More about the politics of Israel boycotts

Dear Rebecca:

I’m agnostic on the issue of Israel boycotts. The way Palestinians are treated is awful, and I have friends who have been touched by that awfulness. But on the other hand, the people who form much Israel’s citizenry were nearly made extinct in the not-too-distant past, and I understand – even if I don’t entirely like – that a determination to avoid such a fate might motivate policies we’d normally find undemocratic and inhumane. The whole thing’s a mess, and I’m suspicious of anybody who doesn’t see the issue as a moral thicket.

I’m somebody who is alarmed at anti-Semitism — who once, as a young full-of-himself journalist, scared the crap out of some small-town City Councilmen when I protested their using the word “Jew” as a verb — but also somebody exasperated when charges of anti-Semitism are used to shut down genuine criticism of Israel’s policies.

Finally, I’m a journalist who knows there’s no way to write about the topic without enduring serious complaints. One side, or both, will always accuse you of being unfair. As an outsider to the topic, there’s just no winning.

However: This kind of behavior by American officials must be stopped:

The city of Dickinson, Texas, is requiring applicants for Hurricane Harvey rebuilding funds to certify in writing that they will not take part in a boycott of Israel. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the city’s condition as a violation of free speech rights.

The city’s website says that it is accepting applications from individuals and businesses for grants from money donated for hurricane relief. The application says that by signing it, “the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.”

I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic to note that conservative Americans — especially conservative Christians — can be philo-Semitic for entirely creepy reasons. I think the spate of “don’t boycott Israel” laws that have popped in recent years are a fruit of that creepiness as much as anything. But isn’t it odd that a country where freedom to criticize the government is a cardinal  value would crack down on criticizing another country’s government? It doesn’t really make sense.

The ACLU is challenging this issue, as it should. As the organization notes: “The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that political boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, and other decisions have established that the government may not require individuals to sign a certification regarding their political expression in order to obtain employment, contracts, or other benefits.”

We’re living in weird times. Ugh.



No, the sexual revolution didn’t cause Harvey Weinstein


Dear Rebecca:

It’s becoming something of a trope on the socially conservative right that the reason for Harvey Weinstein is … the sexual revolution. It’s a critique of Weinstein that echoes his own laughable defense of himself, and ignores one critical thing: Men in power have been preying on women since time immemorial, even — sometimes especially — when conservative sexual ethics ruled the day.

David French offers such an argument over at National Review:

You can sum up the sexual ethic of the sexual revolutionary in one sentence: Except in the most extreme circumstances (such as incest), consenting adults define their own moral norms. One-night stands? Fine, so long as there’s consent. May/December relationships. Fantastic, so long as there’s consent. Workplace liaisons between boss and subordinate? No problem, with consent. Adultery? Yes, there are tears, but the heart wants what it wants.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but French relies on a concept of consent that’s so one-dimensional that it leads him to produce an error-filled paragraph.

“Consent” these days is more than about saying “yes” or “no” but includes the power dynamics that surround them. So actually: We still cast a wary cultural eye at May-December romances, because we worry that the older person is taking advantage of a younger person’s lack of experience, lack of knowledge, lack of power, whatever. Workplaces liasons between boss and subordinate? Maybe French hasn’t been through the sexual harassment training videos that I have, but again: The power differential makes this dicey.

As for adultery: Who lionizes the adulterer? He may have consent with the person who shares the affair with him, but he damages the consent shared with his spouse – who operates in such a climate with a deficiency of critical information.

French again:

The practical result of consent-focused morality is the sexualization of everything. With the line drawn at desire alone, there is no longer any space that’s sex-free. Work meetings or restaurants can be creative locations for steamy liaisons. Not even marriage or existing relationships stand as a firewall against potential hookups.

One wonders how closely the man has read his own Bible. King David sent Uriah off to die in a war so he could sleep with Bathsheba, we’re told in Jewish and Christian scriptures. He was a man who abused his power to whet his sexual appetites – and remained in God’s good graces enough, we’re told, that his lineage came to include the Savior of All Humankind. 

What kind of lesson are we supposed to take from that?

The Sexual Revolution was probably not an unambiguously a good thing. No human developments are! But an ethic of consent was probably one of the better things that has emerged from it — and, as French’s writing indicates, it takes a misunderstanding of that ethic to make it responsible for Harvey Weinstein … whose actions, it must be emphasized, apparently happened entirely without regard to or respect for consent. 

There are a lot of villains in this story. “Consent” is not even close to being one of them.



Listen to women, Part 2 (Or: Complicity is easy!)

The spotlight is getting hot, isn’t it?

Dear Rebecca:

When I’m tempted to get self-righteous about the whole Harvey Weinstein thing, this comes along:

In 2015, I attended the Just for Laughs festival as a journalist writing on behalf of Gawker, a profoundly flawed organization I miss desperately. The organizers of the festival did not know the purpose of my presence was a desire to get to the bottom of Louis CK’s numerous accusations of sexual impropriety. Had they known, I surely would not have been invited to attend. Because Louie, you see, is a “friend” of the JFL organization.

A tall man in a suit approached, relieving her of the duty of admonishing me. He was, in a word, livid. In two words, fucking livid. Red faced, he informed me that JFL is a “family,” that Louie is a member of said “family,” and that I could ask my question on “my turf,” but that this was “our turf.” This wasn’t “that kind” of red carpet, he informed me, it was a “friendly one,” and Louie was a “friend of the festival.” Were I to ask the offending question again, he said, I would be ejected from the carpet. But if I asked “nice” questions, I would be allowed to stay. His demeanor aggressively implied he had no desire to let me do so. Tears stinging my eyes, I apologized to the man who loomed over me, the man I later learned was the COO of JFL, for my indiscretion and said I’d straighten up and fly right.

Now, to be clear, there have been no substantiated allegations about Louis CK — but in recent years, you’ve seen more stories about stories that allude to a possible problem without making definitive accusations. (Again, I feel compelled to say for legal reasons: I don’t *know* that Louis CK has ever done anything untoward, but references to hazy, undefined problems have appeared in high-profile publications like NYMag’s Vulture.) Until last week, of course, we could say the same thing about Harvey Weinstein.

Whether Louis CK has a problem or not, though, here’s the thing I realized while reading the above piece. I don’t want him to have a problem. I like Louis CK! He makes me laugh! He’s even made me think! The world would be poorer without some of the art he’s made!

But … that’s bullshit.

Complicity starts with not wanting to see. Enabling begins with an unwillingness to look truth square in the eye. And the result, often, is that women who have been abused find themselves with few avenues for justice or truth telling because Person X is likable, or made a piece of art that moved us, or has friends in our “family,” or maybe, simply, just makes us money.

I do not know what the endgame will be with Louis CK. I want to root for his innocence. It’s wiser to root for truth. If I’m lucky, truth and innocence will be on the same page. But that hope is not a piece of evidence that has any bearing on what the truth is.

Complicity is easy. Listening to women is … not as easy for a lot of us. But it’s worthier. I hope I do the worthy thing. I’ll keep trying.

With respect,

Listen to women

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Today’s big (not-so-shocking) story at The New Yorker.

Dear Rebecca:

Given the title of this post, I’ll keep it brief.

Most guys couldn’t live in the world that women do. The world that men create for them.

That world is not confined to Hollywood. Most women I know have a story.

I pray I’m raising my son to be a man who treats women with respect. But we’re swimming against a terrible, terrible cultural tide.

And oh yeah, guys: Listen to women.

Mournfully, Joel

Re: Survival Bias (Or: Can you be ‘woke’ and have hope?)


Dear Rebecca:

You’re right. 

You’re right that “finding solace in history is a temptation that, ultimately, I think, is a privilege of survivors.” You’re right that “when we say ‘We survived worse,’ we’re engaging in survival bias.” You’re right about every awful example you use to back up that statement.

And I’m a little bit torn on how to respond.

Because I think hope is important. Because I don’t know how to fight for justice — as opposed to burrow in my bed — without at least a sliver of it. Because the alternative is despair, and despair robs us of our power.

On the other hand, I found this moment oddly embarrassing this week:

“You’ve had a hard time in some interviews expressing a sense of hope in this country,” Colbert said toward the end of the interview. “Do you have any hope tonight for the people out there, about how we could be a better country, we could have better race relations, we could have better politics?”

“No,” Coates said, to scattered laughter. “But I’m not the person you should go to for that. You should go to your pastor. Your pastor provides you hope. Your friends provide you hope.”

“I’m not asking you to make shit up,” Colbert interjected. “I’m asking if you personally see any evidence for change in America.”

“But I would have to make shit up to actually answer that question in a satisfying way,” Coates explained.

Colbert took a second to sigh, in frustration or in sadness. “I hope you’re wrong,” he said.

It was definitely a tone deaf moment on Colbert’s part – having all the appearance of a white guy seeking collective absolution from a smart black guy for all the bad things that have happened and are happening in this country. Yuck.

So maybe I’m every bit as tone deaf in finding solace in humanity’s collective ability to overcome the especially reactionary moments of our recent history.

But let me be clear:

I don’t think that victories are won without sacrifice. I think that too often, the people who make the sacrifice never get to see evidence that their pains bore any kind of positive fruit.

I don’t think we should treat our history as an ever-uplifting march toward progress.

I’m not sure the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. I think our history – humanity’s history – is often one calamitous injustice after another.

I live on land effectively stolen from Native Americans. I wear clothes made by underpaid people. I drive a car that pollutes the air and contributes to climate processes that will take their heaviest toll on the people who can least afford it. All of this is horrible. There have been times in my life when I thought that knowledge could effectively paralyze me.

Is it unjust to leap from that knowledge to hope? Is it wrong to jump from a realization of your complicity in injustice to solace?

Maybe. Probably.

But I do think being alive means being complicit to some degree; it is not a condition we can shake through all the being “woke” in the world. Maybe we can minimize it. For me: The best I can do is to go through the world understanding that the world is broken, that I benefit from that brokenness, that I’m sometimes blind to all the ways that’s true … but also to hope that maybe, just maybe, things can get a little better and maybe, just maybe, I can have a small hand in that.

Collectively, politically, we have a related problem: Part of the Trumpian backlash is that there’s a whole lot of people out there who do not want to hear about their complicity, who rebel against the notion, and who will never, ever ally themselves with folks who tell them about it. Unfair? But politically, folks on the left have a reputation for being grim, joyless know-it-alls. It is difficult to hector humans into progress; some folks need to be inspired. I’m not sure we’re always great at that, because – for all the reasons you mention – it’s hard to be honest and inspirational when there’s so much crappy stuff happening in the world.

It’s possible that the more we embrace our righteousness, the more difficult we make it to achieve even a rough approximation of justice. Life is full of such paradoxes, of messy-ness.

So you’re right. It’s not fair to take solace from history. But I must, even if that solace is tempered, haunted by history’s ghosts. Otherwise, despair wins. And that makes justice that much more difficult to achieve.

Trying to be better than I am,


For a little perspective: Read

Dear Rebecca:

Everything feels shitty this week, right? Like we’re at the end of the world and nothing will ever be good again?

It especially feels that way, I suspect, if you marinate — as I do too much — in the tidal waves of political rage that define much of Twitter and Facebook. But I have a solution to this: Read. It can help one regain perspective.

I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,” which is turning out to be handy as a guide to the roots of our modern politics, but also to realize that while history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it very often does rhyme.

There’s the apocalyptic rhetoric:

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The “deplorables” have always resented the elites: Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 8.25.37 AM

Conservative leaders tend to resent compromise or negotiation of any sort:

Screen Shot 2017-10-04 at 8.27.22 AM.png

And Americans are always arming the shit out of themselves to ward off tyranny, with the side effect of terrorizing the rest of us.

There’s more — and hey, I’m only a quarter of the way through the book — and while it’s all kind of terrifying, it’s also weirdly comforting: There’s little that’s new in our troubles. Mostly we survived. Which means we can do it again.

Reading might not save us. But at least we’ll die with a head full of facts and stories.

Literarily, Joel

The destructiveness of Trumpian immigration enforcement


Dear Rebecca:

I’m so glad that Kishwer Vikaas shared her experience with us of being a DACA attorney and how that effort is rooted in her faith. I’ve got some additional immigration thoughts today, myself.

The folks at Splinter did an open-records request of President Trump’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline and found some ugly stuff: “Internal logs of calls to VOICE obtained by Splinter show that hundreds of Americans seized on the hotline to lodge secret accusations against acquaintances, neighbors, or even their own family members, often to advance petty personal grievances.”

Here are the kind of reports VOICE is getting:

Caller requested to report her mother-in law and sister-in law. Caller stated these individuals came to the U.S. as tourists and stayed in the U.S. in order to get legal status.

Caller stated the undocumented individual is destroying her family and is committing adultery.

Caller requested to report his ex wife that is undocumented as an overstayed on her visa.

Caller requested to report the illegal alien because the illegal alien will not let her see [her] granddaughter.

It gets worse. Splinter reports “there are also multiple calls from people hoping to turn ICE enforcement against the people who have accused them of domestic violence.” It would appear the hotline, then, is being used by abusers to rid themselves of battered women who stood up for themselves.

A few months ago, I asked if some kinds of immigration enforcement were more criminal, in a sense, than illegal immigration itself. “A key feature of any crime worthy of the name, it seems to me, is that the act of committing it is clearly and negatively disruptive, either to an individual life — a person may be injured, killed, deprived of property or merely their sense of well-being — or to the community at large.”

Governance under Donald Trump is more destructive than the ills it tries to solve. Not a surprise, but breathtaking to see it in action.

In anger,