The conscience of a neoconservative giant.
This year marks the centennial of the birth of Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, one of the towering figures of American politics in the latter half of the 20th century and the avatar of neoconservatism. A Democrat representing the state of Washington in the U.S. Senate from 1953 until his sudden death in 1983, he deserves to be recalled not only because he merits honor but also because little of today’s politics would be comprehensible without understanding his 30 years in office.
I worked for him during his unsuccessful campaign for president in 1976 and got to see him up close for those months. Although he was entirely absorbed in politics from the time he reached adulthood, he was very unlike a politician. He was awkward on the stump and uneasy pressing the flesh. The reason, one could see, is that he had a modest ego. He was uncomfortable, too, amid the bevy of highfliers and self-promoters who make up the crew and groupies of any presidential campaign. I remember Sterling Munro, Jackson’s top Senate aide and the campaign’s chief of staff, battling long-distance with the candidate’s traveling entourage to get everyone to leave Scoop’s hotel room at night so he could get some rest. The senator himself, apparently, was too polite or unassuming to throw them out. Scoop’s aide, Richard Perle, kept a paper cocktail napkin displayed on his desk in the Senate Office Building. On it was scrawled in felt-tipped pen: “Richard, I was here. Where were you? I waited. Scoop.” Anyone familiar with the hierarchical norms on Capitol Hill between members and staff will recognize how extraordinary this missive was.
As he was humble, so was he unpretentious. Jackson was astonished that Jimmy Carter, his main opponent for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination, made a campaign theme of being a born-again Christian. Scoop allowed in private that he was a regular churchgoer, but he did not believe that this was anyone else’s concern and wouldn’t have thought of speaking about it in public. Carter, who had pandered to segregationists when running for governor, then turned on a dime when he went national, and who embellished his resume with the claim to be a “nuclear physicist” and other falsehoods, carefully cultivated an image of virtue, while Scoop, a genuinely virtuous individual, never gave a thought to his image. As ABC’s Barrie Dunsmore, who covered both men and was no ideological fan of Scoop’s, put it: “Carter would carry his bags on the campaign trail and make a big thing of it. Jackson would carry his and yours and make nothing of it at all.”
Dunsmore also recalled that Scoop was “extraordinarily forgiving” toward journalists, such as himself, who wrote critically of Scoop. The same was true for staff. I was tasked to write a speech for a campaign event, my first such venture. Later I overheard Jackson asking a more senior aide to rework it, commenting with a laugh, “It’d make a fine doctoral dissertation, but it’s not a speech.” Had I not inadvertently eavesdropped, I would not have known of my failure. What I heard from Scoop’s lips was only thanks.
As Dunsmore’s anecdote about the luggage suggests, Scoop was abstemious with himself but generous to others. He drove a jalopy that was a laughingstock and gave all his honoraria to charity—mostly anonymously. Even after he married and fathered two children, and therefore spent a lot more on his own household than he had as a bachelor, he gave away as much as 44 percent of his income, which, all told, measured only five figures long. He also, as need arose, covered medical expenses and the like for a troubled sibling, this of course without the benefit of a tax deduction. In short, as political scientist Robert G. Kaufman, author of Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics (2003), a fine definitive biography, puts it, Scoop “personified integrity and decency in all aspects of his life.”
He was also—and this must have flowed from the same source as his virtue—an utter Boy Scout. His usual order at cocktail parties was grapefruit juice. He remained single until age 49, by which time he had already served nine years in the Senate (following 10 in the House). Although he went on the occasional date, he saw fewer women than some of his married Senate colleagues did. Kaufman repeats an anecdote from Jackson’s bachelor years that captures Jackson’s prudishness as well as his single-mindedness:
Martha Wright, from Duvall, Washington, in Scoop’s old district, was an aspiring musical comedy actress around Seattle. Then she went to New York in 1947 or 1948 and did very well. Scoop had known her around Seattle. He went up to New York to take her out. Martha had familiarity with show business mores, which were not strict about sex. Scoop wanted to take her back to her apartment. She was intrigued that straight arrow Scoop was interested. When they got to the apartment, Scoop said he wanted to watch the 11 o’clock news. He did and then left.
Like a good Scout, Scoop had the highest attendance rating in the Senate and maintained it at 99 percent even while campaigning for president. He was exceedingly diligent and a master of the intricacies of the chamber in which he served, winning designation by Ralph Nader’s study group as the “most effective senator.” His success, though, was not only a product of skill. As ill at ease as he often seemed with crowds or among strangers, he was warm and gregarious with those he knew, including colleagues and staff. When he died, the tributes from fellow Senators were published in a book some 450 pages long. Eulogies in the Senate are common, but nothing like this effusion. And those who worked for him formed a group called Scoop’s Troops that continues to hold annual meetings in his honor decades after his death.
Jackson’s deeply ingrained desire to do the right thing, which made him a man of many virtues and something of a prig, may also have helped to shape his political views, which were liberal. In those innocent days before it absorbed an admixture of angry, arrogant 1960s leftism, liberalism was a vaguely defined creed that attempted to give political expression to the impulse to do good.
Scoop was the epitome of the liberalism of his day. The two cardinal programmatic ideas of that philosophy were devotion to the “common man” and the conviction that government had nigh limitless power to make people’s lives better.
The common man was an American concept more elastic than the European notion of class. It encompassed ordinary people whether of town or country, whether wage earners or self-employed. Scoop’s father, a Norwegian immigrant, served for 26 years as treasurer of his local branch of the Plasterers and Cement Masons’ Union, but he also worked for a time as a policeman and later as a private contractor, pouring concrete. In the formulaic categories of Marxism, that would have meant that he leapt from class to class. But little if anything changed in the Jacksons’ circumstances as he changed jobs, and in American terms, he remained a common man. His kind were at once the beneficiaries of the policies championed by liberalism and its intended constituency. This average American was also seen to incarnate a country whose essential goodness was beyond doubt.
As for the role of government, liberalism embraced private enterprise, not socialism, as the basic form of economy. It did, however, also believe that the Great Depression had proved that capitalism could not be left safely to its own devices. An activist government was essential to provide the protections and benefits that would make the good life possible for the common man and to assure that the country as a whole would prosper. Also it would supervise land use, sponsoring public utilities and conservationism.
To these core tenets of liberalism we might add a third and fourth: a sense of fair play at home and active engagement abroad. Fair play entailed support for causes such as civil rights and civil liberties. Internationalism rested on the hard-won lessons that American isolation had helped bring about the Second World War and that the threat posed by predatory dictators was universal.
Jackson embraced each of these causes and was a leader in most. Organized labor powered the fight for the panoply of benefits for the common man—Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, workmen’s compensation, and the like—and Jackson posted the most perfect voting record in the U.S. Senate by the lights of the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education.
In college, Jackson had joined the League for Industrial Democracy, a more opaque name for an organization that had originally called itself the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. If Jackson had a dalliance with socialism, it did not last long, but he was a lifelong believer in socialized medicine, public-works programs to provide jobs, ever greater federal aid for education, an expanded public role in utilities, and regulation of the energy industry. And such was his devotion to conservationism that he became the first politician to win the Sierra Club’s John Muir Award, its highest honor.
As for fair play, Jackson was a supporter of civil rights but not a leader in this field, perhaps because the state of Washington was home to few blacks. Indians were a more prominent minority, and Jackson’s first legislative accomplishment as a member of the House was the 1946 Indian Claims Commission Act, providing some legal remedy for long-ago broken treaty obligations. Regarding civil liberties, Jackson first made a name for himself as a senator by taking on Senator Joseph McCarthy in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the vessel for McCarthy’s scurrilous inquests.
If these causes appealed to Scoop reflexively, that was not true of internationalism. Early in World War II, he had declared himself “unalterably opposed to our country[’s] entering the European conflict.” But Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war against the United States made all that moot. Although already a member of the House of Representatives, Scoop quickly enlisted in the Army and served a few months until an order from President Franklin Roosevelt barred congressmen from service, sending Scoop and a few colleagues back to Capitol Hill. In his reversal about the war, Jackson was similar to many other Americans, liberal and conservative. But his turn against isolationism—reinforced at war’s end by a tour of Buchenwald two days after its liberation—was more impassioned and far-reaching than that of most others.
In the three years after the war, liberals were divided about how to keep the peace. The majority, including Jackson, followed President Truman in viewing Communism and the Soviet Union as presenting a totalitarian threat akin to Fascism and Nazi Germany. A minority, including Jackson’s future Senate colleague George McGovern, followed former Vice President Henry Wallace in perceiving the Soviet Union in a more benign light. Wallace said there was “a great difference between the fascist dictatorship, which tries to perpetuate itself for its own profit, power, and glory, and the dictatorship in the Soviet Union which has as its goal an economy of abundance for all its people and the eventual dissolution of the dictatorship” and which therefore has “no necessity to expand [its] borders, nor will [it] for many decades to come, except as [compelled by] external threats and pressures.”
With Truman’s surprise reelection victory in 1948 and Wallace’s pathetic third-party showing (2 percent of the popular vote), the debate was sealed. But its conclusion was reversed 20 or so years later when the Vietnam War discredited anti-Communism; and McGovern, still adhering to Wallace’s worldview,1 captured the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, handily besting Jackson among others.
McGovern’s success, though focused on the issue of Vietnam, represented the triumph of a broader ideology whose roots were in the New Left of the 1960s. Initially, the New Left had disdained electoral politics, favoring revolution over mere reform within “the system.” And its more zealous adherents continued to embrace violence and other forms of chiliastic rebellion. But the mass of New Left sympathizers were less dogmatic and harkened to the call in 1968 to shave beards and shed love beads to go “neat and clean for Gene” McCarthy, the senator from Minnesota whose 1968 antiwar presidential campaign paved the way for McGovern’s in 1972.
This new movement, dubbing itself the “New Politics,” was at variance with almost every tenet of the old liberalism. It was contemptuous of the common man, exemplified by the protagonist of the era’s most popular sitcom: Archie Bunker, a racist narrow-minded patriot. (Carroll O’Connor, the actor who so brilliantly rendered this caricature, did TV ads for the 1972 presidential campaign of New York City’s Mayor John V. Lindsay, who competed with McGovern for the left wing of the Democratic Party.) Instead, the New Politics championed youth and the college-educated elite, who, in coalition with blacks and Latinos, were seen as the true constituency for a better America. The labor movement, the old pillar of liberalism, said one of Eugene McCarthy’s top advisers, was not worth “the powder it would take to blow it to hell.”
As for government activism, the attitude was more ambivalent. Years later, the heirs of this New Politics were to embrace big government whole-heartedly. But early on, the attitude of the movement was less clear, perhaps precisely because the prosaic forms of social insurance were so closely identified with organized labor and traditional liberals such as Jackson. What excited New Politics adherents more were projects to aid the “underclass” such as “welfare rights.”
This movement turned the cause of civil rights on its head. Instead of the goal of a color-blind society espoused so eloquently by Martin Luther King Jr., it advocated preferential treatment for blacks. The rationale for this was to redress past discrimination. But the flimsiness of this reasoning was made clear by the proliferation of demographic categories that soon were added to the list of beneficiaries of reverse discrimination—amounting to more or less everyone except middle-aged white males. It reached the height of absurdity when the Democratic Party embraced the “McGovern reforms” that gave special advantage to minorities, women, and youth. The latter category meant newly eligible voters. But of course, by definition, these individuals could not possibly have been discriminated against in previous elections.
The old liberal concern for conservationism was supplanted by the new environmentalism, whose hallmark was wariness of economic growth (and, ipso facto, higher living standards for the common man). The sanctity of civil liberties gave way to the new “political correctness” in which some ideas could not be expressed and people who expressed them could not be hired.
Above all, the new liberalism defined itself by its approach to international issues. The old liberalism had included a philosophy called “liberal internationalism,” which, in a self-conscious antithesis of isolationism, held America’s security to depend on global security. Conversely, it believed that America’s role in the world—through its military strength, its alliances, its political influence, its prosperity and generosity—was to be the essential cornerstone of global security. The new liberalism, in contrast, saw America as being as much a part of the problem as the solution, and it thought the world and our country would be better off if it played a much more modest role abroad. “Come home, America” was the theme of McGovern’s presidential bid.
Although McGovern lost the 1972 general election in a landslide, the grip of his followers and his ideas on the Democratic Party only grew stronger over the following decade. True, Jimmy Carter, the next Democratic nominee, campaigned for president as a centrist, but no sooner had he won than he revealed his affinity with the new liberalism. McGovern told friends that Carter’s appointments to the policy-making positions at the State Department were “excellent…quite close to those I would have made myself.” When Carter was defeated for reelection in 1980, the party chose as its next standard-bearer his more liberal vice president, Walter Mondale, whose votes on international issues as a senator had met the approval of the new-liberal advocacy group, Americans for Democratic Action, 96 percent of the time.
During this era, the new liberalism waged political and ideological warfare against the old. On the ideological side, the centerpiece was the coinage of the term neoconservatism as an anathema cast on unreconstructed adherents of the old liberalism. This was at first received with indignation, but gradually those to whom the epithet was applied acquiesced, leaving the label liberal to those in the McGovern tradition. (Eventually, they brought it into such bad odor that they abandoned it in favor of progressive). On the political side, the new liberals sponsored candidates in Democratic primaries against incumbent representatives and senators of old-liberal stripe, defeating several and terrifying the rest.
The ideological and the political warfare differed from each other in a crucial respect. The targets of the former were intellectuals for whom the clash of ideas was meat and drink. The newly christened “neoconservatives” fought back with gusto, even joie de combat, not least in the pages of this magazine. But politicians are in a different position. Needing the support of many and diverse voters, their calling is not to duel but to placate, not to sharpen differences but to blur them. Of all the things a politician fears, few are more alarming than opposition within his or her own party.
Thus, faced with the threat of internecine challenge, incumbent Democratic officeholders, one after another, fell into line with the new liberalism. Consider for example, the leaders of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), formed in the immediate aftermath of McGovern’s 1972 general election debacle to win the Democratic Party back to its old-liberal traditions, a mission that seemed well within reach, given the dimensions of McGovern’s defeat. Among its original officers were Representatives Jim Wright (Texas) and Tom Foley (Washington), each of whom rose to become speaker of the House. One of its two honorary co-chairmen was Sen. Hubert Humphrey, later succeeded in that title by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Over the course of the next decade, however, the new liberalism proved surprisingly resilient, and gradually each of these four leading Democrats remade himself as a “liberal” on foreign-policy issues.
Something analogous happened with organized labor. The AFL-CIO under the leadership of George Meany and his successor, Lane Kirkland, had been the political muscle behind the old liberalism. So staunch was its anti-Communism that when the Democrats nominated McGovern in 1972, labor, despite Meany’s fierce clashes with President Richard Nixon throughout his first term, broke its tradition of supporting the Democrat and declared its neutrality. But a new-labor faction emerged, dovish on foreign policy, that forced the AFL-CIO to cease siding with the old liberalism against the new, and it eventually drove Kirkland from office.
Amid all this surrender under heavy fire, one single politician among the old liberals yielded not an inch. That was Scoop Jackson (who was, by the way, the other honorary co-chairman of CDM). This was true even though he knew that his stand might keep his party’s presidential nomination from his grasp. He lacked the ego of a politician, but he did not lack the ambition. He had been keenly disappointed when the weight of Texas’s electoral college votes led John F. Kennedy to select Lyndon B. Johnson as his vice president in 1960 despite numerous reports that Scoop had been JFK’s preferred choice. Scoop made a desultory run for the nomination in 1972 and seemed well positioned to capture the prize in 1976—many judged him the front-runner at the outset—were he not so abhorrent to new-liberal Democrats. Although he carried the Massachusetts and New York primaries, that abhorrence coupled with Scoop’s weaknesses as a campaigner brought him up short against Jimmy Carter.
After losing the showdown Pennsylvania primary to Carter in April, Scoop bowed out of the race and threw his support to the winner, even while other Democratic contenders battled the Georgian through the last primary months later. Thus, after Carter won the general election, Scoop was poised to have a strong relationship with the new president, as behooves a senator of the same party. But Carter’s foreign-policy appointments, which so pleased McGovern, appalled Jackson.
Carter capped these by naming Paul Warnke as head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and chief weapons negotiator. As chief defense-policy adviser to McGovern’s 1972 campaign, Warnke had authored a plan to reduce the entire U.S. military by one-third. This appointment was too much for Scoop, and he decided to fight Warnke’s nomination despite the tradition of allowing a new president a honeymoon. Warnke won confirmation in the Senate but only by a vote of 58 to 40. This implied that Scoop would be able to muster the votes to block any arms-control treaty that did not meet his approval since ratification requires a two-thirds vote.
Scoop continued to dog Carter over his defense and Cold War policies to the point of accusing the president, in one 1979 speech, of practicing “appeasement,” charging that the “explanations, extenuations, and excuses” for Soviet conduct put forward by his administration were “ominously reminiscent of Great Britain in the 1930s.”
Still, Scoop’s battles with Carter amounted to little more than a mild reprise of the titanic struggles he had waged with Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and their brilliant foreign-policy strategist, Henry Kissinger, over détente. These were, arguably, the most perilous years of the Cold War. America was in the last agonizing throes of losing the war in Vietnam for which it had sacrificed 50,000 to 60,000 lives. The public had become deeply war-weary.
The Democrats had mostly gone over to the view that the core problem was America’s own paranoia and belligerency. That was the theme of McGovern’s candidacy, echoed a few years later by Jimmy Carter, who spoke of the “inordinate fear of Communism” that had led America to fight “fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water.” In search of this peace-giving elixir, the Democrats pushed for yearly reductions in military spending, tight new restraints on the CIA, and the withdrawal from bases and commitments abroad.
And the Republicans? It is easy to forget that before the Reagan era, the GOP was not particularly hawkish. Its traditions were isolationist. America’s engagement with the world had been framed by Democrats: Franklin Roosevelt had led (some say dragged) us into World War II; Harry Truman’s liberal internationalism brought us into the Cold War; and John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson got us into Vietnam. True, in 1964, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater had made some thunderous pronouncements that the Democrats used against him with good effect, but during his long career in the Senate, Goldwater was never a leader on foreign or defense issues.
Now, the Republican administration unfolded the policy of détente, which meant an abatement of the Cold War. This would have been especially welcome to the U.S. at that difficult moment, but why would the Kremlin go along at a moment when the United States was least prepared to parry any Communist thrust? Indeed, there was precious little sign that the Soviet effort to gain the upper hand had slowed, much less stopped. Soviet support for guerrilla movements in Africa and Latin America intensified, as it did for radical regimes in the Middle East and Palestinian terrorists. To boot, Moscow itself was in the midst of an arduous build-up of its nuclear forces that promised to give it an advantage at every level of weaponry—conventional and nuclear, short-range and long-range.
The chief of naval operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, claimed that Kissinger told him that America’s position was declining inexorably and that his job was to win from the Soviets the best terms he could for a graceful U.S. retreat. Kissinger strongly denied saying or believing any such thing. He explains in his memoirs that his goal was largely to “outmaneuver the ‘peace’ pressures” in order to protect America’s defense structure “from Congressional savaging.” In other words, Kissinger orchestrated a display of peacemaking, he says, in order to cut the ground from under the doves.
If this was truly his strategy, it was too clever by half. The underlying problem was the degree to which Vietnam had eaten away Americans’ faith in the worthiness of their own country and their understanding of the malignity of their foes. This new mood was neither Nixon’s nor Kissinger’s fault, but it could only be changed by confronting it. Americans needed to be reminded that whatever had gone wrong in Vietnam, or if the war had been a mistake, the larger Cold War of which it was a part was both just and necessary. To tell them, instead, that the Cold War was over or nearly over or on its way to being over would only make a bad situation worse.
Did the Republican administration claim such a thing? Kissinger concedes it did, but he blames Nixon. Here is his account:
Nixon’s penchant for hyperbole was unlikely to be restrained in an election year. He started out expressing the “hope” for a generation of peace. Soon he came to claim it as an “accomplishment.” And in the closing days of the 1972 election campaign he even escalated the goal to be a “century of peace.” His public-relations people were indefatigable in propounding these propositions—over my frequently expressed, but rather ineffective, dissent.
If Kissinger dissented, this was very much in private. In public he was scarcely less enthusiastic than his boss. Briefing the press at the close of the May 1972 Moscow summit about the strategic arms limitations (SALT) accords that had been signed along with a slew of less important agreements, Kissinger said: “Both governments decided that in an agreement of this kind, the stakes were larger than the simple technical issues…that what was at stake was a major step toward international stability, confidence among nations, and a turn in the pattern of postwar relations.”
What Kissinger called “simple technical issues” was the fact that the agreement, supposedly a five-year “interim” deal, granted the Soviets a substantially larger arsenal of nuclear missiles than the U.S. Fine, perhaps, if the Cold War was really over. Worrisome, if not.
The 1972 Moscow summit, at which the atmospherics were warmer than in any previous such meeting, was the high point of détente. But in the months that followed, Scoop introduced two amendments that took the wind out of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s sails and helped to refocus the country on essential truths of the Cold War. Rarely has a legislator had such a large hand in steering the ship of state—especially against the will of the executive.
The first Jackson Amendment concerned SALT itself. It comprised a treaty, sharply limiting defensive missiles (antimissile missiles), and an executive agreement limiting offensive weapons, the unequal “interim agreement.” Executive agreements ordinarily do not require Congressional assent, but for arcane legal reasons, this one did. Scoop took aim at the inequality and the fact that the interim agreement was intended to be superseded by a long-term or permanent treaty yet to be negotiated. His amendment to the motion of assent said simply that the Congress “urges and requests the president to seek a future treaty that…would not limit the United States to levels of intercontinental strategic forces inferior to the limits provided for the Soviet Union.”
Who could be against that? Well, J. William Fulbright, for one, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, who complained, “It raises questions about the prudence and propriety of the original agreement,” and 34 other doves who voted against the amendment in the Senate. It was harder for the administration to oppose it, and after Scoop had toned down some earlier language, Nixon acquiesced in the amendment, thus assuring its passage by a wide margin. If Zumwalt was right that Kissinger’s strategy amounted to acceptance of second place, this provision stopped that process in its tracks.
But even if Zumwalt had entirely misconstrued Kissinger, the amendment opened up a momentous discussion. Why had the Soviets sought a preponderance of large ICBMs, the most destructive and destabilizing weapons? The United States had been first to build atomic weapons and ICBMs. Then, during the Kennedy administration, Washington concluded that it had enough missiles to hit every conceivable enemy target, and it ceased to add more. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara expressed confidence that Moscow would do likewise as soon as it caught up. But when the Soviet Union reached parity in ICBMs, it just kept building more, and now it had insisted on locking in that advantage (and some others, such as the size of these missiles) in SALT. How could such behavior be reconciled with the new relationship promised by détente?
The second and more famous Jackson Amendment concerned immigration from the Soviet Union. It denied trade benefits to any “non-market economy country” that did not allow its citizens to emigrate. In practice it affected primarily Jews seeking to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Jackson first introduced this amendment in 1972, but the trade bill to which it was attached was not enacted until 1974. While it was in prospect, the Kremlin allowed emigration to swell greatly. Then, when it passed, the numbers were squeezed back to their pre–Jackson Amendment level before rising again a few years later. Although this variance sparked a debate about the wisdom of the measure, the Soviet Jews themselves were not ambivalent. As their leading light, Natan Sharansky, put it:
For many Jews in the Soviet Union Jackson became the savior of their lives. Hundreds of thousands of Jews could join their people in freedom. Thousands of non-Jews who wanted to live in freedom and not in the Soviet Union could do it. And they attribute it first of all to that noble position of Senator Jackson.
Apart from the individuals who benefited, this amendment, like Jackson’s SALT amendment, raised some freighted questions. What kind of country treated its citizens as captives? How would such a country treat us? And why, if the Soviet regime was prepared to lay to rest its conflict with us, would it continue to give so little quarter to its own people?
These questions were pressed home by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the writer-cum-prophet who had laid bare the Soviet gulag system, when he first arrived in America in 1975. President Gerald Ford refused to invite Solzhenitsyn to the White House for fear of roiling the Kremlin, so Jackson and George Meany, Washington’s two doughtiest anti-Communists, provided his welcome—Jackson hosting him in the Senate and Meany for a public lecture.
Embarrassed by such displays of pusillanimity and even more so by Moscow’s continued aggressiveness, the Ford administration let it be known in 1976 that it would no longer use the word détente. Then Jimmy Carter pursued his own, still more conciliatory version of this policy until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 wrote finis to the whole era and paved the way for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Jackson had been accused of killing détente; in truth, it was the Soviets themselves who did that. But Jackson’s Amendments, his criticisms of Nixon, Ford, and Carter, and his other actions, such as hosting Solzhenitsyn, did perhaps more than anything else to help America regain perspective on its enemies and thus on itself and to recover from the bout of self-laceration brought on by Vietnam.
Scoop served on Reagan’s transition team, then turned down appointment as secretary of defense. He won reelection in 1982 preaching his old liberal domestic policies and campaigning against Reaganomics—before dying suddenly less than a year into his new term. His legacy found expression within the Reagan administration where a number of Jackson’s followers helped shape policy. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had been Scoop’s representative (along with Ben J. Wattenberg) to the Democratic platform committee in 1976, became Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations and the chief exponent of his foreign-policy philosophy. Richard Perle became assistant secretary of defense, formulating positions on armaments and arms control, while Elliott Abrams, who had also worked in Scoop’s Senate office, became assistant secretary of state and point man for Central America policy. A number of other Democrats closely affiliated with Scoop—Max Kampelman, Paul Nitze, Eugene V. Rostow, Richard Schifter, to name a few—also took on important roles.
If neoconservatives made an impact on Reagan’s administration, so did he on them. On the eve of Reagan’s inauguration, most or all of these old liberals were still Democrats and still liberals in the old sense, except that they had surrendered the label. But under Reagan several things drew them closer to conservatism and the Republican Party. One was the success of Reaganomics, which restored the U.S. economy to strength with high growth and low inflation after Jimmy Carter had thrown up his hands at the challenge. A second was the transformation of the labor movement from a bastion of patriotism to a vehicle for leftism akin to European labor unions; labor had once tied the neocons to the world of Keynesianism and the Democratic Party, but no more. Above all was their appreciation of Reagan himself, who steered America to victory in the Cold War and became the hero who succeeded Jackson in their hearts. This did not lead to automatic acceptance of all positions, but it did lead these old liberals to revisit conservative ideas with fresh eyes.
In addition to Reagan, Scoop had one other heir, less momentous a historical figure, but politically a closer copy: Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who by chance is serving his last year in the Senate during Scoop’s centennial. Lieberman of course is a Democrat. He is not quite as liberal as Scoop was on domestic issues, but he’s liberal nonetheless, and the difference may be chalked up to the fact that the whole spectrum on domestic economic and welfare issues shifted somewhat rightward after registering the failure of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty programs and the resonance of Reagan’s attacks on big government.
It was, however, on international issues that Lieberman truly made his mark. Here, although the enemies of America had changed (Islamists and terrorists replacing Communists), the essential choice remained the same: to confront the challenge squarely or to dance around it. Once again, as remained true ever since the new liberals of the 1970s took over the party, Democrats mostly favored dancing. But in this battle the Republicans were more staunch thanks to the legacy of Reagan. Like Scoop when his party went AWOL in the Cold War, Lieberman found himself entirely out of step with other Democrats. And the new liberals, still up to their old methods, challenged him in the primaries and won, forcing him to run as an independent, which he did successfully. But disapproval from fellow Democrats, however shrill, did not seem to faze Lieberman any more than Scoop had been fazed by his detractors. Lieberman did not command the Senate as Scoop once did, perhaps simply for want of the committee assignments to make that possible. But by virtue of his boldness and dedication to the cause, he made himself a leader in the war against terror. One hopes he will make himself heard in retirement. Like Scoop’s, his voice will be missed in the Senate.
During the frightening years in the 1970s when what the Communists called the “correlation of forces” seemed to be shifting in their favor and when the Vietnam debacle had sapped American self-confidence, Moynihan coined the phrase “the freedom party” to describe the dwindling contingent who held to the conviction that the fight against Communism was tantamount to the defense of civilization itself. Scoop Jackson was the undisputed leader of the freedom party. How had he come to that role? In other words, what made Scoop, Scoop?
It had taken the confrontation with Nazism to teach him the full evil of predatory totalitarianism. He absorbed the lesson deeply, and when he saw that the Soviet regime was of cognate character, he became its most implacable opponent. Most storied figures in the battle against Communism were intellectuals, former Communists such as Whittaker Chambers or veterans of other precincts of the left, such as George Orwell. Scoop was neither a former leftist, unless one counts his inconsequential college membership in the League for Industrial Democracy, nor an intellectual. He was, however, more intellectually serious than most politicians.
He used the Subcommittee on National Security and International Operations, which he chaired, to convene hearings whose purpose was not to prepare legislation but to give an official platform to some of the leading scholars on Soviet affairs or related international issues, such as Richard Pipes, James Schlesinger, Robert Conquest, Suzanne Massie, Bernard Lewis, James Billington, and Albert Wohlstetter. He would also fly to London periodically for a few days devoted to briefings from such Britain-based scholars as Conquest, Malcolm Mackintosh, Leonard Schapiro, Leopold Labedz, R.V. Jones, and Walter Laqueur.
In addition to this intellectual side, the other thing that separated Scoop from the pack of politicians was his courage. Richard Perle quotes Scoop’s private comment on Moynihan’s defection from the CDM camp to become a conventional new-liberal Democrat: “The trouble with Pat is that he is afraid of the New York Times.” Perle adds: “Scoop just didn’t care what the New York Times had to say.” This is probably an exaggeration, but Scoop didn’t care enough to trim his sails—which amounts to the same thing. This combination of guts and gravitas has rarely graced the Senate. With the departure of Lieberman, it may, alas, be years before the like of Scoop Jackson appears in that chamber again.
1Had we “listened to some of the things that Henry Wallace said,” wrote McGovern, “we might have avoided Korea [!] and the Vietnam War.”
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‘Scoop’ Jackson at One Hundred
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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.