Commentary Magazine


Rereading the ADL’s Foolish Report on Rage

My article on the Anti-Defamation League’s report “Rage Grows in America: Anti-Government Conspiracies” ignited a debate about the group’s foolish attempt to link virtually everyone who has voiced criticisms of the Obama administration and its agenda with gun-toting paranoid extremists from the far Right.

The ADL’s response to its critics was typically high-handed and obtuse. In a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article about the controversy, ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum claimed: “The comments are coming from people who have not read the report. They’re reacting to the media spin and not its substance.”

As the person who helped kick off this fracas, let me assure Ms. Shinbaum and her boss Abe Foxman (in whose defense I have written when the Left had wrongly accused him of trying to suppress anti-Israel dissent) that it was precisely because I did read the report from start to finish that I chose to write about its egregious faults. If anything, I would say that, judging by some of the arguments put forth by the document’s defenders, it is far more likely that those who support the report, rather than its critics, have not read it.

As I wrote in COMMENTARY on Nov. 18:

For the ADL, the “rage” is the result of a three-headed monster: “mainstream political attacks,” “grass roots hostility,” and “anti-government extremists.”

The first of these threats to American democracy — the word “mainstream” appears in the report in quotes as if to disparage the notion that such opinions are widespread, while simultaneously paying lip service to the fact that strong criticism of Obama is entirely legitimate — is the result of “partisan attacks against the Obama administration by some conservative politicians and media figures. Upset and anxious about their loss of power following the 2008 elections, they seek primarily to energize their political base and to delegitimize the Obama administration at the same time.”

This passage ought to prompt disinterested readers to ask whether a defeated political party’s criticism of the opposition deserves mention in a report about extremism. After all, conservatives have attacked Obama on the issues not because they want to overthrow the government but because they disagree with him.

The mere mention of such Republican activities in this context, however, reinforces the very conclusion that the ADL claims it wishes to disavow. Indeed, the report then says, “One of the most important effects of these activists, however, is to help create a body of people who may be predisposed to believe the assertions and claims of more extreme individuals and groups.”

The ADL’s defenders claim that the group has made the proper distinctions between normal political activity and extremism. But if they read the report carefully, they will see that such distinctions were thrown to the winds in its introduction. Had the report stuck to its accounts of the more bizarre conspiracy theories circulating about Obama or of the activity of violent extremists, there would have been no reason to criticize it. But, instead, it linked the crackpots with legitimate public protests, conservative media figures, and even “mainstream” politicians pursuing the duties of an opposition party in a democracy.

One defender of the report, the editorial page of the New York Jewish Week, edited by the thoughtful and responsible Gary Rosenblatt, writes:

We recognize, as does the ADL, that the far left also reduces complex issues to simplistic, angry slogans that turn debate into meaningless shouting matches. The left, too, finds solace in broad-brush conspiracy theories. But in today’s America, it’s the other extreme, with its unparalleled access to new forms of media and which is sometimes legitimized by mainstream politicians eager to capitalize on the fears gripping the nation, that seems to be on the march.

But it is precisely the point that, earlier in this decade, when the Left was on the march, the ADL pointedly refused to link mainstream liberal politicians who bashed the Bush administration with radicals in the streets.

As I wrote: “Had the ADL issued a report a few years ago that began by accusing Democrats of creating resentment against Bush and then linked opposition to the GOP to extremists who supported Hamas or rationalized or even denied al-Qaeda’s role in 9/11, Democrats would have cried foul and been right to do so. That never happened.”

By painting its picture with such a broad brush, the anti-Semitism watchdog group lent its bully pulpit to the administration and its most partisan cheerleaders. Claiming that the tax protest “tea parties,” town-hall-meeting dissenters, and Glenn Beck’s broadcast broadsides are part of a structure that is threatening democracy or giving rise to anti-Semitism is absurd, but it does serve the partisan interests of the Left. That is not the proper function of the ADL.

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