t is n ne of the great paradoxes of modern history that one of the most important Jewish philosophers who ever lived—indeed, the man who had perhaps the greatest influence on modern Judaism—is the one Jewish philosopher to have been excommunicated.
Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) was born in Amsterdam, the child of recent immigrants who had fled the Portuguese Inquisition for the relative safety and tolerance of the Dutch Republic. Holland had just achieved its independence from Hapsburg Spain and had become a haven of both religious and commercial liberty. Spinoza was descended from Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism before reclaiming their ancient faith upon their arrival in Holland. His father, Miguel, was a well-to-do merchant in this new émigré community and a member of the parnas, or governing body, of the synagogue and the school that his son attended. The young Spinoza received a traditional Talmud-Torah education, in addition to which he immersed himself in the classics of medieval Jewish philosophy. Like most in his circle, Spinoza was multilingual. Portuguese was the lingua franca of the Sephardi community, although he also knew Hebrew, Spanish, Dutch, and Latin, the language in which he wrote his philosophical works.
At the age of 24, and for reasons that remain shrouded 400 years later, Spinoza was expelled under a writ of Herem (excommunication) from the Jewish community of Amsterdam. After an attempt on his life, he left Amsterdam and lived first in a suburb of Leiden and then outside The Hague. He earned his living as a lens grinder and turned down a professorship at the University of Heidelberg because he thought it would interfere with his independence of mind. His motto was Caute—be careful, never say exactly what you’re thinking. Spinoza died of consumption at the age of 44; his greatest philosophical work, the Ethics, was published posthumously.
Spinoza occupies a central place in the development of Jewish history. He exemplified a distinctly modern form of Jewish identity. Yet even today, more than 300 years after his death, the question remains: What kind of Jew was Spinoza? What was the relation between Spinoza and Judaism, and how did he transform the Jewish tradition? And what was the influence of Spinoza—for better or worse—on modern Jewish life? Spinoza was without doubt the first to put what later became known as the Jewish Question at the center of modernity.
The Expulsion of Baruch Spinoza
Let us begin with what is always taken as Exhibit A in the Jewish case against Spinoza. On July 27, 1656 (6 Av 5416), the elders of the synagogue of Amsterdam pronounced the following Herem, or edict of excommunication, on the young Baruch Spinoza:
By the decrees of the Angels and the words of the Saints we ban, cut off, curse, and anathemize Baruch de Spinoza . . . with all the curses written in the Torah. Cursed be he by day and cursed by night, cursed in his lying down and cursed in his waking up, cursed in his going forth, and cursed in his coming in; and may the Lord not want his pardon, and may the Lord’s wrath and zeal burn upon him . . . and ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are all alive today.
What was the offense that led the elders of the synagogue to level this harsh edict? It is well known that Spinoza had begun to associate with certain freethinking Sephardi intellectuals such as Isaac de La Peyrère and Uriel de Costa, as well as a defrocked Jesuit priest named Van den Enden at whose house he learned Latin. The text of the Herem preserved in the municipal archives of Amsterdam is notoriously short on reasons. There are vague references to certain “horrible heresies,” “awful deeds,” and “evil opinions” said to have been practiced or held by Spinoza. Indeed, the Herem concludes with the ominous warning that anyone who seeks to aid, comfort, or abet Spinoza, or “read anything composed or written by him” will suffer the same fate.
Fourteen years after the writ was issued, Spinoza published an anonymous work in Latin under a fictitious imprimatur that constituted his settling of accounts with Judaism and the Jewish people. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus or Theologico-Political Treatise (henceforth TTP) provides all the evidence necessary for a judgment on the justice of Spinoza’s excommunication. For some, this work more than fully justifies the ban on Spinoza, which has not been lifted even today. For others, the treatment of Spinoza puts him in a long line of martyrs from Socrates to Jesus to Galileo who suffered persecution for the cause of freedom of thought and opinion. The legacy of Spinoza remains a hotly contested one.
Some of the most powerful voices within modern Judaism have agreed that Spinoza fully warranted the ban against him. Hermann Cohen (1842–1918), one of the great founders of the neo-Kantian movement in Germany, denounced Spinoza as a “renegade to his people” and an “apostate” who slandered Judaism before an anti-Jewish world. The French philosopher and Talmudist Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) was no less severe in his judgment. “Spinoza,” Levinas wrote, “was guilty of betrayal. . . . Thanks to the rationalism patronized by Spinoza, Christianity is surreptitiously triumphing, bringing conversion without the scandal of apostasy.”
At the same time that Spinoza was anathemized by some, he was rehabilitated by others. In his 1862 tract Rome and Jerusalem, Moses Hess (1812–1875) signed his name “a young Spinozist” and treated Spinoza as a prophet of Jewish national aspirations for a homeland in Palestine. George Eliot began a translation of the TTP, and in her 1876 novel Daniel Deronda the character of Mordecai regards Spinoza as a proto-Zionist who “saw not why Israel should not again be a chosen nation.”
From time to time, petitions have been made to rescind the ban on Spinoza. At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1925, the Hebraicist and historian Joseph Klausner denounced the ban on Spinoza as a historical anachronism. Spinoza showed what it was to be a new kind of Jew. “The ban is revoked,” Klausner declared—on whose authority no one knew—and then proceeded to proclaim three times, “Baruch Spinoza, you are our brother.”
Is he? Was he?
The Psychological Sources of Religious Belief
The first sentence of the TTP reads as follows: “If men were able to exercise complete control over all their circumstances, or if continuous good fortune were always their lot, they would never be prey to superstition.” The key word here is superstition. Spinoza proposes a far-ranging statement about human psychology and the origins of our beliefs that sets the stage for everything that follows. He here helps launch what the historian Jonathan Israel has called the Radical Enlightenment’s war on religion—what would later become Voltaire’s famous rallying cry, écrasez l’infâme (“crush the infamous thing”). The aim of the book is to explain the origins of superstitious beliefs and therefore to liberate the reader from them. Its task is both diagnostic and emancipatory. But what is a superstition, a term that Spinoza nowhere exactly defines?
A superstition is a species of false belief. I say a species because it is obvious that not all false beliefs are superstitions. Many false beliefs are based simply on factual misinformation or faulty perception; they are subject to falsification in the light of empirical evidence. Superstitions, by contrast, are beliefs that defy evidentiary claims.
Spinoza offers a psychological analysis of why superstitions have such a lasting hold on the mind. Superstitions are, for Spinoza, rooted in the passions. As human beings, we are prone to diverse passions—hope and fear being the two most powerful—depending on our condition of life. We are said to “waver” between these passions and let them determine our beliefs. The passions are not sources of intellectual creativity, but of error and confusion.
Based on his psychology of the passions, there may be any number of superstitions, but the greatest one—the mother of all superstitions, as it were—is the belief that God is an intending being, like us but infinitely more powerful, who can be influenced to act on our behalf or to benefit our situation through prayers and supplications. This belief has created an immense superstructure of habits, institutions, and rituals—the totality of organized religion—that has led in turn to the enslavement of the human mind.
But for Spinoza, superstitions are not simply forms of deception and false belief, although they are surely that; they are also tools of political control and persecution. By persecution, Spinoza means the use of force or coercive power to control the mind. A central paradox the TTP seeks to unwrap is how Christianity, which began as religion of love and peace, became a religion of persecution and intolerance. He determines that it is ultimately fear of the unknown—fear being the dominant passion—brought about by ignorance of scientific causation that leads some to believe the future can be determined not through the study of nature, but by consulting shamans, fortune tellers, and other charlatans who prey on human gullibility. Spinoza traces the source of intolerance back to the weakness and gullibility of human beings who are willing to cede their powers of reason and self-legislation to power-hungry priests and kings. Most dangerously, the church in alliance with the state has made use of popular credulity to control not only the actions but the minds of their subjects.
It is because of his opposition to all forms of censorship and mind control that Spinoza has entered the liberal tradition as one of the great champions of freedom of thought and opinion. The intention of the TTP is to liberate the mind from scriptural and ecclesiastical supervision. He proposes what would become a classic liberal theme: the separation of the spheres of reason and revelation. The sphere of reason pertains to the operations of the mind and its ability to grasp factual and necessary truths, while the sphere of revelation pertains to right conduct and acts of piety and obedience. This was revolutionary, because the question for Spinoza is not how to reconcile faith and reason, the dilemma that preoccupied the greatest Medieval thinkers, but the preeminently modern one of how to separate them.
In Spinoza’s view, reason and revelation are not so much in competition as they are incommensurable. They speak different languages, operate on completely different assumptions, and therefore occupy their own distinct spheres of operation.
Spinoza’s Critique of Judaism
Every reader of the TTP is confronted with the question of Spinoza’s own faith tradition and its relation to the work as a whole. To whom is the book addressed? The preponderance of the work deals with Jewish materials and sources; it cites almost exclusively Jewish authorities and precursors. Some readers have concluded that Spinoza’s biblical criticism is a criticism of the Hebrew Bible only, while others have argued that he criticizes the Hebrew Bible in order to launch a more far-ranging attack on the power of revealed religion in general. It is unquestionable, however, that Spinoza sets out to undermine systematically the three pillars of Jewish faith and life: the revealed character of the Torah, the status of the prophets, and the divine “election” of the Jewish people. I want to consider each of these in turn.
The fundamental principle of Spinoza’s biblical criticism can be summed up as a variation of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura—namely, that the Bible should be read by itself alone without the use of historical commentaries or the intervention of priestly or rabbinic authorities. The central principle of this method is that the method of studying Scripture should be no different from the study of any other historical artifact. Thus, the “book of nature” and the “Book of Books” should be subject to the same causal laws and processes. Rather than approaching the Bible as a repository of revealed truth, it must be viewed in the same value-neutral manner as a scientist’s when investigating the natural causes of things.
There is no reason to believe, Spinoza argues, that prophets who claim to speak for God had great speculative powers or were bearers of profound philosophical truths.For Spinoza, this means undertaking a kind of natural history of Scripture, reasoning about the Bible solely in terms of the time, place, and circumstance in which the text was written. A biblical scholar must therefore have a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew language, note down all passages that seem obscure or inconsistent with one another, and relate the contents of each book to its subsequent reception. Spinoza initiates a method that would today be called “canon formation,” showing how the many diverse works that make up Scripture came to be unified in a single body and accepted as a sacred text.
Spinoza uses this method of sola Scriptura to cast doubt on the truth of Scripture because it contains a host of fallacies and historical anachronisms. For example, he takes elaborate pains to deny that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. He makes much of the fact that Moses could not be the sole author of the work for the reason that the last chapters of Deuteronomy record his death and funeral. He points to repeated references to Moses written in the third person as sufficient evidence to conclude that the work must have been written by someone else. And he concludes that the work could have been compiled only by later redactors several centuries after the events it related, most likely the scribe Ezra.
In addition to the problems of disputed authorship, Spinoza argues, the Bible is a text that contains outright contradictions. Spinoza’s proof text here is Samuel’s denial that God ever repents of his decisions and Jeremiah’s affirmation that He does (1 Samuel 15:29; Jeremiah 18:8–10). Spinoza attributes these contradictions not to any attributes of God, but to the different psychological states and dispositions of the prophets whose judgments they express. There is no reason to believe, Spinoza argues, that prophets who claim to speak for God had great speculative powers or were bearers of profound philosophical truths. To the contrary, they were simple men with powerful imaginations whose prophecies varied according to their individual temperaments and prejudices.
But the most durable illusion of Scripture, Spinoza says, has been the belief in the divine election of the Jews. In the third chapter of the TTP, Spinoza argues that the category of divine election or chosenness is not a theological designation, but a political one. Chosenness, he argues, applied only to the period of the ancient Jewish commonwealth and then only so long as the Jews maintained their national sovereignty. The entire Torah—the law of Moses—was nothing more than a political legislation of the Hebrew state that ceased to be binding with the destruction of the Temple. Taking a cue from Machiavelli, Spinoza maintains that the ancient Hebrews were “chosen” only with respect to their mode of social organization and military success.
In suggesting that the belief in divine election applies only to the limited period of national sovereignty, Spinoza does much to undermine the traditional belief that the Jewish people have a special mission to live as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). He is a moral universalist and maintains there is simply no such thing as a people chosen in respect of their moral and intellectual qualities. Since these qualities are more or less randomly distributed among the human race, it is sheer arrogance to believe that they can reside particularly in one people. Regarding their moral and intellectual qualities, Spinoza avers, the Jews were on a par with other nations, for “God is equally gracious to all.” To say that one nation is chosen over others is simply a way of expressing the desire for that nation to be superior to or rule over others. The belief in divine election is nothing more than a mark of vanity or national superstition.
Spinoza ridicules the idea that Jewish survival over the centuries of Diaspora had anything to do with God’s favor. It had less to do with divine providence than the hatred of the gentiles—which hatred, more than anything else, preserved the Jewish people intact. Indeed, so effective have these ritual forms (he mentions circumcision) been in inciting the hatred of the nations that Spinoza suggests that they will cause the Jews to exist in perpetuity. The conclusion to which the TTP leads is that the Jewish election is not a metaphysical privilege, but a political curse. Spinoza’s advice is that the Jews should abandon this dogma as quickly and as painlessly as possible. If anti-Judaism is the result of religious arrogance and aloofness, then the Jews should abandon this belief in order to avoid what would today be called “discrimination.”
Spinoza’s Double Standard
Of the 20 chapters the TTP comprises, three-quarters are devoted to strictly theological concerns—and only one is devoted to problems specific to the New Testament. It is for this reason that many readers have regarded the TTP as an attack on the Hebrew Scripture alone. Spinoza explains this disparity in his treatment of Judaism and Christianity on the grounds that his knowledge of Greek is not adequate to the task and that criticism of the Christian Bible has already been carried out by other unnamed authorities. This is transparently disingenuous, for Spinoza’s apparent philological modesty does not prevent him from systematically presenting the New Testament as morally superior to the Old and the Christian apostles as superior to the Hebrew prophets. Most notably he presents Jesus—invariably referred to as “Christ”—as the Messiah and, as such, the successor to Moses.
Here the case against Spinoza is the strongest. Spinoza continually asserts that the Mosaic prophecy was a purely political legislation. Moses is the model for the legislative founder. The sovereignty of Moses was thus accomplished because “he surpassed all others in divine power which he convinced the people he possessed.” Accordingly, Moses is said to have brought only a legal code instilled, not through reason and argument like a philosopher, but as a result of compulsion and command.
Spinoza not only politicizes Judaism, he materializes it. He plays dangerously to certain anti-Jewish stereotypes, especially the one that suggests that Jews are concerned only with material well-being and success. The carnal character of Judaism is expressed by Spinoza in the fact that Moses was said to have spoken with God “face to face,” while Jesus communed “mind to mind.” Likewise, the “Pharisees”—a longstanding term of Christian opprobrium for Jews—taught that the laws of the Jewish state constituted the sole ground of morality.
While Moses was concerned with founding a commonwealth, Spinoza says Jesus expounded his views as a philosopher teaching people to think for themselves.Finally, Spinoza treats the Mosaic prophecy as coercive and paternalistic. Moses is said to have treated his fellow Jews the same way as parents teaching children who have not learned to reason for themselves. The commandments are presented as given by a lawgiver and judge, with penalties established for nonobservance. The various ceremonies and ritual practices of the Jewish state thus had no other function than reinforcing coercive authority. Moreover, the ceremonies Moses prescribed are said to be of no aid to blessedness and contributed only to the temporal prosperity of the state.
One might expect Spinoza’s excoriating attack on Judaism to be complemented by an equally vitriolic assault on Christianity. It is not, to say the least, self-evident that Judaism is more particularistic or parochial than Christianity. Spinoza’s own approving references to the universalism of Isaiah would seem to indicate this. Nor is it obvious that Christian ethics appeal to love while Judaism rests on law and coercion. While Spinoza says that the Jews “despised” philosophy, he refers to Solomon, “who possessed the natural light of reason beyond all men of his time,” by the term “philosopher.” Despite these crucial admissions and in full awareness of what he was doing, Spinoza goes on to depict the prophecy of Jesus as the virtual antithesis of Moses and Christianity as the successor to Judaism.
The prophecy of Jesus is presented not as political, but moral. Unlike Moses, Jesus prophesied without the aid of imagination. God is said in the TPP to have revealed himself to Christ directly without the medium of words and images. Christ was not so much a prophet as the veritable “mouthpiece of God.” He came not as a legislator, but as a teacher concerned with purifying morality. Thus, while Moses was concerned with founding a commonwealth, Spinoza says Jesus expounded his views as a philosopher teaching people to think for themselves.
He also presents the teachings of Jesus as universal rather than parochial or exclusionary. The Hebrew prophets, he writes, operated under a “specific mandate” to preach only to a specified nation, but the apostles “were called to preach to all men without restriction and to convert all men to religion.”
Finally, Spinoza argues that the preaching of Jesus and the apostles appealed to reason rather than fear and coercion. While the book of Moses presented God in figurative terms, the apostles appealed to “their own natural faculty of judgment.” Thus Jesus and Paul “philosophized” when speaking to the Gentiles, but they had to change their tactics when speaking to the Jews, who, Spinoza gratuitously adds, “despised” philosophy.
The Hebrew Theocracy
Despite Spinoza’s often-unconscionable denigration of Judaism, he argues that while the teachings of the Tenach may not be a source of scientific or metaphysical truth, they nonetheless contain important political lessons. Beginning in chapter 17 of the TTP, he presents the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt as the archetypal story of political founding. In so doing, he makes use of the modern conceptions of the state of nature and the social contract. Contrary to what we have been led to believe, he writes, the covenant in Sinai between God and his chosen people is the paradigm for the creation of political legitimacy.
Spinoza begins his case by arguing that after Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, they found themselves in both a literal and figurative state of nature. Being under no obligations to any human ruler, they were free to establish new laws and institutions of their own. Spinoza treats the covenant between God and the Hebrews as the creation of a new form of government: theocracy. What distinguished this theocracy from all other regimes was the aspiration to be ruled directly by God with no human intermediaries. By giving the people over to God alone, theocracy was also the most democratic form of government that ever existed. No individual or group was authorized to speak for God, but each retained the right to interpret God’s law and share equally in the powers of the state. The de jure theocracy was a de facto radical democracy.
Yet no sooner had the original contract between God and the Hebrews been established than it was almost immediately abrogated. Finding the voice of God too threatening, the Hebrews declared “all that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8) and consequently handed their rights of sovereignty over to Moses. The transfer of right to Moses effectively turned the theocracy from a democracy to a monarchy.
In Spinoza’s account, no sooner had the Hebrews transferred their rights to Moses than they lost the right to choose his successors. The subsequent failure of Moses to appoint a successor resulted in a division of power between Aaron, the high priest, and Joshua, the commander in chief. This left a period of weakened authority that was the first step toward the degeneration of the state into rule by priests. The establishment of a dual sovereignty between the priests and the military commanders created a dangerous precedent with far-reaching consequences.
The degeneration of the Hebrew polity from a theocracy to a monarchy to a loose federation in which power was divided among the various tribes is described as swift and irreversible. The fundamental feature of the post-Mosaic constitution was the separation of authority between kings and priests. One might think that this divided authority would be welcomed, but Spinoza regards it as the source of instability and civil war. In his view, the unity of politics and religion in the theocracy gave the ancient Hebrews their political strength and military greatness. It was only later during the period of the Judges that this happy unity of politics and religion fell apart, when there was no king in Israel and “everyone did as he pleased” (Judges, 21:25). This seems to describe a return to the state of nature endured after the flight from Egypt.
Spinoza was clearly drawing lessons that had immediate application to the politics of his era. He was following the “Erastian” doctrine (named after the Swiss theologian Thomas Erastus) that the sovereign should have supreme power over matters of religion. He opposed the idea of splitting religion off from the state in large part because he distrusted the ambitions of clerics, especially the Calvinists of his own time. Since he viewed religion as crucial to the peace and well-being of the commonwealth, it was simply too important to be given over to the priests; only religious laws promulgated by the sovereign should be valid.
The second lesson is that religion pertains only to practice and outward behavior. Here is the core of Spinoza’s claims for the freedom of thought and conscience. The task of religion, as Spinoza sees it, should be to reform character, not to compel belief. The danger with turning religion into a creed or a doctrine is that it tends to take on the character of a pseudo-philosophy. The result is inevitably a tendency toward persecution for heresy or apostasy for holding false beliefs. Spinoza condemns any law that would criminalize opinion rather than reforming conduct. Religion remains a matter of law that by its very nature cannot affect the inner chamber of the mind.
The New Jerusalem
The question for any reader of the TTP is how to explain these evident disparities in Spinoza’s treatment of Judaism and Christianity. For many, Spinoza’s strategy of knowingly demeaning Judaism before Christianity was and remains an unforgiveable sin. As the contemporary theologian Emil Fackenheim (1916–2003) asked: “Why does the author of the TTP resort to distortions and discrimination against the minority religion which he has forsaken, especially and above all when compared to the majority religion he has yet refused to embrace?” Did Spinoza decide that the best strategy for promoting toleration would be to make a conscious and misleading appeal to anti-Jewish bigotry?
His invocation of certain prejudices and stereotypes has been marked down to political sycophancy and a desire to curry favor with the Christian authorities whose approval he sought. But if this had indeed been Spinoza’s strategy, it backfired. The TTP was greeted with equal hostility from Jews and non-Jews alike.
It is possible to argue that Spinoza’s argument was not grounded in any anti-Jewish animus but was rather part of a rhetorical strategy in which he sought to accommodate his rhetoric to his audience to win their understanding and sympathy. This project of accommodation was intended to gain a hearing for his larger project of promoting a liberal state and a policy of religious toleration. The philosopher Leo Strauss (1899–1973) went so far as to suggest that Spinoza was animated by a profound sense of “sympathy” for his people, even though it is a sympathy that is well hidden. “Spinoza may have hated Judaism,” Strauss avers, “but he did not hate the Jewish people. However bad a Jew he may have been in all other respects, he thought of the liberation of the Jews in the only way in which he could think of it, given his philosophy.” This sentence, so full of ambiguity and qualification, was not intended to excuse away the danger of Spinoza’s trying to appeal to the prejudices of his audience, a strategy Strauss admits was “Machiavellian” in the extreme. Spinoza plays, in Strauss’s words, “a most dangerous game,” even an “amazingly unscrupulous” one, but one that was “humanly comprehensible” nonetheless.
One can argue that the purpose of Spinoza’s double standard was to prepare the way for a new kind of Scripture, a “universal religion” that would be, strictly speaking, neither Jewish nor Christian but an amalgam of both. This new dispensation is presented in the TTP as a democratic civil creed composed of seven tenets or dogmas to which all citizens must adhere. These seven dogmas are as follows:
1. God, the Supreme being, exists;
2. God is one;
3. God is omnipresent;
4. God has supreme right and dominion over all things;
5. Worship of God consists entirely of acts of justice and charity or love of one’s neighbor;
6. All who obey God are saved;
7. God forgives repentant sinners.
Spinoza represents his universal or “catholic” (small c) religion as nothing less than a new theology for a new age that would supersede the earlier dispensations of Moses and Jesus. The essence of this new moral theology is an unprecedented teaching of toleration and noninterference with the beliefs of others. This new theology was intended not only to lay the basis for civil peace, but to foster a new regime of toleration that would gain the assent of both Jews and Gentiles. Thus he can confidently maintain that there are no dogmas of this new universal faith that would give rise to conflict among “decent men.” Rather, this new liberal theology would be tolerant to the varieties of religious experience so long as they accepted the norm of toleration in return. This means, among other things, the right of the individual to think and judge for him or herself in matters ecclesiastical.
The liberal society for the sake of which Spinoza has composed his new religion is to be neither specifically Jewish nor specifically Christian, but presumably neutral to any specific faith. The Spinozist sovereign serves as a kind of a baseball umpire.
The idea that the state should be neutral with respect to the different religions, while a staple of contemporary legal theory, was virtually unprecedented in Spinoza’s time. The TTP sets out to demonstrate that “not only can freedom be granted without endangering piety and the peace of the commonwealth,” but that “the peace of the commonwealth and piety depend on this freedom.” This new regime, a first in history, would be neither the virtuous city of classical antiquity nor the holy city of the Bible, but the commercial metropolis of modernity.
Spinoza remains a recognizably and unmistakably Jewish figure. To put the matter a different way: The entire structure of modern Judaism would be unthinkable without him.Spinoza concludes the TTP with a patriotic tribute to Amsterdam, where “a man is free to think what he likes and say what he thinks.” He believed Holland could serve as a model for a peaceful accommodation that could put an end to religious persecution. Amsterdam’s commercial republic was the “European miracle” of the 17th century that Spinoza hoped to promote and export. One can say with only slight exaggeration that Amsterdam represents for Spinoza the new Jerusalem, an open society based on freedom of trade, freedom of religion, and freedom of opinion. Such a regime, he reasoned, would be of great benefit for the Jews.
Should the ban on Spinoza be lifted? The question is unanswerable in part because there is no one with the authority to do so. More to the point, would Spinoza himself want it lifted? Contrary to Cohen and Levinas, Spinoza was not, in fact, an “apostate.” He did not convert to Christianity but rather showed what it was like to live a life apart from the dominant religious communities of his age. Despite his attack on the Hebrew Scripture as a collection of ancient prejudices, despite his denigration of Moses and the prophets in comparison to Jesus and the apostles, and despite his attacks on the ceremonial laws of Judaism as an instrument of worldly well-being, Spinoza remains a recognizably and unmistakably Jewish figure. To put the matter a different way: The entire structure of modern Judaism would be unthinkable without him.
Indeed, he is the founder of two of the most distinctive forms of modern Judaism.
He was the first modern thinker to advocate the restitution of Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish state. In what has become, at least in Zionist circles, the most famous sentence of the book, we read: “Indeed, were it not that the fundamental principles of their religion had effeminated their minds, I would not hesitate to believe that they will one day, given the opportunity—such is the mutability of human affairs—establish once more their independent state, and that God will again choose them.”
On the basis of this statement, the TTP was read as a work of proto-Zionism in the 19th century by Moses Hess and in the 20th by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who even sought to have the ban on Spinoza officially lifted (he was unsuccessful). Note that in Spinoza’s reckoning, the foundations for any future Jewish state would no longer be placed in God’s providence but in the actions and arms of Jews themselves. Spinoza does not even say that such a state would have to be founded in the historical land of Israel. He attaches no particular significance to the land or language of Israel, although he was working on a Hebrew grammar at the time of his death. A Jewish state could, from his point of view, just as easily be located in Canada or Katmandu.
Spinoza’s proto-Zionism does not, however, absolve him or give one reason to canonize him as a secular saint. To the contrary, this passage in many respects confirms the negative judgments on Spinoza held by his critics. It offers a confirmation of the view that it is not the corruption of Judaism over the millennia but its very foundational beliefs that are the cause of Jewish passivity and weakness. These fundamentals caused the Jews to be “effeminate,” such that they had lost their taste for political freedom and consigned themselves to an impotent longing for a messianic world to come. Spinoza’s advice is, then, to cease passively waiting for a messiah to deliver them from their woes and to take affairs into their own hands.
Spinoza’s ideas helped shape a new kind of psychological Jew who seeks liberation from tradition and dependence on external authority, who wishes to think for himself, and who values independence, self-mastery, and courage as the highest human virtues. Centuries before Marx or Freud, Spinoza was the prototype of the emancipated Jew. The idea of the emancipated Jew turned Spinoza into a philosophical, even a literary, hero from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nachum Fischelson, in The Spinoza of Market Street, to Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, whose protagonist leaves his shtetl not with the Torah but with a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics, to David Ives’s recent play The New Jerusalem, which treats Spinoza as the prototype of the free man.
Unlike the German poet Heinrich Heine, who converted two centuries later so that he could enjoy the benefits of full membership in the culture he wished to help shape and form, Spinoza did not believe the baptismal certificate was the “passport” to Western civilization. Spinoza’s emancipated Jew need not convert because he will be liberated from an ancient tradition that has been the cause of Jewish weakness; will live under a new, rational theology that provides for civil equality in place of the Mosaic law with its promise of special providence; and will be proffered a new promised land based on freedom of religion, commerce, and inquiry. The new type of Jew who is to inhabit this land will not only value his own freedom, but will also identify with certain liberal values such as love of social justice, a support for the underdog, and the universality of human rights. These are the values, as Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher has noted, of a new kind of individual, “the non-Jewish Jew.”
Spinoza’s critical analysis of Judaism did not grow out of self-hatred or anti-Judaism, but as a part of a project of liberalizing reform. His defense of the liberal state requires a religion that is itself quite liberal. He believed that the price of admission to this state entailed a radical secularization of Judaism both as a body of revealed law and as a distinctive way of life. His purpose was to strip all religions—both Judaism and Christianity—of their claims to exclusivity and reduce them to a handful of tenets that could provide the moral foundation of the modern state. Spinoza’s religion of reason would be stripped of all metaphysical claims that might give rise to controversy or could be used as a pretext for persecution.
The cost of admission to Spinoza’s state has been high. There is, as a famous economist once said, no such thing as a free lunch. The chief cost of Spinoza’s bargain has been the assimilation of Judaism, not to Christianity, but to liberalism. Indeed, for many Jews, Judaism has become virtually synonymous with support for liberal social causes. Even the expression “Jewish liberalism,” rather than a paradox, has become a commonplace. The result of this identification of Judaism with liberal values such as autonomy and emancipation has been the loss of both religious identity and fidelity to an ancient way of life. The TTP, it seems, may have eloquently defended freedom for Jews, but at the cost of what was specific to Judaism.
The idea of an emancipated Jew has struck many people, both Jew and Gentile, as a contradiction, an enigma, and a paradox. How does one account for Jewish survival outside the context of authoritative Jewish texts and traditions? What becomes of Jewish continuity when ritual practices cease to have the force of law and are confined to the precinct of private conscience? What kind of Judaism is it that would be willing to readmit an avowed heretic like Spinoza?
Most pressing for us is this question: Is the offer to exchange an ancient heritage for a modern secular identity a real bargain or something like an offer to buy the Brooklyn Bridge? To recognize a paradox is not to resolve it. It would take another Spinoza to do it justice.
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Should the Ban on Spinoza Be Lifted?
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.