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.

Respectfully,

Joel

Hateful Campus Visitors and the Challenges of Empathy

Joel:

For a good portion of most of my days, I listen to hate speech, transcribing and analyzing it. I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to this kind of work; there is a risk of harm involved, of losing faith in humanity, of becoming too familiar with the basest language, of numbing out and forgetting that these words kill people’s spirits and contribute to violence.

But there is value in listening, too. We need to know—not merely so we never forget history but also so that we don’t deny the present state of things, which, right now in particular, is pretty hateful.

So you are right—when Heather MacDonald is invited to campus, she should speak and those who can learn from her should listen. Not merely because of the First Amendment but because we can learn from even very poor thinkers—not to mimic their thinking but to understand it. And, perhaps we can sometimes even appreciate the good work that often-hateful people do, as Tablet does in its “My Favorite Anti-Semite” column. Their stories remind us that good people can do bad things—a larger reminder to be on guard against our sense of our own goodness.

As a college educator, I want to be sure that my students are critically-minded enough to listen to MacDonald, if they chose to. If I’ve done my job well, they will be skeptical of her process and reject her conclusions, not because, as Betsy DeVos says, I’ve” indoctrinated” them but because they can listen across lines of difference with compassion and still see the weaknesses in her argument. And I hope that, when they do that, they respond by, first caring for those who are being harmed by her arguments, then by building better ones.

But this issue is only peripherally about MacDonald.  It’s perhaps more about universities—students, faculty, and administrators—who bring such figures to campus. As an African American student, how do you go to class the next day and sit by peers who cheer on someone who makes racist arguments? How do you entrust your education to professors who cheer on that position? (It’s very much akin to how I feel about Donald Trump voters. He’s bad enough. The fact that 60 million + people voted for him, in large part because they are racist, is what is really upsetting. That would be disheartening if he’d won or lost. And remember, from paragraph 1, that I study hate all day long. So it’s not like I’m not prepared for people to be awful.)

How do we ask black students or international students to learn alongside those who invited Richard “peaceful ethnic cleansing” Spencer to Auburn University? (Spencer’s invitation was rescinded after the university decided it could not insure the safety of campus. A federal court has weighed in, saying that Spencer has the right to speak on campus. Spencer plans on speaking on campus tonight and has said that he is prepared for potential violence.)

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A different story: Last week at Washington State University, students who were part of an anti-abortion group staked 300 pink crosses in the ground in a “Cemetery for the Unborn,” a display drawing attention to the 3000 abortion performed in the US each day, according to the WHO. Later in the day, a student passing by grew agitated by the display and began to dismantle it, and others joined in. Eventually, campus police were called to address the dispute. My gut response (as with the call to destroy Dana Schultz’s painting of Emmett Till) was a big “No, nope, nope.” The student who led the attempt to dismantle the display said his concern was for women who have had abortions who walked by it and were harmed by it. Another student who participated in vandalism of the display said, ““If I were a person that had an abortion and I saw this, I would be heartbroken.”

Their concern for their peers is real. Their empathy is admirable.

But empathy is at the heart of a lot of hateful activity, too. It’s why the content of speech would be a very bad way to decide if it deserves the protections of the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court, in Snyder v. Phelps and elsewhere, has noted. What one person hears as speakers advocating for inclusivity, respect, and kindness another will hear as an assault on religious freedom and the foundations of Western Civilization.To paraphrase the scholar Janice Radway, “listening is not eating“; we get to choose what we do with what we hear.

Why is Heather MacDonald Still Talking? A Case Study in Lazy White Campus Speakers

Joel:

We both love the First Amendment, you as a journalist, me as a hate studies and religious scholar, and probably both of us as people who sometimes like to share unpopular opinions.

Which is why I remind you that the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Heather MacDonald’s right to spout racist nonsense at a private college. It guarantees her the right to create a platform and to use it to speak, not to stand on someone else’s platform, without government interference.  She can write (another) manuscript about how police officers are mistreated (Her newest, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe, is a new screed on an old theme for her. She released Are Cops Racist? How the War against the Police Harms Black Americans in 2003. From the subtitles, you might get the impression that she really cares people of color.), but no one has to publish it. She can stand in a public space and say just about anything she likes, but no one has to offer her an invitation into the space that they own.  That Claremont McKenna College chose to invite her is a stain on them.

This does not mean, though, that, if she is invited, she should be shouted down. Like you, I’m a believer that more speech, not censorship, is the answer to hateful speech. I love to see students responding to deplorable words and ideas by arguing for something better, and I actively work with students who are opposing hate speech on campus in efforts to do just that.  Turning MacDonald’s race baiting, fear mongering, and flirtations with fascism into an opportunity to develop new research, argumentation, and presentation is a great way for students to practice skills we desperately need in the public sphere.

But what happens when students have already done that? When the burden of doing that work falls so heavily (again) on people of color? How many times do Black Lives Activists and their supporters have to say “Black Lives Matter… They matter here!”—as was chanted during the Q & A after MacDonald presented her thesis that the criminal justice system isn’t racist and that “America does not have an incarceration problem; it has a crime problem”—before Claremont McKenna decides that its students don’t have to put up with such stupidity on their campus?

The issue, as I see it, isn’t whether the college has the right to invite her; they do. But in doing so, they make clear to their students that 1) creating a campus where students can learn free from racism does not matter and 2) faulty logic, lousy data, lazy research, and a thesis in defense of the status quo somehow comprise “scholarship” worth listening to.

Both of those issues are important. Claremont McKenna shouldn’t have invited MacDonald because she had to make a lousy argument in order to draw her wrong, racist conclusion.

HM

Above, a flyer advertising a speech by MacDonald. Professional tip for campus speakers: If your argument is factual, informed, honest, accurate, logical, and intellectually rigorous, it’s never going to end up being racist.

Consider it this way: Should a black student have to hear an argument that we know is measurably incorrect and that foments further hostility toward black people? How can anyone argue against teaching about white privilege while simultaneously teaching stereotypes of black people? (Answer: Because they are racist and also unbothered by facts.) How does permitting speech that isolates and alienates people who have historically been shut out of higher ed further the mission of higher education? When you are a black student at a predominantly white institution, why should you have to rally against what is clearly a lousy argument? The fact that you even have to do this bullshit work is a bit racist. A second-class white intellectual gets a platform to blow racist hot air, and you have to be the one to call her out? Even when white allies join the fight, it places black people, once again, as the source of the trouble. Why should any student have to listen to an argument that vilifies black people? What harms are caused when such arguments appear on campus with the stamp of university approval? (When such arguments appear on the public sidewalks, the story is different. And there, we are pretty much okay with counterpicketers shouting people down.)

But the racism is only part of my problem with MacDonald. The other part is my problem with universities inviting lazy thinkers to campus. MacDonald is a right-wing intellectual star, but that’s because the conservative galaxy is so generally dim. She seems to me to be one of what Elspeth Reeves, writing about the alt-right, calls “a handful of vain writers impressed by their own intellectual power because few smart people bother to debate them.”

MacDonald’s ideas are of little value, and campuses should not invest precious resources—and absorb opportunity costs—in creating a platform for them. In responding to the protest on campus, Claremont McKenna president Hiram Chodosh appealed to the idea that campuses should be places where challenging ideas can be freely exchanged [Italics mine]:

[T]he breach of our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy is a serious, ongoing concern we must address effectively.

This is a rather generous view of MacDonald’s writing.

College students deserve better opportunities to engage across lines of difference. And if there is no one out there who can draw the same racist conclusions that MacDonald draws using a better argument, maybe it means that colleges, which should value argumentation, don’t really need to invite racists to campus.

 

What Mike Pence Gets Right about Marriage and Wrong about Religious Freedom Makes Him Unfit for Office

I generally consider presidential and vice-presidential wives off limits for discussion, figuring that their lives are terrible enough, though I really struggle with anyone woman who could support either Trump or Pence.

Image result for mike pence wife inaugural ball

Above, Mike and Karen Pence wave at the crowd and one of the several inaugural balls this past January. Want to read more about how conservative Christian women understand freedom through constraint? Check me out

You may have heard that Mike Pence never dines alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, nor does he attend events where there is alcohol present without her. If he were someone else, I’d say cool, whatever your marriage needs.  Maybe it means he doesn’t trust himself not to sexually assault women. Maybe it means he doesn’t want to be falsely accused of sexual impropriety. Maybe it means he’s been unfaithful (or addicted to alcohol) before and that hurt his wife, or maybe her father was a philanderer or an alcoholic, and this is his way of addressing any insecurity she might have about lousy husbands. If it was just about them, I would be happy to give Pence the privacy and dignity in his relationships that he has withheld from same-sex couples.

But it’s not just about him. His decision to never meet with a woman alone means that men have had more access to him than women. That means that women have not had an equal opportunity to petition their government–our First Amendment Right. It means the women of Indiana (and now the women of the whole US) are not being treated equally under the law.

I’m sure Pence has his reasons–potentially even good ones–for this personal standard. If his reason is so worthwhile, though, he should have taken pains to insure that it didn’t undermine anyone else’s opportunities or rights. How?

He could meet with no one one-on-one.

If Pence could organize his life so that he never met with a woman alone, he could also have organized it so that he never met with a man alone.

This would have insured that all constituents had an equal opportunity to meet with him.

If that idea seems unworkable–How could he get any business done?–then you understand that his choice made politics unworkable for women. You also now see your assumption that politics is for men, not women.

This is typical Pence, though: willing to make women bear the costs of HIS personal choice. (Ironic, yes, for someone arguing against federal funding for Planned Parenthood on the grounds that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s moral failing.)

But it’s the same logic behind his anti-LGBT efforts in Indiana. An anti-LGBT Christian makes the personal choice to be a florist. She refuses to provide flowers for a wedding of two gay men. If you think that the First Amendment and equality are important, you probably think that the florist is choosing both her anti-gay faith and her job. She is not compelled to either, but the law does mandate that she treats customers equally. She has a choice: defy what she sees as a key point of her faith (Thou shalt not arrange flowers for gay weddings!) or quit being a florist.

You make your choice, and you take your consequences–but you don’t demand that someone else take the consequences of you living out your faith. That’s on you.

And you know who really should understand this, dear 606 readers? Mennonites. Even conservative Mennonites who oppose gay marriage. Because we are asked all the time to make the choice to compromise our faith or live with the consequences. And we do! Our kids get heckled for not saying the pledge. (“You must hate God!” as one sweet child told my daughter this year.) Our grandparents went to CPS instead of war, and our great-grandparents got tarred and feathered for refusing to serve in or support World War I.  Some of us pay the consequence of war tax resistance. The proudest parts of our history aren’t Anabaptists dying for their faith–they are the stories of Anabaptists refusing to let our enemies die so that our faith could be protected.

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Above, a woodcut telling the story of Dirk Willems. A Dutch Anabaptist in the mid-1500s when the faith was illegal, Willems fled a prison guard by crossing thin ice. When the guard fell in behind him, Willems turned back to rescue the man, leading to his own capture and, eventually, burning. 

Pence doesn’t have to be a theologian or a church historian to understand this, though. He simply has to care that his constituents and his colleagues have equal access to his ear. If he did–or if he had bothered to consult with a woman with more insight than the women he apparently does bother to talk to–he would have either stopped his discrimination against women or changed his policy to insure that he didn’t dine with men alone, either. His other choice was to not take a job that would require him to be alone with women in order to guarantee their basic constitutional rights. (Other examples: if you don’t want to look at ladyparts, don’t become an ob-gyn. If you don’t want to pour booze, don’t open a bar. If you don’t want to defend people who have done wrong, don’t be a public defender.) That, not his perhaps unusual marriage protocols, is why he’s unfit for office.

And his selfish, lazy Christianity should have clued you in.