Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry
by Samuel G. Freedman
Simon & Schuster. 375 pp. $26.00
In his 1908 play, The Melting Pot, the Anglo-Jewish writer Israel Zangwill romanticized the New World as a place where Jews could freely marry Christians and “where all races and nations come to look forward.” How prophetic he was: today, nearly a hundred years later, the intermarriage rate among American Jews stands at well over 50 percent.
Needless to say, this statistic, and others like it, have hardly brought joy to the organized Jewish community, which now devotes much time and money to projects aimed at discouraging intermarriage and promoting Jewish “continuity.” Unfortunately, at the same time that energies are engaged on this front, another, no less alarming threat faces American Jews from a different quarter.
Despite constituting less than 3 percent of the nation’s population, American Jews are, today, a highly fractured group, one whose distinct subcommunities have almost no connection with, much less respect for, each other. In the religious sphere, bitter and ongoing disputes divide the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements over issues such as the standards for conversion to Judaism, the ordination of women and their participation in religious services, and the question of same-sex marriage—so bitter, indeed, that the interdenominational Synagogue Council of America was disbanded several years ago when Orthodox rabbis refused to participate in an organization that included Reform rabbis. Insoluble splits within American Jewry exist on the political level as well. In 1995, organizers of a memorial service for the recently assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were forced to ban any reference to the “peace process” in order to satisfy groups opposed to the Oslo agreements.
In his provocative new book, Samuel Freedman brings this internal dissension into sharp focus. A former New York Times reporter and the author of three earlier books about life in contemporary America, Freedman writes about six communities across the United States. In a small village north of New York City and in a suburb of Cleveland, he looks at animosity between secular and religious Jews; in Denver, he reports on the ongoing struggle over the question of “who is a Jew”; in West Los Angeles, he observes the battle in the Conservative and modern-Orthodox movements to address demands by women for a greater role in religious affairs; and in New Haven, he attends to the increasing tensions within Orthodoxy itself.
Perhaps the dominant theme of Freedman’s book is the surprising reemergence in our day of religious Judaism, a development that has in turn given rise to all manner of tensions with secular Jews. (Jew vs. Jew was, of course, written well before the choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman, a member of an Orthodox synagogue, as Al Gore’s running mate, with all the complications that has introduced into the American Jewish equation.) In illustration, he contrasts the thriving hasidic village of Kiryas Joel near New York with what remains of the outlook represented by an old Labor Zionist summer camp that once stood a few miles away.
For nearly a half-century, until it closed its doors in 1971, Camp Kinderwelt was a summertime haven for Jewish youth in the New York area. It embodied what was once the dominant spirit of American Jewish life: nonreligious, socialist, Zionist, ethnic. Today, Camp Kinderwelt is both physically and spiritually dead, its brand of “Yiddishkeit” on display mostly in the archives of Jewish museums or in the works of a writer like the late Irving Howe. But even Howe, as Freedman points out, recognized at the end of his life that neither willpower nor nostalgia could halt the decline of Jewish secularism as an ideology.
By contrast, the ultra-Orthodox Kiryas Joel is booming. This hamlet, incorporated by a handful of Satmar Hasidim from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 1977, today boasts a population of more than 12,000. In an effort to re-create the self-sufficient communities they left behind in Eastern Europe, the residents of Kiryas Joel have built their own infrastructure, complete not only with synagogues, kosher food stores and restaurants, and mikvahs (ritual baths) but also with newspapers and department stores and a school system that educates more than 5,000 children. While many of the men and some of the women of Kiryas Joel commute to work in New York City’s diamond district, they do so on private buses that have been fitted with partitions to enable male passengers to pray separately from the women, as is required by religious law.
The two communities represented by Kiryas Joel and Camp Kinderwelt have almost nothing in common—except mutual disdain. When Freedman informs the mayor of Kiryas Joel that a secular Zionist summer camp once thrived just up the road but has since failed, the mayor responds: “Secular Zionism is failure.” At a reunion of former Kinderwelt campers, now middle-aged parents of mostly intermarried children, Freedman hears the Satmars dismissed in turn as “greasy Jews” who “smell like cholera” and, in the opinion of one ex-camper, are “the kind of people who are against everything I stand for.”
It is not only between out-and-out secular Jews and the Orthodox that feelings run so high. In his chapter on Beachwood, Ohio, an affluent suburb of Cleveland, Freedman describes how a small group of Orthodox Jews, seeking zoning approval for a campus containing a synagogue, mikvah, social hall, and school, ran into intense opposition by a group of local Reform Jews. Ironically, the latter had themselves faced strong resistance from the non-Jewish citizens of Beachwood in the early 1950’s; in both instances, the argument for keeping out newcomers was the same—a desire “to preserve our beautiful Beachwood community.” Inevitably, the latest battle has left casualties, and an enduring residue of intracommunal bitterness.
Among the three principal Jewish denominations, the most contentious issues of all relate to Jewish identity. They arise in part from the different standards set by rabbis in each group for conversion, as well as from the fact that the Reform movement alone embraces the principle of patrilineal descent—i.e., that (in contravention of Jewish religious law) the child of a Jewish mother or father should be considered Jewish. Most Orthodox rabbis do not accept the validity of conversions performed by Conservative or, certainly, Reform rabbis, and many children of Reform Jews are not considered Jewish by either the Orthodox or the Conservative movement.
These issues are tearing at the seams of American Jewry, and defying the best-intentioned efforts at resolving them. One such effort was started in the mid-1970’s in Denver, where, as Freedman reports, a group of rabbis representing each of the three principal denominations began a bold (and largely secretive) experiment in joint conversion. The basic rules were that any prospective convert would be trained principally by the rabbi of his or her denomination, then evaluated by a panel consisting of an Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbi, and finally converted by an Orthodox bet din, or rabbinical court. During its six-year history, the project “graduated” 175 students, the vast majority of them brought in by Reform rabbis.
Throughout the experiment, however, the three Orthodox rabbis felt both that their role was extraneous to the process and that their participation was “theologically fraudulent.” (They often met the prospective converts for the first time at the ritual bath, immersion in which marks the penultimate moment before conversion.) Further exacerbating tensions was the decision of the Reform movement in 1982 to adopt patrilineal descent; in that same year, the program imploded.
The Denver project spotlighted not only the rift between Orthodox and Reform Jews but, Freedman explains, a division within Orthodoxy itself, a movement increasingly torn between its “modern” and its “ultra-Orthodox” or “haredi” wings. In Denver, ultra-Orthodox Jews condemned the three participating Orthodox rabbis for their willingness to officiate at religious ceremonies in the company of Reform Jews, and even the Rabbinical Council of America, the group to which all three belonged, mounted a formal investigation into “their reliability, credibility, and integrity.”
Nor are the Orthodox the only group riven by internal dissension—and neither, finally, are the fissures in the Jewish community limited to matters of religion. In a chapter on Jacksonville, Florida, Freedman tells the story of a young man who, in his zeal to thwart the Middle East peace process, placed a bomb in a synagogue where Shimon Peres was scheduled to deliver a lecture. This leads Freedman into a discussion of disagreements among American Jews concerning Israeli politics, itself an exceedingly complex subject.
The portrait Freedman paints is, in sum, discouraging. Not only, to hear him tell it, is there far more discord than common ground in American Jewish life, but none of the traditional unifying forces—the need to combat anti-Semitism, the consensual embrace of liberalism, even support for Israel—is as relevant as it was in the past.
To replace these outmoded indicia of Jewish identity, Freedman looks, perhaps paradoxically, to religion itself as the one force that over the long term can yet protect American Jewry from assimilation. And when it comes to religion, he writes, it is the “Orthodox model” that “has triumphed” and deserves to triumph. This does not mean that only those Jews will survive who are Orthodox themselves; rather, “the portion of American Jewry that will flourish in the future—and is flourishing already against a backdrop of ever more assimilation—is the portion that has accepted the central premise of Orthodoxy that religion defines Jewish identity.”
To support this conclusion, Freedman cites indications from the last decade of a creeping “traditionalism” even within the Reform and Conservative movements. Thus, the governing board of Reform rabbis has commended “the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot”—reversing, as Freedman observes, that movement’s “historical contempt for ritual and religious law”—while the Conservative movement has recently mounted a campaign to encourage its laity to read a chapter of the Bible every day (mirroring the Orthodox practice of studying a page of Talmud daily). He also notes a 1996 statement by the American Jewish Committee, a secular organization, that places Torah atop a list of five fundamental values for Jewish continuity.
But despite these heartening developments, Freedman’s portrait ends on a pessimistic note. Not only does Orthodox Judaism demand more than most American Jews are willing to give—“a pattern of obligations and responsibilities, a web of mutuality”—but the contentious state of Orthodox Judaism itself suggests that this movement is in no position to help overcome the dissension that plagues the larger community. As the Denver episode illustrates, the modern Orthodox are on the defensive vis-à-vis the ultra-Orthodox, while the ultra-Orthodox themselves, with the notable exception of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, have little use for the millions of nonaffiliated American Jews, and perhaps even less for Conservative and Reform Jews who, they believe, treat the dictates of Jewish law as if they were items to pick and choose on an old-style Chinese menu.
Which leaves Freedman, and his readers, in a bit of a black hole: if Orthodoxy is not a realistic prescription for the whole of American Jewry, what then? A Zionist thinker who considered this very question early on was Ahad Ha-am (the pen name of Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927). In pondering how the Jews of modernity could ensure the survival of their spirit and culture in a post-Enlightenment world, Ahad Ha-am proposed an educational program blending the secular, religious, cultural, and nationalistic elements of Judaism into what he termed a “national spiritual center.” “Learning, learning, learning; that is the secret of Jewish survival,” Ahad Ha-am wrote in 1910. “We have to make our synagogue itself a house of study, with Jewish learning as its first concern and prayer as a secondary matter.”
As it happens, one of the few bright spots on the American Jewish landscape has been the proliferation of Jewish day schools—not just Orthodox but Reform and Conservative as well. Over the last 35 years, the number of such schools has more than doubled (from 323 to 670), and the number of students enrolled in them has risen from 63,500 to over 185,000. As the historian Jack Wertheimer wrote last year in these pages (“Who’s Afraid of Jewish Day Schools?,” December 1999), the challenge to the organized community is not only to make such schools more affordable, but also to make them academically attractive to families whose first priority is getting their children into top colleges. While some may believe that the most important Jewish endeavor is to fight the remnants of anti-Semitism, others to memorialize the Holocaust, and still others to support Israel, even more critical than these worthy efforts may be a sustained, well-financed campaign to educate the Jewish young.
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Jew vs. Jew by Samuel G. Freedman
Must-Reads from Magazine
The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?