive as a pragmatic victory--sorry, it was all we could do. It was all that was practical. Effectively, you claim that your actions are a matter of strategy rather than belief, and you teach your constituents to self-limit their expectations to "what's reasonable," which really means "what's corporate friendly." Reasonableness, similar to objectivity, facts over feelings, heads over hearts, is typically construed as a male virtue...and so it stands to reason that you can deal with those progressives who are threatening this distasteful compact ("at least we're not the Republicans") by treating them like suffragettes trying to get the vote. You can't engage with their ideas (because that legitimates them and also because you still need them to believe that you kind of share their ideas), so you talk about their personal characteristics as framed by the equation corporatism=pragmatism. You say they're just not mature enough to know what's possible.

Except that I'm not so sure the possible works the way we've been told. I've been thinking a lot recently about incrementalism and "values voters," particularly anti-abortion voters. Now, we're always being told (generally by Hillary and other members of the Democratic establishment) that we can't push too hard or advocate too loudly for anything that could be seen as anti-Business because progress is a stealth operation. You have to take baby steps. For Democrats that's most often taken the form of not even putting progressive options on the table because they're "impractical;" again, meaning they conflict with the agenda of Big Business. But let's take a look at the anti-abortion movement, which unfortunately has been very successful. They've shut down a huge proportion of abortion clinics in multiple states--in some states, all of the clinics have been shut down. They've restricted the time period when abortion is allowed. They've criminalized people who miscarry, or at least created the capacity for the justice system to do so in many states, and now they're starting in on women's right to access contraceptives. Whatever you think about abortion and choice (and I am adamantly pro-choice), you have to recognize that the anti-abortion movement has gotten things done. And yet their rhetoric is not incrementalist. They didn't start by saying, we want to limit abortions after 20 weeks. They started by saying, we want to overturn Roe v. Wade; and ever since it passed, they've been taking small steps toward rendering it meaningless or overturning it. With every incremental step, they remind themselves and the country of the ultimate prize--a country where abortion for anyone is illegal. I say this not to say that this is laudable--I find it frightening. I do say this to say that incrementalism is not the same as pre-censoring your goals to make them Business friendly. Of course, if you limit your goals to what is already acceptable, you are more likely to seem successful. But what about those of us who have other goals? What about those of us whose lives and needs are not included in the Washington Business Consensus? True incrementalism is about having larger goals and patience. It's been defined by the Democratic Party as a way of limiting the space in which people not of the elite can hope, but it doesn't have to mean that.

In contrast to the way Bernie supporters have been portrayed, as little children blindly following some kind of political Pied Piper, I don't actually believe that Bernie can just wave a magic wand and provide free college and a chicken in every pot the first day of his presidency, should he be elected--and I doubt that many of us do. I'm OK with incremental progress. But incremental progress in this case means chipping away persistently, patiently at the oligarchy while saying at every possible chance, our goal is a fairer country. What about the workers. What about human beings. What about people who aren't part of the elite. It means saying these things even when it's not comfortable for Big Business, even when you might lose yourself donations. Part of the way you make change possible is by preparing the rhetorical ground for it, by changing the way people think by making certain ideas common parlance in the public sphere. The anti-abortion movement has, genuinely, changed the way we talk about women, fetuses, and ovaries. We don't talk about abortions that married women get because they and their husbands decide they can't afford another baby. We don't talk about abortions women get because they judge for themselves that they're not in a position to raise a baby. If we talk at all, we talk about "good" abortions, meaning medically necessary abortions. Not even abortions due to rape or incest anymore.It's pretty horrifying, but it's how things happen. You don't make things happen by not talking about them, despite what Democrats have been anxious to tell their left wing for years. So I want to talk about progressive ideals. Loudly. I want a president who will articulate them without being afraid of what funders say. And yes, I know that a Republican Congress would be obstructionist (although why people imagine Republicans would work happily with Hillary is beyond me). That's not the point.

This is not just about Bernie. Remember Occupy Wall Street? Remember the "Ready for Warren" campaign? A lot of us have been looking for another option for a while now. For a lot of us, the state of the world and Citizens United have combined to tip the scale from that delicate balance where it seems just worth it to you to vote for a party that you don't like. If Hillary is the nominee, I honestly don't know what I'll do--but please recognize that it's not because I'm childish and it's not because I'm unrealistic or stupid. You can think of me as a values voter (and I can't believe I'm comparing myself to an anti-abortion activist, but I am). It hurts me. When I hear about how activists get killed in Honduras while we fund the security forces that kill them because Hillary Clinton installed a "pro-business" government by supporting a coup, it hurts me. When I hear Hillary Clinton talking about the Israel situation as though Palestinian lives weren't human lives, it hurts me. When I hear that Congress cut food stamps again (but not by "that" much?), when I hear Hillary brushing off a Black Lives Matter protester by saying to her audience, "And now let's get back to the issues," it hurts me. Just as much, perhaps, as the occurrence of abortions bothers the people who consider themselves "pro-life." I wake up in the morning and I can't believe I live in a country where those things are OK.

I have never heard anyone, no matter how pro-choice they are, say that someone who is anti-abortion should support someone who wants to expand access to abortion. I have never heard anyone saying that such a voter is childish for not voting that way. I have progressive beliefs. They are not religious. They may not match yours. And you can certainly disagree with them and tell me so. But please don't tell me that I'm being immature by acting in accordance with them when I have the chance. It's not particularly likely to bag Hillary my vote (and yes, I know all about Donald Trump, again, I am not actually uninformed-although given that Bernie outpolls Hillary against him in every poll I've seen, I'm not sure why everyone's acting like she's our only hope against Trump)--all it does is intensify a growing feeling that voting for the Democratic Party is voting for results I don't want and can't support. Contrary to all that talk about getting things done and pragmatism, the things I want done have not been happening--in fact, things are getting worse. I want things to get better. I want to act politically in accordance with a belief that it's not impossible that they could, even if it takes a while.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

To Other Progressives: Stop Rolling Over Before It's Over!!

I honestly have never thought of this blog as any kind of straight-up political blog, and I still don't want it to be that way permanently, but I am once again moved by the floating Zeitgeist on Facebook to say something to other progressives about the election.



It is true that last night was not an amazing night for Bernie. On the other hand, however, it is also true that this was predictable. A lot of the states that have already voted are really strong for Hillary for various reasons, and a lot of the states that haven't had their primaries yet are really strong for Bernie. And for sure that's unfortunate from a PR standpoint, especially since the media is gleefully declaring the contest over. I want to point out two things: first, that there are a lot of delegate-rich states still to go. This is not media spin, it is the truth-add 'em up. I don't claim to know who will win the primary, but it's pretty clear that either candidate still could. Bernie is behind, but he hasn't lost yet.

The second thing I want to say is to other progressives who are declaring on Facebook and elsewhere that after last night they don't want to hear anything critical or negative about Hillary because they will support either candidate (and they're assuming that she'll be the nominee). This really bothers me, and not just because I would like Bernie to win, but because I really am a progressive. I believe that a country has a responsibility to all its people, to enable them to make lives that they can live with dignity. I believe that a good government can and should protect human beings and values from the ravages of the capitalist market. I believe that it's inherently unethical to apportion resources by class and by birth and by race. I believe that there are things we don't know how to think or feel because the capitalist market encourages us not to value what's not of value to it--and I think those things are important. Those are my true beliefs. The Democratic Party has rarely, if ever, supported policies that are truly consistent with them. And so yes, I am excited about Bernie. I want him to win--but even if he doesn't, I want him to keep talking for as long as possible. Because I think that, for the first time in almost 50 years, Americans are hearing the sound of genuinely progressive ideals voiced by a major party figure on national television, and that sound is subtly changing the language we have to talk about the world. We've ceded a huge amount of ground to market based rhetoric-- in my lifetime, I've seen college students go from talking about "getting a job" to talking about "being competitive," and I've seen people go from talking about "borrowing" things from the library to "renting" things from the library. Those things seem small and silly, but I think they matter, and they're indicative of the degree to which we've let ultra-capitalists set the terms of debate. If you think that hasn't played into the kind of policies we have in this country and the kinds of  people who are in office, I think you're mistaken--and Bernie is the one best placed to fight those trends. Let's keep him fighting.

Right now we also see Hillary Clinton moving her positions and language to the left--only because she thinks not doing so might cost her votes. The fact is, the Democratic Party has only ever really endorsed progressive policies when it felt like it could lose substantially by not doing so. I always think about the fact that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was championed and passed because the African American community itself was in play--it could have voted either way and the Democrats knew it. In the same way, I think progressives get the policies we care about when we're in play, as we are now. It's the reason Hillary is, for example, talking about stopping the TPP, which she formerly championed. And I think we really undercut our own strength by pledging our support to her way before she's actually won the primary. I mean, if you are a Democrat but not a progressive, as many people are, and you are pulling for Hillary because you really like her policies, go for it. I respect your right to have your own beliefs as I have mine (although I respect somewhat less your possible desire for me to stop voicing mine in the name of Democratic solidarity). But if you're a Bernie fan who's getting scared into shutting down conversation about Hillary, please, please take a deep breath and keep fighting until it's really over. There will be plenty of time later to praise Hillary, if you so choose.

I say this recognizing that Donald Trump is truly horrifying, and that a lot of people are feeling like they have to strengthen Hillary against his potential candidacy. But if you are thinking this, please consider the following two facts:

1-Hillary is a really smart lady, and I am positive that she's watching the news. She knows how horrifying Trump is, and hence I suspect she has a pretty good idea that most Democrats will support her if she's the nominee. The way we keep her listening to us is to give her some continuing doubt about whether enough Bernie supporters will flip. The second she feels sure that we'd all vote for her, she goes back to her normal stance on various policies, and we lose our influence altogether. That's how things have gone in pretty much every presidential election for the time I've been voting, and the real reason it's not going this way right now is Bernie. So keep stumping for him. Even if  he isn't the nominee, which I hope he will be, we get better results the longer we stay in play.

2-I think people have the impression that any criticism of Hillary will resound on the national stage and come back to haunt her with independents should she be the ultimate nominee (thus possibly giving Trump the win), but at this point I don't think that's true. All eyes are on Trump, and even if they weren't, she has plenty of past baggage of her own that could be used against her in the general election (This is actually what would make her less effective against Trump, who specializes in locker room insults, than Bernie). Talking about her policies versus Bernie's policies is what should be happening at this point in the election season, and it's not exciting enough for anyone to be following but Democrats. (The fact that the media's pulling for Hillary makes this even more true--most of our internal rank-and-file debates aren't making it to the screen). After the nominees have been announced, if she's one of them, you can worry about it. Right now, all that shutting down criticism of her does is give her a free pass, and if you don't love her traditional policy stances, you don't want that.

It's unfortunate that we have a 2 party system in this country--it leads us to voting for what we can live with rather than what we believe in. The Democratic party holds it over us that the only alternative is the Republicans, and that they're worse--ideally we'd have a viable socialist party and there wouldn't be a primary where the choice was Hillary or Bernie. As it happens, that's the system we have. But we have a chance right now, as progressives, to push for another kind of country--more ethical, fairer, safer, better for all its inhabitants--and it's not a chance that comes every election cycle. We give up that chance if we shut down real discussion of either of our candidates this early, just like Obama gave up the chance of single-payer health care by pre-deciding that it wasn't viable. Really, really. So if you're a progressive, keep talking, keep pushing. The end-game is bigger than not-Trump--it's as big as a country where people know how to talk about the rights of workers, the potential in each person, and the value of what the market doesn't need but people do. This country could be a good place to live for everyone, not just the rich. Let's not cede the chance to make it that way quite yet.

Monday, March 7, 2016

On Bernie Sanders' Jewishness: He's Not Really Hiding It

So apparently in the recent Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders was asked why he never talks about being Jewish. According to the Huffington Post, this is what he said:
I am very proud to be Jewish. Being Jewish is so much of what I am...Look, my father's family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler's concentration camp. I am very proud of being Jewish and that's an essential part of who I am as a human being.
 According to the Herald-Standard of Uniontown, PA (which does not seem to have a huge readership, so take it for what it's worth), American Jews are "irked" that Sanders doesn't talk about being Jewish more. The article also seems to indicate that Jews are irked because he doesn't work on "Jewish" issues, and never really has--he's not involved in the Zionist lobby, etc. I think the irked Jews quoted in this article (and perhaps many who are not) will feel like Bernie's debate answer is a cop-out or a pretense. But really I don't think it is at all, and I want to write about why. I'm going to go to take a swerve through Zionism and Noam Chomsky's mentor, but stay with me.

A part of Jewish history that a lot of Jews tend not to learn about, or to forget about, is the history of our engagement with broadly socialist/Marxist/Communist politics. On its face, you could say that a lot of Jews became Marxists due to political expediency--when Russia and Poland discussed opening the ghettos and integrating the Jews into the body politic, the Marxists were the ones who thought the Jews should have full citizenship, the same way they thought African Americans should have full citizenship in America. Since Marxism takes a stance on internationalism--meaning that the most important thing is to build class solidarity, even across racial and national lines--Marxists in the early 20th century were purposefully progressive on race in a way that almost no other group was. Jews in Europe were part of parties in all shades of Marxism because it was a political ideology that supported their equality. When they came to America early in the 20th century, they brought their politics with them. And when the State of Israel was founded, their politics went there too-another thing that's easy to forget is that Zionism was originally, and still has some (very degraded) elements of, socialism. The kibbutzim didn't just happen because Jews really love to farm (although some perhaps do).

(see below for the girl with the Yiddish sign about child labor: Credit George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress. Yiddish was a very visible language on early 20th century picket lines in the US). 

Another thing about Zionism that most people don't know (I didn't, but I heard an interview about it) was that prior to WWII not all Zionists believed it was supposed to be all about Jews. There was an American Zionist group called Avukah (run, interestingly, by Zellig Harris, who was a linguist and Noam Chomsky's teacher) that imagined the Zionist homeland as a place where, as per Marx, all dispossessed and oppressed people could come and settle together, where they would all define citizenship together and ensure each others' rights to same. During WWII, the focus of Avukah shifted to particularly Jewish concerns, largely against Zellig Harris's protests, as they began to focus mostly on getting Jews out of Europe. (Not that he thought they shouldn't do that, but that he didn't want them to lose their sense of Jews as part of the international oppressed peoples). After the war, it kind of got folded into mainstream Zionism at large, which I think is really unfortunate. It was a voice for Jews who were Marxists because they had been offered a seat at the Marxist table--but who also felt strongly that what had been offered to them had to be offered to others in order for anything to change. They weren't ashamed of being Jewish--they were proud of it. But they also knew they weren't just Jewish--they were part of the larger community of oppressed peoples of the world, and as such they understood that their political fate was intimately tied to the fate of those other peoples. They recognized in a real way that what can be done to one oppressed group can be done to all.

I think WWII made it seem that maybe that wasn't true-that maybe anti-Semitism was somehow unique-and so Zionism became about the Jews and it became harder for people who saw themselves as universalist Jews to find a voice. In some cases they were integrated into other struggles for civil rights (as Bernie was) and women's rights and workers' rights and peace in various guises. Some universalist Jews tried to fight against what they saw Zionism becoming (see here for a 1948 letter to the editor of the NY Times, signed by Hannah Arendt, Zellig Harris, Albert Einstein, and other Jewish luminaries protesting Zionist treatment of the Palestinians).  They were the ones who read the Holocaust, not as a particularly Jewish tragedy, but as a horrifying example of what can be done to any oppressed people. Those are the Jews (often secular) who you find at protests that aren't "Jewish" protests, trying to help in struggles that don't seem like "Jewish" struggles. I think that's how Bernie is. And his answer to the question about his Jewishness is exactly the answer that any universalist Jew would give -- he's Jewish and so he knows what extremism and hatred can do. For someone who thinks about his or her Jewish identity in that way, the deepest and most essential expression of one's Judaism is a political commitment to socialism and solidarity. It's an ethical response to the political experience that's shaped centuries of Jewish life, no less than the Gemara or halacha. So I believe Bernie--I think being Jewish is one of the most essential parts of his identity, whether he goes to shul or not. And I have a sneaking suspicion I'm not the only Jewish voter who listens to Bernie yelling about corporate greed with his messy hair and New York accent and thinks, that's my kind of Jew. That (sometimes hidden) political strain is why I still feel kind of proud of the religion I was born into.