The phony philo-semites of the european fringe
During the 1896 trial of the French Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus, the novelist Émile Zola expressed puzzlement that such intense bigotry could exist among the enlightened people of France: “Anti-Semites among our young men? They do exist then, do they?” He continued: “One hundred years after the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man,’ one hundred years after that supreme act of tolerance and emancipation, we are reverting to wars of religion, to the most obnoxious and inane type of fanaticism!”
Theodor Herzl was similarly stunned to see anti-Jewish mobs in “republican, modern, civilized France, 100 years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man.” Zola and Herzl were hopeful that the problem of anti-Semitism among the “civilized” could be eradicated if treated with heavy doses of reason. But as the Dreyfus case unfolded, Zola worried that his “dream that the coming century shall be splendid” was naive: “What a saddening, what a disquieting element for the 20th century which is about to dawn,” he wrote. Indeed, the 20th century would produce millions of anonymous Dreyfuses—many of whom met far crueler fates than the innocent captain—and few Dreyfusards.
If Zola and Herzl believed that the lofty words of France’s National Constituent Assembly in 1789 could help mitigate centuries of anti-Semitism—a persistent and multi-partisan phenomenon in European politics—they surely would have thought that those millions of lifeless bodies discovered by the Allies, or the matter-of-fact confessions of Nazi schreibtischtäter and trigger men, would at last strike the fatal blow against anti-Semitism. But this too would have been naive.
A 2003 european Union poll—conducted barely two years after the attacks of September 11—revealed that 59 percent of Europeans viewed Israel as a bigger threat to world peace than Iran, Iraq, or North Korea. Consider also the results of a March 2012 survey of anti-Semitic attitudes in Europe, conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Ipsos-Reid Public Affairs, which found that “pernicious anti-Semitic beliefs continue to be held by nearly one-third of those surveyed.”
Those combating this resurgence of European anti-Semitism—sometimes referred to as the “new anti-Semitism,” even though it possesses all the characteristics of the old—have tended to focus on anti-Jewish sentiment among Europe’s growing Muslim minority. The former leader of Holland’s Liberal Party, Frits Bolkestein, advised that “recognizable Jews, orthodox Jews” should consider emigrating “because of anti-Semitism, above all among the Moroccan Dutch, whose numbers continue to grow.” But this almost single-minded concentration on Islamic anti-Semitism has slighted developments on Europe’s far right, where neo-Nazi parties have made disturbing electoral strides in recent years, owing in no small part to the dramatic and prolonged economic uncertainty gripping the Continent. In some countries, these developments have failed to create an appropriate sense of alarm due to a new and unlikely development: Formerly fascist parties are recasting themselves as friends of Israel, attempting to create a popular front against a common political—and, as they see it,
Support among sincere Zionists for such an alliance is far from common but not dismissible. While the benefits of partnering with a repurposed fascism are negligible, the risks are enormous.
Consider Hungary. Its 20th century was marked by extreme violence and social upheaval: a brief but traumatic experience with Bolshevism in 1919 (led by the Jewish revolutionary Bela Kun); the government of Miklós Horthy’s Arrow Cross from 1920 to 1944, which collaborated with the Nazis and took an active role in the deportation of Hungary’s Jews; and a brutal occupation by a Soviet regime with an appalling record of anti-Semitism and a pedagogic obsession with the evils of Zionism. This history looms large today. The ADL study found that 73 percent of Hungarians agree that “Jews have too much power in the business world.” Seventy-five percent believe “Jews have too much power in international financial markets.” And 63 percent think “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.” Hungary, it’s worth noting, has one of the smallest Muslim populations in Europe (0.03 percent, according to one recent estimate).
Such attitudes have naturally found voice in mainstream political discourse. In 2010, Jobbik became Hungary’s third-largest party, taking 17 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections. Jobbik, the successor party to the Arrow Cross, peddles cretinous conspiracies of Jewish power and nostalgically recalls the brief period of the Arrow Cross’s pro-Hitler government. While other European extremist parties do a head fake toward the mainstream, Jobbik is upfront about its unreconstructed fascism, as evidenced by its paramilitary uniforms, complete with Nazi-like insignia, and its cheerful refusal to cloak its anti-Semitism in the garb of mere anti-Zionism. Indeed, in a letter to the country’s Israeli ambassador, the popular Jobbik leader and European parliamentarian Krisztina Morvai wrote that she “rejoiced” when Israeli soldiers were killed in battle and hoped that “all of you lice-infested, dirty murderers will receive Hamas’s ‘kisses.’” Csanad Szegedi, who represented Jobbik at the European Union in Brussels, frequently inveighed against Jews for “buying up” Hungary and warned of the “Jewishness” of the country’s intellectual class. Szegedi was forced by the party to resign his position—when it was revealed that his grandmother was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz.
Jobbik’s brand of undisguised fascism has shown gains in another country once occupied by Nazi Germany. In Greece, where a Weimar-like economy has precipitated the collapse of the social-democratic political establishment, the expressly neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn—whose leader recently said of the Holocaust, “There were no ovens. This is a lie. There were no gas chambers either”—garnered 7 percent of the vote in May, translating to 21 seats in parliament. That’s almost a half million votes for a party whose slate of candidates included Artemis Matthaiopoulos, the former bass player in the punk band Pogrom. Not surprisingly, the band’s song “Auschwitz” includes the lyrics, “F—k Wiesenthal/F—k Anne Frank/F—k the whole tribe of Abraham/The Star of David makes me vomit.”
Parties such as Golden Dawn, Jobbik, and the British National Party (BNP)—whose leader, European parliamentarian Nick Griffin, is also a Holocaust denier—have opted to campaign on transparent racism and Nazi nostalgia. But most other far-right parties in Europe have attempted to soften their image, advocating a popular-front strategy with the mainstream right and allies of Israel. As extremist parties such as Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, France’s Front National, Austria’s Freedom Party, and the Sweden Democrats see it, the primary danger facing Europe is the rise of Muslim immigration, which necessitates a broad-based coalition of nationalists, anti-jihadist activists, and pro-Israel politicians.
In 1987, the bombastic former leader of France’s Front National (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen, famously called the Holocaust a mere “detail” of World War II and judged the German occupation of France “not particularly inhumane.” The archives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League contain voluminous material on Le Pen’s movement, once considered the most significant threat to France’s Jewish population. In 1997, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs worried about the electoral advances of a party that was, it said, the “ideological successor of the anti-Dreyfus forces” in France.
These days the Front National is more concerned about increased Muslim immigration than defending the collaborationist government of Marshal Pétain, pointing to events such as the recent terrorist attack against a Jewish school in Toulouse as evidence that French Jews should unite with the FN against Islamic extremists. Under the new leadership of Le Pen’s daughter Marine, the party has completed its strategic volte-face. According to Marine Le Pen, the FN has “always been Zionistic [sic] and always defended Israel’s right to exist.” Indeed, in the same interview, she denied the existence of a “new anti-Semitism” in Europe, claiming that “this expression of hostility disappeared after World War II.”
Le Pen has maintained her friendship and working relationship with Frederic Chatillon, a publisher of Holocaust-denial literature and a staunch defender of the Assad regime in Syria (in a recent letter to the Syrian dictator, Chatillon explained that “it’s the Zionist lobby that the French press orders to destabilize your wonderful country”). She also recently called for a ban on wearing skullcaps in public, to complement her party’s plan to outlaw Muslim headscarves, as well as a ban on the apparently “un-French” practice of serving kosher and halal meals in public schools.
The Front National isn’t a fringe force in French politics. In the 2002 presidential election, Jean-Marie Le Pen played spoiler, placing second in the first round of voting ahead of Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. During this year’s election, Marine Le Pen bested her father’s record, securing a stunning 18 percent in the first round of voting.
The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) is also trying to shed its neo-Nazi image. Once led by Jörg Haider, an enthusiastic supporter of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi and a serial minimizer of Nazi crimes, FPÖ is now under the command of Heinz-Christian Strache, who recently traveled to Israel and enthused: “[Those] who comes [sic] to this place can understand the real problems. Our hearts are with you, Israel!” But before his embrace of Zionism, photographs surfaced of Strache giving a Nazi salute in public and wearing “paramilitary” training gear (he claims it was for a paintball match) in the company of known fascists. When members of FPÖ in the town of Amstetten recently abstained from a vote stripping Adolf Hitler of the honorary citizenship granted him in 1938, Strache defended the decision, arguing that the Führer’s 1945 suicide rendered any action unnecessary. Most recently, Strache was investigated by Austrian police for posting a cartoon on his Facebook page of a hook-nosed banker, sporting Star of David cuff links and gorging on food while a starving representative of Austria’s volk watched jealously.
When Strache toured Israel, he did so alongside Belgian politician Filip Dewinter, leader of the far-right party Vlaams Belang and a frequent ally of “anti-jihadist” bloggers, who is also attempting to rebrand his movement by identifying with Zionists. Prior to his conversion to philo-Semitism, Dewinter could be found addressing a gathering of Belgian SS veterans, opening with the invocation meine ehre heisst treue (“my honor is loyalty”)—the slogan of the SS, the phrase emblazoned on the daggers, rings, and belt buckles of Himmler’s troops—and praising his friend Bert Eriksson, a well-known Belgian neo-Nazi agitator. According to various Belgian media accounts, Dewinter has long associated with known neo-Nazi groups and activists and the Vlaams Belang (the successor to the banned party Vlaams Blok) is honeycombed with members of the extreme right.
In Germany, voters are less forgiving of those who flirt with fascism, and the country’s only significant far-right party, the National Democratic Party (NPD), has chose to forgo strategic Zionism. The postwar process of denazification and the country’s reasonably open confrontation with its Nazi past has helped blunt the effectiveness of “post-fascist” groups such as NPD. But recent opinion polls suggest that radical anti-Israel views have made significant inroads with the general public: Almost half of Germans, according to a poll conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, believe Israel is “conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.” And half the German population believes Jews “try to take advantage of having been victims during the Nazi era.”
As historian Hans Kundnani recently observed, in Germany “the Holocaust has receded in significance during the last decade.” “Increasingly, Germans seem to see themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.”
Despite the past associations of these groups, the ruse has found some success in convincing several parties outside Europe—those who have little memory of the sinister history of many nationalist political movements. To a lesser degree, those on the Continent, exasperated by the failures of mainstream politicians to address the rising tide of anti-Semitism, are increasingly considering previous enemies as future comrades. In America, the anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller, who counts many far-right European parties as allies, declared: “Any friend of Israel is a friend of mine. Period.” In Israel, politicians like Ayoob Kara, Eliezer Cohen, and Arieh Eldad have cozied up with the far right, and Samaria settlement spokesman David Ha’ivri told Arutz Sheva, “If these European leaders—with their ties to anti-Semitic groups and their past—come around and declare that Israel has a right to exist securely in all of the areas under our control, and that Europe has a moral responsibility because of the crimes of their past, then I believe that we should accept their friendship.”
Kara, a Druze Likud politician, told the Israeli daily Maariv last year: “I am looking for ways to lessen the Islamic influence in the world. I believe that is the true Nazism in this world. I am the partner of everyone who believes in the existence of this war.” When asked by a journalist from Yediot Ahronot why he associated with a German political activist with known links to neo-Nazi groups, Kara proclaimed that such associations “do not interest me” and are “irrelevant” to the larger issue of battling Islamic extremism in Europe. In response to those considering alliances with parties who have turned their vitriol from Judaism to Islam, Danny Shek, Israel’s former ambassador to France, warned of this “primitive formula [in pro-Israel circles], that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’”
In Europe, the task of collaboration is considerably more difficult, although, as Belgian activist Gidon Van Emden wrote recently in the Jerusalem Post, Filip Dewinter and Vlaams Belang have “done a fabulous job of looking respectable to the Jews, taking consistently pro-Israel stances, and creating good contacts with certain rabbis in the community….Dewinter’s charm offensive seems to have worked.” In France, Jewish political activist and trade-union organizer Michel Thooris ran for parliament as a member of the Front National. “It’s natural to turn to [Marine] Le Pen when you’re Jewish,” he told Haaretz. “She fights crime and Islamism and that means she defends Jews.”
Alliances with the fringe right are troubling for moral reasons, but they also contaminate legitimate grievances by associating them with contaminated people. After the 2006 war in Gaza, for instance, one British National Party official, deploying the traditional language of fascism, wrote that the Israeli Defense Forces were engaged in a “‘disinfecting’ process whereby Israel is required to sterilize areas of radical Islamist support.” This was not meant as a criticism.
The BNP’s Nick Griffin, who has repeatedly denied the Holocaust (“a mixture of Allied wartime propaganda, extremely profitable lie, and latter-day witch-hysteria”), now says that he has “no time for anti-Semites.” Griffin, author of “Who Are the Mindbenders?,” a pamphlet arguing that Jews—the mindbending outsiders—control the British media, recently declared that “in the clashes between Israel and Gaza, [the BNP] stood full square behind Israel’s right to deal with Hamas terrorists.”
To Israel’s most vehement critics—those who routinely equate the IDF with the Wehrmacht—the disingenuous “support” Israel receives from fascists such as Griffin is highlighted as further proof that Israeli policy is morally equivalent to Nazism. In the Huffington Post, the anti-Israel writer Max Blumenthal responded to Griffin’s newfound love of the Jewish state with a piece headlined “Neo-Nazis for Israel?” When in 2011 a Norwegian nationalist murdered 77 of his fellow countrymen, partisans wasted little time in ascribing ideological blame, stressing that the far-right agitator, Breivik, identified himself as a Zionist.
The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan labeled Anders Breivik a “Zionist fanatic.” The liberal columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote that the Norwegian mass murderer’s choice of ally was unsurprising, because “if the European far right is increasingly cozy with Israel, it’s in part because Israel itself has lurched to the right and now shows increasing tolerance for fascism.” The blogosphere heaved with similar discussions: Fascists like Israel because Israel itself is a fascist state. But one needn’t look very hard to discover that Breivik’s support of Israel was based on the belief that an alliance with the Jewish state was a necessary precondition for destroying Islam.
Much like how America viewed its Soviet partner during wartime, Breivik saw Israel as an ally of convenience. As he wrote in his rambling manifesto: “In war, you will see many alliances between ideologically opposing factions. You will rarely win a war without seeking a broad alliance. When your peoples are facing cultural and demographical [sic] genocide, you are prepared to stretch far in order to prevent this from happening.”
And Breivik’s fascist sympathies are hardly subterranean. He complains of the “paralyzing Jewish Holocaust religion” that “has grown into a destructive anti-European monster,” inhibiting the development of nationalist ideology. He professes admiration for the “white power” music of Swedish singer Saga, defending her membership in the neo-Nazi political party “National Sosialistisk Forening [sic], a former Swedish Indigenous Rights Movement demonized as ‘evil Nazi monsters.’” Breivik’s tepid rejection of Nazism is punctuated by odd anti-Semitic asides, such as his comment that Hitler’s conspiracy-theorizing was in essence correct: “Were the majority of the German and European Jews disloyal? Yes.”
As journalists mined Google in search of Breivik’s political connections, it was quickly discovered that he was also a registered user of two neo-Nazi online forums, the Swedish site Nordisk and the American racist clearinghouse Stormfront. His manifesto praises the anti-Semitic British National Party, thunders against “capitalist globalists,” and declares that while “there is no Jewish problem in Western Europe (with the exception of the UK and France)…the U.S., on the other hand, with more than 6 million Jews (600% more than Europe) actually has a considerable Jewish problem.”
Breivik’s peculiar support for Israel was temporary. Nevertheless, the former head of the far-right English Defense League’s “Jewish Division,” Roberta Moore, celebrated Breivik’s attack (he “did us all a favor” because his victims were “terrorist-supporting scum”). And Joel Yossi, another Jewish member of the group, began a pen pal relationship with the incarcerated killer.
As the murders in Toulouse and the failed 2010 suicide attack in Stockholm demonstrate, the threat of Islamist violence is the most worrisome security issue facing Europe today. But this shouldn’t obscure the continued rise of neo-fascist extremism—which is doggedly exploiting the current economic crisis, its Weimar moment, to revive classic anti-Jewish rhetoric. Nor should Islamist terrorism necessitate the normalization of parties with dubious histories. Like anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism, European anti-Semitism is ideologically independent, traditionally finding adherents on both the left (“Jewish capitalism”) and right-wing fringes (“Jewish Bolshevism”), an especially worrying trend when the fringes are encroaching on the mainstream. And its persistence and growing strength cannot be explained away as a foreign import. This is Europe’s indigenous strain of bigotry. To make common cause with it is to accede to it.
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Must-Reads from Magazine
RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
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Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.