Sat 14 Jul 2018
Over a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, commentators are still trying to understand the election and the explosion of intolerance following it. One common view is that Trump’s victory was a consequence of pervasive racism in American society.
Studies make clear, however, that racism has been decreasing over time, among Republicans and Democrats. (Views of immigration have also grown more favorable.) Moreover, since racism is deep-seated and longstanding, reference to it alone makes it difficult to understand the election of Barack Obama and Trump, the differences between Trump and the two previous Republican nominees on race and immigration, and the dramatic breakdown of social norms and civility following the elections. (Social scientists call this the “constant can’t explain a variable” problem.)
This does not mean racism is irrelevant; it matters, but social science suggests it does in more complicated ways than much commentary suggests.
Perhaps because straightforward bigotry has declined precipitously while more subtle, complex resentments remain, understanding how intolerance shapes politics requires examining not just beliefs, but also the relationship between beliefs and the environments people find themselves in. This distinction has important implications for how we interpret and address contemporary social and political problems.
Rather than being directly translated into behavior, psychologists tell us beliefs can remain latent until “triggered”. In a fascinating study, Karen Stenner shows in The Authoritarian Dynamic that while some individuals have “predispositions” towards intolerance, these predispositions require an external stimulus to be transformed into actions. Or, as another scholar puts it: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group … But when they perceive no such threat, their behavior is not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.”
What pushes that button, Stenner and others find, is group-based threats. In experiments researchers easily shift individuals from indifference, even modest tolerance, to aggressive defenses of their own group by exposing them to such threats. Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, for example, found that simply making white Americans aware that they would soon be a minority increased their propensity to favor their own group and become wary of those outside it. (Similar effects were found among Canadians. Indeed, although this tendency is most dangerous among whites since they are the most powerful group in western societies, researchers have consistently found such propensities in all groups.)
Building on such research, Diana Mutz recently argued that Trump’s stress on themes like growing immigration, the power of minorities and the rise of China highlighted status threats and fears particularly among whites without a college education, prompting a “defensive reaction” that was the most important factor in his election. This “defensive reaction” also explains why Trump’s post-election racist, xenophobic and sexist statements and reversal of traditional Republican positions on trade and other issues have helped him – they keep threats to whites front and center, provoking anger, fear and a strong desire to protect their own group.
Understanding why Trump found it easy to trigger these reactions requires examining broader changes in American society. In an excellent new book, Uncivil Agreement, Lilliana Mason analyzes perhaps the most important of these: a decades-long process of “social sorting”. Mason notes that although racial and religious animosity has been present throughout American history, only recently has it lined up neatly along partisan lines. In the past, the Republican and Democratic parties attracted supporters with different racial, religious, ideological and regional identities, but gradually Republicans became the party of white, evangelical, conservative and rural voters, while the Democrats became associated with non-whites, non-evangelical, liberal and metropolitan voters.
By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and Seth Marnin
June 8, 2018
Words are powerful. How we use words, how we name things, and what we call people matters. This is especially true for transgender people who change their names. Torah and Talmud have much to teach us about our obligation to respect a transgender person’s name change.
Words created the world and still have the ability to change it. The formation of the world began when G-d said “let there be light.” But even before G-d could say “let there be light,” G-d needed letters to form those words. All the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are therefore the building blocks of creation, בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ. In the beginning G-d created א ת.
The mystics explain that the life of a person comes from the letters of their name. They reframe the end of Genesis 2:19 נפש חיה הוא שמו (literally, “whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name”) as the life of a living thing is its name.
Names also represent the essence of something. Rashi affirms that the world was created with the “Holy Tongue” because the Hebrew word for “woman,” “אשה” isha, is related to the word for “man,” “איש” ish. (Genesis 2:23) Man and woman started as one and then were separated. Their new names, man and woman, reflect that transition in the way new names mirror who we are or who we are becoming.
Just as what we are called reflects who we are, each one of us is a representation of the divine. Our names–the names we are given and the names we claim–influence our purpose in the world. Angels, for example, in Hebrew, are called מלאכים, because they exist exclusively to perform G-d’s work מלאכה.
But we are not only created in the image of G-d, we are also messengers of G-d, each one of us uniquely suited for specific tasks. Sometimes we find that our mission or circumstances evolve. With those new challenges, so too may our name change. When Jacob wrestles with the angel and overcomes the angel, for example, he is told, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel…” (Genesis 32:29).
While sometimes name changes follow an event, a new name may be anticipatory or forward looking. The name change might be empowering or assist in the momentum toward the journey. In this week’s Torah portion, for instance, Moses gives Hoshea a new name, Joshua, to help him achieve a better outcome when he is sent with the spies to Israel (“Those were the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land; but Moses changed the name of Hoshea son of Nun to Joshua”) (Numbers 13:16).
How we refer to people, how we respect their names and identities, matters. The Talmud teaches us that it is better to be verbose in order to be sensitive than concise and insensitive. We learn that G-d added extra letters into the Torah just to show us that it is better to be wordy, and even awkward, if it prevents one from uttering something unrefined. (Pesachim 3a).
Recognizing and respecting a name change, one’s capacity to change, and the legitimacy of the changes is essential, an obligation. In Genesis 17:5, G-d renames Abraham, “And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham.” It is so important to the rabbis that Abraham’s new name is recognized and respected they went so far as to argue over whether, if one calls Abraham by his former name, they fail to fulfill the positive mitzvah of calling Abraham by his new name; transgresses the underlying prohibition implied in the name change of calling Abraham by his former name; or transgresses both at the same time.
R’ Zakkai attributed his long life to having, among other reasons, never called someone by something other than their name (Megillah 27b). R’Zakkai was rewarded with long life because he contributed to the life of others by calling them by their appropriate name.
When a transgender person chooses a new name and discards their deadname, it is an act of creation. Like Abraham and Sarah, Israel and Joshua, it is marker. A moment, among moments, of transition and transformation. A new chapter. Renaming ourselves, claiming our names, in order to live our lives is a part of our own holy re-creation. Calling us by our new, correct names is an opportunity for others to contribute to our lives and participate in the holiness.
I find it pretty amazing how many left wing agitators wind up hanging themselves. Phil Ochs, Abbie Hoffman and now Oksana Shachko. Maybe I read too many action/spy novels but I have to wonder about these suspicious suicides.
By Ivan Nechepurenko
July 25, 2018
Oksana Shachko, a Ukrainian artist and a founder of Femen, a women’s rights group famous for its topless political protests, was found dead on Monday at her home in Montrouge, a suburb south of Paris. She was 31.
Emmanuelle Lepissier, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office in the nearby suburb of Nanterre, said the police were treating the death as a suicide pending the results of an autopsy.
“Oksana hanged herself,” Anna Hutsol, another founder of Femen, told Ukrainska Pravda, a news website. “Her friends said that they saw her last on Friday. They decided to break the door, and then they found her.”
In a statement, Femen said, “Oksana fought for justice, she fought for equality, she fought for herself and all women as a hero.”
Together with the Pussy Riot punk group in Russia, Femen became part of a post-Soviet protest phenomenon that sometimes drew a violent reaction. In 2011, Femen said that Ms. Shachko and other activists had been abducted in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, after campaigning in front of the K.G.B. headquarters there. Several members were beaten up in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, in 2013 ahead of a visit by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Ms. Shachko and several other activists from the university town of Khmelnytsky, Ukraine, founded Femen in 2008. After a few conventional protests, they decided to demonstrate topless, often with political slogans written on their bodies.
At times braving icy temperatures, Femen members protested in Ukraine against sexual exploitation; in Davos, Switzerland — the scene of an annual conference of world political and business leaders — against income inequality; and, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, against policies of the Roman Catholic Church, among other targets. In their nakedness they wore flower crowns to symbolize chastity.
In 2013, members of Femen ran topless in front of Mr. Putin as he visited Germany, drawing a grin and two thumbs up from him before guards wrestled the activists to the ground.
Ms. Shachko, along with several other Femen members, moved to Paris that same year and was granted political asylum by the French authorities. She maintained that the group’s members had been pursued by Russian special services and that the agents had planted a grenade in Femen’s office in Kiev, along with a photograph of Mr. Putin.
By John Nichols
July 11, 2018
When Bernie Sanders was beginning his presidential run, I asked the nation’s most prominent democratic socialist how he thought the word “socialism” would play on the campaign trail.
“Do they think I’m afraid of the word?” he replied. “I’m not afraid of the word.”
That was a transformational answer, as it signaled a break with the politics of caution and compromise that for decades had stifled debate within the Democratic Party where Sanders was mounting his bid. It also marked a renewal of the historic premise that, in order to progress, America’s political leaders must be open to a broad range of ideas. This premise fostered the great economic, social, and political advances that tamed the excesses of the Gilded Age and its aftermath. It cleared the way for a bolder and more expansive politics—influenced by democratic-socialist, progressive, and populist ideas—that created space for the rise of national leaders such as Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Democratic socialism has deep roots in American history. Socialists have been campaigning for major offices and winning major elections for more than a century in the United States. Voters have elected socialist senators, congressmen, legislators, and mayors. Alliances of socialists, populists, and progressives once shaped the politics of Midwestern states such as Wisconsin. And this is not just a historical footnote. As an unapologetic democratic socialist, Sanders won 23 primary and caucus contests in his 2016 Democratic presidential bid—securing over 60 percent of the vote in almost a dozen of them, carrying urban and rural regions and sweeping the youth vote. A proud democratic socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, just won a primary victory over one of the top Democrats in the US House of Representatives — and members of Democratic Socialists of America have been on a winning streak in legislative and local races nationwide.
So it should not come as a surprise that Cynthia Nixon, who is mounting an insurgent challenge to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary, took to Twitter on Tuesday to offer this perspective on the ideological debates of the moment: “Why don’t pundits who are so obsessed with @Ocasio2018 supporting democratic socialism ask corporate-backed politicians why they are so supportive of unfettered capitalism?”
That’s a very good question. A necessary question. And Nixon expanded upon her remarks with a statement that declared her campaign is aligned with democratic-socialist principles.
“Some more establishment, corporate Democrats get very scared by this term but if being a democratic socialist means that you believe health care, housing, education and the things we need to thrive should be a basic right, not a privilege, then count me in,” wrote Nixon. “As Martin Luther King [Jr.] put it, call it democracy or call it democratic socialism but we have to have a better distribution of wealth in this country.”