Tag Archives: freedom of speech

Simone Zimmerman – how the Sanders campaign clarified their message

Trigger warning: Israel/Palestine conflict, antisemitism, islamophobia, racism

The Sanders campaign caught a significant amount of flack this weekend for his trip to Rome to meet with Pope Francis. Just in terms of the optics – the deference it suggested to an institution wracked recently and historically by criticism, particularly over its role in socio-economic inequalities – the meeting clashed with Sanders’ primary political message of the need for a popular voice in more spheres of life. Or did it?

A second scandal of sorts for his campaign broke earlier last week, and called into question whether Sanders’ campaign is about social and economic justice anymore. In short, what transpired was that his campaign hired a young Jewish activist, Simone Zimmerman, only to “suspend” her mere hours later over comments unearthed from her personal Facebook dating back to the spring of 2015. Angered over Israeli military policies, she typed this out, addressing then and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

Bibi Netanyahu is an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole. He is the embodiment of the ugliest national hubris and the tone-deafness toward the international community. Fuck you, Bibi, for daring to insist that you legitimately represent even a fraction of the Jews in this world, for your consistent fear-mongering, for pushing Israel, in word and deed, farther and farther away from the international community, and most importantly, for trying to derail the potentially historic diplomatic deal with Iran and thus trying to distract the world from the fact that you sanctioned the murder of over 2,000 people this summer, that a brutal military occupation of millions more continues under your watch, and that you are spending time and money on ridiculous campaign opportunities like this instead of actually working to address the real needs of your own people.

Netanyahu insulted our President but also much worse. He does not speak for me as a Jew, an American, and as a thinking person. #BibiDoesntSpeakForMe

She later modified it to cut out the swearing, saying instead “Shame on you”. The Sanders campaign is not just any campaign, and the decision to suspend Zimmerman over this discovered comment uniquely calls into question their political vision and policy prescriptions. In this race, his rhetoric has often been accused of being one note, with his emphasis on not only economic inequality but the need to reform the political process to limit campaign contributions. That is an important political question, and Sanders himself has spoken about the haunting questions is raises about whether we still live under a truly democratic system.

It’s also a loftily abstract issue in politics, that the average person contends with directly only once in a few years. A more every day issue of freedom of speech, tied into the reality of insurgent campaigns like Sanders, is whether people with less can be coerced into particular statements or political silence. In the age of the internet this has leaped from an issue about bosses demanding their employees take off the bumper sticker on their car, to now the ability of employers to fire or punish their employees over literally anything traceable to them online – like a Facebook post, even before it was edited. Sanders just made a statement about where he stands on the more colloquial experience average people have with the intersection of economic and political power.

Setting aside the issue of freedom speech, this speaks to the thorny place Sanders finds himself in terms of outreach towards Jewish communities. Reminiscent of the liberal if not socialist Zionism of a bygone era of Jewish politics, he has limited appeal to more modern Zionist circles. Given his policies on Israel, however, anti-Zionist Jewish activists, like Zimmerman, have historically found themselves in even greater dissonance with him. His choice to hire Zimmerman, in fact, was seen as a sign of changing ideas about which Jewish circles require outreach and what that would typically sound like.

2016-04-18_0746(From a New York rally held the year before, credit to Martyna Starosta.)

By pivoting back into staffing decisions in line with a more traditionally Zionist Jewish politics, the Sanders campaign has echoed what I’ve noted in their politics for months now: a focus on whittling down what the supposed political revolution will be about. Reparations have been declared as outside the purview of economic injustice, now implicit criticism of Zionism is beyond a similar pale. This is a facet of his political organization that’s increasingly hard to ignore.

In fact, one of the heralds of this moment in which Sanders’ revolutionary politics shrank back is eerily relevant. In one of the year’s first Democratic debates, Sanders spoke about the economic and political elites in Qatar and Saudi Arabia as if they not only were representative of the broader population, but also as ultimately responsible for resolving problems in entirely other states just in the same larger region of the world.

Now, he’s suspended a staffer, over her declaring that the head of a state in that part of the world, who claimed to speak for her, was not truly representing her. Sanders’ previous discussion of the region acted as if someone like Zimmerman, a person categorized on paper by certain ethnic or national words like “Qataris” or “Saudis” or “Jews,” was not meaningfully different from most others roped together with those words.

He sure showed her with a suspension.

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We’re taking the Cato Institute seriously on this?

TW: torture, indefinite detention, surveillance of civilians, violations of civil liberties

One of the more intriguing and yet overlooked things to have happened in the past couple of weeks while I haven’t been blogging at full speed happened on the Rachel Maddow show, a few days after Christmas while Ezra Klein was filling in for her. He decided to address the fact that bipartisan support for effectively warrantless wiretapping of US citizens is still the norm, which made particular sense in the wake of the Senate’s then recent extension of the government’s right to warrantlessly wiretap.

That said, a major part of how he covered those issues was to invite on Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, who then proceeded to label President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate as the fundamental barrier to rescinding the vestiges of Bush era surveillance. The fact that this had to pass through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives disappeared from the discussion, which made clear that Sanchez and by proxy the Cato Institute are holding Democrats responsible but letting Republicans off the hook.

Unsurprising though this may be, coming from the Cato Institute, this speaks to several broader political problems we need to understand and respond to. The Cato Institute and many other libertarians in recent years have largely reinvented themselves as not only a libertarian think tank, but the group leading a call to arms on issues pertaining civil liberties. As already quite clearly Republican-friendly, much of that narrative has focused on how Democrats are the wannabe despots, in spite of much of the ideological groundwork for this being put together during the Bush years. But that strategy has started to bear fruit, with President Obama being implicitly asked why he doesn’t support “internet freedom” when the Republicans do and with this sort of an appearance being treated seriously on the supposedly den of social democracy at MSNBC.

Of course, whether this narrative actually makes sense with the facts on the ground is another question entirely. There is a point to be made that the leadership of both parties are unwilling to take on this issue, but the real question to be asked when faced with that fact is which party is most salvageable. And the answer is quite clear: the Democrats even if their current status on this particular issue is not much better than the Republicans.

The vote tallies tell this story quite frankly. The bill passed the House with the support of 227 Republicans, which alone would have been sufficient for that body’s approval. Admittedly, 74 Democrats went along with them, and obviously they should be held accountable for their support. But look at where the groundswell of opposition to this sort of a governmental powers is coming from – 7 Republicans voted against, compared with 111 Democrats. It’s quite clear that if the Cato Institute took civil liberties quite seriously, they’d be considering how best to ally with the Democrats who support their position, rather than alienating them.

Even if we accept the framing that Klein and Sanchez put in place, in the much more surveillance-supportive Senate, we can’t help but come to a slightly weaker version of the same conclusion. Yes, a majority of Democrats and Republicans supported the bill, but of the 23 who opposed it, 19 were Democrats, compared to only 3 who were Republicans. If the Democratic Party isn’t salvageable with those numbers, then the Republicans are long past saving. After all, the sole independent in congress, Senator Bernie Sanders, voted against the bill.

Beyond the broader partisan issues of how this subject has frequently been framed, there’s also the question of why we should even honor the Cato Institute’s work on this issue. This is an institute with staff that treated the extension of Miranda rights to an alleged terrorist as something to complain about or an opportunity to state that the Miranda decision “smacks of judicial lawmaking” (which is nothing more than an intelligent way of saying “judicial activism”). This is an institute which could only publicly defend the Obama Administration’s proposal to criminally try Guantánamo detainees by refusing to credit it as being his administration’s proposal. Of course, that was only the viewpoint publicly provided by the Cato Institute when it wasn’t ambivalently worrying that a trial might provide “a forum for propagandizing on behalf of al Qaeda” or bemoaned the legal use of “alleged” in media coverage pertaining to those trials. Because why would you expect a civil liberties-oriented think tank to concern itself with freedom of speech or presumption of innocence?


(At the time, the Cato Institute’s response to this was more or less “meh”. Image originally from here.)

But beyond questioning garden variety rights of the accused, Cato has hardly much of a record when it comes to the peculiar legal standards of the Bush Administration, namely when it comes to torture. Among other discussions on the subject, they saw fit to publish in May 2011 an article titled “Did Waterboarding Work?” which contains astounding statements like “We’ll probably never know the real value of coercive techniques. Surely some accurate information came from their use.” Actually, the fact that torture was not only dehumanizing and degrading but counter-productive had been an established scientific fact for years at that point, but that didn’t seem to trouble anyone over at Cato. And yet somehow, the institute that saw fit to publish this and has continued hosting it since then is the voice we should look to for advice on civil liberties?

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