SpeechCast Episode 1 – Monica Osborne

by , May 23, 2021SpeechCast

David Bernstein
Hello, this is David Bernstein, I am founder and CEO of the new Jewish Institute for liberal values. And this is our inaugural webcast and podcast. And I couldn’t be happier to do it with Monica Osborn. Monica is an academic. And in trauma studies and in literature and philosophy, she’s done a lot of work studying critical race theory, and critical social justice ideologies. I’ve had the opportunity to work with her, in addition to being the sort of founding editor of this news, this speech project through the Jewish journal. She’s also I’m proud to say, I scholar and residents of the Jewish Institute for liberal values. So Monica, thank you so much for joining us on this very first, webcast. Les Paul, thanks for having me. Tell me about this exciting new project, the speech project?

Monica Osborne
Sure. So the speech project was an idea that David Suissa, who is the editor in chief at the Jewish journal had.

David Suissa, and I have been friends for many years, friends and colleagues. And we, we realized that we’re always talking about these, these issues pertaining to free speech and the suppression of speech. And, this question of what you can and can’t say, and what happens when you say things that people don’t think you should say whether it’s people on the left or people on the right. And so David had this great idea to create something called the speech project at the Jewish journal. And, of course, he invited me to be the editor, which is really exciting for me, because what I get to do is bring together all of these different voices from different media outlets. So we have essays that are original to the Jewish journal. But what I also do is bring in pieces from places like Persuasion, or Tablet Magazine, or we even had one from the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago from The Week or Los Angeles magazine.

And the idea is very, very much centered around classical Liberalism. Right. I think that we both know that. One of the things we’ve been seeing everywhere, whether it’s in mainstream media outlets or on social media is what feels like suppression of liberalism. And so we’re starting to hear the word illiberalism more and more.  I think it used to be that people saw people on the right, conservatives as being the ones to try to ban books or censor things, but I think what we’ve seen in the past five years, at least, is that it’s starting to happen pretty quickly on the left. This is really a place where we can talk about all of these issues that aren’t supposed to be talked about. So for the free speech project, we have three sections, we have a top stories section, and that can be anything.

Today, we’ve got some new content going up, we’re going to have there was a piece in

Vox in its interview with James Carville. He talks about how, he’s a staunch Democrat and he talks about how this idea of wokeness is a really big problem. He also talks about the disparity between how the so-called elites are talking and using language and how the average common moderate voter speaks, there’s a real disconnect between those two things. So it’s a fantastic interview, we’ve got that going up at the speech project today, along with a number of other pieces. So you can see it really is hate: the word smorgasbord, but that’s kind of what it is. So we’ve got top stories, and then we’ve got, we’ve got a whole section on race and identity, of course. It’s been interesting, as I bring all of these pieces into one place because I found that the race and identity section just grows and grows and grows. I’ve got a queue of all of these pieces waiting to cycle into the section. And that seems to be the place where there is the most disagreement or there are the most accusations of suppression of speech. So that’s one thing I’ve found really interesting. And then, of course, the last section is canceled culture, which it’s, in some ways problematic phrase: “canceled culture,” I think some people are feeling that it’s a bit tired and worn out and overused. So it’s possible that we may shift that in the future. But right now we’ve got a section devoted to cancel culture. We’ve got podcasts, we’ve got a lot of essays and articles and op-eds. We’ve got YouTube videos, we’ve got everything every form of media that addresses this issue of who has the right to say what is likely going to appear at this beach project.

David Bernstein
So we talked about how this is sort of crept into the discourse of the left, it’s no longer just something that’s creeping, it’s really taking it over with a storm in some cases. And here we have James Carville talking about how it’s a threat to the Democratic Party and the like. And people like you and me are doing this for a living in a way because we’re, we’re so worried about our own backyard, our own ideological backyard. Why did we get what happened that we got to this current moment?

Monica Osborne
That’s a really good question. And I don’t think it was one thing that happened, I think that we know that racism is a problem in this country. No reasonable human American human is going to say that racism isn’t an issue. But I think that with what happened last summer with the murder of George Floyd, I think that certain people in certain organizations on the far left side as an opportunity to kind of mobilize a political and I would say illiberal in many cases, agenda. So I think that’s where we are now. And I think that they really mobilized social media, the right places like Twitter and Instagram were really instrumental in pushing forward this. I want to say, a kind of power grab, in some ways the advent of Donald Trump was a big part of this. He’s a very polarizing figure. And he said, and he did a lot of things that upset, rightly justifiably upset a lot of people and when people get really upset on both sides, they start latching on to their particular ideologies. It becomes more urgent becomes more intense that their ideology is at the center be first and, and foremost. And so when that happens, there’s I think an inevitable rejection of anything that departs from whatever your specific ideology is. The stakes felt very high for people on the left, and people on the right, and with each new moment in the culture, war, culture wars. I think people have grasped, grasp, even even even tighter on to what their ideologies are. Inherently there’s going to be a rejection of anything that departs from that, and that’s a bad place to be.

David Bernstein
It’s obviously affecting us on both ends of the ideological spectrum. Someone reminded me of a great quote that I’ve heard many times, but applied it to this, from Woody Allen Jews are like everybody else, but more so. And so to what degree? Are you seeing this in the Jewish world? And why would the Jewish Journal of all places play host to such a discussion? 

Monica Osborne
American Jews have always been very concerned with issues of social justice. When we say never again, that’s not just about Jews, that’s not just about preventing discrimination or genocide against Jews. It’s about saying, never again, should this happen to any other group of people. So I think when we’re talking about race, in particular,  this is just our very, very recent history of the past few years, I think, Jews, Jewish communities really mobilized on behalf of the black community, So many Jews and Jewish organizations have marched and Black Lives Matter. marches and events. Because these things matter to Jews, right, this idea of ethical responsibility and how we treat the other is really important to the Jewish community. But I think what has also started to happen is because of the far left. This is not to say that it’s not on the right, because we know it’s on the right. And we’ve already talked about that. But, I think that because there was such a fierce and blatant or is such a fierce and blatant political agenda on the part of the far left, the Black Lives Matter movement, not the organization, but the movement has gotten caught up in that. And because so many Jews are part of that, I think it’s become confusing. Because we want to, we want to stand in a place where we say to the black community, or to any non-white community who is being discriminated against, we want to be in a place where we stand with them, and we say, We’re with you, right, we’re going to fight for you, we’re going to do this. The problem is when there’s this other sometimes hidden but sometimes blatant political component that, in many ways, conflicts with the Jewish ideal.

David Bernstein
When I was working in my past positions, doing engagement with the black community, I actually wrote an article about five years ago about how I thought it was time for the Jewish community to engage the black community in a serious way that we had a lot at stake. And that we should really look at criminal justice reform is one of the major issues of our time. And at the very end of the article, I said that we do not have to necessarily buy into the terms of engagement that many of the activists are using, we can speak in our own Jewish voice that doesn’t necessarily label America as the white supremacist society, and doesn’t use some of what I considered at the time and still do some of the more incendiary rhetoric. And I think what happened over time, and it became harder and harder for me to contend with, was that the is that Jewish organizations felt the demand to actually buy in ideologically, it wasn’t just, they couldn’t actually be at the table unless they were lockstep ideologically with some of the partner organizations. And that may be because of George Floyd. And maybe in the earlier years, you could get away with it. There were fewer litmus tests. But as time went on, that became almost impossible, if not impossible. And so I think the Jewish community is now in a predicament may be that it wasn’t in the past, where if you really want to express your support for some of these movements, not just in, in Word, but indeed, you really have to sign on the dotted line, and that that for some of us, including myself, is an impossible isn’t impossible, ask. So we are right now circulating a letter to our fellow Jews, about liberalism in the Jewish community and asking people to take a stance in favor of liberalism, and oppose the imposition of the critical social justice approach, which we worry is really having a major negative impact on free speech and free discourse. And it’s interesting, I’m having a lot of conversations with people. I know you’ve had some as well asking people to look at the ladder and to sign on. Some people say, I agree with every word that’s on there, but I just can’t do it. They might be a Jewish professional, they may be a rabbi. What do you think that is? Well,

Monica Osborne
This is not, this is nothing new to me. I’ve written a few articles in the past couple of months that have stoked some fires., I guess.  I’ve had so many people reach out to me, and some of them have had to do with Critical Race Theory and implicit bias training in schools. And I’ve had so many people reach out to me and say I appreciate what you wrote. I agree with everything you said, but I can’t publicly admit to this.  So these are just average people not necessarily involved in any leadership in the Jewish community. But I think this is the theme of the times like this is what’s happening all over the place. And this is in the James Carville interview I mentioned, he even goes into a little bit about this. John McWhorter does it in fantastic ways, in so many different venues; he talks about how so many people are just afraid to vocalize how they really feel. I think most Americans are not extreme. Most Americans do not subscribe to radical ideologies. Most Americans are moderates. Most Americans disagree with racist behavior. They don’t want it but they’re also not on board with these extreme and radical kinds of policies. But when we’re talking about the Jewish community, I think there’s such a drop To show that we stand with communities who are in pain right now, and I think that is really important. But I think that when we simply say that we want to stand with these communities, but we don’t think through all of the different nuances and complexities of what particular ideologies are being put forth by that side or that side, I think we’re doing a disservice to the Jewish tradition. I think the Jewish tradition is very much about complexity and nuances.  I mean, what is what is the Talmud? Look at a page of Talmud, it’s competing voices. There are arguments that are never fully resolved. But there is always a conversation, there’s always dialogue. And it’s also very much about process, as opposed to product. And what I mean by that, and I’m going to talk a little bit about speech project here, it’s called the speech project at the Jewish Journal, because it’s something that’s ongoing, and it’s something that can change. It’s a place where we’re listening. And we’re thinking, and we’re trying to be true to, you know, the spirit of Judaism, which is a spirit of dialogue. You know, Jews don’t, Jews aren’t necessarily called to pray or daven alone. You need a minion, you need 10, or for a Chavruta , you need two people. To do that you need people in dialog. But I think what’s happening is, again,we as Jews, we so want to show that we stand on the side of the people who are disenfranchised because we understand our own history of that. And so I think that’s where the problem is,

David Bernstein
I understand the impulse. But I’m, sometimes it’s still shocking to me, because we also have such a strong impulse in favor of civil liberties and free speech, and so forth. And those things have so served us well. And it’s been shocking to me to see people throw those things out in order to express solidarity. And other words, sometimes two values that you hold the value of holding of expressing solidarity and the value of a free society might be in tension. And if they are in tension, you have to resolve that tension somehow, or you have to know at least navigated. And I feel that it’s been very surprising how quickly people have been willing to forget about the commitment to free expression of ideas. So you’re an expert on on theory, we’ve had some theory conversation. So I cannot not ask you about this. You know, we hear so much about Critical Race Theory in the schools and in universities and how it impacts the way people think. And if you could characterize the difference between these sort of traditional view of racism, and the sort of critical race theory view of racism, how would you do so?

Monica Osborne
mean, let’s just start with Critical Race Theory. A few minutes ago, you mentioned the criminal reform of criminal justice system reform. Critical Race Theory was created for that very reason. Kimberly Crenshaw, Derrick Bell in the late 80s, early 90s, were looking at the different disparity between the sentencing of black people for committing the same crimes as white people. They found a serious and legitimate problem in our criminal justice system. So that’s where we’re Critical Race Theory came from. And it’s not a bad thing. But over the years, it’s kind of evolved into something else.  I should say that I’ve taught Critical Race Theory, I’ve taught Critical Theory courses at various universities. And so I don’t think Critical Race Theory is a bad thing. But it’s, it’s only one lens of many that should be used when we’re analyzing everything, whether it’s in a classroom analyzing a piece of literature or film, or whether it’s analyzing whatever, social or societal ill is.  The talk of the week, not everything is about just about race.  I think we’re starting to hear people talk about how the issue of class has been left behind. Is every disparity about race, or is it about class, or is it a combination of both? But what’s happened is that some people who are proponents of Critical Race Theory as the one and only lens through which we see everything I think have abused it. They’re misusing it. And they’re using it in what I see as an intellectually dishonest way. And so what happens is that then we’ve got people on the right who see that people who don’t really know what critical race theory is, they just see the way this thing called critical race theory is being used. And then they respond to it by saying, We’ve got a rejected, we’ve got to create laws to ban it, we’ve got to root it out of our society, it’s one of the biggest evils of our time. So you’ve got this, it’s the whole pendulum thing again. You’ve got an extreme response on the left, and then you’ve got an even more extreme response to that on the right. So now, of course, you know, critical race theory or CRT, as we’re seeing it everywhere, is, you know, the big demon right now. And I find it really distressing to be honest because I think it is important, I think it is useful. And I think it needs a seat at the table. And I’ve written about this myself, it does need a seat at the table, we have to talk about race, we have to talk about the ways that race do impact so many things in this country, but it can’t have the only seat at the table.  And this goes back to what is the Jewish way? What is the Jewish tradition? It’s about having many voices at one table. And not just one. And I think that’s the big problem right now. You know, a lot of people I think, right now, I don’t want to necessarily admit that there are redeeming qualities to critical race theory. You know, some people have said, you know, well, my personal strategy is just to get rid of it, because we’re never going to win with nuance and complexity. But, you know, I, I, that is not my personal strategy, I think it’s important to see both sides and to consider all of these viewpoints.

David Bernstein
The back the basic idea that there can be bias that’s embedded in structures and systems, which may have been a unique insight from critical theory, and critical race theory, is some lessons that we can use. And I think we can all say that we’ve seen hidden systems of bias that unless you’re sort of alert to them, or maybe you’ve even suffered from them, you’re not going to necessarily be that aware of how some people have advantage and, and, and others have disadvantage. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the only way. And the only explanation for why there’s disparity in the world. And I think that’s, it’s the monopoly on discourse that really is so problematic.

So I can see in the background of beautiful Vancouver, but I know, you spent a lot of time in California, and you were there for the ethnic studies, issues, which were quite, quite inflammatory. Tell us about how that affected you personally.

Monica Osborne
So many of the professors who put together this ethnic studies curriculum are using Critical Race Theory as their sole lens. So that’s part of the problem. And this is what ethnic studies, professors generally use that lens, that’s how they see the world. I’m from Southern California. I’m only temporarily here in Vancouver but I’ve lived in LA for many years. I have a son, who was a, he attended a private school in Los Angeles. So the ethnic studies curriculum was really geared toward public schools. And of course, private schools could either choose to do this or to not do it or to do it in a different way. So in terms of how it affected me, personally, it was already starting to be a part, the tenets of some of the earlier drafts of the ethnic studies curriculum proposal, were already starting to be incorporated into my son school and into many other private schools in Los Angeles. One of the things that the school announced is that they were transitioning to a new curriculum called, or put out by the organization, teaching tolerance, which sounds great. I mean, everybody likes tolerance. But they’ve been of a misnomer, that they’ve recently rebranded to learn for justice, and they incorporate a lot of the BLM curriculum. So my son school made this announcement that they were transitioning to it and they started creating these implicit bias sessions and really just working all of these ideas, kind of silently into the classroom and they changed the quietly changed material on the school website to reflect all These very, very radical viewpoints in terms of ethnic studies and racism and anti-racism.  Jews are an ethnoreligious community. And this isn’t something that everybody always understands. I’ve taught courses for years, I’ve taught courses on Jewish literature and culture and Judaism. And every, every semester students are like, Can you just, can you just explain what a Jew is? like? What does it mean to be Jewish? You know, nobody really knows. So the Jew always complicates these kinds of structures. Are they  European, are they Jews of European descent? Are they white? Are they white-passing? Are they something else? You know, nobody really knows. But everybody has, very distinct ideas about what they are, those are always in conflict with each other.

David Bernstein
So well, we are now I guess, really starting to ramp up engagement with the Jewish community. We have the speech project, we have the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, we’re going to be working together, I hope in the coming weeks and months and doing some webcasts and podcasts. We’re excited about that. And look forward to sharing content and sharing ideas, and really helping the Jewish community which has such a rich tradition of free expression ideas, not just be the first to sign up for a particular dogma, but to actually advocate and to really lead the way via light into the nation’s, if you will, on free expression of ideas, because that’s really what our tradition brings to the world. One of the great values our tradition helps bring to the world.

So I really look forward to doing this with you, Monica, and with the Jewish Journal, and look forward to many more conversations, and not too distant future. Thanks so much.

Monica Osborne
Thanks for having me, David. Looking forward to more.

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