THERE is a well-known joke about the boxer who rushes out of his corner at the opening bell only to…
America’s single most important welfare problem—most authorities have long agreed—is the endangering of the nation’s health by a shortage of medical care and particularly of doctors; and this supposedly organizationally ingenious nation has not yet found a way of improving this situation. Worse, we use wastefully the scarce physicians’ training facilities we possess: some of the best candidates we have for the all too few places in the medical schools are barred in favor of less fitted individuals. The racist discrimination in admissions policy that every pre-med schoolboy knows exists is, thus, not primarily the problem of those discriminated against: it is a blow against the nation’s health. This article is the result of years of study by Lawarence Bloomgarden, who, both professionally and as an avocation, has addressed himself to unearthing the tangled roots of this problem since the early 1940’s, when he served as case consultant to the Physicians’ Committee of the National Refugee Service.
There is a well-known joke about the boxer who rushes out of his corner at the opening bell only to run into a barrage of punches that leaves him weak and staggering. At the end of the round the fighter stumbles back to his corner and asks his manager, “How am I doing?”
“Great!” the manager replies. “He hasn’t laid a glove on you.”
Round after round the beating continues, with the fighter being continually reassured: “You’re doing great. He hasn’t laid a glove on you.” Finally, the boxer turns his battered face to the manager and mumbles between swollen lips, “Well, keep an eye on that referee, will you? Somebody’s beating the hell out of me!”
The unsuccessful applicant to medical school can appreciate the position of the unfortunate pugilist, particularly if the applicant is Jewish. The chances are that he too will never know what or who hit him. He will find himself rejected but may never know the reason why. He will see other applicants, whom he knows to be inferior in scholarship, accepted. He knows of the solemn assurances of the medical schools that discrimination on their part, because of race or religion, is unthinkable. And if he lives in a state which, like New York, has legal prohibitions against such discrimination, he has the added comfort of knowing that his rights to an equal opportunity for a medical degree are protected by law.
Yet, indubitably, somewhere along the line something happens, and our hypothetical applicant finds himself hanging on the ropes and wondering what hit him.
In truth, to stretch the metaphor, it isn’t even easy for the spectator to find out what is going on. Numerous, subjective, and shifting criteria for admission to medical schools make the picture a scrambled one and considerable patience and ingenuity are required before the claims, counter-claims, and highly inaccessible statistics can be fitted together into a coherent whole.
The overriding element in the whole medical school picture is the simple fact that not everyone who wants to can become a doctor. Of course not everyone who wants to can become a millionaire, or, for that matter, a chorus girl, either. But there is no conscious, well-organized effort on the part of others to limit the number of chorus girls or millionaires.
For the prospective doctor the case is far different. For even if he has the brains, the ability, and the money, he may not be able to become a doctor. Of the more than 20,000 qualified applicants who yearly apply to medical schools, only about 7,000 can be accepted. The medical schools can and will take no more. This anomalous situation, where about one out of three qualified candidates for a profession are accepted for training, is in itself a novelty in America, where it is customary to think of careers being open to all who wish to pursue them.
Limitation was not always the rule in American medical schools. A half century ago it was possible for almost anyone with a high school education to enter medical school. In 1905, for example, 5,600 doctors graduated from medical schools to serve a national population of 83 million. Not until 1950, when our population had reached the 155-million mark, were as many as 5,600 doctors again graduated in one year. Between those two dates an event took place that virtually revolutionized the medical profession. That event was the Flexner Report of 1910.
The Flexner Report, undertaken through a grant of the Carnegie Foundation, was a devastating indictment of American medical education. It showed that only 82 of the 155 schools then in existence were associated with established colleges or universities; the remainder were privately owned institutions, most of them run for profit, and lacking fundamental equipment for training. Standards were incredibly low compared with European schools. Facilities for clinical training were meager.
The report resulted in the immediate reorganization of medical education in the United States. Most of the weaker schools closed down; by 1927 only 79 had survived. Clinical training on an intensive scale was introduced, and by 1920 the now familiar system of high-grade four-year university schools was well established. American medical schools rapidly became equal to any in the world.
The closing of so many medical schools meant, of course, fewer new doctors. By 1923 only 3,100 doctors were graduated, as compared to almost twice this figure eighteen years earlier. During the next ten years the number rose and in 1933, 4,800 doctors were graduated.
The relatively slow expansion of approved medical schools after the Flexner Report had knocked out roughly half of the existing institutions may be accounted for largely by the tremendous expense of educational facilities in this field. It costs approximately $12,000 to train an American doctor over the full four-year period. Of this sum, only about one-fourth is covered by tuition. The remainder must come through private contributions or state aid.
A rough idea of what is involved in the launching of a new medical school can be got by glancing at the prospective budget of the new Yeshiva University nonsectarian medical school. This school will train 100 doctors per year beginning next fall, and it will cost $10,000,000 just to open its doors, while the completed medical center will come to $25,000,000. Even in America that kind of money is not easily obtained for non-profit-making purposes. Yet even these prohibitive costs, although they undoubtedly slowed up the necessary expansion of medical schools, would not have halted it altogether. It took a special situation to accomplish that. The “situation” was the depression of the 30’s.
By 1933 the depression had badly hurt the medical profession. The $11,000 average annual income of physicians in 1928 had dropped sharply. Patients by the millions could no longer afford to pay for medical care. The leaders of the profession met this crisis the same way that many leaders of industry, trade unions, and farm groups were meeting similar crises. They cut back on production. After an intensive study, the Council on Medical Education of the American Medical Association came to the conclusion in 1933 that there were too many doctors. It issued a report advising medical schools that the training of physicians should be “drastically curtailed.” As has been said, almost thirty years earlier, in 1905, medical schools had turned out 5,600 doctors annually to serve a population of 83 million. Now the AMA was taking the position that 4,800 doctors per year were too many for a national population of 125 million.
Medical schools did not waste much time in putting this advice into practice. Although actually there was not much of a cutback (less than a 5 per cent curtailment in entering classes occurred from 1933 to 1936), the natural expansion process was halted completely. Since the number of applicants continued to rise with the expanding population of the country, the competition for the available training rose sharply.
Able to pick and choose among the throng of eager applicants, many of the schools engaged in arbitrary and even bizarre methods of selection and rejection. State and municipal medical colleges began severe restrictions on the admission of non-residents. Private medical schools, on the other hand, adopted policies designed, they maintained, to produce a representative geographical “spray” (distribution) among their student body. While these opposing policies might seem to cancel each other out, the actual effect was just the reverse. At large group of candidates were caught in a squeeze whereby they could not get into out-of-state medical schools because they were non-residents, and the local schools refused them because they were residents. Thus, a native of Texas has an even chance of getting into a medical school when he applies. His medical schools prefer Texans. A New Yorker, however, has only one chance in four of being accepted for training. His medical schools also seem to prefer Texans. This makes things fine for Texans, not so good for New Yorkers.
At this point a nasty word must be used. Discrimination was not unknown in the medical profession before 1933. Indeed, in 1931 Heywood Broun’s famous book, Christians Only, amply documented discriminatory practices in the medical schools. It showed, for example, that in 1927, 80 per cent of the non-Jewish applicants and almost 50 per cent of the Jewish applicants from City College were accepted into medical school, while only three years later the non-Jewish acceptance were 74 per cent while the Jewish admittances had fallen to less than 20 per cent.
But there were several factors which served to ameliorate discriminatory tendencies in the pre-depression era. For one thing, total applications to medical schools were only 12,000, of which the schools could accept half. This meant that one out of every two applicants would in any case be accepted. Again, although only 20 per cent of the Jewish applicants of City College gained admittance to American medical schools in 1930, an additional 13 per cent were accepted by foreign medical schools. Both these ameliorative conditions were fundamentally altered by the report of 1933.
The immediate effect of the AMA report, intended or not, was to produce a sharp reduction of Jewish students in the entering classes of 1934, 1935, and 1936. From 912 in the freshman classes of 1933, the number dropped to 617 in 1936, a reduction of almost one-third.1 This clearly met the AMA standard of “drastic curtailment,” even though, as we have seen, the over-all reduction of all medical students was less than 5 per cent in the same period. The brunt of the new policy, therefore, was borne almost exclusively by Jewish students. Cuts would seem to have been greatest in Eastern areas where the bulk of the Jewish applicants came from. Thus, in 1932, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University accepted thirty-three Jewish applicants, in 1936 only twelve. Four Philadelphia medical schools showed a decline in Jewish enrollment from 103 in 1934 to 58 in 1936.
The AMA in 1933 was not only concerned with the domestic production of American doctors but the foreign as well. As the report of its Council on Medical Education observed: “To permit the large number of applicants who cannot be accommodated in the medical schools of the United States to study abroad and then return here to practice would inevitably lower the standards and corrupt the ideals of medicine.”
This AMA observation was shortly followed by a program designed to have state boards withdraw medical licensure opportunities from graduates of foreign universities, a program which met with at least limited success. Most of the students studying abroad, significantly, were Jewish.2
The rationale for these policies was not neglected, nor left implicit, by the policymakers. In 1937 and 1938, after the pattern of discriminatory admissions had been firmly established, a number of medical educators attempted to justify it. One view, urged by the then secretary of the American Medical Association, himself Jewish, was that the number of Jewish applicants were “overwhelming” American medical schools. Evidently, the difference of less than 300 Jewish students per year between the earlier admissions and those established under the restrictive policies of 1933, out of a total entering class of 6,000, was that between a reasonable and “overwhelming” number.
Another point of view, advanced by Dean Willard C. Rappleye of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, was that the “representation of the various social and religious groups in medicine ought to be kept fairly parallel with the population make-up.” This argument, based on the quota theory of religious and ethnic representation, was the rationale most commonly advanced for discriminatory policies. How the theory operated in practice was graphically explained by Dean Ladd of the Cornell Medical School in a letter of 1940. He wrote: “Cornell Medical College admits a class of eighty each fall. It picks these men from about twelve hundred applicants of whom seven hundred or more are Jews. We limit the number of Jews admitted to each class to roughly the proportion of Jews in the population in this State, which is a higher proportion than any other part of the country. That means that we take in from 10-15 per cent Jews. The same qualifications hold in picking Jewish students as in picking Gentile students; that is, they are judged not only on the basis of scholarship, but on character, personality, leadership, etc.
“Mr.—had a number of good qualities, but in the opinion of the Admission Committee there were a number of Jewish applicants who applied to the Medical School who surpassed him in desirability.”
In other words, Jews and non-Jews were rated on separate scales. According to the Dean’s figures, 700 Jews and 500 non-Jews on an average applied every year. Of this number, approximately 10 Jews and 70 non-Jews were selected. A Jewish applicant to Cornell, therefore, had one chance in seventy of acceptance, a non-Jewish applicant, one in seven. In effect, this meant that many “A” Jewish students would be turned down, while “B” and “B—” non-Jews made the grade—a situation hardly of service to the medical profession or its patients.
The whole quota policy was once known under the less delicate term of the numerus clausus, instituted in Poland and other East European countries on openly anti-Semitic grounds. From almost any point of view, the argument in favor of quotas has been found lacking in logic, fairness, or good sense. It is manifestly subversive of the democratic ethic that citizens be treated and judged as members of racial, religious, or national blocs, and not as individuals. It is clearly an argument of convenience, never used to justify expansion of opportunity for minority groups, but only for limitation. It is never said, for example, that Negro medical students should constitute 10 per cent of the total to correspond to the Negro percentage of our population; nor is it ever argued that Jewish executives in banks and insurance companies, two fields in which Jews are poorly represented on the administrative level, should equal 4 per cent of the total to correspond to the Jewish percentage of the American population.
A Great deal has happened, of course, since Dean Ladd’s letter of 1940. For one thing, it is no longer good form to justify or even admit discrimination. For another, several states, including New York, have laws specifically prohibiting such practices.
Another factor in the modern medical picture is the acute national shortage of physicians which became obvious at the end of World War II. Medical educators themselves estimated in 1945 that 20,000 more physicians were badly needed, and the report of the President’s Committee on Health Needs of the Nation indicates a prospective shortage of 30,000 physicians by 1960.
In the face of these clear needs, the AMA seems to have revised its earlier views on the overproduction of doctors. In June 1951 it announced that “it has no desire to limit the production of properly trained physicians to serve the American people.” And it emphasized its willingness to encourage the expansion of medical training facilities. The AMA has also reversed its attitude toward foreign medical schools. State licensing boards have been urged that graduates of foreign schools “be accorded the same opportunities for licensure as graduates of approved medical schools in the United States.” It should be noted, however, that the Council on Medical Education, in its 1952 report, observes that “opportunities for American students to obtain a medical education in the better foreign medical schools are diminishing.” The medical schools in Great Britain, for example, are now accepting very few Americans because of their own need for more doctors.
This combination of changed public attitudes, new state laws, and an acute shortage of doctors has brought some important changes in the techniques of admission by medical schools. “Techniques” is the correct word here, for the aims, and the results, would appear to be about the same. The Jewish applicant still too often finds himself on the outside, a victim this time of one or another of current admissions criteria.
The problem of criteria is worth some investigation because the medical schools rest their whole case upon it. The dialogue generally begins when a rejected Jewish applicant notices that other applicants, with grades lower than his own, have been admitted. He wants to know why. He is told that personality factors have also been considered. If he has applied to Flower Hospital Medical School in New York he learns that his “diction, voice, physical appearance, grooming” have all been weighed. This information may not make him happier, but it certainly discourages him from pursuing the investigation further.
Admittedly, such personality factors as “diction, voice, physical appearance, grooming” may contribute to the well-known bedside manner and therefore to the average doctor’s success. But a pathologist or research worker may go through his entire career without ever seeing a live patient, while a surgeon who leaves a sponge or a clamp inside his victim would need an unusual bedside manner indeed to mollify his outraged patient, or placate the bereaved family. And when one considers the personalities of some outstanding pioneers in medical history, and finds that a frequent common characteristic is a kind of pig-headed obstinacy, a quality seldom associated with a sunny disposition but very useful in overcoming the opposition of eminent fools, it is cause for thanksgiving that men like Ehrlich, Koch, and Freud did not need the assent of the Flower Hospital Admissions Committee in order to study medicine.
Sir William Osier, the great English diagnostician, once said: “There are only two sorts of doctors; those who practice with their brains, and those who practice with their tongues.” The Flower Hospital admission requirements would seem to favor the second.
Even when personality criteria are not used as a conscious—or unconscious—cover for prejudice, objective evidence seems to cast great doubt on the worth of such criteria for admissions. The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, has recently been studying methods of improving the selection of physicians for psychiatric training. Teaching psychiatrists gave intensive interviews to the candidates and then rated them as to probable aptitudes. No applicants were excluded by this process, the sole purpose being to determine the value of personality interviews in selecting physicians for the training program. Comparison between the performance of the candidates and their interview ratings with trained psychiatrists revealed a correlation of only +.2. This is only slightly better than the interviewers could have done by flipping a coin. Seven out of the ten top trainees, rated on performance at the conclusion of the training, would have failed to qualify if results of the personality interviews had been used to bar candidates.
Obviously, physicians on admissions committees do not have the competency of trained psychiatrists in judging personality qualifications. Yet they have not hesitated to use these subjective criteria in deciding who shall and who shall not enter medical school. And when the record of Flower Hospital shows, as it does, that Jewish applicants are rejected three and a half times as often as non-Jewish applicants of comparable scholarship by these personality criteria, the inference is overwhelming that the admissions committee is concerned not with personality but with something very different.
Geographical criteria may constitute a legitimate admissions requirement where some private medical schools wish to establish a national character. As for state medical schools maintained with tax funds, they are under obligation to prefer residents. Yet geographical criteria are only legitimate where they are fairly and scrupulously administered. In New York, private medical schools use highly elastic geographical criteria for reasons which are at least dubious.
In 1950, the New York State Department of Education studied the admissions practices of nine medical schools in the state. The study threw grave doubt on the real purpose of geographical criteria in some of these schools. It was discovered, for example, that non-Jewish residents of New York found it just as easy as non-residents to get into private medical schools. Only Jewish residents found it more difficult to get into such schools—ostensibly because they were New Yorkers. It appears that geographical criteria are indeed used—but only if the applicant is Jewish.
The study also showed that more than 30 per cent of the Jewish applications whose grades on a comparative basis should have entitled them to admittance to some school failed to get into any medical school in the state. This figure of rejections would have been much higher had it not been for the liberal and eminently fair admissions policy of two of the nine schools, New York University and the State University at Long Island Medical College. These two accounted for more than two-thirds of all the Jewish medical students in the state. The other seven showed a sharp distortion in the proportion of Jews to non-Jews accepted on a comparative scholarship basis.
Just what happens when a medical school is free to juggle these various criteria may best be understood by a brief case study of Cornell University Medical School’s admission practices.
Cornell follows a declared policy of limiting the number of students it will accept from any one preparatory school. It distributes its 80 available places among an average of twenty-five colleges. Most of the premedical graduates of New York University, Columbia University, Syracuse, and the City Colleges of New York are Jewish. By limiting admissions to one student each from NYU, Syracuse, and City College, and two from Columbia, Cornell can dispose of as many as 200 Jewish applications with one or two acceptances. Since the graduating class of each university usually contains a sprinkling of closely bunched top-grade students, if only one or two are chosen from each school it is possible to weed out Jewish applicants rather easily without too obvious discrimination in any particular case. Only when an over-all analysis discloses that non-Jews are chosen over Jews of comparative scholarship on an eight to one ratio, does it become clear how such a system operates in practice.
An even stronger indication that Dean Ladd’s admitted 10-15 per cent quota of 1940 is still in force today comes through an examination of Cornell Medical’s treatment of applicants from Cornell University itself. Here, the question of school could not be a factor since all applicants came from the same one.
The 1950 study showed that 20 pre-medical graduates of Cornell University were accepted into Cornell Medical School out of 64 applicants. Twenty-nine of these applicants were Jewish, 35 non-Jewish. Although the average grades of the Jewish students were about 10 per cent higher, the acceptances were in inverse proportion to the grades on a group basis, with 5 Jews and 15 non-Jews admitted.
The Department of Education study of Cornell admissions policy included personality evaluations for each applicant from at least three faculty undergraduate advisors. These evaluations, based on the teacher’s appraisal of the student’s aptitudes for medicine, were combined with the scholarship grades to provide an over-all average for each student. The personality evaluations of the Jewish students tended to be much lower than those of the other students, probably a reflection of the advisors’ pessimism on the Jewish applicants’ chances of getting into medical school. However, on the basis of the joint averages of scholarship and personality, there were 18 Jews and 18 non-Jews who qualified as either “superior” or “good.” This over-all evaluation predicted with almost complete accuracy the fate of the non-Jewish “superior” and “good” applicants, 15 of whom were accepted. Yet it failed miserably to foretell the fate of the 18 Jewish students, only 5 of whom were accepted. Evidently, factors other than “personality”—vague as that criterion is—or scholarship, are important when applying to Cornell Medical School.
Conceivably, a defender of Cornell’s admissions policies might contend that the desire to get a broad geographical distribution of students, and not discrimination, was important, since most of the Jewish applicants came from New York City. This contention does not stand up under examination. Cornell Medical School appears to have no consistent pattern of acceptances for New York City residents. In 1949, it accepted thirty from New York, in 1950, fifteen. A variation of 50 per cent in consecutive years precludes geography as an important factor in admissions policy.
Here a delicate question must be raised. Cornell, after all, is in New York State and New York has had an Education Practices Law since 1948 designed to eliminate just such policies. To. put it mildly, something would seem to be amiss in the enforcement of the law.
Actually, the responsible state authorities have not been blind to these violations. Certain measures have been taken evidently aimed at correcting such abuses. Yet these have clearly not been enough.
Already mentioned was a 1950 study of medical school admissions practices by the New York State Department of Education. This study itself is a curious hodge-podge. It contains all the facts and raw data necessary to establish probable “unfair education practices”—the requirement under the New York State law. Yet it never analyzes or assembles this data in any meaningful fashion and, above all, it shies clear of judgments and conclusions. Instead, it is Satisfied with the mournful statement that, “While the data in the survey establish conclusively the existence of differential rates of acceptance for various groups of applicants, it is less certain to what extent this differential should be interpreted as discrimination, since it is impossible to determine how much of the differential can be accounted for by the operation of factors of legitimate nature, such as residence or type of undergraduate college.”
The same analyst, however, held a different opinion at an earlier stage of the study as to what proof was needed. In the planning stage he observed that discrimination is established by showing a statistically significant difference in treatment. In any case, it seems incredibly obtuse not to realize that it is precisely the legitimacy of the criteria which such a study must evaluate if it is to have any worth at all. Barring outright confession of discrimination, any case for or against the medical schools must necessarily rest completely on an analysis of these criteria in the light of their effect on the composition of the student body. And in this particular study, a simple transposition of the accumulated data to IBM cards, which was never done, would have automatically disclosed the illegitimacy of the criteria by revealing mathematically the effect of the religious background factor.
An exception to this general criticism can be made. A special analysis for the data pertaining to Cornell Medical School was completed and the conclusion reached that the evidence “strongly suggests that Cornell is using a quota system in admission of Jewish pre-meds.” This material was not presented in the final report nor were any steps taken by the Department of Education to compel compliance with the law.
One last, sad fact remains to be told about this unhappy study. It was never released. After conferring with the deans of the New York medical schools, the Board of Regents discovered “defects” in it, and, to the obvious relief of the medical schools, withdrew it. Another study was promised, this time by the Board of Regents.
The Board of Regents study has been concluded and will shortly be released. Preliminary information on its contents are not encouraging. They indicate a discursive, historical treatment of the general problem of discrimination and medical school admissions policies, rather than an incisive analysis of specific schools.
If these rumors are confirmed, it may be confidently predicted that the Board of Regents study will be quickly relegated to the voluminous “file and forget” dossiers of the New York medical schools. Innumerable studies, reports, and articles have been written, and countless high-level approaches to the problem have been made. Many of those most actively engaged in eliminating discrimination in the medical schools have, by now, reached the conclusion that what is needed today is a mite less stratospheric diplomacy and a few blunt attempts to have the law enforced. Certainly the facts seem clear enough, and although there is an understandable reluctance to offend the sensibilities of the medical educators, the fact remains that the medical people have shown themselves to be remarkably insensible to the feelings of others.
Unfortunately, the restrictive admissions practices of New York medical schools are by no means unique. Although the greatest problem exists in that state, discrimination in American medical schools elsewhere can be equally documented. Studies of admissions at Pennsylvania medical schools, for example, show similar practices.
It is a cliché that discrimination hurts everybody, but in medicine it can be demonstrated almost mathematically. The possible contributions of those high-caliber students who have been barred from medical school by discriminating quotas must remain, of course, matters of conjecture, but the actual contributions of Jewish physicians who obtained their degrees only because of the more liberal policies of foreign medical schools are on the record. The many outstanding doctors in this category stand as effective rebukes to existing criteria of selection. The assistant director of research at one of the largest cancer hospitals, who has made significant discoveries in the field; the young doctor at Seaview Hospital who has played a leading part in developing and testing, the new anti-TB drugs; a brilliant psycho biologist at Creedmore State Hospital who has done pioneer work in disclosing the relationship between mental disturbance and organic brain pathology, thus opening up the possibility of treating neuroses and psychoses by medication, surgery, and other direct methods; a doctor who has made major contributions to research on the cellular structure of aging persons in the new field of medicine called gerontology—through which techniques of prolonging life are now being sought—foreign med schools found room for these men after American schools had turned them down. Yet it is a sobering thought that, today, these four doctors, among many others of similar caliber, could probably not obtain a medical education, for the foreign opportunities have been severely curtailed. One wonders how many like them have been turned away from a medical career.
Nor is there any evidence that present interview techniques and personality criteria are even successful in eliminating the emotionally unstable among prospective doctors. Indeed, what evidence there is would indicate the contrary. A study in 1942 of medical students at Cornell, Illinois, and Chicago revealed that about 25 per cent were in serious need of help for various emotional problems or psychiatric disabilities. And in a recent study by Edward A. Strecker and colleagues, of a senior medical class, 46.5 per cent were found to have neurotic handicaps of major character. Facts such as these impelled the American Psychiatric Association at its recent Conference on Psychiatric Education to urge the rapid development of objective indices for measuring the emotional stability and psychological fitness of medical candidates, to replace the hit-or-miss methods of present admission boards. And it is worthy of note that the conference concluded that “for the present, grades are probably the best single criteria for admission since . . . we do not know as yet what special qualities make a good medical student or a proficient physician, and thus do not have other criteria.”
The moral or practical case against discrimination in medical schools need not be labored here. It has been found to lack any justification whatsoever apart from that of protecting vested interests at the expense of the health and welfare of the nation. Yet even those who admit the fallacies of quotas will sometimes refer to the “disproportionate” Jewish interest in medicine. This point needs no refutation, only comprehension.
The interest of Jewish students in medical education is, of course, a fact. The interest of Italians in the opera is also a fact. The particular talents and interests of ethnic or cultural groups have always served to enrich mankind and, particularly in the United States, have traditionally been seen as forces to be encouraged and nurtured. Jews of genius like Maimonides, Amatus, Ehrlich, Wasserman, Freud, and Schick, to mention only a few, have made inestimable contributions toward the prolongation of human life and the alleviation of suffering. Maimonides’ daily prayer of a physician, which reads in part, “May there never develop in me the notion that my education is complete, but give me strength and leisure and zeal continually to enlarge my knowledge,” expresses the thirst for knowledge that has traditionally motivated so much of Jewish interest in medicine and other sciences. Even today it is significant that about half of the articles in the various American medical journals which provide new knowledge in the field of medicine are written by Jewish physicians. Yet this admitted Jewish interest in and aptitude for medicine is being deliberately thwarted by a policy of drastic curtailment.
Undoubtedly, the interest of able young Jews in medicine is accentuated by lack of opportunity for them in many other attractive pursuits. So long as the junk business rather than steel, and the loan business rather than banking, are the choices available, enthusiasm for rewarding professions like medicine will be great. This simply illustrates the unbalancing effect on the whole economy of discrimination in any particular field. The tragedy is that the medical profession, which serves the nation so directly, should work to strengthen discriminating tendencies in American life instead of combating them.
The larger tragedy is that the medical educators responsible for recruiting new members to the profession should be selecting them on grounds of prejudice, not competence. As a result, our doctors are not as good as they should and could be. So while prejudice in medicine hurts Jews directly, it also hurts everybody else indirectly.
1 Jewish Social Studies, July 1939.
2 Traditionally, of course, many European medical schools, particularly in pre-Hitler Germany and Austria, and in Switzerland, had the reputation of having higher medical standards than American schools. By 1933 it is probable that the gap separating the medical standards of the two continents had largely disappeared, but this was the first time that a responsible American medical group had suggested that European schools were inferior to ours.
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Medical School Quotas and National Health:Discrimination that Hurts Us All
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.