Recently, the editors of COMMENTARY addressed the following statement and questions to a group of American
Recently, the editors of COMMENTARY addressed the following statement and questions to a group of American Jews of varying political views:
For many years now, it has been taken for granted by most American Jews that their own interests coincided with and could best be represented through the standard liberal agenda. But this axiom might seem to have been called into question by certain recent developments—the widespread support among liberals for quotas, the diminishing enthusiasm among liberals for Israel, the growing sympathy of liberals for the PLO, and the paucity of liberal protest against the anti-Semitism that surfaced in the wake of Andrew Young’s resignation.
How seriously have these developments affected your own thinking as a Jew about liberalism? Do they warrant a reconsideration by the Jewish community in general of its traditional commitment to liberalism? Do you expect such a reconsideration to take place? If so, is it likely to result in a significant movement away from the Democratic party in 1980?
The responses—fifty-two in all—appear below in alphabetical order.
Morris B. Abram:
It irks me that many who called me liberal in Georgia, particularly during my bitter fourteen-year battle for the principle of one man/one vote against the racially motivated county-unit voting system, now say that I have changed my colors. Some charge that this is related to my ties to a Jewish community which has strayed from its liberal moorings.
I have not changed my views on human equality or freedom one whit. By the accepted meaning of the term I am a liberal. I resent the concerted effort to steal the liberal standard from positions like mine and to plant it on the opposite ideological ground.
At the core, the liberal and conservative traditions are at least distinguishable in that the liberal celebrates equality and freedom; the conservative status and rank. Sir Henry Maine, the 19th-century jurist, wrote that the progress of the law had been from status to contract, noting that a legal system wherein rights and duties were determined by free agreement of the parties was preferable to one wherein they are determined by status or assignment.
Conservative society was by and large committed to inherited status: master/slave in Rome, lord/serf in feudal Europe, Brahmin/Untouchable in India, and the stratified class structure in England.
The liberal thrust throughout history has always been against these conservative-sponsored rigidities in which one’s place in society was ascribed at birth.
The freedom of individual movement for which the liberal opted was too often restricted by prejudice and by economic and educational disparity. Liberals, therefore, supported public education and economic reforms and the elimination of bias in society’s laws and customs.
Jews, for ethical reasons as well as out of self-interest, opted for the liberal mode. The traditional societies of Europe had barred most Jews from a choice of occupation, but they longed to run life’s race on every track.
Liberals and Jews especially were sensitive to the needs of those not equipped for the race or who, for whatever reason, faltered. Those in need were to be helped, preferably by equipping or reequipping them to compete, if not immediately, ultimately. Honest men, of course, had to acknowledge that the family and even good luck advantaged some and impeded others. But wise men understood that absolute evenness cannot be achieved, certainly not by government, and that an even start in a race would not guarantee an even finish. Equality before the law, neutrality as to ethnicity, religion, or sex, were the proper goals of the advocates of equal opportunity.
In the early 1960’s, when President Johnson offered to make me the first chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, I held these traditional liberal views which did not differ from those of almost all civil-rights activists. But then we were very close to the time when the NAACP and other vanguard organizations had pressed the United States Supreme Court for a “color-blind” interpretation of the Constitution. The thrust in the landmark cases, such as Brown v. Topeka, was to obliterate caste based on inherited color. The obstacle was the legally sanctioned tradition that governments could classify and legislate on the basis of race.
Blacks and their white allies, of whom I was one, denounced this color-conscious interpretation of the Constitution as odious and wrong. We asserted that the “person” protected in the Constitution meant simply person, one of no special color, creed, or sex. We correctly, I believe, denounced any other interpretation, including that given in the Japanese Exclusion cases during World War II, as a stain on our constitutional history.
Some time in the late 1960’s, at the start of the push for black preference, initially called affirmative action, I supported what I understood was a conscious effort to seek out and bring to the fore persons who because of traditional educational and employment practice had been overlooked. Soon affirmative action was expanded to mean racial preferences, first as relatively mild and unenforced goals and timetables, hardly something to be opposed by optimists, of whom liberals have their share. Afterward came the unconcealed expectation that these goals and timetables would be met or one would risk a charge of discrimination.
Finally, the leading elements of the civil-rights movement baldly claimed the lightness and legality of imposed goals or quotas for identified members of disadvantaged groups. This is nothing less, of course, than a demand that government should classify and treat Americans on a basis which liberals had denounced for one hundred years as contemptible and invidious. This total reversal of form was described as liberalism, and those who resisted were branded as conservatives, neoconservatives, or reactionaries.
This politics is absurd, unfair, and counterproductive.
Absurd because the leading elements of the civil-rights movement are marching to the most conservative drumbeat of preference and position based on inherited status, pigmentation in the case of blacks, a chromosome in the case of women.
Unfair because despite the effort to discredit the term, this is reverse discrimination. What does one say to an applicant to medical school who is of Polish background or one who is from Appalachia and who would have been admitted except for preference given to a member of a racial minority? Was he or was he not denied an opportunity because of his color? And if this white came from the most disadvantaged coalmining family, what moral principle demands that he pay the price for wrongs committed by plantation owners?
It is argued, however, that racial preferences are justified because of the length of time, pervasiveness, persistence, and the still lingering effects of discrimination. The logic of this argument would seem to call for the granting of preference in the most significant area—voting. Why not let blacks have two or three votes, or however many, to overcome the distortions in our institutions which discrimination has produced? Since blacks are under-registered even today, why not hold up white registrations until blacks are proportionately enrolled? Of course, there is no one who would support this kind of preference but if the basic principle were right and fair, it would make good sense to apply it at the point of greatest effect, the ballot box.
Counterproductive. Built into the “new liberalism” is the smoldering dynamite of resentment which will some day rip through the veneer of support.
Inherited ascribed status was the bane of the immigrants to this country. It was abhorrent to liberals in the past and should be now. It was no conservative, but Justice William Douglas, writing in the DeFunis case, the predecessor to Bakke, who put the matter simply: “The equal-protection clause commands the elimination of racial barriers not their creation in order to satisfy our theory as to how society ought to be organized. . . . Once race is a starting point, educators and courts are immediately embroiled in competing claims of different racial and ethnic groups that would make difficult manageable standards consistent with the equal-protection clause.”
The progress of the law from status to contract and freedom has been temporarily detoured. But we should at least keep the signposts honest.
The state of relations between the Jewish community and conventional liberalism has sunk so low today that the most frequently heard question is “Who deserted whom?” Have Jews become conservative or has the liberal establishment abandoned the liberal principles of the recent past—for example, by supporting quotas and Third World guerrilla groups?
My own view is that liberalism has changed, so that what is now called liberalism no longer holds political liberty and equal opportunity for each individual as cardinal principles. Rather, in today’s liberalism a sort of egalitarianism, seeking a leveling redistribution of wealth enforced by constantly growing state power, combines with a curious insensitivity to political repression if it clothes itself in sufficiently progressive—i.e., re-distributive—rhetoric. The interests of Jews remain rather stable: we seek to promote the rule of law, political liberty, and individual opportunity, at home and abroad. It is, then, obvious that Jews should find liberalism a bit less winning than in the past. For after all, Jews did not become tied to liberalism out of guilty conscience; we became liberals because liberalism embraced and embodied the political values which protected and advanced Jewish principles and interests. As this ceases to be the case, Jews will find the automatic preference of Left over Right more and more uncertain.
Were Jews simply becoming more conservative, the outcome of these developments would be clear: Jews would become Republicans. And surely this will seem to many to be an attractive option, given standard Republican and conservative views on defense policy, Israel, quotas, and wholesale income redistribution. To the extent that sentiment alone were to prevent such a development, it would be unfortunate; Jews are not so secure that we can afford to vote against our interests out of sentimental attachments.
Yet to me this option is unattractive, for reasons which go beyond sentiment. If, as I have argued, liberalism has abandoned the old “liberal” principles Jews believe in (and which protect Jews), this will make conservatives appear more attractive by comparison. They will be, that is, only comparatively more attractive, without being objectively more so. For the Republican party has over the years shown itself no bastion of support for many things Jews hold dear, such as the struggle for civil rights and civil liberties, and (in no small part through the labor movement) for social justice. To dislike the views of Andrew Young and George McGovern does not mean that those of Jake Garn or Orrin Hatch—or John Connally—are really awfully cozy either.
Which leaves us floating, with the attachment to Democratic-party liberalism broken but not replaced by any real sympathy for the Republicans. But floating is exactly where we should be. It is axiomatic that a group whose votes may be taken for granted is a group with limited influence. Were a larger proportion of Jews—larger than the 35 per cent who voted against McGovern—to vote Republican in 1980, and were Jews to swing from 80-per-cent Democratic in one year down to, say, 40 per cent in another, the result would be enhanced influence in both parties.
I believe this is likely to happen, though not to the extent that interests and principles would seem to dictate. For the sentimental link to the party of Truman and Johnson is strong, as is guilt over appearing “conservative” and thus indifferent to injustice or poverty, and as is the sentiment that Republicans aren’t “our kind of people.” The GOP, with its flavor of small-town Midwestern business America, holds no comfort for Jews. This is as it should be; parties are shifting coalitions, and it is no more surprising that Jews should become less loyal Democrats than that Southerners or Catholics should be so—all without becoming stalwart Republicans. It is sad, perhaps, but it is necessary; to vote for quotas or against the defense budget by supporting purebred Left liberals is a luxury Jews cannot afford. This realization will dawn on more and more Jews over time, and the Jewish community will be much the better off if it happens soon and is soon understood by the nation’s politicians.
It seems to me important to distinguish between liberals and liberalism because what has essentially happened over the last decade is that large numbers of those who are eager to be identified as liberals have allowed classic liberal principles to be seriously compromised in the causes and policies they have chosen to advocate. The main reason for this subversion from within of the liberal agenda is obvious enough: the liberal community, whether out of guilt or confusion or still darker motives, has assimilated certain eminently anti-liberal ideas from the radicalism of the late 60’s. The most salient of these, at least in regard to Jewish interests, are reflected in the terms of the symposium statement: (1) a rejection of meritocracy in favor of some scheme of “compensatory justice” (racial and sexual quotas); (2) reverse racism (many liberals continue to act in the spirit of Susan Sontag’s symptomatic utterance of the late 60’s that the white race is “the cancer of humanity”); (3) a rejection of representative government and individual rights as universally applicable ideals in favor of general support for the Third World and its self-styled movements of national liberation, however fanatic, violent, and anti-democratic such movements might be.
It hardly needs to be observed that when a liberal agenda begins to encourage discriminatory legislation and a species of racism at home, repressive and belligerent regimes abroad, it has come in its own circuitous way to espouse positions that have been traditionally associated with the political Right. The ascendancy of the Right has always meant trouble for the Jews, and this is no less true when rightist principles are adorned with leftist banners. As a Diaspora community, we depend on a genuinely egalitarian, meritocratic society in which racist attitudes are considered too pernicious to be allowed serious political expression. As Zionists, we know that the survival of a democratic Jewish state in the Middle East requires the staunchest resistance both to the ideal of Islamic regional hegemony and to domination by terror.
What is a Jew, or for that matter, any person of liberal conscience, to do about this disquieting erosion of liberalism? The alternatives outside of the Democratic party do not seem particularly encouraging. At this early moment, there is no way of knowing who the Republican presidential candidate will be, but several now in the running might prove even worse for Israel than any Democrat in sight. One should remember that not only Jesse Jackson but also John Connally is prepared to hand over the West Bank lock stock and barrel to the PLO with the demagogic claim that this will bring lasting peace to the region and give America cheap and abundant oil. (It would appear that there are now a dozen motives for Americans to justify Arab militancy, from Third World boosterism to a personal association with oil interests, while there remains scant motive to justify Israel’s concern for its own survival.) I suppose the one Republican candidate who is clearly a strong supporter of Israel is Ronald Reagan, but he illustrates all too vividly the danger of trying to choose a candidate on a single issue, for his general views are so retrograde and his competence so questionable that I find it hard to imagine that sane liberals, whatever their concern for Israel, would want to contemplate voting for him.
This leaves us, alas, the Democratic party and the liberal community of America as it is presently constituted. From what I have said, it should be clear that I don’t think a reconsideration of the Jewish commitment to liberalism as a political orientation is warranted, and I hope there will be no serious erosion of that commitment. The question, then, is to what extent the anti-liberal positions I have noted are now deeply rooted in the American liberal community, or to what extent they may still be displaced by polemical pressure from within the community itself.
In this regard, I tend, somewhat waveringly, to cautious optimism. The hatred of America and the opposition to democratic values that surfaced in the New Left were deeply felt urges, but the liberal version of such radical ideas is, I suspect, more a matter of vogue, sustained and diffused by the media and the policy-making hierarchies of local and national government. What we may be dealing with, in other words, is ideas that are not the expression of a profound anti-liberal outlook but ideas that have a decade of institutional and propagandistic momentum behind them. This momentum could conceivably be broken by the cumulative shock of external events, like those now taking place in Iran. In any case, I would hope that the growing impingement on vital Jewish interests here and in Israel would impel more and more Jews to speak out against these ideas and to encourage fellow liberals to restore the liberal agenda.
Josiah Lee Auspitz:
I feel about American “liberalism” much as I do about this COMMENTARY symposium: there are tendencies associated with it that I do not like—the “ism” method of discussing politics, for example—but I would not dream of cancelling my subscription.
Admittedly, I take the long view: liberalism is that movement in political thought which over the past few centuries has given us the rule of law, the culture of civility that sustains it, and a certain magnanimity about bringing new people into the exercise of effective citizenship. The twin meanings of “liberal”—free and generous—reflect what is best in the political doctrine.
Seen against the sweep of world history, liberalism is something recent, and there is a natural-law variant of it that is distinctively American. “The citizens of the United States,” as George Washington put it in a memorable letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, “have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. . . . It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of inherent natural rights, for, happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens. . . .”
Washington’s is the authentic voice of American liberalism. It distinguishes between a public and a private sphere and extends both to everyone as a matter of “natural right.” It demands only that the pursuit of private interests be governed by an informed grasp of public responsibilities. In joining civility with liberality with natural law, it brings ideas together in a way that remains recognizably American. Indeed, much of what passes in our country today for conservatism, neoconservatism, libertarianism, progressivism, radicalism, moderation, and the democratic part of democratic socialism is really an emphasis on some partial view of an ideal of civil freedom that can still properly be called liberal.
This ideal, being a political one, was never intended as self-sufficient. Yet it has by now achieved a conceptual integrity that enables it to take wing, independent of the well-known historical contingencies attending its birth—conditions often called (in the “ism” method) capitalism, Protestantism, scientific positivism, and interest-group pluralism.
As to the relation between Judaism and liberalism, since the one predates the other by some millennia, there is scant evidence for arguing an indissoluble bond between them, still less for asserting that Judaism has flourished only under liberal regimes. What can be said is that in a liberal polity the biblical conception of justice, which integrates notions of righteousness, charity, and law, finds its closest modern analogue. What goes without saying is that only in a liberal society can the Judaic notion of chosenness be, as it was for Abraham, fully one’s own choice, And, of course, to choose to be a Jew, of whatever persuasion, gives evidence, in the noble, affirmative sense of the word, of a deep strain of “conservatism.”
But enough of “isms.” COMMENTARY has more tactical considerations in mind. By the “standard liberal agenda” it refers to the policies that for nearly five decades have sustained the New Deal coalition—“guns and butter” Lyndon Johnson called them. To label them liberal was always a bit strained, though it did have this rationale: liberalism had routinely assumed some sort of property and literacy qualification; state action could therefore have a genuinely liberal effect in extending the prerequisites of citizenship to those who lacked suitable opportunities in the private sector—many of them Jews, Catholics, and Southern Baptists of both races whose descendants until this day remain the mainstays of the Democratic party.
By a crazy metonymy, however, the instrument of extending the liberal ideal—federal spending and legislation—was mistaken for the ideal itself. And the health of the New Deal coalition came to depend on the ability of a beneficent state to “deliver”—that is, to service the increasingly conflicting and voracious constituencies of the Democratic coalition. The denouement is well known. When the federal role was rapidly expanding, in peace and war, the coalition thrived; as federal action flagged, the coalition partners have grown restive and amenable to Republican appeals. But the deeper story lies in the shifting rationale for state action itself—away from the classical liberal notion of the state as providing a framework for citizens in their self-chosen purposes and toward a view of the state as having admirable purposes of its own; away from the view of the state as governing, toward a view of it as managing; away from the politics of citizenship, toward the politics of membership in interest groups.
Now COMMENTARY’s symposium statement is remarkable for being couched almost wholly in the idiom of interest-group politics, and as such politics go, it is astutely formulated. It suggests a series of emotional issues on which Jews might be persuaded to move into a swing position in the coming election: the lurid portrayal of affirmative action for blacks and Hispanics in the light of the numerus clausus; the comparison of a beleaguered Israel with the Jews of the Holocaust, even the delicate hint of an analogy between the silence of European Christendom in World War II with the presumed “paucity of liberal protest against the anti-Semitism . . . etc.,” a point which might also be explained by COMMENTARY’s having sent out its questionnaire a week before the countermovement against Young and Jesse Jackson by leaders of the NAACP and Urban League.
But even without such consciousness-raising, it is already clear that Jews will be singled out (with the perennial farmers) for swing status. To any competent Republican strategist, the political arithmetic adds up this way: among the Democrats, a Southern Baptist of military education and a Northern Catholic of pro-union sympathies are vying for the Presidency. Between them they symbolize the two great pillars of the New Deal coalition, and one cannot rule out their patching it up before November. Absent a black or Hispanic on the Republican ticket, the Democrats will also have an unchallenged appeal in those two communities. Of the traditionally Democratic ethnic groups that leaves only one base wholly uncovered: the Jews, who happen to be strategically placed in the large swing states and who have in the past two presidential elections shown an increasing willingness to vote Republican. Precisely because Jewish voters are negligible in GOP nominating politics, any Republican who is looking toward the general election can credibly lay the ground for a determined overture to them in the crucial weeks between the early Republican convention and the later Democratic one.
As a swing group in 1980, Jews can have a limited impact on the agenda of both parties. How will their recognized spokesmen use this leverage? Not, one hopes, by making it obligatory to rant about quotas (which the Supreme Court has already ruled out as an instrument of public policy in the Bakke case) and the alleged softness of the “liberals” toward the PLO, nor even by presenting a public shopping list to both parties on behalf of Israel, whose very survival depends on its acceptance in more than merely Jewish terms. The wisest course for Jewish leadership is so unfashionably public-spirited that one almost blushes to recommend it. It is to insist again that America find constitutional means to extend effective citizenship to the seriously disadvantaged, to insist that American policy integrate into the NATO defense structure its most reliable Middle Eastern allies, and to present its demands in a civic spirit befitting the most advantaged Jewish community in the 2,500-year history of the Diaspora.
As Americans and as Jews, we would do well to recall the generous vision George Washington shared with the Hebrew congregations of Philadelphia, New York, Charlestown, and Richmond:
Gentlemen: The liberality of sentiment toward each other, which marks every political and religious denomination of men in this country, stands unparalleled in the history of nations.
The affection of such a people is a treasure beyond the reach of calculation. . . .
The only way I could support the 1980 Democratic presidential candidate, something I have done in nine out of eleven elections since 1936, is if he should be Daniel P. Moynihan.
I would not vote for President Carter’s reelection. He represents the full flowering of American liberalism in foreign policy, which means that he equates a realistic desire for national security with immoral militarism and that he regards opposition to Soviet-supported political movements and coups d’état in Asia and Africa as needless confrontations. In short, Carterism means, to use the President’s phrase, avoiding “an inordinate fear of Communism.”
The continuation of a Carter foreign policy could mean the defeat of our democracy and of our allies in Europe by the Soviet Union without a resisting shot or missile being fired.
I could not vote for Senator Kennedy, the spokesman for an unaccommodationist domestic liberalism, whose foreign-policy views seem to be congruent with those of President Carter. I find Kennedy’s views no more acceptable today than I did when they represented Senator McGovern’s political agenda in 1972. In that election, I preferred not to vote at all. My discomfort with bureaucratic domestic liberalism is with its cultural provenance to the exclusion of honorable political brokerage. (Although I voted for Adlai Stevenson in 1952, I did not vote for him in 1956 or for President Eisenhower, the man who preached a rollback of the Soviet Union when he campaigned in 1952 and then, to our shame, allowed the Soviet Red Army to crush the uprising of East German workers in 1953 and of Hungarian workers in 1956.)
I go further. If the Republicans nominate Ronald Reagan against either Carter or Kennedy, I will vote for Reagan. Should the GOP candidate be John Connally and his opponent either Carter or Kennedy (I exclude Governor Brown from serious consideration), then I will sit an election out for the third time in my voting life.
I offer this much abridged political autobiography as a simple way of answering COMMENTARY’s questions. It is a way of saying that the time has come when the kissing has to stop, the kissing between liberalism and American Jews. The kissing should have stopped in 1972 when the New Left and the New Class took over the Democratic party, but there is no time like now.
What must be recognized is that liberalism has been degenerating as a moral force since the Russian revolution and the subsequent implanting in the Western democracies of Moscow-financed Communist parties. The last sixty years have seen the growth of a noxious weed in the liberal garden, the dishonorable and dishonest double standard which ultimately benefits Left totalitarianism and the Soviet Union. Whatever vitality liberalism possessed before World War I was sapped by this morally injudicious application to political events of one standard for the democracies and another, more indulgent standard for every new barbaric Communist or socialist regime which shot its way to power. Sidney Hook’s concept of the “totalitarian liberal” has become a norm in our political culture.
In fact, liberalism today demonstrates its loss of meaning and content by the necessity, in order to avoid incoherence, of prefacing the word “liberal” with some kind of categorical adjective, pejorative or eulogistic or neutral in meaning—advanced, anti-Communist, Catholic, complacent, conservative, doctrinaire, hopeless, knee-jerk, left-wing, limousine, meliorative, moderate, old-fashioned, pragmatic, progressive, right-wing, staunch, tepid, totalitarian, tough-minded, white. A political philosophy so dependent on adjectival epithets for definition is no philosophy at all.
The reason for the adjectives is obvious. During the early years of the half-century that liberalism ruled as America’s state religion, the content of liberalism had a modest finitude. But in the last thirty years, liberalism collapsed before the corrupting and fraudulent pretensions of Soviet foreign policy; witness the enormous liberal support for the Waldorf “peace” conference in the spring of 1949. In other words, liberalism has been guilty of countless evasions of moral responsibility and moral understandings, one here, one there. An identification of the individual liberal has become necessary on any given issue.
The concept of “anti-Communist liberal” would be no more necessary than “totalitarian liberal” if modern liberalism had not been selective in its political discriminations. In 1944, George Orwell, recognizing the flexibility of liberal behavior, wrote: “The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onward is that they have wanted to be antifascist without being anti-totalitarian.”
So today we have a new category of “liberal”—the “black liberal,” men like Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson who plead that they would like to be, indeed are, pro-Israel but are in fact unhesitatingly pro-PLO, who find Israeli behavior rebarbative and PLO behavior understandable, who admire “socialist” tyrannies while condemning “racist” dictatorships.
Not only the Jewish community but American culture must reexamine its past commitment to liberalism because, more and more, liberalism has intertwined what was its humanist doctrine with Marxist-Leninist socialism via grandiose schemes of state intervention. As Bernard-Henri Lévy has written, in our time Marxism has been “elevated to the status of a hegemonic culture in Western societies.” Marxism-Leninism now exercises a political force in our most prestigious seats of higher learning with effects that can be seen in our foreign policy. The Carter administration now accepts leftist socialist tyrannies in the Caribbean and in Africa while directing all its power against militarist, rightist juntas in Latin America and ebbing racist regimes in Africa—all in the name of human rights. There is moral condemnation of authoritarian rulers, but prudential judgments on the Soviet Union’s invasion of Africa. Liberalism has a strategy for minor-league Latin American dictators and for our friends on Taiwan but none for the most powerful and most threatening dictatorship since Hitler. What does Pinochet do in a year that is worse than what Brezhnev does in a day?
We must reconsider the traditional commitment to liberalism because the curse of revolutionism has infiltrated and overwhelmed its doctrines. Once, in the early decades of liberalism, self-interest, not utopianism, was regarded as a perfectly good motive for political and economic behavior. No more.
It was Adam Smith who pointed out that it was not from the benevolence of the butcher, brewer, or baker that we expect our dinner but from their regard for their own interest. As Samuel Brittan has written: “In politics as in economics, the pursuit of self-interest may, contrary to what unreflective moralists suppose, serve to promote the welfare of one’s own citizens.” Modern liberalism looks upon the idea of self-interest as a motivating force in society with the same disdain that it looks upon a professed love of one’s country.
Modern liberalism may say that it accepts the idea of self-interest but, in the real world, it argues for other overriding interests which would victimize Israel specifically and the democracies generally. Would it not, say, be in the interest of the U.S. and in the interest of the Zimbabwean people to support Bishop Muzorewa in the wake of a perfectly legitimate election which he won? What would liberalism, powerfully ensconced in Washington, today be saying if Nkomo and Mugabe had won the election and the Bishop were protesting its results? Would Washington liberalism have questioned the election of two burgeoning tyrants supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba? The African specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations who edited CFR’s latest book on Africa, according to the Wall Street Journal, wrote with emphasis: “The development of democratic political systems in Africa should not be a goal of U.S. policy. . . . The formation of capitalist economic systems should not be a U.S. goal.” Such is the stuff of modern liberalism.
As I have said: our relationship to contemporary liberalism should be reconsidered and the best way to achieve that reconsideration is to help Senator Moynihan become the Democratic nominee for President in 1980.
As with all such questions, an answer depends on how one defines liberalism. I need scarcely remind you that in Europe a liberal was one who stood for (and in some places, still stands for) the minimal state. The powerful German political philosopher, Carl Schmitt, who early embraced Nazism but was then repulsed, attacked liberalism for being “anti-political.” As he wrote: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friends and enemies.” This is akin to Lenin’s famous formula of politics: kto-kvo, who will defeat whom? Politics, in these instances, is the whole of one’s life. And politics is only naked power. When some today deride a defense of the merit principle and claim that it is only a mask for privilege, they are being political in the way Schmitt and Lenin were. But the heart of classical liberalism—I go back to Kant—is the separation of spheres: of the economic from the political, the religious from the political, precisely to give the individual a life space of his own. And this is the foundation of the liberal, the free society.
The fundamental problem of our politics was posed by Rousseau. In modern times, he said, a man is both bourgeois (i.e., pursuing his individual self-interest) and citoyen (having public obligations). How does one reconcile the two? Bentham did so by denying one of the polarities. The community, he said, is but a fiction, and one seeks to measure the greatest good for the greatest number (in itself a contradiction, since one cannot maximize two different functions in a single number). Rousseau (in one of his incarnations) said that man in civil society had to suppress his egoism and “alienate himself” into the single moral personality which is the general will (a theme which found its contemporary embodiment, as Benjamin Schwartz has pointed out, in Mao Zedong).
But Kant accepted the distinction between the public citizen and the private individual, which had so bothered Rousseau, and reinforced it. The liberal theory as postulated by Kant had two aspects: that law is to be formal (i.e., procedural), not substantive; and that law is separate from morality. In the first conception, individuals were free to make their own bargains within the framework of the rule of law. To use a distinction of Hayek’s, men were to be treated equally, not to be made equal (which would require some administrative intervention). In the second (deriving from the wars of religion of the 17th and 18th centuries), no group could impose its own private beliefs on the polity through the secular arm of the state. One could prosecute crime, but not sin; one could enforce rights, but not righteousness.
With all their difficulties, these principles are more relevant today than ever before. The fundamental fact is that almost all societies in the world today are plural societies, with large admixtures of religious, ethnic, linguistic, and national minorities. And for reasons that I have spelled out elsewhere (in the Ethnicity volume edited by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan), the character of minority identification has become politically salient—with the obvious threat of turning the polity into a battleground of “friends and enemies,” rather than a polity of citizens.
If we are to have a polity of citizens, what I have called a “public household,” then these classic principles of liberalism need to be reaffirmed. The postulate of liberalism is that in the public arena all persons should be treated equally, on the basis of their individual attributes, not their group characteristics. But when individuals come together, as inevitably they do, in some group form, such memberships are entitled to the protection of the laws, and to respect for their group beliefs, in their plural identities.
Of course there are difficulties. What principles fit every situation? Where individuals in public circumstances are kept unequal, they may have to be “made” equal, in order to be treated equally. This is the moral case for affirmative action, and the prudential case, at times, for reverse discrimination. But nothing is gained by a confusion of terms. One may have to “bend” a principle to rectify an injustice, but this is not a repudiation of the normative principle itself.
Given the character of plural societies, how can we do without the postulates of liberalism?1
There is, however, a distinction between “liberalism,” in the sense I have used the term, and “liberals” as defined by the editors of COMMENTARY. And the two are not, historically and sociologically, the same.
The “liberals” of Western society are those who, at best, embody the perennial utopian longings to do good for others (less by personal than governmental action) in order to bear witness against inequality and injustice; and, at worst, to strike a narcissistic posture of cozy nonconformity against the bourgeois culture that pays them well, the tedious nose-thumbing of Madison Avenue uptown (between 86th St. and 59th St.) against Madison Avenue downtown.
One can easily dismiss the liberal poseurs But utopian impulses weave their own, more complicated snares. In its self-pride, it is the harsh imposition of a revolutionary self-righteousness, calling itself moral purity, against the “corrupted” human stuff of the old order, taking its most ghastly form in our time in the savage fury of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. In its masochism, it is the abasement of liberals before an idolatry which is the other face of that utopianism, and to genuflect before such images. As Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote, in her remarkable memoir:
My brother Evgeni Yakovelevich used to say that the decisive part in the subjugation of the intelligentsia was played not by terror and bribery (though, God knows, there was enough of both), but by the word “Revolution,” which none of them could bear to give up. It is a word to which whole nations have succumbed, and its force was such that one wonders why our rulers still need prisons and capital punishment.
And for liberals today, the equivalent “buzz” words are “National Liberation,” or “Human Emancipation,” or, in the words of one reviewer in the New Republic, “the Revolution of Hope sweeping the Third World.” In 1979!
More than thirty-five years ago, I published a short essay in Partisan Review, entitled “Word Surrealism,” in which I expressed my puzzlement about such oxymorons as “secular religion,” or “totalitarian liberal,” used to deride the Left. One can understand the ironic motives behind such characterizations, intellectual and polemical, but such word play has its dangers, as in the quixotic dialectic whereby such tables are turned. Today we pay increasingly for such linguistic confusions in the glib way that phrases like “repressive tolerance” are mouthed or the easy equations of “apartheid,” “racism,” and “Zionism.” Unhappy are the times when language loses its clear and distinct meanings.
The problem with “liberals” is easy, for experience itself is the harsh teacher, for those who retain the capacity to learn. And with Cambodia, the liberals are confronted with the simplicities of Marxism and the complexities of ideological hubris, as a previous generation learned the hard way about the God that failed in the Gulags of Stalin’s Russia. It is the return to “liberalism” that is more difficult, especially when people fail to distinguish among rhetorical emotion, prudential compromises, and the underlying principle of the separation of realms.
The editors of COMMENTARY have asked a question about 1980. And in good rabbinical fashion I have not replied directly but with a disquisition. The reason is that I do not think the relevant issue is the political disorders of 1980, but the need to make clear distinctions. And the primary one is between liberalism and the liberals. Let us take back the one, and forgo the other.
Eugene B. Borowitz:
I do not recognize the Jewish liberals the symposium statement mentions. I know Marxists, radicals, and pseudo-radicals who support quotas, turn from Israel, flirt with the PLO, and condone black anti-Semitism. Such views are generally anathema to the Jewish liberals I know, that is, the sort of people who voted for McGovern despite then Ambassador Rabin’s statement that Nixon was better for the Jews. No honest conservative approves of smears, so confusion must only be a reflection of the common contemporary problem of defining a “liberal.” When the supposedly well-informed reporters of the New York Times can confidently prophesy that Daniel P. Moynihan would support Kennedy against Carter—which he has not done—and when Moshe Dayan leaves the Begin cabinet in protest against its West Bank rigidity, the political lines blur badly.
Like most Jewish liberals in recent years, I have been chastened in my hopes that government can produce greater social justice. People are not as moral or rational as I once believed; professors and journalists are not as smart; and government is not only as corruptible as other American institutions but has its own proclivities for producing evil with the good. Messianic liberalism has died but practical and Jewish reasons keep me and many Jews from going conservative.
We fear the power interests behind the new conservatives. Ronald Reagan, having the Right, may now speak softly as he sidles toward the Center to avoid the Goldwater stigma. John Connally, desperate for support, exposes where the monied and privileged people want to take us. The same concern for preserving status that produced his denunciation of affirmative action had previously moved him to blast Israel. Minority interests may be sacrificed if necessary to preserve the prerogatives of the well-to-do and well-connected. I and others find that where conservatives are in control, Jews and other outsiders have only token jobs and little power, are barred from clubs where the best people make contacts, and are made to feel unwanted in the most socially prestigious neighborhoods. Conservatives want to retain power, not share it. They scorn those who are too scrupulous to wield power effectively. They will not be squeamish in that regard. I and other Jews remain liberal because we fear the undemocratic forces on the Right more than big government or anything we see on the Left.
We believe a constitutional government is more to be trusted to improve society than is an open market, benign neglect, or other natural arrangements. The Corvair, Three Mile Island, and other profit-motive extravaganzas indicate what we can expect from supposedly self-regulating capitalism. Government has its abuses—but the Constitution gives all citizens rights by which to correct them. Against corporate immorality and the venality of the privileged all we can count on are proxy fights and public outrage—or government. We require steady government initiative if minorities are to attain a more appropriate place in our socioeconomic order. Without it, the exclusivism of the established and the historic American prejudice against other than Northwestern Europeans will erode our recent gains in democracy and strengthen discrimination.
The three major events of modern Jewish history mandate my liberalism. The emancipation of the Jews from the ghetto resulted from government action to outlaw disabilities which centuries of genteel tradition had sanctioned. The state of Israel came into being because of political action, not passive trust in the social order. And the Holocaust did not begin with the Jews. The Nazis first murdered another minority, mental defectives, and having successfully picked off one group of outcasts, moved on to others, the Jews, the Gypsies, and the rest. Diaspora Jewish self-interest still demands energetic work to secure functioning democracy for everyone, economic security as well as civil rights. Minorities rightly fear that conservatives are not, in principle, committed to pluralism; heterodox views might get people to change things. Thus, COMMENTARY no longer has liberal articles, only attacks on liberal views, even going out of its way to upbraid Sh’ma magazine for still daring to allow the Jewish community to hear liberal voices—in debate with conservative ones! (See Julius Weinberg’s ludicrously inaccurate analysis of contemporary Reform Judaism, COMMENTARY, November 1979.) The fate of Jews in a country long dominated by American conservatives may be extrapolated from their well-known attitudes toward the effete intellectuals of the Northeast.
If Jews were normal, one would predict that they would continue turning more conservative. All Americans are doing so, and the present social system has benefited us spectacularly well. We are the wealthiest minority group in the country. Then, too, our leaders keep telling us that conservative politics will be good for the state of Israel, which is, for most of us, the equivalent of being good for the Jews. Moreover, we have no significant leader to call us back to liberalism. Alexander M. Schindler, whose native inclinations lie in this direction, is a captive of our system. He attained his preeminent status as the wise, energetic spokesman for our concerns about the state of Israel. The moment he speaks up vigorously for the liberal agenda he will lose his broad Jewish following. Israeli needs seem to require conservative American political positions and our fund raisers, who substantially control mass Jewish opinion, find it useful to keep us in a state of near-emergency. Realism is against Jewish liberalism.
But the survival of the Jews is itself an argument against the ultimacy of realism. Against the social forces there stands our innate sense of what a modernized Jew must strive to be. Our greatest thinkers in this century have been committed to ethical activism and models of its application. Hermann Cohen and Martin Buber were religious socialists. In Theresienstadt as afterward, Leo Baeck maintained that ethical monotheism was the essence of Judaism. Mordecai Kaplan permits the Jewish folk to create Judaism as it wishes, with one exception, ethics, which it must follow. And Abraham Heschel remains our supreme example of the integration of Jewish loyalty and liberal activism.
Many Jews still know their teachings were right. Our participation in general society rests on a covenant. We expect our culture to try to break the shackles of its tradition of prejudice and we, in turn, will work for the betterment of general society with the passion we once restricted to the needs of the Jewish community. Judaism means that to us now that it is situated in a democratic social order. Liberalism may not be the Messiah—but it remains our best Jewish way of living with less sin.
A conviction currently held suggests that because liberalism has failed, Jews who at one time might have been liberals should now, in their own self-interest, switch their allegiance to a more realistic new conservatism. Evidence offered to justify this bromide includes (a) the widespread support of liberals for a detestable quota system; (b) the diminishing enthusiasm of liberals for Israel and their growing support for the hated PLO; and (c) the paucity of liberal protest against the anti-Semitism that surfaced in the wake of Andrew Young’s resignation.
Liberalism did not fail. To the contrary, it succeeded so long as liberals gave it their strong energy. The civil-rights movement and its subsequent legislation, the anti-Vietnam war struggle, opposition to the draconian regime of Nixon/Agnew and their eventual expulsion from the White House they sullied were campaigns waged primarily by liberals. If liberalism lies dormant today, it is only because liberals grow weary and quit.
The evidence suggested by the three “developments” cited above does not warrant a Jewish defection from our classic support of liberalism. Americans have had their confidence in government, in the system, and in their own capacity to affect change destroyed by the incredible deceit and immorality of those entrusted with the maintenance of the political fabric of society. They lost the momentum to continue working for progressive legislation or for change. Anger replaced hope. Cynicism eroded a willingness to try. But a desire remains for those values for which liberalism has always stood.
While opposition to affirmative action and school-busing programs has grown since the early 1970’s, research indicates that so has support for the more basic proposition that members of all races should be allowed equal access to jobs and schools. The percentage of those favoring the death penalty (an issue beloved of conservatives, and traditionally detested by liberals) has increased in recent years, but so too has the recognition that the solution to crime lies in the correction of problems of poverty and unemployment. Similarly, polls show that our citizens want greater governmental responsibility for health care, social security, public transportation, etc. Inflation, recession, unemployment, energy now join race, class, and sex inequality as the pervading dysfunctions of American life. They are our new agenda. Evidence suggests that on each of these issues, more rather than less governmental involvement will be necessary and accepted if the dilemmas they pose are to be solved. What can one conclude from this? Only that while many individuals have more conservative leanings on some emotionally charged issues, they still look to government to supply social needs. Governmental intrusion has never been a remedy proposed by conservatives. More comprehensive movements of the Left, including the possible election to the Presidency of a liberal-leaning Democratic Senator who, if nominated, will probably be supported by more than 60 per cent of Jewish voters, may yet develop as Americans seek to get to the heart of our nation’s ills. In short, any dismissal of liberalism is at least premature.
Equally misleading is the temptation to analogize through the examples cited. Condemnation by association is an illegitimate rhetorical trick.
Quotas are presented as undesirable devices. Liberals are described as defenders of quotas, ergo, liberals are to be viewed pejoratively. But liberals are also notorious supporters of affirmative action. The Jewish community, through the voice of many of its organizations, is on record as supporting affirmative action, at least as an interim ethic. Are we not then entitled to conclude that liberals are to be viewed positively, their stance acknowledged, their position supported?
Liberals are accused of defecting in their support for Israel and intensifying their endorsement of the PLO. John Connally fits that description. Is John Connally a liberal? Moreover, support for the PLO and criticism of Israel now come increasingly from American oil interests, mainline church bodies turned conservative, American business, conservative newspapers and journals. In fact, criticism of the current Israeli government, particularly as Begin seems to be turning the issue of West Bank autonomy into a policy of gradual annexation, comes with increasing frequency from the entire spectrum of political opinion. In Israel, too, some of the severest criticism of government policies comes from young, ex-military people and from intellectuals who vigorously protest any effort to identify them as liberals or doves. Israel’s “Peace Now” movement defies such facile labeling. It is true that in America some blacks identified with Third World causes (radical, leftist, not necessarily liberal) have associated themselves with the PLO position and have joined those who have historically condemned Israel’s right to exist, but just as many black leaders, long identified as liberals, have associated themselves completely with Israel’s cause. Finally, what conservative voices in this country protested against the alleged eruption of anti-Semitism in the wake of Andrew Young’s resignation? Why should liberals be singled out for their silence?
Should these or similar “developments” affect our thinking as Jews about the legitimacy of liberalism? I think not. The criteria by which we are asked to judge the validity of liberalism are really no criteria at all. There are different and better indices to apply when deciding whether or not to support various causes, programs, social directions. The yardstick is twofold. First, the goals ought to be ultimately protective of personal and social freedom; they should enhance the quality of life. Second, each suggestion should be candled against the light of compassion.
Freedom is the unique quality of America. The zeal with which we struggle to preserve personal and social freedom is unprecedented. It is both the hallmark and the sine qua non of our existence. Second to this passion is our conviction that somehow it is necessary for the public sector of society to intervene compassionately and protectively on behalf of the disadvantaged, the sick, the poor, those in whom the spark of divinity burns too dimly and who need the breath of compassion to fan that spark into full light. Freedom and social concern are values as Jewish as the Jewish belief in God. When any aspect of freedom is threatened, Jews have an obligation to protest as Jews. Nothing could be more Jewishly elemental than this. Jews, thank God, still seem to feel this way. A recent poll indicates that voting Jews remain strongly in favor of having the government pay for abortions for the poor. They favored by a 59 to 33 per-cent margin the right of homosexual teachers to work in the public schools. They did not want the defense budget raised. They favor SALT II. They were less interested than others in a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget and less impressed with the significance of the Panama Canal as a voting issue. One fact that seemed to underline their liberalism was that half the Jews interviewed reported household incomes of more than $25,000, a level at which other respondents to most questions had become more conservative.
While American Jewry is as angry and as frustrated as any element of the population by the growth of crime, and the corruption of government, and while Jews, too, are turning inward, increasingly concerned with their own particularistic agendas, they have not yet succumbed totally to backlash and they have not taken the advice of those in the American Jewish community who have sought to scare them into more conservative postures.
It is hardly more than a decade since some advocates of what was then the new Jewish conservative posture proclaimed with audacious certitide that Nixon was “one of the righteous Gentiles of the world,” “a victim of the licentiousness of the liberal press.” It is fewer than ten years since those on the Jewish political Right tried to silence into invisibility Jewish liberals opposed to the war in Vietnam by suggesting that Jews would become the scapegoats of American frustration and rage if America lost that war. It is fewer than ten years since we were advised by the Jewish conservatives to crawl into our Jewish shells and let the rest of the world go by. Many Jews did. Many are still there. But the prognostications of the Jewish Right were wrong. Dead wrong. So too is their advice.
Jewish ethics is not automatically on the liberal side, but it is not adequate for the Jewish community to point out only the flaws of liberal proposals and turn its back on the call for help from the larger world. What do Jews today say after they have said “no”? What do we as Jews intend to do with and about the society in which we find ourselves? If we continue to turn Right and think wrong, there may be nothing left. After Bergen Belsen, let us live beyond cynicism. “Tikkun haolam,” the repair of society, is still a Judaic “demandment.” It is also in our own self-interest. If it is a liberal posture as well, so much the better.
If monotheism is the ultimate source of liberalism, anchored as it is in the universality whose very essence is Jewish, it may seem natural, especially for Jews, to yearn for the realization of a vision embedded in the Scriptures—the brotherhood of man. This ancient connection between Jews and an ideal world would seem to indicate that Jews somehow must be liberal by nature.
Yet essentially this argument generates no more than political extremism. The proclamation of an absolute ideal unaccompanied by piecemeal procedures leading to its attainment is bound to duplicate, in secular terms, the classical religious operation called “forcing the End”: the attempt to force God to act is paralleled in the workaday world by the attempt to impose one’s will on sluggish history.
No doubt it is obvious that liberal ideals, which can be achieved only approximately, often slip their moorings. Liberals, originally inspired by the desire for a society free of the constraints of authoritarian institutions, often find themselves in practice reduced to the sponsorship of precisely such institutions—notably the state—as long as lip-service is paid to ideals.
This surely accounts for the liberal support of wholly repressive agencies like all Marxist governments, and, contrariwise, for liberal hatred of and contempt for free societies that have imperfections.
This strange quirk has its roots in something still more fundamental—the profound alienation that characterizes so many Jewish elites precisely at the pinnacle of success.
Thus the idealistic yearnings typical of so many Jews as they broke out of the shtetl a century ago have been magnified still further in their American descendants, the bulk of whom are now solidly established in the middle and upper-middle class. America, too, has numerous shortcomings: an ideal image, even projected onto real societies remote from the individual yearner, is enough to outweigh the merely material and spiritual benefits of a free society, and turns those who enjoy America most into its most insidious enemies.
Thus the split in Jewry that began with the dissolution of the shtetl three generations ago has reached what may be a crisis, exacerbated by the rise of the state of Israel as a historical counterweight to the Holocaust.
It is a commonplace for seemingly concerned Jews, precisely, indeed, very Jewish Jews, to refrain, in glee or in sorrow, from sympathizing with Israel because Israel fails to measure up to lofty standards of meritoriousness.
Jewish pathology in this respect is surely unique: no other group will drive its devotion to general principles beyond its own survival. It can hardly be denied that the fine words of liberal idealism often camouflage an attitude of internalized self-denigration on the part of many Jews, whose reaction, precisely in the age of the Holocaust, has been to hide—what could be more natural! And one way of hiding is to choose a universal mask, to avoid initiative, to accommodate, above all, to the aims of others.
This crisis in self-consciousness has now moved into the sphere of practical politics. The activist role assumed by the Soviet executive in the past five years (beginning with the invasion of Angola) has branched out into what is clearly a coordinated campaign of deep penetration, based on the massive use of janissaries from the Cubans to the PLO, and aimed at the exclusion of America from Africa and the Middle East, especially from the Persian Gulf. And as an integral part of the Middle East—indeed, as America’s only reliable ally there—Israel’s very existence is now in jeopardy.
It is surely a titanic irony that the split of the shtetl a century ago should now be influencing world events. It is strange that Jewry, whose role in the destabilization of the Czarist regime was cardinal, should now, after having been crippled in the aftermath of the Bolshevik triumph, espouse in America not merely the principles flaunted by the neo-Bolshevik bureaucrats, but side with the actual regime and its cluster of satellites in their many-sided movement for the extinction of Israel.
Thus Israel, and the free world in general, are now menaced by the Jewish foible for panaceas. In this strange warping of perspective, the indifference to Israel, or indeed even aversion to it on the part of so many contemporary Jewish liberals, plainly echoes the crises provoked in Jewish history by civil-war situations (the resistance to Hellenism, the Maccabees, the genesis of Christianity, the Spanish expulsion).
In argumentation liberals feel virtuous behind their barricade of ideals. At home in the rhetoric of universal aims, they are well-nigh impervious both to practical reason and to the needs of self-preservation.
Yet so many critical situations have been multiplying for the past few years that it seems legitimate to hope that Jewish liberals will change—will perceive the great danger Jewry now faces, very specifically from the forces orchestrated by the Soviet executive. Many Jews, after all, are not suicidal: perhaps they may now perceive their historic addiction to panaceas for what it has been—a delusion. If they can be persuaded to exchange their traditional liberalism for a form of it that will enable them to support the true allies of Jews, and in particular of Israel, they will surely find themselves refocusing their world view not delusionally but pragmatically.
All this may be reflected in the upcoming electoral campaign in the United States. Middle East issues are presented to the public lopsidedly, obliquely, distortedly: the range of interests seems endless. Candidates will no doubt be evasive, plausible, deceitful.
Only a sound sense of self-interest can enable American Jews to thread their way between plausibility and sincerity: if self-hatred and self-contempt are hauled out of the unconscious and scrutinized by common sense, those Jews who are basically healthy will, perhaps, regroup.
Arthur A. Cohen:
Some time ago, I gave up thinking of myself as a liberal. I have never thought of myself as a conservative. I have been, as a result, without a tagging device for some time now.
Whatever support I have to give goes to the Western intellectual tradition which has consistently believed that the future depended upon the clarity with which the present estimates the past. My reflective process has, in consequence, always been too slow for political movements. In this sense I think of myself, despite the political requirements of my animality, as an amateur and a proud one at that. I refuse because of the slowness of my ways to be stampeded to the Left or the Right. This does not mean that my position is ever dead Center. I think, as best I can, from issue to issue, and where connections manifest themselves, I allow the move of implication. I generalize about politics reluctantly.
The political scene I find increasingly grim and alarming, less because of a compromised liberalism, willing to make the rush to any and every beleaguered equity, or the Right, increasingly assertive in the development of a politics of national interest, than because the assumption of a reciprocal relation of trust and returned responsibility between the citizenry and the government is eroded. I worry, therefore, about the decline of a presumed moral consensus on which the Constitution and Bill of Rights of this nation have historically relied.
Everything that I have just said is spoken as a citizen of the country, as a second-generation American whose grandparents came from Europe. Those grandparents came from the Hapsburg empire and Czarist Russia. They made it possible for me to be an American, but their emigration did not make it possible for me to be a Jew. Being a Jew is something other and only becomes part of the welter of misunderstanding when a Jew becomes ethnic and quasi-racial. In another context, I have written of this condition as that of the natural Jew, who has interests, concerns, sensibilities not necessarily those of other minorities, but like theirs no less or more privileged. The complexity arises only when the religious distinctness of the Jewish vocation comes to the forefront. The interests of natural creatures, torn by contest and intergroup tension, recede and questions of a destinarian nature reassert themselves. These are questions that implicate the nexus of God, man, and history. They are not relevant here, but they do supply me with a barrier to politicizing ultimate beliefs about the nature and destiny of nations and humankind.
There is little doubt that anti-Semitism has new strength, not only here but abroad, not only in nations with significant Jewish populations but in nations that have only small or remnant communities; neither is there question that black anti-Semitism rises with black frustration, although the latter is no excuse for the former; nor is there question that sympathy for the PLO increases in reaction to the immense cost this country has assumed for securing the Israeli-Egyptian accords and the unwillingness of the Israelis to see their situation the way Americans would like it to be seen. There is a continuous short-circuiting of perception precisely because Americans have been forced to perceive themselves as economically and politically beleaguered, a self-recognition which not even the shock of Vietnam, multiple political assassinations, and Watergate were able to engender. It has taken such bread-and-butter realities as oil, declining exports, the weakening dollar, and unchecked inflation to erode the heretofore olympian confidence of the American middle class. Moreover, no longer a snap of the fingers can put it right. The most powerful nation on earth is not as persuaded by its own rhetoric as it once was. And with all this, it is not surprising—although it is upsetting—that within sectors and pockets of the national community, it is possible once more to speak openly of the world’s favorite bête noire—the Jews.
On the other hand, I am not certain that even such an interpretation of events would move me as a Jewish American from my amateur preoccupation with social justice and political reform—from my mediate conviction that there is corrigible injustice, that there are still wrongs to be righted, and that even if the poor, blacks, or Arabs turn their backs on me, as a Jew I have at least to understand the predicament of their unreason and their rage before I protect myself and fight back. And beyond this I am more and more persuaded that as a nation we have not yet awakened to the full consequence of the moral disaster of Vietnam, an exemplary model of political stupidity, moral cruelty, and domestic deformation. It might be well for American Jews to underscore rather more than they wish the resemblances between the Germans who invented the death camps and the horrific American ingenuity in Vietnam, lest by denying their metaphysical and moral identity they make it more and more difficult for Americans to recognize and accept their own proper guilt. It is, in other words, easy for anyone to rationalize that all they did was follow orders. As Jews and Americans we have the obligation of sharing with our fellow citizens our understanding of what happens when a nation flees its conscience and what befalls the victims when the moral voice is powerless.
I am not a political analyst, only a political animal, and an amateur at that. I think of my interests but I am not led by them. That, I confess, is mysterious to me. I should be! Most Americans I know allow their politics to be determined by their interests. For some reason I do not. And there are many American Jews I know who are similarly unsynchronized. It has something indubitably to do with the complex interplay of Jewish tradition, conscience formation, and the secular ego, but I am not at all sure how it works. That it works I have no doubt.
It is true, surely, that Jews have been historically voting adjuncts of the Democratic party. I suspect that they will remain so in overwhelming numbers, but why should this change? Should Jews become Republicans because they doubt that the liberal agenda is any longer viable or because they identify that agenda with the Democratic party? And to whom should they turn? Republican promises and prospects are no less fragile than those of the familiar Democratic party, but at least Jews know their way around Democratic politics. Why try and get a berth in a new club, when the old one has their nameplates on front-row seats? Actually, I am being facetious. What I mean is that national debate, national scrutiny of our political order, should take place outside of the party structure. It should be authentic national debate, not party debate. If debate were to take place and if it were conducted with openness, clarity, discernment—in a word, authenticity—it would soon be accommodated to the platforms and deliberations of the parties. (A possible function of television in the national interest might well be such an updated version of The Federalist as an instrumentality of instructing and informing the national debate.) However, in the absence of such a national scrutiny—a scrutiny beyond and to the side of parties—it is my view that Jews will again support the candidate of the Democratic party. They may desert the liberal agenda; they might be conservative to their toenails, but it will take some heroic imagining in the Republican party or some well-concerted drive to self-destruction among the Democrats to move Jews out of the party of the New Deal. That’s the last time Jews voted their interests and they’ve not yet forgotten it.
I’ve never been committed to the traditional liberal agenda. Since the 60’s, I’ve been committed to a single, simple idea: the concept of equality in America. But as a Jew, and as a journalist, my concept of what America is and how to achieve equality here has undergone a change.
That happened in the mid-70’s—long before the Andrew Young affair, long before I was aware that affirmative action was a serious issue.
I worked in the Mississippi civil-rights movement in the 60’s. Back then, I reflexively equated equality and integration. That was largely because I believed as an article of faith that America was a melting pot. By now, I’ve ceased to believe that the melting pot is a useful political metaphor.
That change of perception began in the 60’s when I witnessed the splintering of the civil-rights movement. A few years later, as a journalist, I came to know the Irish and the blacks who were fighting over busing in Boston, the Episcopalians and the Baptists who battled over the religious content of textbooks in West Virginia, the Italians and Hispanics who battled over a housing project in the Bronx. There was a very thin line between my abstract concept of justice or my assumption that the same institution could accommodate such diverse people—and each group’s concrete feelings of religious or ethnic loyalty. Soon I recognized some of these feelings in myself. As a Jew, I discovered I was more deeply attached to the poor elderly people on the Lower East Side than to any other group I’d written about; I found I admired a Polish-born Orthodox rabbi who lives in that neighborhood, who exists for the mitzvot he performs, more than any semi-public or public figure I’d seen. For me, meeting those people was like coming home.
As a result of all that, I’ve come to view America not as a melting pot, but as a collection of religious, ethnic, and professional tribes who coexist—often uneasily—on this continent.
I’ve ceased to equate equality and integration—they’re not inextricably connected. In order to achieve peace, I’ve come to feel, you have to mediate among tribal interests instead of using the sentimental 60’s language of brotherhood—or engaging in the destructive 70’s competition over which group is the most oppressed. Progress has to be realized through programs that promote economic—and physical—security. Once those things are realized, then people might have enough psychological security to work together and still retain pride in their own special ethnic identities.
That means, for example, that I support genuinely adequate neighborhood schools—schools that guarantee their students equality of opportunity—and have grave doubts about divisive programs like busing. It means that I’m committed to economic programs like fair energy prices. (Iran’s outrageous behavior has made it possible to focus on issues like battling OPEC, controlling the giant American oil companies, developing techniques for conservation—and to do so with a renewed sense of patriotism.) It means I’d rather see blacks and Jews unite in a war against crime—as they are doing in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn—than fight over the specter of a housing project—as they did in Forest Hills, Queens, in 1971.
So my idea of a sensible political agenda (call it radical, liberal, conservative—I don’t care) is to insist on the twin importance of economic democracy and cultural individuality.
Of course I am concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism—and about the fact that the world seems hostile to Israel. As it happens, my views are close to those of the Israeli Peace Now movement: I don’t see how Israel can govern the hostile population on the West Bank and still remain an open, democratic society. But I am convinced that most Americans—and most people in the world—have a double standard about Israel. Thus, for example, I used to be a fairly uncritical supporter of Cuba. I still think it is undeniably true that the Castro regime has made great economic improvements on the island. Nevertheless, there is no way in the world that I can feel much fondness for that country after Fidel Castro’s lurid attack on Zionism in the UN.
It is clear to me that, at Israel’s worst, it retains a sense of justice that is unknown in most of the world.
Some people will never believe that sentence: their dislike of Israel is so mindless and reflexive that you can’t convince them that their arguments rest on a double standard. Nevertheless, I think it is crucial for Zionists to insist that Israel’s democracy, its flawed but continuing effort to integrate a culturally diverse population, its solar energy program, its kibbutz movement make the country far more progressive, in a practical way, than most governments Third World spokesmen extol. The problem, for me, is that most American Jews have ceased to talk about Israel’s innovations. Instead, they sing Hatikvah, huddle behind the flag, and dismiss Israel’s uneasy friends—like Andrew Young—as well as its harsh critics, like Castro. They regard them all as rhetoricians, not as intellectual equals. I think that is imprudent, since I believe that Israel—and its American supporters—can win over most neutrals, and neutralize most opponents, through fearless, honest debate.
I’m not very happy about the word quotas, but I don’t see affirmative action as the unmitigated evil that most COMMENTARY writers do. It seems to me the most effective way to create a black and Hispanic middle class—which, I think, will create a degree of stability that is in everyone’s interest. Besides, as a practical matter, for every Jewish man affirmative action hurts, it will help a Jewish woman. So I’m not at all convinced that affirmative action has any relationship to the fear of anti-Semitism that haunts so many Jews.
From everything I’ve read and seen, anti-Semitism is a constant factor in a pluralistic world. In America, it waxes and wanes. Since no one knows the reasons, each of us might as well trust our own impulses about how to deal with it. Mine are that it is better to be progressive than reactionary, better to reach out than to turn inward. That way you make new friends and develop a realistic understanding of your enemies. You learn something important with each new contact.
Of course, you have to be true to your Jewish self, heeding dietary laws or observing the Sabbath if those things matter to you, insisting on the importance of Israel and the Holocaust if you live in a world where those realities are political issues.
Nevertheless, it is more sensible to confront the non-Jewish world face to face than to talk about it from the safe haven of a suburb or a magazine office. It is sensible to challenge other people’s biases with your own reality.
I know this response doesn’t have much to do with liberalism or with the Democratic or Republican parties. Those labels don’t concern me much, for tactical reasons or for political ones. I’m far more concerned, in my private life, with being a committed Jew and a brave, resourceful, compassionate human being.
Werner J. Dannhauser:
No 11th—or 614th—commandment exists to the effect that a Jew shall be a liberal. Attempts to demonstrate or even imply as much have always struck me as shallow or misguided. Jews have survived tolerably well under such non-liberal regimes as that of Franz Joseph in the Austro-Hungarian empire and that of the ill-starred Shah of Iran; and for Jews to fare even tolerably well is no matter of course.
While, however, we are not bonded to any particular kind of regime or modern “ism,” it would be absurd to deny that as Jews we tend to have certain elective affinities to liberalism. To exercise our Judaism or Jewishness at all we must be alive; to pursue our attempt to live under the dictates of our law we must flourish to some extent. No doubt can exist that in modernity, liberal regimes have treated Jews better than others have. A thinking Jew must simply find it harder than a thinking non-Jew to condemn either the French revolution or Napoleon, our benefactors. In addition, the centrality of law to Judaism might well predispose us especially to countries committed to the rule of law, perhaps even to countries where legalism prevails.
The above is a necessary but terribly abstract prelude to the questions asked of me as an individual Jew by COMMENTARY. My reflections might constitute an argument for a Jew’s thinking twice before he refuses allegiance to a liberal democracy, but such allegiance begins to the Right of Gold-water and ends to the Left of McGovern; it has little specific to do with a Jew’s relation to liberalism as it has come to be identified, and identifies itself, in today’s United States.
Let me, then, indulge in brief personal reflections as I answer COMMENTARY’s questions, though my own political development is for the most part quite unremarkable. How seriously have recent developments affected my own thinking about liberalism? They have hastened my estrangement from it, but my journey to the Right started long ago. I began by rooting for the Democratic party. I recall my first American political memory. As an eleven-year-old Jewish refugee in a modest Cleveland neighborhood, I thought of Wendell Willkie as a Nazi; so did most of the kids on the block. I proceeded to become radical enough so that in high school I was defending the Soviet Union even when it wasn’t being attacked, but I was saved by finding Habonim and Labor Zionism. My pink tint was permanently lost when, during the late 40’s, I witnessed the Wallace campaign, the Berlin blockade, and events in Czechoslovakia. Thereafter I became ever more fervently pro-Israel and anti-Communist, two views that grew ever more compatible. However, I remained a Democrat. Perhaps I was that atypical kind of liberal a teacher of mine characterized as supporting both the war on poverty and the war in Vietnam, but in this I was in good and ample company in the Democratic party.
In 1972, however, I was driven to vote for a Republican presidential candidate for the first—and up to now only—time in my life. Moreover, I was growing more and more disturbed by “my” party’s increasing patience with foreign enemies of liberty and its increasing impatience with the necesssary risks of domestic liberty. Still, I thought of my 1972 vote at least partly as a move to recall Democrats to their senses. In my mind’s eye the Democratic party continued to be characterized by exotic diversity, brawling energy, respect for minorities, and an unabashed sentimentality that could approach a kind of politics of love.
Now, I really do not know. The extra-legal sanctions against anti-Semitism have all but disappeared; it is becoming ever more fashionable to criticize Israel; and the Democratic party strikes me as tired, tired, tired. I am a member of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, but it is a symptom of Democratic weariness that the cochairmen of CDM—Senators Jackson and Moynihan, my kind of Democrats—should be so impermissibly permissive about the bid for the Presidency of Senator Kennedy, a man whose disqualifications are both ideological and trans-ideological.
So, I simply do not yet know what to do about my 1980 vote. I do not see how I can possibly support Brown, Kennedy, or Carter; I see no bright prospects for the Democratic party.
I have often thought about becoming a Republican and may well vote Republican in 1980. But I hesitate to become a Republican. Some of my reluctance is purely instinctual. I watch the national conventions on TV and am forever being forced to conclude that I just don’t belong among those worthy folks. What is more, business is not my business and corporations are not my cup of tea. Finally, I am put off by a party that can have Connally’s hostility to Israel on its respectable right wing and Percy’s hostility to Israel on its respectable left wing.
What choice, then, is left for me? I must become what I suppose I already am in part, a patient but intransigent independent who makes support for Israel a crucial precondition for granting his support. I do not think that this is merely a parochial Jewish stance, since the will of the West may well undergo its final testing as its support for Israel is tried. In general, I think that there is more to the issue of dual loyalty than we Jews have been willing to concede in the past, but at present there is no conflict whatsoever between my love of Israel and love of the United States. Both Israel and the United States are beleaguered liberal democracies with common enemies, and no liberal democracy has ever fought another liberal democracy.
Israel and the United States may, of course, come to experience increasing conflicts of national interest. I know that, and dread the possibility. I do not know what to do about it except to remain politically active on the one hand, while on the other hand pondering the Talmud’s wisdom in counseling us to “seek no intimacy with the ruling powers.”
Do I expect Jews as a group to undertake a reconsideration of their commitment to liberalism? I am a political scientist and the safest generalization about the predictions of political scientists is that they are always wrong, but I really do not expect such a reconsideration. I think that Jews will appear to be skittish for a while and then vote heavily Democratic in 1980. I find that prospect bleak, but these days I find almost all prospects for the future bleak. It will be a long wait for the Messiah.
In a World full of ambiguities and puzzlements, one thing is absolutely easy both to define and locate: that is the Jewish interest. The continued security—and in those happy places where the term applies, well-being—of the Jews, worldwide, rests with a strong, vital, prosperous, self-confident United States.
With respect to Jews living in the United States, of course, the above proposition ought to be so self-evident as to defy mention. But with respect to the Jews living elsewhere, preeminently Israel and the Soviet Union, it is hardly less so. The Soviet Jews depend on the U.S. to press for and oversee the emigration of those who wish to leave and to keep the Russians at least a little nervous about what they do to those who remain. A U.S. the Soviets did not respect, or let us more accurately say, from whom they felt they had nothing to fear, would now cost many Russian Jewish lives (and many others as well). And as for Israel . . . well, much as one might wish that the Israelis had to depend only on themselves—God knows they have earned the right—it is not to be.
What connection has this to the question of American Jews and liberalism? (Perhaps we should just make a clean breast of things and refer instead to the attitudes and policies of the left wing of the Democratic party, for that is what we mean.) For many years now, the symposium statement says, most American Jews have taken for granted that their own interests coincided with the standard liberal agenda. The story, I believe, is somewhat more complicated than that; permit me to offer my version. For years American Jewish interests did coincide with the interests of American liberalism; for that liberalism was in domestic matters pluralistic, flexible, committed in principle, and growingly in practice, to large new opportunities for the meritorious—all conditions beneficial to Jews—and in foreign policy committed to strengthening the free world and containing the spread of Communist totalitarianism—it goes without saying, beneficial to Jews and a sine qua non for the establishment of Israel. Then two things happened: first, a number of highly privileged as well as highly visible Jews began to feel—it was precisely a mark of their newfound sense of security—that they were now called upon to transcend “mere” interest and be the wise prophets and legislators for mankind as a whole; and second (the exact degree of causal connection between these two phenomena I leave for others to calibrate), the liberal agenda itself began to change. “Change,” indeed, is not the word; took a full one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn would be a better description. Abandoning the old pluralism and flexibility, liberalism, too, became a fount of higher truth and prophecy, truth and prophecy naturally vouchsafed only to those select few who had proven themselves able to adjudicate the needs and rights of others. Domestically, this new liberalism proclaimed that American society was sunk in sin and would be required to make massive atonement, beginning with a denial of both virtue and value to the usual standards of meritorious performance and ending with nothing less than a reduction in the national standard of living. And in foreign affairs, the corresponding proclamation was that the United States was neither powerful enough nor morally creditable enough to continue to play its role as world leader.
Obviously this new kind of liberalism is not in the Jewish interest, and what is more, the Jews all know it. Whatever weakens America weakens them—it is as simple as that. (How this liberal revision got sold to the blacks as being more in their interest than the old growth-oriented, pluralistic merit system is a profoundly sad, possibly nasty, and certainly fateful story of our time—but one for another day.) Even those “beautiful of soul,” as the Israelis so ironically and so aptly call them, who have “liberated” themselves from concern for the narrow Jewish interest and think instead about love and peace for all mankind, have done so in the serene and self-indulgent confidence that the U.S. will remain rich and strong and that others will look after the dirty details of power for them.
In any case, this new liberalism is bad for the Jews not only because it endorses quotas, has come to extend its highly selective tolerance to anti-Semitism, and regards the PLO (as it once regarded the Vietcong) as a worthy instrument for national self-chastisement. It is above all bad for the Jews because it is bad for the whole country. It has disrupted our delicate civic arrangements, it has distorted our political process, it has undermined our sense of life and tried (unsuccessfully, I believe) to devalue our love of country, it has apologized for crimes against us and our friends, it has taken satisfaction in our humiliation, and it is in general sapping our vitality.
I sense that the “reconsideration” the statement speaks of is already taking place in the Jewish community, no doubt accompanied by some degree of confusion. For among other things, the Jews are losing their home in the Democratic party, a loss that comes hard. Their identification with the old liberalism puts them now in that no-man’s-land we call the Center, whose locale, and leadership, has not yet been settled on. I don’t think that 1980 will be a problem for them, however. If, as now seems likely, the Democratic nomination goes either to Carter or to Kennedy, I predict a Republican landslide in which the Jews, along with hordes of others disgusted by the spectacle we have lately presented to the world, stoutly take part.
Would such a defection become permanent? Who knows? There is in the offing, if it is not too late, a renaissance of American power. If it comes, when it comes, party won’t matter, for it will surely be bipartisan (unless the Democrats wish to commit suicide).
And we will all, Jews at the head of the line, cheer up. And some of us will promise never again to stray.
I am a Jew who continues to think himself a liberal—of sorts. Until fairly recently, I must say, I have been a better liberal than Jew, at least from the standpoint of observance of ritual. I have never kept kosher but I often argued for the efficacy of strong central government; at no time did I ever attend synagogue regularly, but I never doubted the value of welfare programs and foreign aid. What would this make me? A Reform Jew and an orthodox liberal? Funny, I hear someone saying, he doesn’t look liberal.
Yet my Jewishness—I do not say Judaism—and liberalism were early intertwined. Ours was not a particularly political family, but in my father’s home Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a considerable hero, less for his Depression programs than for his internationalism, which is to say, for getting the United States to participate in a war whose backdrop was the slaughter of millions of European Jews. For the same reason that Roosevelt was a household god, the Chicago Tribune, with its publisher’s isolationist position on the war, was not allowed past our door. Conveniently, the Chicago Tribune was Republican and right wing; FDR, Democratic and left wing. Even though I was only eight years old at the end of the war, this early political inoculation took and was to last some thirty years.
I can recall, the whole of my youth, only a single Jewish friend whose father was a Republican (he was on the board of directors of a small steel company, and, for what it is worth, was an observant Jew). But for the rest, Jews were Democrats, and hence liberals of one shade or another, with Jewish Republicans about as common as Jewish trapeze acts. Voting Democratic seemed a natural, almost a Jewish, thing to do, and here I must confess that I have yet to vote Republican, at any rate for the Presidency. Not that the Democrats have made it easy.
I voted, for example, for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and secretly hoped he would not be elected. If he had been elected, I thought (and think still), he would have been unable to satisfy the altogether unreal demands of the then rioting youth and the more strident blacks, and the result would have been to split the country even further apart. I believed that an unsympathetic figure such as Richard Nixon would be better for quieting things down—and, Watergate notwithstanding, so he, Nixon, proved: an instance, perhaps not all that rare in politics, of the wrong man showing up at the right time. Of course, nearly twenty years of Nixon-hating, another liberal ritual observance, made voting for him impossible for me. As soon ask an Orthodox Jew to wash down a pork chop with a nice glass of buttermilk.
My general point is the perhaps too obvious one that my liberalism had much of its origin in my being born a Jew. But Jewishness also, in a curious way, reinforced such radicalism as I felt in my twenties. As a young man with intellectual interests, one of my greatest intellectual passions was for the history of revolution, though, because I had fortunately happened upon the writings of Sidney Hook, I was never sympathetic to Communism in any form. Still, as an intellectual, I took a certain unearned pride in the fact that so many revolutionary intellectuals—Trotsky, Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, even the anti-Semitic Karl Marx himself—were Jews. I used to wonder how it was that Lenin was not a Jew. Where once I thought these men and women a heroic lot, I now think them—apart from the intrinsic interest of their individual lives—in no way worthy of admiration. The sum of their efforts has been greatly to add to the misery in the world.
The archetypal story of the Jews and the Left is told in I. J. Singer’s magnificent novel, The Brothers Ashkenazi. In that novel, it will be recalled, young Jewish intellectuals help organize a revolt among workers whose energies end by being turned into a pogrom against the Jews of Lublin. So on a broader scale I now think that all the liberal arguments put forth by Jews such as myself in favor of the United Nations seem to have resulted in the UN resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism. I think, too, of all the old liberal arguments in favor of foreign aid to Third World nations, and of how today almost all these nations, the great majority of them led by clownish or malevolent men, are lined up against Israel. Again, the advancement of minorities, which has traditionally been a goal of Jewish liberals, is now to be brought about through quotas, chiefly at the expense of Jews. As with the young Jewish revolutionaries of Lublin, so with the Jewish liberals in the United States, so much of what they have worked for they have lived to see redound against demonstrably Jewish interests.
I tend to agree, then, with what I take to be the underlying assumption of this symposium: that a strong contradiction is now apparent between being a Jew and being a certain kind of liberal—the kind of liberal, specifically, that Edward Shils has called “collectivistic.” Shils’s collectivistic liberal believes above all in the collectivity, and from this it follows that he believes in as large a role as possible for government. (Because he expects so much from government, all governments disappoint him, and so his politics have a strong antinomian caste.) He believes that the Russian revolution, the great hope of mankind, was moving along nicely till Stalin came to leadership. He still yearns for socialism, in a vague way—and vague it must remain, since socialism has nearly everywhere proved disappointing, if not disastrous.
If the radical’s chief political emotion tends to be that of rancor, that of the collectivistic liberal tends to be that of guilt. His is usually, though, guilt before the fact: the one thing he fears perhaps above all is that he should seem ungenerous in his opinions. It is this that forces him to stand weakly by while those who call themselves the “oppressed” say and do the most horrendous things, from acts of terrorism à la the PLO to the sillier rhetorical flourishes of those segments of the gay, feminist, and black movements that are at bottom separatist. It is his guilt, too, that allows him to believe—against all evidence—that everyone is created equal, and, believing this, to encourage the alteration of social arrangements—in the form of affirmative action, as quotas are called—in the name of this false premise. (A premise not to be confused with what seems to me a truer and more humane premise—that everyone is to be equally valued.) Standards may drop, quality may disappear, he, the collectivistic liberal, understands this, is willing to risk it, even if need be to accept it. He is a dreamy fellow, ready to pay all claims of injustice, past and present, real and imagined, while awaiting utopia.
From this portrait of the collectivistic liberal, I gather it will be sufficiently clear that I believe the ideas and notions I attribute to him ought to be discarded as soon as possible. Yet, be all this as it may, I still insist on thinking myself a liberal. I know that it has become fashionable among those the press has come to call neoconservative to speak of the politics of self-interest, and to quote James Madison in its behalf. But I do not think that self-interest needs the support of James Madison; it will take care of itself very nicely, as it always has. I think that liberalism has traditionally had a certain large-heartedness that is worth retaining; it is chiefly its old soft-headedness that needs to be lopped off.
Similarly, liberalism has for the most part been admirable in its emphasis on the importance of civil liberties and civil rights and those crucial principles which, taken together, comprise democracy. It is not that any respectable kind of conservatism wishes to rescind any of these principles, but liberalism has insisted upon them—and I think there is real value in its doing so. The point is not without significance for Jews. I know that it is both as a liberal and as a Jew that I care about the future of Israel. As a Jew, I care about Israel for reasons both tribal and self-interested. “Of all men,” the Zionist and historian Sir Lewis Namier wrote, “the Jew alone has to account for his presence, and he who can be called upon to justify that, stands condemned before he is judged.” The presence of Israel, Namier knew, made it no longer necessary for the Jew in the Diaspora to account for his presence in the same way. Hence its importance to all Jews. As a liberal, I care about Israel because I care about democracy—and about democracies in a world in which they are becoming fewer and fewer. Israel, in fact, is a chilling example of where the politics of self-interest can have a deadly effect. Non-liberals who are also non-Jews cannot be expected to have the same self-interest in the survival of Israel that I, a liberal and a Jew, do. Is it not—as some American politicians are already hinting it is—in America’s self-interest to abandon Israel and go for the oil?
Now, not having responded very precisely to the opening statement, allow me to go on to ignore almost completely the questions posed by the editors. Although some of these questions offer a true temptation to punditry, I think I had better back off. My guess is that the Jewish community in general—here I must own up to not knowing it very well in particular—will vote in 1980 roughly as I shall, making the best possible compromise between my traditional liberalism and what I construe to be my self-interest. As for any significant movement away from the Democratic party in 1980 on the part of Jews, I suspect that the Republicans, as usual, will do their best to block off that possibility. Not that, for me, the Democrats seem very promising. I see no reason to reward President Carter’s drab performance with my vote; Kennedy, the great white hope of the proponents of collectivistic liberalism, I do not consider a reasonable alternative. The front-running Republicans seem, at the moment, no better. First there is John Connally, whose self-interest, though well developed, certainly isn’t my self-interest; then there is Ronald Reagan, who often gives artful expression to the belligerence that I myself too often feel nowadays against the world but still know ought to be repressed. In sum, I think you will be able to recognize me on election day again this year. I shall be the fellow who comes out of the voting booth frowning.
The alleged anatomical deficiencies of liberals are well known: hearts that bleed, knees that jerk, absent guts. But it is time to turn the other chic. The hard noses of the New Right sniff away, but all they smell is smoke; their unblinking eyeballs see only straw men.
I do not recognize the “recent developments” which frame the symposium question. The “widespread support” among liberals for quotas? None at all for quotas; widespread, perhaps, for affirmative action, but very, very shallow. Nor does such support as liberals lend to affirmative-action programs put them at odds with the Jews; the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the umbrella organization of American Jewry for such matters, endorses affirmative action, as does each of its member agencies. The “diminishing enthusiasm among liberals for Israel”? Which liberals? Is Ramsey Clark still thought a liberal? Is he more representative than Tom Hayden or Lane Kirkland, whose enthusiasm is undiminished? Is not the fate of the recent Stevenson amendment, which sought to reduce Israel’s foreign-aid allocation by $100 million—and which received a total of seven supporting votes in the Senate—a better test of liberal support for Israel? And if there has been some attrition in that support, is the attrition not more readily explained by the policies of Israel’s right-wing government than by alleging a liberal romance with the PLO? Where is the evidence that there is growing sympathy for the PLO among American liberals? Jewish and non-Jewish liberals in this country continue to discriminate sharply between the Palestinians and the PLO; the recent New Outlook conference in Washington, where the American participants invited the criticism of some of their more radical Israeli colleagues by insisting on the distinction, attests the stance of liberals on the matter. And who are the liberals that failed to protest the anti-Semitism that followed on Andrew Young’s resignation? The general liberal response was deep disappointment at the unhappy circumstances and the ugly consequences; Jewish liberals, for their part, have rarely behaved with such solid self-respect. There was no effort to plead with the blacks for forgiveness, no sign of groveling. The Jews stood firm and unapologetic, behaved quite sensibly, and, as a result, helped restore the relationship with liberal black organizations.
Jewish liberals are, indeed, in crisis, but not for the reasons cited in the symposium statement. They are in crisis because liberalism is in crisis, not because there are important differences between Jewish interests and liberal interests. There are no such differences; the allegation that there are implies a misunderstanding of Jewish interests as liberals define those interests.
American Jews—and South African Jews and English Jews and French Jews and German Jews, in their day—supported liberal parties and programs. The original calculus of Jewish self-interest was straightforward: the parties of the Right were anti-Semitic. In the United States, a variety of additional circumstances promoted the association of Jews with liberalism, and with its principal vehicle, the Democratic party: Roosevelt fought the Nazis, Truman recognized Israel; the Democrats managed the cities, where Jews lived; the Republicans were isolationists. Over time, the association became self-sustaining; Jews came to positions of influence and power in the Democratic party, and enjoyed the fruits of their investment in that party.
But more than a politics of self-interest and of kindred disposition is here involved.’ The Progressive party in South Africa is hardly a vehicle for the promotion of Jewish self-interest, and the party of Ernest Bevin in England might be thought less naturally congenial to Jews than the party of Winston Churchill. Yet the Jews support these liberal parties there as they do here. Self-interest conventionally understood does not provide an adequate explanation for this widespread and enduring phenomenon. No, the explanation is, first, that Jewish liberals are still, obstinately, seized of a notion of social justice that will not give them rest, and, second, that Jewish liberals still believe that Jews are safest where the social peace is stablest, and that the social peace is best assured by the politics of amelioration which has been the program of the moderate Left in the West for decades.
That is hardly a straightforward calculus. It is a complex assessment, a graft of social theory, moral passion, and political conception; it results in a politics of conviction rather than convenience. Jews do not expect to benefit directly from the welfare programs they endorse or from the tax policies they support. But they do expect that a politics of equity is both the right thing to do and the best defense against chaos, and it is chaos that Jews fear.
The symposium statement confuses liberal programs with the wildness of the New Left. Liberals have enough authentic confusions of their own without having these smears imposed upon them. We are confused, for example, about the Soviet Union. The classic liberal position was the soft line. But after Budapest and Prague, and especially after the crudeness of Soviet behavior in the Middle East—to say nothing of Shcharansky—the old instinct does not serve. There is, simply, no liberal consensus on this, the most significant component of our foreign policy.
Nor can much be said for the liberal consensus on domestic policy. The post-Great Society disillusionment with large-scale government programs continues, and we still do not know whether the replacement of naive faith in the utility of government intervention by skepticism regarding the benefits of such intervention is a step toward maturity or toward emptiness.
And there are issues where we suffer less from confusion than from a sense of failure. The most notable of these is the matter of crime—an issue, incidentally, which touches many more Jews than affirmative action does. (Whatever the merits of affirmative-action programs, it is almost surely the case that Jews suffer less dislocation as a result of those programs than almost any other group in American society. The places the minorities in their largest numbers are getting are rarely the places Jews want to be.) Liberal programs for dealing with crime appear to have been useless, and there is little satisfaction in knowing that illiberal programs have worked no better.
So there is a liberal crisis, one which touches both Jewish and non-Jewish liberals in equal measure. But the consequence is hardly a Jewish turn to the Right. Save for the pages of COMMENTARY, there is no evidence of such a turn; the much-heralded neoconservatism has won attention rather than recruits. Disappointed Jewish liberals have simply dropped out of political activity. They remain committed to traditional liberal goals, but are deeply uncertain as to how those goals may best be pursued. They remain disposed to vote against their private economic interest for the sake of the greater good, but the zest is no longer there. It is hard to work up a feeling of large ambition in a domain which is so filled with lies and postures, in a domain where the best and the brightest provoke disasters, in a domain so muddled as our government appears to be. And we are still exhausted from the traumas of the last decade. It will take some time, and some experience of success, and some new ideas, and some people who can articulate those ideas persuasively before we gallop off once more. But that is very different from suggesting that a major reconsideration of the Jewish commitment to liberalism is under way. Issue by issue, there is debate and there is change. That is as it should be and as it has been: liberals rarely conform to the mindless caricatures which their opponents so delight in limning.
The liberal predilection remains intact, and sometimes even passionate, and there is even some fun in the offing: the new conservatives surely make worthier adversaries than their predecessors. One wishes only that they were a bit less predictable; these days, while liberal reflexes are badly dulled, it is the right knee that jerks with dreary regularity; the promise of freshness is most unevenly fulfilled, and what poses as criticism is too often just crankiness.
I disagree with the suggestion that American Jews are only now questioning their commitment to what is called the “standard liberal agenda.” The reconsideration of the traditional Jewish commitment to liberalism, which COMMENTARY anticipated and has reflected in its pages, has been under way for about a decade. The only new development is that some recent events—the Andrew Young affair above all—have posed the issues that are distressing Jews more sharply than ever before.
The problem grows out of the fact that the liberal agenda which once served Jewish interests now threatens them—not because Jews or their interests have changed but because liberalism has. The two fundamental tenets of the old liberalism, equality of opportunity and anti-Communism, have quite literally been turned on their heads by the new liberalism. Accordingly, “true” equality, now defined as equality of reward for all ethnic groups, requires inequality of opportunity for individuals, since fair competition based on merit must not be allowed to produce unequal group results. Similarly, in the post-Vietnam era, liberal anti-Communism has given way to the principle of anti-anti-Communism and to the advocacy of American retrenchment abroad.
All this is well known. The relevant point for this discussion is that on both counts Jewish interests have clashed with the new liberalism. Whatever else might be said about the unconstitutionality of quotas or their harmful effects on educational and work standards and on the fabric of democratic society, the simple fact is that quotas inevitably hurt Jews because they amount to a discriminatory restriction on the oportunity of Jews to advance in American society. It is just as clear that liberal isolationism is bad for Israel, which needs a strong America to deter the Soviet Union and to maintain a military and political equilibrium in the Middle East.
For a time, many Jews refused to see any contradiction between Jewish interests and the new liberalism. They not only identified with the new liberalism but helped provide leadership for the McGovern movement and similar political tendencies. Some continue to do so, and many Jews still retain an emotional attachment to “liberalism.” But the realities of the situation have badly strained these loyalties. For every Bella Abzug or Elizabeth Holtzman or Stephen Solarz, there are many other Jews who are beginning to wonder how Jewish interests are served by the sacrifice of the merit principle or the abdication of American power and responsibility abroad. What the Young affair showed is that Jews can’t eat their cake and have it. They were attacked because, as Jews, they stood in the way of the new liberal agenda.
But it is not only Jews who stand in the way of this agenda; America does, too, at least the idea of America as a good society. The new liberalism, it will be remembered, did not spring full-blown into the world, but emerged during a period of protest against America. Quotas and isolationism represent two expressions of the idea that America is an unworthy society guilty of having committed egregious wrongs against both its own citizens (to whom reparations are now due) and foreign nations (which are to be spared the exercise of American power). In a word, the new liberalism called upon America to do penance for its sins.
There can be little doubt that the rhetoric of self-flagellation is wearing thirl at a time when America is being subjected to humiliating assault by fanatic mullahs. But while the new liberalism finds little resonance for its ideas among the American people, it is well entrenched in key sectors of our society and is hardly about to concede defeat. One has only to consider for a moment that all three candidates now competing for the Democratic presidential nomination, while coming from different regions of the country, are cut from the same new-liberal cloth.
Having said this, though, I would add that we are living in a time of momentous events which could produce unanticipated changes in American politics. The political tendency that is most amenable to Jewish interests—the liberalism, if you will, of Senators Jackson and Moynihan—retains a position of influence in the Democratic party, and it would be premature and possibly very short-sighted to conclude that it cannot regain the ascendancy. In any event, Jews should want to see this tendency revive, and not just because this would serve their immediate political interests. The country is now entering one of the most difficult periods in its history, above all with respect to foreign policy, and it is hard to see how we will be able to manage without something approaching a national consensus in favor of reversing the decline of American power. Such a consensus is not possible without a clear repudiation of isolationism by the Democrats.
The political challenge facing American Jews today would not be so formidable if they were just being asked to accept or reject liberalism. In fact, the real challenge is to promote the revival of a sense of national cohesion and purpose. Because Jewish and American needs coincide in so many important respects (for precisely the same reason that Jews lack a common ground with the new liberalism), Jews can help meet the challenge to America in the course of defending their own interests. By the same token, these interests must be understood in the broad context as consistent with the well-being of America and the future of democracy.
The Jewish-black alliance, as well as the Jewish connection with the liberal mainstream of the Democratic party, have been breaking up now, one way or another, for a long time. But it is surprising how long it takes any political connection to break up, and how long people stick with alliances that no longer, it would seem, reflect their interests. So, I would say, yes, Jews are shifting away from the “standard liberal agenda” and the alliance with blacks, but it is premature to expect many Jews to start voting Republican in presidential elections. And perhaps, even as they notice that one kind of interest no longer binds them to blacks, or to Democrats, they may find that other interests still keep them from turning to the Republicans.
The interests that make the Democratic and black connection anachronistic are economic interests. But contradictions between Jewish economic interests and the standard liberal agenda have been evident now for some twenty-five years and have not yet done much to move the mass of American Jews away from their willingness to support candidates who promote that agenda. Jews have for decades numbered relatively few workers, so they shouldn’t have cared about strengthening trade unions. There has been almost no Jewish lower class, so they shouldn’t have cared about welfare. It’s true that since Jews are such an aged population they want more social security and Medicare, and this is one interest that still links them to the liberal agenda, but that doesn’t amount to much when one considers the interests that should lead them to oppose that agenda. Jews have been, disproportionately, businessmen and self-employed professionals, who are also small businessmen. They should have been against higher taxes and government spending, for tax breaks to business, against government regulation of business. But whatever the promptings of their economic interests, Jews have supported the party that wants to increase government spending, expand benefits to the poor and lower classes, impose greater regulations on business, support the power of organized labor.
Clearly for Jews there has been no one-to-one connection between economic interests and political positions, and the reason is that Jews have more than economic interests that can be read off from their occupations and incomes at any particular time. They have a more basic interest in Jewish security, and from this basic interest yet other interests arise—ideological interests, if you will, which give them a picture of the world and tell them in what kind of world they would be most secure. It is the security interests and the ideology that has developed around them that keep most Jews securely connected to the moderate Left, and while there have been some blows and shocks to this connection, increasing since 1967, I don’t think most Jews are yet convinced it is time for a basic change.
Beneath the cruder pocketbook concerns that activate other groups (as well as, of course, Jews), Jews must worry about anti-Semitism and the safety of Israel. Anti-Semitism does not seem much of an issue now, but it is a constant concern, and it may be strengthened as frustration over gasoline shortages and economic failure rises. The American people, amazingly enough, still don’t believe there’s a “real” shortage. Up till now they seem to have been willing to blame the oil companies for their discomfort, but the kind of irrationality that prevents the recognition of the most obvious reality may turn against Jews, who so demonstratively support Israel. When it comes to anti-Semitism, and despite the vagaries of the New Left, Jews feel safer with Democrats. And it doesn’t affect this feeling to argue—and one could from public-opinion polls—that blacks are more anti-Jewish than white small-town Protestants and big business, the typical supporters of the Republican party. A long history makes Jews more comfortable with the typical Democratic presidential candidate than with the typical Republican candidate. The Democrats, after all, are the party of the big cities and the minorities. (In this sense, McGovern and Carter were not “typical” Democratic candidates.) The automatic Jewish assumption has also been that the Democrats will be “safer” on Israel, but this has been weakening—there did not seem to be much difference between McGovern and Nixon, and Ford and Carter. But Connally’s recent statement will send many Jews who were tempted by the Republicans scurrying back to the Democratic fold.
Security interests have for two decades been outweighing economic interests. And so, two questions: Should they? And if they should, does that mean that Democrats deserve Jewish trust more than Republicans?
On the first, the answer is clear: yes, security interests should outweigh economic interests. Jews can afford to be somewhat less prosperous if that means a more stable society with less danger of anti-Semitism and a solider American commitment to Israel’s security. But on the second question—I simply am not so sure. Both parties are changing (they always do). Both are fairly close to each other in major policies (and even closer to each other in their actual policies when in office).
The ideal Jewish choice, of course, is the conservative Democrat—one who is immune to the New Left animus against Israel abroad and businessmen at home, and who is firm in his commitment to Israel’s security. (Of course, we understand by “conservative” Democrat today the former “liberal” Democrat of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, displaced from his central position by the turmoil of the late 1960’s.)
A shift all the way to the Republicans would be too hard to expect of most Jews: it takes a long time to change political habits, and maybe there are good underlying gut reasons why they are not changing. But the conservative Democrat in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey would be ideal—if he had a chance.
COMMENTARY has framed the question for this symposium in a way that reminds me how times have changed, even if I, and my views, have not. My own “thinking as a Jew”—and as a Labor Zionist—never assumed that the Jewish interest coincided with any standard liberal agenda. The divergence always struck me as more significant, even before the liberal agenda changed. What has also changed is the willingness of old-line Jewish liberals like the editors of COMMENTARY to speak about Jewish interests as an accepted, obvious fact of American politics.
The “anti-Semitism that surfaced in the wake of Andrew Young’s resignation” consists essentially in the refusal to recognize Jewish interests as legitimate in American politics—or, for that matter, in general. One of the hurtful accusations some black leaders hurled against Jews after Young’s resignation was that Jewish participation in the civil-rights struggle had not been altruistic but a matter of self-interest. The implication is that black self-interest in the civil-rights struggle—or, for that matter, in Andrew Young’s career-not only is legitimate in itself, but legitimates Jewish political activity; whereas Jewish political activity in the Jews’ own interest is not only illegitimate special pleading but justifies the suspicion of “dual loyalty.” There was a day when Jews themselves shared such views in America, and it is a heartening sign of the times to see Jewish interests taken for granted as a legitimate object of political action.
While I must oppose every suggestion, from whatever quarter, that denies Jews the equal right to act politically in their own interest, this alone does not suffice to define a political orientation. Jews as well as blacks, and—to be more current, as well as more pertinent—the neo-Republican John Connally as well as political activists on the Left, have labeled Jewish political action on behalf of Israel a disservice to American interests (identifying American interests, often enough, with their own). To the extent that my Jewish concerns have influenced my voting behavior, I have found myself in great difficulty during several past elections finding any candidate worth supporting. Since my other concerns lead to much the same conclusion, I have tended to opt out of the whole process, and if I can judge by myself, a considerable part of the Jewish electorate would like to do the same, if they could break the habit.
Also, I like to distinguish between the Jewish interest and the interests of Jews. Defending the security of Israel belongs to the Jewish interest because, in my opinion, Jewishness becomes increasingly problematic under the condition of life as a minority. As I remarked above, this consideration does not suffice to give an unequivocal direction to American Jewish political action; for American politicians of every description are more or less equally inclined to make fair campaign promises in favor of the Jewish interest and to disregard them after the election.
The other development referred to, the “widespread support among liberals for quotas,” does not belong as clearly to the Jewish interest: i.e., the interest defined by the appropriate direction desired for the future of Jews as an ethnic entity. It is far from certain that as a group we have benefited from the predilection of Jews, whether American, Russian, or Iranian, for high-status, high-income occupations. Nevertheless, we are obliged to defend the interests of Jews and defend their rights to equality of opportunity whatever the ill effects, or dubious advantage, from a more general point of view.
In the same way, the black consensus is bound to defend the career interests and ambitions of its Andrew Youngs and Jesse Jacksons, however little the real group interest is involved in their overtures to the PLO. Status is involved in both the black and the Jewish case, and for groups still denied, or only recently granted, equality or equal opportunity, threats to status are danger signals to which they are highly sensitive. Blacks see racism in any resistance to the status they seek and Jews see anti-Semitism in any attempt to deprive them of the status they have achieved; and in both cases what is perceived as racism or anti-Semitism has a decisive impact on the political response of the group affected.
Blacks and Jews have supported the Democratic party coalition more steadily and more decisively than any other element in it, even though not they but Southern Wasps and the Catholic ethnics of the big cities control it. Both Jews and blacks have cause to complain that their interests have been neglected by the coalition; and if it were a true coalition, a specific compact among organized and cohesive groups, there might have to be some hard bargaining before it could be reconstituted. But as there are no such effectively organized communal organizations, neither Jewish nor black, any bargaining done will take into account primarily the career chances of leaders who serve as symbols of group interests, not their authorized advocates. Beyond that, voting patterns will again reflect the unreflective, habitual, or emotive responses of those who vote, based on the image projected by one or another candidate.
If we can rely on poll findings, we may expect both Jews and blacks to vote for the Democratic coalition and the liberal agenda. But it is not certain that we can indeed rely on the polls. The patterns of past voting may still represent the intentions poll respondents are ready to report, but the undercurrents of dissatisfaction, which have been evident in several past elections, are capable of breaking through without prior signals in the polls. This time might well be the time when the long anticipated realignment of Jewish votes to accord with Jewish social-economic class distribution actually occurs; depending, of course, on the candidates chosen by the parties and the propensity of Jewish voters to identify with, or against, the image they present to the electorate.
The times call for a reconsideration. Indeed it may be too late. Viewed in retrospect, the standard liberal agenda as defined in the 1930’s did not prove wanting; but Jews and other Americans drifted away from it unreflectively and without awareness of the consequences. The objectives of Louis D. Brandeis, Herbert Lehman, and Louis Marshall were appropriate to generations close to their immigrant origins, alive to the uses of power, and conscious of the realities of working-class life within which most Jews still found themselves before 1940. With affluence and the shift into professional and para-intellectual occupations, reality receded, transforming liberalism from a hard, often painful, array of commitments into a soft, comforting bundle of nostalgic sentiments. Three changes, among others, illustrate the distortion of the standard liberal agenda.
Freedom into permissiveness. Fifty years ago, the liberal agenda included measures to free individuals and groups from irrational restraints inherited from the past and serving the interests or prejudices of the privileged. Discrimination, censorship, and inequality of opportunity were among the visible targets, against which broad sectors of the politically active mobilized. But the liberals of John Dewey’s generation never believed that success in those efforts would lead to the disappearance of all restraints and responsibilities. Perhaps naively, perhaps with undue optimism, they expected the elimination of the old to make room for new, voluntarily generated, rational, progressive relationships between the individual and the community, with standards of behavior even stricter than in the past because attuned to present needs. Repeal of Prohibition would reduce drunkenness, free speech would promote sober discussion and high literary art while discouraging pornography, enlightened divorce laws would strengthen the family, and equal opportunity would bring merit to the fore. The distinction between ends and means was clear in anticipation.
Alas, not in the general development! All those careful distinctions vanished with the tidal flow of material objects which swept across the American landscape after 1950. The abandonment of old restraints too often meant the abandonment of all restraints. In a culture increasingly devoted to sensation, gratification of immediate wants became the supreme, often the sole, criterion of good; and individuals devoted to mindless egocentric hedonism spared little thought for what they owed their neighbors. Little-used faculties shrank from the intellectual effort needed to distinguish between the freedom to publish Ulysses and the freedom to exhibit Deep Throat, between divorce as a recourse against intolerable abuse and the “split kit” that permitted separation at whim. And in the end, of course, self-indulgence without reference to responsibilities to others only deepened the frustration of some and drove others to cultist obscurantism.
Jews were not quicker to embrace the new ways of life than other peoples of the same income levels and places of residence. But since Jews were heavily concentrated in the cities and the occupations most susceptible to the new trends, they were particularly prominent among the protagonists, and especially when so identified in the most popular cultural media—novels, television, movies. More important, family structure and religious identity, the historic defenses against analogous trends in the past, did not now protect Jews. Neither the well-defined traditional hostility to epicureanism, nor the insistence upon the purposeful character and the connectedness of human experience saved many from surrender to the temptations of immediate sensation. For them as for others, freedom ceased to be deliberate rational choice, became indiscriminate yielding to impulse.
From moral decision to utopianism. Anyone can vote for the angels against the devils. Such is not usually the choice presented. Much more real and much more difficult is the need to decide between more-than-less good and less-than-more evil. Brandeis, like Dewey, was against war, but in 1917 supported Wilson against the Kaiser.
Somewhere liberals lost the ability to make that kind of choice. Survey the gallery of their overseas villains since 1950—from Syngman Rhee to the Shah of Iran. Ask: are they really worse than the genuine, the only alternatives—from Kim II Sung to the Ayatollah Khomeini? Few Americans would answer in the affirmative.
The passionate condemnation lavished on the rogues was utopian. No consideration of the best available, of as good as possible under the circumstances, could stand against an abstract standard detached from time and place. To affirm the absolute virtue of a peace-loving, humane, liberal democracy in Iran in 1978 or in Korea in 1951 was beside the point and obscured the actual choke-between Kim and Rhee, between the Shah and the Ayatollah. And Jews who showed no more ability to make these distinctions than did other liberals of the 1960’s and 1970’s will also find it increasingly difficult to explain that the choice in the Middle East is not between peace-seeking refugees and belligerent Beginites, for again the application of utopian standards to the imperfections of one side conceals the width of the distance from the other.
Away from universalism. No change has been as curious and as abrupt. Even in the relatively isolationist 1930’s, liberals believed in the unity of the human kind, in the interdependence of people everywhere, and in the convergence of various social and political forms and values. By the 1940’s the rhetoric of one world was commonplace. Basic to this faith was the understanding that men and women everywhere were so alike that common norms, values, and expectations applied to them all.
It was true, of course, that cultural circumstances produced differences in practice. The swaddled Russian babies, anthropologists explained, were predisposed to authoritarianism; the German father image, psychologists pointed out, produced an obsession with order. Never mind. In time, convergence would bring them all together.
The evidence of the 1950’s and 1960’s was encouraging. Despite all the impedimenta of its culture, Japan evolved into a Western democracy. Russian babies, swaddled or not, grew up contributors to samizdat; and liberal values survived under adverse circumstances in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. And in the 1970’s we learned that despite the warnings of the experts about the weight of Confucianism, those same values splashed across the wall posters at the first lifting of Maoist repression. One would imagine that faith in universalism would never be stronger than now.
Not so fast! In fact, the application of identical standards and expectations around the world required a fortitude liberalism had lost. Neutralism bred habits of apology for regimes people did not wish to resist. Castro promised an election within six months; but Cubans had no interest in formal democracy, or Angolans, or Ethiopians—for that matter almost none of the liberated colonies. Nor in personal or intellectual freedom. The norms of laws and behavior valid for the United States and its allies somehow did not apply to people elsewhere; a common standard would have called for disturbing judgments and actions. Pictures of the boat people or of starving Cambodians evoked pity; but liberals sedulously refrained from reflecting about the regimes which produced those results. The implications were too uncomfortable to contemplate. If those wretched victims were of the same clay as we, did they not deserve what we desire, bread but also liberty?
Again, Jews did not differ from their peers. They should have, not only by virtue of what they should have learned from the Holocaust, not only from their stake overseas in Israel, but also from the prophetic faith in the brotherhood of man and fatherhood of God. At this late date in the 20th century it will take a traumatic shock to remind them of their heritage as Jews and as Americans.
Rita E. Hauser:
In addition to the disturbing developments cited in the questions posed by this symposium, which have surely enforced my prior thinking that the Jewish liberal in America has lost his political bearings, I have found myself for some years unable to answer an even more fundamental question: why has the Jewish liberal been in the vanguard of certain so-called reforms which, if enacted, would serve to diminish most considerably the influence American Jews could bring to bear on the political process? If American Jews collectively were stripped of political power, then it would matter very little indeed where they stood on any issue since, in toto, Jews represent a small percentage of the total voting electorate.
The first such “reform” has already been felt. The limitation on campaign contributions in federal elections to $1,000 per candidate has eliminated the strongest weapon the Jewish community exercised in influencing the selection of nominees in both political parties. John Connally could risk alienating Jewish Republicans by a profoundly anti-Israel position taken very early in the campaign season because, among other things, there were no heavy Jewish contributors weighing in, as was the case in the Nixon and Ford campaigns. Jewish liberal “reformers” were in the vanguard of those who supported this limitation on campaign contributions, perhaps ashamed of how money, yes, Jewish money, could count in the precarious days which mark the beginnings of any candidate’s venture.
Jewish liberals have also been in the forefront of those seeking, happily without success thus far, to eliminate the electoral college and replace it with a one-man/one-vote system which would reduce Jewish interests and issues for any presidential candidate to a bare minimum. Jewish votes matter because Jews are concentrated in states with the highest electoral count and, in a tight national election, such as the Ford-Carter race, a swing of just 1 or 2 per cent of the Jewish vote is the difference between victory and defeat. No presidential candidate in 1980 can afford to alienate a sizable percentage of the Jewish vote since there is no way he can win what will surely be a close election without a minimum 20-25 per cent of this vote in the key states.
Jewish liberals who support these “reforms,” who excuse black anti-Semitism, and who argue for a PLO-dominated state on the West Bank, must somehow believe they, and Jews in general, will be rewarded for their “good deeds” and moral stance at such time when Jewish political power in America is insignificant and when Israel will be in a position of strategic weakness. Since history teaches that political reality denies influence to those who are unable to exercise it, Jewish liberals who work for the diminishment of Jewish political power are dangerous people indeed. Many clear-headed Jews have moved away from such folly and now are able and willing to support Republican candidates, as well as more conservative Democrats. They understand that the first commitment of Jews today is to Jewish survival, and not to any outmoded dogma which does not seek to insure that aim. An intelligent Jewish voter really asks himself first and foremost that ancient question, “Is it good for the Jews?” Many Jews did not like Nixon, but in view of their perception that McGovern was indeed bad for the Jews, bad for Israel, and bad for America, over 35 per cent of them voted for Nixon in 1972. Despite Watergate, if that election were replayed today, the outcome, in my opinion, would be the same. Most Jews are intelligent enough to know that the standard liberal agenda no longer serves them well.
to begin with the last question, if there were to be a “significant movement away from the Democratic party in 1980,” where would Jews go? To a Republican party headed by that sturdy friend of the Jews (and Israel), John Connally? Or Ronald Reagan from the 19th century? Or George Bush from the CIA? Or the slippery Howard Baker? And whoever the Republicans choose will surely receive bountiful support, implicitly quid pro quo, from those other notable friends of the Jews (and Israel), the oil companies. As a believer in the notion of the “yiddisher kop,” it is difficult for me to envision many Jews making a move in that direction.
As for a reconsideration by the Jewish community of its traditional commitment to liberalism—to the end, perhaps, of trying to form a neoconservative swing bloc within the Democratic party in alliance with others of similar views—I assume COMMENTARY means an abandonment of much of the social-welfare programs on the “standard liberal agenda.” But how would this be good for the Jews? If there is yet more unemployment, even worse health care for the poor, the working class, and part of the middle class, what do backsliding, ex-liberal Jews gain? Except enmity, and justifiedly so—along with all other conservatives and neoconservatives. Aside from my persistent conviction that Jews care about justice, and not only for themselves, this turn to the Right makes no sense.
There is a somewhat more complex problem in turning from liberalism. Fundamental to my definition of that often foggy term is an addiction to civil liberties. Admittedly, some conservatives are more dependable than many liberals on these matters; but by and large, the Bill of Rights is more often in danger when anti-liberals are in power. So, if sizable numbers of Jews are to move to the Right, we’ll all be in trouble. Goyim too. On the other hand, I gloomily concede that if Edward Kennedy is the Democratic nominee, civil libertarians will have a difficult choice between voting Democratic or not voting at all. This shepherd of the grandson of S.l—yet another Kennedy version of the Criminal Code Reform Bill—has again enthusiastically demonstrated his denotative ignorance of constitutional liberties.
Still, even if Kennedy is elected, Jews who care about such things as the First and Fourth Amendments can be a good deal more effective in fighting off raids on the Constitution by joining with traditional liberal allies than in trying to gain converts among heathens elsewhere.
With regard to quotas, I am not that sure—having insufficient evidence and having been given none in the symposium statement—that there is widespread support among liberals for quotas. Which liberals? And is support of affirmative action always synonymous with support of quotas? In the DeFunis case, William O. Douglas did not think so. Indeed, from what I remember of recent polls, there are divisions among blacks on the matter of quotas.
But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that this particular COMMENTARY statement is based on real evidence. For those Jews opposed to quotas, what is the alternative—aside from holding one’s ground and trying to keep on making a constitutional case for that view? If Jews are to base future alliances on such criteria as whether their putative new associates are against quotas, consider the quicksands this will get Jews into. So John Connally and the rest of the Republican candidates are, so far as I know, against quotas. How much else on their agenda can Jews subscribe to?
The statement also contains an indictment of liberals for the paucity of their protest “against the anti-Semitism that surfaced in the wake of Andrew Young’s resignation.” It seemed to me that quite a few voices were raised. For one example, in the Village Voice, hardly known as a Zionist weekly, a great deal of type was devoted to that controversy, much more to the Jewish side than to the alleged anti-Semitism. I say “alleged” because except for a few anti-Semitic fusillades from a handful of quick roarers, the general black tenor of the Andrew Young aftermath was, as Dr. Kenneth Clark said, a “declaration of independence.” (With some it did not last too long.) But it would be mindless to regard this declaration as anti-Semitism. Nor did Clark, for example, in any way intend it as such. There is more than enough authentic anti-Semitism around without using something like this as a reason for marching away from liberalism. Again, where to?
Then there are the indictments of liberals (en masse, presumably) for their “diminishing enthusiasm for Israel” as well as their “growing sympathy” for the PLO. Once more, I wonder at the evidence for the latter and note the quite misleading imprecision of language in the former formulation. There are liberals, I expect, who agree with a growing number of Israelis that, sooner or later, Israel will have to negotiate, or try to, with the PLO because peace is made with enemies. But I am not aware of any mass defection among liberals from the conviction that the PLO is a collection of murderers.
As for dwindling enthusiasm for Israel, there is a profound difference between support of the national homeland and a rising fear that so long as Begin, and others with like views, are in command, Israel is a great danger unto itself. The ardent Zionists, many of them combat veterans, who make up the growing numbers of Israel’s Peace Now movement hold this belief. And there are now signs that, finally, an open debate will soon begin within a number of major American Jewish organizations as to Begin’s settlements policy, his fake “autonomy” proposals to the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and other stands that have indeed led to diminishing enthusiasm for the Begin government, but not for Israel.
I wish the questions had had more intellectual substance; but perhaps, given the nature of this agenda, that wasn’t possible. Once more, given our history and our intelligence, our commitment, as always, ought to be to make liberalism honest and to make it work.
From its beginnings two centuries ago in the era of the French revolution, liberalism has meant at least two things. It has contained a reformist majority and a doctrinaire left wing. In the 19th century, the heirs of Montesquieu and the Gironde became social democrats. Those who looked back to Robespierre and the Jacobins became revolutionary socialists.
Not every reformer in the last two centuries has liked Jews or wanted to help them increase their role in society, and many revolutionary socialists, such as Lenin, have fought against anti-Semites both of the Right and of the Left. Nonetheless, on balance, the revolutionary Left has had a marked and lasting tradition of imagining a new heaven on earth without Jews. The emancipation of the Jews, wherever it has occurred and has lasted, has been the work of centrist liberals.
A comparable analysis could be made of conservatism. Both English Tories and the Black Hundreds of Czarist Russia are termed conservatives, but there is a vast difference betwen ideologues who engage in repression and an aristocracy, such as the British, which sometimes “dished the Whigs” by moving over to accommodate new forces which might otherwise make revolution.
We are not now hearing of comparable tensions within liberalism for the first time in America. The Communists and even Norman Thomas, the leader of American socialism, remained in the 1940’s doctrinaire opponents of Zionism. The political and religious Left of today did not invent the rhetoric of anti-Zionism; it was to be found in the Christian Century of the 1930’s and 1940’s, against which Reinhold Niebuhr fought. The concreteness of Jews in their own right, which includes the commitment to Zionism and the economic profile of a group largely concentrated in managerial and professional roles, was attacked and reattacked a generation ago by people as diverse as Henry Ford and Father Coughlin; Jews are now attacked by both John Connally and Jesse Jackson.
Neither conservatism nor liberalism, if each is defined at its most extreme as a movement of either the revolution or the counterrevolution, is the political home for Jews. Jews have flourished best in Anglo-Saxon countries, in Britain and its former colonies, and, of course, in the United States, where an expanding capitalism, for which an untidy liberalism speaks, has made room for the rise of Jews into society.
What is most significant in America today is that, contrary to the phrase from Yeats that is so often quoted, the Center is holding. It is the task of Jews, for the peace of society and for their own sake, to help it hold. Jews—and fortunately not they alone—are working to find the middle ground. So most Jews are rightly for neither “affirmative action” nor the equally dangerous assertion that only “merit” must prevail. The most recent Supreme Court decisions have been muddled and not very satisfying. In that very muddle, there is more sense than in any clear-cut victories for one or the other side.
The unideological Center of American life remains committed to Israel, not as either a permanent forward bastion of the cold war or a permanent occupier of the West Bank. The mainstream of American opinion is no different from the Jewish consensus, both in Israel and the United States. Here, too, the ideologues of the Right and of the Left, Islamic Marxists, black nationalists, Gush Emunim, and so on, demand clarity based on their unvarying absolutes. There is no balm for Gilead in any of these doctrines, only in untidy accommodations.
In American politics Jews will no doubt remain largely in the Democratic party, but it is not unhelpful that there is a substantial representation now among the Republicans. In both camps, the weight of Jewish opinion and activity is in favor of the centrists.
There are, of course, Jews who find this discomforting. They prefer to dream dreams and see visions of a new world in the creation of which a Jewish political intelligentsia plays the priestly-prophetic role. Most Jews have, however, learned that Trotskys may serve the revolution of the Left brilliantly, but Jews are ultimately not safe within it. Comparably, the right-wing rulers of inter-war Poland did not protect their Jewish friends, even those who were, there in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the intellectuals of the Right.
America is today facing two fundamental problems: how to accommodate to a changed, and probably reduced, role for itself internationally and how to reorder its society to accommodate what is an increasing microcosm of the white-Western/Third World encounter.
For Jews to be on doctrinaire barricades on either side at this moment is to help increase the tensions and to run the danger of being swept away if the confrontations, especially the domestic ones, become sharper. America as a whole no longer controls events abroad. The Center must be made to hold at home.
I suspect that a fair number of the contributors to this symposium will object to the terms in which the issue has been posed, especially to the assignment of the title of “liberalism” to the deplorable practices described here. They will point out that historically and philosophically liberalism has been associated with individuality. How then can liberals be thought to favor quotas, which make group identification (race, sex, ethnicity) rather than individual merit the criterion for appointment or promotion? Historically and philosophically liberalism has been committed to free, democratic, representative institutions. How then can liberals be less than friendly to the only state in the Middle East which has such institutions? Historically and philosophically liberalism has relied on orderly rational discourse to resolve political differences. How then can liberals be tolerant of a movement that has made violence and murder the normal mode of political behavior? Historically and philosophically anti-Semitism has been the epitome of everything odious to liberalism, everything illiberal, irrational, benighted, bigoted. How then can liberals be insensitive or unresponsive to any excrescence of this sort?
All of this is true, and yet irrelevant—“academic,” as we say. For the fact is that liberalism today is not what it once was. Liberals today—people who identify themselves and are generally recognized by others as such—display attitudes and espouse policies which would once have been unthinkable. To be sure, they do so in a rhetoric that bears a specious resemblance to traditional liberalism. Thus they defend not quotas but “goals” designed to “compensate for historic inequities.” They object not to the existence of Israel but to its “colonialism.” They deplore the “excesses” of the PLO but recognize it as the legitimate voice of a dispossessed people seeking “self-determination” in its own “homeland.” They do not condone the anti-Semitic “lapses” of some black leaders but they sympathize with the frustration and exasperation of a long-suffering, disadvantaged people giving vent to its natural feelings and passions.
If we are not taken in by the new rhetoric, we must also recognize that the reality behind it is not altogether new, that what we are facing is not a momentary aberration or anomaly. For a long time now liberals have been discarding one after another of their traditional principles, bits and pieces of their original agenda. Advocates of a free-market economy have long protested against the usurpation of the title “liberal” by those who have no historic right to it, who seek to enhance the role of the government in the economy and society, who are excessively partial to the public sector over the private, who seem to favor regulations and controls for one purpose or another—all in clear violation of the precepts of classical liberalism. One can sympathize with the beleaguered defenders of the true faith. But one must also recognize that they have lost the battle, that the title has gone, by right of conquest, to the new liberals, and that to deny them the title is to flout the reality.
What, then, in the face of this reality, is one to make of the traditional relationship of Jews to liberalism? It is one thing to be wary of the new liberalism, even to dissociate oneself from it; quite another to announce one’s adherence to the traditional alternative to liberalism—conservatism. If liberals have short memories, Jews have long ones. And our memories remind us that when we emerged into the modern world liberals were our natural allies. What possible connection could we have had with the values, interests, communities, and historic loyalties of conservatives? What did we have to gain from a traditional, hierarchical, “organic” society where all of us (all but the Rothschilds among us) were consigned to the “lower orders,” where we were impoverished, constrained, disfranchised (this last condition applying even to the Rothchilds)? We needed liberalism to liberate, elevate, and emancipate us.
Perhaps because we needed it so desperately, we convinced ourselves that Judaism and liberalism were necessarily, inherently congruent, that they shared the same interests and principles. We tried not to think about all those aspects of Judaism which were patently not liberal, which were, in fact, conservative: the value accorded by Judaism to tradition, law, family, community, authority, religion itself. I am reminded of the student who came to me in great excitement after a seminar on Edmund Burke to tell me that she finally understood why she was an Orthodox Jew—understood, that is, the grounds for Orthodoxy per se, for a “particularist” rather than a universal creed, for a religious community embodying that creed, and for laws and traditions which sustain it.
Most of us have had to learn that lesson in more painful ways. Some of us have been forced to rethink our relationship to liberalism by petty bureaucrats in HEW, by terrorists abroad and their defenders (or non-objectors) at home, by politicians, journalists, and actresses turned activists, who, in their ardor for newly fashionable liberal causes, have been all too willing to sacrifice the interests and principles of Jews. And some of us will never learn that lesson. We shall continue to think that because liberalism was once well disposed to us, we have a permanent commitment to it, owe it a debt that can never be repaid, are tied to it by a bond of fealty that can never be discharged. We shall continue to overlook the “deviations” and “aberrations” of our supposed friends—just as socialists have ignored, for a century and a half, the anti-Semitism of one after another socialist leader, theorist, and movement. And, worse, we shall continue to be apologetic about those parts of Judaism which do not (which never did) fit comfortably into the liberal mold. We shall reinterpret and revise our beliefs and practices to accommodate them to the universalistic, naturalistic, rationalistic, secularist disposition of liberalism—and this at a time when universalism, naturalism, rationalism, and secularism have so little credibility that they are succumbing to every variety of syncretistic sect and cult.
But reality has a way of catching up with us. If latter-day liberals have exposed their tenuous commitment to individualism and democracy, if affirmative action has shown itself to be yet another form of negative discrimination, if the historic sympathy with Jews as the underdogs of society has evidently given way to new causes and new victims, we may begin to question our own commitment to liberalism. We may begin to suspect that the liberalism that brought us into modernity, that gave us our freedom as individuals and tolerated us as Jews, has been replaced by a new liberalism that is inhospitable to us both as individuals and as Jews. We may conclude that a quite different philosophy is required if we are to survive in the modern world, survive as individuals and as Jews.
That philosophy is not conservatism as traditionally understood. Traditional conservatism still displays some of the characteristics that made it unpalatable to us in the past. It tends to be socially exclusive, intellectually philistine, identified with classes and institutions which are alien to us. It is weighed down with too much of its own history, a history that made it Judenfrei in Burke’s time (and for a century or more since), and that continues to make Jews feel unwanted even today. If this is so, if the traditional alternatives are no longer satisfactory, we must look for a new philosophical synthesis and a new political disposition.
Those of us who have come to this point have also found ourselves liberated from our old party affiliations, from a nostalgic commitment to social democracy which in practice meant a commitment to the Democratic party. This is not to say that we have become Republicans. For most of us the Republican party, like traditional conservatism, represents attitudes and classes which are uncongenial. We are, for the moment, homeless—“independent,” to put the best face on it. This is not altogether a liability. To the extent to which we now feel free to associate ourselves with one or another candidate in either party (or, more often, to dissociate ourselves from one or another candidate), we may have more influence in the choice of those candidates—in both parties. At a time when parties count for less and candidates for more, this strategy makes a good deal of sense. The fact that parties do count for less is unfortunate. But this itself is, in good part, a consequence of the new liberalism, of a misplaced zeal for reform which reveals as little understanding of the principles of the Constitution as of any established institution.
As we learn to take advantage of our new-found political independence, we may be inspired to think more boldly about our real interests and principles—not only about those immediate and obvious ones which are the subject of this symposium (quotas, Israel, anti-Semitism), but also those which have a less direct but no less vital bearing upon us: a strong military establishment and a vigorous foreign policy without which the defense of Israel is empty rhetoric, and economic policies conducive to economic growth without which the future of Jews, like that of any other minority, is gravely imperiled. And beyond these are our more enduring interests and principles, which we have given too little thought to during our long association with liberalism—the need for social attitudes and policies which will be favorable to (rather than, as is more often the case today, subversive of) family, community, tradition, morality, religion. It is unlikely that the political parties will tidily define themselves in terms of these issues. But at least we shall have learned to define ourselves.
The political scientist William Schneider’s summary of the facts rules out interest (“life situation”) as an explanation of Jewish liberalism:
Jewish voters are typically more liberal and more Democratic than any other (white) ethno-cultural groups . . . even more distinctively Democratic than blacks. Blacks vote “with” their life situation: they vote Democratic because they are poor and they vote more Democratic because they are black. Jews vote “against” their life situation.
When the “Statement Unanimously Adopted by [the] Black Leadership Meeting” last August dismissed the Jews’ liberalism as rooted in “their perceived interest,” the black leaders had their reason for saying what they said. We have no reason to add to the obfuscation. How was it more in the interest of Jews than of Italians, Poles, Seventh Day Adventists, or Mormons to support desegregation of the schools or to send a check to the NAACP?
The black leaders’ assertion of a Jewish interest is like that easy refutation of altruism: “Superficial people call an act altruistic when it seems not to be in the interest of the actor, as when he gives money or undergoes hardship for the benefit of others. Nonsense. The seemingly altruistic act makes the actor feel good. That is his reward, and where there is reward there is no altruism.” It is by definition, therefore, or rather by tautology, that Jewish liberalism springs from Jewish interest. The black leaders stated without apology that blacks act in their own interest. That is the American way. An odd consequence is that of all American Jews the Hasidim of Brooklyn are the most American in their politics.
In a 1978 Harris poll for the National Conference of Christians and Jews, 39 per cent of “national black leaders” thought “Jewish groups” really wanted to promote “black equality”—more than thought the Catholic Church did (37 per cent) or white Protestant churches (6 per cent). Ordinary black respondents gave Catholics 25 per cent, Jews 18 per cent, and white Protestants 12 per cent. Now comes the shocker. Asked whether, “when it comes to choosing between people and money, Jews will choose money,” 56 per cent of ordinary black respondents agreed—8 per cent more than in 1974. That is bad enough, but not so bad as the response of black leaders. Of these, the very people who thought Jews better disposed than other whites to black equality, 81 per cent said that Jews will choose money over people: four out of five. Asked whether “most of the slumlords are Jewish”—not some, or even many, but most—37 per cent of ordinary black respondents said yes in 1974, and 41 per cent in 1978. In 1978, 67 per cent of black leaders said that most of the slumlords are Jewish: two out of three. With such friends, who needs enemies?
A realist knows that if you don’t want someone to dislike you, you don’t do him favors. (Give one man a job, according to the politicians, and you make ten enemies and an ingrate.) A realist would say that if we had acted from interest and not done favors for black leaders they might now dislike us less or, better still, have us on their minds less. Hispanics—Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and so on—are taking over from blacks as the biggest and most clamant minority. If we learn from our experience with black leaders, we will not do favors for Hispanic leaders. But we will not learn. First we will do them favors and then they will say we did the favors only because it was in our interest to do them. And what have we done for them lately? Besides, everyone knows that most of the slumlords are Jewish.
We will not learn because we do not want to learn.
If our rote liberalism has been against our interest, it does not follow that rote conservatism would be in our interest. It is in our interest to feel free to vote for one party or the other, and especially to be seen to be free. It is further in our interest that we should be enrolled in each party in such numbers as to discourage stands damaging to us. What is Connally’s strategy? First things first—before he can be elected he has to be nominated. He does not expect his anti-Israel position to hurt him in the primaries. On the contrary, he expects it to help him, if only by setting him off from the other candidates and making him seem bolder and more forthright. So he offends Jews. What does that cost him? Everybody is a little annoyed with us, and there are not enough of us voting in Republican primaries for him to worry about. He can cozy up to us later. But even then, how much thought will a Republican nominee give to the Jews? Goldwater said a nominee hunts ducks where the ducks are, and Republican ducks are not Jews.
Before the 1972 election there was hardly an issue of a news magazine without its revelation about the new Jewish conservatism. Though the Democrats were then, as now, the majority party, and though the Republican nominee was unattractive, about 69 per cent of white Christian voters voted against the Democrat. Of Jewish voters, about 65 per cent voted for him. That is what Jewish conservatism means: giving a two-thirds vote to the most unpopular Democratic candidate in memory. Compulsive smokers know that smoking is not good for them but they keep smoking. Most Jews are compulsive Democratic voters. As a friend of mine puts it, “I’m an independent, I always vote Democratic.” A sensible Republican is unlikely to put great effort into hunting such elusive prey. A sensible Democratic candidate is unlikely to put great effort into winning over people who have shown that they will vote for him regardless.
What partially saves us, in spite of ourselves, is the importance of a swing. Since one Democrat who votes Republican is worth two votes to the Republicans, the one that they got and the one that the Democrats lost, it does make a little sense for Republicans not to give up on the Jews completely and for the Democrats not to take us for granted completely.
Mayer Amschel Rothschild had one son in Germany, one in Austria, one in Italy, one in France, and one in England. No matter who won in a warring Europe, the Rothschilds would not lose. But then, in those days the religion of most Jews had not yet been superseded by Progress, a.k.a. Liberalism.
It would be a profound error for Jews to forswear their allegiance to the social and political philosophy of liberalism because some erstwhile liberals have betrayed its fundamental principles. Those of us who have condemned the quota system and especially the outrageous decisions of the Supreme Court in the Weber and Bakke cases have done so because they violate what until now has been regarded as axiomatic to a liberal philosophy and not because of the adverse consequences of quotas for Jews or any other group. We would just as vehemently oppose a quota system that favored Jews.
There are few propositions that are demonstrable about human affairs. The nearest to one is the view that those who desire to preserve their individual or group identity as Jews are more likely to do so without suffering official persecution in a community governed by liberal principles than in any other. This is not the only or even the chief reason for adhering to the liberal faith. The grounds on which one holds a liberal philosophy, if valid, justify commitment to it not only by Jews but by reasonable men and women regardless of their color, sex, creed, or national origin.
The issues involved in this discussion are old, perhaps one should say perennial. It probably testifies to my limitations, but I cannot see in what way the position I advanced in an article in the Menorah Journal in the fall of 1937, “Promise Without Dogma: A Social Philosophy for Jews,” has been rendered anachronistic by events since then—except possibly in one respect. I argued at the time that the conditions a social philosophy must fulfill “to be acceptable to Jews who wish to survive, of course, not exclusively as Jews, but as Jews nonetheless are (1) a recognition of the value of cultural diversity; (2) tolerance of religious differences; (3) a fighting faith in democracy as a way of political and social life; (4) acceptance of an ideal of economic reorganization which, for want of a better name, I would call democratic socialism; and (5) reliance upon the methods of critical inquiry in approaching all problems.” The one respect that requires modification was expressed by Alvin Johnson in his eloquent and vigorous response to my article in the subsequent issue. Agreeing with most of what I wrote he took issue with my fourth criterion: “I will go farther and assert that there is no hope for the Jew as Jew in socialism, if by socialism we mean an economy organized as a single unit, centrally controlled and managed. No matter how liberal might be the constitution of a state that set itself up as an exclusive employer, that controlled all the avenues to a living, the exigencies of technological operation would force it along the path of totalitarianism.”
Actually at that time, like most socialists, we envisaged something far short of a completely collectivized economy. The customary reference was to “the commanding heights” of the economy. Later, following the lead of Norman Thomas and John Dewey, we set our political sights on the development of a genuine welfare state with a mixed economy. But we were remiss in not grasping sooner and more vividly the totalitarian potential of the Soviet model of economy not only for Jews but for all human beings enmeshed in its operation. Events have made Alvin Johnson’s warning more prescient.
Let’s glance at the reasons COMMENTARY gives for calling into question the “axiom” of Jewish support for liberalism:
“Widespread support among liberals for quotas.” In some instances, no doubt. But more widespread, I’d say, is liberal support for affirmative action, something to be seen as decidedly different from quotas. This distinction is habitually denied or minimized in COMMENTARY; but many distinctions are habitually denied or minimized in COMMENTARY. I can hardly suppose that supporting affirmative action makes one an opponent of Jewish needs, otherwise it would be necessary to condemn a good many Jewish organizations that can not be described as radical.
“Diminishing enthusiasm among liberals for Israel.” No evidence being offered, it’s hard to know what COMMENTARY has in mind. The one major instance of such “diminishing enthusiasm” in American political life has come from John Connally, representative of Texas oil and corporate America. What can, however, be said is that many liberals—and American Jews as well—are greatly disturbed by the Begin government’s evident intention to maintain its domination over the West Bank and the Arabs who live there, an intention that violates the democratic ethos (and threatens the Jewish character) of Israel. To criticize these Begin policies from an appropriately pro-Israel commitment seems to me not a sign of diminishing enthusiasm for but an act of urgent defense of Israel.
“Growing sympathy of liberals for the PLO.” Possibly so, among some. But mostly what I see, out there in the real world, is a recognition—often reluctant and unhappy—that a Palestinian national sentiment is now a historical reality not to be dismissed by looking the other way and that a final peace in the Middle East will have to cope with this reality. Not just the unnamed liberals COMMENTARY invokes but an increasing number of Israelis and even some American Jews are being driven to this recognition, and it has nothing whatever, certainly nothing necessarily, to do with “sympathy” for the PLO, either its ideology or methods.
Now, none of this is to deny that the liberalism of at least some American Jews has become less assured, more troubled and qualified. Of course; but it hardly distinguishes them from other Americans. As we now enter a new stage, or resist entering a new stage, of the welfare state, liberalism is experiencing a severe intellectual-political crisis. This crisis is partly a result of its own (limited) successes—the achievements of the welfare state in which we live. It is partly a result, also, of its own failures—the difficulties of coping with unforeseen or underestimated problems of the welfare state. And it is partly a result of the inner hesitations of American liberalism to recognize that the first initiating phase of the welfare state having now been more or less completed, it’s necessary to move toward a modestly radical or social-democratic policy that would signify a stronger egalitarian commitment and a sharper threat to corporate hegemony. Liberalism today is roughly in a stage similar to that in which it found itself during the decade before the New Deal: regathering intellectual energies, working out new programs, fending off attacks from enemies and fading friends. I believe that with an increment of social-democratic policies in the economic sphere liberalism will again be resurgent at some point in the 1980’s and that many American Jews will contribute significantly to this event.
But surely there are also special “internal” reasons for the weakening of liberal attachment among American Jews and here I can note only a few:
It may be—proof would be hard to come by—that the improved socioeconomic position of some American Jews is gradually having its political impact. Jewish commentators have often stressed, with pride and/or regret, that when American Jews move up the socioeconomic ladder they do not, like other groups, become more conservative but retain their liberal attachments. Just possibly—this is my impression from traveling about the country—the slow process of “normalizing” our socioeconomic position has begun to produce some unattractive “normal” consequences.
The pressures of the Begin government even in its brief tenure have led to a notable turn toward chauvinist sloganeering among portions of the American Jewish community and an increase of uncritical responsiveness to whatever signals come from Israeli spokesmen. To be fair, this had already begun under the Labor regime, e.g., Rabin’s not very subtle nods toward Nixon.
An odd paradox characterizes American Jewish institutional life, namely, that such leading journals as COMMENTARY and Midstream appear to be somewhat, perhaps a good deal, more conservative than their sponsors. Many American Jews probably don’t know that major Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, while opposed to quotas, have come out for affirmative action, and they may suppose that the campaign of COMMENTARY to meld quotas and affirmative action represents a unified Jewish opinion. Those of us who disagree sharply with COMMENTARY’s line must be realistic enough to admit that it has had an impact upon the thinking of Jewish institutional spokesmen, perhaps by hardening impulses already there.
A withdrawal of Jewish commitment to liberalism would be a disaster for the country and also, I think, for the Jews. A large segment of American Jews—the professional and semi-professional classes—is deeply enmeshed in the workings of the welfare state and has an economic and intellectual stake in its flourishing. More important, even if one wished (or thought it possible) to withdraw to a parochial “interest-group” view of Jewish life, it could still be strongly argued that staying with the universalist vision—a belief in a liberal society of steadily-accumulating social reforms—remains the best way of defending strictly Jewish interests and an important way of sustaining the inner morale of the Jewish community. But most important, social liberalism has been defined as the “secular religion” of many American Jews, the precious salvage from their immigrant and East European heritage, the embodied value of a major segment of Jewish experience. That in the long run even this liberal commitment might not suffice, at least by itself, to maintain a vital Jewish presence in America could be cogently argued from an Orthodox or Conservative religious position. But that is not the standpoint from which COMMENTARY asks or answers its questions. If we tacitly agree, then, to remain largely within the secular realm, I think it all but self-evident that liberalism still offers the best (though not an unmarred) framework for the effort to realize humane values—freedom, egalitarianism, fraternity—in the society at large and to assert the validity of specifically Jewish claims. The case for Israel, to cite one crucial example, is far more strongly made in terms of its democratic character and historic ties with Holocaust survivors than in the shaky categories of American “national interest.”
I am not saying here that liberalism is “inherent” in Judaism or that the Prophets were canny enough to anticipate my politics. But as a democratic socialist who cares about Jewish values, I continue to believe that liberalism is our natural home, insofar as we can ever be at home. That is why I oppose the extremist conservatism that has recently flourished in the pages of COMMENTARY and that is why—it’s not a matter of personalities or literary feuds—we may expect a hard political-intellectual battle within the Jewish arena during the next decade. Meanwhile I thank the editors of COMMENTARY for granting me this space to express my opposition to their views.
In lending their support to those who pursue the liberal agenda, which is the current term for the radical agenda of the 1960’s, and has become, alas, the national agenda, Jews have been pursuing an anti-Jewish agenda.
The Jewish consensus on Israel is stronger than on any other issue. Jews wish to see Israel survive and thrive. Despite this, Jews—and not simply Jewish intellectuals—have given political support to policies that can only lead to Israel’s abandonment.
Jewish Congressmen, most of them elected by districts with sizable Jewish populations, pursue a “liberal” foreign policy. That policy was defined by John Kenneth Galbraith in a 1966 COMMENTARY article, “An Agenda for American Liberals,” as one that “identifies us with the hopes and aspirations of the people.” According to Galbraith: “A conservative policy identifies us with privileged groups and with governments that are the servants and protectors of privilege and we pay the penalty for such association when the day of the people arrives.” This new liberal foreign-policy agenda precluded the use of power to maintain friendly regimes since, by definition, when those regimes came under internal attack, they were being attacked by “the people.” Presumably such notions explain the results of a September 9 tally of votes of metropolitan area Congressmen by the New York Times on a measure that would have hindered administration efforts to pump money into the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. All Jewish Congressmen voted on behalf of the Sandinistas. Yet the Sandinistas have worked hand in glove with the PLO and are converting Nicaragua into a Cuban-style Soviet affiliate.
Jewish Congressmen, and by extension those Jews who vote for them, apparently see no connection between Israel’s safety and the exercise of American global power in support of countries dependent on it. Congressman Stephen Solarz of the congressional committee on Africa wants to deny additional arms to Morocco, a country which for two years has been the target of a campaign by the Algerian-backed Polisario guerrillas that has received worldwide support mobilized by the Soviet agit-prop apparatus. Yet the consequences of an Algerian-Polisario victory in the Western Sahara would be to give Algeria and its Soviet allies a base on the African flank of Europe’s major sea routes. It would leave Morocco with no land frontiers except with Algeria, making a successful invasion or the supply of internal insurrection in Morocco much more likely. It would also mean that the supply of American forces in the Mediterranean and, if need be, of Israel, would become much more difficult. In southern Africa, by working to deny legitimacy to the Muzorewa regime in Zimbabwe Rhodesia, Congressman Solarz has in effect supported the Nkomo-Mugabe factions.
Ideology does not wholly account for this behavior. For even from the standpoint of a Galbraithian liberal ideology, Morocco is freer and more tolerant of social diversity than the Algerian left-wing military dictatorship. Muzorewa’s regime was established in elections which were the freest and most comprehensive that have taken place in Africa. Fear fuels the double standard now that liberal policies have drastically weakened the United States. Instead of a free-market struggle for the minds of men—this was to be the only place a free market operated in the fantasies of statist liberals—there are Cuban mercenaries and Soviet arms. The alternatives faced by liberals who are involved in shaping foreign policy are whether to succumb to the demands backed by the Soviet Union before the Cubans move in or afterward.
Liberal foreign policy in the Third World has become one of anticipating Soviet demands and meeting them before the Soviet Union could intervene to Humiliate the U.S. by showing up our inability to react effectively. In the Middle East, the whole thrust of the Carter administration, until it was partially—and only temporarily-derailed by Sadat’s seizing the initiative, was to satisfy the demands of the Soviet-backed PLO before the Soviet Union could embarrass the U.S. by supporting its Arab clients in another war in which our unwillingness, and probably inability, to back Israel were revealed.
It is past time that Jews engaged themselves in the effort to define a Jewish agenda. Unfortunately, those most deeply immersed in Jewish law and philosophy have not concerned themselves with this matter. Yet it should not be too difficult to identify in that tradition philosophical underpinnings for this agenda, e.g., “Thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor.” A good principle for Jews to represent should a new constitutional convention be convened.
The goals of the agenda must include the strengthening of that social, political, and economic system which has given greater freedom to Jews in their dispersion, both as Jews and as men, than any other since the extinction of ancient Jewish statehood, i.e., modern capitalism. The agenda must include the cherishing and defense of social structures which allow for the broadening and flourishing of the so-called middle class, that class which in modern times has been culturally the most productive and creative. It must include the fostering of scientific, technological, and economic growth against insidious ideologies that presume to find in such growth the roots of inhumanity (except when it is pursued by the enemies of freedom).
Understandings that must be made explicit in the formulation of the agenda are that the United States today is the last defense of the West, and that Israel is an outpost whose survival or extinction foreshadows the fate of the U.S.; that political and military power and the skill and will to use it when necessary must be fostered; that power in the hands of societies that cherish the values of the agenda does not corrupt, but it is, rather, powerlessness that corrupts. The corruption of powerlessness is nowhere better revealed than in the double moral standard that pervades American foreign policy at this moment.
Finally, the American Jew should make clear in his new agenda that he will work with all those for whom the success of American freedom is dear and with all those for whom the story of Israel and its political renaissance has meaning. What he will not do is enter alliances in which the targets of others impose on him compliance with purposes that are not in his interest, often indeed in direct conflict with the Jewish agenda here outlined.
I have no illusions about the difficulties involved. There are deep-seated emotional and intellectual forces and institutional rigidities in the Jewish community that would impede the establishment of new priorities. The community is an aging one, and much of the youth, in common with college-educated youth in general, has already committed itself to targets that are the reverse of those proposed here. Moreover, the alliances that would be necessary involve uncharted territory beset with traps. Nonetheless, the effort must be made, for the destructiveness of present policies and the failure of old and oversold alliances prohibit further lingering with them.
Rael Jean Isaac:
For some years now those who have appropriated the term liberal have pursued an agenda that draws upon assumptions the obverse of the body of ideas that were first called liberal. The emphasis on individual freedom characteristic of 19th-century liberals has been replaced by the goal of equality, which can only be pursued at the expense of freedom. Nineteenth-century liberals were imbued with an idea of progress that would be achieved through the abolition of traditional fetters upon the pursuit of excellence. But while all were to be equally free of institutional constraints, there was no misperception that all would achieve equally, or that all that was achieved would be of equal social and cultural value, or that there existed a moral obligation to foster equally every human effort. Bluntly, liberals were elitists.
Their elitism benefited Jews. With the ascent of the new ideas, liberals, at least in the Western democracies, began to man some of the institutional barriers that closed Jews out of various areas of social life. Jews were able to challenge these barriers in the name of the very values of those who imposed them.
Given the various ways Jews benefited from liberal ideology, it would seem surprising that there has been no greater resistance by Jews to the current inversion or “theft of liberalism,” to use the title of Robert Loewenberg’s thoughtful essay (Midstream, May 1977). The explanation perhaps lies in specifically Jewish cultural and religious traditions which have made Jews keenly aware of the darker sides of liberalism, whose value system implied there would be losers as well as gainers. Furthermore, in the autocratic countries where the masses of Jews lived, liberalism appeared as the property of an upper-class intelligentsia to which Jews did not belong and whose salon conversations appeared uncaring and irrelevant to the imperatives of Jewish survival. As a value system, socialist utopianism was far more congenial. Socialism seemed a restatement of traditional Jewish social concern in a universal language. Promising that which liberalism promised without its costs, socialism became endowed with the immense power of Jewish utopian yearning. Absolute freedom and absolute equality were seen to be within reach; they would coexist without contradiction when the perfect society, if not the Lord God, “would wipe away tears from off all faces.”
While socialist thought continued to be dominant in the shaping of Jewish institutions in Palestine, in the United States, at least since World War II, socialism as an explicit political creed ceased to attract any but a segment of Jewish intellectuals. Socialism was tarnished by the creation, in the countries where Jewish faith in its promise had been strongest, of an equality in which there was no place for Jews. But when in the United States there was a transformation of liberalism into a strategy for the solution of societal problems through government intervention there was, at least initially, almost universal Jewish enthusiasm. To many Jews it seemed that the New Jerusalem would be fulfilled in the United States. The country was seen as a community of the perfectible, and judges and social-science experts were endowed with the authority of a secular priesthood.
When societal problems proved recalcitrant to the instant fixes of the secular priesthood and liberals moved to implement measures whose inimical consequences for Jews were obvious, Jews were taken aback. The establishment of a statutory caste system, the elevation of racial characteristics as a key to an engineered social mobility, met a confused and indecisive Jewish reaction. The excuse for the new system was, of course, that there had been an application of racial standards in the past to exclude mobility. Jews found themselves unable to assert with any confidence that the solution to the evil was not to reimpose such standards and give them administrative and judicial sanction where legislative sanction was lacking.
To compound their confusion and anxiety, Jews found that the attitude of liberals toward Israel was becomingly increasingly critical. The liberal passion for explaining undesirable behaviors by their social setting and finding a solution by changing the setting was extended to international affairs. In truth, there is no liberal foreign policy. Instead there is a penchant for identifying the deserving, defined as those who seek a redistribution of wealth and power. Terrorism, as practiced for example by the PLO, is explained as the product of legitimate unsatisfied aspirations. Israel, on the other hand, has become the victim of egalitarian enthusiasm. Once praised by liberals for such unique institutions as the Histadrut and the (ironically, egalitarian) kibbutz, or for such unique enterprises as the ingathering of Jews from all corners of the world, Israel now fails to be a state like all others. Ingathering of exiles becomes racism because all who seek citizenship are not treated equally. Moreover, since all Third World countries or groups with whom the liberals identify internationally condemn Israel, it would be difficult to break ranks.
The ideological attraction of egalitarian liberalism has been so great that when Jews have not simply acted against their interests, their efforts at self-defense have been retarded and enfeebled. Some Jews still stand in the forefront of present liberalism. They do not even hesitate to join the onslaught on Israel. Although the Jewish organization Breira had a radical core, for the most part those who identified with its program of creating a state for the PLO saw themselves as liberals. But even such a mainstream organization as the American Jewish Congress resisted condemning so-called affirmative action and only after much time and internal strain sought to stem the tide for a quota system (with much less effectiveness than it might have had, had it acted earlier). Certainly only a small minority of Jewish intellectuals have dared to brave the epithet “conservative” or “neoconservative” by attacking the entire complex of liberal values as currently defined, showing how devastating these values are not only to Jewish existence in America but to the American polity.
Ideological affinities and images of the ideal have moved Jews more than a rational consideration of their political situation, and as Moshe Sharon has pointed out in the Jerusalem Post (October 21, 1979), this has also been true of Israeli political leaders. While Jews have grown uneasy over some manifestations of liberal policy, there is no sign of an understanding among most Jews of their relationship to the underlying assumptions and orientations of liberals. Jewish Congressmen, most of them elected by districts with sizable Jewish populations, vote more closely in accord with the black caucus and for measures to help the poor than any other group.
And, of course, there is the problem that the most recent, supposedly “conservative,” Republican administrations have themselves pursued liberal policies while giving lip-service to conservatism. The positions taken by a presumably conservative candidate like John Connally are not likely to encourage Jews. But the problem of the state of conservative policy in the United States cannot be dealt with here. Perhaps “Jews and the Conservatives” should be the subject of another COMMENTARY symposium.
All over the the world the ideas, principles, and words in which modern Jews have most decisively placed their trust are being turned triumphantly against them.
The Jews founded their entry into modern society as individuals, and into the society of nations as a people, on the ideology of liberal democracy. Their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor they pledged to the principles of human and civil rights; of national self-determination; of justice, equality, and liberty; of freedom of expression and of religion. Today Jews stand accused everywhere of violating and subverting these same ideas, as well as of denying their benefits to others who represent them better and whose path to their enjoyment has been obstructed by Jewish “power.” In the Middle East these others are said to be the Palestinian Arabs; in the United States they are said to be blacks and certain other non-Jewish minority groups; in the Soviet Union and from the rostrums of the Third World they are said to include all the disenfranchised of the earth.
The source of these despicably false accusations is, in the first instance, governments and individuals who stand, sometimes quite explicitly, for the opposite values—totalitarians and demagogues, thugs and bullies. But where, to the bewilderment and dismay of Jews, their accusers have found support, encouragement, and moral aid in this country is at the very core of the liberal culture: in the advanced churches and universities, on the editorial pages of the nation’s leading newspapers, in centers and media of enlightened opinion, and in the hearts, minds, and quailing spirits of many individual liberals, including many liberal Jews.
It is because, but only partly because, Jews have for so long made their home in the shelter of liberal ideas that they are so vulnerable to attacks launched against them in the name of those ideas. They may say in their own defense that in turning the language of liberal democracy to anti-democratic uses the enemies of democracy have simply made a mockery of everything that language once signified; and besides, the charges are not true. But this reply, although it may satisfy the requirements of intellectual rectitude, does not satisfy the requirements of politics, for it does not address the fact, which is undeniable, of Jewish vulnerability in a world grown increasingly thuggish—a vulnerability which, to the degree that the Jews themselves must answer for it, ironically arises not from the Jewish embrace of liberal democracy but rather from the Jewish failure to embrace it.
As a social doctrine liberalism has nothing further to teach the Jews, and the Jews have nothing further to contribute to it. For the essence of the liberal social doctrine, which amounts to charity rationalized, is coincident in every important respect with the oldest and deepest principles of Jewish communal life. So instinctive and reflexive, by now, is the Jewish identification with this ideal of social obligation, so ingrained in habits of action and attitudes of mind, so in tune with long-sanctioned impulses and religious precept, that most Jews today would be hard-pressed even to conceive of any other model of civic virtue (there are a few!) than the model bodied forth by the catechism of liberal reform, any other definition of the good society than that epitomized by the commandment to do justice to the poor.
What needs to be addressed is not the Jewish relation to liberalism as a doctrine of social amelioration, but the Jewish relation to liberalism as a political ideology of which the first great animating principle is the principle of freedom. For the blunt and crippling truth is that the Jews of this country, especially those Jews who speak for the interests of their fellow Jews and who are the appointed keepers of the Jewish conscience, have not yet fully developed the habits and the attitudes appropriate to free men.
As the aftermath of the Andrew Young affair made clear, some Jews seem particularly adept at dodging what a more self-respecting political culture would define as their duty, and what a liberal order guarantees as their right: the duty and the right to stand up and defend oneself when attacked. At a time when American Jews as a group were being subjected to a shameless effort of delegitimation, and when even their right to look to their own, peaceable interests was being insolently proposed as a matter for open debate, the keepers of the Jewish conscience responded to the abuse directed at their community and its record with talismanic invocations of their credentials as the fellow victims of historic persecution; with assurances of their own continued benignity despite the “misguided” allegations of their accusers; and with impassioned reiterations of the Jewish commitment to defend the rights of others. That the accommodating message was duly received and duly registered may be easily inferred from the fact that no black leader, either during the carnival of vilification or since, has felt called upon to offer an apology for the public lies that were told, in the name of American blacks, about American Jews—and none has been demanded. The lies still stand, unrefuted and unretracted. As for the organizations charged with protecting the American Jewish interest, most have been quick to declare mended a fence which Jews had no hand in breaking down.
Obviously a conception is at work here, a demeaning conception, of the place Jews can claim for themselves within the American political order. It does not mitigate this situation, but on the contrary aggravates it tremendously, that some Jewish spokesmen have made a fetish out of their incapacity to grasp the political promise of a free society, wearing it as a badge of moral superiority. Thus, one self-styled representative of “today’s Jews,” writing soon after the Andrew Young affair, characterized the Jewish position in these words: “Our destiny. We live between the rock of the powerful and the hard place of the powerless, and survive by learning how to slither.”
The sanctimonious, not to say smug, tone of this characterization may borrow something from the rhetoric of American Protestantism, but the sentiment—supercilious, ingratiatingly fearful, eager for the ratifying kick in the teeth—is the authentic expression of unfree Jewry. It is, in fact, precisely in the light of debased sentiments like these, insulting as they are to Jewish honor, and desperately out of place in a liberal democracy, that the entire question of a prospective Jewish detachment from liberalism comes to seem both conclusory and somehow premature. Are the Jews now to cast off a habit they have yet fully to acquire, spurn a gift yet to be assessed by them at its true value?
Two hundred years after the Bill of Rights, one hundred years after the inception of their own glorious movement of political and spiritual regeneration, thirty years after the realization of their national dreams, the keepers of the Jewish conscience still find it more in their nature to slither than to stand. One can “understand” this disposition in a hundred forgiving ways; one can even acknowledge its appeal, the exemption it offers from the dilemmas of political action. But it is a debility which, so long as it remains in place, will continue to render the Jews peculiarly open and vulnerable to the depredations of their enemies, and in times of crisis an intolerable burden to their friends. A disposition fatal to Jewish pride has become a menace to Jewish survival.
When I grew up in New Haven, in the 1910’s and 1920’s, you could be a Jew and a Republican but the Woodrow Wilson influence remained strong. When I got out of graduate school and worked in New York as an editor in the 1930’s, you were either a liberal or you were no one. In 1938 (It Is Later Than You Think) I started with a “Lament for the Liberal” because I felt that traditional liberalism fell short of the kind of “democratic collectivism” which alone could deal with an unraveling economy and with the Nazi threat. I was discontented with both Marxism and liberalism, and sketched out a strategy and tactic of a “militant democracy,” which would combine the valid elements of both.
I start with this touch of a memoir because all of us, in our attitudes toward liberalism and other angles of vision, dip back into our life experience, as we also dip back into the experience of the liberal centuries.
There have been three broad phases in the history of liberal thought and action, and we are struggling now with the third. In the first, from the 17th through the 19th centuries, liberalism was the philosophy of the new middle and business classes in Europe and America, and stressed freedom, enlightenment, science, progress, and laissez-faire. With its upbeat quality of hope and promise, it had an irresistible attraction for the Jews who fled the blockages of European society to embrace the freedom and opportunity of America.
The second phase came with the Communist and fascist revolutions in Europe and the Great Depression in the U.S. To the Jewish mind, with its focus on Hitler and the death camps as the prime symbols of moral as well as political-economic breakdown, liberalism took on a new dimension of emotional depth. If Hitler was the adversary, Franklin Roosevelt, New Deal shaper and war leader, became the positive symbol, and his policy of big-government interventionism—both domestic and foreign—a kind of natural law for Jews and other liberals. Harry Truman’s cordial recognition of Israel as refuge and homeland rounded out the Jewish commitment.
The third and current phase began with the New Left of the 1960’s and was strengthened by the recoil from the Vietnam war, Watergate, and the CIA revelations. Unlike the liberalism of the first two phases, it has no organic, overarching philosophy, only a cluster of particularist for-and-against attitudes—against technology and economic growth, against nuclear energy, against a higher weapons budget, for reduction of American forces abroad, against a foreign policy that might mean intervention (especially in the Middle East), for a new brand of isolationism, for all Third World guerrilla movements (including sympathy for the PLO), against moderate and multiracial African governments, against Israel’s effort to maintain secure boundaries, against authoritarian right-wing governments allied with America, against U.S. intelligence agencies, for welfare statism, for quota systems to make up for historic ethnic and gender discriminations, for an absolutist approach to criminal-law freedoms and to media freedoms, against monetary inflation controls, for price-and-wage controls.
There are three things remarkable about this melange of attitudes. It does not face the problems of power and survival in a dangerous world or time, including the need for arms and effective intelligence services. It sets a double standard for left-wing and right-wing revolutionary movements and governments, and for American cooperation with them. Finally, in its culture-hatred and self-hatred it has cut itself off from the deep impulses of the American culture—toward social order and public tranquility, toward setting limits on destructive change, toward a broad consensus that will resist the fragmentizing of society, toward attachment to country, toward a cohesive value system and a recognition of the need for the sacral in every culture.
If the first historic phase of liberalism expressed the world outlook of the new middle and business classes, and the second phase the outlook of the broad coalition supporting the New Deal, the third phase expresses mostly the outlook of the “New Class” of professional, university, and media elites.
But the fact is that Jews are themselves heavily represented in this New Class and these elites. Thus they find themselves caught and divided, between a philosophy carrying over from the second phase and the pressure from their fellow members in the elites who have shaped the third phase. Many of those are Jews who feel uneasy about their identity and are trying to expiate their guilt about their own affluence and that of their fathers by embracing a left-wing revolutionary mystique which will in the end destroy them.
For myself, I don’t feel that the best path is to abandon liberalism, and leave it to the monopoly of those who neither understand nor care about the long sweep of its history and its potential for the future. The strength of liberalism rests with its basic humanism, its sense of human connectedness, its caring and sharing, its concern with equality of access not for the few but for all. The strength of conservatism is its sense of human continuities and of the culture as an organism. The folly of liberalism lies in its tenderness of mind, the folly of conservatism with its hardness of heart.
As a Jew, an American, a human being, I want to help fashion a philosophy which uses the valid elements of both and excludes the scars they leave and the scars they inflict on themselves. This means to combine access with connectedness but also with the sense of the organic in society and culture, and all of them with a tough-minded possibilism which faces the reality principle in our world and time, and doesn’t surrender both of them to the fanatics and terrorists.
Call this, if you wish, a kind of new centrism which will combine realism with the creativeness flowing from America’s deep revolutions of consciousness and perspective, and fuse them in an affirmation that will move away from the guilt-ridden self-hatred of the traditional liberals. It will be “good for the Jews” because it will be good for the nation and the world.
Seymour Martin Lipset:
Has the vaunted commitment of Jews to Left and liberal causes ended? A myriad of articles has sought to describe and explain a shift to the Right among Jews, supposedly linked to conflicts with other minority groups and women activists over affirmative action; to an awareness that those more disposed to the Left are also more anti-Israel; and, on a higher, more philosophical level, to the recognition that Jews have a stake in a stable, legitimate social order. The more cynical or Marxist-oriented analysts account for the supposed change by making the assumption that the wealth and high socioeconomic status of American Jews press them to bring their politics into line with their privileged class position.
These interpretations are logical, but they have one fault—they do not fit the facts. Studies of Jewish attitudes and political behavior continue to find that Jews remain the most liberal white ethnic or religious group in the nation. A late November Gallup release reports that Edward Kennedy, accurately perceived by the populace as the most Left or liberal of the candidates, has a larger lead over Carter among Jews (64-16) than among any other group of Democrats, including blacks and Kennedy’s fellow Catholics. Analyses of voting behavior find that American Jews remain more committed to the Democratic party than any other ethnic or religious group, except for blacks. Within the party, as their current presidential nomination preferences indicate, Jews are the segment most disposed to back the more liberal, New Politics wing. In 1972, when McGovern’s dovish views were supposedly alienating pro-Israel Jews, he secured about two-thirds of the Jewish vote, more than he received from any other white group. In June 1978, a small majority of California’s Jewish voters opposed Proposition 13, while 65 per cent of the electorate favored it, according to a Los Angeles Times survey. In November 1978, 69 per cent of the Jews voted for Jerry Brown for governor, a far higher percentage than Brown received from Catholics and Protestants. In the 1978 congressional elections, 72 per cent of the Jews queried as they were leaving polling places told New York Times/CBS interviewers that they had voted for Democrats, in contrast to 60 per cent of the Catholics and 45 per cent of the Protestants. Only 16 per cent of the Jewish voters described their political views as conservative, compared with 27 per cent of Catholics and 37 per cent of Protestants.
The same New York Times/CBS survey found, as of election day 1978, that Jews were more dovish on issues of foreign policy and defense expenditures than other ethnic or religious groups. Surveys conducted by different pollsters throughout the 70’s have reported that Jews are far more liberal than others on social issues, e.g., abortion, premarital sex, civil liberties for dissident views, the rights of homosexuals, and, most surprising of all, affirmative-action, special-preference programs. Proportionately, Jewish backers of affirmative action/quotas outnumber those in the various white nationality and religious groups, but on this issue alone they lag behind blacks.
Much of the impression of growing Jewish conservatism has come from the attention given to the views of prominent Jewish intellectuals who have moved from earlier leftist commitments to ones which have been described as neoconservative. In fact, most members of the group so labeled are Democrats and relatively liberal on domestic issues. A few even describe themselves as socialists or social democrats. And in any case, massive surveys of academic opinion taken in 1969 and 1975 by the Carnegie Council Commission on Higher Education indicate that Jewish faculty, who number around one-tenth of all American professors, are far more liberal than their Gentile colleagues.
A great majority of the Jewish public and intellectual elite has remained very liberal on most social and economic matters and in its voting behavior. This conclusion may be countered by the support given to a few moderate Democrats, like Senators Moynihan and Jackson, who are highly visible and important backers of Israel; by the endorsement of a hard-line foreign policy by the small group of “neoconservative” intellectuals; and by the voting behavior of less privileged and more Orthodox Jews still living in high-density urban areas who have backed hard-line law-and-order candidates in local elections. But the more numerous affluent segment of the Jewish community continues to opt for liberals locally as well as nationally, and constitutes the most important source of finances for liberal and Left causes.
What still remains unique about the politics of American Jews is how liberal-Left they are after having become one of the most affluent ethnic-religious groups in the nation. It is the continued liberalism of the Jews that should be commented on and explained, not their relatively minimal drift to the Right.
Theodore R. Mann:
The recent developments to which the symposium statement refers do not and should not affect the Jewish community’s traditional commitment to liberalism, which I define as a commitment to energetic efforts to eliminate poverty and discrimination, including racial and religious discrimination. So defined, Jewish liberalism is not related to, and should remain unaffected by, the attitudes of others. The impulse to eliminate poverty and discrimination is an important part of the Jewish heritage.
We must not permit others to redefine the words by which we define ourselves, and thereby undermine our most sacred values. The disturbing developments which COMMENTARY recites bear not on the question of whether we are becoming less liberal but on whether others are—and whether in the future Jews will have fewer liberal allies, an important question in its own right. We, however, will follow our own lights—we hope with a whole host of allies; alone if necessary.
COMMENTARY’s litany of recent developments is in itself a highly offensive attack on the concept of liberalism. If indeed few “liberals” protested against the anti-Semitism following Andrew Young’s resignation, one must ask, first, whether conservatives protested more (doubtful) and, second, whether this is a reflection on the liberal impulse to eliminate poverty and discrimination, or Whether those who are silent in the face of anti-Semitism have not forfeited the right to call themselves liberal.
Others might include in the term liberalism an economic view which favors, to a greater degree than conservatism, government intervention to achieve social goals. Jews, like others, will differ on the question whether poverty in America is more likely to be ameliorated primarily by government or primarily through proper government inducement and regulation of the private sector. There is, I think, a trend toward the latter among Jews. As to laws against discrimination, most are now on the books. Jews in the main, regardless of how they might otherwise define themselves, will continue to want such laws to be vigorously enforced.
Finally, I see no significant movement away from the Democratic party as such. Jewish voting patterns will depend on the candidates selected by both parties. All other things—such as their regard for Israel’s security—being equal, were the Democrats to nominate a liberal and the Republicans a non-liberal (by my non-economic definition), I think Jews would vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
Jews’ “traditional” engagement in liberal politics goes back a few generations. In fact the culture built upon the foundations of Judaism is profoundly conservative and truly traditional. So we speak of something contingent and recent. So far as political liberalism favored labor unions and collective bargaining, government engagement in the welfare of the community, and similar programs fór the general good, Jews benefited from the programs of liberalism, along with others of their particular sector of society, culture, and economy. So far, these days, as conservatism takes up the struggle for the individual and the right of communities to be different, advances classic arguments for human freedom, and, in the framework of world politics, recognizes the interests of the West and the stake of humanity in those interests, it becomes the labor of Jews, along with others of that same sector of society and economy, to reconsider the claims of conservatism.
The closest analogy to the Jews’ situation in this country is difficult to determine. Our thoughts naturally turn to Europe, to Germany. There the Jews had strong enemies and weak friends. Here, at the moment, it is difficult to specify powerful enemies. But clearly, so far as we have interests in politics, we also cannot identify long-term allies, let alone loyal friends. It is not hard to discern those who have little use for us, and less regard, folk who either dislike Jews in particular or Jews as part of some larger sector of society perceived as obstacles. For Jews in overwhelming numbers reject radicalism, stylish liberalism, the mentality of finding reasons not to be concerned at the erosion of America’s strength and standing in the world. But Jews in sizable numbers also have yet to come to grips with the pellucid commitment of mainstream conservatism to those same constructive and humane ideals which, to begin with, Jews associate with liberal politics. The reason is that, in general, Jews know about the hostility of the far Right, while choosing to ignore the hostility of the near Left.
Still, there are liberals and there are liberals. Whether or not, in the coming elections, we find ourselves moving out of the Democratic party in still larger numbers than in 1968 and 1972 depends upon the configuration of the Democratic and Republican programs. If the Republicans come out in favor of a Palestinian state, as John Connally has, then I think the Jews nearly unanimously will reject the Republican party. If the Democrats persist in seeking to find that vital center of the political and social framework, balancing the interests of diverse groups and seeking common ground to be shared by them all, then Jews, among other centrists, will locate themselves on Democratic turf. The opposite set of conditions—a Republican candidate clearly committed to a strong state of Israel as a bastion of American interest in the Middle East, a Democrat not—can continue that earthquake of political loyalties which began in the burning of the cities and the disruption of the universities by mob violence. The issues are not fully exhausted by party loyalty. The Jews as a strong force for centrist moderation in the Democratic party may well make a larger contribution to the common good than their taking up positions on the fringes of a Republican party essentially uncomfortable with sizable numbers of Jewish activists. Or, to put it differently, on ethnic grounds, I should rather be at a Democratic than a Republican fund-raiser, though best of all is to stay home, give my money, and vote my conscience.
What really concerns me in politics is the formation of an iron consensus, without discussion, debate, or even articulated congressional or other political oversight, about the shape of society and culture. That consensus, which even now takes shape in massive federal involvement in the definition and formation of American culture, takes for granted that some cultural and social groups are more legitimate than others, and that difference is more tolerable in one form (for instance, racial) than in another (for instance, religious-cultural). I fear for our future in this free society when we go out of style (as we do) or find ourselves treated as outside the framework of legitimate cultural-social expression (as is now the case). While, like most Jews, I strongly favor affirmative action in the form of appropriate assistance to heretofore disadvantaged groups, I fear that the “scheduled castes,” and they alone, enjoy the attention and support of the federal cultural establishment.
In this regard, our place is among the New Ethnics, also omitted from the catalogue of certified minorities, who regard themselves, as we see our community, as a fully legitimate cultural and religious (and also racial) alternative in our society. But, like the Jews, the New Ethnics are not yet in style. Now we have to consider that the groups appropriately certified as disadvantaged enjoy massive federal attention and concern, so that their cultural initiatives find recognition, their symbolic expressions receive sympathetic attention, and their educational and social programs are given massive funds, while groups such as ourselves, not enjoying certification, find themselves ignored. No body, after all, boasts about the percentage of Jews in a given federal agency or at a given rank within the civil service or public utilities! It is this powerful impression that the force of federal patronage runs contrary to the nurture of (quite secular) Jewish cultural and social interests in this country, rather than the troubling issues of the hour’s ration of Middle Eastern sensations, which I think forms a long-term concern. At the moment there can be no doubt that the Center has room for us, the Left does not, and the enlightened Right would be glad to find a place for much larger numbers of Jews than presently want it.
In all, I think it more likely that the Jews will reshape centrist liberalism than that liberalism will lose the Jews. Indeed, so far as the Center of the Democratic party has moved itself to the Right of that political spectrum defined, let us say, by the issues of the Great Society, the Jews have done their share, and more than their share, in effecting that redefinition and movement. The development of a significant body of conservative opinion among Jews is only part of what has happened, and what will continue to happen, over the next decades. Shifts in the self-understanding of conservatism and of the Jews, on the one side, and vast changes in the social foundations of politics, on the other, amply account for these shifts. They do not in any measure disturb that established Jewish commitment to the biblical and talmudic ideals of social justice and equity, for what is happening is not a movement in favor (let us say) of “persecution and oppression” but a clearer notion of the true requirements of justice and equity. In this regard, the powerful minds of the Jewish intellectual community have had a far greater impact upon Jewish public opinion—as upon public opinion at large—than is generally understood. Jesse Jackson has done much less to reshape the consensus within Jewry than Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Henry Kissinger, and the editor of COMMENTARY.
I have so many disagreements with the symposium statement, I hardly know where to begin. So I will begin autobiographically.
During the 60’s I was both a civil-rights activist, twice arrested, and a supporter of Israel. Although my friends in the New Left like Tom Hayden were hostile to Israel, it was not very hard for me to harmonize my two gut sympathies. Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, two Jews from New York and a black from rural Mississippi, were killed together while registering voters in Neshoba County. Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke at the August 1963 March on Washington, and sang “We Shall Overcome” with Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today things are much more polarized, and I find it more difficult, and more lonely, to think of myself as a supporter of both Israel, and what used to be called civil rights.
The one part of the statement that I can agree with is that the events since August 1979 have affected my thinking as a Jew. I was hurt and enraged by the conduct of Jesse Jackson. His words in many places were plainly anti-Semitic in that they singled Jews out for abuse. As my friend Roger Wilkins has said, Jackson’s remark about being sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust is the most obscene comment I’ve ever heard. Jackson’s attacks on the “Jewish media” and on “Jewish slumlords” reveal him as a black Father Coughlin. (Jackson attacked David Shipler of the New York Times for Jewish bias, and Shipler isn’t even Jewish.)
But I draw no generalizations from Jackson. He is an individual trying to hustle Arab money to finance his paper organization. If this doesn’t work, a man of Jackson’s character would go to the Mafia tomorrow with a new line, seeking its funds. The same is true of Roy Innis and other hustlers for hire.
But the question asked is, should these events justify a reconsideration of a commitment to liberalism, and to the Democratic party?
This leads one to contemplate what I call John Connally’s “cross of crude” speech, where he plainly said America should sacrifice the security of Israel for a steady source of crude oil. Connally is a much more powerful, much more representative, and much more dangerous person than Jackson. His scary speech was apparently read in advance by Henry Kissinger, and was ratified by such conservatives as Kevin Phillips. These men, and the forces in the country behind them, are much more of a threat to Israel than any black leaders. And many of the defenders of Israel remain traditional Democratic liberals like Edward Kennedy, Elizabeth Holtzman, Howard Metzenbaum, as well as socialists like Irving Howe and Michael Harrington.
In recent history, the great pain to me has not been caused by liberals betraying Israel, but by Jews betraying liberalism. I speak of those Jewish intellectuals who publicly endorsed two criminals in 1972 named Nixon and Agnew. I speak of a polarizing mayor named Edward Koch who says that “most blacks are anti-Semitic” and who attacks Judge Bruce Wright without even knowing the facts.
What I believe is that in the long run, Jews and blacks, the middle class and the working class, have much more in common than they have in disagreement. Despite quotas and Bakke, we share vast mutual interests, class interests against the interests of the multinational corporations, the oil companies, the banks, the AMA, the utilities, the right wing, the Connallys, and the Reagans.
We share a common ground on lower interest rates, cheaper energy, tax reform, full employment, greater civil liberties, national health insurance, better schools, less street crime, less pollution of the air and the land, less government and corporate corruption. We are consumers. We are borrowers. We breathe the same air and walk the same streets.
Does COMMENTARY really think that a position on quotas is more important, or more relevant, than all these issues that determine the daily life of ordinary people?
Also, given the public remarks of Connally, Billy Carter, Kevin Phillips, Spiro Agnew, and others, singling out “liberals” for turning against Israel strikes me as just as unfair and inaccurate as Jesse Jackson singling out “Jews” for turning against black equality. They are equally irrational perceptions of reality.
We must heal the tear between blacks and Jews. We must find Jewish leaders who are willing to denounce racism, and we must find black leaders willing to denounce anti-Semitism. As Vernon Jordan said in his memorable speech in Kansas City: “The only ones who benefit from black-Jewish tensions are the enemies of both groups. It is time to stop providing joy to the cross burners and bomb throwers. It is time to strengthen the traditional, fruitful alliance between blacks and Jews. That alliance must be based on mutual respect, concern for each group’s vital interests, and a refusal to categorize all blacks or Jews for the actions or statements of some.”
So, in the end, I believe that the interests of both Jews and blacks can still be best represented through what COMMENTARY calls the standard liberal agenda.
I happen to favor affirmative action, but not strict quotas, although reasonable people may differ. I support Israel, although I oppose many specific policies of the Begin government, from settlements to South Africa. Reasonable people may differ.
But I cannot believe that differences on these issues justify any retreat from fundamental commitments to economic equality, racial justice, and civil liberties, from the moral and intellectual roots of the standard liberal agenda.
Those wise men of the tribe who told us to vote for Nixon in 1972 “for the sake of Israel,” should be remembered for their wretched judgment.
I know who my friends are and I know who my enemies are. Vernon Jordan is my brother. John Connally is my enemy.
In 1972, during the Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign, a friend of mine, a Jew, and a credentialed liberal, quipped, “I’ve been a lifelong Republican—these past few months.” And indeed, the 90 per cent of the Jewish community which opted for Johnson over Goldwater and for Humphrey over Nixon, cracked. Nixon scored a landslide victory among Jews. Well, not quite. He polled about 35 per cent of the Jewish vote. McGovern, the Democrats’ most liberal candidate, fared worse among his party’s most liberal bloc, Jews, than had any of his predecessors in modern times—and still received 65 per cent of their votes. The liberal candidate had simultaneously won a whopping majority and suffered a resounding defeat among Jews. The conservative candidate, while being trounced by Jews, won their unprecedented support.
The significance of this curious movement in 1972’s Jewish voting patterns was shunted aside, though hardly blunted, by the 1976 presidential elections. Confronted by candidates Ford and Carter, both centrists without Nixon’s and McGovem’s clearly visible field markings of “conservative” and “liberal,” 85 per cent of us voted Democratic, our quadrennial conditioned reflex.
Recently, scolds have remarked anew on a seeming desertion of liberal ranks by Jews. My own view is that the politics of Jews are indeed undergoing marked change, but that our loyalty to the liberal polity has been constant. In this process, we are learning that some of our allies of yesteryear are now our adversaries, and that among yesteryear’s adversaries, some are now allies. In neither relationship is mutual affection a meaningful factor. In both, perceived self-interest is.
The most contentious domestic issue on which Jews and their erstwhile allies have split is quotas. For having filed amicus briefs in the DeFunis, Bakke, Weber, and Fullilove cases challenging the constitutionality of racial quotas in admission to colleges, in rights related to employment, and in rights to secure government contracts, Jews have been charged with defection from the liberal camp. But we manned the same legal ramparts in the 1950’s and 1960’s when we challenged legally-sanctioned racism in school admissions, in access to places of public accommodation, in housing, and in employment. Then, we fought alongside blacks and liberals so that race, color, and creed would be rendered irrelevant to our rights as Americans and be removed as a basis for either state-favored or state-imposed handicaps. Today, black and liberal organizations square off against us, defend race as a criterion for state favor, and, glancing to our flanks, we find that we are joined in the courts and in the opinion polls by strangers to our earlier briefs—ethnic groups.
If any generalization can be made with some degree of safety concerning the foreign-policy dispositions of Jews, it is that we have been against authoritarian governments, and for their freedom-aspiring subjects; we have been against fervid nationalism and have been banner carriers for One World. Given our experiences with dictatorships and with ethnocentrism, it is no accident that we exceeded by far our 2.7 per cent of the population on letterheads of organizations which championed the United Nations, which raised money for independence movements in the Third World, and which opposed high military budgets. In these stances, we were an integral part of the liberal movement. But something happened to our quorum.
The United Nations General Assembly, with Newspeak aplomb, has declared Zionism to be racism. Many of the Third World nations whose governance by the likes of England, France, and Belgium evoked our compassion and our assistance, are today aligned with the Soviet Union, the world’s largest grist-mill for institutionalized anti-Semitism, and with the Arab nations against Israel.
Our Jewish experience as scapegoat in war has been an added propellant in our pursuit of peace. And so we have felt at home in liberal and socialist camps. After all, such groups fought for progressive change with our weaponry, words, whereas the generals and the rightists resisted change, with force. Here, too, something has gone amiss. The generals who are critical of détente are wary not of democratic Europe or Jewish and democratic Israel, but of the totalitarian Soviet Union, Israel’s spoiler and Jewry’s implacable enemy. The leaders of international socialism, led by the impeccable Willy Brandt and the peccable Bruno Kreisky, welcome to the fold of socialist Realpolitik Yasir Arafat, sealing their troth with embraces. And the nonaligned nations, our planet’s “little guys,” professing independence from both the Communist and capitalist behemoths, form a pack and snarl accusations that Zionism is guilty of crimes against humanity, accusations heretofore made only by Nazis.
Andrew Young, in the wake of whose resignation brewing black anti-Semitism verbally bubbled and geysered, is not only the symbol of diverging interests between blacks and Jews, but between Jews and traditional liberals in the area of foreign policy. The latter rift is succinctly evident in a Harris poll conducted shortly after Young’s resignation. Asked, “Was Andrew Young right to sit down with the PLO?,” 50 per cent of liberal respondents said yes and 39 per cent no. But conservatives scored 32 per cent yes and 60 per cent no, the smallest grouping supporting Young’s illicit assignation, the largest critical of it—save Jews.
Does this suggest that liberals are no longer our allies and that conservatives are, as domestically we pursue the ideal of a compassionate state which neither favors nor punishes its citizens on the grounds of race, and, abroad, we press for the security of Israel? Not really.
To the extent that liberals support state-sanctioned racist criteria for participation in either the public or private sector, they are our and democracy’s antagonists. To the extent that in their sympathy for those who do not enjoy self-rule, liberals are indifferent to the military-strategic implications for the United States and for Israel of a self-rule that is dictatorial or faces toward the Soviet Union, they are our and democracy’s antagonists.
But it was Kaiser-Aluminum which conceived and implemented the racial-quota system we contested in Weber. The company’s conservative rugged-individualism crumbled before the prospect of possibly losing government contracts in retaliation for not practicing reverse discrimination. Academic institutions thought to be the fountainhead of intellectual elitism and the merit system have indulged in de facto quotas lest they lose government grants. Industrialists vie with one another to sell their products to the Soviet Union, and in consummating their sales, nourish Communism, their nemesis—and Jewry’s.
If liberal ideology lists its ship portside, conservative greed lists it starboard. Jewish interests are secure in neither vessel. The liberal agenda and ours are no longer coincident and at times not even parallel. While, alas, commonality with the conservative agenda is only rhetoric-deep. If, here and there, liberals and conservatives are potential allies, the alliance will evolve on an ad-hoc basis when our interests coincide, and not through declared togetherness that glosses over our different promptings and the divergent strategies required to realize our respective agendas.
Just as the liberal agenda has been forming and reforming in response to its ideology, and the conservative agenda in response to the self-interests of its business-minded patrons, so must the Jewish agenda look to Jewish interests. Happily, or at least fortunately, Jewish interests are in close harmony with democracy’s ideals—the supremacy of the person rather than of his race or class and the security of the democratic system vis-à-vis totalitarianism. Group rights effectively mean government intercession in behalf of their realization. In a popular democracy that means the courtship by politicians of the largest group and /or the one with the most leverage. Therein lies the danger of quotas for all minorities, including blacks. And accommodations with the Soviets and their client states, which strengthen the Communist sphere of influence, render democratic America relatively weaker, thereby exposing Jews to dangers the auguries of which are even now plainly evident from the Gulags of the Soviet Union west to the United Nations on 42nd Street.
Jews continue to abhor racial discrimination. But we add: no matter if its victims now include whites. And Jews continue to hanker for One World. But not one without Israel.
As for the implications of this for the 1980 elections, much will depend on the candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties. In 1972, Jews softly but audibly suggested that simply because a candidate wore a name-tag marked liberal, he shouldn’t take us for granted. In 1980, if unheeded, given our residential deployment, another 25 per cent swing just may be a determining factor in the making of the President.
Marc F. Plattner:
The questions posed here arise not primarily because of changes in the ways that American Jews perceive their own interests but because of changes in the character of American liberalism. One cannot sensibly address the issue of liberalism and the Jews without first making it clear what one understands by liberalism.
The most fundamental and unambiguous meaning of liberalism is that which is expressed in the phrase “liberal democracy.” Liberalism in this sense refers to a political regime based upon individual rights, private property, religious toleration, representative government, and equality before the law. Liberalism so understood traces its philosophic roots to the thought of John Locke, and its basic principles are embodied in the founding documents of the American Republic. Regimes devoted to these principles have usually been those most hospitable to the interests of their Jewish citizens, as well as to the interests of religious and ethnic minorities in general. This is more true than ever today, and thus American Jews have every reason to maintain their full commitment to a liberal political order. But since this commitment has been shared by the vast majority of Americans, it does not tell us a great deal about the choices that Jews have made in American electoral politics.
The term liberalism also had a relatively clear meaning in practical political matters from the 1930’s to the mid-1960’s, a period almost exactly coinciding with the middle third of the 20th century. The New Deal liberalism that dominated the Democratic party during this era was characterized by support for the welfare state, strong labor unions, a mixed economy with a healthy private sector, and economic growth; by sympathy toward the interests of ethnic and racial minorities; by an anti-fascist and then an anti-Communist foreign policy; and by a concern for preserving and fostering liberal democratic regimes and principles abroad. As the party most receptive to ethnic minorities and one that had a principal political base in the large cities where so many American Jews resided, the Democrats naturally attracted a large majority of Jewish voters.
Since the late 1960’s, however, the liberalism born with the New Deal has steadily eroded both as a distinctive political outlook and as a force in electoral politics. In part, this has been a consequence of success: conservatives and Republicans have largely come to accept much of the old liberal program. And in part it has been an inevitable consequence of the passage of time: new issues have emerged that cut across the old ideological divisions, and changing circumstances and concerns have cast some old issues in a new light. But New Deal liberalism was not allowed to decline gracefully into an honored old age; instead, it was scorned and supplanted by a decisive faction within the Democratic party itself.
In retrospect, the fundamental decency of mid-century liberalism and its instinctive loyalty to the noblest aspects of the American political tradition seem more admirable than ever. But in the light of liberalism’s unseemly disintegration, it is hard not to conclude that its intellectual foundations—its understanding of its own basic principles—were woefully shallow. How else can one explain why so many liberals were swept up in or cowed by the radical assaults of the late 1960’s? Accustomed to regarding themselves as champions of the poor and the oppressed, they could not find an adequate response to those who espoused illiberal principles, proposed illiberal measures, and took illiberal actions allegedly on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.
As a result of this abdication, the liberal label has increasingly been bestowed upon men and measures that are hostile not only to the spirit of, New Deal liberalism but to the spirit of liberal democracy itself. It is no surprise, then, that what today often passes for liberalism may encompass not merely support for quotas and sympathy for the PLO, but the countenancing of public expressions of anti-Semitism. It has been clear for some time that open hostility to Israel and to Jews is now more likely to come from the Left than the Right, and insofar as those currently called liberals are unwilling to attack the Left, they will be swept along willy-nilly by these currents. Such developments can only hasten a rethinking on the part of American Jews of their long-standing self-identification as liberals—a rethinking to which they, like many other Americans, are being driven in any event by the new face of American liberalism.
The immediate consequences of all this for electoral politics remain uncertain because it is so unclear at this point not only who the presidential nominees will be in 1980 but how they will define their views in the course of the upcoming primaries. I myself have never before faced the start of an election year with so little sense of which of the candidates I would like to see elected President, and I suspect that many American Jews share this uncertainty. Nonetheless, given the still lingering influence of past allegiances, it is reasonably safe to predict that a majority of Jews will once again vote Democratic, and that the size of this majority will be somewhat greater if Kennedy is the Democratic nominee. But a Republican candidate who was perceived as strongly pro-Israel and relatively moderate on other issues would probably run a very close race among Jews against President Carter. In any case, I believe that the days when the Democratic party label alone was enough to assure a presidential candidate of the “Jewish vote” are rapidly coming to an end.
Adherents of the “standard liberal agenda” have been shrinking in number; so have its Jewish adherents. But saying this is about as startling as noting that drivers of eight-cylinder cars have been diminishing in number.
Democrats and self-styled liberal Americans have been voting for Proposition 13’s all over the country. That is not part of the standard liberal agenda. The persistent standard-bearers of that agenda have become increasingly ghettoized. The bulk of the old liberal corps has taken on a new pattern in domestic philosophy. As usual, the Jews epitomize—or, if you will, caricature—that new pattern.
A recent regional survey of Jewish attitudes suggests the nature of the pattern. By at least a three-to-one margin in each case, Jews supported the admission of all Vietnamese refugees who could not find refuge elsewhere; supported the active involvement of the Jewish community in fighting job discrimination against blacks; and supported necessary government measures to improve health care for the aged. And about one-third made a distinction between quota programs, which they opposed, and affirmative-action programs, which they supported.
At the same time, by about a two-to-one margin in both cases, these same Jews supported a statutory limitation on government spending and opposed the creation of more public-service jobs with federal funds. And by an even larger margin, they supported longer sentences for criminals.
The Jews remain socially liberal with respect to their active political concern about refugees, the oppressed, the deprived, and the poor. They are significantly more responsive on such questions than any other segment of the white population—in the case of the Vietnamese refugees, more responsive than any segment of the population.
But the Jews are fiscally conservative in about the same degree as the rest of the white population, but more strongly than Jews have been previously. And the Jews are law-and-order conservative, again like the rest of the population, but more explicitly than Jews have been in the past. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” as used here remain happily undefined, beyond referring to apparent distance from the standard liberal agenda.
This is the new pattern, for the Jews; and, to some extent, for most of the standard liberal host. It has some obvious implications for political choice which are lost on no one.
However, there is another matter which tends to differentiate Jewish consciousness even more sharply from erstwhile “standard liberal” perceptions. The ADL once published a book about anti-Jewish hostility entitled Danger from the Right, certainly a standard liberal item. The modern version would have to be entitled Danger from the Left. The reason is compounded of connected concerns about Israel and about American anti-Semitism.
On the Middle Eastern front, American Jews have become acutely aware of the central anti-Israel role of the Soviet Union. They were aware of Cuban troops in Syria. They are aware of the PLO’s connection with the Soviet Union, however strained through Levantine nationalism; they are aware of the PLO’s self-styled Marxist-Leninist bent. In short, the Camp David agreement with Egypt, and the subsequent prominence of the PLO issue, have made Jews more aware than ever before that the operative anti-Israel force in the world is a left-wing force, not always a captive of the Soviets, but always ideologically anti-American and anti-Western democracy.
Furthermore, this left-wing force is linked, often by the PLO itself, to a Third World context. In Africa and in Latin America, as well as in the Middle East, wherever this left-wing force emerges, it inevitably emerges with anti-Israel rhetoric. As it does in the industrialized nations, including the United States.
In the United States, it has long been noted that certain elements of the standard liberal establishment have displayed a flirtatious subservience to this left-wing force in its Third World guise—notably some sectors of the intellectuals, clergy, and urban “activist” bureaucracy. With a newly clarified sense of what’s going on in the world, wider circles of Jews have noted the soft approach of these particular “liberal” sectors to issues concerning Israel and to the PLO. Nor was it lost on Jews that the dangerous singling out of American Jewry following the Andrew Young resignation stemmed from some of these liberal sectors and was not signally rejected by some others.
In brief, significant numbers of American Jews have self-consciously lost their deadly innocence on this score.
What will this mean for political choices by American Jewry in 1980? Perhaps never before has the specific presidential candidate been so important. Most Jews would still like to find their candidate within the Democratic party. The Democratic party still stands for the kind of general social liberalism to which Jews cling. The Republican party has long been stigmatized as the party without social compassion. But there is something else.
American Jewry has scarcely forgotten the danger from the Right. Jews will not trust oil-company candidates, nor will they embrace prophets of social or political repression, no matter how widely they may bare their teeth in friendly grins toward Israel. Right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism are still seen as companion pieces, and the Republican party is seen as the potential site of such right-wing extremism.
The Jews have no place to go but to the Center. They will remain heavily Democratic in registration, but will become more independent than ever in the voting booth. They will vote for a candidate who stands for some optimal combination of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism; but, most of all, they will be wary of any Democratic party candidate who does not project a clear recognition of the danger from the Left—in terms of the Middle East, for example, and in terms of America’s military and moral strength. If they find no such candidate, some may indeed drift to the Republican party, if that party’s candidate does not frighten them.
It is a little difficult to respond to the symposium questions for two reasons. First, the opening statement makes certain assumptions which I do not accept. For example, not all “liberals” (whatever that much abused term means) support quotas. It is true that some use “affirmative action” as a code-word for quotas. Others, however, do not, and I feel that a good case can be made for some forms of affirmative action. Further, the amount of black anti-Semitism can be exaggerated, and blanket statements are unwarranted. The tendency to lump all black criticism of Israel or of certain Jewish organizations under the same rubric is unfair. After all, many whites, including some Jews, are making similar criticisms. I am not particularly fond of the PLO, but the issues are quite complex and it is not particularly helpful to assume (as the statement does) that all of those who feel that the PLO must be taken into account are ipso facto hostile to Israel or to Jews in general. Jews cannot expect blacks to love them or to subordinate their perceived interests to Jewish needs and concerns.
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the issues raised are important ones. Many so-called liberals do support quotas; many do romanticize the PLO (as they do almost any Third World movement which seems radical and/or anti-American); and at least some black leaders, partly because they identify with such movements and assume quotas to be a right, have revealed considerable hostility to Jews per se.
Having said all this, I still find it difficult to respond to the questions posed for a second reason. My disillusion with liberalism stems from the transformations it underwent during the 60’s. At that time many liberals were saying all sorts of things which they have now conveniently forgotten. For example, they were comparing the United States to Nazi Germany and Lyndon Johnson to Hitler, and they were romanticizing the “saintly” North Vietnamese. Even more importantly, a number of them were charging (Jewish) teachers in New York City with educational genocide against black youth; suggesting that the violence against (Jewish) shopkeepers by some black youth was the result of exploitation; and arguing that (Jewish and other) parents who feared to bus their children to predominantly black schools were all racists. Those who tried to suggest that the problems were more complex were often dismissed as evil people and were accused of blaming the victims for the crimes committed by the “oppressors.”
It gradually became clear to me that a good deal of what was passing for liberalism had less to do with the concern for the lives of ordinary people than it had to do with the opportunity which the race issue provided to satisfy other needs. At least in part, the movement of the 60’s provided a segment of the upper-middle class with a fine opportunity to feel superior as they urged the “respectable” working class to make sacrifices which they never contemplated making themselves. It also gave them the opportunity to vent a hatred which they felt for American culture and institutions. To such people, the pain of the working-class and lower-middle class Jews among whom I had grown up did not matter. They were non-persons.
It was then that a credibility gap developed for me: as I saw my parents and their friends hurt and maligned, I began to wonder if I had not been wrong in accepting a number of liberal stereotypes which had previously informed my perception of the world. Perhaps it was an oversimplification to say that the reaction to busing on the part of Irish and Italian ethnics was simply racism; that most businessmen were exploiters; and that every conflict between police and blacks (or students) was the result of police brutality. And as I reexamined my views I began to find that all sorts of “truths” which I had uncritically believed were at least problematic. What startled me most was the realization that many liberal intellectuals were as bound by narrow irrational prejudices as were ordinary folk. They simply rationalized them better, and published them in the guise of objective research.
Thus I had changed my views in important ways before the issues raised by the symposium became salient. I must say that the attitudes of too many liberals on these and other current issues further persuade me that I was right to change. The fact is that many such attitudes are derived from the revolution in liberal sensibilities which began during the 60’s.
This brings me to a rather painful point. My own research indicates that during the 60’s Jewish intellectuals played a key role in creating and spreading the gospel of “Amerika the ugly,” and the stereotypes which I outlined earlier. In the academy, in textbooks, on television, in the movies, as advisers to those in power, and in the student movement their influence may well have been critical. Their views have now spread to other segments of the population with consequences that have been quite harmful to both America and Israel in a number of ways.
Such Jews (and they were usually “deracinated” Jews) never constituted more than a small segment of the Jewish community, but they were instinctively supported—or regarded sympathetically—by substantial numbers of Jewish liberals. The support derived from a tendency to welcome movements which were seen (usually unconsciously) as weakening the dominant Christian culture. Despite their success in this country, all too many Jews were convinced that their only enemies were on the Right, a Right which they identified with Christian-based anti-Semitism.
Historically they were correct. Unfortunately, they failed to realize, despite the lessons of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, that a triumph for the Left could be even more destructive of their ideal and material interests. Some have belatedly recognized this and have finally decided that America isn’t all that bad. Unfortunately, their change of heart may have come too late. We witness a kind of public anomie which will probably continue to grow as we fail—partly because of it—to deal effectively with the very real problems which confront us.
It is hard to predict what those Jewish liberals who preserve at least some sense of their Jewish identity will do under such circumstances. For one thing, given American dependence on oil, and the decline of American power to act in the international sphere, increasing numbers of Americans (and not only liberals) are going to refuse to maintain a commitment to Israel which seems to jeopardize their standard of living. Support for negotiations with the PLO, therefore, will become increasingly widespread. For another, old habits die hard. Not that it really matters all that much. The influence of the Jewish intellectual community on the cultural and political life of this country is now on the wane for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is the revolution in American sensibilities which we helped bring about.
Was it Bismarck who said that if you’re not a socialist at twenty you have no heart and if you’re still a socialist at fifty you have no brains? This seems to become more like wisdom the closer I get to the latter age. I must admit, I do still like to think of myself as a socialist and a liberal, just as I did at twenty; it’s the world that’s changed, I keep telling myself, not me. But then this is merely to spell out the real meaning of the remark: a conservative is someone who doesn’t adapt to change, even if his ideas are still those of the radical of yesteryear. So are we forced to concede that, to be a middle-aged liberal, one must be ready to surrender or compromise old loyalties—such as, to take a most significant example for myself and many others, a commitment to the continuing integrity and security of the state of Israel?
How can I ever forget that radiantly sunny day when, with a group of fellow high-school students from Brooklyn, I visited the UN at Lake Success shortly after it had voted for the creation of the Jewish state? We marched from the train arm-in-arm singing Spanish Civil War songs, World War II fighting songs, Shostakovich’s “United Nations on the March,” and “Tsena, Tsena,” one after the other. I still saw the world this way when I began teaching history at one of the New York city colleges in the late 50’s; but by 1965, my last year there, things had begun to change. In one of my evening classes there was a handsome young couple from Argentina; soon to be married, they were preparing to face life together as countrymen of Che Guevara, in spirit as well as fact. The course covered European history from 1914 to 1945, and during most of it there was scarcely a point on which my eyes did not meet theirs in passionate mutual understanding; when I talked about French Resistance heroes they wept openly, and I nearly did, too, right in front of the class. Then I began to talk about the Holocaust, and their passion steadily subsided; of course they accepted Jewish suffering under Nazism as part of their moral universe, but there obviously was something about my Jewish-history approach to the subject that bothered them. One evening after class they asked me if I was Jewish, and when I said yes, the romance came to an end. It would have been easy to dismiss them in my mind as conventional anti-Semites, but I found their particular conventions disturbing. Being not just a Jew but a committed one—and they had come to know perfectly well where I stood on Israel—I was, in their eyes, objectively reactionary.
Now, I’m afraid it is true that in one area my political outlook has not merely stood still over the years but moved a bit to the Right—that of American foreign policy. In spite of the disaster of Vietnam and all the justifiable reasons idealistic Latin Americans have for hating the State Department, I can no longer imagine that the spread of Communist influence abroad is a matter of indifference to me; and I cannot share what seems to be the instinct of many liberals to oppose American commitments in virtually any part of the world where the going gets rough. Allowing for the elements of crotchety middle age behind these views, they seem above all to be the result, indeed, of a dialectic of Jewish commitment. Anyone sensitive to the Russian Jewish history of the past eighty years or so is particularly aware of the ways in which the Soviets have perverted the ideals of their revolution. And I, like most committed Jews, have long found the realities of Israel to be the main stumbling block in the way of easy endorsement of liberal clichés concerning American foreign policy.
Shall I simply surrender, then, to the dialectic that seems to want to make me objectively a conservative? I don’t want to, and in spite of everything I believe I don’t have to yet. Why is it that, though my responses usually tend to the Right when the discussion is on the level of generalization and rhetoric, I find myself becoming more liberal when the isues are dealt with concretely? I was once about to share some critical views on Kissinger with a nominally Jewish graduate of 1960’s campus radicalism, when suddenly he asserted that Kissinger had, after fleeing from Nazi Germany, ultimately contributed to the creation of another Nazi Germany here; I thereupon became a raving conservative. Why does so much “progressive” rhetoric have to include aspersions on the Holocaust? Whenever I hear Zionism being referred to as “racist” and “genocidal” I feel like standing to the Right of Menachem Begin. Yet, when I stand face-to-face with Palestinian Arabs in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, or with Israeli Arabs in Nazareth, and talk about their genuine grievances and aspirations, then I become a liberal—like more than a few Israelis. Moshe Dayan recently told the New York Times that, for the sake of real peace, “you have to know the Arabs and to like them,” as he does. I would add: at least know something about them; there is more in this than in all your Third World ideology.
It seems to me that the problems are basically the same in our major domestic challenge to Jewish liberal traditions—that of the present crisis in the black-Jewish relationship. Just as there were blacks ten years ago who were ready to see “genocide” in the fumblings of any Jewish schoolteacher, so also are there some today who see “racist” implications in Israel’s relations with South Africa. In the other direction, there are Jews who continue to trample on black sensitivities by being patronizing. But does all this mean that one of the most vital and important inter-group relationships in American history is to dissolve in a flood of mere rhetoric and careless attitudinizing? I can discuss the faults of Israel’s foreign policy as long as I am not met with sweeping ideological condemnations of the state’s moral foundations. As for the real bone of contention between Jews and blacks today, the problem of quotas and affirmative action, I can only say in this short space that I for one—and I am not alone in this—fail to see why the Jewish commitment that causes me to support Israel’s existence and integrity should also cause me to support the Bakke decision. “Quota” is a scare word and the meaning of “affirmative action” can often be vague, but, the problems of semantics aside, I think the University of California at Davis was doing the right thing. The major Jewish organizations have not properly represented committed Jews who are liberals on this issue; perhaps we need an organization of our own.
Alexander M. Schindler:
The symposium statement scarcely opens a dialogue. It enters a brief. It advances the argument that because some liberals have taken positions inimical to Jewish interests, Jews should abandon their liberal commitments. This argument is flawed in that it is predicated on assumptions which distort the truth.
Just where, for instance, is there the wide support for quotas among liberals of which COMMENTARY speaks? I do not find it, not among Jewish liberals supporting affirmative action, or even among blacks. Indeed, a recent study established that a preponderant majority of blacks are resolutely opposed to quotas. Why shouldn’t they be? After all, blacks too and not just Jews were “quota-ed” to death, squeezed out of industry after industry by such a means.
A diminishing enthusiasm for Israel among liberals? Perhaps so. Yet this diminution cuts across all segments of American society, alas. It obtains in conservative ranks as well. More to the point, adverse sentiment is fueled in no small measure by forces from the Right, by oil companies tripping over petrodollar-laden bankers in their mutual effort to please and appease their oil-rich client states.
In Congress, we still count first on liberals to stand at Israel’s side. We look to Church as we once looked to Humphrey. Is he a reactionary? Is Kennedy? Connally is a most ominous cloud on America’s political horizon. Is he a liberal? In the wake of the Andrew Young affair, a study of voting patterns was made which disclosed that the record of black and Jewish legislators is virtually identical, on domestic matters—and on Israel!
The paucity of liberal protest against post-Andrew Young anti-Semitism troubles me. But is the disaffection or cowardice of some allies sufficient cause for abandoning the quest? In any event, let us note that while there was too great a silence in the liberal community, most of this anti-Semitism was given its blatant expression in the camps of radicalism and reaction.
Do not misunderstand me—I am not saying that such developments can safely be ignored. We must see them and weigh them. They may well compel us to alter our liberal strategies. But nothing that I have seen so far persuades me to abandon my commitment to the liberal ideal.
Will these developments lead to a significant erosion of Jewish support for the Democratic party in 1980? I do not think so. That is to say, there well might be such an erosion but it will come for reasons other than ideology. The identity of the banner-bearer will surely be the dominant factor. A Carter-Bush confrontation will bring one result, a Connally-Carter contest quite another.
I am aware of the conventional wisdom which holds that Jews are increasingly voting a more moderate position. This may well be true in local and state elections. It has not yet been fully established on a national level (remember McGovern?). I have a sneaking suspicion that if there is a clear choice along ideological lines, with, say, a Kennedy confronting a Reagan, most Jews will close the curtain of the voting booth, take a deep breath, and vote for Kennedy.
It is true, of course, that the Jewish community in its corporate form has become more moderate. It has turned inward and away from the world. It pays lip-service to the liberal ideal but is less than fervent in its pursuit of that ideal. What is needed, therefore, is not to have the Jewish community reassess its liberal commitment, but rather revive and restore it.
Liberalism, as I understand it, spurs us to create through the political process a society which is compassionate and open and respects individual existence in its infinite variety. This is precisely the kind of society which has always been safest for the Jew. And because it is also a just society, it is more congruent with that message which we presumably bear.
The last time that the coincidence of Jewish and liberal interests was “called into question” was on the eve of the 1972 McGovern-Nixon presidential race. Then, too, not a few observers felt that the anti-Semitism of the New Left, the growing tension between the Jewish and black communities, and the unwillingness of many liberals to take a forthright stand against “progressive” anti-Semitism would surely bring about a “significant movement away from the Democratic party.” That Nixon was openly pro-Israel, and was obviously the favorite candidate of the Israelis, while McGovern was widely perceived as an isolationist, seemed to clinch the argument. Indeed, so convincing did the case for Jewish conservatism appear that many spoke as though the Jews had already become a part of the emerging Republican majority.
In the event, things did not quite work out as expected. McGovern won almost two out of three Jewish votes, doing better among the Jews than Adlai Stevenson had done in 1956. Clearly, the affinity of Jews for liberalism is rather deep-seated. And yet, it is also a very curious affinity, for, as Alan Fisher has astutely pointed out in the American Jewish Historical Quarterly (December 1976): “What makes the liberalism of the Jews so unique is that almost all of the demographic characteristics of the Jews are associated with a more conservative stance. . . . Jews are, therefore, not only different, they are extremely different.”
Theories purporting to explain Jewish liberal proclivities have not been lacking. The most common explanation is that Jewish liberalism derives from Judaism’s powerful stress on social justice. This argument would be more convincing if the most observant Jews were not—as they frequently are—the most conservative politically, and if the most liberal Jews were not—as they frequently are—the least observant.
Other theories argue that Jewish liberalism derives from “status insecurity” and from feelings of “marginality.” Were this so, one would expect third- and fourth-generation Jews, who are not at all insecure and who harbor no feelings of marginality, to be less liberal than their anxiety-ridden, marginal forebears. Alas, younger Jews are actually more liberal than their parents. So much for the predictive powers of sociology.
My own theory—which I advance very tentatively—is that Jews are liberals because the Jewish tradition, with its emphasis on scholarship and cerebration, inclines them to identify with intellectuals who, in the main, are decidedly liberal. (Why intellectuals are attracted to liberalism is a separate question, best left to another COMMENTARY symposium.) The only Jews who do not readily identify with intellectuals are the non-liberal Orthodox. To them, intellectuals are agents of secularization, to be shunned on those grounds alone. To non-Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, intellectuals represent reason, enlightenment, and the repudiation of anti-Semitic yahooism.
Of course, the fact that Jews have been consistent liberals in the past does not preclude the possibility that they may change their minds in the future. The likelihood of their doing so, however, is remote—and for several reasons. First, over a wide range of issues, Jews remain more liberal than other white Americans. To quote Fisher once again: “In attitudes toward integration, equal rights, welfare for the poor, and national health-care programs, Jews are more liberal than they were twenty years ago. On the most recent referents—marijuana, abortion, and pollution—differences with non-Jews are immense.”
Second, when Jews are disappointed by liberals—as they were, most recently, during the Andrew Young affair—their typical response is not to become more conservative, but, rather, to become more particularist. For example, during the 60’s the Reform movement, which tends to stress social activism, was heavily engaged in the civil-rights struggle. As blacks became more anti-Jewish, Reform Jews did not reconsider their liberal commitment. They did, however, become more involved in specifically Jewish activities. I would therefore expect that the Young affair will result in greater donations to the UJA this year, but I very much doubt that it will encourage defections from the Democratic party.
When it comes to voting behavior, the Jewish attitude to liberal candidates is really quite striking. Instead of asking, “Is so-and-so good for the Jews?” what Jews actually ask is, “Is so-and-so bad for the Jews?” As long as the answer is no, Jews will tend to vote for the liberal, even if the conservative candidate is better for the Jews. Thus, given a choice between a conservative candidate who opposes American recognition of the PLO under any circumstances, and a liberal who favors recognition of the PLO under certain circumstances, most American Jews, I expect, would vote for the liberal. Similarly, given a choice between a conservative who is “good” on quotas and a liberal who is “bad” on quotas but “good” on other things, most Jews would still prefer the liberal. To alienate the Jewish vote, a liberal candidate would have to be an overt anti-Semite. To win the Jewish vote, a conservative candidate, even if he were a philo-Semite, would have to be very, very lucky. The all too predictable upshot of this liberal “tilt” is that liberals take the Jewish vote for granted, while conservatives write it off from the start. As a Jew, I do not see this as a particularly desirable state of affairs. I hope Jewish voting patterns become more evenhanded—more “centrist,” if you will—but I doubt that any such transformation will occur in the near future. My great fear is that unless Jews move closer to the Center of the American political spectrum, they will become increasingly isolated and vulnerable.
As far as my own views on liberalism are concerned, I begin with a fundamental premise: the key political issue of our time is the struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. I cannot see why support for the party of freedom necessarily makes one a conservative, but I have to admit that conservatives have been more alert than liberals to the Communist threat. Given a choice between a liberal candidate who is “dovish” on foreign affairs, and a conservative candidate who is “hawkish” on foreign affairs, most American Jews would probably vote for the liberal. I myself would vote for the conservative, even though on many domestic issues I am more sympathetic to the liberal viewpoint. It is, I believe, a question of priorities. I still consider myself a liberal, but my first priority, as a liberal and as an American Jew, is survival—the survival of America, the survival of Israel, the survival of freedom.
If I find myself out of step with the majority of American Jews, I am also out of step with the minority of “neoconservatives” who have decided, evidently, to quit the liberal fold altogether. In my opinion, they are committing a grave error. They are surrendering the word liberal to the enemies of liberalism. They seem not to realize that a great deal of political discourse revolves around symbols, and that the word liberal, despite its current debasement, remains a potent and valuable symbol, an emblem of decency and humanitarianism. I would argue that Jews like myself must hold on to the liberal appellation for two reasons: (1) we have a perfectly good claim on the word; (2) if we surrender it, our enemies will get it by default and use it against us. We should make it clear, however, that our liberalism has nothing in common with the ersatz radicalism and craven appeasement which passes for “liberalism” today.
As for the 1980 elections, I think Jews should not pay any attention to ideological or party labels in the forthcoming presidential race, nor should they be swayed by promises of support on issues of particular concern to them. (As Lenin said, “Promises are like pie crusts, made to be broken.”) Rather, they should carefully scrutinize each candidate’s key advisers, especially his foreign-policy and energy advisers. Instead of thinking of presidential candidates as human beings, with emotions, consciences, souls, and other human attributes, it might be useful to conceive of them as ambulatory computer terminals, each of which is hooked up to a given number of information systems (“advisers”) which provide the computer with its inputs, thereby determining its output. In 1980, Jews should select the computer terminal most likely to provide a satisfactory printout. If this sounds excessively cynical, I am sorry. As our dear friend Zbigniew Brzezinski has informed us, ours is the “technetronic era.” Besides, politics is a rough game.
The “interest” of Jews in America can be very variously defined. For those who are ambitious, equality of opportunity in every field of activity regardless of religious belief or affiliation or ethnic and religious ancestry is a desideratum. For those who wish to live according to the law, the freedom to do so without suffering any disabilities other than the inconvenience which this necessitates in a society in which they are a small minority is to their interest. For those who wish to divest themselves of their traditions and to be nonbelieving, nonobservant Americans of Jewish ancestry, the freedom to do that without having their ancestry held against them is to their interest. These “interests” of the Jews have existed ever since they came to the United States. Many of their civic activities have been formed about these interests, the satisfaction of which required the continuation and extension of the liberalism already widely practiced in many parts of the American society to which they came. Other contemporaneous immigrant groups had similar interests, but since they were not so ambitious as the Jews, they did not perceive these interests so urgently.
The American Jews thus had interests in common with all other Americans, which were to maintain and protect a liberal society. In this same sense they also had interests in common with blacks who were not recent immigrants and who wanted to have the same access to opportunities and rewards as persons of the prevailing type of pigmentation. For some reason, the Jews active in the main Jewish civic organizations became patrons of some of the main black organizations which were seeking to improve the civic and economic conditions of the black within an American society which they accepted in principle. The blacks, like the Jews and other recent immigrant ethnic groups, had an interest in being judged by those in authority in institutions in accordance with criteria which referred to their capacities and conduct and not to their pigmentation, or their present or ancestral religious beliefs, their recent territorial provenance, or the occupations of their ancestors.
The Jews’ real interest, as Americans and as Jews, was above all to maintain American society as a liberal society of human beings as free as stability and orderliness allow, and to respect the traditions of national loyalty in which their fellow countrymen lived and which were essential to their society’s liberalism. There were some points of conflict between their interests as Americans and their other interests as Jews. There were points of conflict with some of their fellow Americans, who were not as liberal as they were under obligation to be. There were also points of conflict because some of the Jews were not always as liberal in certain respects as the maintenance of American society required; they came to think that American society had to be fundamentally changed. They inclined toward the revision of liberalism in the direction in which a handful of American intellectuals, academics, and publicists, and a few politicians, were already trying to change it. As it has turned out, these changes were not changes in the direction of an extension of liberalism. Nonetheless, the proponents of these changes claimed to be liberals, although the program which they espoused came from a very different tradition, the tradition of adulation of the state, the tradition of Kathedersozialismus. This belief in the omnicompetent, omniprovident government has in the United States taken the form of collectivistic liberalism.
By and large, the first generation of American Jews of the great immigration which ran from the 1880’s to the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, jettisoned more of their own Jewish traditions than they needed to in order to gain what they desired in and from American society. In the difficulties under which they had to labor, as poor, uneducated, and newly arrived, they did quite well what they had to do. They were not political philosophers and they knew nothing about the doctrines of liberalism. Nonetheless, they became liberals. Some of them also slipped easily into collectivistic liberalism. Like other lower-class immigrants in the large cities, they became affiliated with the Democratic party. That was quite understandable and quite reasonable. The Jews fared well under the liberalism into which they had immigrated; the potentialities of the very different collectivistic liberalism seemed to be only reasonable extensions of the liberalism from which they benefited and they saw nothing of the dangers which it held for themselves and for American society. Therein hangs the tale.
The conditions of work in the industries which they first entered and their sympathies for a progressivistic, moderately socialistic outlook drew some of them further than the then prevailing liberalism. This liberalism had many limitations but the Jews had an obligation to it as the prevalent belief of American society. American society received them and they flourished in it, certainly in comparison with the alternatives available to them in Europe. Up to the great depression of the 1930’s, no harm and some good resulted from this slipping toward collectivistic liberalism for American society; the Jews lost nothing by it. American society was becoming a little more humane and its liberalism was extending its benefits to the Jews, although not without a certain amount of friction on both sides.
The Jews were also in internal conflict over the changes which they were experiencing in American society. They were renouncing the qualities and beliefs which they had developed as a “pariah people” and which had helped them to persist as a culture; they were also on their way to becoming members of a civil society which was rather different from the traditional Jewish society in which they had grown up. There was much pathos in this change. There were also two rather negative consequences: they went further in the renunciation of their own Jewish traditions than was necessary and they did not wholly assimilate the tradition of civility of the society into which they came. More specifically, many of the next generation of Jews of Eastern European parentage fell into a trough, losing much of their Jewish tradition and acquiring primarily that emergent variant of liberalism which laid stress on its distrust of authority and which at the same time expected benefits from the extension of governmental authority. They had the misfortune of coming of age in a period in which the older liberalism—the more genuinely liberal liberalism—was in discredit, and collectivistic liberalism was gaining in adherents. The liberalism of the Jews, like that of non-Jews, became a different thing from what it had been. This new kind of collectivistic liberalism, which has given liberalism a bad name and which causes traditional liberals to be misnamed as “neoconservatives,” is something which the Jews should never have espoused.
I do not think that this collectivistic liberalism should be disavowed by Jews merely because a handful of blacks who claim to speak for the much larger numbers of blacks who are intended to be its beneficiaries are now acting in an extremely silly way, including in their silliness a certain amount of anti-Semitism, a spiteful sympathy with the terrorist PLO, and support for some of the worst elements in the Middle East against Israel. After all, that is what is to be expected from collectivistic liberalism, and from its reinforcement by the current of belief which led many to become fellow-travelers. This fellow-traveling outlook had attracted many Jewish intellectuals in the 1930’s and 1940’s and it still exists in a silent belief that Communist countries are almost always in the right and that capitalistic, more or less liberal societies are in the wrong. The Jews should renounce collectivistic liberalism and its alliances with the heirs of a dimly surviving fellow-traveling and a foolish emancipationist radicalism. They should do so not just because they should desist from offering their patronage to anti-Jewish activities and beliefs but because collectivistic liberalism and its allies are wrong and injurious to American society as well as to themselves.
The whole of American society is being severely damaged by collectivistic liberalism and the anarchic emancipationism which asserts that every impulse is sacred and that inhibition and self-restraint are tantamount to oppression. The policy of spending more than we produce, neglecting the maintenance and the renewal of our capital plant, the suspension of standards of competence and achievement in work in large organizations, the physical and moral aggravation of the public scene in the United States, and the support of iniquitous conduct by the invocation of the First Amendment are the products of collectivistic liberalism conjoined with emancipationism, which is now part of the collectivistic liberal program. Collectivistic liberalism is harmful to everyone except those who have lucrative posts in its administration and propagation; emancipationism is further disordering American society and confers benefits primarily on pornographers, vendors of drugs, and “civil-liberties” lawyers. It is not to anyone else’s advantage, neither that of Jews nor that of blacks—witness the rotting away of a generation of young blacks, sustained and ruined in idleness by the self-righteously good intentions of collectivistic liberalism.
I think that Jews who are at present attached to it should cut themselves loose from this collectivistic liberalism. It is not to their interest as Jews, as Americans, or as Jewish Americans. Why should they take up a position which is ruining an imperfect but reasonably good society to which they owe so much? Why should they contribute to the ruination of American society, to the disadvantage of almost everyone in this society including in the long term blacks or Hispanics or any other ethnic minority which is being corrupted by collectivistic liberalism and deceived by the appointment of a small number of blacks or Hispanics to prominent positions?
Many Jews in the United States have contributed to the growth of collectivistic liberalism. They have added their fervor to it; they have attached to it what remains to them of secularized fragments of the prophetic tradition. But it must also be said on their behalf that they did not create it.
Richard T. Ely was not a Jew. Simon Nelson Patten was not a Jew. John Dewey was not a Jew nor was Thorstein Veblen. (I enter the name of John Dewey here with many misgivings because John Dewey was a very good man and he was not muddleheaded either; yet it cannot be denied despite the nobility of his character and despite the excellence of his influence on his great pupils, Sidney Hook and Ernest Nagel, that John Dewey’s beliefs were important ingredients of the collectivistic liberalism which is now having such disastrous consequences for our country and the world.) In the time of the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Corcoran, Henry Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, Harold Ickes, Hugh Johnson, and Harry Hopkins were not Jewish. Thurman Arnold, James Landis, Walton Hamilton, and the other gravediggers of the rule of law in the United States were not Jewish either. Jews, except for Benjamin Cohen, Felix Frankfurter, Jerome Frank, and a few others, were not in the front rank of the architects and executants of the New Deal.
I am neither a believing nor an observant Jew, but I am very appreciative of my Jewish ancestry and I have a very lively sense of affinity with Jews, with Ostjuden, German Jews, Sephardic Jews, Ben-Israel Jews, even Cochin Jews, and I am devoted to the state of Israel partly because I have a strong feeling of kinship with its people and I regard its accomplishments in the formation of a decent society as no less admirable than those of the Swiss or the Danes or the Dutch and done under more difficult circumstances. The Jews of the Hellenistic age and of the Roman empire are very close to me. I have a visual image of my descent from these Jews of long ago.
I am pious in sentiment toward my ancestors and I am full of affection—often critical but strong—toward the generation of my parents, the poor pants-pressers, buttonhole-makers, shirtwaist-makers, cigar makers, small shopkeepers who worked so hard in a strange environment and who became patriotic Americans. I have great respect for the courage of these worthy, poor people. I have much less respect for their offspring who availed themselves of the prolific opportunities afforded by this society, discarded without regret their ancestral language, did not care to learn their history and at the same time retained the alienness of those ancestors from their society, disparaging it from the standpoint of an ideal of moral perfection which for them was embodied in the Soviet Union, one of the most disagreeable societies ever engendered by human vices. Collectivistic liberalism was made to order for this generation. Ingratitude and incivility are its attendants.
I have often thought about liberalism but not as a Jew. I think that I have never thought of American public matters from the standpoint of “how will it help the Jews?” I have never participated in any Jewish organization, and I have never felt that I should “look at things as a Jew.” I am sure that my having come from an immigrant Jewish family has affected my outlook but I have always wanted to think of that outlook, such as it is, as something sui generis, as an outlook which must stand or fall on its own merits. I have drawn more from Aristotle and Burke and Adam Smith and Max Weber than I have from any writer who has written “from a Jewish standpoint,” except perhaps for Gershom Scholem.
Nonetheless, now that COMMENTARY has asked me to reflect on whether certain recent events “warrant a reconsideration by the Jewish community in general of its traditional commitment to liberalism,” I take on myself the onus of expressing the hope that my fellow Jews in the United States will turn away from collectivistic liberalism and its parasitic emancipationism and will instead reaffirm that unsystematic and inconsistent amalgam of tradition and liberalism which prevailed for a long time in the history of this country.
At present our country is in a poor way. Not all of its difficulties are attributable to collectivistic liberalism, but some of the most striking are. There is no sign of relief on the horizon. The leadership of the Democratic party is heavily burdened with the stereotypes which have been formed over the past fifty years and the deficiencies of character of those who presume to lead it do not offer a good prospect for an improvement in the near future. Will the Jews turn away from it in the next presidential election? I doubt that this will happen to any great extent; collectivistic liberalism is too engraved in their hearts for many of them to do so. And even if it were less deeply engraved, where could they turn? To the Republican party, which is also pervaded by the same stereotypes, or which thinks of the illiberal glories of the 1920’s, and whose self-presenting candidates for leadership offer little assurance or comfort?
I am not optimistic; but I am not without hope. Societies have a certain toughness and resiliency because traditions are tenacious. Our country is probably better beneath the surface of publicity than it appears in the words and actions of our political leaders, our publicists, and our social scientists. Maybe our educated Jews and the rest of the educated public will begin to become aware of this and more appreciative of that combination of tradition and liberalism into which the Jews and other immigrants from the 1880’s onward came.
The following comments, though not direct answers, are intended as responses to the four specific questions posed in the introductory statement.
1. My concern with the adequacy of the liberal vision of American society and the liberal agenda for the American future antedates the developments cited in framing the questions of the symposium. That concern is logically independent of any Jewish issues and interests, though it may have implications for communal policies. At the center of that concern is the belief that contemporary liberalism has upset the balance among the cluster of values that characterized the classical traditions of liberal thought and practice.
The liberal tradition, even though it was asserted in a revolutionary slogan like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” also comprehended—not only tacitly but in many explicit formulations—the values that are correlative with that slogan which can be phrased, rather unattractively, as “Order, Hierarchy, Otherness.” Specifically, since “liberty” was championed as the elimination of arbitrary and irrational constraints, liberals also argued for the realization of the value of public “order,” understood as the acceptance of reasonable constraints, or the “rule of law.” Similarly, since “equality” was advanced as the elimination of discrimination based on irrelevant grounds such as race, religion, or sex, there was support for the “hierarchy” of natural liberty, that is, in favor of discrimination for such relevant reasons as superior accomplishment, demonstrated ability, or contractual obligation.
Finally, though “fraternity” was heralded as an ideal that affirmed the social or civic solidarity of all persons in a universal brotherhood, liberal society also recognized the importance of the plural associations which constituted “otherness,” that is, the legitimacy of distinctions among fellow citizens that show that some brothers are more closely related than others. Although liberal theory or practice has been recurringly ambivalent on the place of ethnicity, religion, or nationality in the secular liberal state, it has not usually sought to erode these particularistic affiliations for the cause of universal fraternity.
It is a truism that any valid social philosophy must integrate competing and complementing values. Logical symmetry can readily indicate how conservative political thought must also confront the need for balancing these values, and how an unbalanced conservatism would have a skewed vision of order as authoritarian, hierarchy as based on inherited rank, and otherness as accentuating exclusions on grounds of race or religion. The decision, however, as Holmes’s phrase goes, “is not one of logic but of experience.” A critical reading of the recent record leads to the conclusion that American liberalism cannot now provide the necessary balance between liberty and order, equality and hierarchy, fraternity and otherness.
2. The preceding conclusion warrants a reconsideration of a commitment to the contemporary forms of liberalism. In any event, it is noteworthy that liberalism, historically, has functioned as a successful critical or secondary force in the reform of various primary institutions: the family, the religious establishment, the traditional school, the army, and so on. It is only in the past generation that liberalism has increasingly become an independent primary source in the shaping of many contemporary institutions. That development, in itself, would call for some new assessment of its current record.
The reevaluation of liberalism, however, becomes critical, in my view, because of the inadequacy of liberalism in the area of international order or stability, an area that is fundamental for the survival of liberal institutions in the contemporary world. And, naturally, the Jewish community is not insulated from the considerations that generate the issue.
This inadequacy does not derive from the details of a liberal foreign policy but from a basic conceptual cleavage between the liberal and the traditional approach to social disorder. This cleavage is tacitly understood and easily explained, though not usually noted in explicit terms.
The traditional approach to social disorder is simply formulated. Every society is a group of persons bound together by normative laws or rules. In every society, since the members are human, there will unavoidably be some violators of the rules, for the diverse reasons and motives that characterize human nature. Hence, there is an inescapable place for authority, and an inevitable need for force and sanctions to maintain the rules, deter potential violators, and protect the society.
The liberal approach introduced a new framework of “causal” analysis of the phenomenon of social disorder, intended to complement and ultimately to replace the traditional “system-of-rules” approach. Basing itself upon the new social sciences after the Enlightenment, the liberal approach stressed that every social disorder has its causes. Since these causes are discoverable, the shift in conceptual framework also shifts the task of the social authority from that of maintaining the rules system against its violators to that of eliminating the causes of disorder, usually through reform of the social environment.
In international affairs, the liberal approach has focused on eliminating the supposed “causes” of war such as poverty, the profitability of arms manufacture, racism, the domestic denial of human rights, or even the psychological insecurity of new ruling elites, rather than on the traditional task of maintaining a system of international order with sufficient force to protect the member states of that system.
It is by reference to this shift of conceptual framework that it is possible to comprehend the rationality of those aspects of a liberal foreign policy that insist that the social reform of American institutions or those of its allies is the most appropriate way to deter potential aggression and maintain international stability. (Recall Andrew Young’s diplomatic riposte to the Soviet violation of the Helsinki accords—for which his resignation was not requested—that there are political prisoners in the United States, and presumably they ought to be our first priority.) Only some such conceptual perspective makes it possible to understand the refusal of many liberals to think about topics like the strategies of deterrence, the punishment of aggressors, or the link between the viability of freedom and the defense of the boundaries of American military alliances.
The adoption of the liberal or causal approach has severe repercussions in the development of American foreign policy. In the present international situation, apart from the confusion and incoherence that result from the failure to integrate the two perspectives, the direct effect has been the weakening of support for allies who are potential victims of aggression and a consequent reduction of deterrence of aggression. This weakening of support is accompanied by an increased readiness to offer advice on the reform of the domestic policies and structures of individual states. This change of emphasis is most readily observable in the Carter administration’s rift with Israel.
Much more generally and deleteriously, irresolution about the priority of international stability has been a major factor in several of the recent defeats American policy has suffered in African and Asian countries, including Ethiopia, South Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iran. These defeats have raised legitimate doubts about the ability of a liberal America to exercise the leadership that has preserved a structure of international peace since World War II.
3. I do not believe that any significant reconsideration of liberalism will take place within the liberal community in the near future.
The major forums in which new, balanced, or integrative social perspectives could be generated are the universities and the media. These appear to me to be unlikely forums for any great debate over the adequacy of contemporary liberalism.
Without denying the important contribution that the universities make to our understanding of society and while supporting in the strongest possible terms freedom of inquiry, it still is plausible to argue that there are institutional tendencies in the universities and the media which lead to the preponderance of liberal sentiments and attitudes in both areas. There are several reasons for this.
The universities and the media, by the very nature of their interests in political and social affairs, tend to put a premium on their function as critics of established institutions. Accordingly, they tend to attract and to encourage persons who prefer and practice the skills of criticism rather than those who are more interested in understanding the conditions for the stabilization or growth of institutions. This ideological differentiation in the scope of talents was pointed out in the quip of the economist, F.A. von Hayek, that his bright liberal students became professors of economics while his bright conservative students went into banking or business.
There is, also, the influence of generational conditioning. Many of those who are currently assuming positions of cultural leadership have been brought up in a climate of opinion in which morally approved behavior derives heavily from the liberal side of the socio-political spectrum. Those who have protested so strongly American involvement abroad are not likely to become agitated over the credibility and stability of American alliances for the building of international order in the 1980’s. A generation that has embraced environmental and anti-technological causes is not likely to become sympathetic to the need for adequate capital formation for investment in new technology and competitive productivity as economic priorities of the next decade.
It is true, of course, that new data as well as the fact of growing older generate a change of attitudes in areas of immediate experience. It may even be true that there is an immunization as well as a contagion factor in the prevalence of a single point of view. Yet, in large measure, the liberal trend of the new cultural elites has been set.
The staying power of liberal beliefs and attitudes, even when confronted with harshly realistic and seemingly contrary experience, can be tested by the current opinions of the American Jewish community. My non-statistical answer to the symposium question on present and future Jewish attitudes is that they continue to be reflexively liberal. This is a differential truth, of course, and it is more likely to be true of the more educated, expressive, and wealthy members of the group. Still, liberal views seem to me to be widely held, even though the reasons that this should be so—particularly in the light of the experiences itemized in the symposium statement and other encounters like the liberal reign in New York City-may be puzzling or indeterminable.
It is instructive to note the kind of explanation that has been offered to account for the continuing identification of many Jews with liberalism. One prominent historian has suggested that this closeness derives from the residual, latent strength of the Jewish religious heritage, including utopian moral prophecy. Another historian has argued that the Jewish community, having lost the anchor and the idiom of its religious tradition, is in quest of a new, messianic secular faith. A third explanation is that the Jews have suffered a trauma of ghettoization which motivates them to transcend ethnicity. In the context of social attitudes, the need to transcend ethnicity requires the overcoming of the commandments for group solidarity that characterized the moral viewpoint of the ghetto and their replacement by the seemingly universalist moral imperatives of liberalism.
The significance of these speculative efforts with their apparent invocation of a Jungian or Rankian collective unconscious does not lie in their truth. Rather, it ii that each indicates that the Jewish attitude toward liberalism is not comparable to that of the individual who adopts a hypothesis which is to be confirmed or discarded in the light of the evidence. Each of the three suggests that an affinity for liberalism by Jews is part of their personal self-identification, and therefore cannot be abandoned when confronted by new events and circumstances.
4. In turning to the question on the implications of the Jewish community’s attitude to liberalism for electoral politics in 1980, a different focus is required. Jewish political activity in elections has been much more centrist and pragmatic than Jewish political expression in literary and artistic circles would indicate. Thus, Jews in general were not clustered politically in the Henry Wallace-George McGovern axis to the same degree that Jews in cultural or media circles were. And several Jewish leaders, like the two recent Cabinet appointments, occupy centrist positions in the Democratic party.
It can be charged that this centrism is ineffective since the Carter administration’s policies have become incoherent or even impotent because of the administration’s vacillation between the two wings of the Democratic party. On the other hand, it may well be that the most practical political task of the Jewish community is to help sustain the Center of the Democratic party for the 1980’s.
A good case can be made that for the past several decades, Jewish efforts within the Democratic party have been effective in generating appropriate responsiveness and concern for legitimate Jewish communal interests. So the continuation of these efforts should not be ruled out lightly, particularly from the perspective I have sketched, with its commitment to balance among competing ideological attitudes.
At the same time, the historical record shows, in sharp contrast to the rhetoric about the “radical Right,” that the sixteen years of Republican government in the postwar period have been strongly marked by centrism. This is, perhaps, generally conceded for the post-1952 period, with the ending of the war against North Korea and China and of the influence of Senator McCarthy. It is also true of the post-1968 period, with new initiatives for American foreign policy with the Soviet Union, China, and Southeast Asia accompanied by the change of budget priorities at home and the cooling of racial turmoil in the inner cities. Of course, the new foreign-policy initiatives were nullified in the aftermath of President Nixon’s resignation.
Yet it is not the historical record or the reality principle that is decisive, but the perception of reality. I do not believe that the Jewish community is convinced of the case for centrism within American society. In any event, it does not see in the Republican party a vehicle for centrist policies.
There is an interesting work of political fiction to be written by imagining what the impact of Jewish involvement—with the energy, commitment, and even zest that Jews bring to the political arena—would be on a centrist Republican effort in 1980. I do not believe that such a work of fiction can become fact.
My own fantasy, however, looks beyond the 1980 election to the ongoing task of achieving balance among the normative values of our polity. That balance—whether termed neoconservatism or reconstituted liberalism—could be achieved without the catalysis of catastrophe by 1984. That could do much to lay to rest the Orwellian fictional specter of 1984.
Jewish interests and the liberal agenda have, in the past, had much in common. However, at present, we are faced with a different reality. Jews gained much because of liberalism. But the time has now come to part company as soon as possible and as cleanly as possible.
The current liberal agenda is opposed to Jewish interests. It is also at variance with Jewish teachings.
Jewish tradition is anti-utopian, stressing the sobering thought that though some problems are solvable, all of them are not. In historical time we do as much as we can, avoiding the delusion that we can bring about the ideal society. Liberalism sees all problems as solvable with good will and the correct tactics. Judaism is law-oriented, tradition-oriented, reverent of past usages. Liberalism celebrates the new and the novel. Judaism is not against change. It insists, however, that change be pursued with deliberation and with due regard for the organic character of a society. Liberalism looks for change which is all-encompassing in light of abstractions devoid of realism. Judaism insists on justice which is to be pursued justly without “respect for persons.” Liberalism, at the moment at least, prefers to pursue justice with quotas and preferential treatment for favored minorities. Judaism tries to balance personal liberty with public order, teaching sexual restraint and the values of family and children. Liberalism favors permissive attitudes toward abortion, homosexuality, and unconventional family arrangements. Judaism favors an organic relationship between the religious traditions which undergird culture and the state. Liberalism opposes any governmental assistance to religious institutions, especially schools. Judaism is suspicious of the concentrations of power since man’s nature tends to turn power into a vehicle for self-aggrandizement. Liberalism favors massive governmental intervention into the lives of individual citizens. Judaism requires that the community protect its own interests and its own integrity, for only in this way can it survive. Liberalism expects Jews—especially Jews—to yield their own interests for the sake of “progress” or “justice.” Judaism, unlike some trends in Christianity, does not disdain business or commerce if they are pursued honestly and within the law. Economic liberty makes prosperity possible. Liberalism tends to be anti-business and anti-growth and favors strong regulation of the economy. Judaism requires group loyalties fostering group distinctiveness. Liberalism tends to espouse a universalism which views group cohesiveness as “tribalism.” Judaism abhors the totalitarian state, whether of the Right or of the Left. Liberalism tends to tolerate tyrannical states, especially if they are identified as people’s republics. Jews see the state of Israel and its security as indispensable to the Jewish future. The vast majority of Jews see the Palestinian terrorist organizations as a serious threat. Many liberals share this view. However, the most strident calls for reconsidering the current American policy toward the PLO come from the liberal camp.
There is diversity within liberalism as there are differing interpretations of Judaism. However, taken overall, it is correct to say that Jewish interests and values clash, at crucial points, with the agenda of American liberalism.
Will American Jews act in the light of the perceived differences between Jewish views and those of American liberals? I am not sure. Segments of American Jewry have already reconsidered their political stance. Many of the intellectual leaders of neoconservatism are Jews, prominent among them the editors of and contributors to this journal. Yet, in spite of everything, the majority of Jewish voters do not abandon liberal candidates. It is safe to predict that a significant minority of Jewish voters will identify with the Republican party. A good deal depends on who the nominees will be. However, it is a fact that 1980 is a time of great opportunity for the Republican party. If it is effective, it can recruit many Jewish voters to its banner.
Having said this, I realize that the Jews are a stiff-necked people, but also an unpredictable people. Perhaps in 1980 Jewish unpredictability will overcome Jewish stiff-neckedness.
It is unlikely that the developments described by the editors of COMMENTARY will lead significant numbers of Jews to disengage from their traditional commitment to liberalism and from their support of the Democratic party. It is unlikely primarily because Jews have nowhere else to go.
Yes, the enthusiasm of liberals for Israel is diminishing; their sympathy for the PLO is increasing; and, yes, they were noticeably indifferent to the black anti-Semitism that surfaced in the wake of Andrew Young’s resignation. But do the editors of COMMENTARY seriously mean to suggest that the enthusiasm of conservatives for Israel is on the rise? Or that they are manning the barricades against the PLO? Have conservatives been outraged by black anti-Semitism?
When the COMMENTARY editors speak of the new unfriendliness of liberals to Israel, I suppose they have in mind people like George McGovern and Ramsey Clark. They assume that the unfriendliness of such liberals is indicative of the disaffection among liberals generally. The assumption is unwarranted. I submit that John Connally’s views on Israel, as outlined in his recent pronouncement on the Middle East, reflect more accurately the conservative mood in America than McGovern’s or Clark’s criticisms of Israel bespeak the liberal mood. I continue to have far greater confidence in the friendship of “friendly” liberals—Walter Mondale, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, Edward Kennedy—than I do in the friendship of their “friendly” conservative counterparts.
If some liberals support quotas (most of them do not) I find their motives for taking this position—however misguided and even dangerous it may be—less threatening than what I suspect to be the motives of many conservatives who oppose quotas. Jews have more serious enemies than the sensibility that wishes to advance the well-being of disadvantaged minorities.
That our Jewish neoconservatives experience even minor disappointments with liberals as betrayal seems to me tacit acknowledgment of the higher expectations they continue to have of liberalism. And for good reason, for “in their hearts they know” that the principal antagonists of Israel and the Jews are still on the Right—the oil cartels, old-line Wasp conservatives, and neo-Nazi groups.
Admittedly, the reasons most Jews continue to feel more comfortable with liberals than they do with conservatives have little to do with the specifics of the liberal agenda. Some of these specifics do not serve Jewish interests, and others are disconcertingly ephemeral: yesterday’s orthodoxies are today’s heresies. Liberal attitudes toward America’s international involvements, for example, have swung like a pendulum from interventionism to isolationism.
Nevertheless, a number of fundamental considerations have shaped the Jewish commitment to liberalism. Despite the recurrent anti-Semitism of the Left, it is the Right that has been in the past, and is likely to remain in the future, the more “natural” home of anti-Semites. We know this in our guts, and the evidence of history supports that visceral intelligence.
Another consideration is that the liberal agenda, despite its inconsistencies, sentimentality, and occasional cant, is seen as more closely approximating the politics of compassion and concern than does the conservative agenda. While there is no basis for the notion that Jewish tradition is intrinsically liberal (a far better case can be made that, in important respects, it is intrinsically conservative), there is no question that these qualities of compassion and concern resonate with an authentic Jewish sensibility. There is something decidedly “goyish” about a Darwinian marketplace in which only the fittest survive.
I seriously doubt that the advocacy of special-interest politics serves the interests of American Jews. The politics of “Is it good for the Jews?” is really not very good for the Jews. It may be good for Wasps, and it may even be good for blacks, but not for Jews. In a contest of interests, it does not take great political astuteness to perceive that Jews are likely to come out on the short end. We would be far better advised—on pragmatic grounds for those who find ethical ones embarrassing—to promote a political order in which principle and the larger good are also given moral weight.
To cite an obvious example, it is clear that the widespread support that the state of Israel continues to enjoy among Americans, even after one takes into account the attrition reported in recent polls, is not shaped solely by narrow self-interest. It is at least as much the result of an innate sense of decency to be found among average Americans, an instinctive sympathy for a small nation that shares our most fundamental values. I fear Israel would not fare very well in a political climate whose dominant sensibility is ethnic selfishness, nor would any other significant Jewish interest.
Another example is our concern for Soviet Jews. Corporate America, the backbone of conservatism (and the most consummate practitioner of the politics of self-interest), was at first an ally in our struggle against Soviet anti-Semitism; primarily, of course, because of its generic anti-Communism. But there is really nothing generic to self-interest—other than self-interest. So, when the Soviet Union offered a market for American products, corporate America became the preeminent advocate for the liberalization of trade with the Soviet Union and the adversary of the Soviet Jewry movement.
I do not hold a brief for the politics of altruism. A universalism that leaves no room for discrete groups within society sooner or later turns into a tyranny, and, more often than not, Jews are its first victims. Furthermore, for too many Jews, the passion of universalist self-denial is in reality a passion for Jewish denial, an opportunity to escape from their Jewishness into an undifferentiated secular eschaton. I am highly skeptical of universalists who love humanity but are incapable of loving tatteh and mammeh.
But there is warrant in Jewish tradition for the notion that there is a larger public interest that has a claim on our conscience. Yes, we will contend with other groups to advance our own interests. That is why the organization I am associated with was in the forefront of the struggle to preserve those features of our electoral system which enable minorities to pursue those interests.
But both Jewish ethics and the liberal sensibility understand that we are far too implicated in each other’s fate to seek the unconditional surrender of those who for the moment are our adversaries. The insistence that self-interest can never be calculated so narrowly as to leave no room for the claims of others is precisely where Judaism and liberalism meet.
If I have no sympathy for those who engage in the politics of universalist self-denial, it is not primarily because they are not for Jews, but because they are not Jews. For the most part, their predominant impulse is not altruism, but a compulsion to escape their Jewishness. I agree with much of the neoconservative critique of that aspect of the liberal sensibility that is hostile to particularism. My problem with the neoconservatives is that their emphasis remains as misplaced as that of the old universalists. It is on being for ourselves rather than being ourselves. It is the difference between making it better for Jews, and making better Jews. Like it or not, a significant part of being ourselves has something to do with not being only for ourselves.
Jews and liberalism—the linkage between the two is full of irony. Which aspect of liberalism does one mean? Liberalism as the defense of human rights against a restrictive government was certainly taken by Jews to coincide with their interests when governments restricted Jewish opportunity. Liberalism as faith that there is enough for all, and that the economic problems of the world are those of distribution only—a palatable proposition when Jews were poor, and still palatable when the particular interests of specific Jews would be helped by redistribution. Liberalism that, in its attachment to redistribution appears in the populist guise, turning the back of its hand to groups that do not qualify as part of a homogeneous body politic: no room for Jews there. Liberalism, in its current aspect, determined to impose equality of distribution and to oppose the spending of government money on such non-distributable goods as the national defense—here it seems to me Jews are of mixed feeling; they are suspicious but remarkably tolerant.
It should be clear to all by now that in its egalitarian phase, which has come to mean not legal but economic equality, liberalism offers no sanctuary for Jews. The “goal” system, currently a euphemism for quotas, does not apply to professional basketball players, although they make more money, per capita, than doctors do. Clearly the liberals see nothing wrong in applying a numerical target to those professions in which Jews have demonstrated aptitude—medicine, the law, the sciences. Yet there is no great national outcry directed similarly against high-level executive exclusionary practices in the major corporations.
Nor, if Jews connect Israel with American security, does it seem natural for them to sit quietly by while European Socialist parties flirt with the PLO. European Socialists can excuse their shift by pointing out that most Palestinian Arabs are poorer than the Rothschilds, but that seems hardly to be the basis of their turn against Israel. They are worried about what lack of oil may do to their economies and the living standards of their members; and it must be said that many American Jews, worried about the same things, appear quite unperturbed by the change in European socialism.
Indeed, perhaps the most startling consequence of the liberal shift is the equanimity with which most Jews have accepted it—at least in national and international affairs. Jews will, of course, oppose candidates who outspokenly identify Israel with the oil shortage or flirt indiscreetly with the PLO, but while a large number complain that Begin does a poorer job of public relations than Sadat, the majority searches for a formulation that will convincingly set forth adherence to Israel as an American objective. American Jews would, of course, arise again in anger at a new Lindbergh who would say that Jews are responsible for Arab and Iranian hostility, but it seems unlikely that they would vote solidly against a candidate who merely suggests he would take a fresh, new look at the Middle East in the search for peace. Most Jews, after all, opposed the war in Vietnam and do not wish to lose their children in another one. But by the time all the connections are made, it will be too late (as it was too late when Americar Jews finally learned, or were willing to learn, about genocide, that much-abused term).
There are, of course, American Jews who are losing their faith in the liberal tenets. They sense that there really may not be enough to go around; that egalitarian distribution policies may interfere with production, leaving less, not more, for all; and that production is not to be taken for granted. But these are not specifically Jewish concerns. The political arena in which Jews are, as Jews, moving away from their past adherence to liberalism is the local scene. Other European ethnics no longer seem so frightening as they did fifty years ago, and even sexual liberation and abortion have less charm than they did when they were merely talked about. On the national scene, conservatives are still somewhat unsettling to Jews who remember (from books) Dreyfus, the Czar’s pogroms, the Rumanian reaction. On the local scene, conservatives are now the policeman who looks better than ever, and the storekeeper who is as frightened as you are of street violence and subway mugging.
In New York, fearful Jews have the luxury of a Democratic mayor who is both Jewish and clearly anti-liberal on everything but rent control. Even some wealthier Jews—able to achieve a safe social distance that is denied to their poorer coreligionists—are beginning to side with Mayor Koch’s tough words on street crime and to reject their former belief that violence can be avoided by greater generosity and gentler courtroom treatment. But the distance between rejecting liberal tenets in the local police station and rejecting them in the White House is a long one.
Implicit in the symposium statement is the assumption that liberalism is to be defined not by what had been the traditional liberal agenda but by present deviations from it. I first wish to register an objection to the usurpation of “liberal” to describe positions I consider fundamentally illiberal. This is not semantic nit-picking. Misappropriation of language is an assault on ideas via vocabulary. (The capture of the lovely word “gay” by homosexuals is a case in point, since, by inference, heterosexuals presumably qualify as “glums.”) If in the past I shared with fellow liberals the conviction that racial or religious quotas in education or employment were discriminatory (remember the liberal outrage at Jewish quotas in Harvard), that civil-service examinations protected merit from prejudice, and that violence was not by definition revolutionary, I see no reason for surrendering the term “liberal” to those who have abandoned what used to be the axioms of the democratic-liberal consensus. In the United States, liberal, a value-laden word with a rich freight of virtues from individual generosity to social progress, denotes not a political party but an intellectual category. Who wants to be stigmatized as illiberal? For this reason many Jews have found it easier to accept an arbitrary switch of direction rather than to be excommunicated from the liberal fold.
With this caveat, that I view liberalism as having been betrayed by neoliberals who still call the tune but have changed the text, I admit to disenchantment with the current revision of the liberal program. I am concerned with the desertion of concepts and objectives hard-won and dearly-held not too long ago. Perhaps the vantage point from which I watched this process of erosion is worth mentioning.
As a child I lived in New York on Charlotte Street when the neighborhood was a community of poor European immigrants. I graduated from nearby Morris High School. Later I taught in a Manhattan high school with a working-class, largely white, student body. In the intervening years all three places have achieved considerable notoriety as symbols of segregation with its attendant ills. Yet I can imagine nothing that would have more deeply outraged the authentic liberal conscience of my peers than the introduction of Southern-style legislation to control the mobility of any sector of the population. The demographic transformation of the city bore witness to the freedom of movement of its citizens. That this freedom extended to those who moved away as well as to those who moved in did not alter the crucial right to mobility even if it resulted in the residential concentration of blacks, Hispanics, Italians, or Jews.
Those who pretend that de facto is merely a cosmetic variant of de jure segregation should ask themselves what would have been the complexion of great Northern urban centers if New York, Chicago, or Detroit had been restricted by de jure segregation. Yet the glibly parrotted identification of de facto and de jure is at the heart of the inflammatory issue of forced busing—the issue now touted to measure the degree of liberal commitment. Because Jews were in the forefront of the struggle against legal segregation they are now on the defensive when, like the majority of whites, they oppose mandatory busing of their children to admittedly inferior schools or to remote neighborhoods. They need not be apologetic; they had enlisted in a different battle. No Northern liberal had to be convinced of the indecency of “Whites Only” barriers in public schools, parks, or streetcars. Such violation of human and civil rights was intolerable. But the significant right won was free access to an institution or facility, not to the person of a fellow student or passenger. Let me use an extreme example. In a free society no one can be compelled to go to Central Park or use the subway, but by the same token no one can be barred from doing these things for reasons of race. Both rights are precious. The parent who fought for the open school door is not a hypocrite if he subsequently objects to the mandatory shifting of pupils regardless of the educational benefits to be achieved.
Those clinging to the liberal label have been obliged to make swift somersaults in the positions they assumed. In the 60’s black spokesmen in New York charged Jewish teachers with the “cultural genocide” of their black pupils. In the ensuing uproar blacks raised the cry of community control of the schools and demanded the exclusion of white, in particular Jewish, teachers: The test of liberalism then was support of this divisive clamor. Today the reverse—the mandatory transfer of teachers and pupils—has become the sign of grace. These capricious and at the same time dogmatic shifts are uncritically upheld. Objective attempts to assay either the pedagogic or social effectiveness of the proposals are condemned as reactionary or bigoted. Note the obloquy to which James Coleman of the famous report on the equality of educational opportunity has been subjected because on the basis of experience he now questions the wisdom of busing as an educational or social tool.
The same arbitrary twists that have bedeviled a rational approach to urgent social problems have marked neoliberal attitudes in foreign affairs. The reversal of roles by which PLO terrorists have emerged as the martyred “Jews of the Middle East” and Israelis as the Nazi oppressors has become a popular act on the international scene. From a Castro who in the presence of bloodstained Cambodian and Vietnamese representatives unblinkingly described Zionism as the greatest “crime of our era” to the lachrymose, humanitarian I.F. Stone, leftists have maneuvered this transformation. Liberals accept this ongoing revision of history partly out of plain ignorance and also out of instant enthusiasm for any “liberation” slogan, provided it is not Jewish.
Where does the conclusion that the current crop of pseudo-liberals is not the genuine article get me and the Jewish community? Should Jews therefore renounce their traditional commitment to liberalism? Yes, if such commitment means automatic approval of quotas, extenuation of black anti-Semitism, and indifference to the fate of Israel. Renunciation of this program would not indicate a lessening of idealism. I reject the gross and stupid charge that in their social zeal Jews were motivated primarily by self-interest. The same sense of justice that brought Jews to the vanguard of social activism in the past animates their present protest against a resurrected system of de jure discrimination through the imposition of quotas on the one hand, and the flouting of legal safeguards for equal opportunity on the other by making meritocracy a dirty word. As for Israel, the ethical case for Jewish national independence has not been weakened by the barrage from assorted Communist, Arab, and Third World tyrannies. If this means parting company from neoliberals of the fashionable stripe, the valedictory must be made. But I do not renounce my faith in democratic socialism because Bruno Kreisky or Willy Brandt have cozied up to the PLO, nor do I give up my dedication to racial equality because of Jesse Jackson.
The 1980 presidential election obviously presents a serious question mark. Salvation does not rest in the Republican fold any more readily than in the Democratic one. The demerits of various candidates in regard to the several issues considered are apparent. My personal preference would be for the tough-minded, courageous idealism of a figure like Daniel P. Moynihan. I suppose this is a utopian hope.
If we think of the Jews, as these questions plainly invite us to do, as an American interest group, one among the others, better off than these, less secure and powerful than those, then it follows that our politics will sometimes be liberal, sometimes illiberal. What policies we support will depend on circumstance and on how the calculations of interest work out. Before we know what constitutes the greatest good of the greatest number of Jews, we will have to do the arithmetic. I suspect that the figures will lead us to support liberal programs more often than not—just as they have done in the past. Jewish interests are still served by a politics which aims at a stronger and more generous welfare state and by a serious social effort to deal with, not just to repress, racial hostility and to open new opportunities for minorities generally and for women. (This is true even in the most narrow sense: Jewish women have probably been among the first beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs.)
But the interest-group model, though it seems to legitimize ethnic self-assertion, is in fact assimilationist in its long-term meaning, and we ought, I think, to be wary of it. Perhaps other ethnic and religious groups should be wary of it too, but I won’t presume to speak for them. Surely, it is not an attractive picture of American Jews, or of other Americans, which has us counting only Jewish heads while they are counting only Italian heads, black heads, and so on. We have to count, certainly, but that’s not the whole of our politics. We are not only an interest group; we are also a historic community. We don’t only have interests; we also have values, a culture, patterns of social action generated out of our collective experience; we even have commandments. Or, to make the same argument in different terms: one of our interests is the survival of our community as a community of a certain sort, with its distinctive religious and secular culture.
Now, that culture is, in many of its largest aspects, a culture of the Left. Not this or that Left, Marxist, social democrat, New Leftist, or even liberal, but of the Left in the most general sense. Some of us were raised on that identification, but I think it is more widely understood. Our ethos is leftist: because we remember that we were slaves in Egypt, because we remember the ghetto, the years of persecution, the pariah years. And our mores and daily behavior are leftist: in the Jewish community rates of participation and levels of argument approach what they might be in a socialist society. We may not be a nation of priests and a holy people, but we are a nation of activists, organizers, and committee workers. We have learned, many of us, to part with our money in the name of justice. We have learned the importance of solidarity. And all this is reflected not only in our lives as Jews but also in our lives as Americans. Perhaps that’s why even the Orthodox community, always and by definition conservative, continually produces (these days along with fervent supporters of Gush Emunim) young men and women with social consciences and radical ideas. It is a simple fact of our experience that, when we look at the world from our corner, radical ideas come naturally.
Perhaps all this will change; perhaps one day we will learn to be for ourselves and only for ourselves, like the rational maximizers of contemporary social science. But then, we will be Jews in name only; we might as well call ourselves Ruritanians. And I don’t think I will care very much, though it may still be an important question for the pollsters, how the Ruritanians vote in the next presidential election.
Political scientists, for some time now, have identified a phenomenon known as a “critical” election—a major turning point in the voting behavior of the nation, one that is profound and pervasive enough to shift political alignments for many decades to come. Two such elections, which led to the dissolution of the Whig party, occurred in 1852 and 1856; the election of 1896, which led to the dominance by the Republican party of our national politics for more than three decades, was another; and the election of 1932, the year that marked the return of the Democrats to a position of political superiority—a coalition put together by Franklin D. Roosevelt—was yet a fourth. While political candidates and parties—and voters—often describe current election campaigns as critical for the future of the country, this is usually more rhetoric than reality. Much of our political behavior turns out to be fairly predictable—a continuation of past political preferences and behavior by both the voters and those whom they vote into office.
Given the breakdown of the post-World War II consensus that has taken place in the past decade—more evident in the Democratic party than among the Republicans—it may very well be that we are on our way as a nation to another critical election at some point soon, one that will produce a major realignment in the composition or programs of our political parties. As late as 1968, the New Deal coalition FDR had put together almost succeeded in placing Hubert Humphrey in the White House, though he was defeated by the new liberals who, in their masochistic wisdom, preferred the election of their arch-enemy, Richard M. Nixon, to that of their former liberal friend. That same coalition, however, enabled Jimmy Carter, a political nonentity, to squeak by Gerald Ford, despite the latter’s creditable record on inflation and other issues on which his successor has failed. But it is not at all certain that this continued domination of our political system by the Democrats—an increasingly unlikely alliance of Southern and Northern whites, farmers and workers, ethnics, blacks, Catholics, and Jews—will continue for much longer. The reasons for the break-up of this coalition which has lasted almost half a century stem from new developments and issues—both domestic and international—that will alter and reshape the political battleground.
Throughout the 1970’s, many in the Jewish community have been warily—and, by now, wearily-watching the maturation of the new liberalism and the contributions of this socio-political phenomenon to the erosion of American preeminence in international affairs, to a no-growth economy, and to the assault, through a combination of judicial activism and administrative fiat, on the meritocratic norms through which Jews and other descendants of the new immigration made their way into the middle- and upper-middle class in the postwar era. For many, the supreme irony of the Carter Presidency lies in the influence—and sheer administrative power—this ideologically sterile administration has given to the McGovernite exponents of the new liberalism, a social philosophy so resoundingly rejected by the nation in the Nixon-McGovern contest of 1972. Given its performance to date, a growing segment within the Jewish community has concluded that the amalgam of para-populism, political opportunism, and new liberalism that has characterized the Carter administration will be of little help in leading the nation to solutions for the many maladies that currently beset us. In increasing numbers, American Jews have come to feel that Jimmy Carter lacks the leadership qualities or the programs that can rouse the nation from its post-Vietnam defeatism, to overcome the pernicious impact of OPEC and home-grown enemies on our economy, or to curb the variety of socio-cultural spin-offs that have been left as a national legacy from the civil-rights, counterculture, and New Left movements of the last decade. At this point, larger numbers of American Jews—card-carrying Democrats since the 1930’s—have come to the conclusion that the liberalism of the Carter administration—if it, indeed, deserves to be called liberal—is as much a part of our current malaise as an instrument for its alleviation.
More recent events have done little to allay these fears. The American Jew is becoming increasingly worried over the political scapegoat role into which the Jews, and the state of Israel, have been cast (not an unfamiliar one in the Jews’ two-millennia existence in the Diaspora) by an inept administration seeking to explain away its personnel and policy failures, by John Connally speaking for a segment of the business establishment, and by Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, spokesmen for an aggrieved proletariat seeking to make its way into that establishment. While only members of the Jewish Defense League, listening to and watching these self-serving politicians, will conjure up visions of 19th-century pogroms or a 20th-century Holocaust, other Jews, more secure and serene in outlook, have started searching for political options, responding to what they perceive to be an increasing vulnerability on the part of the Jew to the rising tensions of the contemporary American scene.
While there are still many who will stay in the liberal fold—those keeping alive the vestiges of Jewish radicalism that have appeared, and reappeared, in a variety of guises in three generations of East European Jews; those who still find it necessary to emulate the liberal rhetoric of the well-established, conscience-striken, native Anglo-Saxon; or those Jews who cannot tear themselves away from the liberal agenda, out of generational inertia or personal nostalgia—their numbers will tend to diminish in the 80’s.
Currently, there are three segments of the Jewish community that are in the process of rethinking their liberal commitments. The first group consists of second- and third-generation Jews who have made their way into the upper echelons of the business and professional world. As they become more and more acculturated, these upwardly-mobile Jews will start voting their pocketbook, not their sentiments. Those who have arrived and find it possible—as did their German Jewish predecessors—to vote conservative and fulfill their humanitarian impulses through private instrumentalities rather than through the beneficence of the welfare state, will be joined in the conservative ranks by two other groups in the Jewish community: those who have not yet arrived, for whom affirmative action is an obstacle to be overcome rather than a self-inflicted wound to be enjoyed, and the “single-issue” Jewish voter, those for whom the security of the state of Israel—inherently and as the acid-test of the effectiveness and honor of American foreign policy—is of paramount concern.
At this point the nation is clearly in a state of both flux and inertia; the consensus of the 50’s and early 60’s has broken down and no new commonality of interests and ideology has emerged. Few Americans, if we are to believe the pollsters, are impressed with those who hold political office, nor do they expect much from their political parties and their programs. A parallel can be drawn between our current situation and the 1920’s, the decade that preceded the last “critical” election and, like the 70’s, was characterized by political sterility, social innovation and conflict, and a booming—yet flawed—economy. Moreover, there is the growing conviction in the country that our problems—our inability to influence events abroad, the energy crisis, and the mindlessness of something as close to home as our public schools—cannot be charted, or solved, on the current liberal/conservative continuum. It is evident that many in the Jewish community—and outside it-are coming to see that the old liberalism, that of the 30’s and the immediate postwar era, has exhausted its potential, and that the new liberalism never had one to offer.
Given the current paucity of ideas and programs that can capture the imagination of the electorate, Jews, like many others, will become voters in flux, focusing on the candidate rather than what they conceive to be rather nebulous—and impossible-to-carry-out—political programs. If they had the choice, many American Jews would put Daniel P. Moynihan in the White House, hoping that the United States could be taken back to an era when Russian arms in Cuba were removed by presidential action, not cosmetized, and when we helped, rather than cringed before, the Third World. Jews fear the nomination or election of John Connally, or a campaign in which the candidates vie with one another as to what they can extract from Israel rather than, as in the past, what they will do for Israel. The gut feeling in the Jewish community is that, apart from these two extremes, there is not much to choose from, that until another critical election, when a major political realignment takes place—and new programs and coalitions are formed—our current concerns will be neither solved nor dissolved.
The Jewish alliance with liberalism is owed not to the prophets, or to some immense national talent for morality, but to a tough-minded perception of Jewish self-interest: 19th-century Jews in Western Europe determined that equal rights and civil liberties were what they needed most, and so they hewed to the liberal vision of the middle classes. The decision about the future of this inherited relationship with liberalism must also be made in the name of Jewish interests. COMMENTARY acknowledges this, and wonders whether the alliance should not be dissolved, because Jewish interests appear to have been banished from “the standard liberal agenda.”
There is no doubt that certain prominent liberal circles, and the left wing of the Democratic party, and significant elements in the black community have turned all against Israel, and kindled to the lie that Zionism is colonialism. There is also no doubt that these new enemies cannot be entirely explained by the Israeli government’s indefensible policies on the West Bank; some of them are moral opportunists who have been running on empty since the Americans left Saigon, and some are just anti-Semites in pro-Palestinian drag. The black eruption last summer was particularly ugly. There was the gutter anti-Semitism of Jesse Jackson and the café anti-Semitism of James Baldwin; the Jews in Israel were to be punished for Bakke, and the PLO rewarded for the unexpected rousing of the civil-rights movement from its torpor; and Andrew Young announced that it is only “natural” that unemployed blacks would favor the Palestinians, as if the price of oil would drop a nickel were a Palestinian state declared tomorrow.
All this is true, and troubling, but it is hardly the whole story. Before the alliance with liberalism is ended Jews must examine what allies remain for them elsewhere in America. And such an examination will show that the peril to Israel from the inner cities and the Institute for Policy Studies is not nearly so great as the peril from the oil companies, the multinational corporations, and critical sectors of the financial community. David Dellinger is not the threat that John Connally is. There may have been a “paucity of liberal protest against the anti-Semitism that surfaced in the wake of Andrew Young’s resignation,” but neither were conservatives in paroxysms of indignation; and there was widespread anti-Semitism prior to the Young affair, and precisely in those precincts of American society most hostile to liberalism. American Jews, properly incensed by the betrayal of traditional friends, should not blind themselves to the grim fact that a more formidable foe awaits them elsewhere, a foe located in centers of power upon which Jews have almost no influence. There is something grotesque about the spectacle of Jewish intellectuals putting out briefs for corporate cupidity; I wonder how effective these Jews will be when they appear in the boardrooms to argue against the view that American policy in the Middle East should be designed solely to keep the oil flowing, if indeed they come to argue against that at all.
There is more. Nothing is so urgently in the interests of Israel as that the United States at last devise an energy program. Only that will make the Arab pressure manageable. Like most of the citizenry I do not know enough to evaluate the merits of the alternative energy sources that have been put forward, but there is a political fact about the energy debate that seems clear enough, and it is that the patriots calling for growth and more growth are exactly those who are least disturbed by America’s dependence upon imported oil (for which the United States paid $4.8 billion in September). Again, the danger is not so much the environmentalists, spineless though they often seem, as it is their opponents. Nor is nuclear power the way out of this Jewish dilemma. If its advocates are right, it will still provide for only a small portion of America’s energy needs. And if its advocates are wrong, Israel’s fortunes must not be allowed to rest, even in part, upon the possibility of that kind of carnage. Zionism is not that sort of nationalism.
It is said—most often by liberalism’s apostates—that Jewish interests lie in a strong America, and in a weak Soviet Union. That is indisputable. But such an attitude must be translated into politics responsibly. For example: the ideological passion with which American Jewish spokesmen make the cold-war argument for Israel (that it is an indispensable asset for the United States in its strategic contest with the Russians, which it is) and against a Palestinian state (that it would be a Soviet satellite, which it probably would not) often has the effect of deflecting the attention of Jews away from the mounting dangers to Israel posed by the continued occupation of the West Bank. I am not implying that a solution to the Palestinian problem is worth an increase in Soviet strength; resistance to the Soviet Union, to its values and its adventures remains the test of moral and political mettle, particularly for liberals. But I am suggesting that Soviet support for the PLO (which for the PLO, as for the Syrians, is primarily tactical) is no excuse for tabling the need for Israel to offer something meaningful to those million Palestinians who will not go away. A solution can be found that will satisfy the inhabitants of the West Bank and keep the Russians out. It is surely the case that almost no peace would be ground so fertile for Soviet intrigue as the present impasse.
Calculations of the Jewish interest depend, finally, on one’s view of what makes America strong, and of the real position of the Jews in the United States. Concerning the former: there are different prescriptions for what makes America strong, and these are not instructively described as “liberal” and “conservative.” I have reservations about COMMENTARY’s use of the term “liberalism”; it denotes a package of attitudes that does not quite exist, it synchronizes political beliefs in a manner that does no justice to the unsimple character of the political world. One may be for Bakke and against Begin, for gay rights and against SALT II.
Concerning the position of the Jews in the United States: they should not confuse comfort with muscle. American Jews will never be powerful enough here to go it alone, to prosecute their interests without the cooperation of other groups. They require coalition politics. And their most appropriate partners for coalition, the actors for whom the Jews will always be least expendable, are the conventional liberal constituencies, for the simple reason that alone they too cannot help themselves. The black community will remain a more or less reliable ally, because—unlike the banks and the corporations and the military and the civil service and the foundations—it needs the Jews. No doubt many blacks resent that, but there are major figures among them who recognize that the belligerency must end, that the two cannot afford to write each other off.
Jews must stand firm against their adversaries on the Left, and they must express without apologies, and in political action, their anger at those liberal forces which have disappointed. But if the Jews depart the liberal camp entirely I do not see that they have anywhere to go. Perhaps that is because I take a dimmer view than COMMENTARY of the Jewish dispensation in America. No country on earth has been better to the Jews than the United States; but it is not our country.
I come at the question of Jewish liberalism from a radical perspective. Jews’ commitment to liberalism has, it seems to me, been bound up with the illusory hope that America is different, that the question of Jewish survival cannot arise here. Since Jews have traditionally been caught in the middle of power struggles between rulers and oppressed classes, it is no wonder that liberalism has looked so attractive: it suggests that class is no longer an issue, or at least that open conflict can be averted through fidelity to the “standard liberal agenda.” In the short run, liberalism has worked well for Jews, allowing us to thrive as never before and defusing political anti-Semitism of both the Right and the Left. But the Jewish liberal strategy is now coming up against the essential fallacy of liberalism—that it can resolve rather than merely postpone class conflict. Commitment to liberalism as a solution implicitly depended on the premise that American hegemony in the world (which insured domestic prosperity and growth) was both benign and permanent. In my view, American power has been far from benign, but one need not share that view to recognize that no empire is permanent. Since the Vietnam war, the erosion of American power has intensified class conflict abroad, producing a wave of political reaction at home. The rising tension between Jewish and non-Jewish liberals reflects the decline of liberalism itself as a plausible middle ground.
The issue of affirmative action is a good example. It arose in the first place because traditional liberal remedies for discrimination were not working, and has become a symbol of black frustration in a conservative era. While Jews’ fear of quotas is legitimate, Jewish organizations have used that fear to justify a hard-line anti-egalitarian position: they rule out economic equality as a desirable goal, assume objective testing to be the best or only measure of merit, and suggest that Jews should support the present system because we have done so well under it. The first two points I simply disagree with; the third goes beyond worry that affirmative-action programs will lead to restrictive quotas and endorses an I’m-all-right-Jack brand of protectionism. Though liberals have undoubtedy been insensitive to Jewish uneasiness about quotas, it is misleading to define the issue in those terms. The fact is that a sizable group of Jews now identifies Jewish interests with an essentially conservative stance, which automatically puts them in conflict with the Left. Though I oppose this stance on wider moral and political grounds, I also think it is shortsighted and dangerous. It defies a basic lesson of Jewish history: insofar as we ally with any establishment, we set ourselves up as scapegoats.
As the perennial split between left-wing and “centrist” liberals has widened, the liberal Left has become more receptive to the anti-Jewish, anti-Israel biases that surfaced on the radical Left years ago. But this phenomenon has a larger context. Anti-Semitism is pervasive in this culture; it transcends the conventional Left-Right spectrum. In recent years, since Israel’s victory in 1967, the upward mobility of American Jews, and the rise of Jewish neoconservatism have provided a rationale for attacking us as symbols of established power, open hostility toward Jews has come mostly from the Left. Yet the growing power of the Right is a far worse threat. Liberals may help to legitimize anti-Semitic attitudes, but it is an increasingly conservative government that has the power to exploit those attitudes and, in classic fashion, use the Jews to divert attention from its oppressive economic policies. The administrations unwillingness to curb unemployment, prices, or profits, its subservience to the oil industry, and the crackdown on spending for social services have produced widespread discontent that has already begun to focus on Jews. It is not surprising that the most explicit attack has come from the group that has suffered most from the current reactionary offensive. More significant, to my mind, is that Jimmy Carter not only made no effort to reduce black-Jewish tension but actively encouraged it by giving Jesse Jackson’s Middle East trip semi-official status. While Jews and blacks fight, the administration moves toward rapprochement with the PLO and decontrol of oil prices. One can infer that Carter is not averse to having people blame Israel, Jewish support of Israel, and “Jewish power” for our economic troubles. If his actions do not suffice, John Connally’s recent remarks should be fair warning to any Jew who imagines that Israel has friends on the Right. And if liberals have been slow to defend us against anti-Semitic attacks, I haven’t noticed conservatives leaping to the barricades either.
What we are witnessing, I believe, is an end to American Jews’ thirty-year vacation from serious personal concern with the Jewish question. It is not just liberalism that warrants reconsideration but our overall situation as Jews. We need to begin making a radical analysis of anti-Semitism—radical in the sense of addressing root causes—rather than simply react to immediate political events. Since anti-Semitism has always been an outlet for people’s rage at their oppressors, the traditional Jewish concern for social justice has a strong practical as well as ethical basis; for Jews, conservatism, whatever its immediate benefits, can only be a trap. On the other hand, conventional leftist economic analysis has not only failed to comprehend the nature of Jewish oppression but has served as an excuse for anti-Semitism. It is time for Jews to attempt a thorough critique not only of our economic arrangements, but of the authoritarian, patriarchal culture that has produced Jews and anti-Semites, capitalism and socialism.
It is my impression that the Andrew Young affair and Carter’s Middle East policy have stimulated a good deal of political ferment among Jews. At this point, I would not venture to guess how it will affect the 1980 campaign. But to respond to the spirit of the question—is the Jewish community about to move to the Right?—I see no evidence of such a trend. The liberal and radical Jews I know have been discussing how best to affirm our commitment to social change, racial equality, and a just Middle East settlement while condemning left-wing anti-Semitism, including the villainization of Israel. We share the hope that if we argue our position we will find allies on the Left, for the simple reason that anti-Semitism benefits no one but the people in power.
Ruth R. Wisse:
“Tolstoy says, man uses the axe to shape the handle of the axe; but I say, man uses the axe to chop off heads” (Sholom Aleichem).
This corrective aphorism from one of our jollier Jews reminds us that this is not the first time in recent history that the Jew’s faith in liberalism has been shaken by the evidence of his senses. Fellow standard bearers in the struggle for liberty and equality have often enough turned illiberal and anti-Semitic, and idealistic libertarian slogans have been perverted—always in the name of even greater idealism—to mean exactly their opposite. If the Jews were to learn from their history, they would be the most cynical people on earth. That they are not is surely a bit of unacknowledged evidence of their lingering attendance upon God.
Of course you don’t have to be Jewish to worry about the changing face of American liberalism. The apparent readiness of “good people” to replace good laws by bad-laws-with-good-intentions is disturbing to all liberals who trust the staying power of good laws more than they do the zeal of good intentions. The diminishing enthusiasm for Israel and concomitant sympathy for the PLO seem symptomatic of a diminished enthusiasm for democracy in general. When the “honesty” of absolutism and butchery becomes more attractive than the complexities of negotiated democracy, liberalism is clearly in decline, by whatever name it may call itself. As for the patronizing liberals who will not hold others accountable for the same degree of civility they expect of themselves, cowardice is the least of their sins. Anyone who respects the blacks would wish for them a better and—I believe—more representative leadership than some of the opportunists who have recently spoken in their name.
The softening of American liberalism affects me, as a Jew, with particular urgency, first, because of the political isolation of Israel, which is thereby increased; second, because of the untried nature of American Jewry, which has grown unaccustomed to the adversary role it may now have to assume.
The isolation of Israel became shockingly apparent during the blockade of May 1967. It went on permanent record in the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism, than which no anti-Jewish utterance was ever more evil or incendiary. It is continually reinforced by the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, by the growing pressure of OPEC, and by the politics of appeasement now characteristic of much of Western Europe. All this leaves Israel extraordinarily dependent on the United States, through no fault of either country, and somewhat to the discomfort of each. But in this bond between unequals, Israel fares worse. The historian Salo Baron once noted that “In the arena of power politics no greater misfortune can befall a group than being taken for granted.” As a client state with few alternative suppliers, Israel is not far from that misfortune.
To some small degree, American Jews have tried to provide Israel with the leverage it lacks and cannot easily regain. Their political support, strongly tied to guarantees for Israel, cannot be taken for granted, but must be wooed to be won. During the McGovern candidacy, when the Democrats for the first time were weaker in their commitment to Israel than the Republican-party platform, many liberal Jews anticipated the questions of this symposium and voted, with whatever misgivings, on this point of overriding concern. John Connally’s unambiguous endorsement of OPEC suggests that bad as things were, they may still grow worse. The presence of a strong, pro-Israel stand is no longer guaranteed in either party, whether as a moral imperative or a political offering. Much still depends on the willingness of Jews to associate themselves forcefully with the security of Israel, but this is no longer enough. If the trend of waning support is to be reversed, the legitimacy and importance of Israel will have to be interpreted to a new generation of doubters and to the disinterested. Almost as in the days before the creation of the state of Israel, a new pro-Zionist coalition will have to be forged.
The nice thing about the convergence of the Jewish and liberal agendas in the past was that Jews did not have to appear to be acting in their own self-interest, or to be acting, for that matter, as Jews. In their own minds and in the public eye, their liberalism so neatly transcended their Judaism that no parochial considerations were discernible.
With the divergence of the two, the Jewish agenda becomes exposed as a response to one’s own people over and above (though never in place of) humanity at large. Jewish liberalism begins with the challenge of Cain to be one’s brother’s keeper. But who can bear the embarrassment of particularism so frankly acknowledged? Not, as we know from experience, the most “liberal” of the liberals; with that inversion of priorities so characteristic of Jewish universalists, they will be the most vociferous in demanding justice for others and injustice for themselves. Other Jews are simply oblivious to political urgencies of any kind, including those of their presumed “community.” They are probably out there right now recycling newspapers and practicing yoga.
What remains in question is the spirit of affiliated Jews who have enjoyed several decades of political popularity and do not relish a return to either the anti-Semitism or the uphill Zionist struggles of the 1930’s. Jews want to be liked, to do good, to be “in.” Nevertheless, unlike the German Jews to whom they are often compared, most American Jews do not seem to be uncomfortable within their Jewish fate. Born and bred in America, they are convinced by its guarantees of liberty. They may not draw upon great reserves of tradition or knowledge, they may lack an inspired leadership and even a passable intelligentsia, but they do boast a certain obvious self-confidence. Paradoxically, the readiness of these confirmed Jews to stand up for their vision of justice and for their own brothers as well as the Brotherhood of Man, may also be their highest tribute to America, and to the liberal faith in which so many were raised. If they are successful, they might even help restore unto liberalism its former good name.
1 Lest this be taken as a statement of an entire social philosophy, I should also point out that in the economic realm I am a socialist, and in culture a conservative. I do believe that different principles govern these realms. Since economics is instrumental, I believe that the community is the necessary unit of priority and has the first lien on resources in order to provide a basic social minimum for every member of the society. In culture I am a conservative because I believe in tradition and continuity, in moral authority and aesthetic judgment, as against the “populism” of everyone “doing his own thing.” It is in the polity that I am a liberal. This is an argument I have sketched in my Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, and reiterated in the introduction to the paperback edition of that book.
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Liberalism & the Jews A Symposium
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t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
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Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
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Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
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When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
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He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.