How Should We Deal With High-Profile Anti-Semites?

Plus: Apple’s rotten update

Kanye West
Paolo Pellegrin / Magnum

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.


Question of the Week

What is the best response to anti-Semitism in America?

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com or simply reply to this email.


Conversations of Note

Although I believe we’re living through a period of overzealous speech policing, there are still a few questions I regard as settled, a few associated speech taboos I value, and occasional instances when I believe that a public figure has gone beyond the pale––Roseanne Barr, Ralph Northam, Rush Limbaugh––and that some sort of counterspeech is necessary and desirable.

“For most of my adult life, antisemites—with exceptions like Pat Buchanan and Mel Gibson—have lacked status in America,” Michelle Goldberg writes in her most recent column for The New York Times. “The most virulent antisemites tended to hate Jews from below, blaming them for their own failures and disappointments.” But now, she laments, “anti-Jewish bigotry, or at least tacit approval of anti-Jewish bigotry, is coming from people with serious power,” arguably including a former president.

As Goldberg put it:

There is no excuse for being shocked by anything that Donald Trump does, yet I confess to being astonished that the former president dined last week with one of the country’s most influential white supremacists, a smirking little fascist named Nick Fuentes. There’s nothing new about antisemites in Trump’s circle, but they usually try to maintain some plausible deniability, ranting about globalists and George Soros rather than the Jews.

Fuentes, by contrast, is overt. “Jews have too much power in our society,” he recently wrote on his Telegram channel. “Christians should have all the power, everyone else very little.” Fuentes was brought to Trump’s lair by Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who was evidently serious when he threatened to go “death con 3” on the Jews last month.

Since the publication of Ye’s anti-Semitic tweet, and his subsequent suspensions from Twitter and Instagram, I’ve been pondering what the best response would have been, as someone who values the taboo against anti-Semitism but doesn’t know how best to conserve it. I sympathize with those who believe that loudly denouncing anti-Semitic comments is a moral imperative, particularly when they come from a famous person whose creative work has been celebrated for artistic excellence, which confers a measure of influence. Then again, I’d hate to render public discourse captive to the most idiotic ravings of a provocateur who thrives on attention, so I also get the impulse to ignore rather than focus on Ye’s words.

Or consider Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets star who posted a link on social media to the anti-Semitic film Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America! As fallout began, Irving declared, “I’m not going to stand down on anything I believe in. I’m only going to get stronger because I’m not alone. I have a whole army around me.” Then the Nets suspended him, and Nike announced that it would suspend its relationship with Irving. On his Substack, the sports journalist Ethan Strauss provided additional context:

Kyrie lobbied for his peers to shut down the 2020 NBA playoff bubble and potentially squander billions for the cause of social justice. He faced some criticism over this, but then some praise for prescience after players actually did go on a wildcat strike during the bubble.

Later on, more controversially, Irving refused to get a Covid vaccine, despite New York City’s quite onerous vax mandate. He was criticized rather ruthlessly for his choice in the media. Respectable outlets didn’t ask many questions about civil liberties concerns and those who had praised Irving’s past outspokeness [sic] were all too happy to suddenly dismiss him as a whack job. But New York has since ditched its mandates and history might view Kyrie’s move more favorably. Increasingly, it’s more accepted to say that young and healthy people shouldn’t be forced to adjust their immune systems to the whims of mayoral decree.

This is prologue for yet another situation where Irving is up against a consensus that he’s being insane … I do believe he’s being insane and also that he’s not a rational actor … His opinion generation process, according to those who’ve worked with him, is scrolling through hours and hours of Instagram videos absent much discernment. Irving quite literally wasn’t convinced the world was round. This wasn’t a put-on or a troll, but a genuine opinion according [to] those who know him. I’m noting the brief history to establish why it might be difficult to move Irving off a position, crazy as that position might be, even if Nike is cutting ties with him.

A House of Strauss reader pointed out that, back in 2001, then–New York Knicks player Charlie Ward made headlines after saying Jews had blood on their hands for killing Jesus and were stubborn. Rather than suspend the player, then–NBA Commissioner David Stern issued the following statement:

Ward would have been better off not to have uttered his uninformed and ill-founded statements. But I do not wish to enhance his sense of martyrdom by penalizing him for giving them public voice. He will have to accept the reactions and judgments of fans and all fair-minded people who have been offended.

Was Stern’s course prudent because it emphasized the wrongheadedness of Ward’s statement without making a free-speech martyr of a well-known athlete who was seemingly engaged in anti-Semitism? Or was there a better way? It’s hard to know for sure, but here’s a New York Post account of what happened after Irving’s suspension ended and he returned to the NBA:

Hundreds of members of a Black Jewish Israelite group chanted “we are the real Jews” as they descended on Brooklyn’s Barclays Center during pro-Kyrie Irving marches, videos show. A massive line of followers, all donning shirts of the group “Israel United in Christ,” were captured Sunday bellowing “we’ve got some good news” and “we are the real Jews,” according to footage posted on social media, which has since gone viral.

I’m unsure as to whether that could have been avoided, or whether it matters, and if so, how much it matters. And I was interested to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrestling with similar questions in a conversation with Bari Weiss, who asked the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, “What do you think is the right response to a celebrity or a star athlete who makes antisemitic statements?”

Abdul-Jabbar’s answer:

There should never be a one-size-fits-all punishment, because everything depends on what is said and the reaction from the celebrity when called out. In Irving’s case, he refused to acknowledge the damage he was causing and went on to cause more. Sometimes, celebrities might say something harmful without realizing it, but when it’s pointed out are immediately apologetic. Then, nothing should happen. We all make mistakes, and we should be supportive of those who are willing to learn. I think it would be very helpful for sports organizations to offer presentations in critical thinking to their players. Too many players either didn’t learn this in college, or didn’t attend college where they might have learned it. In the end, this might save teams a lot of money and bad publicity, because it might eliminate some of the illogical prejudice being posted.

Before expressing any more of my own opinions on this subject, I am looking forward to reading and pondering whatever thoughts all of you have to offer. Do send me an email this week.

Apple’s Rotten Update

In Quartz, Zachary M. Seward argues that Apple “hobbled a crucial tool of dissent in China weeks before widespread protests broke out.” He explains:

Anti-government protests flared in several Chinese cities and on college campuses over the weekend. But the country’s most widespread show of public dissent in decades will have to manage without a crucial communication tool, because Apple restricted its use in China earlier this month. AirDrop, the file-sharing feature on iPhones and other Apple devices, has helped protestors in many authoritarian countries evade censorship. That’s because AirDrop relies on direct connections between phones, forming a local network of devices that don’t need the internet to communicate. People can opt into receiving AirDrops from anyone else with an iPhone nearby.

That changed on Nov. 9, when Apple released a new version of its mobile operating system … Rather than listing new features, as it often does, the company simply said, “This update includes bug fixes and security updates and is recommended for all users.” Hidden in the update was a change that only applies to iPhones sold in mainland China: AirDrop can only be set to receive messages from everyone for 10 minutes, before switching off. There’s no longer a way to keep the “everyone” setting on permanently on Chinese iPhones. The change, first noticed by Chinese readers of 9to5Mac, doesn’t apply anywhere else.

You Say You Want a Revolution?

Noah Millman reflects on examples of oppressive regimes being overthrown and comes to the gloomy conclusion that liberals in Iran and China are unlikely to triumph over their respective regimes:

The more I think about it, the harder it is for me to see how the Iranian or Chinese people succeed through popular protest alone. They are not challenging regimes that are thin and weak, but ones that are thick and entrenched, and fully supported by military and paramilitary organs. If they are increasingly inward-looking, oppressive and incompetent, that is in part because they have both taken dramatic steps in recent years to purge themselves of liberal or reformist elements in favor of lock-step loyalists, which leaves less room for the kind of factional split that could give a popular revolution crucial leverage inside the regime. Nor is either country on the brink of financial collapse. Iran is already massively sanctioned and yet continues to function, which has arguably increased the regime’s hold on the country rather than weakening it. China is far too large and prosperous to strangle from without. It’s not inappropriate to describe both regimes as somewhat Brezhnevite, but it’s worth remembering that Brezhnev’s Soviet Union did not collapse from its own contradictions, but successfully crushed liberal revolts in Czechoslovakia and Poland and sent troops to Afghanistan to prop up an unpopular communist regime there.

That’s not a happy conclusion for me to come to, nor is it for anyone who loves human freedom. It’s much more pleasant to believe that these oppressive regimes, having made catastrophic errors, are now about to face their just deserts. But politics is not a morality play, and oppressive and unpopular regimes—even ones whose poor decisions are steadily eroding their nations’ power and well-being—can last for a long time if they can keep enough key centers of power on their side. So far, that’s something both countries—certainly China, but Iran as well, at least so far—have managed to do.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that people power can triumph. But from where I sit, the most likely scenario for a successful Iranian or Chinese revolution is for either country to start a major war with an adversary that they then go on to lose, badly. That’s the kind of mistake that can shatter your army or turn it against you, and if that happens the end of a regime can come quickly. It’s also a mistake that both countries have so far been wise enough to avoid making. Given the terrible human costs of any such war, we ought to hope that they continue to avoid it, even though it makes their odious regimes’ survival more likely.

Casinos Don’t Enrich Cities

Nicole Gelinas sets forth that argument in City Journal while arguing against relying on them to solve New York City’s economic woes:

Casinos don’t have much of an economic-multiplier effect for two reasons. First, the house always wins: casinos are extractive entertainment. People who lose money gambling have less to spend at competing attractions, such as restaurants or sports stadia …

Second, casinos do not create, on balance, high-paying jobs. Nationwide, the average gambling-industry worker earns $18 in mean hourly wages, federal data show—not much above New York’s statutory minimum wage of $15. Gambling dealers earn $32,450 annually; gambling managers earn $89,190. The average private-sector worker in Las Vegas, the nation’s gambling capital, earns just $992 weekly, below the national average of $1,116 … Unlike the typical New York banker or white-collar manager, the average casino worker does not command the personal spending power to support jobs across other industries. Nor does the casino worker earn enough to be a significant source of state or city tax revenue in a highly progressive state dependent on top earners...

Thus, casinos don’t save cities economically.


Provocations of the Week

Kathryn Mangu-Ward makes “the case for space billionaires” at Reason.

And at The Permanent Problem, Brink Lindsey muses on the state of capitalism in a world without competition from alternative systems of economic organization. His take on the matter:

Since the fall of communism 30 years ago, capitalism for the first time in its existence lacks any competition from a rival system … Virtually the entire inhabitable surface of the globe has been claimed by territorially exclusive states using the same basic forms of governance. Some two-thirds of working-age people worldwide work for money income, most as wage employees of private business enterprises. The majority of people now live in cities constructed from the same building materials and shaped by the same architectural styles. Everywhere you can find people wearing the same kinds of clothing, eating the same food, driving the same cars, watching the same movies, and obsessing about the same media celebrities. For all of its history until recently, though, capitalism had to contend with actually existing alternatives. Capitalism emerged against the backdrop of aristocratic agrarianism, the legacy system that it gradually displaced and toppled. And well before the agrarian order breathed its last, a new rival arose in the form of the socialist movement. While World War I finally toppled the old agrarian power structures, it simultaneously brought socialism to power in Russia …

Capitalism’s coexistence with rival systems afforded it opportunities, and subjected it to pressures, that enhanced its powers as an engine of social progress. When industrialization was first taking off, capitalists took advantage of the huge “reserve army of labor” in the peasantry to keep wages hovering at subsistence levels. And when industrializing economies were beset with periodic crises and slumps, the capitalist system could avoid chaos because the countryside acted as a kind of informal social welfare system, absorbing displaced workers temporarily until demand for their services recovered …

Competition with socialism forced the adoption of major institutional innovations that made it possible for the system to survive that bumpy ride intact. Specifically, the advanced capitalist economies were able to avoid socialist revolution only by absorbing significant amounts of the socialist program … Capitalism’s social-democratic makeover preserved the fundamental market order while introducing unionization to strengthen workers’ bargaining power and social insurance to soften the market’s downsides. This partial co-optation of socialism rejected the doctrine’s fundamental error (i.e., radical hostility to markets) while internalizing its key insight—that the existing rules of economic life, far from being natural and necessary, are conventions that can be altered to improve society’s overall functioning. Success often brings new difficulties in its wake, and it seems to me that capitalism’s elimination of all rivals presents a genuine problem.