The short story for April.
At every synagogue, the month of Elul at the end of summer is exhausting for the leadership of the congregation and for the rabbi—as it is at B’nai Shalom (Children of Peace), in Brookline, Massachusetts. The Ritual Committee has to organize services and distribute honors: This one will come up to the bimah to bless the Torah, that one will carry the Torah scroll through the aisles. Services at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are for many Jews the only services they attend all year.
The long wall of the small sanctuary at B’nai Shalom accordions away, making the large sanctuary larger. Rabbi Ari will play to a packed house. So he’s busy preparing sermons, talking to the cantor, and practicing the nusach (the melody) that is traditional for the High Holidays.
Sam Schulman, who leads a morning service on most Tuesdays, feels for Ari—Rabbi Ari Stein—Ari’s in an especially tough position this year. At the start of summer, the board treasurer discovered that, over a period of five years, almost a quarter of a mil-lion dollars had been embezzled from B’nai Shalom. The executive director agreed to plead guilty in ex-change for serving minimal time in prison. Some money he paid back, some was paid by insurance. Some is gone for-ever. Sam knows that Ari will have to speak about the loss while not making too much of it—he has to keep the community together.
Elul, the month surrounding High Holidays, is a time of preparation. We are to change our lives. On Rosh Hashanah, the New Year—we are inscribed in the Book of Life; ten days later, Yom Kippur, as we pray for change in ourselves and for forgiveness, we are judged, the Book sealed. We live, we die; we prosper, we fail to prosper. God has judged.
Who believes this literally? Maybe only the Orthodox. Yet as myth, communal shaping of our lives, it has great power. It’s not theoretical; it enters our hearts. Surely it has power over Sam Schulman. Neither believing nor disbelieving, he lives as if the holy power of the Days of Awe rumbled through him. Sha-ken by the blast of the shofar—a curving trumpet made of a ram’s horn—we are enjoined to listen, and maybe tremble. Sam lives, we live, much of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as if the Holy One watched over and judged us all.
The rest of the time, Sam teaches Nineteenth-Century Novel at Boston University.
The shofar blast is heard not only on Rosh Hashanah and at the very end of Yom Kippur services, but also at weekday services during the month of Elul, just before High Holidays. Tuesday morn-ings throughout the year at B’nai Shalom, a minyan meets. Ten or more if they’re lucky. During Elul, two or three mem-bers of the minyan bring their shofars and blow them together. The air quivers in a prescribed pattern of blasts—long, short, very short, finally very long—sounds meant to raze your ordi-nary con-sciousness and blast you into Teshuvah—repentance, a turning to God.
This is a story about Teshuvah.
On a Tuesday morning at the beginning of Elul, Sam is happy to see Deborah Pearl come into the small sanctuary. Her first time. She sits next to Kate, Sam’s fiancée. It’s hard to bring together at 7:30 in the morning ten adult Jews—a complete minyan—allowing them to pray as a community, to say the Barechu and Kaddish. Counting in his head, he thinks now that Deborah has come, they’ll make it today. Sam knows Deborah’s recent story the way most inner members of the synagogue know it: Her husband, Dave, left her for a young colleague. Sam sighs. He feels for her. Deborah is, fortunately, a freelance writer; she’s able to adjust her time and as a single parent take care of her eight-year-old daughter.
At the end of the service, the blast of the shofar—blown, this morning, by a professor of physics from M.I.T.— echoes through the small sanctuary.
The next Tuesday morning, Sam is surprised: Deborah’s back. She listens, eyes closed, to the harsh blare of the shofar. After that service, just about everyone gone, she sits watching Sam take off tefillin and fold away tallis.
“I wonder,” she says. “Do you have a minute, Sam? I’d like to speak with you. It’s about Teshuvah. Do you remember, I was in that adult-education class you led?”
God, does he ever! She talked and talked. Feverishly. It rankled him—others didn’t get to speak. She was articulate, but she seemed more interested in herself-saying than in what she was saying. He was fooled at first—hard for him not to give the benefit of the doubt to a clever, pretty woman, with wild black hair, in long dresses revealing her figure. But he stopped calling on her so often—wouldn’t let her take over. Still, he tried to remain patient. Beneath all that talk, he told himself, there’s true longing.
“I don’t want to talk to the rabbi,” she says. “I guess I’d be frightened. But I thought you might be a big help—about guilt and, you know, repentance. Maybe point me in the Right Direction. You probably don’t remember, but in that class we spoke about Yom Kippur and forgiveness. Yom Kippur is meant to wipe clean a sin against God. But, according to the Talmud”—Deborah takes a folded slip of paper from her purse and reads from a printout—“For sins committed against other human beings, Yom Kippur does not atone. Prayer is not sufficient. We have to beg forgiveness from those against whom we’ve sinned.”
“That’s right. Many sources tell us that. So, Deborah, do you need to forgive someone? Or ask someone for forgive-ness?”
They sit in adjoining chairs, and she takes a deep breath and tells Sam her story.
Amelia Ross has been Deborah’s closest friend. “You know Amelia?”
“I know who she is. I was on a committee with her.”
Well, when Deborah was slogging through her sepa-ration and divorce, Amelia held her hand. Literally Held Her Hand. This was two summers ago. Some days after work, they’d sit on a bench at the esplanade by the Charles, and Amelia would take Deborah’s hand.
“‘They’re going to think we’re lovers,’ I whispered. ‘I mean, like, holding my hand?’”
“‘I don’t care,’ Amelia said, and she patted my hand. ‘Do you really care?’”
“And I didn’t. She soothed me.”
Once or twice a week, Deborah and her daughter, Susan, went to Amelia and Rob’s for dinner. The women were proud of being able to share cooking fluidly, dancing around each other preparing food while Susan practiced piano or hung out with Amelia’s son, Noah. When Rob, who worked hard as a lawyer, a specialist in mergers and acquisi-tions, came home, dragged out, all was ready. He poured drinks.
The two couples had met in birthing class eight years before. They had babies at the same time, joined B’nai Shalom at the same time. When one of the women took on a project at the synagogue—organizing the auction, laying out food for a scholar’s talk—the other joined in. The men were good casual friends. Now, Deborah’s ex, Dave, has moved to California to take a new position and begin a new family with a woman colleague—“Twenty years younger,” she tells Sam, “can you imagine?”—and Deborah and her daughter ate often at Rob and Amelia’s apartment.
“One night Rob laughed, ‘My God. The adults in this here dining room, we’re practically a ménage à trois.’
“Then, embarrassed, he changed it: ‘I mean, like…a commune. We share meals.’
“So, Sam, I told them, ‘I don’t mean to take advantage. Susan and I are probably here too often. You two have been such a comfort.’
“Which is true!
“But Rob said, ‘Please! Not at all. Please.’”
“And I couldn’t help wondering, Sam, did he really mean a ménage à trois? And I couldn’t meet Rob’s eyes. I must have turned forty-seven shades of red.”
Often, Deborah says, Rob drove her and Susan home the few blocks to her apartment. He drove that night—the night of the ménage à trois. “And Rob told me, ‘What I said before, you really misunder-stood. I was celebrating, not complaining.’
“And while we were waiting for the light to change, he whispered so Susan wouldn’t hear, ‘You, you’re the spark in my eyes, Deborah.’”
He didn’t look at her; he looked straight ahead, both hands holding the wheel.
Sam listens. Deborah goes on and on, as she went on and on in class. But he can see she’s in pain. He lets her talk about her feelings:
Her feelings when Rob said she was the spark in his eyes.
Her feelings for her beloved friend.
Her feelings for Rob, her beloved friend’s attractive husband.
“And now,” Deborah tells Sam, “a new narrative begins to write itself. You see where this is going?”
He nods, nods, puts a hand to his chest, sighs. He’s trying to remain nonjudgmen-tal. Judge everyone on the side of merit. So says the Talmud. But Deborah, oh, she’s such a child! Her feelings, her feelings. It’s all about her. Still, he thinks, a child can suffer. Deborah’s really suffering. He remembers how aggravated he became when Rabbi Ari spoke about Nick, the embezzling bastard: poor man. Ari felt that anyone who could betray friends and a community that’s based on the love of justice, must be, even if he didn’t know it, deeply suffering. That’s how Sam feels about this woman, who is about to tell him how she betrayed her best friend: poor woman.
What was happening, God knows (and Deborah affirms) she hadn’t planned. Of course not. In the dark car, feelings spilled from her. The times she and Rob had been together, maybe these feelings were always there, unrecognized. “You think so, Sam? I mean, haven’t I always kept them tucked away in a pocket of consciousness?”
“And now you’re feeling guilty?” He says this by rote; Sam would prefer to be alone over a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
“No, no. Wait. I haven’t told you the half…Sam? You have a few more minutes?”
He looks at his watch. Faculty Personnel Committee isn’t until eleven. “Sure. Go on.”
“A little flirtation, well, that’s one thing,” Deborah says. “But I certainly didn’t intend to betray my friend. You think I was fooling myself, Sam?”
“I’m really not a therapist, Deborah. And I’m not a priest.”
Still, Deborah goes on, hadn’t she listened to Amelia complain about her marriage, about how busy Rob is, about how indifferent Rob seems? Amelia is the principal of a private school, K through six, and most of the time she doesn’t talk about her marriage—she tells Deborah how excited she is with changes she’s brought to the school. “Amelia isn’t a complainer. Me, I’m sometimes a complainer,” Deborah says. “I know it. Not Amelia. But sometimes Amelia spills out teeny grumbles about Rob. I think what happened, Sam, is I reshaped the story Amelia was telling me. Like: Rob has for a long time been dissatisfied with Amelia. Rob has for a long time been in love with me. Of course that doesn’t mean I intended to do anything about it.”
One night the three of them and the two kids stay up a little late at Rob and Amelia’s, and when Rob drives Deborah home, Susan falls asleep in the car, so Rob carries Suze upstairs and puts her to bed. And there they are in the dark living room, Rob and Deborah, and they take each other’s hands and stand breathing, breathing, breathing. They just look at each other. That’s absolutely all, so ludicrous, the two of them like teenagers. Rob’s got this wonderful smile. Then Deborah walks him to the door and as always, they kiss, kiss like friends. Deborah can’t sleep half the night. She keeps re-writing and rewriting the scene. What she should have said. What she should have done.
“Then the next day Rob calls and he tells me what, I guess, I’ve been wanting to hear. ‘You know this is inevitable,’ he says. ‘Don’t you?’
“Oh, God, Sam.”
Silence in the small sanctuary, a long silence on the phone that day. Deborah imitates Rob’s powerful baritone: “’Can we get together for lunch tomorrow?’
“So I said, ‘We’ll talk. We should talk. I’ll make you lunch.’”
“When was all this?” Sam asks.
“Oh…six months, seven months ago.”
And so they meet at her apartment, and Susan is of course at school, and, she says to Sam, “What did I think was going to happen? But omigod, it’s like watching events beyond your control. You know—like on a roller coaster.”
He wants to ask, Was inviting the man for lunch at your house also uncontrollable? You couldn’t find a restaurant in Boston? He doesn’t ask.
We’re not bound to do a single thing, she says to herself as she pre-pares the salade niçoise. But she does feel bound—her hands are tied, what can she do?—and to protect herself she secrets away the idea that being bound diminishes her betrayal. If we step over the line. Not that it’s inevitable. No. We can simply stay friends.
“Oh, sure,” she says now. “Sure.”
Now she’s in tears, tears running down her face, and Sam doesn’t know what’s best to do. Tell her she’s fooling herself? Suggest she see a therapist? He doesn’t. He just listens. Through tears she talks.
“Rob’s a big, hairy man,” she tells Sam. “Hair on his chest, hair on his back—a thick, muscled man who works out in the gym. You don’t mind if I speak like this? I shouldn’t. I know I shouldn’t. Stop me if you want, Sam.”
She knows Rob’s body from swims on St. John when the two families vacationed together. It’s very exciting to touch him, to transgress; let’s admit it, the transgres-sion itself is terribly exciting. Just to touch him through a business shirt, then to undo his tie and—you know, like—open the buttons of his shirt, both of them laughing like children. “You know Rob’s beautiful little laugh? And then be silent with each other. You know.”
She’s sure she isn’t as beautiful as Amelia. —“God! Amelia is lean like a girl, small, a dancer, a runner. Me, I’m soft, my hair wild and black, not like Amelia’s neat page-boy blonde.”
Sam figures she wants him to tell her she’s beautiful. He refrains.
“In my mind Amelia was in the bedroom with Rob and me. A ménage a trois for real.”
She leads him to the bed where she and Dave, her ex, have made love so often in their ten years together. It’s rain-ing out, a slant rain against the windows. Somehow that matters. She thinks that if it had been sunny out, she would probably have turned him away but that in the gray rainy day she couldn’t hold back from him. “You understand, Sam?”
They kind of dropped their clothes on the floor, and part of the delight is in so totally replacing Dave. “As if it meant I hadn’t lost anything. It was both brand new and so completely home.”
“And now,” Sam says, wanting to wrap this up and get to his office, “you’re feeling guilty?”
She’s a little hurt by his summation. “There’s much more, Sam.”
He makes gestures of apology for interrupting.
Deborah plays with her scarf. “After that we were careful. We didn’t get together a lot. Rob said, ‘We don’t want to turn our lives into chaos, do we?’ And no, no, we certainly did not. The very last thing we wanted. I said to Rob, ‘It’s a heavy responsibility to be mature enough not to let love run away with us.’”
“But Amelia found out?”
“Not exactly. Well, yes, but not yet. The next thing is, Amelia was diagnosed with cancer, pancreatic cancer. Which is weird, because Amelia is a runner; she doesn’t smoke, she eats a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. She doesn’t look sick at first. She loses weight and is kind of pleased with herself, though she’s never been fat. She said, ‘I’m back to my weight just after college, I have to take in all my clothes. A nice problem, if you ask me.’ But sometimes, she got really sad and I hated myself. I shopped for her, I bought new clothes for her.”
Then one day Amelia calls Deborah. They meet at the esplanade by the Charles, and Amelia takes Deborah’s hand as if it were Deborah who needed comforting. Amelia soothes. “And she tells me, ‘It’s still bearable. All I want is not to have a lot of pain. I’m a coward when it comes to pain. And I want to know that Noah will be okay. And Rob.”
“So I said, ‘You know how much they’ll miss you.’ And here’s the thing, Sam. Amelia looks into my eyes and says, ‘You’ll help, I know you will. You’ll help.’”
“I knew what she was suggesting. If she dies, when she dies, I might take her place, might make a new family—with Susan and Noah and Rob. God! If Rob and I had only waited! It would be so different.”
Too late now. Without a word spoken, Rob and Deborah stop seeing each other. And the more they stay away from each other, the more desperately in love Deborah feels—and the more guilty. “Already Amelia is practically gone, and in my head I’ve taken her place, and the children are like brother and sister, and we both, Rob and Deborah, remember Amelia with love, so much love.”
It doesn’t happen that way.
Now they talk on the phone, Deborah and Amelia, nearly every day. And Deborah asks and asks, “How is the pain, how is your appetite?” And Amelia tells her how loving Rob has become—though, she says, he’s always been loving. But there are none of the little quarrels now. Deborah wants to find out, Have you been, you know, close to Rob? She can’t bring herself to ask.
“I see why you’re thinking of Yom Kippur,” Sam says, feeling the moral gravity of what the three of them are going through. “How do you atone?”
Yes. But there’s more.
Sam sits back and stops fighting it. He surrenders his morning.
With Amelia sick, Deborah often makes dinner for the family, separate food for Amelia. Afternoons, she visits Amelia, gives her massages, feels how flaccid her muscle tone is becoming, how the ribs and collar bones are showing.
She never speaks to Rob now. Rob never calls her. When they’re together, the three of them, they avoid each other. But one night, late, depressed, she calls. She asks, “Is Amelia awake?” “No,” he says, “no, she’s been asleep for hours.” So Deborah tells him how she loves him, and she tells him how hard this playacting is.
“I said, like, ‘How are we going to handle the guilt? I feel so awful about you and me. What’s especially terrible, it’s that I find myself longing for an ending, waiting for her to leave us.’”
And Amelia wasn’t asleep. No. Half asleep, she picked up the phone in the bedroom and was awake and couldn’t stop listening in.
“Oh! How awful—awful for Amelia,” Sam says. “Oh!”
“Yes! Awful! And for me! Imagine! Awful. When I called the next morning, she said, like, ‘I’m not feeling well enough to see you.’?”
Deborah takes that at face value. As she imagines it, Amelia is coming close to the end. Hanging up the phone, Deborah cries, suffering, miserable that she’ll lose her friend, her best friend—and miserable that, partly, partly, she wants to lose her.
Then a phone call from Rob. “Can we meet?”
Late summer. A bench in the Boston Gardens. Rob is there first. He stands up and kisses her, the kiss of a friend. At once she grows uneasy. “How’s Amelia?”
He says, “Deborah, she heard, she picked up the phone when you called.”
“‘Oh, my God.’ That’s all I could say.”
Now she says it over and over, “Oh, my God, oh, my God,” the pain building each time she says the words, each time she remembers what she said on the phone. Nothing can make it right, nothing she can do. “So I said, ‘Rob? What’d you tell her?’
“And he says, ‘What could I say? Could I say anything?’
“I said to him, ‘It was mostly my guilt talking. Not being able to stand it. A person has all kinds of feelings. Sure I wanted this to end. I also love her. I love Amelia very much.’”
“‘I guess it’s too late for love,’ Rob says. ‘Amelia hates you.’”
“Which isn’t fair,” Deborah says to Sam. “I could feel his coldness. It’s all over. Unfair! As if it was all me, only me, my sin. What about Rob? Why should he lay it all on me? And then Rob said, ‘Oh. Yes. I forgot. I did say something to her. I told her we’d imagined she’d want us to be together.’ Then he added, ‘That didn’t go over so well, Deb.’”
Now Sam and Deborah sit, both of them considering the ending of this love of hers, this guilt, especially the guilt. “What should I do, Sam?”
“What do you think? Really. You tell me. What do you think? When you asked me to listen, you knew. Didn’t you know?”
“You’re going to tell me, go on my knees, beg her forgiveness, right? Omigod. She’ll slap my face.”
“Maybe she will. Deborah, I’m not telling you what to do. But if you’re asking what would the tradition tell you? If you’re asking what’s the way to seek atonement? According to Jewish tradition, you said it yourself: Prayer isn’t enough. Inner repentance isn’t sufficient.”
“Right, oh, right. Well, thank you, Sam, for listening to me blabber on.”
“Is she dying? Amelia?”
“She may not last another month. Sam? Actually, actually…I love her. I do. I love her—I mean when we’re talking just love, you know?—more than I love Rob. She’s my shining star. The spark in my eyes. No. My compass.”
Yom Kippur services in B’nai Shalom—the large, even grandiose sanctuary of marble and stained glass. The wall of the small sanctuary has been folded back. Sam sits with Gabriel, his son, and with Kate. He knows Gabriel won’t stay for the Musaf service. He’ll leave at Yiskor, the service remembering the dead. Sam is happy that he attends at all. Kate, soon to marry Sam, will stay beside him.
Everyone has begun a fast that started yesterday at sunset. By the time we break our fast, twenty-five hours after we begin, we’re weak, maybe lightheaded. It helps bring us into a different consciousness.
Sam sees Deborah a few rows away across the room. Behind her and to the side, at the end of a row, Amelia and Rob. Looking around, she spots Sam and quickly looks away. Is she afraid that his presence will feel like judgment?—That he’ll press her to speak to Amelia, morally force her to speak?
Rabbi Ari, young, early forties, charismatic, writer of two books and a weekly column in a Jewish online paper, offers words of Torah this morning. The Torah scroll has been bound, the cantor sits down, and the rabbi speaks about repentance and forgive-ness at Yom Kippur:
“We were all victims of a thief. We all suffered damage from the embezzlement. Should the thief, whom we all trusted and liked, go up to each of you and confess? And if he did, would you forgive? Repentance and forgive-ness are a vehicle of growth for the one repenting and for the one forgiving. Maybe you’ve hurt some-one who’s in this very room, in this community, maybe the person sitting right next to you. Maybe somewhere in this old sanctuary there’s a person you’ve insulted—or maybe you’re holding a grudge and you’d like to let it go—to forgive. Are you thinking of speaking to that person? Maybe you can’t do it right now, but you can do it later…”
“You might want to close your eyes and think about this.”
The shofar won’t be blown until the end of the final service today—when the final prayers are chanted and the Gates of Mercy close. Before they close, we will make a final pitch to God, chant over and over. We beg, we demand. Then many hold up their shofarim and blast in cacophonous concert. Rabbi Ari is a strong shofar blower; he has a twisting, four-foot ram’s horn, hollowed to make a chamber for sound that can blast open ordinary con-sciousness. Now from all parts of the sanctuary, shofarim—three, four, maybe ten!—blare, as lights dim and our souls are, if they ever are, awake.
But that’s not until this evening.
This morning, as we prepare to open our souls, Sam’s eye is on Deborah, halfway across the room. He imagines—can’t really see but imagines—heat filling Deborah’s face. He hasn’t told Rabbi Ari her story, but the Rabbi’s talk, it seems as if it were directed to her. She might be wondering if he, Sam, has said something.
Three rows behind her are Amelia and Rob. Deborah is on the aisle. All she has to do is stand up and go to Amelia. So simple. Out of the corner of his eye he keeps watching. Go! He whispers to himself, Go on, go up to Amelia. Maybe not to say anything, just to lean past Rob and hug Amelia.
Would Amelia permit Deborah to come close? Or would she turn away?
Deborah looks around, seems about to stand, she’s going to do it!
No! She can’t do it. Her betrayal of Amelia is breaking her heart, Sam knows; it breaks her heart to think Amelia will die without a reconciliation. And look at Amelia: so thin, so weak, her hair too glossy—a wig.
Deborah sits eyes closed.
Now Sam finds tears blurring his own eyes—because, look!—it’s Amelia who has the strength to come over. She stands up, a little shaky, and with the help of a cane she walks very slowly down the aisle, her hand on the pew backs. As if she were the one who needed to ask forgiveness!
Sam sees: Deborah makes room. Deborah makes room for Amelia on the hard bench. They’re touching hip to hip. They look at each other and he’s sure that, all the while, Deborah must be talking, saying, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I love you, I’m so sorry. And Amelia runs her fingers over Deborah’s cheeks and must be saying, I forgive you, I forgive you everything. Forgive me. I so hated you.
Sam looks at Rob. Rob Cole is ignoring or pretending to ignore Amelia and Deborah. Big shoulders hunched under the blue and white tallis, maybe he’s watching the two women out of the corner of his eye.
We’re about to begin Yiskor, the remembrance of our beloved dead. Sam will remember his parents, he’ll remember his beloved Bennie, who died of cancer as a third-year student at Yale. Most of the congregants are whispering to one another or reading in the prayer book for High Holidays, waiting for the rabbi to begin. One or two seem to notice the two women weeping, but after all, this is Yom Kippur—service of personal and communal repentance. All sorts of passions are felt.
He sees that Deborah and Amelia hang on each another and weep. Amelia’s the one comforting. Oh! Deborah’s repentance is the repentance of a child; Amelia’s is deep, real.
Deborah is too far from Sam to speak. And he’s not, after all, what’s important. Still, she does turn to look at him and she nods. Wants him to know. See?
It’s very good. He himself is almost crying. Amelia’s gesture: how beautiful!
The cantor is chanting, and soon Yizkor—May God remember…the service recalling our beloved ones gone from us, will begin, and Sam will remember his mother, his father, his son Bennie. And he foresees that next year they’ll be remembering Amelia. Deborah hugs Amelia closer, as if she’s already mourning, as if she already lost her friend. Clearly, they don’t care who watches them. They’re in a pool of being that separates them from everyone, as if they were surrounded by a shimmer of light.
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.