The view in the White House was that things were going well until March 1, when Ambassador Donald F. McHenry…
A defeat so overwhelming as that which Governor Reagan inflicted on President Carter soon takes on the air of the inevitable. Before it does it may be useful to record that those who were defeated in no way looked upon the outcome as fated. To the contrary, the view in the White House was that things were going well until March 1, when Ambassador Donald F. McHenry voted in favor of a particularly vicious anti-Israel resolution in the Security Council of the United Nations, followed three weeks later by the appearance of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he refused to disavow the vote. Thereafter, in this view, everything spun out of control. The Carter administration left Washington convinced—and proclaiming—that defeat was brought on by malevolent incompetence at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and the inability of the Secretary of State to control the Mission. What they did not proclaim and only dimly understood was that they themselves had put in place the ideas which helped bring them down; that indeed in that sense the outcome was fated.
Set forth by President Carter and others, the sequence of events was as follows. Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s challenge to the President began poorly. On March 18 the two met in Illinois, the first industrial state to hold a primary. The President won handily. If Kennedy could be beaten a week later, in New York, his candidacy would collapse. A private poll conducted by Dresner, Morris & Tortorello Research in late January and early February showed the President leading the Senator 54 percent to 28 percent among probable Democratic primary voters in New York, with only 13 percent undecided. Yet in the end, Kennedy won, 59 percent to 41 percent.
In a gracious gesture, after the results were in, Lieutenant Governor Mario M. Cuomo, who headed Mr. Carter’s campaign in New York, called the President to apologize. “No,” said Mr. Carter as reported in the New York Times, “it was the United Nations vote.” In an interview with Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post on March 27, Mr. Carter, speaking of an incumbent’s problems in running for reelection, repeated the point:
. . . Then to make a mistake like we did on the UN vote and have the Secretary of State testify a few days before the election. . . .
The same theme was sounded, finally, in a postmortem by Steven R. Weisman and Terence Smith of the Times after the national election:
This blunder, in which the administration first voted in favor of a March 1 resolution rebuking Israel on settlements in Arab-claimed territory and then disavowed it, cost the President dearly among Jewish voters in the March 18 [sic] New York primary. Senator Kennedy carried the state and attracted new contributions to his campaign, which carried on through the last batch of primaries on June 3.
“New York was our chance to knock Kennedy out of the box early,” said Mr. [Robert S.] Strauss, the campaign chairman. “We blew it with that vote.”
Jody Powell told the Times reporters that in consequence, “We sure as hell spent a lot of time and money fighting him that would have been better spent against Reagan.”
Now it will be clear that there are many reasons President Carter lost the election, of which the UN vote was only one and scarcely the most important. What is important, however, is that the administration had looked upon its United Nations record as a huge success. Other policies had failed, and that proved costly. But this had succeeded, and proved costly. When the fall of a President is involved, and possibly also the fall of a party, some notice should be taken. For I do not conceal my judgment that so long as the ideas underlying the Carter administration’s UN policy are dominant within the Democratic party, we Democrats will be out of power.
In normal circumstances UN affairs play a marginal role in United States foreign policy, the simple reason being that American foreign policy is normally preoccupied with the Soviet Union, and the UN, with its profusion of small, even mini, states, is the last setting in which two powers would wish to conduct their affairs. But four years ago, to the incoming Carter administration, the main attraction of the UN as a setting in which to conduct foreign policy was precisely the prominent role Third World nations play in UN affairs, and the North-South axis of the place. This was a setting in which the cold war could at last be put behind us. In his first major foreign-policy address, given at Notre Dame on May 22, 1977, President Carter reported that the United States had overcome its “inordinate fear of Communism,” and proposed that the two powers now join in a cooperative effort to improve North-South relations, specifically through economic assistance to the developing nations. In the meantime, the name of the UN Ambassador was promoted to second place on the directory of the State Department building, immediately below that of the Secretary.
In his Notre Dame speech, as in his appointments, President Carter brought together two strains in Democratic thinking on foreign affairs. The first was the old tradition of liberal internationalism—the extension of domestic standards of social justice to the world at large—exemplified by President Harry S. Truman’s Point Four program or President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress.
But there was another and newer strain of thought, one much at odds with the traditions of Truman and Kennedy. This was the view that had emerged in the course of the Vietnam war to the effect that the United States, by virtue of its enormous power, and in consequence of policies and perhaps even national characteristics that were anything but virtuous, had become a principal source of instability and injustice in the world. We were, in short, a status-quo power, and the status quo we were trying to preserve was abominable. By contrast, a more positive future was available to mankind if it could break out of the American dominion. Much has been written of this, and one need not expand. For my part the most evocative and excruciating memory of the onset of this point of view was the day that a group of former Peace Corps volunteers, protesting the war, ran down the American flag at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington and ran up that of the Vietcong.
Through the 1970’s this view grew in strength within the Democratic party. It was most often to be encountered when issues of defense were involved. In an article written in November 1980, R. James Woolsey, who served with distinction as Under Secretary of the Navy in the Carter administration, described how
leaders of many of the interest groups that claim to represent the traditional Democratic constituencies have convinced themselves over the last decade or so that they must be the enemies of increased American military power.
He explained why these constituencies had come to feel this way:
What you spend on tanks you can’t spend on schools or welfare, nor can you keep it. This is, however, an ageless problem of government. . . . Perhaps more important, the agony of Vietnam introduced a new element and led the interest-group spokesmen and many liberal Democratic politicians to attack the existence of American military power as a way to curtail its exercise. Throughout much of the 1970’s, the halls of the Senate Office Buildings, for example, were jammed with young staff members looking for a weapons system to have their Senator oppose. They, and their friends in the executive branch, are now typing up their resumés in no small measure because the voters understood what many of the elected officials did not—that caution in using military power is wise, but unilateral restraint in obtaining it in the face of a massive build-up by a potential enemy is extremely dangerous.
There was a precise corollary to this doctrine of self-denial in defense, and it flowed from the idea that the political hostility which the United States encountered around the world, and especially in the Third World, was, very simply, evidence of American aggression or at least of American wrongdoing. The aggression could be military, but just as often it would be diagnosed as economic (the role of the multinational corporation) or ecological (plundering the planet to sustain an obscenely gross standard of living). Often it would be presented as nothing more specific than not being “on the side of history” or “the side of change.” No matter, the prescription was the same. If the United States denied itself the means of aggression, it would cease to be aggressive. When it ceased to be aggressive, there would be peace—in the halls of the United Nations no less than in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia.
As tanks and missiles were the instrument of military aggression, so ideas were the means of diplomatic aggression—specifically that array of attitudes, judgments, and prejudices which led Americans to suppose they represented on balance a successful society, one model of how developing societies, if fortunate, might turn out, and in the interval a fair standard by which to measure the merits of other societies.
Here, in the interest of what lawyers call full disclosure, let me acknowledge that, from the first, those members of the Carter administration responsible for policy at the UN, and more generally for relations with the developing nations, regarded my own brief tenure as U.S. Permanent Representative at the UN in 1975-76 as the prime example of American diplomatic aggression.
This was notably the view of C. William Maynes, who left the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to become President Carter’s Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs. It was the view of the Ambassadors who came and went at the U.S. Mission beginning with Andrew Young and ending with Donald McHenry. In an interview published in September 1980, contrasting his performance with mine, Ambassador McHenry said:
I don’t believe in confrontation politics, I don’t believe in name-calling. I do believe in communicating with them [i.e., Third World nations], in stating my views, listening to theirs, respecting their views, expecting them to respect mine.
A few weeks later, on October 1, 1980, taking issue with a New York Times Magazine article entitled “How the Third World Runs the UN,” he returned to this theme:
The article was reminiscent of the speeches about the “Tyranny of the Majority” that one of my predecessors used to deliver when he represented our country at what he later called “A Very Dangerous Place.”1
Yet there was a fateful avoidance of reality in the new administration’s view: a denial that there is genuine hostility toward the United States in the world and true conflicts of interest between this nation and others—an illusion that a surface reasonableness and civility are the same as true cooperation.
To be sure, if there are conflicts of interest among states, there are also truly shared interests, and even genuine friendships. The world, alas, is complex, and although the new men of the Carter administration professed to understand complexity where others had missed it, they were in fact great simplifiers. They trivialized the sources of real conflict between the United States and other nations, and they exaggerated our ability to resolve them to everyone’s satisfaction.
Again, one notes a parallel with the approach of the new administration to defense and foreign policy. One of the first (and fateful) decisions of President Carter was to appoint Paul Warnke as negotiator for the strategic-arms-limitations talks with the Soviets. Warnke in his celebrated article “Apes on a Treadmill’ had set forth the thesis that the Soviets essentially imitate American behavior in defense matters. Thus just as the United States could turn enmity into friendship merely by avoiding “confrontation politics” in its dealings with the Third World, so the United States could change Soviet behavior simply by changing its own.
But if these ideas had a parallel structure, they did not prove equally durable. Although President Carter had campaigned in 1976 on a pledge to cut the defense budget, his promise did not survive the first encounters with reality—the reality of conflicting interests and genuine danger. Instead, it was buried, and (admittedly modest) increases in defense spending commenced. The same readiness to retreat from unrealistic approaches was evident in the area of human rights (and indeed, here the administration’s retreat was almost over-eager). But if in these areas reality obliged the administration to think better of the ideas by which it had hoped to guide policy, no such perceptions ever managed to penetrate our approach to the United Nations. We would unilaterally change the whole international atmosphere simply by avoiding “confrontation politics.” The United States would make amends for its past failures by a greater responsiveness, by greater openness, by at last understanding the problems of others and their perspectives. Thus the psychological arrogance that lay behind the seeming humility of our new relations with the Third World—it was we who still determined how others behaved—remained intact.
At the UN the arrogance of this view was particularly risky, for those convinced of the abuse of American power found themselves representing the United States at a time when our power was in fact much reduced. Whether American interests could, even so, be protected would depend on how well this decline was perceived, on the suppleness of the new tactics that would be brought to bear, and above all on the ability to sense failure when it struck one across the face. The new administration was conducting an experiment of a sort; much would depend on whether it could tell the difference between good results and bad.
Before defeat in the 1980 election forced a different conclusion upon them, the Carter people were of the opinion that the experiment had been a brilliant success. From the 1980 Democratic platform—prepared in cooperation with the staff of the National Security Council—one learned that when the administration came to power in 1977,
relations with the Third World were at their nadir. The United States appeared hostile and indifferent to the developing world’s aspirations for greater justice, respect, and dignity. All this has changed.
Testifying before a House Subcommittee on March 27, 1980 (two days, mind, after the New York primary), Assistant Secretary Maynes spoke even more glowingly of changes that had come over the UN:
. . . the UN has become the crossroad of global diplomacy.
. . . [It] now appears to be less unfriendly and dangerous a place than some have led us to believe. It is also possible that we will find there a greater spirit of cooperation than before—not just in condemning the lawless but also in advancing the rule of law. But these promises may come to naught unless we adopt a more mature stance toward the UN itself.
We must remind ourselves that the United States needs the UN at least as much as it needs us.
One might have thought this assessment would be reflected in votes in the General Assembly or the Security Council. But it was not. Worse, the ideas of the new administration stood in the way of seeing opportunities to be seized and understanding problems to be met.
This was perhaps to be expected. The heavy emphasis on North-South relations, after all, was surely a way of coping with, or at least diverting attention from, the difficult realities of the post-Vietnam world. “American imperialism” had been defeated. Our defeat had been caused, to be sure, by overreaching and after a point it could not perhaps have been avoided. But its consequences, all the same, would have to be lived with, and adjusted to; foremost among them would be a major opening for, and stimulus to, Soviet imperialism. Susan Sontag has recently acknowledged how little she and others in the anti-war movement had understood this equation:
It was not so clear to many of us as we talked of American imperialism how few options many of these countries had except for Soviet imperialism, which was maybe worse. When I was in Cuba and North Vietnam, it was not clear to me then that they would become Soviet satellites, but history has been very cruel and the options available to these countries were fewer than we had hoped. It’s become a lot more complicated.
But the perception of such complexity was beyond the powers of the U.S. Mission to the UN under the Carter administration. Its members could not see the signs of a new phase of Soviet policy: military support for Ethiopia in 1977, coups in both Afghanistan and South Yemen in April 1978, the invasion of Cambodia in December 1978. Unable to explain all this or to fit it to the purposes they had set themselves, American diplomats at the UN grew increasingly silent.
It also emerged that our representatives had little sense of the UN Charter as law that had to be upheld, and to be expounded. A superb opportunity came in the fall of 1977 when the Soviets switched sides in the Horn of Africa. Abandoning Somalia, they actively entered the war in the Ogaden, an ethnically Somali territory, on the side of Ethiopia. Of a sudden the Somalis were pounding on our doors begging for help, pleading for us to understand the “nature of the Soviet threat,” Soviet “neocolonialism,” the “Soviet plot to encircle the Gulf,” the “Soviet contempt for human rights and the rights of small nations.”
Now it happens that in 1975 the principal sponsor of the resolution that declared Zionism to be a form of racism was none other than Somalia (acting in its then capacity as an especially fawning satellite of the Soviets). After the resolution was adopted, I rose in the General Assembly and addressed the following words directly to the Somalis:
Today we have drained the word “racism” of its meaning. Tomorrow terms like “national self-determination” and “national honor” will be perverted in the same way to serve the purposes of conquest and exploitation. And when these claims begin to be made . . . it is the small nations of the world whose integrity will suffer. And how will the small nations of the world defend themselves, on what grounds will others be moved to defend and protect them, when the language of human rights, the only language by which the small can be defended, is no longer believed and no longer has a power of its own?
With the Somalis bleating in terror, pleading for help, did the U.S. Mission to the UN make a single reference to their behavior in 1975, and our response? None. This would have been to engage in “confrontation,” a practice of the discredited past.
The United States helped found the UN, mostly wrote the Charter, has largely paid for the place. U.S. representatives have an obligation to insist that there are standards written into that Charter. Occasionally we would stand up for them. In 1978 William J. vanden Heuvel, the U.S. representative to the UN in Geneva, actually objected to the appointment of a KGB officer as director of personnel for UN activities in that city. (The appointment was a clear violation of article 100 of the Charter.) But there were few such instances. Not even when UNESCO, that embodiment of a decent liberal optimism, set about developing an international regime for state control of the press under the insolent euphemism of “A New World Information Order” did we engage in “confrontation.” No, never. And so it went.
But the crucial turning point came with Camp David, which involved an irony worthy to be called tragic. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State had been to cooperate with Anwar Sadat in maneuvering the Soviets out of Egypt Together Sadat and Kissinger had had to stand against the efforts of Soviet policy to scuttle the new pro-American alignment of Egypt and the step-by-step peace negotiations, which had scored a major success with the second disengagement agreement of May 1975. The Zionism-is-racism resolution in November of the same year was itself one part of this sabotage campaign.
That the UN and its Third World majority could be manipulated for the purposes of an assault on American policy was much more poorly apprehended after Kissinger’s departure. In fact, in its desire to dissociate itself from the past, the Carter administration set out to bring the Soviets back. The still startling Soviet-American communiqué (issued jointly but plainly Soviet-drafted) of October 1, 1977 proposed to reconvene the Geneva Conference, a meeting under UN auspices at which the two nations would be co-chairmen and to which all interested parties would be invited. To Sadat the meaning of this was clear: a veto in the hands of the radical forces, immediate stalemate, ultimately perhaps his overthrow. And so to avoid going to Geneva, he went to Jerusalem (where, he had every reason to know, a deal was waiting to be struck with the Begin government). This set in motion the events that ended with the Camp David accords of 1978, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979—Carter’s single greatest achievement, albeit purchased only by a reversal of his original “Geneva” approach and by shifting negotiations over the Middle East away from the UN.
Inevitably forces at the UN would resent this. Thus it is not too much to say that the supreme test of the Carter policy at the United Nations was whether that body would leave him alone to make peace between Israel and its neighbors. Had his diplomats, through their new approach, acquired sufficient influence with the far-flung nations of the Third World to persuade them to stay out of disputes with which most of them had in any event only the remotest connection?
The answer was not long in coming. First, the remaining Arab states, with Iraq only momentarily absent, convened a “confrontation summit” in Damascus to fight the Camp David settlement. Iraq soon was brought in, and before the year was out leaders of all Arab states except Egypt had met in Baghdad to form a “rejection front” against Egypt and Israel. Simultaneously the Soviet Union (returning to the tactics it had used in 1975 to counter its expulsion from Egypt) escalated its campaign to delegitimate Israel by identifying it with the Nazis.
Having been sounded in 1971 with a two-part article in Pravda entitled “Anti-Sovietism is the Profession of Zionists,” this theme was steadily elaborated and diffused. (The original Pravda article, for example, asserted that the massacre at Babi Yar had been a collaboration of Nazis and Zionists.) Once the idea had been set, it proceeded to be popularized on television, in novels, and finally in children’s publications. Thus the October 10, 1980 issue of Pionerskaya Pravda, a tabloid-size weekly for children aged nine to fourteen who belong to the Soviet youth organization, Pioneers:
Zionists try to penetrate all spheres of public life, as well as ideology, science, and trade. Even Levi jeans contribute to their operations: the revenue obtained from the sale of these pants are used by the firm to help the Zionists.
Most of the largest monopolies in the manufacture of arms are controlled by Jewish bankers. Business made on blood brings them enormous profits. Bombs and missiles explode in Lebanon—the bankers Lazars and Leibs are making money. Thugs in Afghanistan torment schoolchildren with gases—the bundles of dollars are multiplying in the safes of the Lehmans and Guggenheims. It is clear that Zionism’s principal enemy—is peace on earth.
. . . The United Nations described Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination. More and more people today are beginning to realize that Zionism is present-day fascism.
This propaganda seemed to possess the Soviets internationally as well as at home, and they began to insist that other nations join in the campaign to treat Israel as an outlaw state, indeed a non-state, an entity without the rights of statehood. It began to work. In 1978 Cuba became head of the “nonaligned nations.” A summit meeting of these states in Havana between September 3 and 7, 1979 adopted a resolution that declared:
The heads of state or government reaffirmed that racism, including zionism [sic], racial discrimination, and especially apartheid constituted crimes against humanity and represented violations of the United Nations Charter and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [Paragraph 237, Final Declaration of the Conference].
In June 1980 at the ministerial meeting of the Organization of African Unity, held in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Israel was referred to in official documents merely as the “Zionist entity.” And on October 8, 1980 the Soviets signed a Friendship Treaty with Syria of which Article 3 declared:
The High Contracting Parties, guided by their belief in the equality of all peoples and states, regardless of race and religious beliefs, condemn colonialism, racism and zionism [sic] as one of the forms and manifestations of racism, and reaffirm their resolve to wage relentless struggle against them.
This was perhaps the clearest statement to date of the Soviet Union’s opposition to the very existence of the state of Israel, but its essential purpose had been evident for at least a decade.
No less evident was what the United States Mission to the United Nations should have done. The Arab nations were split; the United States was, in effect, allied with the largest of them, Egypt, and in the cause of peace in the Middle East. The Soviet Union, though it might declare that “thugs in Afghanistan” were “tormenting schoolchildren” for the profit of Zionists, had established itself beyond all question as a brutal conqueror of Third World peoples and as an anti-Semitic regime of near demented proportions. The moment to fragment or silence the opposition was at hand.
Faced with this assault on the UN Charter, on peace, on decency—and, not so incidentally, on the President of the United States—what did our people do? They took the other side.
To persons whose deepest conviction was that Third World nations were hostile to the United States because of our own neocolonial behavior; whose strong disposition was to believe that the Soviet Union in almost all instances supported the true liberationist forces in the former colonial world while the United States, on the wrong side of history, backed brutal but doomed dictatorships—the events from 1977 to 1980 could make no sense. It became ever more difficult for such people to understand and support their own government’s policy. For had not the Camp David framework, its peaceful appearances notwithstanding, called forth a more sustained disagreement between the U.S. and the Third World than even the “confrontationist” policies of the past? To understand this one had to entertain the possibility that the opposition we encountered there was not a matter of long-held grievances against our abuses of power. One had to entertain the possibility that there were those whose great fear was that in seeking peace we might succeed.
Confused, and after a point not altogether straightforward, the strategy of our diplomats in New York, backed up in the Department of State, started to undergo a subtle and disastrous transformation. They had begun with the proposition that if the United States put itself on the “right” side of history, we would find the nations of the world, most of which of course were “new,” coming over to our side in turn. Unaccountably, however, they were still not on our side. To the contrary, some were actively seeking to undo the greatest diplomatic achievement the administration had to its credit, and none—not one—was objecting to or trying to impede such efforts. Evidently, then, we must still be on the wrong side. Reasoning thus, our diplomats prepared themselves to vote for the Security Council Resolution of March 1, 1980 and (though this was certainly not their intention) to help bring down the administration they served.
The chain of resolutions passed in condemnation of Israel by the Security Council in 1979-80 forms a complex story. Yet to follow it only a single point needs to be understood. It is that, as a direct result of American policy, the Security Council was allowed to degenerate to the condition of the General Assembly.
Under the UN Charter the General Assembly reaches decisions by majority vote, but its decisions are purely recommendatory (Article 10). By contrast, the Security Council has power. In situations where it determines that there is a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression,” the Council “shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken. . . .” These include “such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary. . . .” The Security Council, in a word, may make war. And for that reason the Security Council does not operate by majority vote. Any permanent member may veto any action, simply by voting No. However, in the face of the increasingly vicious Soviet-Arab assaults that followed Camp David, the United States began to abstain. I have represented the United States on the Security Council; I have served as President of the Security Council. I state as a matter of plain and universally understood fact that for the United States to abstain on a Security Council resolution concerning Israel is the equivalent of acquiescing.
The first abstention in the sequence we are now tracing occurred on March 22, 1979 when the Council, in a resolution directed against Israel, established a three-member commission “to examine the situation relating to establishments in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem.” The phrasing here was ominous: “Arab territories . . . including Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. How could its capital be in the territory of others?
Equally ominous, although at this point restrained, was the reaffirmation of earlier Council statements that the Fourth Geneva Convention “is applicable to the Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem” and the strict injunction upon Israel “as the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention.” Now, the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War is one of a series of treaties designed to codify the behavior of Nazi Germany and make such behavior criminal under international law. This particular convention applied to the Nazi practice of deporting or murdering vast numbers of persons in Western Poland—as at Auschwitz—and plans for settling the territory with Germans. The assertion that the Geneva Convention also applied to the West Bank played, of course, perfectly into the Soviet propaganda position that “Zionism is present-day fascism.”
Within a year the new commission had submitted two reports. In response to these, on March 1, 1980, a resolution (465) was submitted to the Council that was as viciously anti-Israel—and as destructive of the Camp David accords—as any that had ever been encountered or could readily be devised. Israel was found to be in “flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention”: the first nation in history to be found guilty of behaving as the government of Nazi Germany had behaved. It was determined
that all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity. . . .
In a word, according to Resolution 465, Israel is an outlaw state, guilty of war crimes. (Not the Vietnamese invaders of Cambodia, or the Soviets in Afghanistan. Israel!) Its alleged capital is not its capital at all—“Jerusalem or any part thereof”—and it is in illegal occupation of territory now for the first time designated “Palestinian.”
Here, then, was the triumph of everything the Soviets and the “Rejectionists” had stood for: the repudiation of everything Sadat, and for that matter Begin and Carter, had sought. Yet the United States voted in favor of this resolution. Shortly thereafter the administration stated that this had been a “mistake.” It was no mistake at all. Resolution 465 reflected the view of the majority of members of the United Nations, and the U.S. Mission there had simply come to accept that view. Their conception of the world, by now shared in Washington, gave them no alternative.
Once the vote was cast there came the shock of recognition, in Washington at least, that this was what that conception led to. But still they clung to it. The White House, sensing the disaster and the dilemma, did not want any testimony given before Congress. The State Department insisted, and so on March 20 the New York Times reported:
Vance Rebuffs Call for Full Disavowal of UN’s Israel Move
Yet it was more than that. Vance would neither disavow the episode nor acknowledge it. He could not bring himself to admit consequences he could not desire of a policy he could not repudiate.
The operative paragraphs of Resolution 465 began by stating that the Security Council:
- Commends the work done by the Commission in preparing the report. . . .;
- Accepts the conclusions and recommendations contained in the above-mentioned report of the Commission;
Yet Vance in his testimony on March 20 suggested that nothing, really, had happened, that voting for the resolution did not imply support for the commission report which had occasioned it.
Senator Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland went directly to this point:
Senator Sarbanes. Mr. Secretary, the resolution that was passed and for which we voted, accepts the conclusions and recommendations contained in the report of the commission established by Security Council Resolution 446.
Do I take your assertion to be that the word “accepts” there means nothing more than “receives”?
Secretary Vance. You do correctly understand.
Senator Sarbanes. Why wasn’t the word “receives” used? I would understand the word “accepts” to carry with it some element of subscribing to the conclusions in the recommendation.
Secretary Vance. No; it was merely intended to connote receives. Accepts—they hand them to me, they are accepted.
I joined in the questioning:
Senator Moynihan. Very frankly, . . . Mr. Secretary, I am concerned with our reputation for plain dealing.
Did anyone at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations tell you that in a Security Council resolution, the word “accepts” should be read to mean “receives”?
Secretary Vance. Yes: I have been told that.
Senator Moynihan. You have been told that?
Secretary Vance. Yes
Senator Moynihan. Sir, I once served as U.S. Permanent Representative there. I can tell you that I could not conceive telling a Secretary of State that the word “accepts” should be read to mean as in a letter, “Dear Sir, I have received your letter of” so and so.
The first paragraph, the preambular paragraph of a Security Council resolution starts out always, “Taking note of.” This is the paragraph that says, “We have received.”
“Accepts,” on the other hand, is a slight variation on the word “endorse.” It would be the only way it would have been understood in my time there, sir.
I think you have been misinformed, sir, and I think you have been done a disservice.2 . . .
Something quite extraordinary was happening here. It is of course possible that the members of the U.S. Mission had simply not told the truth to the Secretary of State. (They had evidently been less than candid on some other questions concerning the resolutions—informing him, for example, that references to Jerusalem had been excised from the text when they had not.) But how could a lawyer of Cyrus Vance’s ability believe such an untruth save that at high and low levels alike the men of our government were deceiving themselves? The Carter administration had failed in its objectives at the UN; but to admit that failure was to cast in doubt the view of the world that justified the very existence of the administration. And to protect itself from having to face this failure, the administration had begun to undermine Camp David itself—its one great success.
The March 1 vote, then, was a disaster and should have stimulated a reappraisal of the route by which the administration had traveled to it. Israel had been permanently damaged, and (unless their perceptions are perilously dulled) other allies of the United States permanently warned. Yet no more was said than that it was a mistake, and only a partial mistake at that. The administration never thought its way through the matter. Those publicly most identified with these policies had already begun to leave—first Ambassador Young, then Assistant Secretary Maynes, and finally Secretary Vance himself. But the policies persisted. By the end of the Carter administration the pattern had become all but impossible to overcome. One can measure it this way: on nine substantive votes on the Middle East taken in the Security Council between January 1979 and August 1980 the United States abstained seven times.
Just once we cast a veto—striking down a Tunisian resolution of last April 30 which called for the creation of a Palestinian state. This resolution, one might note, unlike the one we voted for on March 1, did refer to “secure and recognized boundaries”—the language of Resolution 242—but only for the Palestinian state. Not for Israel.
To be sure, we occasionally made our unhappiness known. In August 1980, for example, Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie went to New York and defended the American approach to a Middle East peace settlement based on the Camp David accords:
Let me . . . repeat our belief that this constant recourse to debates and resolutions that are not germane to the peace process—and even harmful to it—should stop.
A salutary sentiment, but what must the other members have thought? For Secretary Muskie was asking on behalf of the United States for the end of a process that it was perfectly within our power to end. If we believed such resolutions to be harmful to the peace process, we were free to veto them. We were free to deny them the force of law they acquire when they pass. The same point could be made of such American statements on the March 1 resolution as this one by President Carter:
While our opposition to the establishment of the Israeli settlements is long-standing and well known, we made strenuous efforts to eliminate the language with reference to the dismantling of settlements in the resolution.
Yet when the strenuous efforts failed, the U.S. Permanent Representative had only to raise his hand, to vote No, and the resolution would have failed.
Having committed itself, however, to solidarity with the majority at the UN, the Carter administration could not bring itself to exercise the veto. Thus in our flight from “confrontation” did we end not by understanding the perspectives of others, but by adopting them.
In so doing, we have acquiesced in a very great deal.
After March 1 the application of the Fourth Geneva Convention became a routine of Security Council resolutions. It was invoked in Resolutions 460 (May 8, 1980), 469 (May 20, 1980), and 471 (June 5, 1980), all three of which dealt with Israel’s expulsion of two Palestinian mayors in the wake of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilian settlers. Where once there was the routine affirmation of Resolution 242, we now have routine indictments of Israel for Hitlerian crimes.
The U.S. abstained even when Israel’s sovereignty itself was at issue. The last Security Council resolutions in this cycle of attacks on Israel were adopted in the summer of 1980 and dealt specifically with Jerusalem. Resolution 476 of June 30, 1980 warned Israel about its pending legislation on the annexation of East Jerusalem. One might well question the prudence of this Israeli law—and many have done so—but it was something else again to find that in Resolution 476 (as in its successor Resolution 477 of August 20) Israel had become the “occupying power” of its own capital. Both resolutions, in fact, seemed to include the entire city of Jerusalem within this charge. And Resolution 477 went still further: it declared the Basic Law on Jerusalem, by then passed, to be null and void. It declared in effect that Israel was not entitled to fix the location of its own capital city, and called—in a wholly unprecedented step—on member states to withdraw their embassies from this capital (which all did).
An epilogue of sorts took place in the third week of December 1980, as the Carter administration and the 35th General Assembly began winding down. On Monday, December 15, the General Assembly adopted five resolutions on the Middle East more virulent and anti-Semitic than perhaps anything the UN had yet seen. The debate was obscene. Thus the Ambassador of Jordan speaking of the Ambassador of Israel:
The representative of the Zionist entity is evidently incapable of concealing his deep-seated hatred toward the Arab world for having broken loose from the notorious exploitation of its natural resources, long held in bondage and plundered by his own people’s cabal, which controls and manipulates and exploits the rest of humanity by controlling the money and wealth of the world.
The occasion was the receipt of the most recent Report of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, a body established by General Assembly resolution on November 10, 1975, the same day Zionism was declared to be a form of “racism and racial discrimination.”
The first of the resolutions was breathtaking:
Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967 does not provide an adequate basis for a just solution for the question of Palestine.
One of the more dishonest (and debilitating because profoundly misleading) assertions of the U.S. Mission during the Carter years was that the 1975 Zionism resolution was somehow brought about by the United States. Having resisted, America was judged to have provoked. That resolution passed 67 to 55 with 15 abstentions. This resolution, potentially far more destructive, was adopted 98 to 16 with 32 abstentions.
The United States said nothing. No American delegate went to the podium to offer the smallest demur. Next, a resolution denounced the Camp David accords, declaring that the General Assembly
Expresses its strong opposition to all partial agreements and separate treaties which constitute a flagrant violation of the rights of the Palestinian people, the principles of the Charter, . . . [etc].
The United States said nothing. The last of the resolutions reasserted Israeli violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This time the United States, by abstaining, said all there was to say.
There was something of note in the sponsors of the resolutions. The familiar Soviet-leaning or Soviet-dominated nations were present: Afghanistan, Cuba, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. But present also were Nicaragua and Zimbabwe, two Third World nations with which the Carter administration had presumably established relations of friendship and respect.
As for North-South relations, on Wednesday of that week Ambassador McHenry acknowledged that the General Assembly’s Special Session on economic development which had convened in September had come to nothing. Finally, on Friday, December 19, the United States voted for a Security Council resolution condemning Israel for the expulsion of two Arab mayors (an expulsion which followed upon parliamentary debate, trials before an independent judiciary, and the usual processes of a possibly wrongheaded but stubbornly democratic society). Ambassador McHenry explained that the Fourth Geneva Convention “prohibits deportations, whatever the motive of the occupying power.”
In an editorial entitled, “Joining the Jackals,” the Washington Post, which had supported the President for reelection, described this American vote against Israel in the Security Council on that Friday as representative of “the essential Carter.” Now the President himself was being held to account.
American failure was total. And it was squalid. These men, in New York and Washington, helped to destroy the President who appointed them, deeply injured the President’s party, hurt the United States, and hurt nations that have stood with the United States in seeking something like peace in the Middle East. They came to office full of themselves and empty of any steady understanding of the world. The world was a more dangerous place when at last they went away.
Those who now take office must deal with the aftermath of this massive failure of policy. The Security Council resolutions are time bombs. Ticking. The case has all but been made that Israel is an outlaw state, and indeed the General Assembly has now called on the Security Council to consider imposing sanctions against it. It will take the toughest-minded diplomacy to dismantle the indictment now in place—thanks to the Carter administration; thanks to those who brought the Democratic party to such confusions. The new administration will have to deal also with the whole question of the Third World. It should be clearer now that hostility toward the West, toward the United States, is abiding and, it may be, burgeoning.
Yet it remains for the United States to evolve a mode of dealing with the UN majority, and this in some measure turns on what kind of countries we think them to be. Irving Kristol has put the matter at its bleakest:
The radical-nationalist ideologies of these nations, so far from being a prelude to the liberal-constitutionalism we revere, are a kind of epilogue. They—or at least their ruling elites—have seen our present and reject it as their future. So long as we refuse to confront this reality, we do not have a clear vision of the world the U.S. inhabits. And so long as there is no such clear vision, there can be no coherent foreign policy.
My own view is more sanguine: consider India, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica. There are others—many others. Still, with the experience of these four years, we should at least have learned that foreign policy cannot be conducted under the pretense that we have no enemies in the world—or at any rate none whose enmity we have not merited by our own conduct. For it was this idea more than anything else, perhaps, that led the Carter administration into disaster abroad and overwhelming defeat at home.
1 It would be hard to pack more misinformation into a single sentence. It was President Gerald R. Ford, in an address at the opening of the General Assembly in the fall of 1974, who warned the UN against “the tyranny of the majority”; at the close of that session Ambassador John A. Scali repeated the warning. If I ever used the phrase, which I do not recall doing, it was only to cite them. As for “A Very Dangerous Place,” in 1978 I published a memoir about the UN with a passage on the first page: “I had first gone to Washington with John F. Kennedy and then stayed on with Lyndon Johnson. There I learned as an adult what I had known as a child, which is that the world is a dangerous place—and learned also that not everyone knows this.” My editor thought A Dangerous Place would be a good title; but I was not referring to the UN. As seamen are taught of the sea, the UN is not inherently a dangerous element, but is implacably punishing of carelessness.
2 A brief review of UN documents will make clear that “accept” has the everyday meaning of “endorse.” After the first commission report was submitted in July 1979, it became the subject of Security Council Resolution 452, in which the Council voted to “accept” its recommendations. The members of the commission easily understood what this meant. They wrote in their second report (which in turn became the subject of Resolution 465) that they had taken particular steps “bearing in mind that the Security Council, in Resolution 452 (1979), had accepted the recommendations contained in the commission’s first report . . .” (emphasis added).
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“Joining the Jackals”
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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.