The Oscar-winning "There Will Be Blood" has revived the reputation of one of America's most famous, and most foolish, muckrakers.…
Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), the author of 79 books, including the novel The Jungle (1906), the most celebrated muckraking work of its time and the only one widely read a century later, is enjoying something of a revival these days. It is not difficult to see why. Sinclair popularized the social-scientific ideas developed by Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class, and Americanized Benjamin Disraeli’s notion of “Two Englands,” a phrase coined by the 19th-century English novelist and political genius to describe the division between rich and poor. In the manner of Disraeli, Sinclair wrote unceasingly of two Americas, a disgrace to the national ideals of freedom and equality.
This theme has enjoyed a long life, surfacing most recently in the high rhetorical dudgeon of John Edwards in his campaign for the presidency and cropping up in the fulminations of other candidates against the evils of Exxon and Halliburton. It thus hardly seems coincidental that, in 2006, the centenary year of The Jungle, two biographies of Sinclair should have appeared: Radical Innocent,1 by Anthony Arthur, a professor emeritus at California State University at North-ridge, and Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century,2 by Kevin Mattson, who teaches history at Ohio University and is a regular contributor to the left-wing magazines Dissent and the Nation.
Making even more of a splash has been the film There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and based loosely on Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!. Its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, won an Oscar for best actor this February, and Penguin has issued a new paperback edition of the novel with a cover photograph of Day-Lewis brooding satanically over his petroleum empire. But if it is no great mystery why Hollywood should have found Sinclair congenial to its purposes just now, the more interesting question concerns whether Sinclair, much of whose career was spent as an ardent socialist, still speaks to the substantial part of the nation that does not take its political direction from leftist demagoguery.
Sinclair’s reading of Veblen only confirmed and gave intellectual form to his own experience growing up in Baltimore and New York. His father, descended from an illustrious line of naval heroes, did not live up to his pedigree: the elder Sinclair was an alcoholic failure of a salesman whose improvidence took the family down with him into the gray misery of cheap boardinghouses and rank saloons. But since his wife came from money, and since her sister married the wealthiest man in Baltimore, young Upton became intimate with both near-destitution and conspicuous consumption. Acquiring leisure-class tastes, he became a fair violinist and a crackerjack tennis player.
But he also learned early to pay his own way, selling jokes and stories to magazines from the age of fifteen. His undergraduate career at City College of New York and graduate work at Columbia were little more than distractions from his writing. At nineteen he was turning out 8,000 well-paid words a day, composing a series of dime novels about a West Point cadet and a young naval ensign. At twenty-one he used his savings to go off to the Quebec woods for the summer and write a serious novel, Springtime and Harvest (1901), the tale of “a woman’s soul redeemed by high and noble love.”
The novel would sell only 2,000 copies, but that summer a beautiful young woman, Meta Fuller, came to his cabin door offering high and noble love. She changed his life, not entirely for the better. The pair were married in the fall of 1900. Sinclair had always been wary of the snares of lust—he had given up the study of Renaissance art because the beckoning nudes were more than he could safely take—and now, terrified that a child would be deadweight on his literary career, he proposed that man and wife live together as brother and sister. Sexlessness proving impossible, Meta became pregnant all too soon.
The next few years brought continued literary failure and family unhappiness; one night in their cabin near Princeton, Sinclair awoke to find his wife holding a cocked pistol to her temple. Poverty also inclined him toward socialism as the cure for what ailed him. In 1904 he wrote a letter to Lincoln Steffens, dean of the muckrakers, praising his The Shame of the Cities while chiding his failure to propose socialism as the remedy for rampant evildoing.
Sinclair’s newfound social conscience soon got him noticed. He began to write for Appeal to Reason, a socialist weekly newspaper with 250,000 subscribers. His article urging the workers in the Chicago stockyards to persist in struggle despite their recently failed strike led to a deal for a serial novel on “wage slavery.” Sinclair headed off to Packingtown on Chicago’s South Side, where he spent seven weeks gathering material.
The Jungle, which traces the career of the Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus as he spirals deeper and deeper into the capitalist inferno, is a novel of the rawest emotional violence. In the stockyards Jurgis works and works at hellish jobs but falls ever backward, cheated at every turn. His lovely young wife is coerced into whoredom by her leering boss, and eventually dies in childbirth; his son drowns in an unpaved and flooded street; a nephew is eaten alive by rats. The conditions in the abattoir are unspeakable:
There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.
Jurgis takes to drink, batters the scoundrel who pimped out his wife, goes to jail, becomes a tramp. The biblical Job had a cakewalk by comparison. But of course Job did not have the Socialist Party of America—a force wiser and more potent than the voice from the whirlwind—to point the way to redemption. For it is not just the meatpacking industry but the entire social order that is a mass of systemic corruption. Every enterprise is tainted; the fix is always in; and democracy is a scam run by smooth operators for the lining of their own pockets. Only in the radiant socialist future will decency and science triumph, enabling a man to work but a single hour a day to earn his living. (There are scams and there are scams, and Sinclair was not on to all of them.)
In their biographies, both Arthur and Mattson compare The Jungle with Uncle Tom’s Cabin for earnest clumsiness and nerve-searing power. Chicago’s meatpacking industry tried hard to prevent the book’s publication, and with good reason: its appearance propelled Sinclair to world fame with stupendous suddenness. The novel was promptly translated into seventeen languages; in England, Winston Churchill, another young man on the way up, wrote a glowing 5,000-word review. The White House received a hundred letters daily about the book, and President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a writer of some accomplishment, sent Sinclair a three-page critique, deploring his socialism (as did Churchill) but inviting him to the White House for a chat.
The uneasy alliance between author and President helped to see the Meat Inspection Amendment and the Pure Food and Drug Act through Congress. Arthur declares that the legislation was Roosevelt’s doing far more than Sinclair’s, and Mattson adds that Sinclair thought it insufficient to cope with the prevailing foulness. For him, nothing less than government-run slaughterhouses would do.
Sinclair earned $30,000 from sales of The Jungle—the equivalent of $600,000 today—and he quickly sank much of his newfound wealth into a utopian project to transform private life, which he saw as a desperate public concern. He founded a commune in New Jersey where residents, almost all of them writers and intellectuals, would grow their own food, share the domestic burdens of child-rearing and kitchen work so that women could flourish in spirit, and engage in high talk before the huge central fireplace.
A few months after it began, the would-be idyll ended when a fire destroyed the residence building. Although the likely culprit was a faulty boiler, Sinclair cried arson, blaming Andrew Carnegie and the Steel Trust. They, he charged, had learned there were documents in his possession proving the use of “rotten steel” in battleship construction. Arthur dismisses this conspiracy theory, which, he writes, damaged Sinclair’s “reputation for accuracy and common sense, somewhat compromised by excessive zeal. Now the zeal predominated.”
Subsequent novels, including The Metropolis (1907) and The Moneychangers (1908), did not sell, and Sinclair’s marriage headed inexorably down the tubes, speeded by Meta’s growing passion for her husband’s best friend, the poet Harry Kemp. When Sinclair sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery in 1911, the case made flaming headlines around the country. By 1913, Sinclair, having sought out new love, married an aspiring writer from Mississippi named Mary Craig Kimbrough. (Her autobiography is titled Southern Belle.)
In April 1914, combat between militia and striking miners in Ludlow, Colorado, left 24 dead, including thirteen children. The mine being struck was a Rockefeller enterprise, now in the hands of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a more tractable sort than his granitic father. Picketing in front of the Standard Oil Building in New York won Sinclair a three-day stretch in The Tombs. He subsequently spent three weeks in Colorado assessing the situation, and on his return addressed a protest meeting in which he called Rockefeller a murderer for the sake of higher dividends.
Days later, a nineteen-year-old fellow protester was one of four people killed when a bomb intended for the Rockefellers blew up prematurely. Speaking out of one side of his mouth, Sinclair insisted the bomb-maker had been goaded to violence by the brutality of the police and an attacking mob; out of the other, he rejected any recourse to violence in pursuit of a just cause. Eventually he would contend that the threat of assassination likely compelled Rockefeller to negotiate with the miners and improve working conditions. He would also write two novels about the affair, King Coal (1917) and The Coal War (1918).
But now a far more destructive war had come to occupy his attention, turning him away from his earlier doctrinaire pacifism and thus separating him from the socialist flock. While his sometime brethren saw the Great War as an internecine capitalist conflict, Sinclair thought that Germany, under the thumb of a “barbarian caste,” must be defeated for its own good and the good of civilization; after all, in a conquered Germany, socialism might find its true home. So in 1917, in the interest of saving socialism, he very publicly resigned from the Socialist party and the next year began publication of a monthly magazine sup- porting the war effort. But then the war ended, the magazine expired after ten issues, and in short order Sinclair returned to the fold.
There followed a decade emphatically not to his taste. His antipathy to the institutions and achievements of capitalist society was never more charged than in the 1920’s. In a series of books—The Profits of Religion (1918), The Brass Check (1920), The Goose-Step (1923), The Goslings (1924), Mammonart (1925), and Money Writes! (1927)—he fried organized godliness, journalism, universities, high schools, and literature old and new, which to his mind represented a “dead hand” choking the life out of a putatively free society.
In 1923 he was arrested in Los Angeles for publicly reading the First Amendment at a rally in support of a strike by the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1927 the censors of Boston banned the sale of Oil! on account of a few racy passages. Sinclair paraded on Boston Common selling a special Fig Leaf Edition. The novel sold 75,000 copies; partly in gratitude, perhaps, he called his next novel, about the Sacco-Vanzetti murder case, Boston (1928).
The highlight of the ensuing decade was Sinclair’s run for governor of California in 1934. He had stood for Congress in 1920, the Senate in 1922, and the governorship in 1926 and 1930, always as a Socialist and in each case winning laughable numbers. But in 1934 he became a registered Democrat and handily secured the nomination of his new party, which had been out of power in California for a generation. His campaign program, called EPIC (for End Poverty in California), aimed to fight overproduction or underconsumption by means of a state program to provide the unemployed with productive labor. Mattson declares that “Sinclair did not talk about socialism when he outlined EPIC,” but one might be forgiven for calling it socialism all the same: beside the state’s getting its hands on the means of production, the program featured a steeply graduated income tax, confiscatory inheritance taxes, and the intent, in Arthur’s words, “to tax wealthy landholders out of existence and greatly increase public-utility taxes.”
For a delirious moment, Sinclair thought that he had convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to support him. But FDR had only given the impression of support, and then left Sinclair unprotected against a relentless Republican opposition led by the Los Angeles Times and Hollywood moguls. MGM’s Irving Thalberg produced phony newsreels with actors impersonating detractors in man-on-the-street interviews. At a mass rally, the evangelist and tarnished angel Aimee Semple McPherson histrionically lowered the Stars and Stripes and raised the hammer and sickle to signify the effect of a Sinclair victory. He lost to the Republican candidate by 49 to 38 percent. Mary Craig wept in relief.
Sinclair, too, was relieved to return to writing. In 1939 he completed World’s End, the first in an eleven-volume series known as the Lanny Budd novels. Lanny is a breathtakingly accomplished hero who encounters most of the principal historical actors of the first half of the century, employing his varied talents first as a spy against Hitler and later as a die-hard enemy of the Kremlin. Dragon’s Teeth, the third novel in the series, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. Thomas Mann observed: “Some day the whole cycle will certainly be recognized as the best-founded and best-informed description of the political life of our epoch.” Diana Trilling, harder to please, pronounced the work “fatuous.”
The main point is that, after World War II, Sinclair, like his hero Lanny, had become an implacable cold warrior. The exact cause of this about-face—although never a Communist, he had certainly been friendly to the great experiment in human betterment allegedly being conducted in the Soviet Union—is unclear. It may well have had something to do with Sinclair’s outrage at Communism for sullying the good name of the socialist cause, as a comment by Arthur suggests:
Sounding like the Orwell of “Politics and the English Language,” Lanny [in The Return of Lanny Budd (1953)] says the Communists “have taken up all the good words and poisoned them. You can’t say ‘liberal,’ you can’t say ‘democratic,’ you can’t say ‘people’s,’ you can’t say ‘workers’ any more.”
Whatever triggered his disaffection, Sinclair crossed out all the names of Communists in his address book and thundered in a letter: “I have broken off all connection with the Soviet Union and its supporters and all those who let themselves be duped by its campaign of falsehood and treachery.” His enduring political belief, he added, hallowed “social justice brought about by honest means, by free and open discussion, and by the democratic process which we in America know and have practiced for centuries.”
In his personal life, Sinclair’s fidelity was tested and proved golden as Mary Craig began to fail; during seven years of heart disease that turned them both into recluses, he nursed her with tender attentiveness. Her death in 1961 rocked him, but with typical resilience he re-married six months later. A strong supporter of the Vietnam war, he was invited to Lyndon Johnson’s White House in celebration of a bill tightening federal meat-inspection regulations. Ralph Nader came up to the wheelchair-bound old lion and said, “We’re continuing your work, Mr. Sinclair.” Sinclair answered, “I see that you are. Keep watching them.” Two months after his ninetieth birthday in 1968, he died.
What has Sinclair’s achievement amounted to? Among his books, The Jungle remains the most significant. Nor is it entirely a period piece. On February 17 of this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture recalled 143 million pounds of beef from the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in California, which had violated government regulations and butchered cows that could not walk. Although for decades meatpacking workers’ unions were strong and the jobs well-paid and well-policed, today most jobs are non-union, and many of the workers are illegal immigrants pretty much at their employers’ mercy; they still go through the grinder, if less horrifically than in Jurgis Rudkus’s time.
Other examples of Sinclair’s proudest muckraking, however, are plainly outdated. The Brass Check, his jeremiad against journalism, sneers at the newspapers for bowing abjectly to the ruling classes: “in every department and in every feature they favor the rich and powerful, and reveal themselves as priests of the cult of Mammon.” Today’s accolades shower instead on journalists who bring down the rich and powerful and highlight the plight of the poor. In The Goose-Step, a broadside against university miseducation, Sinclair paints college presidents and the professoriate as bond servants of the plutocracy, finding their ideas ready-made by the business class and perpetuating greed and intellectual nullity. Miseducation in our time continues apace, but the political polarities have been reversed; Sinclair’s dream of bringing radical leftism into the intellectual centers of power has largely been realized, to distressing effect.
Distress of another, purely aesthetic kind can assail the reader whenever Sinclair starts blowing his socialist horn. In the play Singing Jailbirds (1924), written the year after his arrest for reciting the Constitution aloud, he presented the suffering of incarcerated Wobblies in dialogue riddled with agitprop slogans meant to be taken at face value. By contrast, Lanny Budd elicited some of Sinclair’s better writing. Dragon’s Teeth, set in the early days of Hitler’s regime, is a moving account of liberty defiled and decency extinguished. A scene in which Lanny is forced to watch the whipping of a Jewish businessman is especially harrowing, as is the bargain with Hermann Goering that Lanny makes in order to spring a young Jewish socialist who has been frightfully tortured.
As for Oil!, it, too, though not as rich as Dragon’s Teeth, has many things to recommend it. The two sympathetically drawn main characters are Dad, a fundamentally decent oil tycoon compelled by ruthless competitors to sacrifice his scruples in order to do business, and his son Bunny, the quintessential man of good will who acts from the best of motives and feels the pain of every sufferer as though it were his own. Sinclair understands the mad pathos of businessmen at the top of their game chained to an endless enterprise with no goal but turning out more and more, and the still greater sadness of good men not allowed to become what they long to be. Since this is Sinclair, there is of course no shortage of affluent savages as well, who control the whole predatory system, dominate the well-meaning Dad and Bunny, and brutalize the honest poor.
When, however, today’s Hollywood gets its hands on Oil!, the rich oil men are all savages. None is more so than the Dad character, renamed Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. The film bears the scantest resemblance to the book, and although it opens superbly, with scenes of hard men trying to wrest wealth from hard country, it degenerates predictably into a screed against the violence and hypocrisy of business and religion, the Left’s pre-eminent bugbears.
Daniel professes his business creed when he says he does not want to see anyone else do well. On the religion front, when a young preacher, Eli Sunday, learns that the godless Daniel has murdered a man pretending to be his long-lost brother, he blackmails Daniel into being baptized at his church and begging for forgiveness. Daniel hypocritically goes through with the ceremony but gets his revenge: when Sunday comes to him seeking help with a business deal, Daniel demands he shout out over and over that his religion is all lies; after Sunday has complied, Daniel tells him the deal is off, and proceeds to bludgeon him to death with a bowling pin. In the America of the film’s writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, the tycoon and the evangelist are equally loathsome in their reciprocal mendacity, and both get what is coming to them.
The rhetorical blaze of those purportedly scandalized by the Two Americas has never burned hotter than now, when there has never been less good reason for the heat. At least Sinclair railed mostly against widespread and palpable wrongs, some of which he helped to ameliorate. And, particularly during the cold war, he knew and named real totalitarianism when he saw it. Neither of these things can be said about the likes of Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, and other presumed keepers of Sinclair’s flame. The current dark ardors of the Left are more caught up in the sheer pleasure of burning, an infernal pleasure indeed.
1Random House, 380 p.p., $27.95
2 Wiley, 294 p.p., $25.95.
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The Blood of Upton Sinclair
Must-Reads from Magazine
Preening doesn't work.
Donald Trump’s demagogic rhetoric on the media is dangerous and un-American. When he describes reporters and editors as “enemies of the people,” or when he chuckles at Rodrigo Duterte’s remark that the media are “spies,” the president wounds the dignity of his office and America’s already-infirm civic health. The question is what the media should do to check the president’s rhetorical excesses.
One answer is for America’s mainstream newsrooms to tell the American people that reporters are not, in fact, the enemy and the president should cut it out with his anti-media crusade. For all the commercial pressures they face today, American journalists are still perched by prominent windows overlooking the national public square, which means they still get a hearing from the people down below when they wish.
I suppose that was the bright idea behind Thursday’s simultaneous publication of pro-media editorials in the editorial pages of 350 newspapers across the country. Participating outlets included national papers like the New York Times (naturally) as well as scores of regional ones, plus a few magazines and professional societies. If you can bring yourself to wade through one dull editorial after another, by all means: CNN has links to all 350.
But our mostly liberal colleagues in the edit-page business are fooling themselves if they imagine that this latest national teach-in will foster greater trust in the media, especially among the millions of Americans who in 2016 registered their discontent with the country’s establishment in toto by sending a vulgarian from Queens to the Oval Office. Those Americans—and not all of them were die-hard Trumpians—had had it with a prestige press that too often saw itself as an adjunct to the liberal cause rather than the cause of truth. They had had it with the subtle and not-so-subtle biases, the servility to liberal politicians, the contempt for their cherished beliefs and condescension for their ways of life.
To regain that trust, it will not do to condemn and condescend some more.
Jesse Brenneman, a New York City radio producer, understands this perfectly. In an ongoing satirical video series posted to Twitter, Brenneman documents his mockumentary-style road trip in “Trump country.” The aim is supposedly to understand the frustrations that led to Trump. But Brenneman mostly ends up yelling at the Trumpians from his driver’s seat, as his car zooms through regions like Central Pennsylvania: “WHY DID YOU DO IT? WHY DID YOU DO IT? WHY DID YOU DO IT? WHY DID YOU VOTE FOR HIM? WHY? WHY? WHY? IS IT ABORTION? DO WE NEED TO HAVE FEWER ABORTIONS? WHY DO YOU WATCH FOX NEWS? IT’S NOT TRUE, MUCH OF IT!”
Brenneman is gently chiding his own media comrades. But the 350 editorials amount to a self-serious version of the same thing: Trust us. We’re the media. What’s wrong with you!
Regaining trust requires something else. It requires factually sound reporting and the pursuit of the truth wherever it leads. It calls for reporters who conduct themselves professionally on social media, who don’t give vent to their anti-conservative animosities at every turn. And pundits who don’t change their minds about an issue merely because they find themselves on the same side as Trump. In short, it requires a return to journalism basics.
That’s hard work. Hectoring editorials are easier.
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Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, told a stunned crowd on Wednesday that the United States of America “was never that great.” He followed that flat-footed line with a series of bromides about how America will “reach greatness” when mankind ceases to stereotype, discriminate, and degrade one another, but the damage was done. Cuomo’s primary opponent, the progressive insurgent and former actress Cynthia Nixon, mocked the governor for failing in the attempt to mimic “what a progressive sounds like.” That is a telling admission. Presumably, Nixon’s idealized “progressive” would more adroitly explain why American greatness is overstated.
You might think that President Donald Trump would take the opportunity presented by Cuomo’s faceplant to wrap himself in the flag, but he opted only to mock the Empire State’s executive for “having a total meltdown.” The president’s instincts are equally revealing. After all, the phrase “Make America Great Again” concedes that America is, at present, not all that great. This is an earnest conviction on Trump’s part.
In accepting the GOP presidential nomination, Trump painted a portrait of a country that was weak and failing. Shackled by political correctness, riddled with violent crime, beset by dangerous migrants and violent refugees, subverted by craven politicians, and plagued by a crisis of confidence in its mission; Trump’s vision of the country was best summed in the most memorable line from his first inaugural address: “American carnage.” Just 19 months later, the president insists that the nation has been made whole again, which is more a function of his competence than the national character.
These two provisory expressions of patriotism share more commonalities than distinctions. Everyone has their own definition of patriotism, and love of country should not be blind. Unwavering reverence is an expression of faith, not gratitude. Patriotism must know prudent limits, or it may come to justify venality and violence. But patriotism is distinct from an understanding of what makes the United States a great and exceptional nation.
American greatness is established in its Constitution. The nation’s founding charter endures because of two conditions that prevailed at the close of the 18th Century. First, the collection of sovereign states that hammered out a national government was careful to premise a prospective Union on decentralization and federalism. That diffusion preserves local social and legal customs and, thus, domestic harmony. Second, the Constitution’s framers operated on the assumptions espoused by the Enlightenment’s leading luminaries, among them Lockean notions of legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed. These two assumptions led James Madison to conclude in Federalist 51 that “the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority” even while “all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society.”
It was also in Federalist 51 in which Madison articulated a truth about human nature that has vexed prideful technocrats since the dawn of time: Mankind is flawed. The species cannot be perfected. Thus, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The revolutionary movements that followed America’s founding held this capitulatory revelation in low esteem. They sought to create “ideal” societies in which mankind’s contradictions and baser impulses would dissolve into a new social consciousness. It is no coincidence that those “ideal” revolutionary societies eventually descended into bloodshed, oppression, and disunion while America endured.
The Constitution’s amendments are equally exceptional. With a few lamentable deviations, the amendments are a set of negative rights that proscribe governmental action rather than establish that which the government can do. That is a paradigmatic triumph; it established as America’s baseline ethos the idea that human freedoms not expressly enumerated in the Constitution are implied. They do not flow from the beneficence of some far-off potentate. They are God-granted. The concept of unenumerated rights is as revolutionary today as it was in the 18th century, and it remains an alien notion outside the Anglophonic world.
America is capable of astonishing violence and repression, but it equally adept at reconciliation and renewal. That capacity is rooted in Americans’ remarkable facility for compromise. The story of the United States is, in many ways, a story of compromise, and not all of those compromises are worthy of celebration. The facility Americans have for negotiation and concession has, however, forged a government and kept it. It is what has made the United States the most successful experiment in cultural intermixing in human history. It is what fortifies its incredible capitalist dynamism. And its commerce remains the greatest vehicle for achieving equality, meritocracy, and human flourishing ever devised.
So much of what America’s critics lament about the country’s inherent flaws—its hostility toward collectivism, the ruthlessness of its entrepreneurial spirit, its manic bouts of isolationism and extroversion on the world stage, and the tensions between old and new immigrants—are outgrowths of the traits that make it extraordinary. The nation’s commitment to pluralism, egalitarianism, and unity around shared principles rather than cultural, tribal, or subnational bonds is what makes America unique among nations. It will never stop striving to achieve the ideals of its founding; ideals are, after all, often unattainable. But its shared creed is the North Star toward which the United States has looked for a quarter millennium.
All these things that make America great are hardly immutable traits, and some careless future generation may one day abandon them. But despite America’s weakness for fad and experimentation, those fundamental tenets have proven resistant to change. As Jonah Goldberg observed in Suicide of the West, Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal” cannot be improved upon. Any effort to amend that claim would be a regression to a more primitive state. That and the many other gifts that the founding generation left behind ensured that the United States was a uniquely magnificent nation on day one. Don’t let any politician tell you otherwise.
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The limits of religious liberty.
Jack Phillips once more finds himself on the sharp end of liberal “tolerance.” He was the Colorado baker at the center of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the one who in 2012 refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. A state civil-rights commission censured Phillips and ordered him to undergo ideological retraining. But a 7-2 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court found that the commission had exhibited such overt hostility to Phillips’s religious views as to have violated the state’s “obligation of religious neutrality” under the First Amendment.
But it appears the commission didn’t get the message. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Phillips in the original case, reports:
On June 26, 2017, the same day that the Supreme Court agreed to take up Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, an attorney asked Phillips to create a cake designed pink on the inside and blue on the outside, which the attorney said was to celebrate a gender transition from male to female. Phillips declined the request because the custom cake would have expressed messages about sex and gender identity that conflict with his religious beliefs. Less than a month after the Supreme Court ruled for Phillips in his first case, the state surprised him by finding probable cause to believe that Colorado law requires him to create the requested gender-transition cake.
This time, however, Phillips and the ADF are taking the fight to the state. On Tuesday, the ADF filed a lawsuit against Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and the members of the commission, alleging anti-religious bullying and harassment of Phillips aimed at ruining his business and livelihood.
Many religious conservatives see this new case as an opportunity to “firm up” the Court’s Masterpiece holding. If it makes it to the Supreme Court, especially one with a Justice Kavanaugh, there is a good chance that Americans will end up with sturdier protections against illiberal liberalism than former Justice Anthony Kennedy’s whimsical jurisprudence permitted.
But by my lights, the renewed persecution of Phillips also reveals the limits of “religious liberty” as a sword and organizing principle for the right. As I predicted when the original decision was handed down,
the inner logic of today’s secular progressivism puts the movement continually on the offensive. A philosophy that rejects all traditional barriers to individual autonomy and self-expression won’t rest until all “thou shalts” are defeated, and those who voice them marginalized. For a transgender woman to fully exercise autonomy, for example, the devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew must recognize her as a woman. People of faith and others who cling to traditional views must publicly assent to what they don’t believe.
And here we are. “Religious freedom,” without a substantive politics that offers a vision of the common good, can easily allow liberalism to frame traditional moral precepts as little more than superstitions best relegated to the private sphere of the mind. Under the banner of liberty, religious conservatives might win procedural victories here and there. But they will be cornered in the long-term.
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Whatever Donald wants, he's gonna get it.
What do Republicans believe? Whatever Donald Trump tells them they should believe, it seems.
In survey after survey, self-described Republicans—admittedly a severely truncated demographic in the Trump era—are surrendering not just principle but common sense to whatever Trump needs them to say at the moment. The positions Republicans adopt to prop up the president are often so outside the American right’s traditional credo that it’s hard to believe they’re being honest.
According to a June Axios-sponsored SurveyMonkey poll, a whopping 92 percent of Republicans believe the conventional press deliberately runs with false or misleading stories. That’s not especially surprising. Republicans have a long-standing grievance with the mainstream media, and nearly three-quarters of all respondents in this survey agree with them. What is unique and, frankly, disturbing is the apparent resolve of GOP voters to do something about it.
A Quinnipiac University survey released last week showed that a majority of Republicans agree with the Trump White House’s determination that the press is the “enemy of the people.” An Ipsos poll released around the same time confirmed that close to a majority of GOP voters believe “the news media is the enemy of the American people.” That same poll showed that a significant plurality of GOP voters—43 to 36 percent—think Trump should have the expressly unconstitutional authority to shutter media outlets with which he disagrees. Or, rather, “news outlets engaged in bad behavior,” whatever that means.
The GOP base also seems generally unfazed by Donald Trump’s bizarre rhetorical deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. An Economist-backed YouGov poll in early July showed 56 percent of the GOP said that “Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin is mostly a good thing for the United States,” while only 40 percent said that the United States should remain a member of the NATO alliance. In 2014, only 22 percent of Republicans thought of Russia as friendly toward or allied with the United States. Today, via Gallup, that’s up to 40 percent of Republicans.
Given that, it’s no surprise that 70 percent of self-identified Republicans broke with the vast majority of the public and gave the president high marks for his press conference alongside Putin, in which he disparaged his own Cabinet and intelligence officials and heaped praise upon the autocrat in the Kremlin.
Donald Trump’s rhetorical servility toward Putin contrasts greatly with his administration’s admirably hawkish posture toward Moscow, but don’t ask Republican voters to reconcile these contradictions. A July Fox News poll found that 57 percent of GOP voters think that Trump’s toughness toward Russia is “about right.” So, which is it?
“An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans,” Donald Trump said to the applause of Republicans as he accepted the party’s presidential nomination. Ever since, the president has occupied his time attacking law enforcement, and Republicans are with him all the way.
Seventy-five percent of Republicans in a recent poll agree with the president that the special counsel’s office established by a Trump-appointed deputy attorney general is conducting a “witch hunt” targeting him and his allies. This position concedes that the 12 Russian nationals, 13 Russian intelligence officers, and five Americans who pleaded guilty to various crimes as a result of Robert Mueller’s work retain the president’s full faith and confidence. But perhaps that conclusion takes the average Republican voter literally and not seriously.
More seriously, six in ten Republicans tell pollsters that they believe the FBI is actively trying to frame the President of the United States for a crime. Logically, then, it stands to reason that most in the GOP believe that law enforcement is a politicized institution that is waging an underhanded campaign to de-legitimize an election and carry out something akin to a coup. In February, Reuters/Ipsos found that 73 percent of Republicans believe just that. But if the coup narrative were true and an existential threat to the foundations of the Republic had been uncovered, would Republicans really behave as they are—placidly allowing Democrats to out-raise, out-organize, and out-campaign GOP candidates consistently for over 18 months?
Even in trifling matters in which the stakes are so low that they hardly merit the effort it takes to lie—like the president’s baseless claim that “between 3 million and 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election,” thus robbing Trump of a popular vote victory in 2016—a majority of Republican voters are willing to compromise themselves. And only to spare the president from the shame of trivial embarrassment.
Some contend that these results are an outgrowth of the fact that voters have deciphered the pollster’s game. Respondents are savvy enough to know when survey-takers are genuinely trying to take the public’s temperature on an issue and when they are merely seeking to exacerbate tensions within the GOP camp. Thus, this line of reasoning goes, respondents who support Trump are more likely to answer questions in a way that demonstrates their fealty toward the president even if they don’t necessarily hold that position. In other words, these are all lies. Maybe that’s true, but it’s cold comfort. The lies we tell ourselves become our truth if we tell them often enough.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
arly in the morning of July 19, after eight hours of debate, the Knesset passed by a vote of 62–55 (with two abstentions) a law codifying Israel’s status as the national home of the Jewish people. First introduced in 2011 by the centrist Kadima Party, the so-called nation-state bill joined more than a dozen “Basic Laws” that now function as Israel’s unwritten constitution. Its 11 paragraphs mostly restate long-operative principles of Israeli democracy: Hebrew is the national language, “Hatikvah” is the national anthem, the menorah is the national emblem, Jerusalem is the nation’s capital, and Israel is where the self-determination of the Jewish nation is exercised.
One might find it surprising that such generalities would provoke a global outcry. Then again, Israel and selective indignation seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Criticisms run the gamut from saying the law is unnecessary and provocative to saying it’s racist and anti-democratic. The Israeli left, in alliance with Israel’s minority Arabs and Druze, has marched in the streets. Institutions of the Jewish Diaspora have called for the law’s repeal. They have found themselves, rather uneasily, on the same side of the debate as anti-Zionists and Israel-haters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in Muslim capitals, and in the EU and UN. “The spirit of Hitler, which led the world to a great catastrophe, has found its resurgence among some of Israel’s leaders,” said Turkey’s Recep Tayip Erdogan.
Leaving aside anti-Semites such as Erdogan, reasonable people and friends of Israel may disagree about the necessity and utility of the nation-state law. Such disagreement, however, ought to be based on facts. And facts have been sorely lacking in recent discussions of Israel—thanks to an uninformed, biased, and one-sided media. Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti–Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the Diaspora.
For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: The bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error.
On July 19, in the New York Times, David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner wrote that the Knesset’s “incendiary move” had been “denounced by centrists and leftists as racist and anti-democratic.” Why? Because the law “omits any mention of democracy or the principle of equality.” But that is because other Basic Laws already have codified the democratic and egalitarian character of Israel, including two laws dealing specifically with human rights.
The nation-state law, the Times continued, also “promotes the development of Jewish communities, possibly aiding those who would seek to advance discriminatory land-allocation policies.” Put the emphasis on possibly, because there’s nothing in the law to provide such aid.
Indeed, the nation-state law contains no additional rights for Jews; nor does it promulgate fewer rights for Arabs. Halbfinger and Kershner went on to say that the law “downgrades Arabic from an official language to one with a ‘special status.’” But then, far into the piece, the writers also acknowledged that “it is largely a symbolic sleight since a subsequent clause says, ‘This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.’”
A July 22 front-page article in the Times by Max Fisher was headlined “Israel Picks Identity Over Democracy. More Nations May Follow.” This was a funny way to characterize a law that had won majority support, following parliamentary procedure, of a democratically elected legislative body. Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled this piece, as well as the additional four news articles and four op-eds the Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as “results favored by the New York Times editorial board,” and Israel’s national self-understanding is in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government.
Fisher’s “Interpreter” column began with an anecdote recalling how David Ben-Gurion “emerged from retirement in July 1967” and “insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered” after repelling the invasion of three Arab armies a month earlier. Unfortunately for Fisher, this dramatic episode seems to be apocryphal. Historian Martin Kramer, after exhaustive research, concluded, “There’s no evidence that Ben-Gurion warned Israelis that their victory ‘had sown the seeds of self-destruction,’ either in July 1967 or later.” Fisher stands by his story.
The questionable claims did not stop there. “The quality of Israeli democracy has been declining steadily since the early 2000s,” Fisher continued, an era that just happens to have coincided with the rise of Israeli statesmen whose politics he and the political scientists he cites find detestable.
Fisher also mentioned a “wave of horrific violence known as the Second Intifada, which killed far more Palestinians than Israelis, [and] included shocking terrorist attacks in previously safe Israeli enclaves.” But where did this violence come from? Who committed the shocking terrorist acts? It’s left unsaid.
Denying Arab agency is a longstanding habit of Israel’s critics. And that is what’s noteworthy about these often-hysterical reactions to the nation-state law: The stories use the legislation merely as a jumping-off point for larger complaints about Israel’s Jewish character. For these writers, this isn’t a debate over the Israeli flag. It’s a debate over Jewish nationalism and a proxy for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
In a July 24 “Ideas” piece for Time, Ilene Prusher wrote, “It’s not clear that the equality outlined in the founders’ vision statement”—that’s progressive-speak for “Declaration of Independence”—“remains a goal. It’s certainly far from reality.” Prusher continued, “The new law provides legal teeth for discrimination that is currently de facto” and, citing a left-wing law professor at Hebrew University, “essentially makes discrimination constitutional.”
No, it doesn’t, actually. Rather than speculate, the nation-state bill’s opponents might try examining the actual text, which says absolutely nothing about discrimination. As Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University said during a recent episode of the Jewish Leadership Conference podcast, “Anything can be perverted—but that does not mean everything is perverse.”
The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. So are many of the values one normally associates with (egad!) the New York Times. Last I checked, Israel is the one country in the Middle East where you can attend an LGBT Pride parade. Noah Ephron, a critic of the nation-state law, points out that the proportion of women serving in the Knesset is higher than in the U.S. Congress or average EU parliament. There is universal health care. “Alone among Western democracies,” Ephron adds, “labor unions have grown bigger and stronger in Israel over the past decade.” Minority citizens are guaranteed the same rights as Jewish ones. And it is precisely these achievements that are sustained by Israel’s Jewish character and traditions.
The Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said dismissively, “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish State.