Last March, in a special issue commemorating its 120th anniversary, the Nation published an article by the novelist Gore Vidal…
Last March, in a special issue commemorating its 120th anniversary, the Nation published an article by the novelist Gore Vidal entitled “The Empire Lovers Strike Back” which impressed me and many other people as the most blatantly anti-Semitic outburst to have appeared in a respectable American periodical since World War II. The Nation is a left-wing (or, some would say, a liberal) magazine run by an editor, Victor Navasky, who is himself Jewish. Yet one reader (who happened not to be Jewish) wrote in a personal letter to Navasky that he could not recall encountering “that kind of naked anti-Semitism” even in papers of the lunatic-fringe Right which specialize in attacks on Jews; to find its like one had to go back to the Völkische Beobachter. Nor was he the only reader to be reminded of the Nazi gutter press. “I thought I was back in the 30’s reading Der Stürmer,” wrote another.
Actually, however, it was not the crackpot racism of Julius Streicher that Vidal was drawing on, but sources closer to home. Prominent among these, I would guess, was Henry Adams, about whom Vidal has written admiringly and with whom he often seems to identify. Adams, as a descendant of two Presidents, was a preeminent member of the old American patriciate—the class to which Vidal also, if somewhat dubiously, claims to belong—and his resentment at the changes which came over the United States in the decades of industrialization and mass immigration after the Civil War knew no bounds. The country was being ruined, and Adams blamed it all on the Jews: “I tell you Rome was a blessed garden of paradise beside the rotten, unsexed, swindling, lying Jews, represented by Pierpont Morgan and the gang who have been manipulating the country for the last few years.” It made no difference that J.P. Morgan was neither Jewish himself nor in any sense a representative of the Jews. For as Adams wrote in another of his letters: “The Jew has got into the soul. I see him—or her—now everywhere, and wherever he—or she—goes, there must remain a taint in the blood forever.”
In Vidal’s diatribe there is no explicit mention of blood, but there is its functional equivalent in the idea that Jews born in the United States nevertheless remain foreigners living here by the gracious sufferance of the natives. Incorrigibly alien though the Jews may be, however, they exercise enormous and malevolent power over the politics of what Vidal, conjuring up the long discredited spirit of 19th-century nativism, does not hesitate to call “the host country.”
In the days of Henry Adams, and up until the establishment of the state of Israel, the great power of the Jews was supposedly used in the interests of world Jewry; today it is generally said to be deployed in the interest of the Jewish state, which Vidal, taking up this line, characterizes as a “predatory people . . . busy stealing other people’s land in the name of an alien theocracy.” Here is Vidal’s version of how the conspiracy works:
In order to get Treasury money for Israel (last year $3 billion), pro-Israel lobbyists must see to it that America’s “the Russians are coming” squads are in place so that they can continue to frighten the American people into spending enormous sums for “defense,” which also means the support of Israel in its never-ending wars against just about everyone.
As befits this resurrection of the two classic themes of anti-Semitic literature—the Jew as alien and the Jew as the conspiratorial manipulator of malign power dangerous to everyone else—Vidal’s tone is poisonous. His every word drips with contempt and hatred, and underlying it all is a strong note of menace. The Jews had better watch out if they wish “to stay on among us”—not that “we” will necessarily permit them to stay even if they do begin minding their manners. Their only purpose, after all, is “to make propaganda and raise money for Israel,” thereby impoverishing the rest of us and bringing the world closer and closer to a nuclear war.
My own reaction on first reading this article was amazement: I could hardly believe my eyes. What amazed me was not the fact that I myself and my wife Midge Decter had been singled out by Vidal as representative examples of the phenomenon he was claiming to expose. I had known Vidal personally for many years, and had followed his career, so I was well aware that he believed in getting back at anyone who had the temerity to criticize him—a crime that Midge Decter and I had each recently committed. Thus, commenting in my syndicated weekly column on his joint appearance with Norman Mailer at a fund-raising evening for the forthcoming PEN Congress in New York, I had observed that (like most of their fellow writers) Mailer and Vidal were hostile “to the kind of country they imagine America has become in the past hundred years: oppressive and repressive both at home and abroad.” I further noted that “the fame and the glory and the riches” they themselves had achieved “make nonsense of their defamatory caricature of America as a country given over body and soul to materialism, puritanism, and philistinism.”
Some weeks later in Contentions, the monthly publication of the Committee for the Free World (of which she is executive director), Midge Decter poked fun at Vidal’s ideas about “the American empire.” She also observed that Vidal had once again demonstrated that he “does not like his country.”
So a retaliatory strike, or even two, was to be expected from Vidal. Why then should I have been amazed by it when it came? For two reasons. The lesser was that Vidal, who had always seemed to glory in his hostility to America as a mark of superior intellect, virtue, and patrician ancestry, now felt driven to deny what we had said about that hostility. “Of course I like my country,” he wrote. “After all, I’m its current biographer.” For Vidal to describe his historical novels in this way was as if Lytton Strachey had pointed to Eminent Victorians as evidence of his great fondness for the generation of his father. And this piece of defensive dishonesty seemed all the more remarkable in that it was accompanied by a restatement of some of the very ideas (“We stole other people’s land. We murdered many of the inhabitants. We imposed our religion—and rule—on the survivors,” etc.) Midge Decter had cited in the article he was trying to rebut.
But if I was surprised by the discovery that this famously fearless speaker of his own mind lacked the courage to call his own political convictions by their proper name, I was truly amazed by his introduction of the Jewish issue into an argument over the quality of American society and the nature of the American role in world affairs.
Neither of the two pieces Vidal was pretending to answer so much as mentioned Israel or had anything whatever to do with the particular concerns of the American Jewish community. One of them was about the attitudes of the American literary world toward the United States; the other dealt with the American role in Mexico, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. By dragging the issue of Jewishness into such a discussion, Vidal was recklessly exposing himself to the charge of anti-Semitism. Who, after all, but an anti-Semite would attempt to refute an opposing political position by interpreting it as a Jewish conspiracy against the rest of “us”?
But Vidal did more than merely introduce the Jewish question—as his anti-Semitic forebears liked to call it—into an unrelated discussion. He did more than sound the classic themes of anti-Semitic literature. He did all this without even bothering to conceal his true feelings. For example, in response to my statement that in America “the blessings of freedom and prosperity are greater and more widely shared than in any country known to human history,” he said that I was wrapping myself in “our flag” and wearing it “like a designer kaftan.” Again, in taking up Midge Decter’s detailed challenge to his conception of American imperialism, Vidal countered that “She is [an Israeli] propagandist (paid for?), and that is what all this nonsense is about.” And to make certain that his meaning would not be mistaken, he called us both an “Israeli Fifth Column.”
So it went, literally ad nauseam.
Now that a bit of time has passed, I can see in retrospect that I should have been as little surprised by the way Vidal struck back as I was by the sheer fact that he did.
For one thing, I knew that he had long harbored feelings of resentment against what he considered the disproportionate influence of Jews in the American literary world. Many years earlier, he had joked about the domination of that world by a Jewish establishment of critics and editors which made room on the list of the important American novelists of his own generation only for an occasional “O.K. Goy” like himself. Yet as he undoubtedly recognized, Vidal had no standing (either then or now) as a novelist among serious literary critics of any ethnic background. What did make (and would continue to sustain) his reputation outside the world of commercial fiction and the television talk shows was his considerable talent as an essayist. But it was as a novelist that he clearly wished to be recognized, and he evidently blamed the Jewish establishment for preventing justice from being done to his work.
Since it served as the entering wedge for the return to America of an old tradition of cultural anti-Semitism, it is worth pausing over the concept of an all-powerful Jewish literary establishment. Precisely because it had played a part in Berlin and Vienna in the 1920’s in forming the climate of opinion to which the Nazis could later appeal, the constituent ideas of this tradition came to be regarded as so repellent and dangerous that they were shunned and repressed in the years after World War II. Yet these also turned out to be the very years in which Jews were for the first time making a deep mark in the American literary world. Thus the period from the late 40’s to the late 50’s saw the emergence of novelists like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth; of poets like Delmore Schwartz, Karl Shapiro, and Allen Ginsberg; of critics like Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe. And to top it all off, Partisan Review, many of whose editors and contributors were Jewish, also came in those years to be widely acknowledged as the leading American literary magazine.
Naturally enough, this development, new and interesting as it was, gave rise to a good deal of sociological and historical discussion, and in the course of this discussion Jews were often said to have found a place in, or even to have taken over, the “establishment.” Except for a degree of exaggeration, there was nothing wrong with such talk—until, that is, it began to be combined with the allegation that a conspiratorial network had been created between Jewish editors and Jewish critics for the purpose of pushing and promoting Jewish novelists and poets to the virtual exclusion of everyone else. At first this allegation was made only in shamefaced and guilty whispers. But eventually it achieved open expression in a Playboy interview with Truman Capote which was even more outspoken than Vidal’s apparently whimsical complaint about discrimination against goyim. According to Capote, a “Jewish mafia” had taken control of “much of the literary scene through the influence of the quarterlies and intellectual magazines.” He went on:
All these publications are Jewish-dominated and this particular coterie employs them to make or break writers by advancing or withholding attention. . . . Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and Isaac Bashevis Singer and Norman Mailer are all fine writers but they’re not the only writers in the country, as the Jewish mafia would have us believe. I could give you a list of excellent writers . . .; the odds are you haven’t heard of most of them for the simple reason that the Jewish mafia has systematically frozen them out of the literary scene.
The great irony was that the Jewish editors and critics who were supposed to be pushing and promoting Jewish novelists and poets in this way were in reality their harshest, and often their only, critics. So it was that Bellow and the others were much more roughly treated in Partisan Review (and COMMENTARY) than they were anywhere else. Nor was it even remotely the case that except for an occasional “O.K. Goy,” a writer had to be Jewish in order to get attention. In addition to Capote and Vidal themselves, who were hardly starving for attention, there were such widely read and discussed novelists as Carson McCullers, William Styron, John Updike, John Cheever, James Jones, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin; and there were such famous poets as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath. All these writers, it might be added, were treated with much greater tenderness by critics like Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks than their Jewish contemporaries could generally expect from such Jewish critics as Trilling, Howe, or Philip Rahv.
About twenty years ago, I myself began trying to blow the whistle on the spreading notion of an all-powerful Jewish literary establishment by arguing that it was not only untrue but that it also represented the revival of a dangerous anti-Semitic canard. I did not, however, argue that Vidal and Capote, whose contribution to its revival I cited even then, were anti-Semitic. On the contrary, I exonerated them. I said that so effective had the taboo been on any open expression of hostility toward Jews since the fall of Hitler that Vidal and Capote, like almost everyone else in America of a certain age, were entirely unfamiliar with the traditional ideologies of anti-Semitism; and it was this very ignorance that had emboldened them to spread an idea they would have been ashamed of embracing if they had been aware of its history and pedigree.
I still think this may have been true of Capote (and I think it may also explain why so many people, including a few who are discussed below, are unable nowadays to recognize anti-Semitism when it hits them in the face). But it was obviously too kind to Vidal. As the years went by, the issue of Jewish literary power faded, but not Vidal’s animus against Jews, which sought, and in due course found, a new outlet in the issue of Israel.
Most critics of Israel are more concerned with attacking the state than with attacking the Jews as such. With Vidal it was the other way around. In fact, his loathing for Israel was no greater than his loathing for America; the one often even seemed a function of the other, with Israel’s main crime being its alliance with and resemblance to the United States. Conversely, and no doubt with the example of Henry Adams to inspire him, he seemed to blame the putative decline of the United States on its susceptibility to the corruptions of Jewish influence, operating not only through the contemporary descendants of J.P. Morgan (symbolized for Vidal by the Chase Manhattan Bank) but also through the Pentagon and “our lunatic Right.”
This anti-Jewish animus occasionally peeped through Vidal’s essays and interviews. Once, for example, he referred to Hilton Kramer, a critic who has rarely if ever dealt with Jewish topics or with Israel in his writings, as “the Tel Aviv Hilton.” But as in this instance, Vidal was always careful to hide his anti-Jewish animus behind a campy façade, which allowed him, if challenged, to claim that he was after all only joking.
Indeed, even when for the first time he came more or less fully out of the anti-Semitic closet, he still thought it the better part of prudence to protect himself by posing as the spokesman for a minority which was being persecuted by the Jews.
The occasion, which served as a kind of dress rehearsal, or tryout, for “The Empire Lovers Strike Back,” was an article called “Some Jews and the Gays” that was also published in the Nation and that was also aimed at Midge Decter and me—at her for the memoir she had written of summers spent in a largely homosexual community on Fire Island in the 1960’s, at me for publishing it in COMMENTARY (under the title “The Boys on the Beach”).1
Unlike her later piece in Contentions, “The Boys on the Beach” made no reference to Vidal, but as an early pioneer of gay liberation, he took violent exception to some of the things it said about homosexuality. To be sure, time has not been kind to Vidal’s article, which sneeringly dismisses the idea, propounded by “The Boys on the Beach” and now so grimly confirmed by the AIDS epidemic, that there is a suicidal impulse at work in homosexual promiscuity. Nevertheless, Vidal’s sneers would have been fair enough if they had been confined to Midge Decter’s knowledge of the subject, her judgment, her prose. But Vidal did not confine himself to these things; instead he broadened out into a blast against “a group of New York Jewish publicists” who
know that should the bad times return, the Jews would be singled out yet again. Meanwhile, like so many Max Naumanns (Naumann was a German Jew who embraced Nazism), the new class passionately supports our ruling class—from the Chase Manhattan Bank to the Pentagon to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal—while holding in fierce contempt what they think our rulers hold in contempt: faggots, blacks, . . . and the poor. . . .
The anti-Semitism here was brazenly obvious to anyone with eyes to see. But as Vidal correctly sensed in writing the article, and as the editor of the Nation probably figured in deciding to publish it, anyone speaking on behalf of an aggrieved minority can attack the Jews with relative impunity, especially if he turns the tables by representing them as the oppressors. Thus, just as the idea of a conspiracy against helpless Gentile writers by an all-powerful Jewish literary “mafia” had been tolerated in the early 60’s, so a similar idea about the relation of blacks to Jews had been tolerated during the bitter New York City teachers’ strike of 1968. Prior to this point, anyone making anti-Semitic statements had been in effect banished from respectable society and consigned to the lunatic fringe. But now, far from being penalized in this way, blacks could proclaim (as the African-American Teachers Forum did) that “The Jew” deliberately and “systematically” (the same word Capote used) “keeps our men from becoming teachers and principals and he keeps our children ignorant,” and still be excused and justified by liberals, including Jewish liberals, and even rewarded with foundation grants. (A few who said such things, and worse, have since become prominent in New York politics.)
The reaction to “Some Jews and the Gays” demonstrated that the same license was now being extended to homosexuals. Not only was there no outcry against this article after its appearance in the Nation; and not only did many people take the position that Vidal’s rage was understandable and perhaps even warranted; but the collection of essays in which it was reprinted (under the title “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star”) went on to win a National Book Critics Circle Award. When Ezra Pound’s The Pisan Cantos, which also contained anti-Semitic passages, was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949, there were protests even from some who considered Pound a great poet. But when a book by Vidal, a writer no one considers great, was awarded a literary prize, no protests were heard, and some reviewers even singled out the offending essay for special praise.
Obviously, then, both Vidal and the editor of the Nation had been right in their assessment of the risks involved in publishing “Some Jews and the Gays.” Even the caution shown in the choice of title proved to be unnecessary.
With this experience behind him, Vidal must surely have assumed that he could get away with the same anti-Semitic trick when he decided to play it again in “The Empire Lovers Strike Back.” Yet I at first thought that this time he and the Nation had miscalculated.
It was one thing to attack “some” Jews for criticizing homosexuality; and if the attack spilled over into abusive remarks about Jews in general, well, that could be dismissed as a forgivable expression of that cleansing “rage” everyone has come to expect from oppressed minorities fighting for their rights. But it was quite another thing to make abusive charges against Jews for supporting Israel. Here no pretense at limiting the attack to “some” Jews (that is, the neoconservatives) could provide protection, since virtually all American Jews, including those who detest the neoconservatives as much as Vidal does, were bound to feel themselves equally implicated. If, as Vidal charged, their support of Israel proved that Jews of a neoconservative bent did not really belong in America, then neither did liberal Jews or radical Jews who also support Israel; and if supporting Israel made the neoconservatives into a “fifth column” (which is to say, agents of a foreign power and even traitors), there was no way the rest of the Jewish community, which was at least as pro-Israel as any neoconservative, could escape being tarred with the same accusation.
If Vidal had made a mistake, so, I thought, had the Nation. In recent years, under Victor Navasky, the Nation had regularly published articles by such virulently anti-Israel propagandists as Edward Said (a member of the PLO National Council) and Alexander Cockburn. But while attacking Israel, and doing everything in its power to delegitimize the Jewish state, the Nation had always piously affirmed Israel’s right to exist. Yet here, in a special anniversary issue, the magazine was opening its pages to a piece advocating a cutoff of all American aid to Israel—which was tantamount to calling for the destruction of the state by its Soviet-armed enemies.
This was not all. Like the PLO itself, which it supports, the Nation had always insisted on the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Yet by publishing an anti-Zionist piece that was so obviously anti-Semitic, it cast serious doubt on its own belief in the reality of this distinction.
For these reasons, I was confident that a storm of protest would be unleashed against Vidal and the Nation, and I therefore resisted the urgings of many people that I “do something.” Obviously, as an interested party, I was not in the best position to make the case that had to be made. Nor was I in the least concerned about defending myself personally. Although I am as thin-skinned as the next man, I took Vidal’s article not as a personal attack on me at all but as an attack on Jews in general. Consequently, what I most hoped for was not that others would spring to my defense, but that a protest would be mounted by people sympathetic to the Nation‘s left-wing political position who would say that while they detested everything Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and all the other neo-conservatives stood for, and while nothing made them happier than seeing neoconservatives raked over the coals, they were outraged by the re-introduction of anti-Semitism into American political discourse in general and their own political community in particular.
And indeed, about a week after Vidal’s piece appeared, just such a protest came from the very heartland of that community, the Village Voice. Under the rubric “Jew-Roasting,” its press critic, Geoffrey Stokes, wrote:
Happy 120th Birthday, Nationl On the other hand, what the hell was Gore Vidal’s anti-Semitic screed doing in the special anniversary issue? Not even clever, . . . Vidal’s piece . . . had the unsettling effect of making me briefly sympathetic to Podhoretz.
Gratifying though this was, however, it was followed by complete silence from the Left. In the Nation itself, three issues went by with no letters to the editor, and when an inquiry was made to its editorial offices, the answer was that the mail on Vidal had not been unusually heavy, that it was split evenly pro and con, and that some of it would eventually be run.
Meanwhile, wherever I went in those weeks, I would ask the people I encountered about the Vidal piece, only to find that hardly anyone had read it. This included people who had attended the anniversary party at which more than 3,000 copies of the offending issue had been distributed, as well as other self-professed friends of and subscribers to the Nation. It was good to learn that the Nation (which claims a circulation of 70,000), had such a small readership, but I did not think the Vidal piece should be allowed to sneak by unnoticed. In my view, ignoring it would only be taken by other anti-Semites as a license to resume saying things on which they had mercifully been choking for so long.
It was at this point that a letter was sent to twenty-nine friends and supporters of the Nation whose names were selected both from the magazine’s masthead and from the congratulatory messages which had appeared in the anniversary issue. They were: Floyd Abrams; Bella Abzug; Leonard Bernstein; Norman Birnbaum; Bill Bradley; Arthur L. Carter; Ramsey Clark; Arthur C. Danto; Osborn Elliott; Richard Falk; Frances FitzGerald; Fred Friendly; Seymour Hersh; Arthur Hertzberg; Charlayne Hunter-Gault; Peter Jennings; Edward Kennedy; Edward I. Koch; Elinor Langer; Eugene McCarthy; Sidney Morgenbesser; Aryeh Neier; Robert Silvers; Paul Simon; Gloria Steinern; Rose Styron; Mike Wallace; Tom Wicker; Roger Wilkins.
It would later be reported in the press that I had demanded that these people repudiate the Vidal article. But what the letter, signed not by me but by Marion Magid, the managing editor of COMMENTARY, actually said was this:
In connection with a projected article, we are asking a number of friends and supporters of the Nation whether they have seen fit to protest against the contribution by Gore Vidal to the 120th anniversary issue (“The Empire Lovers Strike Back”). Could you let us know whether you have made such a protest, either in private or in a letter for publication?
In the four weeks that followed the mailing of this letter we received only seven replies. By that time the Nation had also begun running letters in its correspondence columns, of which three were from people who had been on our list. Eliminating overlaps,2 this came to a total of eight out of twenty-nine. Of the eight, only five (the attorney Floyd Abrams; Professor Richard Falk of Princeton; Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg; Professor Sidney Morgenbesser of Columbia; and Aryeh Neier, the human-rights activist) said they saw anything wrong with the article or with the Nation‘s decision to publish it.
Of the others, two (the sociologist Norman Birnbaum and Tom Wicker of the New York Times), responding directly to Marion Magid, attacked her letter as an impropriety, while either saying nothing about Vidal at all (Birnbaum) or explicitly denying that his article was anti-Semitic (Wicker). The third, the journalist Roger Wilkins, writing to the Nation for publication, called Vidal’s piece “splendid.” By contrast, Wilkins said, the attacks on it as anti-Semitic were “ugly mumblings,” a species of McCarthyism, and a threat to the First Amendment.
Striking a note that would be heard over and over again from defenders of Vidal, Wilkins declared:
Scoundrels have many last refuges. One is to attack as anti-Semitic any criticism of the policies of any given government of Israel or of any supporters of Israel, no matter how frothing those supporters may be.
Not content with defending Vidal against the charge of anti-Semitism, Wilkins even denied that his piece was anti-Israel. Like himself, Wilkins wrote, Vidal “apparently” believed “that one can criticize an Israeli government policy or one advocated by a supporter of Israel as being both dangerous to peace and to Israel’s security without being either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.”
In other words, the critics of Israel are allowed to say anything they want, no matter how vile, about the state and its supporters, but it is McCarthyism and a threat to the First Amendment to criticize them.
To put the same idea another way: it is permissible to make anti-Semitic statements, but it is impermissible to call such statements anti-Semitic.
But what of the twenty-one who did not respond to Marion Magid’s letter? What did their silence mean? Some weeks later, after the controversy had attracted a great deal of publicity, three of them (Fred Friendly of the Columbia School of Journalism; the writer Elinor Langer; and Senator Paul Simon of Illinois) finally got around to communicating their dislike of Vidal’s piece either to Marion Magid or to me. All three, however, said that they felt no compelling reason to protest against its publication.
As for the other eighteen, one can only speculate. It may be that the politicians among them (Mayor Koch, Senator Bradley, Senator Kennedy) were never shown the letter by whoever handles their mail. This may also have been the case with the media personalities (Peter Jennings of ABC, Mike Wallace of CBS, Charlayne Hunter-Gault of PBS) or with a busy celebrity like Leonard Bernstein. It is even possible that they never saw Vidal’s article (a copy of which, by the way, had been enclosed with the letter).
Nevertheless, whatever the reasons might be, one glaring and ugly fact remained: a large number of prominent liberals and leftists who had publicly associated themselves in one way or another with the Nation, and whose names had appeared in one capacity or another in the very issue containing so blatantly anti-Semitic an article, had not been sufficiently outraged to register disapproval or to express a protest. Nor did many others on the Left respond by (to borrow an image Vidal had used in congratulating himself for candor) calling a spade a spade: by, that is, describing Vidal’s article as a foul anti-Semitic outburst and expressing dismay or disgust at the fact that a magazine professedly devoted to liberal ideals should have given house room to such an article.
A few did. Stipulating that “Knocking Podhoretz up the side of the head for an inane foreign policy is like shooting fish in a barrel,” one liberal reader still characterized Vidal’s article as a “leering, taunting, look-at-how-clever-I-am anti-Semitic assault.” He also blamed the Nation‘s editor for permitting Vidal to “break the bounds of discourse.”
Another reader, dissociating himself even more vigorously from me and Midge Decter, asked whether Vidal was “sallying forth to paste yellow stars on those of us ‘foreigners’ whose Americanism is questionable because we like Israel?”
A third, summing up the case, wrote:
The implication—that American Jews who support Israel are traitors to their country—is pure anti-Semitism. . . . I do not like neoconservativism and I do not like Norman Podhoretz. I don’t like him, as a Jew, as an American, as a Zionist, and as a leftist. But I’d rather see his published ideas criticized fairly than to see him accused of treason without evidence, especially when this accusation extends to me.
Yet in the weeks immediately following the publication of Vidal’s article, these three (or stretching a point to include Floyd Abrams, four) were the only letters to the Nation from liberals or leftists that seemed to me commensurate with the provocation.
Of the other two protests from the Left published by the Nation, one came from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. A former president of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Hertzberg had been heard to rail privately against the article and had promised to denounce it in the strongest possible terms. In the end, however, all he managed to produce was a letter in which he described the piece as a “personal quarrel with Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter,” said that he was “delighted” with Vidal’s complimentary remarks about Peace Now, and could not even bring himself to use the term “anti-Semitism” at all. As for the second such liberal protest, while denouncing Vidal “for exhibiting a snide anti-Jewishness,” it spent more space explaining that the American Jewish Committee, despite its sponsorship of COMMENTARY, was not, as Vidal had ignorantly charged in passing, an organization of “the far Right.”
Neither this letter, nor Hertzberg’s, was written in the name of the Jewish organizations with which their authors were associated; nor did any other Jewish organization speak up in these first few weeks (though both the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League would subsequently be heard from). A reporter for an Israeli newspaper, who later set out to find out why the Jewish defense agencies had been so quiet, discovered that the feeling was that “Norman can take care of himself.” But the issue was not “Norman,” and to define it in those terms was to do what Hertzberg was the first (but, as we shall see, far from the last) to do: it was to turn an anti-Semitic assault into “a personal quarrel” and thereby to trivialize it. From there it was only a short step to the prominent lay Jewish leader who went around saying that “Podhoretz and Vidal deserve each other.” This idea that anti-Semitism and a protest against anti-Semitism are on an equal moral footing would also be echoed in the weeks ahead. But not usually by people carrying a mandate from the American Jewish community to defend it against anti-Semitism.
After nearly a month of waiting for a serious protest to materialize, it finally dawned on me that I had been wrong to think that Vidal and the Nation had made a mistake from their own point of view with “The Empire Lovers Strike Back.” If so, things were even more ominous than they had seemed at first. It was bad enough that a presumably reputable author should see fit to write a blatantly anti-Semitic article; it was even worse that a magazine professing devotion to liberal values should see fit to publish such an article; but what was worst of all was that so few of the magazine’s friends and admirers had been willing to raise their voices against it. Therefore, in the column I now decided I had no choice but to write, it was the theme of liberal silence I emphasized. It was, I concluded, “a silence as deep as the moral pit into which the Nation itself has fallen in welcoming the unabashed return to American political discourse of a murderous poison against which the only antidote is the revulsion of decent people.”
A few days before this column was published, first in the New York Post and then in the Washington Post and a number of other papers throughout the United States, the New Republic ran an editorial denouncing Vidal’s article as anti-Semitic on the ground that his target was not just the Jewish state but Jews in general, and that his accusations against Podhoretz and Decter as aliens, and even “in essence” traitors, applied “by extension [to] all American Jews who support Israel.”
The New Republic likes to regard itself as a liberal magazine, and in some sense it is. But its hatred of Soviet totalitarianism, its belief in the need for American power to contain Soviet expansionism, and its strong support of Israel—not to mention a host of differences over domestic issues—have placed it politically on the opposite side of the Nation in recent years. Consequently, its editorial on Vidal could no more be taken as coming from the Nation‘s own political community than an earlier protest by the neoconservative Catholic writer Michael Novak (who in his syndicated column had been the first to call attention to “a piece of bigotry and nativism by Gore Vidal worthy of the anti-Semitism of the KKK”) or the indignant letter to the Nation by the New Right activist Paul Weyrich.
In any event, to judge by the reaction to its editorial, which seemed to attract more attention than the Vidal article itself had done, the New Republic is much more widely and more carefully read than the Nation. No sooner had it appeared than I began to get calls and letters requesting more information; and whereas before it was I who had had to ask people about the Vidal article, only to discover that very few had seen or heard about it, now everywhere I went, everyone, it seemed, was talking about it. And when, hard upon the New Republic editorial, my own column appeared, the talk became even louder and more insistent.
Nor was this second wave of reaction confined to talk. Before the storm finally subsided two months or so later, at least twenty pieces had been published about the episode in American newspapers and magazines, and nearly half as many again in other countries, including England, France, Germany, Australia, and Israel.
From this second wave of reaction I learned that there is something worse than silence in the face of anti-Semitism, and that is a willful blindness in the face of it. Here the blindness took three different but overlapping forms. One was the outright denial that Vidal’s piece was anti-Semitic. The second was to treat the article as part of a longstanding personal feud between Vidal and me. The third was to affect a lofty neutrality as between two equally unpleasant and unacceptable points of view.
Leading the pack of those who simply denied that Vidal’s piece was anti-Semitic were Vidal and Navasky themselves. In the first wave, replying to the letters on his piece in the Nation itself, Vidal had not only ignored the charge of anti-Semitism but had adopted the strategy of heaping abuse on the correspondents who leveled it at him. One of these correspondents, he said, “needs psychiatric attention of a sort that I cannot provide.”3 Another he advised to “join the Israeli Army.” To a third, he cited “the hysterical tone of these letters” as evidence of the strength of his argument. To a fourth he countered that “the Podhoretzes are doing more to arouse the essential anti-Semitism of the American people than anyone since Father Coughlin.”
As for Navasky, he bemoaned the “sad fact” that “when a Gentile criticizes Israel or raises fundamental questions about its connection to American Jewry he or she is often said to be anti-Semitic; when a Jew does so he or she is said to be self-hating.” Going so far as to concede that “such ugly accusations” were “understandable in view of Vidal’s provocative framing of the issue,” Navasky still insisted that they arose out of a misreading of Vidal’s “idiom of irony”—and irony, of course, “should not be read literally.” Instead of being called bad names, Vidal should be acclaimed for his courage in “violating the taboo that forbids the discussion of the relationship of the American Jewish community to the state of Israel. . . .”
This was too much for Irving Howe, the editor of the socialist magazine Dissent. Reaffirming his often stated distaste for Podhoretz and Decter, and referring to Navasky as a “decent and humane man,” Howe nevertheless not only lashed into Vidal’s “racist diatribe” (“It is many years since I have read anything quite like this in a serious magazine”); he called the Editor’s Note in defense of it “still more shocking” than the fact that the Nation had printed Vidal’s piece:
Whatever are the Nation editors talking about? What taboo? Many of us have publicly been engaged in precisely this discussion for years now, and one need only look through the files of various magazines—Left, Right, and Center—to see how fierce this debate has been.
Vidal’s piece aroused disgust not because of any issue it raised or taboo it violated, but because of the terms in which it was couched—terms about as close to anti-Semitism as anyone not an openly declared anti-Semite would reach.
Navasky’s Editor’s Note was also too much for the veteran Old Leftist Morris U. Schappes, the editor of Jewish Currents. Schappes “admonished the Nation as a devoted friend” for its failure to perceive that Vidal’s article was “smelly with anti-Semitism” and for defending it on the false ground that Vidal had raised questions about the relation of American Jews to Israel that no one else had previously dared to ask.
Unchastened by rebukes even from such friendly quarters, Navasky stuck throughout to the same line. But this time, in the second wave, Vidal himself did deign to notice that he was being charged with anti-Semitism. In a call made to the Washington Post after my column had appeared there, he stated:
Anyone who says he is not an anti-Semite is probably one, and so I shall not dignify the dread Norman (Poddy)4 Podhoretz’s characterization of me in these pages as “a virulent anti-Semite” with a defense where no offense of that nature exists or has ever existed.
In addition to thus fingering himself here by doing precisely what he says an anti-Semite would do, Vidal requested that the Post reprint his Nation article. This request the Post thereupon honored so that, it explained, readers could answer for themselves the question posed in its headline: “Was the Vidal Article Anti-Semitic?” (Will the Post, the New Republic subsequently wondered, “reprint the writings of Louis Farrakhan or Lyndon LaRouche when next its readers seem puzzled by a columnist’s criticisms?”)
First out of the gate in the race to join in denying that Vidal’s piece was anti-Semitic sprang Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., another Washington Post columnist. Yoder, in his courteous Southern way, allowed as how it was “unfair” of Vidal to charge me with being “more interested in Israel than in this country” (is that what he charged me with?) but “The truth is that Norman Podhoretz asked for it, not only by firing the first shot at Vidal in connection with an entirely different subject, but by professing an ostentatious indifference to early American history.”
What Yoder is referring to here is a story Vidal told in his article about a remark I am supposed to have made to him twenty-five years ago, to the effect that to me, as the child of immigrants, the Civil War was as remote as the War of the Roses. Though I have no memory of making the remark, I may well have said something like it. But whether or not I did—and if I did, I was certainly putting Vidal on—Yoder’s notion that I deserved to be answered with an anti-Semitic onslaught twenty-five years later takes the breath away. But of course Vidal’s onslaught was not, in Yoder’s view, anti-Semitic at all. It was only “mischievous and cutting . . ., in Vidal’s best polemical manner.”
No more than Roger Wilkins before him was Yoder satisfied with defending Vidal against the charge of anti-Semitism. He also counterattacked with the accusation that I, like many (most?) American Jews, have tried to silence any and all criticism of Israel by denouncing such criticism as anti-Semitic, even while pretending otherwise:
Podhoretz graciously concedes that “it is possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic.” Thanks, we needed that. But has Podhoretz noticed that if one is critical of an Israeli policy one may be accused of attacking Israel’s legitimacy? And, just beyond that, of being a crypto anti-Semite? It was that very logic that drove Podhoretz to mistake Vidal’s hard-edged teasing for anti-Semitism.
A similar argument was advanced by another columnist, William Pfaff, writing in the International Herald-Tribune, who moreover took it upon himself to deliver a lecture on how “reasonable people” should conduct themselves in discussing the subject of Israel. He graciously conceded in his turn that Jews have a right to support Israel “without having imputed to them a lack of patriotism toward the country of which they are citizens.” His main concern, however, was clearly to establish the right of “an American to criticize or oppose the policies of the state of Israel . . . without an anti-Semitic motivation being imputed.”
Once again, then, the issue was shifted from the appearance of an anti-Semitic article in a respectable left-wing magazine to the alleged efforts by people like me to silence any and all criticism of Israel. On this point Pfaff let it be known that he knew whereof he spoke: “I have . . . been myself denounced by Mr. Podhoretz as anti-Semitic because of things I wrote about Israel’s conduct during the siege of Beirut in 1982,” he told his readers. What he did not tell them was that in one of these “things” he had begun by asserting that in Israel’s conduct “Hitler’s work goes on,” and he had concluded by predicting that Hitler might soon “find rest in Hell” through “the knowledge that the Jews themselves, in Israel, have finally accepted his own way of looking at things.” In my article “J’Accuse,”5 I did indeed denounce these words (not Pfaff himself) as anti-Semitic. Nicholas von Hoffman, another columnist who had used similar words, had the good grace to withdraw them in response to the same criticism. But not Pfaff—who, in addition, had and has the gall to feel aggrieved and victimized by the fact that he was called to account.
Since Pfaff (like Yoder a decent man who is intelligent enough to know better) remains convinced that comparing Israel to Nazi Germany represents a “reasonable” application to the Jewish state “of the same moral and political judgments as one applies to the conduct of other states,” it is no wonder that all he can see in Vidal is an innocent “critic” of Israel like himself. What he does not see is that it is he, and Yoder and Wilkins and Wicker, who erase the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism by their unwillingness or inability to distinguish between the former and a clear case of the latter like the Vidal article (or like his own comparisons of Israel with Nazi Germany).
If denial, was one form taken by this blindness to anti-Semitism, a second was the treatment of Vidal’s article as part of a longstanding personal feud with me and/or Midge Decter. “A Big-League Literary Feud,” announced the headline of a story in Newsweek which went on to describe it as “the sort of literary quarrel that had everything going for it,” with “the prospect of more vitriolic prose, more character assassinations, and, in all likelihood, more broken friendships.”
Several newspapers also played the story largely for its gossip value. “The dirty little war of words between writer Gore Vidal and conservative columnist Norman Podhoretz appears to have gone nuclear,” brightly chirped a reporter in the Washington Post Style section. “Long bombarding each other with verbal abuse, Vidal and Podhoretz have now engaged in an exchange that is by all accounts ugly, burying the issues in an atomic barrage of name-calling.”
From this kind of trivialization the third form of denial naturally followed. On National Public Radio, Rod MacLeish declared a plague on both our houses for “polluting” public discourse, but he was more incensed at me than at Vidal. Unjustly to accuse someone of anti-Semitism, he said, is almost as base as anti-Semitism itself. But he was so busy explaining to me that it is not anti-Semitic to criticize the economic policies [sic!] of the Israeli government that he never got around to explaining how what he himself described as Vidal’s appeal to “an ancient American bigotry” differed from anti-Semitism.
The same trick of morally equating Vidal’s anti-Semitism with my protest against it was used by Jody Powell in the Los Angeles Times. Deploring all the attention being paid to this “grand wrist-flapping dither” at a time when “deficits and exchange rates” were crying out for discussion, Powell proceeded to devote an entire column to it himself:
What we have here is a trio of aging, self-righteous ideologues bent on exposing the absurdities of their intellectual configuration to all who can stomach the spectacle. What emerges is that they are more alike than different.
Powell therefore “steadfastly refused to choose” because “it is impossible to attack one without appearing to be allied with the other.”
But this was only impossible because Powell also “steadfastly refused” to recognize anti-Semitism when he saw it; to those not so blinded, like Paul Berman of the Village Voice (which in the second wave as in the first acquitted itself more honorably than any other left-wing publication), there was no question about which side to take as between an anti-Semitic article and a protest against it:
Who but my discombobulated friends at the Nation could so bollix things that right-minded leftists have no choice but to rise to the defense of Norman Podhoretz?
I rise. . . . The Nation had no business publishing Gore Vidal’s spleen. . . . And why must the editors of the Nation, having made the mistake of publishing this horrendous stuff in the first place, pass it off as “irony”?
In describing both waves of reaction to the Vidal article, I have omitted the protests that came from people outside the circle of friends and supporters of the Nation—writers like William Safire, R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard John Neuhaus, Jeffrey Hart, and David Evanier who are neither liberals nor radicals and whose general political views are closer to mine than to the Nation‘s.6 For such people, protesting against Vidal and the Nation was as unproblematic as it was hard for leftists who were reluctant to give political aid and comfort to an opponent like me. But as a diabolical fate would have it, the conservative political community was soon to face a similar test of its own.
Joseph Sobran is a syndicated columnist, a commentator on the CBS radio series “Spectrum,” and a senior editor of National Review (a magazine whose standing on the Right is comparable to, though much higher than, the position on the Left occupied by the Nation). For some years now, and especially since the Lebanon war, when he too wrote a few “things” about Israel’s “conduct,” he has been increasingly unfriendly to the Jewish state. During the Bitburg controversy, in defending the President’s decision to visit a German military cemetery in which SS men were buried, he also struck a number of people as decidedly unfriendly to the American Jewish community. Remonstrations were made to him in private about the insensitivity to Jewish concerns reflected in his Bitburg columns, and he was even caricatured as a latter-day Nazi in a small-town paper which had carried those columns.
To all this he responded by defending himself in print against what he indignantly denounced as Jewish attempts to intimidate and silence him. He would not, he vowed, be intimidated; he would not be silenced. And he was as good as his word. Over the following months, he seemed to let no opportunity slip for attacking Israel and American support for Israel. As bitter an opponent of the Left as can be found, he was even driven to seize on a book attacking Zionism from the Left as a vehicle for the amazing declaration that he had never seen a good case made, except by Jews (whose arguments, of course, could not be trusted), for the American alliance with Israel.
Nor was this the only instance when the Jewish issue drove Sobran into making common cause with people or positions he would normally be the first to attack. The most egregious example was his criticism of the American strike on Libya. This was so uncharacteristic a stance for a hardline conservative hawk like Sobran to take, and so inconsistent with his general world view, that it could only cause his regular readers to wonder how he had come to such a pass. Demonstrating his fearless disregard of the “gas-chamber rhetoric” that would no doubt be thrown at him, Sobran provided the materials for dispelling that wonder:
The Israeli lobby is, of course, the most powerful lobby in America. That is ultimately why Congress so quickly endorsed a direct military strike against Libya, while it quibbles endlessly about whether aid to the contras in Nicaragua might lead, someday, to American military involvement in Central America. Qaddafi is an enemy of Israel. Communist Nicaragua isn’t. It’s an enemy of America, period.
So we fight Qaddafi, and maybe, the administration hints, Syria and Iran as well. Ostensibly the issue is “terrorism,” but that sounds more and more like a surrogate word for enemies of Israel.
Having thus explained how Congress was manipulated by the Jews into approving the Libyan strike, he went on in another column to explain why the New York Times also applauded Reagan for this misconceived action:
On the issue of Libya, the Times sounds like Soldier of Fortune magazine. It even chides our allies for ingratitude in failing to support Reagan’s action: “The failure to cooperate against Libya plants poisonous seeds of disintegration.”
The Times didn’t use that kind of language at the moment when it might have done so more appropriately: When Israel was discovered to have been paying a U.S. citizen for U.S. military secrets. Our European allies are our allies for the purpose of resisting Communism, not terrorism. But the Times, one of America’s most ardently Zionist newspapers, understands that Israel has its own reasons for desiring to pit the United States against the whole Arab world. So bombs away.
Never mind the ignorance and/or misrepresentation here. Never mind that the Sandinistas—who are so close to the PLO that some of them were trained in PLO camps before the overthrow of Somoza; who still receive help from the PLO today; and who have declared that “the PLO cause is the cause of the Sandinistas”—are enemies of Israel. Never mind that the New York Times, far from being “ardently Zionist,” is by a wide margin editorially more critical of Israel than approving. Sobran will not permit such elementary facts to stand in the way of his theory that the Jews first manipulated Reagan into bombing Libya, and then manipulated the Congress and the media into applauding him for doing so.
As if all this were not enough, Sobran took the occasion of the Pope’s visit to a synagogue in Rome earlier this year to dredge up canards against the Jews as a people and Judaism as a religion that had rarely been heard since the Middle Ages (though it is possible that Sobran found them in the writings of such Edwardian Catholics as Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton who seem to play a part for him as mentors in anti-Semitism analogous to the one Henry Adams plays for Vidal):
Millions of Jews chose to migrate to Christian Europe. They lived there for centuries. If Christians were sometimes hostile to Jews, that worked two ways. Some rabbinical authorities held that it was permissible to cheat and even kill Gentiles. Although the great Jewish theologian Moses Maimonides insisted that it was as wrong to kill a Gentile as a Jew, it seems strange that this should ever have been a matter of controversy, and Maimonides was in some quarters regarded as a heretic.
Again, never mind the ignorance here. Never mind the preposterous lies about rabbinical permission to cheat and kill Gentiles or the suggestion that the most revered Jewish thinker of post-biblical times (“From Moses to Moses,” Jews say of him, “none has arisen like Moses”) was regarded as a heretic because he considered it wrong for a Jew to kill a Gentile. Never mind the ludicrous moral judgment that (in another passage of the same column) equates Christian “hostility” to Jews—manifested over the centuries in mass expulsions, pogroms, forced conversions, and denial of civil or political rights—with the less than respectful Jewish attitude toward Jesus that prevailed in those same centuries. The point to be stressed is that in this column, although Israel comes in at the beginning and the end, the issue is not Zionism, or rather anti-Zionism, but Jews and Judaism throughout the ages. Anti-Semitism, in other words.
For me personally, as well as for Midge Decter, a difficult problem was posed by the growing but finally inescapable conclusion that anti-Semitism was at work in those Sobran columns. In contrast to Vidal (with whom in general he has, to put it mildly, nothing in common), Sobran did not single us out for attack. On the contrary, in one of the very columns from which I have quoted, he defended us against Vidal’s charge of disloyalty to America. Not that this did anything to mitigate his own hostility to Israel; it did not, in fact, even prevent him from playing on the theme of dual loyalty himself: “As their frequently duplicitous behavior shows, the Israelis know very well the difference between their interests and ours. It’s Americans who love Israel who don’t know it yet.” Then he used a column of mine (which he might have noticed gave the lie all by itself to the charge that I consider any and all criticism of Israel to be ipso facto anti-Semitic) to drive the dual-loyalty point home:
When the Pollard spy story broke, Podhoretz wrote that American Jews had been doubly betrayed—as Americans and as Jews. If so, they have been doubly betrayed again—and again. It’s time they stood up for their rights against their unreliable ally.
But if there was no problem by now over how to characterize Sobran’s writings about Israel and the Jewish community in general, there was a problem of what to do about it. With the Vidal controversy still raging, it seemed reckless to open up, so to speak, a second front. On the other hand, to let Sobran’s pieces go by without protest might only make it seem that while neoconservatives were all too ready to attack anti-Semitism on the Left, we were perfectly content to tolerate it on the Right. It was Midge Decter who hit on the idea of writing a letter to Sobran himself and to send copies to a number of mutual friends and political allies. Her letter was very tough. It opened by accusing Sobran of being “little more than a crude and naked anti-Semite” and it proceeded to document this charge (pretty much along the lines of the foregoing account).
Mutatis mutandis, then, just as members of Vidal’s political community had been asked for their reaction to his piece in the Nation, so Sobran’s political friends were now being asked how they felt about the anti-Semitic sentiments to which he had been giving expression in his column. But there the similarity ends.
In contrast to the Vidal-Nation case, none of the clearly anti-Semitic Sobran columns had appeared in National Review. In spite of this, the editor of National Review, William F. Buckley, Jr., responded to Midge Decter’s letter, and to the urgings of nearly all the people to whom it had been sent, by deciding to publish an editorial dissociating the magazine from Sobran on this issue. This editorial, written by Buckley himself with the concurrence of all the other senior editors of National Review, affirmed that while his colleagues were sure that Sobran was not in his heart an anti-Semite, anyone who did not really know him “might reasonably conclude that those columns were written by a writer inclined to anti-Semitism. . . . Accordingly, I here dissociate myself and my colleagues from what we view as the obstinate tendentiousness of Joe Sobran’s recent columns.” Buckley also expressed confidence that Sobran would in the future respect the “welcome” structure of “prevailing taboos concerning Israel and the Jews.”
It would be pleasant to report that this was an end of it. Unfortunately, Sobran himself and a number of his other friends and allies sprang to his defense in terms very similar to those used by Vidal and his apologists. They denied that the columns in question were. anti-Semitic; they complained that anyone who criticizes Israel is smeared with accusations of anti-Semitism; they charged that the Jewish lobby was trying to silence them; they invoked the First Amendment. One of them even compared me with Jesse Jackson: as Jackson has tried to silence opposition with charges of racism, so I have tried to silence it with charges of anti-Semitism.7
From Vidal’s political friends on the Left, then, mainly denial, and from the editor of the Nation, stonewalling. From Sobran’s political friends on the Right, mostly outrage, and from the editor of National Review, dissociation and repudiation of anti-Semitism.
What emerges from the contrast between the two cases is further evidence that anti-Semitism has largely if not entirely been banished from its traditional home on the Right, and that today, especially in the guise of anti-Zionism, it is meeting with more and more toleration, and sometimes even approval, on the Left.
Meanwhile liberals and other leftists, including large segments of the American Jewish community, go on refusing to face these immensely important facts. If they should therefore also go on failing to undertake the job of housecleaning that conservatives like Buckley have long been doing within their own political community, the poison of anti-Semitism will continue spreading through the American air, with what consequences no one can foresee.
3 This was not the only time the issue of psychiatric disorder came up. The New Republic‘s otherwise excellent editorial was marred by a concluding sentence stating that Vidal was “ready for the funny farm.” But there is nothing in the least crazy about Vidal, and to suggest that he needs psychiatric treatment is to diminish his responsibility for his foul anti-Semitic ideas. In using the phrase, however, the New Republic inadvertently provoked a moment of morbid comic relief in the form of the following letter from John Hinckley, Jr., written from the psychiatric hospital to which he has been confined since shooting President Reagan: “I resent the fact that you equate ‘anti-Semitism’ with insanity. In the first place, Gore Vidal is anti-Zionist, not anti-Jewish, and in the second place, being opposed to Zionism (which is both racist and militaristic) is not a sign of mental illness. If anything, it is patriotic. . . . The easiest way to defame someone and his opinions is to label him as ‘loony’ and ‘ready for the funny farm.’ It happens to me all the time. The opinions of Gore Vidal and myself are just as valid as yours, and just because we disagree with you does not mean we are crazy.”
6 One such writer, however, Richard Grenier, agreed with those on the Left who denied that Vidal’s article was anti-Semitic. Vidal’s hostility to Jews was, he said in his column in the Washington Times, rooted in other passions—social snobbery, anti-democratic elitism, and envy. Perhaps. But anti-Semitic ideas are and should be identified as anti-Semitic, no matter what may lie behind them.
7 In perhaps the most bizarre—and, from the Jewish point of view, scandalous—turn of events in this entire history, the Washington Jewish Week reprinted this article (with the parts about Jesse Jackson cut out). Thus a liberal Jewish editor joined forces with a right-wing extremist in whitewashing two of the vilest anti-Semitic outbursts in forty years and in attacking me for protesting against them—adding the usual lie that “the victims of such attacks by Podhoretz have been many and various, and their only apparent sin has been criticism of Israel and its policies.” And this was sought out and reprinted in a Jewish paper!
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The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name
Must-Reads from Magazine
Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.