The day the Golden Age Club opened at Hecht House, a Jewish community center in Dorchester, six men stood awkwardly…
Old people—especially those who do not suffer ailments sufficiently acute to require active attention—are the forgotten ones of our society. Among Jews, where the tradition has formally emphasized the reverence due the aged, any rejection of them has a special edge of poignancy. Happily, on the American scene lately, within both the general and Jewish communities, voluntary agencies have been developing ways of trying to help in this problem. Sylvia Rothchild here reports on the beginning period of a club for old people in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Since those early days of the club, she tells us, it has grown to about three-hundred and fifty members who pay a small yearly fee of one or two dollars to make it clear that the club is not a “charity”; half of the members are now women, generally younger than the men; and men are likely to come every day, women once a week—but the president of the club is a woman.
The day the Golden Age Club opened at Hecht House, a Jewish community center in Dorchester, six men stood awkwardly in the lobby, fingering their newspapers, waiting for someone to open the door to the lounge. “Is this the right place?” one asked the first person who passed them.
“Yes,” she answered. “But it won’t open for another hour.”
They waited. They weren’t in a hurry and had no place else to go. The second afternoon there were twelve men, the third twenty-five. After two weeks the room was full and the men talked of selecting newcomers so they’d get only a “nice crowd.” This happened without publicity or fanfare. The first members saw the small notice in the newspaper that “A Golden Age Club sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women and the Community Center will be open every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from one to four for men and women over sixty-five.” The rest heard about it in the synagogues, the parks, and the cafeterias.
The people who poured into the center, away from chairs at the windows, hard seats in the park, and cups of tea held by the hour in the crowded cafeterias, were welcomed by volunteers and professional group workers. The volunteer, experienced in helping orphans, crippled children, or refugees, came with a strong feeling of sympathy and pity to help the “old people.” The group worker was eager to use her techniques to weld these people into a group that would give them a feeling of strength and satisfaction and help them help themselves. Both were to rediscover a segment of the Jewish population that is frequently considered obscure, unreasonable, and hard to understand—and themselves learn in the process of helping a great deal they thought they knew and hadn’t about how to help the sixty-five and over.
The majority of the members had spent their childhood and adolescence in the Pale of Poland or Russia and their maturity in large American cities. They had not all bridged the difficult waters between the two cultures in the same way. Some never adjusted to the different life and values. There were people who alienated their children and circumscribed their world to make it as much as possible like the one they had left behind them. There were others who threw all their ties aside to live in a cultural and intellectual vacuum, neither retaining the old values nor acquiring new ones. Most of the people in both groups had never gone outside the confines of their Jewish society to explore American life. The small minority that came to America early enough to have gone to school here were divided between the two groups and they too had not ventured out of their Jewish community.
The first to come to the club were a group of friends. They were Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews who were retired from work in the clothing or shoe industry or who had owned small stores selling dry goods, furniture, or food. They valued quiet and respectability and what they called “a Jewish place among Jewish people” where they could pass the time that hung so heavily on their hands. Many complained that the park where they spent the long summer days had been made uninhabitable for them by rowdies. The club was an oasis of propriety that they hoped could be saved for them. It appeared that they had long been outshouted and outrun by others stronger and less sensitive than they.
Not one of the men had had a hobby or interest outside of his work. Many boasted that they didn’t bother with any of the pastimes that wasted time. All spoke out against card-playing, which they considered the curse of their contemporaries. Since they had retired, their days had been spent sitting in the park, napping at home, playing with grandchildren, and reading newspapers from first page to back. Their reading was the link that connected them with the world. The printed word was therefore very important and its truth was rarely questioned.
The first afternoons passed quietly while men sat gossiping or reading the Yiddish books that the public library had made available. They played cantorial records on the phonograph and watched quiz programs and give-away shows on television. A few of the men watched a handicraft demonstration only to be appalled at the time, patience, and eyesight required to hand-stitch a leather wallet. A lifetime of work in mass-production industry had spoiled them for the pleasure of handwork. They offered ideas for making articles quickly by machine, and decided what use could be made of the money they could earn making wallets or picture frames by the gross. “It’s a waste of time to work by hand,’ someone insisted. Even unproductive time could not be wasted, though many of the men were physically incapable of operating a machine. It was also considered improper to work outside one’s “line.” Mr. Goldberg came to the handcraft instructor and asked, “What are you doing? You’re working by machine? That’s all I know is how to work by machine.” When the teacher offered to show him what he could do he wouldn’t listen. “I don’t do handwork, I’m a stitcher. If you ever do something by machine, tell me,” he begged. “If I could only earn even a few cents extra, I’d be a different person.” Work had only one purpose, to earn money. The pleasure of handling a raw material lovingly and making something out of nothing for the joy of doing it was outside the experience of almost all the men who came. So tight had their lives been, so hard had been the struggle just to earn a living.
A few weeks after the club had been opened, another kind of person began to come. Outwardly they seemed like the first members. They too spoke Yiddish, had worked in the same industries, and lived in the familiar pattern of Orthodox Jews. They too looked down on the card-players and had no hobbies. Only in their behavior toward the others could one discern that there were differences. For these were the intellectuals, not just people who read newspapers. These men had read everything in Yiddish they could find: not only commentaries on the Talmud, but Shakespeare, Peretz, Chekhov, Jack London, Karl Marx, Sholom Aleichem. Most of them were well versed in socialist literature and some spoke of their roles in the labor movement. Unlike the first group, these men seemed to know a good deal about American history, politics, and ideals, but they spoke critically, even bitterly, about American imperfections. Their feelings of disillusionment were as strong as those of an adolescent who has just discovered that justice doesn’t always triumph and the righteous do not always inherit the earth. They were disdainful of all unthinking people, everywhere, and consequently looked down their noses at many of the men who shared the lounge with them each afternoon.
The two groups, however, were both hungry for information; the first for what to do and the second for why to do it. Both were Jewish by choice and felt a strong antipathy toward the non-Jewish Jew. One saw in him a personal threat, a debaser of the only kind of life that was understandable and livable; the others saw only uneducated boors, insensitive fools. They also shared the rejection of the “American way of life,” which they considered childish and irresponsible, and the rejection of their own children. Some complained that their children didn’t have “Jewish homes,” meaning that they had forsaken Orthodox patterns; others were unhappy because their children did not have a strong feeling of Jewishness and were also not intellectuals, worse still, not liberals. One especially disillusioned man would tell anyone that would listen, “For my children life hangs on the ball game, the television set, and the card table. Do they need books? Do they—God forbid—think about anything but new ways to make money?” If his audience was sympathetic and seemed to be listening, he would add, “But who cares for my opinion? They ask me? Who am I after all? A failure, a working man all my life. I used to spend my time carrying matzos to the poor families and my own children didn’t have shoes for Passover. That’s also living, never to have an extra dollar in your pocket?” But even as he said it, it was plain that he didn’t believe it. What he really meant was that the world around him had failed. It did not value or even recognize the thoughtful human being. Those who didn’t agree with him didn’t stay to argue, but he kept tempting unwary newcomers with tales from the Talmud, stories about the prophets and rabbis. The moral of his stories, however, was always the same: that it was impossible to be materialistic and a good Jew; that a good Jew was by nature a socialist, a liberal, and a humanitarian. He would innocently buttonhole newcomers and ask, “What do you know about the houses of Hillel and Shammai?” Before they could stop him, he would explain the barriers between capitalists and workers from the time of Hillel to his own.
All the members were interested in films, lectures, and discussions. But these frequently served to divide rather than unite them. One afternoon a rabbi came to speak. His topic was, “The Good Jew.” He emphasized the ethical and moral aspects of Judaism, indicating that adherence to religious practice was not enough. The first question of the discussion period, however, was: “Is it a sin to leave a light on in the refrigerator when it will be opened on the Sabbath?” The rabbi was embarrassed because it was plain that his talk was wasted on the man who asked the question. He tried to avoid it by suggesting that such questions be left until a Sanhedrin met again in Israel. But the point was pressed and some stood up to chide him for not insisting on the retention of all the old ways, without which Jews would surely perish. The members who were not sympathetic to the questioner turned on him in a body after the rabbi had gone. “A brilliant question, Mr. Gottlieb,” their spokesman said. “Of all the questions you could have asked that was surely the most important.” They gave him no peace until he admitted that he really didn’t care about lights in the refrigerator; that he wanted to ask something and that was the first thought that came to his head. He was very pleased to see what a stir he had caused. Many had taken him seriously. They felt the question was symbolic of all the questions of “Thou shalt and thou shalt not” that had directed their lives. They had lived in obedience to a Law that had not required justification only to come to a time when even their children wanted proofs and reasons for a way of life that they felt could be determined by faith alone. The doubt around them made them cling desperately to the rules that had given them a feeling of security in times of fear and trouble. They could not bear to hear of any discussion that asked whether other laws might be as good, and they could not see how people could live without any guidance at all. The Orthodox members were constantly perplexed by the people who disagreed with them and did not value what they considered so dear. One afternoon Mr. Kramer, a handsome bearded gentleman in his eighties, listened to two newcomers argue and chuckled to himself.
“You don’t go to the synagogue?” one asked the other.
“No, I don’t go,” he answered dully.
“With all your money, you don’t belong any place?”
“I’ll tell you I was once a millionaire. I owned ten stores, but I never belonged. I don’t believe in it.”
Mr. Kramer stood leaning on the back of the “millionaire’s” chair and called to some men who were playing checkers next to him. “Listen to this, men, our friend here knows so much that he doesn’t have to believe in anything. Such a wise man, he knows that the world came from nothing and runs by itself.” He shrugged his shoulders and laughed aloud.
Though the traditional Jew hated card-players because he felt that gambling and Judaism were not compatible and the intellectuals looked down upon them as if they were inferior human beings, men whose favorite pastime was a game of poker or pinochle began to come one by one to the club. The door was left open to everyone in the community that cared to attend and it was inevitable that a cross-section of the neighborhood should eventually take part in the activities.
The complaints about the card-playing seemed unreasonable at first. “It’s a sickness,” one man said. “What will people say if this turns into a gambling placer? It will be a shame for us all.” When the advisor did not agree that card-playing should be forbidden many took it upon themselves to discourage the members. When they could find no better excuses they would almost come to blows before they could decide whether to leave the lights off or on, the windows open or closed. Some hot, sticky days the room blistered with bickering and complaints. The card-players, however, were perfectly respectable people; former businessmen, storekeepers, shoe and sheet-metal workers. They seemed to enjoy the lecturers and the handicraft demonstrations. They didn’t protest about the members who played cantorial records the whole afternoon. They paid no attention to the people who turned the television set on to whatever program was available, frequently a demonstration of pie-making, turning the volume down so that the phonograph could be heard. Many a passerby was confused to see on the screen a handsome young man with a box of soap in hand who appeared to be singing “A Chazen’l auf Shabbos” in a voice just like Yosele Rosenblatt’s.
Months passed and the same group of men came daily to play cards hour after hour. As soon as the lecturer would finish, they would settle in their chairs to play. Their zeal was no indication of their ability to concentrate. The men who watched noticed that they made many mistakes. One man taught his friends to play canasta and then cheated them game after game. The playing seemed to shut out the world around them without opening any other. The non-playing members persisted in their complaint that cards should only be played at home when there was company to entertain. They should not be a substitute for work, a ticket to oblivion, or even a habitual pastime. The men who played, however, said that card-playing had always been their greatest pleasure. “I suppose it gets in your blood,” one man said. “It’s a habit. Once you get used to it, you can’t give it up.”
The card-players considered themselves the worldly ones of the club. They, more frequently than the others, had had some money or at least spent some at one time. They attended Conservative or Reform synagogues if they attended them at all. Some boasted of having enjoyed the luxury of Florida and Atlantic City. Many spoke English, read English newspapers as well as Yiddish ones, and considered themselves Americans first and Jews second. Some took a protective attitude toward the Orthodox members, treating them as if they were old enough to be their parents; others were openly contemptuous.
Most Golden Age clubs throughout the country have more women members than men (perhaps because most women outlive their husbands), but in this one the women were a small minority. And those women who did join did not seem to need the club as much as the men did. They had duties at home that kept them busy; they were closer to their children, and they had had more time to make friends. They did not find their homes a prison as the men did. Most of the women were widows and they came hoping to find husbands. They were younger than the men both in age and spirit. Some smiled and flirted easily and boasted of the number of dates they enjoyed and the various offers of marriage they had received. They discussed their social problems, which were taken very seriously. Was it proper to go to a man’s apartment alone; with other men? Was it proper to be visited alone? How long should one know a man before presenting him to one’s children? There were, too, many women who wanted to participate in this social excitement but were prevented by their own shyness. There were women who would stand at the door for an hour before they could summon the courage to come in. Despite the group worker’s coaxing, one woman went home after a long vigil at the door. She found it impossible to “face so many people.” One afternoon a very handsome woman came in. The men all stopped what they were doing to look at her. She was remembered as the prettiest girl in the neighborhood forty years ago and it took that many years away to see her still so attractive. She spoke to a few old friends and then left, after explaining that she was divorced and looking for younger men. When the group worker asked if she would like to be notified of the special holiday celebrations that the members enjoyed, she hunted in her pocketbook for a crumpled piece of paper with her name and address on it. Like many of the women, she had never learned to read or write. The women would rarely admit their ignorance. They would pretend instead that they had left their glasses at home, or lost their pencils. It seemed that it was painful for them to admit even to themselves that they were illiterate. The differences between those who had attended school and those who had not were not very apparent; perhaps because both groups had acquired their understanding of America more from the radio, television, and movies than from books. This kind of learning made it possible for the women to speak English far better than the men, who had spent more time with the written than with the spoken word.
The men did not bring their wives unless there was a holiday party. They explained that they had too few opportunities to be without their women now that they did not go to work each day.
The holiday parties were nostalgic orgies, mass attempts to revive the past. At Purim, a committee of the men asked if a sudeh could be prepared with hamantashen, herring, chick peas, an uncut challah to bless, and wine for kiddush. The volunteers provided the foods that were requested but some did not know how a feast could be made of such humble fare; even when the tables were set with dingy paper cloths and tiny paper cups of wine, it was hard to imagine. When the members arrived, however, dressed in their best clothes, escorting their wives or other guests, it was plain that they saw more than chick peas and herring in paper dishes. “Do you know how many years it’s been since I’ve been to a Purim sudeh?” one of the men asked. “This is the first since I’m in America.” Despite the suggestions of their own committee and their planning, the majority of the people did not believe that there would be a party as they hoped. They could not conceive that enough money would be made available just to please them. Delighted with their victory over American ignorance, the guests lost themselves in the spirit of the holiday. One member took the role of master of ceremonies. He called upon people all around the room to perform and few refused him. One sang, another told a story by Peretz, several gave long speeches and told of experiences in their lives. The thimbleful of wine livened some up enough to dance. The party left a cloud of euphoria hovering over the club for many weeks. Only the member known as “the kicker” complained that the newspaper photographer had permitted a few uninvited guests to pose in the group picture. “What,” he complained, “was the good of being a regular member if anybody gets into the picture and they even take his name and everything?”
Some of the volunteer hostesses who knew nothing about holiday observances found the first and later parties exotic. Others who knew about them but did not practice them in their own homes seemed both guilty and nostalgic. The parties were the only occasions when volunteer hostesses and guests came in large numbers. Some of the young women appeared to be frightened of old age. They spoke of it as if it were a disease, a tragedy that befell only other people. Some were confused by their stereotyped notions of older people that were not borne out by the members they saw. The two most persistent of the stereotypes were of the sweet old man or lady who is “simply darling” but unfortunately foolish and ignorant, and the opposing view of bigoted, narrow, embarrassing people. The former are treated indulgently, like children whose feelings are not to be hurt, but whose advice is never to be taken. The latter are to be protected only because they are parents. They are to be cared for but not loved, because they supposedly did not love their children; nor did they understand them or help them prepare for the world they had to live in. Fortunately, there were always women who were prepared to meet the “golden agers,” as they called them, one at a time, finding individuals who deserved individual attention. The success of the club was in great measure due to their understanding and help.
The members were flattered and stimulated by the attention of the younger women who came to visit or help them with their programs. They were perpetually thanking them for their thoughtfulness, which seemed proof that there was still respect if not understanding left in the world.
The volunteers were frequently awed by a spirit they did not understand. As if looking for a secret, one of the guests once asked the group worker, “Do you know the prayer for lighting candles and blessing wine? Can you write them in English? My children don’t know anything of that sort of thing. Maybe it would be nice for them.”
Volunteers sometimes couldn’t understand why the members did not treat each other as well as they treated them. “I thought that age mellowed people,” a visitor complained one day. “But they’re no different from the rest of us. You’d expect them to be kind to one another, now that they’re at the end of their lives, but some are just nasty.” The group worker noticed that the people who were satisfied in some measure with their lives, who had adjusted to their growing old, treated others respectfully. They were the ones who volunteered to visit sick friends at the hospital. They welcomed newcomers graciously and listened to second-rate storytellers with respect if not interest. But there were others who transferred their rage and disappointment with themselves to all the people around them. When the only skilled craftsman who came to the club was asked to teach his techniques to some others, his answer was, “Why should I? They’re too old, they could never do it. I’ll teach young people if you want, but those guys—what’s the use, they’ll be in their graves before they learn anything.” Some of the members were so angry at him that they went to considerable trouble to teach themselves what he felt they could not do just to show him that they could.
“He’s not too old and we’re too old?” they told each other indignantly. The very members who were resentful because one of their group thought them too old to learn refused, however, to accept the offer of other members of the club to lecture before them. Any outsider was welcome, but their own people were bores. They would rather watch television or listen to records than hear what had happened to one of their friends in Bialystok or Czernovitz, though if anyone would listen they would gladly tell what had happened to them in the very same places. Men who vied for the privilege of bringing a pitcher of water for the visiting rabbi would refuse to move over on the couch so that another member could be seated.
It was easy for the sponsors of the club, sitting around a conference table, to decide that membership cards that admitted the people to parties, films, and lectures were to be given without charge to anyone who wanted them, until the facilities were exhausted. It was a decision, however, that was carried out with great pain. It was difficult for people to return to the uncritical equality of childhood. It meant that men and women who had lived in a community for as many as fifty years, discriminating carefully between those richer and poorer than themselves, those more or less religious, more or less educated, would suddenly have to remove the barriers and pretend that old age, like death or infancy, had made them equal. It was especially difficult when those on the fringe of polite society tried to find acceptance in the group. It was hard to share a couch with the man who had been seen making love to his son’s sweetheart in the park, the drunkard who was occasionally carried off the street, or the senile man who came day after day and slept on the long red-leather lounge chair near the television set. The members discussed the problem at their meetings, battled with their consciences, and voted that it was necessary to leave the door open to everyone. When an undesirable newcomer came, however, the wound would open and men would go around whispering advice not to talk or play cards or checkers with him. “I don’t know the man personally,” the whisperer would explain, “but they say. . . .”
“One bad apple spoils the whole barrel,” Mr. Green would remind the men. “Do you think we’ll change them if we let them in? If they’re no good, they’re no good. Why can’t we just tell them the dues are ten dollars a year and they’ll run like the devils are chasing them? It’s easier not to let them in than to throw them out.” But in spite of his and other protests, the chairman would doggedly remind the grumblers that a vote had been taken, that it was already decided. A few weeks after a questionable newcomer entered, the excitement would the down; he would be forgotten and lost in the group. No one was ever asked to leave.
The Golden Age Club was first conceived as a lounge where older people could meet friends, read, hear lectures, play checkers and other games. They were encouraged to govern themselves and they rapidly elected officers, appointed committees, and began to make their own rules, plan their programs, and become independent of their sponsors. Despite the tensions between the Yiddish- and English-speaking members, the leaders came from the Americanized, card-playing group. They were men who had warm feelings for the religious members and the intellectuals too, but had little in common with either of them. The Yiddish-speaking Orthodox members were in the majority but they seemed unprepared to exercise their influence in the executive committee. This surprising turn of events was in part explained by the feeling that it was necessary to elect a president who could conduct a meeting in English when there were guests present and a secretary who could write thank-you notes to the sponsors and send notices to the newspapers. There were also few people bold enough to undertake the responsibilities of regular meetings and the chore of coping with the numerous personality clashes that beset the president. This handing over of leadership to a group that had been and continued to be much maligned seemed like a final admission of defeat on the part of the Orthodox. The club, however, meant so much to each individual who came regularly that the leaders’ roles were not as critical as they might have been in a more apathetic group of people. For some members, the club was a substitute for work, for others a more comfortable home than they had; for many it was the only contact with the world. Though they came for recreation, they did not leave their problems at home. The group worker was questioned about part-time jobs, old age assistance, hospitals, and convalescent homes. She tried to find information for them and invited speakers from different social agencies.
Housing for those who lived alone seemed to be the worst problem. Members would vie with each other for tales of the worst landlady. One man asked each day if anyone knew of a room and a bathtub for five dollars a week. “I need it, I’m a sick man,” he would plead. One of the men proposed that the club try to interest the community in a low-cost housing project for older people. He saw it as a profitable enterprise, not for those with unlimited means but for those whose income was fixed while prices sky-rocketed. He received his strongest support from one of the oldest men in the club, who came in very disturbed one afternoon. “Men,” he greeted his friends, “we need to be strong and fight the politicians. Listen to what happened to me. I’m eighty-eight years old and I need a nice, warm, comfortable room. I’m alone. My wife is gone fifteen years. Two months ago an investigator comes in and looks around. He looks here and there and the next month I get six dollars less in my check. So I write them and I complain and the investigator comes again, looks some more and then as I should live and be well he takes off another seventy-two cents. Imagine that, seventy-two cents because I’m living too well.”
The “kicker,” the perpetual malcontent, would not support the group interested in housing. “It’s just foolish talk,” he told his friends. “Why should they do it for us, especially now when materials are scarce? And if the government did it, they would have to let everyone in, and then what good would it be?”
“Did we ask you?” they shouted at him. “Nothing can ever change for you. But for us, it could be better.”
“Why should you bother? You won’t see it in your time anyway,” he sneered.
The man who was eighty-eight years old seemed ready to shake him. “What’s the matter with you? We want to live and we want to bother. It costs you money?”
During such discussions the group worker tried to ease the tensions, tried to explain the problems of the various conflicting groups without obviously taking sides or rendering judgment. Her role, as she had been trained to see it, was to stimulate, to soften sharp tongues and feelings, and to be a reservoir of patience. She tried to supply the disinterested professional ear that received the insoluble problems that needed to be voiced and heard. While she helped the volunteers, in their role of offering food, entertainment, and room, she tried to explain the other less tangible needs. She had learned to be aware that rights, privileges, acceptance, and understanding were as important and as necessary as the other needs and should not be neglected.
Though the casual visitor was not aware of the tensions within the club, those close to it knew how difficult it was for the people to get along with each other. Why did they come? Why did they beg to have the lounge open every afternoon instead of just two or three afternoons a week? On almost each registration card, when asked why he came the registrant said that he was “lonely.” The man living with his daughter and three pre-school children, the one living alone, with his children far away in California, the wealthy retired man who came only once because “the men aren’t my type,” and the confused, inebriated man who confessed that he was broke because he gambled his check away, all were “lonely.” Some called boredom loneliness, others mistook it for fear, and still others for weariness. Adding to their unhappiness was the realization that a lifetime was over. Almost every one of the people in the club had an awareness of himself and the human condition not found in younger groups that were still too busy at the business of living. There was the frequent complaint that a life is nearly over and “I haven’t had my share”; the realization that no matter what the dreams were, no matter what the promises, this is the way it is, no more and no less. The mystery is gone and the pretenses no longer fool anyone. There was comfort therefore in being with others in the same predicament, even though their company offered no other pleasure.
Among the hundred or more individuals to whom the writer spoke, there were some who saw themselves wisely; who seemed to feel that old age was just a normal time of life, perhaps no better or worse than any other. They would not willingly trade places with an adolescent, or want to return to the struggles of their middle years. The women seemed to pity their daughters with young children pulling on their skirts all day and disturbing their sleep at night. They seemed to have learned that happiness depended not upon the calendar but upon the individual. Those, however, who could not think of a world larger than they themselves were filled with despair and fear that they called loneliness.
In their stories of youth and early life in America there was a continual amazement at themselves, at what they had lived through, at the conditions in which people can survive. This self-consciousness and ability to articulate is helpful to those who work with them. It explains what might otherwise be inexplicable behavior and it dissolves stereotypes rapidly. It is necessary to break down the stereotypes. The sweet wise old man with gentle untroubled face is as far from the average as the faces in the toothpaste advertisements are from the real ones below them in the subways. There is no average old man, just individual people who need understanding and help in working out their problems. They ask only that the communities that enjoyed the fruits of their labor for a lifetime have patience and sympathy when the harvest is over. And they want it as a right that has been earned, not as a favor.
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From the American Scene: Sixty-Five and Over
Must-Reads from Magazine
With the demise of the filibuster for judicial nominations, the Senate has become a more partisan body. Members of the opposition party no longer have to take difficult votes to confirm presidential nominees, and so they no longer have to moderate their rhetoric to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Many expected, therefore, that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings would tempt Democrats to engage in theatrics and hyperbole. Few, however, foresaw just how recklessly the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members would behave.
The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, though, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
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While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
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It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.
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Podcast: Google and Kavanaugh.
Will Google survive the revelations of its political bias, or are those revelations nothing new? We delve into the complexities of the world in which important tech companies think they are above politics until they decide they’re not. Also some stuff on the Supreme Court and on polls. Give a listen.
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Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.