A Teachable Moment For The Republican Party

That famous Republican Party discipline (or, ideological commitment), the one that made sure that many of Barack Obama’s legislative priorities were derailed through relentless parliamentary grandstanding, that ensured the federal government’s operations were shut down, producing misery and inconvenience for many, that produced budgetary brinksmanship of the highest order and negatively affected the national debt rating, it also ensured a stinging defeat for the Donald Trump-Paul Ryan effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The Freedom Caucus–that benign moniker which identifies a group of apparently sworn nihilists determined to gut government from the inside out–did not find the modified Republican replacement for ‘Obamacare’ sufficiently heartless; it healed too many, served too many; not even the prospect of doing damage to Paul Ryan’s risible and entirely concocted image as a policy wonk was enough to deter them from their opposition to the bill. (The Trump Administration’s attempts to placate this crew led in turn to so-called Republican ‘moderates’ to threaten to abandon ship; causal responsibility rests solely with the Freedom Caucus.)

Captain Trump and the USS Republican Party were headed for the shoals, and that’s where they ended up. Capitol Hill is not a campaign rally venue. There are old lessons here to be learned, apparently.  In writing of the various Athenian power struggles that preceded the Battle of Marathon against Persian forces (The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon, And Its Impact on Western Civilization, Bantam, New York, 2013, p. 80), Jim Lacey makes note of the struggles between the aristocrats Isagoras and Cleisthenes:

With Isagoras deposed, Cleisthenes and his supporters returned. Whatever his own predisposition, he now had to deliver on the promises he had made during his political struggles with Isagoras and the other noble families. He probably was also beginning to understand that it is easier for an adroit politician to manipulate the masses than it is to manage powerful competing factions.

It is small comfort for the American polity to realize that this bill failed because a Republican faction did not find it dastardly enough, because its primary architects were simply too incompetent to shepherd it through the legislative gauntlet. This same factionalization and incompetence could very well help produce a more radical version of another bill, which would gut comfort and safety elsewhere.

But there is another side to this story of Republican failure, which is that Republican representatives and senators chickened out of a ‘No’ vote because their constituents threatened them with electoral reprisals. They did so by calling in, by attending town halls, by sending postcards; in so doing, they proved, yet again, that old-fashioned citizen pressure on elected representatives works. Give the bastards hell, indeed. Elected Republicans are finding out–the hard way–that the President’s unpopularity is both deep and wide; it brings all the formerly somnolent members of the electorate to the yard; that loud presence has made the threat of disaster in 2018 more likely; and if there is anything that will help induce flight from His Orangeness’ apparently contagious success, it is the fear of contracting a fatal electoral disease.

Much damage could still be done to the Republic and its denizens; there are more bullets to be dodged; but also some lessons to be learned by those infected with hubris.

On Being Honored By Inclusion In The Canary Mission’s ‘Blacklist’

Yesterday, the Canary Mission–a “fear-mongering, McCarthyesque” organization that claims to “document the people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses in North America”–decided to place me on its so-called ‘watch-list.’ Roughly, the Canary Mission looks for college professors or student activists that speak up about, or participate in, any on-campus happenings related to the rights of the Palestinian people, and then tries to cow them with the publications of its ‘profiles’ on its website and social media; as might be expected, the epithet ‘anti-Semite’ is thrown around rather freely. The Canary Mission accuses me of ‘defending hate speech’ and ‘defending student militancy’:

Defending Hate Speech

Chopra regularly champions the cause of Professor Steven Salaita, the Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and a frequent subject of Chopra’s blog….In November 2014, the philosophy department at Brooklyn co-sponsored a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) event to support Salaita and critique Salaita’s firing from U of I. In addition, SJP invited students to witness a “conversation” about “the constant push by Zionists to silence academic discourse relating to the Palestinian struggle and criticisms of Israel.”

Chopra, who was instrumental in securing the philosophy department’s sponsorship, wrote that it was an “honorable act by this department to ‘co-sponsor’ the event.”

Defending Student Militancy

On May 20, 2016, Chopra testified in defense of two SJP activists, Sarah Aly and Thomas DeAngelis, who were among nine Brooklyn College Student Coalition (BCSC) members whose disruptive behavior prompted the shutdown of a Faculty Council meeting on campus….Aly and DeAnglis were initially charged with violating CUNY’s code of conduct, including intentional obstruction, failure to comply with lawful directions, unauthorized occupancy of college facilities and disorderly conduct.

On May 20, 2016, Chopra disputed the veracity of the charges and urged the administration to “Drop the charges; apologize to the students.” The next day, Chopra wrote that “Acquittals don’t address this damage; reparations are due” to Aly and DeAngelis.

On May 31, 2016, the anti-Israel legal advocacy organizations Palestine Legal andCenter for Constitutional Rights (CCR) represented Aly and DeAngelis at a five hour  disciplinary hearing, where they were ultimately charged and admonished by the university with “failure to comply with lawful directions.”

I plead not guilty to the first charge, and guilty to the second.

Rather predictably, after the Canary Mission tweeted a link to my profile–which sadly, fails to recognize my ‘full professor’ rank and demotes me to ‘associate professor’–along with my photograph, some abusive, poorly written tweets were sent my way. Name and ‘shame’; set up a target who can be then abused on social media and elsewhere; induce, hopefully, a chilling effect. This is the Canary Mission’s style, so to speak. (Some background on its work may be found here in this Alternet piece; these articles at Electronic Intifada serve to highlight its many attempted interventions at stifling free speech on American university campuses.)

Needless to say, I’m honored to be so ‘recognized’ by the Canary Mission. Clearly, someone has been reading my posts here; such confirmation of widespread readership is always gratifying. Furthermore, one can only hope that this newfound fame will bring me more readers, and perhaps direct more attention to the very issues the Canary Mission would like to sweep under the rug. The folks at the Mission were kind enough to include links to my blog posts on my profile page, though disappointingly enough, the ‘Infamous Quotes’ section is not filled out yet, and neither have I seen a sharp upswing in ‘hits’ yet on my blog; one can still hope, I suppose.

Needless to say, there’s little to be done with this attempt at blacklisting other than to make note of its risibility, and to carry on as before.

Action As Antidote To Political Anxiety

The spring semester has started today and it is no exaggeration to say that I’ve not gone into any previous semester–over a period extending to the fifteen years I’ve spent here at Brooklyn College–feeling quite as unsettled as I do today. Perhaps it was the third cup of coffee, perhaps it was just the stage-fright that is my usual companion to semester kick-offs. Or perhaps it was just dread. We live in interesting times, and one of the tolls these times exact is a psychological one.

This morning, I met one of my students in my office to go over his plans for an independent study in the philosophy of science this semester. I assigned readings, talked about possible writing assignments, and made some preliminary remarks about how I hoped our fortnightly discussions would go. Our conversation proceeded smoothly in general, but there were a couple of rough spots: first, my student greeted me by asking how I had been, and I found myself unable to answer for a few seconds, and then, when my student told me how he had spending time at JFK providing translation services for the ACLU lawyers helping resolve the fiasco created by Donald Trump’s anti-refugee executive order, I was rendered speechless again.

My student is Egyptian-American; born to, and raised in, America by Egyptian parents . He is one of the brightest and most sincere students I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with here at Brooklyn College. He is hard-working, erudite, passionate, committed to being a good student and a good human being. I am proud of him, and happy to be somehow involved in his education. I am, therefore, protective of him too; I am concerned for his safety and well-being these days. This fear is not a particularly well-formed one, and so it amounts to a species of disabling anxiety. (His country of origin is not one of the blacklisted countries of the executive order, but I was still alarmed to hear his American citizen parents were planning on traveling to Egypt this summer.)

I suspect that what underwrites that my emotional responses to my student’s presence is a deeper worry about my family and friends; there is no doubt that the world today is a more dangerous place than it was on January 19th or November 8th: bigotry and racism have acquired executive power, and it is being exercised vigorously, even if incoherently; political chaos is almost upon us; and much worse apparently awaits.

The only antidote to this quasi-cosmic funk is that old elixir: action. This administration needs toppling and many points of pressure exist in order to do so: pressure on elected representatives to block cabinet nominations for now, and later, against legislative atrocities; financial support to those–like the ACLU and SPLC–fighting legal battles; vigorous public protest, civil disobedience, and direct action, including but not limited to, general strikes. (Perhaps hacktivists will step up and make it harder for the technical infrastructure required to implement Trump and Bannon‘s regime to actually function; on this point, more anon.) Thus far, I’ve written and donated and made a few phone calls; much more needs to be done; therapeutic relief awaits.

Stopping The ‘Muslim Registry’: A Serious Approach

A symbolic act of resistance is being proposed to the Trump administration’s proposed registry for Muslim immigrants to the US: right-minded folks should register as Muslims too. This is an essentially well-meaning gesture of solidarity but it is useless. It will accomplish nothing; it will not prevent the registration of Muslims; and worse, it will make many who support Muslims’ right to live free of pernicious discrimination in this land complacent because they will feel they have done enough, shown enough support. If progressive Americans really wish to prevent the registration of Muslims,  then any strategy that does not involve wide scale civil disobedience and direction is not serious. (Currently, the proposed registry aims to register Muslim immigrants from a list of ‘target’ countries deemed ‘risky’¹; other iterations could include registering all Muslim immigrants; and then the most nightmarish scenario of all, the registration of all Muslims, whether immigrants or not, whether citizens or not, whether US-born or not. There is no reason to not guard against these eventualities given a) Trump’s rhetoric in general and b) the views and opinions of those who support him and will be found in his cabinet. The slippery slope is visible, and it declines steeply.)

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The Normalization Of Donald Trump

Before the elections of 2016 we were informed at every step of the way that Donald  Trump was a fascist, one to be stopped by any means necessary; we were urged to stop this greatest danger to the American republic ever by throwing our bodies into the breach, by manning the barricades, by storming them. The skies were falling and we were urged to put down whatever it is we were doing and to run out to hold it up in the company of our fellow citizens. Great crises demanded appropriately pitched responses.

Then the elections happened. Many Americans did not hear the call. Some urged the sky to fall. It did.

Now that a fascist has been elected, magically purified and sanctified by something called an ‘election,’ an ‘expression of the people’s will,’ because ‘the people have spoken,’ fascism is no longer so. Outgoing presidents who spent months mocking and villifying the orange harbinger of doom now welcome him, wish him the best, and make known their willingness to support him at every step; defeated opponents urge gracious acceptance of defeat and future cooperation on joint endeavors; the commentariat and the joint orders of the journalistic pundit class unite in describing any protests at this stage as strategically and tactically misguided, as ungracious failures to accept that democracy is working. (Unsurprisingly, that cabal of gangsters, the Republican Party, has already made nice, and is looking forward to the spoils of power.)

The water grew muddied for a while; it must be bade settle down, calm itself, and cease its restlessness. There is work to be done, money to be made, stock exchanges to be placated. There is talk of ‘coming together’ and being ‘stronger’–all the better to calmly, quietly, quiescently, accept and reconcile ourselves to the presence of Donald Trump as president.

The language used in describing Trump spoke of dark, dangerous, radical thoughts threatening to roll over America; they spoke of how deeply held political convictions were to be laid aside for the sake of rolling them back, back over the dark horizon that had produced them. The language used to describe our supposed interactions with Trump seems animated by entirely disparate sentiments: don’t rock the boat, all hands on board, the ship is sailing onward and we must lend our efforts to Captain Trump of the USS US.

America needs to make up its mind. Is this man a danger to the American republic or not? If he is, then let us not speak of biding our time for protest, or of extending him the usual courtesies extended to this nation’s leaders. Conventions of courtesy are dangerous luxuries when dealing with existential dangers; and my desire to preserve the wild and extend a lending hand to wildlife stewards will take a rapid backward step when confronted with a wild animal threatening my family.

If Donald Trump is truly a racist fascist with his hands on the nuclear button, if he does intend to implement a racist and xenophobic police state, he is going to need to be greeted with more than a protest march at the inauguration, a banner drop at the State of the Union address.

The Supposed Sacral Status Of ‘National’ Symbols

Yesterday, a Facebook friend–in the course of a discussion stemming from my post criticizing David Brooks‘ claim that protests by high school football players a la Colin Kaepernick were ‘counterproductive’–pointed me to the following quote by Saul Alinsky:

Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience. (from Rules for Radicals)

Brooks’ original thesis can now piggyback on the ‘authority’ that a respected ‘radical’ organizer like Alinsky provides: respect the ‘sacral status of ‘national’ symbols; protest the establishment, do not make the symbol the focus of your protest, or you risk, ‘counterproductively,’ losing the support of the rest of the social group. (As my friend suggested, the sacralization of the ‘national’ symbol serves a kind of ‘social utility’–protesting in a manner that suggests ‘disrespecting’ this sacral status results in a loss of this ‘social utility’; it is this loss we should be worried about when we choose such a tactic of protest, and not whether the symbol is intrinsically sacred. Indeed, Alinsky does not, above, ascribe any such sacral status to the flag, calling it instead, a ‘glorious symbol.’ That glory is presumably at risk of being tarnished.) So, the current protests and their tactics, their rhetorical stance, stand indicted of poor tactical and strategic sense.

Here is my response, drawn and culled from the various replies and comments I wrote in yesterday’s brief debate:

First, what is truly ‘counterproductive’ about the current situation–the one being protested by Black Lives Matter, Kaepernick, and others–is the following:  Systemic racism; a nationalism which views itself as a religion and therefore, as the issuer of categorical demands; failures of empathy on the part of the dominant class; a lack of moral imagination in those who regulate and police. In the hierarchy of counterproductive actions, these occupy the top-most rung. Protests–in whatever shape or form–by members of a systematically oppressed class are quite distant. Indeed, they are genuinely productive of a new national sensibility precisely because they ask new questions and may cause redefinitions of the supposed national project. Indeed, the more ‘sacred’ the symbol, the greater its vulnerability and susceptibility to the radical protest, to its utilization in activism which seeks to impress upon spectators its seriousness and urgency.

Second, speaking of tactical sense, in the current state of affairs, critiques of the football players’ actions have made a fight over the national anthem’s standing the main event, and in the process not only highlighted the national anthem’s foundational glorification of slavery but also led to a vigorous debate about what the American ideal really is. The diversity of responses to the football players’ protests suggests enough Americans a) support the right of the players to protest this way and b) have welcomed a closer look at the national anthem’s provenance and its possible malignancies.  To suggest that most Americans will despise political gestures like this and that it will have the predicted unhealthily disruptive outcomes is to indulge in a little too much prophecy for my taste. I’m perfectly willing to bide my time and let public discourse about this gesture take us into unexplored domains of political debate.

Third, (here, perhaps I explicitly part with Alinsky): sacrilege is a good thing; smashing idols is a good thing. Erecting temples and false religions is a fool’s game. The original political sin is turning rhetorical symbols into icons beyond human reproach. To place these symbols beyond protest is to concede a political weapon–the language of quasi-theistic categoricity–to the opposition, an act of political surrender. Nice try.

David Brooks Should Take A Knee And Stop Writing Stupid Op-Eds

David Brooks wants to “persuade” high school football players who are kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic racism that what they are doing is “extremely counterproductive.” He does so by identifying this country’s “civic religion,” which is “a fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism” and “based on a moral premise–that all men are created equal.”  This religion has been “nurtured…by sharing moments of reverence.” Sadly, this religion is now “under assault” from a “globalist mentality” and  “critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates” and a “multicultural mind-set.” Now, unfortunately, Americans are not so patriotic any more and so now, “sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism.” As such, when Americans sing the national anthem, “we’re not commenting on the state of America….We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us.” But if we don’t sing the anthem, all hell breaks loose:

We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives. If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another…You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism….

Roughly: if you don’t sing the national anthem and show the appropriate respect to a country whose blessings in your case have been decidedly ambiguous, racists like Donald Trump wins. So you see, if you fight racism, racism wins. Cut one head off, another one appears. Why don’t you just give up, shut up, stand up, and sing? You’re playing football, stayin’ healthy; you might go to the NFL and make lots and lots and lots of money like that other ingrate, Colin Kaepernick. You’ll get to participate in sponsored rituals of patriotism in big stadiums. So go ahead and sing that “radical song about a radical place [and its slavery].”

Because Brooks’ column is an advice column, let me dial 1-800-RENT-A-CLUE for him. The only folks instantiating the “civic religion” Brooks speaks of are the high-school football players who, through their public protests, are risking abuse and denigration from patriots, and worse, patronizing advice from painfully clueless, overpaid, incompetent writers. They, and not the hysterical patriots, are the ones actually displaying a “fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism.” Their actions indicate that they don’t consider this nation a finished product; they consider it a work in the making. By doing so, through their peaceful, non-disruptive protest, they are making the most hopeful statement of all: that political activism can lead to change. Their actions are not complacent and quietist like Brooks; their silent protest is expressive and eloquent. It adds another note to the American symphony, which is an unfinished work. The American ideal is not a coin, which once minted, carries the same value; it is an ongoing notion, one revealed by history, and by action and thought.

The high-school football players are dynamic innovators in this realm of political practice and theory; Brooks represents stagnancy and stasis. America needs more of the former, less of the latter.