here is a general sense that we face a crisis in social policy, and in almost all its branches. Whether this crisis derives from the backwardness of the United States in social policy generally, the revolt of the blacks, the fiscal plight of the cities, the failure of national leadership, the inherent complexity of the problems, or the weakening of the national fiber, and what weight we may ascribe to these and other causes, are no easy questions to settle. I believe there is much at fault with the way we generally think of these matters, and I wish to suggest another approach.
The term “social policy” is very elastic. I use it to describe all those public policies which have developed in the past hundred years to protect families and individuals from the accidents of industrial and urban life, and which try to maintain a decent minimum of living conditions for all.The heart of social policy is the relief of the condition of the poor, and it is in that sense I use the term here.1
There are, I believe, two prevailing and antagonistic views of social policy.
One—I will call it the “liberal” view—operates with a model of the social world in which that world is seen as having undergone progressive improvement for, roughly, the past hundred years. The unimproved world, in this view, was the world of early and high industrialism. Market forces prevailed unobstructed, or nearly so. The enormous inequalities they created in wealth, power, and status were added to the still largely unreduced inequalities of the pre-industrial world. This situation, which meant that most men lived in squalor while a few, profiting from the labor of the many, lived in great luxury, was seen by a developing social conscience as both evil and dangerous. It was evil because of the huge inequalities that characterized it and because of its failure to insure a decent minimum at the bottom levels; and it was dangerous because it encouraged the destitute to rebellion against industry and the state. Consequently, in Bismarck’s Germany, and somewhat later on in England, conservative states grew worried about rebellion and workingmen began to be protected against complete penury in old age or in times of unemployment through industrial accident and illness; small beginnings were also made in helping them cover some of the costs of medical care. Gradually, such measures of protection were extended to cover other areas like housing, and were made available to broader and broader classes of people.
In the liberal view, then, we have a sea of misery, scarcely diminished at all by voluntary charitable efforts. Government then starts moving in, setting up dikes, pushing back the sea and reclaiming the land, so to speak. In this view, while new issues may be presented for public policy, they are never really new—rather, they are only newly recognized as issues demanding public intervention. Thus the liberal point of view is paradoxically calculated to make us feel both guiltier and more arrogant. We feel guilty for not having recognized and acted on injustices and deprivations earlier, but we also feel complacently superior in comparison to our forebears, who did not recognize or act on them at all.
I have given a rather sharp and perhaps caricatured picture of the liberal view. Liberals are of course aware that new needs—and not simply new recognitions of old needs—arise. Nevertheless, the typical stance of the liberal in dealing with issues of social policy is blame—not of the unfortunates, those suffering from the ills that the social policy is meant to remove, but of society, of the political system and its leaders. The liberal stance is: for every problem there is a policy, and even if the problem is relatively new, the social system and the political system must be indicted for failing to tackle it earlier.
There is another element in the liberal view. It sees vested interests as the chief obstacle to the institution of new social policies. One such interest consists simply of those who are better off—those not in need of the social policy in question, who resist it because of the increase in taxes. But other kinds of obstructive interests are also there: real-estate people and landlords in the field of housing, employers subject to payroll taxes in the field of social security, doctors in the field of medical care, and so on.
Despite the assumption here of a conflict pitting liberals against conservatives, I would suggest that the main premises behind this general picture of social policy are today hardly less firmly held by conservatives than they are by liberals. In the American context, conservatives will differ from liberals because they want to move more slowly, give more consideration to established interests, keep taxes from going up too high. They will on occasion express a stronger concern for traditional values—work, the family, sexual restraint. But on the whole the line dividing liberals from conservatives grows steadily fainter. The Family Assistance Program, the major new reform of the welfare system proposed by the Nixon administration, will illustrate my point. Anyone who reads through the Congressional hearings on this proposal will be hard put to distinguish liberals from conservatives in terms of any naive division between those who favor the expansion of social policy and those who oppose it.
It is not only in America that one sees the merging of liberal and conservative views on social policy, and not only today. Bismarck after all stands at the beginning of the history of modern social policy. In the countries of northwest Europe, the differences over social policy between liberals and conservatives are even narrower than they are in this country. In England, very often the issue seems to turn on such questions as what kind of charges should be imposed by the National Health Service for eyeglasses or prescriptions. It was this kind of reduction in the conflicts over basic values in advanced industrial societies that in the 1950’s led Raymond Aron and Daniel Bell to formulate their ideas about “the end of ideology.” And while in the 1960’s all the old ideologies returned to these countries in force, it remains true that ideological battles between major political parties have been startlingly reduced in intensity since World War II.
aving incorporated the conservative point of view on social policy into the liberal, I will go on to the only other major perspective that means much today, the radical. The radical perspective on social policy comes in many variants, but they can all be summed up quite simply. If the liberal, and increasingly the conservative, believes that for every problem there must be a specific solution, the radical believes that there can be no particular solutions to particular problems but only a general solution, which is a transformation in the nature of society itself.
This point of view has consequences, just as the liberal point of view does. If, for example, the conservative proposes a guaranteed annual income of $1,600 for a family of four, and the liberal proposes that the figure be doubled or tripled, the radical will feel quite free to demand an even higher minimum. He knows that his figure is unlikely to be adopted, but he also knows that he can cite this failure as proof of his contention that the system cannot accommodate decent social demands. If, on the other hand, his policy or something like it is taken seriously, he can hope for a greater degree of class conflict as demands that are very difficult to implement are publicized and considered. And even if his policy is implemented, the radical remains firm in his faith that nothing has changed: the new policy is after all only a palliative; it does not get to the heart of the matter; or if it does get to the heart of the matter, it gets there only to prevent the people from getting to the heart of the largest matters of all. Indeed, one of the important tenets of radicalism is that nothing ever changes short of the final apocalyptic revolutionary moment when everything changes.
As against these two perspectives—the one that believes in a solution to every problem, and the other that believes in no solution to any problem save revolutionary change—I want to present a somewhat different view of social policy. This view is based on two propositions:
- Social policy is an effort to deal with the breakdown of traditional ways of handling distress. These traditional mechanisms are located primarily in the family, but also in the ethnic group, the neighborhood, and in such organizations as the church and the landsmanschaft.
- In its effort to deal with the breakdown of these traditional structures, however, social policy tends to encourage their further weakening. There is, then, no sea of misery against which we are making steady headway. Our efforts to deal with distress themselves increase distress.
I do not mean to suggest any automatic law. I do suggest processes.
One is the well-known revolution of rising expectations. This revolution is itself fed by social policies. Their promise, inadequately realized, leaves behind a higher level of expectation, which a new round of social policy must attempt to meet, and with the same consequences. In any case, by the nature of democratic (and perhaps not only democratic) politics, again and again more must be promised than can be delivered. These promises are, I believe, the chief mechanisms in educating people to higher expectations. But they are, of course, reinforced by the enormous impact of mass literacy, the mass media, and expanding levels of education. Rising expectations continually enlarge the sea of felt and perceived misery, whatever may happen to it in actuality.
Paralleling the revolution of rising expectations, and adding similarly to the increasing difficulties of social policy, is the revolution of equality. This is the most powerful social force in the modern world. Perhaps only Tocqueville saw its awesome potency. For it not only expresses a demand for equality in political rights and in political power; it also represents a demand for equality in economic power, in social status, in authority in every sphere. And just as there is no point at which the sea of misery is finally drained, so, too, is there no point at which the equality revolution can come to an end, if only because as it proceeds we become ever more sensitive to smaller and smaller degrees of inequality. More important, different types and forms of equality inevitably emerge to contradict each other as we move away from a society of fixed social orders. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need”; so goes one of the greatest of the slogans invoked as a test of equality. But the very slogan itself already incorporates two terms—“abilities” and “needs”—that open the way for a justification of inequality. We live daily with the consequences of the fact that equal treatment of individuals does not necessarily lead to “equality” for groups. And we can point to a host of other contradictions as well which virtually guarantee that the slogan of “equality” in any society at all will continue to arouse passions and lead to discontent.
But in addition to the revolution in rising expectations and the revolution of equality, social policy itself, in almost every field, creates new and, I would argue, unmanageable demands. It is illusory to see social policy only as making an inroad on a problem; there are dynamic aspects to any policy, such that it also expands the problem, changes the problem, generates further problems. And for a number of reasons, social policy finds it impossible to deal adequately with these new demands that follow the implementation of the original measures.
The first and most obvious of these reasons is the limitation of resources. We in this country suffer from the illusion that there is enough tied up in the arms budget to satisfy all our social needs. Yet if we look at a country like Sweden, which spends realtively little for arms—and which, owing to its small size, its low rate of population growth, and its ethnic homogeneity, presents a much more moderate range of social problems than does the United States—we will see how even the most enlightened, most scientific, least conflict-ridden effort to deal with social problems leads to a tax budget which takes more than 40 per cent of the Gross National Product. And new items are already emerging on Sweden’s agenda of social demands that should raise that percentage even higher. For example, at present only a small proportion of Swedes go on to higher education. Housing is still in short supply and does not satisfy a good part of the population. And presumably Swedish radicals, growing in number, are capable of formulating additional demands, not so pressing, that would require further increases in taxation—if, that is, any society can go much beyond a taxation rate of 40 per cent of its Gross National Product.
In this country, of course, we still have a long way to go. By comparison with Sweden and with other developed nations (France, West Germany, and England) our taxes are still relatively low, and there is that huge 8 per cent of the GNP now devoted to arms and war that might be diverted, at least in part, to the claims of social policy. But social demands could easily keep up with the new resources. We now spend between 6 and 7 per cent of the GNP on education, and about as much on health. It would be no trick at all to double our expenditures on education, or on health, simply by taking account of proposals already made by leading experts in these fields. We could with no difficulty find enormous expenditures to make in the field of housing. And quite serious proposals (I believe they are serious) are now put forward for a guaranteed minimum income of $6,500 for a family of four, with no restrictions.
My point is not that we either could not or should not raise taxes and use the arms budget for better things. It is that, when we look at projected needs, and at the experience of other countries, we know that even with a much smaller arms budget and much higher taxes, social demands will continue to press on public resources. And we may suspect that needs will be felt then as urgently as they are now.
second limitation on the effectiveness of social policy is presented by the inevitable professionalization of services. Professionalization means that a certain point of view is developed about the nature of needs and how they are to be met. It tends to handle a problem by increasing the number of people trained to deal with that problem. First, we run out of people who are defined as “qualified” (social workers, counselors, teachers, etc.). Second, this naturally creates dissatisfaction over the fact that many services are being handled by the “unqualified.” Third, questions arise from outside the profession about the ability of the “qualified” themselves to perform a particular service properly. We no longer—and often with good reason—trust social workers to handle welfare, teachers and principals to handle education, doctors and hospital administrators to handle health care, managers to handle housing projects, and so on. And yet there is no one else into whose hands we can entrust these services. Experience tells us that if we set up new agencies it will be only a very few years before a new professionalism emerges which will be found limited and untrustworthy in its own turn. So, in the poverty program, we encouraged the rise of community-action agencies as a way of overcoming the bad effects of professionalism, and we already find that the community organizers have become another professional group, another interest group, with claims of their own which have no necessary relation to the needs of the clients they serve.
The third limitation on the effectiveness of social policy is simply lack of knowledge. We are in the surprising position of knowing much more than we did at earlier stages in the development of social policy—more about income distribution, employment patterns, family structure, health and medical care, housing and its impact, etc.—and simultaneously becoming more uncertain about what measures will be most effective, if effective at all, in ameliorating pressing problems in each of these areas. In the past, there was a clear field for action. The situation demanded that something be done; whatever was done was clear gain; little as yet was expected; little was known, and administrators approached their tasks with anticipation and self-confidence. Good administrators could be chosen, because the task was new and exciting. At later stages, however, we began dealing with problems which were in some absolute sense less serious, but which were nevertheless irksome and productive of conflict. We had already become committed to old lines of policy; agencies with their special interests had been created; and new courses of action had to be taken in a situation in which there was already more conflict at the start, less assurance of success, and less attention from the leaders and the best minds of the country.
Thus, if we look at the history of housing policy, for example, we will see that in the earlier stages—the 20’s and 30’s—there was a good deal of enthusiasm for this subject, with the housing issue attracting some of the best and most vigorous minds in the country. Since little or nothing had been done, there was a wide choice of alternatives and a supply of good men to act as administrators. In time, as housing programs expanded, the issue tended to fade from the agenda of top government. (Indeed, it has been difficult to get much White House attention for housing for two decades.) Earlier programs precluded the possibilities for new departures, and as we learned more about housing and its effects on people, we grew more uncertain as to what policies—even theoretically—would be best. Housing, like so many other areas of social policy, became, after an initial surge of interest, a field for experts, with the incursions of general public opinion becoming less and less informed, and less and less useful. This process is almost inevitable—there is always so much to know
Perhaps my explanation of the paradox of knowledge leading to less confident action is defective. Perhaps, as the liberal perspective would have it, more knowledge will permit us to take more confident and effective action. Certainly we do need more knowledge about social policy. But it also appears that whatever great actions we undertake today involve such an increase in complexity that we act generally with less knowledge than we would like to have, even if with more than we once had. This is true for example of the great reform in welfare policy—which I shall discuss below—that is now making its way through Congress.
But aside from these problems of cost, of professionalization, and of knowledge, there is the simple reality that every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement, whether good or bad, a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic and neighborhood group, or of the voluntary association. In doing so, social policy weakens the position of these traditional agents, and further encourages needy people to depend on the government, rather than on the traditional structures, for help. Perhaps this is the basic force behind the ever growing demand for social policy, and its frequent failure to satisfy the demand.
o sum up: Whereas the liberal believes that to every problem there is a solution, and the radical believes that to any problem there is only the general answer of wholesale social transformation, I believe that we can have only partial and less than wholly satisfying answers to the social problems in question. Whereas the liberal believes that social policies make steady progress in nibbling away at the agenda of problems set by the forces of industrialization and urbanization, and whereas the radical believes that social policy has made only insignificant inroads into these problems, I believe that social policy has ameliorated the problems we have inherited but that it has also given rise to other problems no less grave in their effect on human happiness than those which have been successfully modified.
The liberal has a solution, and the radical has a solution. Do I have a solution? I began this discussion by saying that the breakdown of traditional modes of behavior is the chief cause of our social problems. That, of course, is another way of saying industrialism and urbanization, but I put it in the terms I did because I am increasingly convinced that some important part of the solution to our social problems lies in traditional practices and traditional restraints. Since the past is not recoverable, what guidance could this possibly give? It gives two forms of guidance: first, it counsels hesitation in the development of social policies that sanction the abandonment of traditional practices, and second, and perhaps more helpful, it suggests that the creation and building of new traditions must be taken more seriously as a requirement of social policy itself.
nation’s welfare system provides perhaps the clearest and severest test of the adequacy of its system of social policy in general. Welfare, which exists in all advanced nations, is the attempt to deal with the distress that is left over after all the more specific forms of social policy have done their work. After we have instituted what in America is called social security (and what may generally be called old-age pensions); after we have expanded it to cover widows, dependent children, and the disabled; after we have instituted a system to handle the costs of medical care, and to maintain income in times of illness; after we have set up a system of unemployment insurance; after we have enabled people to manage the exceptional costs of housing—after all this there will remain, in any industrial system, people who still require special supports, either temporarily or for longer periods of time.
In thus describing the place of welfare, or “public assistance,” in a system of social policy, I am of course describing its place in an ideal system of social policy. I do not suggest for a moment that our programs of social security, health insurance, unemployment insurance, housing, are as yet fully adequate (though as I understand these matters, even if they were better, they would still not be seen as fully adequate). The strange thing, however, is that even if we go to countries whose systems of social insurance could well serve as models of comprehensiveness and adequacy, we find that the need for welfare or public assistance still remains, and on a scale roughly comparable to our own. In Sweden, the number of persons receiving public assistance was 4.4 per cent of the population in 1959, and it was in the same year less than 4 per cent in America. In England, despite the broad range of social policy there, the number of those on Supplementary Benefits—the English welfare, formerly known as National Assistance—is of the same order of magnitude. In Sweden and England, too, we find concern, though much less than here, over the stigma of welfare, over the effects of a degrading means test, over the problem of second- and third-generation welfare families.
Why, then, do we have, or consider that we have, a greater problem than they do? One reason is that, whereas in Sweden the proportion of those on welfare declines as other forms of social insurance broaden their coverage and become more effective, quite the opposite has happened here. In this country, there has been a rise in the number of people on welfare during the past decade. The rise is not phenomenal—from 4 to 6 per cent of the population. Nor, interestingly enough, despite the increased cost of welfare, does it form a really heavy burden on the budget. The cost of welfare, though rising, still accounts for only a bit more than one per cent of the Gross National Product, and 6 per cent of the federal budget. However, it forms a greater share of state and local revenues, and in some larger cities up to 15 per cent of the population is on welfare. That is one reason it has become a serious problem.
But there are more important reasons. In Sweden and England a high proportion of those requesting public assistance are the aged; in America the aged constitute a smaller proportion of the welfare population, and families a much larger share. Indeed, our increase over the past ten years has been almost entirely concentrated in the family population, those assisted under the federal program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (ADC). Here the situation is quite startling. In 1955, 30 out of every thousand American children received welfare; by 1969 this had doubled to more than 60 out of every thousand. In New York City, where eligibility has always been broad, and where the city and the state provide welfare to families not covered by the federal statute, the increase has been even more dramatic. In 1960, there were 328,000 persons on welfare in New York City, of whom 250,000 were in the family categories (children and their parents). In 1969, there were 1,012,000—about 12 or 13 per cent of the population—of whom 792,000, or four-fifths, were in the family categories. Yet during the same period, there seems to have been a drop in the number of families in poverty—from 13 to 10 per cent of all families—and the rate of unemployment was halved, from 6 per cent to 3 per cent.
A second reason why welfare is a more serious matter in America than in Sweden or England is that in those countries it is a problem of the backward areas, whereas here it is a problem of the most advanced. A third and final reason is that welfare has come to be seen in America as a regular means of family support. In England and Sweden welfare is thought of as emergency aid, provided in response to a special crisis, and meant to put a destitute family back on its feet. In America the situation of the destitute family is increasingly considered a more or less permanent condition for which provision over a very long period of time must be made.
hy should all this be so? One of the most popular explanations to be advanced is that no jobs are available for the men—mainly unskilled—who would ordinarily support these families. In fact, however, unskilled jobs were widely available in the latter part of the 60’s, just when the number of families on welfare increased so impressively. It is true that these jobs did not generally pay enough to support a family, but it is also true that large numbers of the urban unemployed were young and unmarried men and women who were not as yet required to support families on their own, though they might well have been capable of contributing to the support of the parental house-hold in which they presumably lived. (The majority of American families, as it happens, are supported by two earners, or more.)
There is a modified form of the argument that no jobs are available, which is that since the actually available jobs do not pay enough to support a family, and since there is no way for working husbands to get supplementary assistance, they are encouraged to defect in order to make their families eligible for help. But let us consider the advanced jurisdictions, like New York State, where complete families are eligible for support and have been for a long time, and where a working husband can have his income supplemented to bring it up to some necessary minimum for the support of his family. It is just in these jurisdictions that we have had the most remarkable increase in the number of families broken up by abandonment. In 1961 there were about 12,000 deserted families on welfare in New York City. In 1968, there were 80,000, a more than sixfold increase during a period when the population of the city, in overall numbers, remained stable. During the same period, there was a more moderate increase in the number of welfare families that consisted of mothers and illegitimate children, from 20,000 to 46,000. In other words, the family welfare population shifted to one overwhelmingly consisting of abandoned women and their children.
Another effort to account for the situation argues that high welfare payments in New York and other Northern cities encouraged migration from the South and from the rural areas. This probably played some role. But there is no evidence that abandoned families in these areas moved to New York in larger numbers in the 60’s than in the 50’s. And if the abandonment took place in New York, in a brisk job market, we would want to know why it took place, and migration would not be the explanation.
Then there is the view which holds that in the 1960’s—with the spread of concern about poverty, with the development of community organizations, and with the rise of such groups as the National Welfare Rights Organization—more and more of the poor discovered their entitlement to welfare, more and more became willing to apply for it, and higher and higher proportions of those applying were accepted. According to this explanation, then, it was not the poor who increased in numbers, but only the poor on welfare. This is undoubtedly part of the story. But think once again of that huge increase in the number of abandoned families on welfare. If there were just as many, or almost as many, before, what did they do to stay alive?
Still another interpretation emphasizes the fact that the levels of welfare aid in New York became higher during the 60’s. This would certainly mean that more and more workers could apply for income supplements. But why would it mean a six-and-a-half times increase in the number of abandoned families?
One must take developments in New York seriously because in many respects they can be considered a test run of the Family Assistance Program, the reform in the welfare system proposed by the Nixon administration and still working its way, after various revisions, through Congress. Without going into detail, and leaving aside the fact that welfare would acquire a national floor and a national administration, there are, I believe, four major features that distinguish the Family Assistance Program from the system we have at present.
The most important is that the working poor would be included in the same system as the non-working poor. The reasoning behind this feature is as follows. Welfare levels cannot be raised if people on welfare get as much as, or more than, people who are working. This would first of all lead to political resistance and resentment on the part of the working poor. Further, they would try to redefine themselves as incapable of work in order to get the higher benefits of the non-working poor. If, however, the working poor are also included, their resistance to higher levels of welfare will decline, and they will have less incentive to become non-working.
A second major difference is that a substantial incentive to work is built into the program. Thus, working leads not to the loss of welfare benefits but to an overall increase in the family income. Family Assistance payments are reduced when there is more earned income, but only as a proportion of the increased earnings.
Third, the grant would in part be divorced from services and from the stigma of investigation. It cannot be fully divorced from investigation—it is after all a grant based on need—but the hope is that in its administration it will become more of an impersonal income-maintenance program and less involved in the provision of help through services rather than through money.
A fourth feature of the new law is that, in addition to building in an incentive to work, it contains a requirement that everyone capable of work register for job training or for employment. If there is a father, he must register; if there is no father, the mother must register unless she has children still below school age. (This feature has been the target of much criticism, because of the element of compulsion.)
What are we to conclude about the prospects of the new system? Since all four of its features are in large measure already in existence in New York State, whose condition is not exactly of the happiest, we can be sure that Family Assistance will not succeed in “solving” the problems of welfare. What it will do is redistribute more income, and put more money into the pockets of the poor. It will raise the abysmally low welfare payments in large areas of the South. It may, by moving some part of the way toward national standards, reduce immigration to the big cities of the North. It will provide some relief—but relatively little—to the states and local jurisdictions that now are heavily burdened with welfare costs. All this is to the good. But what the new system will not do, I believe, is strengthen the family or substantially increase the number of those on welfare willing to enter the labor force. If it does, the accomplishment will be a mystery because similar arrangements have not done so in New York, nor in any of the other states in which families with unemployed males are eligible for welfare, or where a work requirement exists. The forces leading to the breakdown of male responsibility for the family among some of the poor seem greater than those the new program calls into play to counteract them.
This brings us back to my original point, and to a possible answer to the question I posed earlier as to how we can account for the dramatic increase in recent years of abandoned families on welfare. The constraints that traditionally kept families together have weakened. In some groups they may not have been strong to begin with. Our efforts to soften the harsh consequences of family breakup speak well of our compassion and concern, but these efforts also make it easier for fathers to abandon their families or mothers to disengage from their husbands. Our welfare legislation has often been harsh, and its administration harsher. But the steps we take in the direction of diminished harshness must also enhance the attractions of either abandonment or disengagement and encourage the recourse to welfare.
nd yet, what alternatives do we have? This Family Assistance Program is after all the most enlightened and thoughtful legislation to have been introduced in the field of welfare in some decades.
My own tendency, following from the basic considerations I have suggested, would be to ask how we might prevent further erosion of the traditional constraints that still play the largest role in maintaining a civil society. What keeps society going, after all, is that most people still feel they should work—however well they might do without working—and most feel that they should take care of their families—however attractive it might on occasion appear to be to desert them. Consequently we might try to strengthen the incentive to work. The work-incentive provision is the best thing about Family Assistance, but we need to make it even stronger. Our dilemma is that we can never make this incentive as strong as it was when the alternative to work was starvation, or the uncertain charity of private organizations. Nor is it politically feasible to increase the incentive by reducing the levels at which we maintain the poor—if anything, the whole tendency of our thinking and feeling is to raise them, as indeed FAP does. The only alternative, then, is to increase the incentive to work by increasing the attractiveness of work. I do not suggest that this is at all simple (we know the ambiguous results, for example, of raising the minimum wage). Could we, however, begin to attach to low-income jobs the same kind of fringe benefits—health insurance, social security, vacations with pay—that now make higher-paying jobs attractive, and that paradoxically in some form are also available to those on welfare?
The dilemma of income maintenance is that, on the one hand, it permits the poor to live better, but on the other, it reduces their incentive to set up and maintain those close units of self-support—family in the first case, but also larger units—that have always, both in the past and still in large measure today, formed the fabric of society. The administration proposal is a heroic effort to improve the condition of the poor without further damage to those social motivations and structures which are the essential basis for individual security everywhere. But does not the history of our efforts to expand policies of income support suggest that inevitably improvement and damage go together?
In other critical areas of social policy, too, the breakdown of traditional measures, traditional restraints, traditional organization, represents, if not the major factor in the crisis, a significant contribution to it. Even in an area apparently so far removed from tradition as health and medical care, the weakening of traditional forms of organization can be found upon examination to be playing a substantial role, as when we discover that drug addiction is now the chief cause of death—and who knows what other frightful consequences—among young men in New York.
Ultimately, we are not kept healthy, I believe, by new scientific knowledge or more effective cures or even better-organized medical-care services. We are kept healthy by certain patterns of life. These, it is true, are modified for the better by increased scientific knowledge, but this knowledge is itself communicated through such functioning traditional organizations as the school, the voluntary organization, the family. We are kept healthy by having access to traditional means of support in distress and illness, through the family, the neighborhood, the informal social organization. We are kept healthy by decent care in institutions where certain traditionally-oriented occupations (like nursing and the maintenance of cleanliness) still manage to perform their functions. I will not argue the case for the significance of traditional patterns in maintaining health at length here; but I believe it is a persuasive one.
ne major objection, among many, that can be raised against the emphasis I have placed on tradition has to do with the greater success of social policy in a country like Sweden which shows a greater departure from traditionalism than America does. And it is indeed true that social services in Sweden, and England as well, can be organized without as much interference from tradition-minded interest groups of various kinds (including the churches) as we have to contend with in this country. Certainly this is an important consideration. But I would insist that behind the modern organization of the social services in the advanced European countries are at least two elements that can legitimately and without distortion be called traditional.
One is authority. Authority exists when social workers can direct clients, when doctors can direct nurses, when headmasters can direct teachers, when teachers can discipline students and can expect acquiescence from parents. Admittedly this feature of traditionalism itself serves the movement away from tradition in other social respects. The authority will be used, as in Sweden, to institute sex education in the schools, to insure that unmarried girls have access to contraceptives, to secure a position of equality for illegitimate children.
But then another feature that can legitimately be called traditional—ethnic and religious homogeneity—sets limits in these countries on how far the movement away from the traditional—toward indeed a new tradition—may be carried. In America, by contrast, it is the very diversity of traditions—ethnic, religious, and social—that makes it so hard to establish new forms of behavior that are universally accepted and approved. and that also makes it impossible to give the social worker, the teacher, the policeman, the judge, the nurse, even the doctor, the same authority they possess in more homogeneous countries.
But there is a more basic sense in which tradition is stronger in the countries of Western Europe than here. Whatever the situation with sex education and with the laws governing illegitimacy, divorce is less frequent in Sweden and England, responsibility for the rearing of children is still consistently placed within the family, and the acceptance of work as a normal pattern of life is more widespread and less challenged. In England and Sweden it is still taken for granted that the aim of welfare is to restore a man to a position in which he can work, earn his living, support his family. And indeed the psychological damage that renders a man unfit for work, and the ideology arguing against the desirability of work, are so little known in England and Sweden that the restoration of family independence is a fair and reasonable objective of welfare. But this is no longer a reasonable view of welfare for substantial parts of the American population. It is in this core sense that America has gone further in the destruction of tradition than other countries. In doing so, America comes face to face, more sharply than any other country yet has, with the limits of social policy.
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The Limits of Social Policy
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.