A cascade of abuses, financial, personal, and managerial, raises the question of whether the international body is capable of, or…
Recent years have brought a cascade of scandals at the United Nations, of which the wholesale corruption of the Oil-for-Food relief program in Iraq has been only the most visible. We still do not know the full extent of these debacles—the more sensational ones include the disappearance of UN funds earmarked for tsunami relief in Indonesia and the exposure of a transnational network of pedophiliac rape by UN peacekeepers in Africa—and we may never know. What we do know is that an assortment of noble-sounding efforts has devolved into enterprises marked chiefly by abuse, self-dealing, and worse.
Seen by many, including many Americans, as the chief arbiter of legitimacy in global politics, the UN is understood by others to be the only institution standing between us and global anarchy. If that is so, the portents are not promising. The free world is grappling with threats from the spread of radical Islam to North Korea's nuclear blackmail and Iran's pursuit of nuclear bombs. The UN, despite its trophy case of Nobel prizes, has failed so far to curb any of these, just as it failed abysmally to run an honest or effective sanctions program in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Currently it is gridlocked over matters as seemingly straightforward as cleaning up its own management department.
In the effort to address the UN's manifold problems, there have been audits, investigations, committees, reports, congressional hearings, action plans, and even a handful of arrests by U.S. federal prosecutors. There have been calls for Secretary-General Kofi Annan to step down before his second term expires at the end of this year. Solutions have been sought by way of better monitoring, whistleblower protection, the accretion of new oversight bodies, and another round of conditions attached to the payment of U.S. dues. On top of the broad reforms of the early 1990's, the sweeping reforms of 1997, the further reforms of 2002, and the world summit for reform in 2005, still more plans for reform are in the works.
1 To its external auditors, internal auditors, joint inspections unit, eminent-persons panels, executive boards, and many special consultants, the UN has recently added an Office of Ethics—now expected to introduce in May what will presumably become an annual event: “UN Ethics Day.”
Is any of this likely to help? Behind the specific scandals lies what one of the UN's own internal auditors has termed a “culture of impunity.” A grand committee that reports to itself alone, the UN operates with great secrecy and is shielded by diplomatic immunity. One of its prime defenses, indeed, is the sheer impenetrability of its operations: after more than 60 years as a global collective, it has become a welter of so many overlapping programs, far-flung projects, quietly vested interests, nepotistic shenanigans, and interlocking directorates as to defy accurate or easy comprehension, let alone responsible supervision.
But let us try.
One clear sign of how badly things have gone with the UN is the difficulty of tallying even so basic a sum as the system's real budget. Nowhere does the UN present a full and clear set of accounts, and statistics vary even within individual agencies and programs.
The UN's current “core” annual budget is $1.9 billion—but the “core” is itself but a fraction of the actual budget. Around it are wrapped billions more in funding provided by “voluntary contributions” from private and corporate donors, foundations, and member states, including, to a large extent, the United States. These sums are shuffled around in various ways, with UN agencies in some instances paying or donating to each other. For instance, the UN Development Program (UNDP) operates with its own “core” budget of about $900 million a year but handles about $3 billion per year—or, depending on whom you ask and what you count, $4.5 billion per year.
According to Mark Malloch Brown, the UN chief of staff who has just been promoted to the post of Deputy Secretary-General, the total budget for all operations under direct control of the Secretariat comes to roughly $8-9 billion per year. Adding in just a few of the larger agencies like UNDP (at, let us say, $4 billion), UNICEF ($2 billion or so), and the World Food Program ($2-3 billion) already brings the grand total to somewhere between $16 and $18 billion, again depending on whom you listen to and what you count. On UN websites devoted to procurement, where the idea is not to minimize the official amount of UN spending but on the contrary to attract suppliers to a large and thriving operation, the estimate of money spent yearly on goods and services by the entire UN system comes to $30 billion, or more than 15 times the core budget of $1.9 billion on which reformers have focused.
Staff numbers are likewise a matter of mystery. The new ethics office proposes to offer its services to 29,000 UN employees worldwide. That number is well short of the total staff of the Secretariat plus the specialized agencies alone, which, according to Malloch Brown, consists of some 40,000 people. And that figure itself does not include local staffs—such as the 20,000 Palestinians who work for the UN Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) or the many employees, some long-term, others transient, at hundreds of assorted UN offices, projects, and operations worldwide, or the more than 85,000 peacekeepers sent by member states but carrying out UN orders and eating UN-supplied rations bought via UN purchasing departments. Whereas the number of UN member states has almost quadrupled since 1945 (from 51 to 191), the number of personnel has swollen many times over, from a few thousand into somewhere in the six figures.
Little of this system is open to any real scrutiny even within the UN, and no single authority outside the UN has proved able to compel any genuine accounting. Moreover, even though there can no longer be any doubt that the scale of the rot is large, the UN's top management continues to insist to the contrary. Take the central scandal of recent UN history—namely, Oil-for-Food. Last October, Paul Volcker's UN-authorized probe into Oil-for-Food submitted its fifth and final report on that relief program, which in its seven years of operation had become a vehicle for billions in kickbacks, payoffs, and sanctions-busting arms traffic. By January of this year, after first having declared that he was taking responsibility for the debacle, Kofi Annan was spinning a different story, telling a London audience that “only one staff member was found to maybe have taken some $150,000 out of a $64-billion program.”
This was an artful lie. The staff member in question was Benon Sevan, whom Annan had appointed to run Oil-for-Food for six of its seven years. If indeed Sevan took no more than this relative pittance, then Saddam Hussein scored the biggest bargain in the history of kickbacks. According to Senator Norm Coleman's independent investigation into Oil-for-Food, the real figure for Sevan's take was $1.2 million. Clearing up this discrepancy is difficult, however, because Sevan, who was allowed by Annan to retire to his native Cyprus on full UN pension, is outside the reach of U.S. law and has denied taking anything.
In any case, the corruption hardly ended with Sevan. Instances that appear to have slipped the Secretary-General's mind include another member of his inner circle, the French diplomat Jean-Bernard Merimée, who by his own admission took a payoff from Saddam while serving as Annan's handpicked envoy to the European Union. Within the UN agencies working with Annan's Secretariat on Oil-for-Food, Volcker confirmed “numerous [further] allegations of corrupt behavior and practices,” embracing “bid-rigging, conflicts of interest, bribery, theft, nepotism, and sexual harassment.” He also noted that the UN lacked controls on graft, failed to investigate many cases, and failed to act upon some of those it did explore. Finally, Volcker calculated that UN agencies had kept for themselves at least $50 million earmarked to buy relief for the people of Iraq.
Nor do the sheer monetary amounts even begin to convey the extent of the damage done by UN labors in Iraq. Annan's office had the mandate of the Security Council, plus a $1.4-billion budget, to check oil and relief contracts for price fiddles, to monitor oil exports in order to prevent smuggling, and to audit UN operations. In the event, Oil-for-Food spent far more money renovating its offices in New York than checking the terms of Saddam's contracts, and ignored the smuggling even when Saddam in 2000 opened a pipeline to Syria. The result of what Annan now placidly describes as “instances of mismanagement”—as if someone forgot to reload the office printer—was that Saddam skimmed and smuggled anywhere from $12 billion (according to the incomplete numbers supplied by Volcker) to $17 billion or more (according to the more comprehensive totals provided by Senator Coleman's staff ).
And what did Saddam do with those profits? What Annan describes as “instances of mismanagement” did not simply entail theft, corruption, and waste. They enriched and supported a tyrant and a mass murderer. Saddam used his UN-blessed loot not only to build palaces and buy luxury cars but also to provide patronage to loyal Baathists, reward Palestinian suicide bombers, and restock his arsenal, conventional or otherwise. When CIA chief weapons inspector Charles Duelfer went to Iraq in 2004 looking for weapons, the money trail took him straight to the UN relief operation, which, as he would report, had become a shill for an arms and illicit-money network that reached through Syria to Belarus and Russia. The network was buying “milk” from a Chinese weapons manufacturer, contracting for “vehicles” and “detergent” with Sudan, and negotiating for missiles with North Korea.
And that is only Oil-for-Food. Since last summer, the UN has been bedeviled by a bribery scandal centered in its procurement department, which handles the Secretariat's buying of everything from paperclips to peacekeeper rations. In August, a UN staffer named Alexander Yakovlev pleaded guilty in federal court to taking hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of bribes, involving possibly hundreds of millions' worth of tainted contracts—many of them in force to this day. In September, Vladimir Kuznetsov, the head of the UN budget oversight committee, had to step aside under federal indictment as Yakovlev's co-conspirator in wire fraud and money laundering. With the scandal still spreading, a number of other UN employees are now under investigation in cases involving something on the order of $1 billion in UN contracts.
There have also been cases in which, although no corruption has been alleged, clear conflicts of interest have been disclosed. Thus, Volcker found that in 1997, Maurice Strong, a longtime UN Under-Secretary General, accepted a check bankrolled by Saddam in the amount of $988,885. Strong (who has denied knowing where the money came from) was then serving as chief coordinator of UN reform, no less. Another top adviser to Annan, Giandomenico Picco, was discovered to have served in late 1999 and early 2000 as both a UN Under-Secretary General and chairman of the board of a company called IHC Services.
3 The company had close ties to the bribe-taking Yakovlev and signed millions of dollars in contracts with the UN while Picco was running one of Annan's pet projects, the Dialogue of Civilizations.
Then there is the saga of Annan's son, Kojo, who turned out to have received more than $195,000 from a major UN Oil-for-Food contractor, Cotecna Inspection, after he had formally stopped working for it. In investigating Kojo's UN-related ventures, Volcker came across the paper trail of a by-now famous green Mercedes: in 1998, Kojo had saved some $20,000 by buying this car at a diplomatic discount in Germany and shipping it duty-free into Ghana, all under the false use of his father's name and diplomatic privileges and of the UN seal.
Oil-for-Food has been described by Annan and his aides as a mistake in a good cause; such, they suggest, is the occasional if regrettable cost of doing the world's humanitarian business. Structurally, however, Oil-for-Food was not an exception. It was a template of what the UN has become.
A hallmark of Oil-for-Food was that it was funded not by an assembly of UN member states but directly by Saddam as a function of his oil sales. This effectively bypassed the UN's version of the appropriations process, and was hardly the kind of setup envisioned when the organization was founded. As U.S. Ambassador John Bolton has noted, “It is the member states who are supposed to control the money.”
Nevertheless, the UN negotiated terms with Saddam under which the Secretariat would collect 2.2 percent of his oil revenues to cover its costs in running and monitoring the relief program. With oil sales topping $64 billion, that meant $1.4 billion for the Secretary-General's administrative spending over the seven-year life of the program. In other words, the UN Secretariat was being paid big money by Saddam to supervise Saddam—an intrinsic conflict of interest that surely played a part in the expansion and easy corruption of the program. On top of whatever bribery he managed to deploy, Saddam became for a time one of the largest direct contributors to the Secretariat's budget. Publicizing itself as Saddam's probation officer, the UN in effect became his business partner.
But Saddam was only one, if the most virulent, of the many questionable business partners the UN has acquired over the past decade or so. These days, “partnering” at the UN goes far beyond enlisting the help of Angelina Jolie to visit refugees or of Bono to lecture Americans on development policy. Under Annan's management, the UN has been avidly seeking liaisons with foundations, non-governmental organizations, and private business—especially big corporate donors endowed with ready cash. This has been hailed in many quarters, including in Washington, as an innovative way of funding good works. It is rather more alarming than that.
The star example of today's UN partnerships is the Secretariat's cozy arrangement with the media magnate Ted Turner, who in 1997 made a landmark offer to donate $1 billion to the world organization. The pledge reportedly caused Jane Fonda, Turner's wife at the time, to weep with joy; as for Annan, he welcomed the deal as “a model to demonstrate my commitment to engage the private sector in a concrete manner.” Turner said he hoped his example would inspire others—and it has.
Whatever Turner's ultimate aims may have been in undertaking this deed of seemingly astounding generosity, one of its chief beneficiaries has arguably been Ted Turner himself. For the past eight years, in exchange for the rather less than $1 billion disbursed so far, he has enjoyed a seat at the head table of what is supposed to be an impartial public institution, wielding access and influence beyond that of many actual UN member states. Like the UN's 2.2-percent commission under Oil-for-Food, moreover, Turner's funds flow through the administrative channels of the Secretariat without even the minimal checks that might be provided by the budgeting process of the General Assembly.
To dispense his largesse in tax-deductible form, Turner set up a Washington-based non-profit organization, the UN Foundation, stipulating that he would turn over his gift through this foundation at the rate of $100 million per year. (Since then he has halved his annual disbursements, thus stretching out the arrangement even longer than the projected decade or more.) At the same time, and as part of the same gift, he set up a sister organization, the Better World Fund, which describes itself as “a key advocate for the UN on Capitol Hill.” A portion of Turner's gift to the UN thus goes not to the world's poor but to lobbying efforts in Washington to extract more dollars for the UN from U.S. taxpayers. Over the past eight years, according to the UN Foundation, the Better World Fund has devoted more than $110 million to this effort.
Of course, Washington is home to many lobbying groups. But Turner's setup is so intimately linked with the UN Secretariat as to make it hard to distinguish where the one ends and the other begins. Thus, to handle Turner's gift, the UN created a special in-house division dedicated exclusively to interacting with Turner's foundation and reporting directly to the Secretary-General. This division is called the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships, or UNFIP. According to the head of UNFIP, Amir Dossal, the relationship between UN and UN Foundation officials is “pretty much a seamless exercise,” with Turner's Foundation often involved from the inception in shaping UN projects that it then pays for. UNFIP staff, who evaluate these projects as UN insiders for the approval of the Secretary-General, have their salaries and expenses paid not by the UN but by Turner's foundation.
Since the arrangement began, some $600 million of Turner's own money has flowed into UN causes in this way, plus another $350 million from other donors contributing via his UN Foundation. (The total of $950 million includes the $110 million spent by the Better World Fund in lobbying Congress.) This has allowed the Secretary-General to control, through UNFIP alone—and in concert with the wishes of Turner's foundation—what in many ways qualifies as an annual slush fund of more than $100 million.
Many of the projects involve worthy causes like sending malaria medicine and measles vaccines to children in poor countries. But others approved by the Secretary-General have directed millions in Turner money to departments within his own Secretariat, including in some cases his own executive office. Featuring as opaque one-line items in UNFIP's sometimes tardy public reports, these endeavors have included $1 million for “Strengthening the UN Secretariat”; $1.9 million for “UN Dialogue with the Global South”; $994,875 for “Supporting UN Management Reform”; $1.9 million for the Secretariat's department of public information (on which more below); $117,600 for a “Multi-Stakeholder Meeting on Best Practices in Partnerships”; and $319,988 for “Strengthening Public-Private Partnerships”—a somewhat reflexive exercise, one might think, for what is already a highly muscular public-private liaison.
In general, oversight at the UN is conducted by the organization's internal audit department, whose director is named by the Secretary-General and whose reports until this year have not been disclosed even to member states. According to a secret internal audit submitted in 2003, UNFIP appeared to be operating “without legally established functions and organizational structures.” Specific irregularities in the program's conduct included the release of $1.2 million in Turner-foundation money to Annan's executive office in a manner “constitut[ing] a breach of internal controls.” Small stuff, perhaps, when measured against the overall size of Turner's gift, but a significant sum to be sloshing around within the single most influential office at the UN.
In September 2001, Turner intervened even more deeply in UN matters, giving $31 million from his separate, family-run Turner Foundation (devoted to the environmental “totality of the planet”) to the U.S. State Department to cover a portion of U.S. arrears on UN dues. This was greeted by many, including then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, as a selfless act of philanthropy. But the reason we had fallen behind in our dues was not any lack of resources but the fact that Congress—which is supposed to control U.S. funding for the UN—had been trying to lever better behavior out of it.
Why the State Department accepted the money is a question unto itself. But from the UN's point of view, splicing Turner's millions into the process meant that, as long as the organization could find wealthy private patrons in tune with its policy preferences, it could afford to be that much less answerable to a powerful member state and its democratically elected representatives.
Increasingly, since the Turner pledge of 1997, the UN has been inviting wealthy patrons around the globe to collaborate with it as “partners.” Some of those answering the call have signed on through Turner's foundation. Of these, a number are governmental institutions. They include the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S. (no doubt an instance of Taiwan trying to get a foot in the door at the UN in any way it can), the World Bank (an instance of the UN system paying itself), the U.S. Agency for International Development (an instance of the U.S. government funding the UN via Turner's foundation), the government of Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria (itself a recipient of World Bank aid), and the American Red Cross. Others are private foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which since 1995 has given more than $380 million to the UN, more than $50 million of that through Turner's foundation. And Turner's foundation has also collaborated on some projects with the Open Society Institute of the financier George Soros, whose global network of foundations and institutes has its own roster of projects jointly funded with the UN.
In 1999, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Annan proposed a “Global Compact” between the UN and business leaders. To join, a company is required to write a letter, addressed to the Secretary-General, “expressing support for the Global Compact and its principles.” Thereafter, it is required to publish in its annual report “a description of the ways in which it is supporting the Global Compact.”
According to the UN, the Global Compact has by now amassed more than 2,400 participants in 50 countries. They are invited to host outreach programs involving UN agencies, to promote UN causes, and to contribute in cash or in kind to UN endeavors. No doubt many do so for entirely worthy reasons; but the utter balkanization of UN agencies, offices, operations, budgets, and organizational charts makes it virtually impossible to know for sure. In a 352-page book published in 2002 on “Building Partnerships,” the UN itself acknowledged that there is “inconsistency, both within the United Nations system and more widely, on what constitutes the private sector.” It might be more accurate to say that under the stewardship of Annan, there has been a considerable blurring of the lines.
Characteristic of this is the UN's increasing willingness to franchise out both its name and its official emblem. Back in 1946, as that emblem was about to be approved, the first UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, stressed the importance of protecting it from abuse for “commercial purposes.” In 2000, as part of the UN's grand plans for “public-private partnerships” in the new millennium, Annan issued lengthy guidelines in which he stipulated that the UN could in fact authorize use of its emblem by a business engaged in promotion or fund-raising for the UN itself—as long as “generation of profit by the business entity is only incidental.” This raises intriguing questions about who in Annan's graft-ridden UN might be qualified to judge whether commercial profits are “incidental” to humanitarian work—and who could possibly keep track.
And that brings us to a feature of the UN system, mentioned early on, that has helped to shield it from thoroughgoing investigation. Since its founding, the institution has added untold numbers of agencies, funds, commissions, programs, “ad-hoc bodies,” and “other entities,” to the point where most of the UN's own personnel do not know who reports to whom, or how. The Secretary-General himself, when questioned last year by the Volcker commission, professed not to understand his own chain of command.
To anyone seeking to capture fresh turf at the UN, creating one of these new bodies has long been a favored path. The Secretary-General appoints or at least nominates the heads of most of them, but each has its own board, its own agenda, and in many cases its own program for soliciting funds. To name just a few of the better-known ones: UNICEF (founded in 1946); the World Food Program (or WFP, 1961); the UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD, 1964); the UN Development Program (UNDP, 1966); the UN Environment Program (UNEP, 1972); the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS, 1994), UN-Habitat (1997); the World Tourism Agency (UNWTO, 2003); and so forth.
Many of these overlap. Most, when probed, open onto ever-receding vistas of regional offices, working groups, and the like. The offices are scattered around the globe, from New York to Rome to Nairobi to Tunis to Madrid to Bangkok and beyond. Periodic efforts to streamline and harmonize the system tend mainly to paint yet another layer on top. Typical of this is one of the Secretary-General's latest initiatives, launched just this past February: the “High-Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence in Areas of Development, Humanitarian Assistance, Environment.” Among its fifteen “high-level” panelists is a senior fellow from Turner's UN Foundation.
Another example, launched last fall, is Annan's so-called Alliance of Civilizations. This grand-sounding initiative is in fact a rather restricted project of Spain, Turkey, and 20 unelected “eminent persons” picked by the Secretary-General, most of whom (like Nafis Sadik, a special adviser to Annan and a director of Turner's UN Foundation) have already spent years on the same UN conference circuits. Instructed to come up with an “action plan” to “bridge divides,” the Alliance has so far served mainly as a vehicle for Annan to resurrect as a “special adviser” his former chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, who “retired” in early 2005 after Volcker's discovery that he had shredded three years' worth of UN executive-suite documents potentially germane to the Oil-for-Food investigation.
There is almost no way to hold the UN accountable for most of what goes on in this growing empire. No national legal jurisdiction applies to the UN network and no media corps has the resources, or for that matter the interest, to deal with the entire network. Despite a Secretary-General who wields more control than anyone else in the system, accountability ultimately does not reside with him, either. In fact, there is no procedure at the UN for impeaching or firing the Secretary-General.
There is, however, a tremendous machine for glossing over anything that goes wrong. The Secretariat fields a department of public information with an $85-million annual budget and more than 700 employees, about half of whom staff UN public-relations offices in more than 100 countries worldwide. On top of that, a public-relations staff is employed by each of the many agencies, commissions, and so forth. All of this promotional activity is further supplemented by the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA), founded in Luxembourg in 1946 and now boasting more than 100 national chapters. The American chapter, UNA-USA, fields more than 175 community-based chapters and organizations, with nearly 20,000 members.
Bringing these various strands together is a dizzying array of interwoven boards, working groups, and staff positions both within and around the UN. To give a few quick examples: Ted Turner, of the UN Foundation, sits on the board of the UNA-USA. Maurice Strong—chief coordinator of the 1997 UN “reforms,” which among other things created the framework for the Turner-dedicated UNFIP—then became a charter member of the board of Turner's UN Foundation while serving as a special adviser to UN Secretary-General Annan, and is also a past president and current honorary president of the WFUNA. Paul Volcker, when tapped by Annan himself to head the Oil-for-Food investigation, was serving not only on the board of directors of UNA-USA but also as a director of its business council—which advertises itself as a networking resource for businesses interested in getting a piece of the billions in UN contracts handed out every year. Only when the media finally discovered and questioned this potential conflict of interest did Volcker resign.
Asked in a recent interview about the dangers of collusion between big business and a public institution like the UN, Mark Malloch Brown declared indignantly that the UN was doing “God's work,” and walked out.
Is it? The question is important because, in the end, the amount of money lost to waste by the UN, or skimmed through graft, or dumped wholesale into agencies, commissions, and alliances that serve mainly themselves, or devoted in the UN's name to select private crusades, arguably counts less than the kind of agenda all this money supports.
The founding purpose of the UN was to bring peace and prosperity to the globe. As to the former, the UN in the age of terror has been in most ways useless and in some ways positively dangerous. The lesson that Saddam Hussein quickly grasped was that the UN lends itself to money-laundering. With its big flows of funds across borders, its many contractors and public-private partnerships, its gigantic bureaucracy and lax controls, its diplomatic immunity, and its culture of impunity, the UN operation is a prime candidate not only for graft but, as Charles Duelfer discovered, for arms deals masked as medicine and soap. Further protecting those arms deals, and the rogues and tyrants making them, is the fact that in its capacity as a deliberative body, the UN has repeatedly urged appeasement in the face of real threats to world peace and just as repeatedly tried to constrain those (like the U.S. and its allies) willing to act to remove them.
If there is any priority that the UN, with its mandate for peace, might be expected to stress, it is preventing rogue regimes from getting nuclear bombs. But as a practical matter, the organization has behaved for the most part as a spectator. Its record with Saddam Hussein is too well known to bear repeating. In the case of North Korea, admitted as a member state in 1991, the UN has responded to Kim Jong Il's nuclear-weapons program mainly by kicking the problem over to the U.S. and making itself irrelevant. On Iran, the UN “debate” has served mainly to buy time for the mullahs while the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, ponders the “uncertainties” of Iran's nuclear program.
On matters involving Israel and the Palestinians—unlike nuclear proliferation, this may be the UN's one genuine obsession—hypocrisy has been outdone only by mischief-making and blatant anti-Semitism. UN programs set up to help the Palestinians over the past half-century have not only failed to produce decent lives but have helped create a culture of entitlement and violence—fueled in large part by the UN's own anti-Israel agenda. The UN condemnation of Zionism as racism in 1975, finally repealed in 1991, was followed by the grotesque transformation of the UN's 2001 Durban conference on racism into an anti-Semitic festival. The UN Security Council invites totalitarian Syria to take the chair, but democratic Israel has never been so much as allowed to hold a seat.
Then there is peacekeeping, which since the end of the cold war has been a boom area for the UN. Here again the expansion of UN missions has brought everything from widespread allegations of corruption to drug-dealing to rape and the sexual exploitation of hungry children—“Sex-for-Food,” as the columnist Mark Steyn has aptly put it. In large parts of the undeveloped world, the appearance of blue-helmeted forces has come to signal a warning: stay away, and keep your children away.
But neither have those blue-helmeted forces been visible when and where they might actually be needed. Provided with manpower plus a budget that ought to qualify the UN itself as a formidable military power, the organization stood passively aside during the massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica and has yet to act in the case of Sudan. Indeed, it has yet to muster even the integrity to kick Sudan off its Geneva-based human-rights commission, which has doubled as a clubhouse for the world's worst regimes. (Current members include China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe.)
As for disaster relief, the record is similarly deplorable. When the tsunami hit Asia in December 2004, the U.S. and countries like Australia rushed to help the victims. The UN rushed to help itself. Demanding exclusive rights to direct the aid effort (and the money), UN officials warned loudly of a health crisis that never materialized, denounced the U.S. as “stingy,” and promised transparent use of funds. A year later, the Financial Times reported that, from what little could be gleaned of the UN's largely incomplete or secret accounts, the organization's expenditures on overhead (i.e., travel, hotel rooms, lavishly funded international talk-fests, and the like) were triple those of private charities.
If such is the general nature of the UN's contribution to peace and humanitarian assistance, its contribution to global prosperity is a similar story. The simple and true recipe for wealth is liberty framed by the decent rule of law; the great lesson of the last century, learned at horrific cost, is that central planners and state development schemes are a brew that tends not toward prosperity but toward dictatorship and economic immiseration. In 1990, that lesson seemed briefly to have been learned: as the Soviet Union headed for collapse, the global aid profession was atwitter over the newfound virtues of privatization. But in the sixteen years since then, the UN, in the name of “sustainable development,” has fostered a comeback of command-and-control planning, courtesy of the same bureaucracy that cannot even account for its own expenditures.
An enormous amount of UN activity now revolves around the so-called Millennium Goals, which aim to cut world poverty in half by the year 2015. This noble-sounding goal serves as a framework for calculating to the last decimal point a set of targets for which the UN system then decides how resources should be apportioned. UN agencies, agendas, working groups, and a never-ending succession of conferences, declarations, and plans testify to a determination to control the global climate, horn in on the Internet, and—à la Oil-for-Food—impose a UN-supervised income tax on the entire developed world. Where once the Soviet agency Gosplan issued five-year plans for an imprisoned people, the UN now aims to administer and profit from fifteen-year plans for the entire human community. Think of it as planetary socialism, supported and financed in “partnership” with private capital.
The United Nations was founded as a forum of governments. As we had ample occasion to learn over the decades, this arrangement presented quite enough problems of its own. Now the UN, in contravention of its own charter, is rapidly evolving into something larger, more corporate, and more menacing: a predatory, undemocratic, unaccountable, and self-serving vehicle for global government. Like the Soviet Union of old, the UN is unwieldy, gross, inefficient, and incompetent; it is also so configured as to reach deep into the national politics of its member states and, by sheer weight and persistence, to force at least some of the worst of its agenda upon all of us.
There will never be enough John Boltons to counter all of this—not that it was easy to come up with even one. Indeed, with notable exceptions, generations of American officials and policy-makers have been content, sometimes for reasons of state, sometimes for reasons of convenience, to look away from the UN's multiform deficiencies and derelictions while occasionally indulging in minor punitive measures like withholding a proportion of our annual dues—akin to docking a delinquent's bus money while continuing to pay for his liquor and his car. For many others in public life, and for many ordinary citizens as well, the institution itself, as the very embodiment of the multilateralist ideal, is still held in nearly sacred regard.
All the more reason, then, to force ourselves at long last to take a hard, undeceived look at what the institution has in fact become, put aside the lengthy and futile quest for its reform, and begin to think more concretely about how, with or without it, we can best work to advance the interests and values of ourselves and other members of the civilized world.
—March 8, 2006
1 The latest, announced by Annan as this article was going to press, is aimed at cleaning up management; revolutionary though it sounds, there is no guarantee it will be implemented, and in any case it stops well short of what is needed.
2 There is also the mystery still surrounding more than $19 billion's worth of oil revenues supposedly doled out by the UN to victims of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Internal audits released last year under pressure from Congress warned of overpayments of up to $4 billion. Volcker promised to investigate, but never did.
3 The discovery was made by me and George Russell of Fox News.
4 In the words of Mark Malloch Brown, who headed the UN Development Program from 1999 to 2005, Soros and UNDP “collaborate extensively.” In fact, Malloch Brown lives in a house on Soros's estate outside New York City. This potential conflict of interest was never disclosed by the UN or Soros, and even after it was revealed in the press, no documentation has been forthcoming to show that the relationship is at arm's length.
5 The original terms of the compact included some anodyne language about human rights, labor standards, and the environment; in 2004, perhaps inspired by its own mishaps, the UN added a proviso that businesses should work against corruption. This has been a source of bemusement to investigators of graft in the UN's procurement division, not least because one of the major contractors embroiled in the bid-rigging scandal was a member in good standing of Annan's Global Compact.
6 UN promises to “reform” have translated into a plan to replace the Human Rights Commission with a “Human Rights Council,” a largely semantic exercise. Attempts by Washington to hold out for genuine reform of this body central to the United Nations mandate have turned into an occasion for UN officials and others to criticize not the world's worst human-rights offenders but the U.S.
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How Corrupt Is the United Nations?
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.