A conservative social-justice agenda.
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
The 2008 election marked the return of progressive politics in America. For the first time in 16 years, Democrats won both houses of Congress and the White House. They wasted no time in articulating a progressive agenda they claimed would offset the Great Recession and turn America toward greater fairness and compassion. Lifting up the poor, decreasing inequality, and curbing runaway income gains among the wealthiest Americans ranked high among their stated priorities.
It has been five years. How has their project turned out?
Since January 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has more than doubled. Last year brought the largest annual increase in the S&P 500 since the late 1990s. And the vast bulk of this sustained market surge has accrued to the extremely wealthy. According to New York University economist Edward Wolff, the top 10 percent of earners own 81 percent of stocks and mutual funds, 95 percent of financial securities, 92 percent of business equity, and 80 percent of non-home real estate. So it comes as little surprise that nearly all the real income growth that President Obama’s “recovery” has generated would flow to the wealthiest Americans. According to University of California, Berkeley, economist Emmanuel Saez, 95 percent of all recovery gains have accrued to the much-vilified “top 1 percent.”
At the same time, the poor have become even more desperate. The number of Americans receiving aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as food stamps) has increased by almost 50 percent since January 2009, from 32.2 million to 47.7 million. One in six citizens in the richest country in the world now rely on food aid from their government.
Today, a lower percentage of Americans are in the workforce—63 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—than at any time since the infamous days of Jimmy Carter. This has the effect of reducing the official unemployment rate, which led Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times to quip: “We are basically ‘recovering from the recession’ by reducing the share of Americans who participate in the labor force. Hurrah!”
And what has happened to income inequality? A central theme in each of the president’s campaigns, this is one metric by which committed egalitarian liberals might judge this administration. Economists measure inequality with the Gini coefficient, a number from 0 to 1. Zero denotes complete equality, and 1 would be complete inequality, with all income possessed by one person. Since January 2009, the Gini coefficient has moved from 0.47 to 0.48.
In sum, the administration’s ostensibly pro-poor, tough-on-the-wealthy agenda has led us toward a new American Gilded Age. Our putatively progressive president has inadvertently executed a plutocratic tour de force.
But the administration’s failure to achieve the president’s stated goals is nothing for his opponents to celebrate. Few conservatives begrudge the wealthy their gains, and many are skeptical that income inequality is meaningful in and of itself. But the fact that many Americans continue to suffer years after the technical end of the Great Recession should offend any sense of plain justice. The administration’s pathetic performance demands not schadenfreude, but answers. Conservatives need a social-justice agenda of their own.
Conservatives and Poverty
When wealthy liberals attempt to demonstrate their own charitable bona fides by insisting that taxes should be raised, conservatives seethe. It is easy to be generous with other people’s money, and the idea that support for higher taxes is a mark of good character badly confuses intentions for effective action. This is a moral framework built not around altruism, but sanctimoniousness.
But simply frowning at such fatuousness is no substitute for action. The American conservative’s reluctance to articulate a social-justice agenda of his own only feeds the perception that the right simply doesn’t care about the less fortunate. The lack of a positive plan makes it feasible for a president whose own tenure has proven disastrous for the poor to assail his Republican opponents with these extraordinary words: “Their philosophy is simple: You’re on your own. You’re on your own if you’re out of work, can’t find a job. Tough luck, you’re on your own. You don’t have health care: That’s your problem. You’re on your own. If you’re born into poverty, lift yourself up with your own bootstraps, even if you don’t have boots. You’re on your own.”
Obama’s 2012 opponent hardly made things better. Mitt Romney’s unfortunate claim that “47 percent” of Americans “believe that they are victims [whom] the government has a responsibility to care for” and that they could never be persuaded to support his campaign did little to combat misconceptions. And the caricature of Republican callousness has been repeated so often that conservatives can even fall into a kind of political Stockholm Syndrome. In a 1999 study, researchers at UCLA found that subjects viewed liberals as generous and conservatives as “somewhat heartless,” without regard to their own political views.
Conservative leaders owe it to their followers and the vulnerable to articulate a positive social-justice agenda for the right. It must be tangible, practical, and effective. And it must start with the following question: What do the most vulnerable members of society need? This means asking the poor themselves.
Most academic research on poverty is eerily divorced from contact with the actual people it references. One of my colleagues tells an instructive story. One afternoon, as he beavered away at his Ph.D. dissertation in a top university’s poverty-research center, an actual poor person walked in. He had seen the signs and was simply looking for help. The expert researchers had no idea what to do. Their instinct was to call security.
Interviews with poor and vulnerable citizens, especially those whose struggles to lift themselves up have yielded success, provide more insight in these conversations than any survey database could impart. From my experience conducting such interviews, many express an apolitical contempt for all politicians, liberal and conservative. They denounce with equal force the progressive politicians who believe that cash and redistribution alone can solve poverty and the conservatives who act as though every poor person should simply start a small business.
What, then, do poor people say they truly need to lead prosperous and satisfying lives? The real answer is both simple and profound. They need transformation, relief, and opportunity—in that order. On these three pillars, conservatives and advocates for free enterprise can build the basics of the social-justice agenda that America deserves.
The first pillar is personal moral transformation. By now, everyone acknowledges that poverty in America is often intertwined with social pathologies. In the late 1990s, scholars at the Urban Institute estimated that up to 37 percent of individuals enrolled in Aid to Families with Dependent Children abused drugs or alcohol. Similar findings connect poverty with criminality, domestic violence, and other problems.
Whether these problems are a product of poverty or mutually causal, common sense and the testimony of the poor themselves say that moral intervention must precede economic intervention for the latter to be truly effective.
All the evidence on happiness and successful living shows that living with intentionality, meaning, and purpose boosts well-being in unique and unparalleled ways. In one typical study, Swedish researchers surveyed 900 Americans and found an especially successful group of “self-fulfilling individuals” who draw on wellsprings of meaning such as community, spirituality, and personal responsibility. These people had the least depression, the most positive affect, and the highest life satisfaction—all distinct measures of enduring well-being.
As one digs deeper into the data, four transformational values prove to be concentric to a well-ordered, successful, and happy life: faith, family, community, and work.
We can use data from the 2010 General Social Survey to construct two demographically identical individuals. Both men are of the same age and race, attained the same level of education, and earn equal incomes—but here the similarities end. One is religious, married with two children, and lands in the top 10 percent of Americans in both hours worked and community engagement. The other is single with no kids and no religion, and his hours worked and social involvement both rank in the bottom decile.
How satisfied with life will these men be? The data indicate that the first man has a 47 percent likelihood of saying that he is “very happy” with his life, all things considered. The odds that the second man would say the same are a meager 10 percent. Hold everything constant but faith, family, community, and work—and the gap in well-being is enormous.
And it is precisely these four institutions that are increasingly absent in poor America. In his important 2012 book Coming Apart, Charles Murray shows that population averages for these “institutions of meaning” conceal a stark bifurcation beneath. In high-income, high-education America, these institutions are abundant. At the bottom, they are rapidly vanishing.
To be sure, many of our poor neighbors lead happy, upright lives full of faith, family, community, and fulfilling work. But to deny that these are disproportionately missing in poor communities today is to shove aside the facts and ignore an undeniable if inconvenient truth. Transforming the character and values of individuals and communities is essential to genuinely helping those in need. To say otherwise is to contradict their own testimonials.
This, not puritanism or bourgeois condescension, is the reason that conservatives must promote and defend the time-tested stores of personal and social meaning. To presume that low-income Americans are somehow unworthy of the same cultural standards to which we hold ourselves and our own families is simple bigotry. Genuine moral aspiration, not patronizing political correctness, will be the tip of the spear in a true social-justice agenda.
After transformation comes material relief. To deny that some Americans are genuinely needy requires willful blindness. In addition to the one-sixth of Americans currently receiving food assistance, consider a few more findings. A 2010 analysis from the National Center on Family Homelessness found that child homelessness spiked by a staggering 38 percent during the Great Recession years. And a team of public-health researchers stunned readers of the journal Health Affairs in 2012 when they released new life-expectancy findings. Among disproportionately low-income white females with fewer than 12 years of education, the scholars found that average life expectancy had fallen sharply since 1990.
Conservatives eager to reverse these facts naturally reach for their checkbooks. As I found in my 2006 book Who Really Cares, the average conservative household contributes significantly more to charity than does the average liberal household despite earning less income. According to the 1996 General Social Survey, those who strongly agreed that “the government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” gave away $140 on average to charity. Among those who strongly disagreed, the average gift was $1,637.
Of the 10 most charitable states in 2012, as ranked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, nine went for Romney over Obama. Three times as many red states as blue states placed in the top 20 states in giving. And all but one of the 10 least charitable states swung President Obama’s way.
Why do conservatives give more? The research shows that the largest charity differences owe to religious participation. We see that religious liberals are approximately as generous as their conservative co-religionists. But there are far more religious conservatives today than religious liberals, so the political gap persists.
It would be wonderful if America could solve all problems of poverty and need through private charity. We can and should give even more, and conservatives must continue to lead by example. But even in this remarkably charitable country—where voluntary giving alone exceeds the total GDP of nations such as Israel and Chile—private donations cannot guarantee anywhere near the level of assistance that vast majorities of Americans across the political spectrum believe is our moral duty.
Consider the present total that Americans give annually to human-service organizations that assist the vulnerable. It comes to about $40 billion, according to Giving USA. Now suppose that we could spread that sum across the 48 million Americans receiving food assistance, with zero overhead and complete effectiveness. It would come to just $847 per person per year.
Or take the incredible donation levels that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2011. The outpouring of contributions exceeded $3 billion, a record-setting figure that topped even the response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But even this historic episode raised enough to offset only 3 percent of the costs the storm imposed on the devastated areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. Voluntary charity simply cannot get the job done on its own.
The Safety Net
That leaves the government safety net. Is a limited, targeted safety net consistent with conservatism? Or is it one more way station on the road to serfdom?
Before you answer, here is a pop quiz. Which unrepentant statist wrote the following words?
There is no reason why, in a society that has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.
Was it Franklin Roosevelt, John Rawls, Ralph Nader? Not by a longshot. It was Friedrich Hayek. That passage is featured in his seminal free-market text The Road to Serfdom.
Hayek, along with most Americans, easily distinguishes between “some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing”—a core safety net for the truly indigent—and the sprawling, rent-seeking tangle that is today’s welfare state. Hayek recognized that it is the right that champions a true, sustainable safety net; progressives prefer an ever-expanding system for redistributing income more broadly and establishing greater state control over the economy.
Take the Affordable Care Act. For all its economic disruption and tremendous expenses, does President Obama’s signature achievement at least offer coverage to all needy Americans? Not even close. According to the New York Times, roughly 8 million low-income Americans are “impoverished, uninsured, and ineligible for help.” What the law does do is extend generous subsidies to citizens earning up to four times the poverty line and pledge sub-market premiums to millions more. And it pays for all this by diverting tax revenues and jacking up premiums for other citizens. One of the law’s most enthusiastic supporters in Congress put the point all too clearly: “Some are going to pay more so that others can pay less.”
ObamaCare is a case in point. Left unchecked, the left’s labyrinthine schemes will push America toward insolvency—and leave us unable to fund even the most fundamental parts of the safety net for those who truly need it.
Consider the European social democracies mired in economic crisis. What made, say, Greece so vulnerable to the economic meltdown? The Greek government spent well beyond its means, lavishing funds on public-sector salaries and middle-class “entitlements.” For more than a decade, heavy government borrowing facilitated all this spending. But the international financial crisis prompted foreigners to seek higher returns for purchasing Greek debt. At the most desperate hour for the most vulnerable Greeks, the nation had no choice but to cut spending dramatically.
Whom did austerity hit the hardest? From 2009 to 2010 alone, household disposable income in Greece dropped by more than 12 percent, and an Oxfam analysis found that most of that nosedive came from surging unemployment among those already on the margins. From 2010 to 2011, the homeless population climbed by 25 percent. Access to public health services fell sharply, crime rose, and suicide rates increased by a quarter.
In short, Greece’s poor bore the brunt of the bankruptcy that government profligacy invites. And so it will be here in America if we do not change course. Meteoric entitlement spending, the most holy of progressives’ sacred cows, will ultimately devolve into macroeconomic insolvency. Indiscriminate austerity cuts would be inevitable. And austerity always and everywhere hurts the poor the most, by weakening the economy and shredding the real safety net. Conservative fiscal policy does not cut against commitments to struggling American families. To the contrary, it is the only way to uphold them.
Looking to Welfare Reform
To recognize that a safety net for the needy is meritorious is one thing; to say exactly how to build it is another. Which programs should conservatives support? The beginning of an answer lies in the conservative social-policy success story of our time: the welfare reform movement of the 1990s.
American social policy expanded enormously after World War II, largely directing new support to fatherless families in poverty. Conservatives watched as generations of Americans were alienated from the workforce, whole classes defined themselves as claimants on the government, and millions were consigned to squalid public housing and became dependent on income support disconnected from incentives to work.
Two centuries earlier, Thomas Jefferson cautioned that “dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” More recently, Franklin Roosevelt had warned in his 1935 State of the Union address that “continued dependence” on government support “induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”
But Jefferson’s and Roosevelt’s words fell on deaf ears, and central planners charged ahead enthusiastically. The American welfare system grew and grew throughout the 1970s. The root of change was planted in Charles Murray’s 1984 book, Losing Ground, which argued forcefully that the system’s problem was not primarily economic, but ethical. Policies that inadvertently trapped people in miserable conditions only harmed those who sorely needed help. And by holding people in this condition, the system created dependency that stripped people of the dignity that inheres in earning one’s own way.
In the mid-80s, these arguments were radical. Ten years later, they were mainstream, and the idea of welfare reform was embraced by a Democratic president. Clinton-era legislation empowered people to punch through dependency by imposing time limits on how long they could receive support and by conditioning receipt of benefits on work. Welfare reform was signed into law in 1996, and it was a resounding success. According to the U.S. government, it helped 4.7 million Americans move from chronic helplessness to self-sufficiency within just three years of enactment; by 2004, the welfare caseload had declined by 54 percent.
This case study offers three lessons for us today. First, there is nothing inherently wrong with safety-net programs, be they SNAP, housing support, or Medicaid. Second, they must be designed and administered in ways that fight fiercely against dependency. And third, the safety net’s ultimate goal cannot be the perpetual subsistence of poor Americans in barely tolerable lives. We can aim at nothing less than real human flourishing.
These principles compel conservatives to focus on the main source of misery in America’s present stagnation: our dysfunctional labor market. Earlier in this essay, I relayed our historically poor rate of labor-force participation. Fewer than two-thirds of 10 working-age Americans are employed or seeking employment. And no national number, even one this depressing, fully captures the plight of the poor. It represents an illusory average of two radically different economic experiences, into which Americans are sorted based on their background and their wealth.
Research by Northeastern University economists shows that the wealthiest American workers have already recovered to full employment, and they did so relatively quickly after the recession’s official end. Not so for the working poor, whose persistent double-digit unemployment rate is reminiscent of the Great Depression’s.
And while entrepreneurship is often thought to offer unemployed Americans a path to productivity, the data here are equally bleak: The Kauffman Foundation’s latest report found that new firm formation remains well below pre-recession levels. All this explains why outright majorities told the Pew Research Center in September that their household incomes and job situations have recovered “hardly at all” since the recession. Roughly 70 percent felt that government extended either “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of help to megabanks and massive corporations, but the same fraction said those policies have done “not much” or “nothing at all” to help the poor.
Faced with these terrible statistics, President Obama and his allies reach reflexively for an old favorite—increasing the minimum wage. California, New Jersey, and 11 other states just did so on January 1. Washington D.C.’s city council recently approved a massive increase from $8.25 to $11.50 that will be phased in by 2016. And in late December, the New York Times reported that the president and Democrats in Congress plan to make hiking the federal minimum wage a front-and-center concern in the 2014 midterms.
Properly considered, the minimum wage is not part of the safety net at all. Even functioning as intended, the policy makes it marginally more expensive to hire new low-skilled employees in exchange for ensuring a marginally higher standard of living for those with jobs already. A January 2013 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research surveys the recent literature and concludes that—consistent with the views of nearly all mainstream economists—“minimum wages pose a tradeoff of higher wages for some against job losses for others.”
So minimum-wage laws create both winners and losers. The winners tend to be secondary earners in middle-class households, and the losers tend to be the least-educated workers with the most tenuous grip on jobs to begin with. For short, imagine a public policy that reduces opportunity among urban minority youth in order to provide pay raises for my teenage children. That policy exists. It is called an increase in the minimum wage. It is the left’s top priority. Never mind that the Employment Policies Institute finds “no statistically significant evidence that a higher minimum wage has helped reduce financial, housing, health, or food insecurity” among the poor households it claims to assist.
Policymakers who put actual people ahead of dated dogma would sooner cut the minimum wage than raise it. In a recent National Affairs essay, my colleague Michael Strain explains how dramatically lowering the minimum wage for the long-term unemployed would make the least fortunate Americans uniquely cheap to hire. At present, America’s million-plus long-term unemployed are caught in a vicious cycle. Their increasingly lengthy jobless spells make them increasingly unattractive applicants.
In a job market brimming with safer bets, high minimum wages price these marginalized people right out of the labor market. Making them initially employable at sub-minimum wages would give them a fighting chance.
But wouldn’t this policy leave workers with too little to get by? Not in the forms that any serious conservative has proposed. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit or, better yet, crafting more straightforward wage subsidies for the working poor would support poor families’ budgets without making them costlier to employ. Either approach would strengthen work incentives rather than undermine them.
Strain makes another intriguing proposal involving relocation vouchers. Using a mixture of direct payments and low-interest loans, the government could help cover costs for chronically unemployed Americans to move to areas with more plentiful opportunities. Obviously, not everyone will pick up and move, however generous the voucher. But at a time when economic conditions vary wildly between regions, the opportunity is a powerful one.
Thousands of low-income families would probably prefer to pursue hope and prosperity in booming states such as North Dakota (where unemployment sits at 2.6 percent) than continue cashing government checks and despairing in, say, Michigan (8.7 percent) or Rhode Island (9.0 percent). Relocation might well offer the spark they need to begin rebuilding their résumés—and their lives. And a simple, public two-page document that compared local labor markets across the United States would go a long way toward informing interested workers about available positions.
Enlightened labor policy complimented by an appropriate safety net is a key component of material relief. But it also meshes with the sine qua non of American conservatism, the third plank in the social-justice agenda: opportunity.
Nothing inspires conservatives more than a Horatio Alger story, the tale of a man or woman who started with nothing and climbed to the top. Therefore, I submit, nothing should trouble the political right more than the fact that the ladder of socioeconomic opportunity seems to be losing its lowest rungs.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has shown that in 1980, 21 percent of Americans in the bottom income quintile rose to the middle quintile or higher by 1990. But those who started off in the bottom quintile in 1995 had only a 15 percent chance of becoming middle class in 2005. That is a one-third decline in mobility in under a generation. Other analyses tell a similar tale. One 2007 Pew study measured relative mobility in Canada and Scandinavia at more than twice America’s level.
How can a conservative social-justice agenda reverse these trends and expand opportunity for all? An opportunity society has two basic building blocks: Universal education to create a base of human capital and an economic system that rewards hard work, merit, innovation, and personal responsibility. So opportunity conservatism must passionately advance education reform and relentlessly defend the morality of free enterprise.
Education reform has been discussed ad nauseam in these pages and elsewhere. We know that meaningful progress cannot be made in sclerotic systems that put adults’ job security before children’s civil rights and that resist the innovations that upgrade the rest of the economy.
Per-pupil federal education spending has skyrocketed to nearly four times its 1970 level, according to data compiled by Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute. What has this massive inflow of new resources bought us? A sizeable increase in our school systems’ employment rolls—but no detectable increase in our children’s test scores in reading, science, or math.
And this fecklessness is not evenly spread across America. Our broken bureaucracies systematically ship the very worst product to their most vulnerable consumers. Public schools in Washington D.C. spend more per pupil than all but one U.S. state (New York), yet only about 56 percent of children graduate from high school. In our nation’s capital, a city flanked by six suburban counties that rank among America’s 10 richest, only 15 percent of eighth-graders read at grade level.
Similar stories characterize cities with poor populations all around the country. And anyone who believes that a barely literate high school dropout is running a fair race in America is deluding himself. Equally delusional still is many politicians’ blind faith that the existing statist apparatus can or will do anything more than heave more money down the well while we fail more generations of poor American children. This is the civil-rights struggle of our time.
What to do? It’s not as if we have no idea how to improve the situation. Decades of research and experimentation in real communities have shown how charter schooling, vouchers, and other innovations can benefit needy children. In one rigorous 2007 study, scholars from Harvard and the Brookings Institution found that school vouchers in New York City significantly increased the proportion of African-American students who went on to attend college. Research from Stanford shows that access to charter schools reduced New York City’s black-white achievement gap by 66 percent in reading and a stunning 86 percent in math; a Harvard economist has found that Boston’s charters produce similarly massive improvements.
AEI education expert Frederick M. Hess has spent decades reviewing these results, and his conclusion is unambiguous: “For poor parents trapped in dangerous and underperforming urban school systems, it is pretty clear that school choice works.”
Similarly, we have a wealth of information on the best ways to teach disadvantaged children and recruit, retain, and reward the best teachers. In one recent study, prominent economists from Harvard, the University of Chicago, and University of California, San Diego, found that linking teacher pay to student performance pushed up test scores among working-class students near Chicago. Interestingly, their research suggests that paying every teacher a bonus up-front and then taking the money back from subpar performers can be even more effective than conventional after-the-fact rewards.
Why do these and countless other lessons go unheeded on a national scale? If we know what solutions work, why aren’t they scaling up? Simple: They upset the status quo. In California, more than 283,000 teachers and roughly 23,000 administrators work in an education sector that consumes nearly 40 percent of the state’s entire general fund. Fundamental, disruptive innovation might mean a significant inconvenience for a huge number of well-organized grown-ups. And by definition, the families and communities who would stand to benefit the most have little time and money to spare on costly political battles.
This is a classic public-choice problem, and only a crusade for social justice will stand a chance at winning this fight.
But education reform is just the first battlefield. Equipped with adequate human capital to earn their success, Americans then deserve a system that makes that earned success possible on the widest imaginable scale. Only the free-enterprise system fits the bill.
Simply look at worldwide prosperity over the past four decades. When I was a child in 1970, third-world poverty was a picture in National Geographic of a needy child. Charity might help, but we all knew that there was effectively nothing to be done. Our efforts were just thimblefuls in a vast ocean of tragic need.
The world has changed profoundly since then. According to Columbia University economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, the percentage of people in the world living on a dollar a day or less—a traditional measure of starvation-level poverty that he adjusts for inflation—has fallen by 80 percent since 1970. This is the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history. Yet it is not the result of philanthropy, para-statist organizations, or government foreign aid. This miracle occurred when billions of souls pulled themselves out of poverty thanks to globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship.
In short, it was the worldwide spread of American-style free enterprise that saved billions from poverty by giving them their first opportunity to rise in history. Truly, this is America’s gift to the world. Conservatives can and must champion this truth without apology or compromise. For the sake of all people, our end goal must be to make free enterprise as universally accepted and nonpartisan as civil rights are today.
Conservative Social Justice
Our nation has a great deal of need that goes unmet, and it is only exacerbated by years of misguided statist policies and a materialistic culture. The social-justice agenda outlined above can reorient us toward our best selves and toward our obligation to help the vulnerable.
It is an agenda that seeks transformation, relief, and opportunity. It means defending a culture of faith, family, community, and work; increasing our charity and protecting the safety net for the truly needy; and fighting for education reform and free enterprise as profound moral imperatives.
This agenda will do the most good for the most people—and revive the conservative movement. For too long, conservatives have identified themselves as fighting against things, perpetually making war on the left’s mistaken priorities. They fight against punitive taxes, creeping overregulation, wasteful spending, licentious culture, and ruinous national debt.
There is no reason to repudiate the ideology behind these fights. But these second-order policy fights are not intrinsic to a better nation; they are merely instrumental. The central, motivating purpose of conservative philosophy is not fighting against things. It is fighting for people.
Fighting for people doesn’t mean a catalog of massive government programs. It means thinking carefully about who is in need and how their need can best be met. In some cases, such as caring for the truly poor and defending our allies around the world, the right solution may well involve the government. In others—such as a crumbling culture, needy children caught in ineffective schools, entrepreneurs struggling to start businesses, or people permanently dependent on the state—the proper conservative answer is for the government to stop creating harm and get out of the way. In both cases, conservatives can and should be equally bold warriors for vulnerable people.
The conservative creed should be fighting for people, especially vulnerable people, whether or not they vote as we do. Such an experiment cannot guarantee success. But its spark will relight the fires of hope in a wearied country that 64 percent of Americans feel is “off on the wrong track.” In ethical, emotional, and potentially even electoral terms, no opportunity could be more promising than this opening to champion those who need our help.
This is our fight, and it is a happy one. After all, as Proverbs 14:21 reminds us, “He that despiseth his neighbor, sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he.”
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‘Be Open-Handed Toward Your Brothers’
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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.