Sundays with Skokie

Jewish Sunday school was traumatic. For a lot of reasons, many personal. I was forced to go by my father after an upbringing of religious indifference, I had no friends there, the kids were cruel, and the teachers rather dim. I’ve had a grudge against it, in my memory, ever since.

Because I intellectualize everything, one way I express that grudge (to myself) is to pick at the ideological commitments of that Sunday school curriculum. To say the Holocaust was an important part of it does not express it. It’s not that we dwelled on the piles of bodies, though at points we did – but as a political problem, it was omnipresent. Other than the weeks we spent memorizing ancient Hebrew prayers – this was a confirmation class, so it was assumed that if you’d wanted to learn Hebrew you’d have already done so pre- bar/bat-mitzvah – it was all Jewish history, and all that was through the lens of the Shoah. Pre-Holocaust history was the crescendo leading up to the Holocaust; everything else was in one way or another about Israel, as the resolution.

I don’t believe in anything about that narrative, but these days I interrogate my Sunday school less to expose that narrative’s historical deficiencies than to marvel at what a fractal the thing was. Every little piece of the curriculum reflected the whole of that sweep in miniature.

The organizing slogan was “never again”, but given that it’s happened about nineteen times “again” and nothing about this narrative changes, indeed nothing at all changes, I’m curious about why such an obviously universal slogan, a slogan that dovetails so beautifully with Vonnegut’s plainspoken “no more massacres”, ends up being uttered in such a particularized and sightless way. Liberal American Judaism seems fully capable of intoning “never again” without the slightest irony from atop a pile of massacred bodies. As long as – I may as well say it – they’re not Jews.

Somehow it never became explicit, or explicit in the right way, that “never again” didn’t mean just to us. That, in fact, it wouldn’t be us next time. It would be someone else, and it would be the duty imposed on us by passing through the Holocaust to stand up with them.

There was of course that tendency in Holocaust studies, partly owing to Blanchot but being a terrible misunderstanding of him, which said that the Holocaust was a radical historical singular, absolutely unique. Which implies – unrepeatable. Because of its industrial character, because of the special, irreducible nature of Jew-hatred, because, ultimately, of the fearful body count – the Holocaust was not like other holocausts and should not be compared. There will only ever be the one.

Insisting on the absolute historical uniqueness of the Holocaust does make it easier to condone what Israel does in Jewry’s name today. After all, that’s not a Holocaust – it can’t be, we know that to be impossible. I don’t like claims that certain historical nightmares are unique beyond comparison for just this reason. It puts them beyond use as a lesson. There is that shudder at the word “use”, as if six million tortured ghosts were put to work turning the capstan of historiography, but I still don’t see how you can deny the fungibility of the Holocaust without, paradoxically, ensuring its repeatability.

One day they showed us a video of the TV movie “Skokie” (1981), a dramatization of the 1979 Nazi march through the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, IL. Skokie had refused permission for the march; the ACLU sued on the Nazis’ behalf and won.

The movie is a fascinating piece of liberal propaganda, and I think I’ve been haunted by it since, because, like all good propaganda, it makes clear what the proper resolution is; but it does not fail to present – at least its own version – of the essential conflict. I think at the time I swallowed whole the proper resolution – something like, “American rights ask us to bear difficult things, but, in the end, yay free speech!” But something about the film has always made me uneasy.

These days, I can put the movie in more theoretical terms: the ostensible lesson is to insist on the universality and reciprocity of abstract rights, because thereby we are all saved, equally. I think the movie betrays this claim, though – and I think it betrays this claim because the claim is betrayed by its nature; there is something essential about the ideal of abstract reciprocal rights that is paradoxical, in a bad way.

The movie rightly places the Holocaust at the center of the drama. The confrontation is intra-Jewish: on the one hand, Skokie’s Holocaust survivors (who would have still been relatively young and numerous, only 34 years after the event; my next door neighbor growing up was a survivor, so my first association with the term is “that guy next door who mows his lawn and has a number on his arm”, not “those old people, nearly all dead, with their stories of the distant past.”) are opposed to the march, indeed opposed to permitting the existence of out-and-out Nazis, because they experienced the rise of Hitler themselves. Their opponents are liberal Jewish town pols and Jewish ACLU lawyers, who patiently explain that the rights that protect the Nazis also protect the Jews; a universal right must be extended to everyone, no matter how odious, or it is not in fact a right in the first place; pace Niemoller, if we now permit the silencing of the Nazis, can we expect anyone will stand up for us, if the time ever comes?

That’s an appealing story, one that, as Americans, we’ve imbibed all our lives, almost with the tap water. Yet the fact that I can summarize the survivors’ case in a handful of words (they saw Hitler), while the liberal case requires more than sixty, should tell you something: there is a certain ideological contortion going on.

To begin with, the equivalence, between the Jews and the Nazis, as two embattled minorities, is really an extraordinary one. We must tolerate the Nazis, who want nothing more in this life than to kill us, because one day we might need the protection of that very right that they now avail themselves of: in other words, as these Nazis now are, so might we one day be. Actually, that’s not an equivalence only: it’s an affective identification. The correct attitude toward these Nazis is not to fear them, it is to pity them – while one should fear that which the Nazis also fear, the vast, trackless, potent expanse of – simultaneously deracinated and goyishe – America.

In America, it turns out, a safe Nazi is a safe Jew. The survivors do not understand this. They are chained to the past. They see only Nazis, who killed them once, and whom they want to kill. They represent the particularity of the horror of the Jewish experience. The liberal Jews and the ACLU lawyers represent the universal reply. “Skokie” hopes you will chose the universal over the particular, however difficult that may feel.

Yet there is something unsatisfying about the terms of this universal/particular pairing. In fact, I think it’s backwards.

For “a safe Nazi is a safe Jew” to have the appeal “Skokie” says it does, it must be the case that these Nazis are not dangerous, or the survivors would simply be right. Even though as Nazis their whole existence is predicated on killing Jews. These Nazis are neutralized; America’s Nazis are domesticated. It is all right to allow the majesty of Constitutional right to drape these Nazis, to displace the necessary violence of self-protection, because there aren’t really any Nazis at all: there is only this pitiable lot, while the vast, terrifying expanse of America within which the Jew is still an alien, is on our side. It will never permit actual Nazis, only these shambling reminders. In America, the Jew has somehow won – as long as this America persists, the Jews are in charge of their own destiny.

In other words, the liberal Jews rely on one of the necessary but unstated paradoxes of liberal democracy: we can be confident that liberal democracy will not permit the rise of a movement that will abolish the protections of abstract civil rights, even though how to prevent this is impossible to specify from within the principles of liberalism. Liberal democracy is evenhandedly protective of the rights of all within it, yet there will come a time when it will have to act against a specific political tendency within itself and destroy it, to save itself. This is the vital moment of illiberalism within liberal democracy. Every political persuasion is treated with all the unjudging serenity of mere political procedure – every tendency is permitted everything any other is permitted, no matter what it actually is. There is no legal or constitutional principle that specifies when liberalism must step outside the framework of equal protection and put its foot down. “Straying into violence or criminality” isn’t it. It is quite possible, after all, for an undemocratic movement to attain power while obeying all liberal democratic rules regarding violence and criminality, as long as enough people approve of it. It is then in a position to abolish the whole thing. Yet this does not happen.

Except – it manifestly does happen. Of course it does. The unspecifiable moment when liberalism translates itself from a procedure to an ethos and suppresses internal, existential threats to itself, which is to say, to its universal extension of rights and protections to all citizens, never arrives. Liberal democracies are subverted and abolished, as Germany was, and even when this does not happen wholesale, they permit within themselves every imaginable mode of particularized exploitation, degradation, and oppression. It’s how liberal democratic America has been at the same time constitutively white supremacist America.

The provision of liberal abstract rights in fact guarantees nothing. And this is obvious. All you have to have is the memory of a Holocaust survivor. All you have to do is drive from Skokie to the Chicago south side.

Realizing this, what is the real content of what the liberal Jews and the ACLU lawyers say to the survivors? It’s not “we have rights.” It can only be this: “It can’t happen here.” The one slogan that every Jew is taught from birth not to trust. If it does not rest upon liberal abstract rights, it can only be mere historical triumphalism, easily reversed: Here, we won. America likes us. We can get in all the clubs and schools now. We’re in no danger.

I’m less interested in how foolish this claim is on its face, than in how a movie like “Skokie” makes it possible for the American children of Holocaust survivors to hear it and believe it. Because once you scrape off the ideological trappings, it’s completely threadbare. It’s completely particular. Here, now, we Jews are okay. Others are not okay, but we are okay. Just keep playing along.

In this way, the reliance on the polite fiction – among the privileged – of universal liberal rights, becomes a striking defense of the status quo. It is the alchemical transmutation of mere Jewish self-regard into a political philosophy of complacency. We – we Jews, triumphant in America – let the Nazis march; from this we know that the promise of American universalism is untrammeled. That is the proof. (Don’t get off the Dan Ryan on the South Side.)

If the liberals are particularity in disguise, it’s the survivors, who’d been portrayed as (understandably) tribal, clenched to history, who make the properly universal claim: Nazis are everywhere dangerous; Nazis must everywhere be fought and destroyed. The Danny Kaye character in “Skokie” – Kaye uses his trademark evocation of manic hysteria to excellent effect – was the only sane one. The survivors are not interested in even-handed proceduralism; they know what Naziism is, and they know there is no way to make peace with it.

“Skokie” is topsy-turvy. “Skokie” is liberal propaganda. Yet “Skokie” cannot abolish the universal claim hiding in the smokescreen of liberal proceduralism. I could never get past that fear that it left me with – that, in pointing at the pathetic false Nazis, its gesture of genuine terror past them and towards the immense fields of American possibility, was dead right all along.

The universal lesson of the specificity of the Holocaust is always clear: what has happened to us, is what can happen. As the philosophers say, actuality is the best proof of possibility. Nothing prevents it from happening here. Because it already has, and still is.

The assault on the American research university: a report from the front

The horrible, terrible, no good, very bad local story of the moment is that the University of Tennessee is about to get clobbered by the State Legislature, because the U’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion had a web page on how to keep your generic holiday party from turning into a ‘christmas party in disguise’. The page was of course nonbinding advice, not biding policy.

Earlier this year the same Office of Diversity and Inclusion offered a web page detailing various ways to use inclusive language in student writing, including replacing gendered pronouns with ‘she/he’, epicene ‘they’ or neo-pronouns like ‘xe’, as well as advice on being inclusive of racial and religious minorities, gays, and – particularly repellant to Christianist bigots – trans people.

The two ‘incidents’ have caused an explosion of rage on the Tennessee far right – that it mandates respect for ‘deviancy’, that it strikes against free expression of Xmas, etc. The Republicans are demanding the Office of Diversity at the flagship Knoxville campus be defunded ($250k) and everyone who works there be fired. They also want all “diversity funding” (a few million, systemwide) be terminated and banned legislatively so it can never be reinstated; this includes money for faculty retention and student recruitment. They want that money redirected to a right-wing “Free Speech” center to make sure all far-right Christianists on campus enjoy a safe space. And, for good measure, they want the Chancellor’s head. If this isn’t done, they are threatening to crush the University of Tennessee system.

Now, I don’t think much of Jimmy Cheek, but he is in the right, and the whole nasty mess is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and vile to everyone not a right-wing white American fundamentalist.

The faculty Senate met in emergency session and voted support for Cheek – nobody cares about them. And the student body have gone out in support of Cheek and the Office of Diversity. Nobody cares what they say either. Especially not after those Atlantic Magazine hit pieces on fragile, neurotic women and minority students.

Cheek, after an initial, though quiet, defense of diversity, is now – much more in character for him – lining up subordinates to toss under the campus bus, including the vice chancellor in whose portfolio is the Diversity Office. Bad enough – but it’s not going to work this time. I think he’s going to lose his job, and the U of TN will get ‘new leadership.’ Want to bet it will be a political sinecure for a right-wing ideologue or donor, and that person won’t have anything resembling ability, experience, or the traditional doctorate?

At the same time, the Governor¹ ostensibly has ‘drive to 55‘ campaign – get 55% of TN citizens a post-secondary degree by 2525. This is meant to dovetail with the University’s long-term capital campaign and faculty recruitment effort, to get the Univ. of TN into the top 25 of American research schools.

Yeah, right. Almost every year the University’s funding is cut and every year the legislature attacks scholarship and minority recruitment and even the physical plant from every angle it can think of.² If you can leave the University of TN, you do. If you can get a scholarship out of state, you do. And it becomes more and more a backwater, unable to fulfill any of its missions.

Meanwhile, the school is now so expensive, many students can’t afford to eat.

It’s a joke, and stomach-turning, and there’s nothing that can be done to stop it. Just a microcosm of US politics at this moment in time.

¹ Bill Haslam, America’s Richest Public Servant™, whose agenda in office is to give away state assets away to his rich pals, with all the other, boring stuff delegated to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the right-wing state-legislative equivalent of the Tasmanian Devil.

² One of Haslam’s proposed giveaways is to fire all the physical plant, grounds, cleaning, and maintenance personnel from the entire Tennessee state government and replace them with private subcontractors. Thousands of people would lose their state government jobs and benefits – this includes the workers in the University system. There’s a provision to allow the UT system to opt out of the privatization, which Cheek was thought to favor – if they get someone new, the University privatization will surely happen, just as Bill and Ron want it to.

The man comes around blowin’ coal

So I just had what I think of as a very “Knoxville” moment. I’m coming back from the takeout pizza joint, which in another rather Knoxville moment, is called “PIZZA HOSS”, when I pull up at an intersection (on clinton highway, not far from the 50’s novelty-architecture tin biplane-shaped filling station that the preservationists are fixing up), and there’s a big dark blue diesel F350 pickup at the light, and he is, as they say, blowin’ coal. He is blowing all the coal. He is blowing all the coal in the world, an Industrial Revolution’s worth of the coal. And it’s coming out his tailpipe – he doesn’t have one of those high-rise smokestacks, so it’s making an absolutely monstrous, opaque jet-black cloud at ground level. It’s a nice day, everyone’s windows are down, and everyone’s car is just filling up with black soot. The soot is settling in around them like their cars are filling with black water. People are frantically rolling up their windows and yelling (thank god I had mine on a/c recirc) and trying to back up and get away. But the light’s red, we’re packed in, and there is nowhere to go. And it gets worse. I can see he’s been resting his foot down on the pedal, so the engine isn’t just at idle, so it will blow worse, and now he’s easing it down a little harder, a little harder, and now the tailpipe absolutely going like a rocket engine. It’s like the Saturn V test, only black, pitch black, black as – well, actually black carbon soot is about the blackest thing there is, so it’s incomparably black, and forming this huge bolus of a black cloud that’s like Atlas’s globe, hanging there, this massive orb of black poison, rolling out towards us, over us. People are yelling. The light hasn’t changed yet. And he opens the door, this ratty guy in a ratty shirt with a ratty baseball cap, and he spits this huge gross loogie on the pavement. The light changes, finally, and he, naturally, of course, of course he does, he stomps down on the pedal and he’s off, he’s gone and it’s midnight, nobody can see, it’s as if someone has poured a can of hot tar over everyone’s windshields. When we can see again, he’s way down the road, weaving in and out of traffic, leaving this incredible plume of black pollution, like an office building on fire driving down the road at about 45 miles an hour.

So that was both very horrible and very funny at the same time.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem with flower crown

Jeroen Dijsselbloem with flower crown.Jeroen Dijsselbloem with flower crown.

After Yanis Varoufakis “just killed the Troika.”

An especially interesting thread about Margaret Hamilton, with much supplementary information, can be found at Hackernews here:

Margaret Hamilton, lead software engineer, Project Apollo

Margaret Hamilton, lead software engineer, Project Apollo
[Margaret Hamilton, lead software engineer, Project Apollo.
Click photo to expand]

This is a great photo I just ran across on the internets. It said it was “Margaret Hamilton, Apollo program”, but it didn’t say who Margaret Hamilton was.

Margaret Hamilton was the lead software engineer for Project Apollo.

It had long been tradition that operating calculating machines was “women’s work”; it was thought to be just keypunching, like typing. Women programmed and operated the punchcard machines to produce calculations for the Manhattan Project. Despite the tendency of the project physicists to minimize their contribution, this was demanding work, much more than just moving cards from slot to slot — they were usually given requirements from the tech people, but often designed the approach and set up the calculations themselves.

The bias that “women do the mere programming” extended into the early days of the computer, and it meant that many of the earliest and most pioneering programmers were women, learning hands-on to do things that had never been done before. We all know about Amazing Grace Hopper, who wrote the first compiler.

Margaret Hamilton earned her BA in math from Earlham College, but obviously learned about programming on the job—there was no other way. In the photo above, she is standing in front of the printouts of the code for the Apollo guidance system, a lot of which she wrote and which she oversaw.

She was all of 31 when the Apollo 11 lunar module landed on the moon, running her code. (Apollo 11 was able to land at all only because she designed the software robustly enough to handle buffer overflows and cycle-stealing.) 

She’s now a tech CEO and won the ‘86 Lovelace Award and the NASA Exceptional Space Act Award.

The engineers weren’t all boys with crewcuts, short sleeve oxford shirts, and narrow black ties. That’s just a fairy tale they told for a while.

Something to remember. I suppose today’s kids are ho-hum about these recoveries of memory, but I think they’re pretty neat.

no bill, no wall

Just watched McCulloch scold us all.

That was like something out of the last days of Ceaușescu or Mubarak. A mean, revisionist, insulting, arrogant speech, conceived in an out-of-touch star chamber, delivered to an empty room, in a building surrounded by an army, guns bristling outward at all the angry people who’ve had enough.

Except this guy isn’t going anywhere. None of them are. Nobody’s pulling these assholes from their cars, offices, and helicopters, to stand them against a wall.

I voted. I think I voted. But it was a mess.

I know we’re all “rah, rah, you’ve got to vote!”, and I did vote, because there’s a dreadful anti-abortion state constitutional amendment on the ballot and the polling on that was at least close enough that I had to. I live in deepest red America. Nothing else I voted for mattered in the least, and without the constitutional amendment arguably it would be politically and ethically better not to have participated in what is obviously a rigged and lousy system.

Nearly all the races were unopposed outright, like some kind of imperial satrapy where the incumbent gets 99% of the votes cast. Or, if there was someone on the ballot nominally in opposition, there wasn’t really – the (D) was a sacrificial candidate, present to assure us that the forms have been obeyed. (I voted for the hopeless third-party candidate in most of those races, at least where there was a third-party candidate who wasn’t some kind of straight-up-fascist numbskull, for whom the local Republicans aren’t right-wing enough.) Or worse: in one case, as seems to happen every year, the (D) primary was so disorganized that a conservative Republican with a last name beginning with a letter early in the alphabet crashed the (D) primary and actually carried off the nomination. An explicit shuck.

I voted (in fact I voted early), but I left more than half of the ballot blank.

Or whatever the equivalent of ‘blank’ is when you’re using a Diebold electronic voting machine with no paper trail. “Unselected”, I guess, except I don’t even trust that. Who knows what that machine really registered. On my “I voted” sticker, I added “think” in pen, so it said, “I think I voted.”

So spare a thought for those of us for whom this civic ritual is so calamitously messed-up that it’s easy to wonder whether participating in it is the right thing to do in the first place.

The Block Bot is broken.

“First they came for the intolerable harassers, and I did not protest, because getting rid of those people is necessary.

“Then they came for the irredeemable assholes, and I did not protest, because getting rid of those people is a good idea.

“Then they came for some people I wasn’t sure about, but I figured they knew what they were doing, because they’ve always done good work in the past.

“Then they came for some people I thought were right-on, and I was confused, because I didn’t see what good it did.”

— definitely not Martin Niemöller

There’s a problem with the Block Bot.

The problem isn’t that it exists. Discourse communities and political groups need some kind of internal discipline. We need rules for behavior that prevent the destruction of the group and the oppression of the more vulnerable members. This is true all the more for groups that specifically want vulnerable members to be accepted and to participate equally. The Block Bot is part of that effort.

What worries me about the Block Bot is that it’s getting too easy to get on the damn list, impossible to get off it, and the criteria whereby one is added are getting more and more subjective and opaque. It’s becoming a blackball.

This is bad for the Block Bot. It’s bad for the people who need it.

I know, I sound like a complete concern troll. But hear me out, and keep in mind that I think the Block Bot is a good idea.

The Block Bot works best when the decisions of the blockers are clear and sensible – obviously necessary. When it comes to serial harassers, obnoxious psychopaths, trolls and fakes, it’s impossible to disagree – these are the people who blow up discourse communities. You can’t get along with them, so they have to go. Show them the door.

In other words, at L1 and L2 (the higher levels of Block Bot, reserved for the truly damned), I think the Block Bot is working well. Consensus on these people is achievable.

L3 confuses me, though. It’s for “annoyances”. The Block Bot FAQ indeed defines presence on L3 list as relatively trivial – “someone on the internet thought you were an asshole,” is how it puts it. It’s not something to be sweated.

Except, it is, though. The Block Bot, precisely to the extent it has worked well and helped egalitarian discourse sub-communities on Twitter to thrive, has credibility. Being on the Block List, at any level, carries weight. L3 may not be the mark of Cain, but it’s still pretty much an instant disqualification from most of the social justice conversations on twitter.

And what gets you on it? “Someone on the internet thinks you are an asshole”. Do you see the problem with this definition? It’s essentially all-encompassing. Anyone can be on it, because it’s the nature of the internet that virtually everyone has at one time or another been an asshole.

“Speak for yourself.” Yeah, well, I am – but the number of people who have never had a high-handed or insulting word for another person on twitter is something like the number of people in the world who have never had a covetous thought.

Particularly given the nature of the conversation, which is to say, the social justice activism on twitter. It’s combative. That’s a feature, not a bug. Everything is at stake.

Are you sure each and every person to whom you have been vituperative is always and only on the side of the devil?

If not, you plausibly should be on L3.

Arguably I should. I can’t remember anything specific. No blocker has reported me. But I can’t imagine I’ve never had a sharp word with someone on the right side of the social justice divide.

Comrades quarrel.

(Nobody denies this is all partisan and ideological, do they? It’s not just bad behavior, it’s bad behavior directed toward people we like, people with good politics who say good things. To get on the Block Bot block lists, you have to be bad in a certain way to a person who is good in a certain way. It’s not merely about the nature of the behavior in general – the block bot isn’t a liberal policing mechanism. Okay, just so we’re clear. I don’t regard that, again, as a case against it. Just so “civility” as a general principle isn’t used to defend it, because clearly that’s not what’s at stake. It’s to protect certain groups from other groups.)

The reason I and thousands of others are not on the L3 list – that is the problematic thing. It’s because nobody knows exactly what qualifies you for membership on L3, because the definition is so broad it doesn’t serve to separate any particular person from any other person. It makes such specificity inconceivable.

But you can’t have transparency and trust without specificity. You can’t have those things without showing me the rules and then being able to show me, in each case, how the rule was broken. There is no such specificity or transparency for the L3 list. Individual blockers make the decisions and commit the members of the block list without the necessity for further review.

As I see it, categories like “asshole” and “annoyance” recognize patterns, dispositions to behave, not individual acts. The L3 list, if it should exist at all, should be for people the community can’t tolerate. Not people who once said a bad thing to a big wheel.

In other words, it’s not just a question about what you do to get on the list – it’s a question about whom you do it to. The bad tweets that get noticed and get people on L3 are directed at some people and not others.

For example, there is no attempt for the Block Bot blockers to protect people who merely happen to use the Block Bot.

Blockers notice bad tweets tweeted at their friends and at important people with large numbers of followers. The blockers notice bad tweets aimed at people they follow and know.

This is perfectly natural. It’s how social networks function. You notice the activity among your connections.

But this extra level of protection – a Block Blot blocker watching over one’s mentions – is not available to most. It’s available to people who are important nodes in the social justice conversation on twitter.

Structureless organizations have this particular problem – they always have structure; it’s just covert. There are people who dominate the social network. The reasons why are rarely purely about “merit”, whatever “merit” might mean in this circumstance. They accrue recognition and power by whatever means, and that recognition and power is perpetuated by the weighting of the network.

I hardly need to say that this can be problematic, especially in a community that is self-consciously egalitarian and accepting.

I submit that the Block Bot is, despite itself, making this phenomenon worse, precisely by hyper-regulating the discourse surrounding the powerful nodes of the network.

Combine these two effects: First, a widely respected blacklist, membership in which is imposed subjectively by unaccountable individuals acting quickly and perhaps arbitrarily. Second, an aura of hyper-regulation surrounding specifically the conversations concerning powerful individuals in the network.

A set of ultra-vague rules under which almost everyone is, in effect, a violator, does nothing but allow those powerful in the network to mute and expel anyone they want, anytime they want. If everyone is a criminal, everyone is present on the sufferance of the important and their friends.

Communities on sufferance, defined by the menace of their shoulder-hitters, is surely not what the social justice communities on twitter aspire to be.

The term for something like that in free-speech law is “chilling effect”, but that’s not the effect I want to focus on, because one of the (correct) assumptions behind the Block Bot is that not every utterance counts the same. I’m worried about the effect of the Block Bot on the always troublesome dynamics of in-group power.

I am arguing that the Block Bot can easily be a tool that comforts the powerful and afflicts the powerless – within the very social justice communities that it is intended to protect.

Putting people on a list in this manner is not a protective function. It’s called blackballing. That secret process whereby the entrenched protect themselves. Blackballing is always and everywhere a signal feature of closed communities that practice oppression against the weak. Blackballing reinforces hierarchy.

I know how that sounds. The Block Bot’s purpose is the exact opposite of that – it’s to remove the people who disable the very possibility of participation by the vulnerable and silenced. It sounds like I’m saying all the white boy chumps on the L3 list are the real oppressed.

Of course they’re not the real oppressed. What I’m saying is that blackballing is a bad tool. It’s almost impossible to use it for the good. It’s not self-protective, it’s retaliatory. It invariably turns inward on the community it protects.

The L3 block list is at that point. Its purpose needs to be more carefully considered. Its existence should be re-evaluated.

There should be clear definitions of infractions. There should be external input into the nature of these rules. There should be clear cases made against the people put on the list. (Retweeting one context-free tweet isn’t it.) There should be periodic review of the list. There should be external review of the list. There should be external appeal. (Appeal to “the admins” is insufficient. Their instinct and interest naturally leads them to support one another; also, their deliberations are every bit as closed and opaque as the considerations that get one committed to the list in the first place. And, naturally, they built this flawed system, and have an interest in defending its functioning.)

In my opinion, the L3 block list is itself a bad idea and should go. It’s by its nature too prone to crappy use, and to outright abuse. That the block bot admins themselves don’t treat anyone’s membership on L3 seriously already tells you what you need to know about it.

I know this will sound both naive and legalistic, in a way designed to disable the system – but a system like this, to be credible, effective, and useful, has to be transparent and to have serious limits. Otherwise it is potentially no more than ridiculous – the easy target of the lazy accusation that it’s a group of closed-minded friends batting aside whatever troubles their complacency.

I don’t believe that’s true of the Block Bot. That’s not what the people who run it have in mind. I think they’re sincere people doing a hard job.

But it’s becoming true. And, to repeat, that is bad for the Block Bot. It’s bad for the people who need it.

Look, the social justice conversation should by its nature be a broad one. People should be welcome, not terrified. Every community needs rules of good behavior. But at the same time communities are easily destroyed, whittled down to useless sects, by star chambers that expel people without excellent reasons. That is the real danger – that the Block Bot will damage the communities it exists to preserve. That it will destroy the village trying to save it.

What occasioned this rant? You have a right to know. A friend of mine got L3-blocked. Someone I know, who should be in on the social justice conversation. Not just abstractly, but concretely – this is a good person with good politics who is willing to go to some lengths to defend the side of the angels. The community needs people like that; it is weaker without them. The block was a snap judgment and an error, and it not only does wrong by this person – more importantly, it does wrong by the community.

“No Angel” — On Divine and Human Victimhood

I remember I had an online argument about the coverage of the cruel death of the adjunct instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko, abandoned by her institution. Slate offered a “full profile” about Vojtko, a “corrective” of the viral story of her death, showing how difficult and proud and unwilling to seek help she was, and so on. 

I objected that this was a journalistic smokescreen, a cynical way of diverting criticism and obscuring the real responsibility for her penniless, lonely death, which belonged to DuQuesne University, and to the structural imbalances in higher ed more generally. My interlocutor held that I was rather guilty of hagiography of Vojtko, which — well, I forget why that was bad, exactly, beyond its being simply false — and that it was important to know the whole picture. My position was that this particular “whole picture” was itself a kind of falsification of the truth of the matter, which was the sheer injustice visited on Vojtko — in an important sense, it didn’t matter to the moral equation who she was, in all her human particularity, except that as a person she did not deserve what she received. Because nobody does.

I wonder how this quarrel might look now, when a far graver thing has happened, as the New York Times runs a nearly identical profile on Mike Brown. He was “no angel”, in the now-famous phrase — he smoked pot, he drank, he “rapped”, he got into a fight, he may (or may not) have robbed some phillies from a store, whatever. 

Naturally there is a firestorm of criticism directed at the Times, because those things don’t separate Brown from the ordinary run of humanity, they’re red herrings, and positioning them that way in a profile printed the day of his funeral feels like they’re giving cover to the police who murdered him. 

On the one hand, it’s important that we understand there are no perfect victims. There are no angels. Being angelic is not a requirement for receiving the protections of one’s human rights, nor is it necessary to be perfect to be deserving of justice. We enjoy our rights and we deserve our justice by virtue of of our status as human beings. A “full picture” of Vojtko or Brown serves that end, in a way, by dispelling the myth that victimhood is divine, and not human.

But it doesn’t work that way, does it? The gofundme that the police union in St. Louis put up for Officer Wilson got a lot more contributions than the fund for Brown’s family. The comments (now taken down) on the campaign amounted to a torrent of hateful sewage. All took as obvious the certainty that Brown was a beast, abstracting from precisely the material given in the profile as a “whole picture” that “humanized” Brown.

When your aim is to humanize, it seems to me that this is an explicit admission that your subject is not generally regarded as human. In that case, what seems to humanize may simply continue to demonize. 

In a way Mike Brown’s victimhood is divine, because it doesn’t have anything to do with his particular humanity. His own foibles and virtues, the qualities that made him an individual mortal person, had nothing to do with what was done to him. Everything that the cops saw, that they targeted for death, was wholly general: the broadest categories, the biggest stereotypes, the most commonly imposed conditions. Not him, not a person, but his race – or rather, their racism. His neighborhood. His socioeconomic class. Because of the judgments they made about these categories, they knew he couldn’t be a real human being. He was an animal to them, or a target outline. 

And…I think that what matters for those of us who hate what happened to him, and want justice, those of us who believe all people should receive the full measure of their human rights, and not just a part, is, again, not the specificity of Mike Brown’s life. Those blunts he smoked, if they even existed, don’t matter. How much his family loved him doesn’t matter. His college plans don’t matter. He was a human being, and human beings should be treated justly. But he was black, so they disqualified him.

Mike Brown’s human individuality is what makes this a tragedy; his mere status as a human being is what makes it an injustice. 

The essence of Mike Brown’s murder is the divide in America that separates the easy humanity that someone like me (white, bourgeois) is permitted to enjoy and the denial of humanity meted out to Mike Brown, which is still intensifying even after they put his body in the ground. 

That divide is structural, it is social, it is economic, it is material. It is not just a bad idea in the cops’ heads. It is everywhere. It is in biased network effects in school admissions and job hiring, it is in our country’s legacy of racist housing policy, it is in the funding mechanisms of the public schools, it is in the militarization of the police, it is in our absurd approach to gun policy, it is in the very condition of the pavement Mike Brown was walking on that day. This is what we all need to know about; this is what we all need to see.

How was this divide made, how is it perpetuated, and how can we destroy the structures that perpetuate it? Those are the questions. 

Knowing that Michael Brown was a human being like we all are — shouldn’t everyone have known that already? Isn’t that where everyone must begin?

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