Human rights as an issue in foreign policy was by no means central to Jimmy Carter's campaign for the Presidency.…
There’s an ideological struggle that has been in progress for decades between the Communist nations on the one hand and the democratic nations on the other. Mr. Brezhnev and his predecessors have never refrained from expressing their view when they disagreed with some aspect of social or political life in the free world. And I think we have a right to speak out openly when we have a concern about human rights wherever those abuses occur.
March 25, 1977
It is as simple as that. What needs to be explained is not why the United States has raised this standard, but why it has taken so long. Anthony Lewis remarks of the President:
He is giving not just Americans but people in the West generally a sense that their values are being asserted again, after years of silence in the face of tyranny and brutality.
But again, what needs to be explained is how those “years of silence” came about, and what they signify. For there were reasons, and deep ones, and they could reassert themselves far more readily than any—perhaps especially the President—might suppose.
Human rights as an issue in foreign policy was by no means central to Jimmy Carter’s campaign for the Presidency. It was raised in the Democratic platform drafting committee, and at the Democratic convention, but in each instance the Carter representatives were at best neutral, giving the impression of not having heard very much of the matter before and not having any particular views.
This is understandable enough, for by 1976 those “years of silence” had done their work. As a tactical or strategic concern of foreign policy, human rights had disappeared so completely from the councils of the West that a newcomer to the field might well never have heard the issue even discussed. Given our celebrated penchant for promptly forgetting even the most recent history, it may serve to record just how nearly total this blackout on human rights had become.
On November 12, 1975, as Permanent Representative at the United Nations, I introduced to the Third Committee of the General Assembly a United States proposal for a worldwide amnesty for political prisoners. The General Assembly, our delegation argued, had already that year taken two important steps in such a direction. A resolution had been adopted calling for unconditional amnesty for all political prisoners in South Africa. The United States had supported that resolution. Further, a resolution had been adopted calling for amnesty for all political prisoners in Chile. The United States had supported that resolution as well. But, we now asked, was there any reason to stop there? There were 142 members of the UN. Were we not all bound by the same standards that bound Chile and South Africa? There were grounds for a concern with universality in this matter which struck us with special force:
The first is that the selective morality of the United Nations in matters of human rights threatens the integrity not merely of the United Nations, but of human rights themselves. There is no mystery in this matter. Unless standards of human rights are seen to be applied uniformly and neutrally to all nations, regardless of the nature of their regimes or the size of their armaments, unless this is done, it will quickly be seen that it is not human rights at all which are invoked when selective applications are called for, but simply arbitrary political standards dressed up in the guise of human rights. From this perception it is no great distance to the conclusion that in truth there are no human rights recognized by the international community.
This concern was not allayed by examining the list of sponsors of the resolutions already adopted on South Africa and Chile According to the Freedom House Comparative Survey of Freedom, no fewer than 23 of the sponsors of the South African resolution and 16 of the sponsors of the Chilean resolution were countries which held political prisoners themselves.
Moreover, at the other end of the spectrum, but in a discernibly consistent pattern, that same General Assembly had adopted resolutions denouncing our own democracy for violation of human rights, and denouncing the Israeli democracy on the same score. Thus we came to the second of our concerns:
This is the concern not only that the language of human rights is being distorted and perverted; it is that the language of human rights is increasingly being turned in United Nations forums against precisely those regimes which acknowledge some or all of its validity and they are not, I fear, a majority of the regimes in this United Nations. More and more the United Nations seems only to know of violations of human rights in countries where it is still possible to protest such violations.
Let us be direct. If this language can be turned against one democracy, why not all democracies? Are democracies not singular in the degree to which at all times voices will be heard protesting this injustice or that injustice? If the propensity to protest injustice is taken as equivalent to the probability that injustice does occur, then the democracies will fare poorly indeed.
Now it might be supposed that the totalitarian nations would have gone to great lengths to suppress this American initiative. Not at all. There was no need. The other democratic nations did it for them.
There is a “Western” caucus of sorts at the UN. Somnolent in most matters, it was roused to decisive action by the threat which the American resolution presented to the peace of the UN. A meeting was called. We were asked to explain ourselves. We said we were worried about the perversion of the language of human rights and its transformation into a weapon against democracy. We also said that we thought it a good idea for the democratic world to regain the ideological initiative after the defeat we had just suffered over the Zionism-racism resolution. The explanation was greeted with a cold dismay that on the edges verged into anger. It was quickly agreed that if the resolution were somehow to pick up sponsors and to pass, the caucus would immediately insist on a formal undertaking to define the term “political prisoner.” I asked: would this be carried out along the lines of the recently completed exercise to define “aggression”? Yes. But that, I said, had taken from 1951 to 1974, nearly a quarter-century. Yes. But our resolution called for amnesty, a voluntary act of governments. Inasmuch as no one would be telling governments who their political prisoners were, no formal definition was necessary. The response remained cold: the other democracies would not join in sponsoring our resolution. And there the matter ended.
Two points essential to an understanding of the issue of human rights and its political meaning are to be seen in this episode. The first is that the issue of human rights is nothing new to international politics in this age. To the contrary, as defined by the totalitarian nations—led in this as in so much else by the Soviet Union, no matter what other issues may divide them at one time or another—the issue of human rights has long been at the center of international politics. In fact, from the time the Soviets commenced to be so hugely armed that their “peace” campaigns lost credibility, and Khrushchev opted for Russian involvement in “liberation” struggles, this issue has been acquiring greater and greater salience. Which is to say that in human-rights terms the Western democracies have been attacked without letup. The second point is that the Western democracies, having allowed themselves to be placed on the defensive, finally ceased almost wholly to resist. In the language of diplomatic instructions, this lack of resistance was known as “danger limitation.” In truth it was something very like capitulation, a species of what Jean-François Revel has called “Finlandization from within.”
If anything is now to come of our initiative in human rights, these points will have to be far better understood. It needs to be understood, for example, that it was a British Labor government which was primarily behind the move in the Western caucus to disown the United States amnesty proposal. Earlier Labor governments would not in all probability have acted in this way. It was said of Ernest Bevin, Britain’s first postwar Foreign Secretary, that he regarded Communism as a dissident faction of the Transport and General Workers Union—the point being that such familiarity bred contempt. By the mid-70’s, a different kind of familiarity was at work. The Labor party in October 1976, for example, could invite the likes of Boris Ponomarev—head of the international department of the Soviet Communist party and a notorious vintage Stalinist—to London on a “fraternal” visit and arrange to have him received by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary of a Labor government.
What was true of Britain was true of the West in general. Democratic regimes and values were under totalitarian assault in every region of the world, and resistance was everywhere weakening. The great exception was Israel, where Dr. Johnson’s adage that the prospect of hanging wonderfully concentrates the mind still seemed to apply. In the West, however, the preferred contrivance for dealing with the prospect of hanging was denial. A stunning instance of just such denial was the Western response to the 1975 resolution of the UN General Assembly equating Zionism with racism. In this case, denial took the form of a refusal to recognize the extent to which Soviet inspiration lay behind the resolution.
A long-established propaganda technique of the Soviet government has been to identify those it would destroy with Nazism, especially with the racial doctrines of the Nazis. Following World War II, for example, pan-Turkish, Iranian, and Islamic movements appeared in the southern regions of the Soviet Union. They were promptly accused of Nazi connections and branded as racist. Jews escaped this treatment until the Six-Day War of 1967. That event, however, aroused sufficient pro-Israel, pro-Jewish sentiment within the Soviet Union to evoke the by now almost bureaucratic response. Bernard Lewis writes:
The results were immediately visible in a vehement campaign of abuse, particularly in the attempt to equate the Israelis with the Nazis as aggressors, invaders, occupiers, racists, oppressors, and murderers.
Within a short period of time, and coincidentally with the introduction of “racist” into currency as a general term of abuse, Soviet propagandists began to equate Zionism per se with racism. In a statement released to the press on March 4, 1970, a “group of Soviet citizens of Jewish nationality”—making use of the facilities of the Soviet foreign ministry—attacked “the aggression of the Israeli ruling circles,” and said that “Zionism has always expressed the chauvinistic views and racist [my emphasis] ravings of the Jewish bourgeoisie.” This may well be the first official Soviet reference to Zionism as racism in the fashionable connotation of the term.
Steadily and predictably, these charges moved into international forums. In 1973 Israel was excluded from the regional bodies of UNESCO. In 1974 the International Labor Conference adopted a “Resolution Concerning the Policy of Discrimination, Racism, and Violation of Trade Union Freedoms and Rights Practiced by the Israeli Authorities in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories.” The charge of racism was now pressed. In June 1975 it appeared at the Mexico City Conference of the International Women’s Year.
One must be present on those occasions to sense their intensity and their implications. It happens that the British critic Goronwy Rees was present at the moment the Third Committee of the General Assembly adopted the Zionism resolution. This is how it struck him:
There were ghosts haunting the Third Committee that day; the ghosts of Hitler and Goebbels and Julius Streicher, grinning with delight to hear, not only Israel, but Jews as such denounced in language which would have provoked hysterical applause at any Nuremberg rally. . . . And there were other ghosts also at the debate: the ghosts of the 6,000,000 dead in Dachau and Sachsenhausen and other extermination camps, listening to the same voices which had cheered and jeered and abused them as they made their way to the gas chambers. For the fundamental thesis advanced by the supporters of the resolution, and approved by the majority of the Third Committee, was that to be a Jew, and to be proud of it, and to be determined to preserve the right to be a Jew, is to be an enemy of the human race.
Rees was right: evil was loose in that chamber on that day. And it is still abroad in the world. The Zionism resolution was adopted by the General Assembly in November 1975. The following February, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights found Israel guilty of “war crimes” in the occupied Arab territories. The counts read as if they could have come from the Nuremberg verdicts:
annexation of parts of the occupied territories
destruction and demolition
confiscation and expropriation
evacuation, deportation, expulsion, displacement
and transfer of inhabitants
mass arrests, administrative detention, and ill-treat-
pillaging of archaeological and cultural property
interference with religious freedoms and affront to
In April 1976, in the Security Council, a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization spoke of the “Pretoria-Tel Aviv Axis,” making an explicit reference to the “axis” between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the 1930’s. In May, in the same body, the Soviet Union accused Israel of “racial genocide” in putting down unrest on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. The same month, in a General Assembly committee, a PLO document likened Israeli measures to Nazi atrocities during World War II:
The sealing of a part of the city of Nablus is a violation of the basic human rights . . . reminiscent of the ghettos and concentration camps erected by the Hitlerites. . . .
That the purpose of all this was to delegitimize Israel in the interest of its Arab enemies was of course obvious to everyone. What should have been equally obvious was that the assault on Israel—the most vulnerable of the democracies—served a more generalized effort to deprive the democratic nations of their legitimacy as democracies. Salami tactics, as the Communists used to say—first one small unit of the democratic world, then the next. For in true Orwellian fashion, the free societies in the world were under attack precisely and paradoxically for not being free. They were attacked for violating human rights. The charge could range from genocide to unemployment, but it always followed the Orwellian principle: hit the democracies in the one area where they have the strongest case to make against the dictatorships.
Representatives of the Soviet Union and other Communist countries are not especially adept at this. But in a diplomatic maneuver which foreshadowed the military strategy of using Cuban troops as surrogates, they could sit back and allow most of the talking to be done by spokesmen from the Third World, some of whom were very good indeed at the Orwellian game. Of course, just as the Arabs had their own good reasons for attacking Israel, quite apart from any benefit to the Soviet Union, so these Third World regimes had their own good reasons for attacking democracy. With a handful of exceptions, the fourscore new nations which have come into the world in the last twenty-five years or so began their existence as constitutional democracies. By now the vast majority have succumbed to dictators and strongmen of one kind or another for whom the opportunity to attack any countries which have remained faithful to their constitutional vows is—to put it mildly—compelling.
Western policy has never seen the new nations in this light. For one thing, there was the tremendous investment of hope in what we saw as the small seedlings of our various great oaks and a corresponding reluctance to think, much less speak, ill of them. Then there was the trauma of Vietnam, which perhaps made it seem even more necessary that we should be approved by nations so very like the one we were despoiling. In consequence we were as thrown by these onslaughts from the Third World as we were when the Russians came up with the Cuban army as an extension of the same school of diplomacy. When in 1975 the Conference of the International Women’s Year resolved that Zionism is a form of racism, the senior American diplomat present cabled Washington: “ALL ESSENTIAL AMERICAN OBJECTIVES HAVE BEEN ACHIEVED.” If American diplomats could fail to recognize so egregious an attack on our own position, and were even unable to recognize that the attack had succeeded, is it any wonder that they were altogether incapable of understanding its general political significance?
Then, suddenly, everything changed. It would be hard to establish just why, but a useful axiom is that of Michael Polanyi: People change their minds. They wake up one day to find they no longer think as they did. Something like this happened in the case of human rights. One could see the evidence, for example, in the drafting committee for the 1976 Democratic platform. Sam Brown, representing what might be termed the McGovernite forces in the party, introduced a resolution demanding that all American military aid be cut off to regimes that did not respect human rights. Brown’s resolution was directed against authoritarian regimes of the Right and was in the spirit of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973 which called on the President to “request the government of Chile to protect the human rights of all individuals.” I thereupon spoke for what might be called the Jackson forces in the party. The Jackson amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 was directed against certain policies of the same administration which in effect supported dictatorships of the Left. “To assure the continued dedication of the United States to the fundamental human rights,” declared the amendment, no credits were to be extended to non-market economies which denied their citizens the right to emigrate on reasonable terms.
The Brown proposal, we suggested, was too much a convenience for those nations which get their hardware from Czechoslovakia, and want their soft loans from the United States. Why not oppose any form of aid? “We’ll be against the dictators you don’t like the most,” I said across the table to Brown, “if you’ll be against the dictators we don’t like the most.” The result was the strongest platform commitment to human rights in our history. Whether or not it was this commitment which directly influenced the new President to take the offensive on human rights, he began doing so from the very first, in his inaugural address.
The problem now is to sustain the initiative. For not everyone in America—or at any rate in the American government—has changed his mind. The President, unavoidably, is getting the same advice that led to the passivity of his immediate predecessors. The State Department is uneasy about Soviet anger. The cult of the Third World is, if anything, greater now than ever. It is entirely possible the whole initiative will come to nothing if we do not establish a sufficiently firm conceptual base to sustain the inevitable tremor and shock.
Four principles come to mind on which to construct such a base.
First principle: International law and treaty obligations are wholly on our side. That for so long a period we appear to have forgotten this gave an inestimable advantage to the totalitarians. The Soviet reaction to the signs that our memories are stirring has been angry. But this “surprising adverse reaction to our stand on human rights,” as the President recently characterized it, will get worse, not better—they would be fools to respond in any other way. The more then should we know and understand that the law is on our side.
The United Nations Charter imposes two obligations on members. The first, which is well-known, is to be law-abiding in their relations with other nations: not to attack them, not to subvert them, and so on. But there is a second obligation, which very simply is to be law-abiding in the treatment of one’s own citizens. The United Nations Charter requires that members govern themselves on liberal principles, as these principles have evolved and are understood in the Western democracies.
Improbable as this may sound, it happens nonetheless to be true. The Charter, in the main, was drafted by British and American constitutional lawyers. The Preamble speaks of “fundamental human rights,” of “the dignity and worth of the human person,” of “the equal rights of men and women.” Article 1 enjoins the members to promote through the UN
respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.
The meaning of these words, as lawyers say, is entirely discoverable. They mean just what any of us in the Western democracies would assume they mean.
The Russians knew what they were signing. We do well to remember that they began World War II as allies of Nazi Germany, partners in the conquest and partition of Poland. They had a true pro-Nazi past to overcome. In the early days of the United Nations they sought to do this by taking the lead in asserting that members had to be—liberal states! In the first year of the new organization, the question arose as to whether Spain should be admitted to membership. Absolutely not, said Andrei Gromyko in the Security Council: to the contrary, punitive measures should be taken against Spain. Then in December 1946, on the initiative of Poland, the General Assembly adopted a resolution directed to Spain providing that
. . . if within a reasonable time there is not established a government which derives its authority from the consent of the governed, committed to respect freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, and to the prompt holding of an election in which the Spanish people, free from force and intimidation and regardless of party, may express their will, the Security Council consider the adequate measures to be taken in order to remedy the situation.
Poland and all the Communist members voted in the affirmative. (Spain was not admitted until 1955.)
Today there is not one member of the United Nations in five which can meet the standard of the Polish resolution. And yet it is those very nations who go about attacking members who do maintain those standards. There is a term for this: the big lie. But clearly, as we have been seeing, a counterattack can be devastating.
This brings us to the second principle: Human rights is a political component of American foreign policy, not a humanitarian program. It is entirely correct to say (as was repeatedly said during all those “years of silence” in Washington) that quiet diplomacy is much the more effective way to obtain near-term concessions from totalitarian regimes with respect to particular individuals who seek our help. But the large result of proceeding in this fashion is that the democracies accommodate to the dictators. Concepts of human rights should be as integral to American foreign policy as is Marxist-Leninism to Soviet or Chinese or Yugoslav operations and planning. Yet it seems clear that this is not what the career officers in the State Department who make up the permanent government wish to see, and the signs already suggest that the Secretary of State is not resisting the permanent government.
At Law Day ceremonies on April 30, Cyrus R. Vance delivered his first public address since becoming Secretary of State, and chose for his subject “Human Rights and Foreign Policy.” “Our human-rights policy,” he said, “must be understood in order to be effective.” He would “set forth the substance of that policy, and the results we hope to achieve.”
This effort was surely in order, for the policy was still singularly unformed. The President’s single sentence in his inaugural address—“Because we are free we can never be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere”—had led to press speculation, then queries, then to a sequence of presidential acts—e.g., the letter to Andrei Sakharov, the meeting with the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, and partial statements such as those in the address at the United Nations on March 17—but still nothing that could be described as a policy. The impression was that of a President responding at successively higher levels of commitment to successively greater levels of approval, but with no very clear notions of where it would all come out. There is nothing much the matter with this in a democracy. But there comes a time when the agents of policy must be told what to do. This is a Secretary’s task, and Vance undertook to perform it.
The result, it must be stated, bodes disaster. The Secretary’s speech missed the whole point. For the entire thrust of his speech was to assert that human rights is not a political issue but rather a humanitarian aid program, a special kind of international social work. After rousing the rage of the Muscovite and the scorn of Latin American grandees, after stirring the timorousness of European allies and inducing something between anxiety and fear in smaller capitals around the world, it turned out that all we really intended was to be of help to individuals.
Freud’s remark that anatomy is destiny has been used to suggest the importance of organization in government. The Ford administration established a “Coordinator for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs” in the office of the Secretary of State. The Coordinator had three deputies: “Refugee and Migration Affairs,” “Prisoners of War and Missing-in-Action,” and “Human Rights.” To reflect the greater salience which these issues are now to have, the Carter administration has asked Congress to make the Coordinator an Assistant Secretary. However, in the past, when this kind of change has been made, it has in fact signaled that the Secretary of State was no longer that much interested in the issue involved, and was turning it over to the bureaucracy. Thus, only a few years ago, coordinators or special assistants for environmental affairs and population matters were to be found in the Secretary’s office. But with the fading of those issues, they were turned over to the office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environmental and Population Affairs, reporting to the Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Secretary Vance may not intend to relegate human rights to the destiny of departmental routine, but in organizational terms, this is what he has done.
Rounding out the pattern of a depoliticized conception of human rights, the Secretary in his speech announced:
We are expanding the program of the Agency for International Development for “New Initiatives in Human Rights” as a complement to present efforts to get the benefits of our aid to those most in need abroad.
He added that the Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs would also be involved. He declared our efforts would “range from quiet diplomacy . . . through public pronouncements, to withholding of assistance.” We would meet at Belgrade in June to review the Helsinki accords and “to work for progress there on important human issues: family reunification, binational marriages. . . .” He mentioned “that many [sic] nations of the world are organized on authoritarian rather than democratic principles.” He did not mention totalitarian governments. Nor might he, so long as the foreign service has its way. If the foreign service prevails, the Secretary of State will soothe the Soviet Union and only challenge Ecuador.
Can one already detect this influence not only in the Secretary’s statements but even in the President’s own more recent words? Only weeks ago, expressing his surprise at the “adverse reaction in the Soviet Union to our stand on human rights,” Mr. Carter said: “We have never singled them out. I think I have been quite reticent in trying to publicly condemn the Soviets. I have never said anything except complimentary things about Mr. Brezhnev, for instance.” But the Soviets are necessarily singled out by any serious human-rights offensive—and they know it. They are singled out by the force of their arms: they are the most powerful opponents of liberty on earth today. And they are singled out by the force of their ideology which, since the passing of Nazism and the eclipse of fascism as a school of political thought (Franco Spain having been its last paltry bastion), remains the only major political doctrine that challenges human rights in principle. When the authoritarian regimes of the Right violate human rights nowadays, they generally do so not in the name of a different political creed but in the name of national security. They must torture, they say, to uproot guerrillas and terrorists; or they must keep political prisoners to protect themselves against armed subversion from without and within. Unlike the Soviets and their ideological progeny in other countries ruled by Marxist-Leninist regimes, these right-wing regimes do not deride liberty as a “bourgeois” illusion. They commit abominations in practice; the Communist countries commit abominations on principle. Anyone who cares about human rights will know what type of abomination is the more destructive of those rights.
According to a presidential aide quoted by the New York Times, the President’s human-rights initiative, among other things, has alarmed the Soviet leadership. The Soviets had “viewed the United States under the Ford and Nixon administrations . . . as running a kind of defensive, rearguard foreign policy of retreat. . . . Mr. Carter and his advisers feel the Soviet leaders have been dismayed by the thought that their concept of the decline of the West might no longer be valid.”1 If the human-rights initiative turns out to be serious, the Soviets will have good cause to be dismayed at the stirring of a new American will to resist the advance of totalitarianism.
But here again, the permanent government can be expected to push in exactly the opposite direction—toward a policy of reassurance and accommodation. Indeed it already has, and with some success, to judge by the President’s commencement address at Notre Dame, the first and still most comprehensive statement of the foreign policy of his new administration. The President begins in this speech by reaffirming “America’s commitment to human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy.” But when he goes on to explain what this commitment requires of us, he suddenly changes the subject:
Abraham Lincoln said that our nation could not exist half-slave and half-free. We know that a peaceful world cannot long exist one-third rich and two-thirds hungry.
This is a most startling and extraordinary transition. The first sentence reminds us, truly, that the world today is half-slave and half-free. Out of four billion persons, something approaching a billion-and-a-half live in totalitarian Marxist states. We have come to think of this opposition as the East-West conflict. But then, having thus reminded us of it, the President immediately directs our concern away from this conflict to quite a different matter, that of relations between the industrial North and the developing South. He even calls on the Soviets, as part of the former group, to join in “common aid efforts” to help the latter (although the Soviets accept no responsibility whatever for the plight of the developing world: in their unwavering view it is all our fault).
The implication seems clear: we are to divert our attention from the central political struggle of our time—that between liberal democracy and totalitarian Communism—and focus instead on something else. We can do this, says the President, because we are now “free” of the “inordinate fear of Communism” which led us at times to abandon our values for the values of the totalitarians. But was our fear of Communism “inordinate”? And is there nothing to fear from Communism today? Does the President mean to suggest that the military and ideological competition we face from the Soviet Union has declined? If so, why have the Soviets engaged in a massive military build-up? And why do they continue and even intensify their ideological offensive against the West?
Whatever his answer to these questions, the President does state explicitly that it was our “inordinate fear of Communism” which led us to the “intellectual and moral poverty” of the war in Vietnam. This causal connection can also be challenged. Some of us said at the time that the enterprise was doomed, because it was misconceived and mismanaged. Are we to say now—in this, echoing what our enemies say of us—that it was also wrong or immoral to wish to resist the advance of totalitarian Communism?
This brings us to the third principle: Human rights has nothing to do with our innocence or guilt as a civilization. It has to do with our survival. The President has staffed the Department of State and the Department of Defense with curiously opposite groups of persons who have attracted each other in a not wholly reassuring way. Put plainly, the leading foreign-policy and defense-policy officials of the administration are men who made their reputations running the war in Vietnam. The second echelon of officials made its reputation by opposing that war. There is something troubling in this cross-generational relationship. Put plainly once again, the top echelon seems to be seeking absolution from its juniors for what the President himself now calls the “moral and intellectual poverty” of its ideas in the past.
Of the Secretary of State, Hedrick Smith, chief of the New York Times Washington bureau, has reported:
With the hindsight of history, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, who as Deputy Secretary of Defense played a major role in the American buildup in Vietnam, has publicly said that he now feels that “it was a mistake to intervene in Vietnam.” And those who know him well say that the Vietnam war is the single most important experience in shaping this current outlook.
One does not ask of the Secretary that he not be influenced by that experience: only that he be thoughtful about it. (At the University of Georgia Law School, where he spoke on Law Day, he shared the platform with Dean Rusk, a Secretary of State who came to office preoccupied with “the loss of China”—the opposite experience.) The Vietnam war was a mistake because we could not successfully halt a totalitarian advance there—not at costs acceptable to a liberal society. But it did not end the expansion of totalitarianism, nor yet the need to resist. If anything, it added enormously to the importance of ideological resistance, and this precisely is the role of “Human Rights in Foreign Policy.”
Guilt as a political weapon is but little understood. Still, it should be evident that it is used quite effectively within the United States and against the United States. Some years back Nathan Glazer observed that the political rhetoric of our age was capable of depicting a prosperous and tolerant and reasonably creative society such as our own as utterly detestable—and could persuade many of those best off in this society that this is exactly the case. In 1977 an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court declared in an opinion handed down from that bench that it were better never to be born than to be born an American and go to “second-rate” schools.
The President—any President—will face particularly subtle variations on the theme of guilt, a worldly, ex-ambassadorial, Council-on-Foreign-Relations concern that we Americans are such inveterate moralizers. Washington is awash with former cold warriors (they were only giving orders) who, having failed so miserably in their monstrously misconceived adventure in Vietnam, have decided that the country really is hopeless, that it has no capacity to resist the advance of totalitarianism, and that the best thing to do is to accommodate and to appease.
There is no way to deal with this save to raise it to the level of awareness, and to repudiate it. Human rights is a weapon in the struggle for the survival of the nation—a nation partly right and partly wrong, as it ever has been and doubtless ever will be. That we have a right and a duty to survive ought to be too obvious to need saying explicitly. That it is not obvious to our political culture is a measure of how savagely our guilt is turned against us.
Guilt has among other things paralyzed us in our relations with the developing world—and this leads to the fourth principle of a sound human-rights policy: The new nations must be made to understand that our commitment to them depends on their ceasing to be agents of the totalitarian attack on democracy.
Only a handful of these nations are Soviet satellites. But a Marxist might well say that time and again they objectively support the Soviet cause. The concept of objective political behavior is, of course, a favorite debating device of Marxists. Thus, Lucio Lombardo Radice, a leading member of the Central Committee of the Italian Communist party, recently explained in an interview in Encounter how Stalin in the 1930’s realized the dangers of Nazism and ceased attacking Western Social Democrats. “In the situation existing at the time, Stalin was, objectively speaking, supporting the struggle for freedom, democracy, and peace.” The time has come to explain to the representatives of a great many nations for which on other grounds we have a good deal of sympathy that, “objectively speaking,” they are supporting anti-Semitism, totalitarianism, and war.
An example was on display this past June at the International Labor Conference in Geneva. The American labor movement is one of the few groups to have sensed early on the drift of world events and Soviet tactics. In 1974, after the International Labor Organization passed a resolution denouncing Israel for racism, the labor movement, supported by the business community, asked that the United States give notice that we would withdraw if such intrusions of anti-democratic politics into the proceedings of ILO did not stop.
The ILO charter requires a two-year notice of intent to withdraw, and this was given in the fall of 1975. The letter made clear that the United States did not want to withdraw. We, after all, had helped to found the ILO at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. We had joined it when we never joined any other of the League organizations. We have provided the great share of its funds, and it was we who helped turn its attention to the problems of developing nations which now almost exclusively concern it. All we asked was that it stay out of international politics of the kind associated with foul-mouthed excoriations of Israel. This position was characterized by Trud, the Soviet labor paper, as a demand by “reactionary circles, and primarily the U.S. delegation . . . to exclude . . . political questions connected with the people’s struggle against imperialism, neocolonialism, and racism.”
We got our answer on June 3. “Using a procedural device,” the New York Times reported, “the Communist and Third World countries blocked action on an American-inspired proposal that the assembly’s rules be amended to screen out politically motivated resolutions.” With a handful of exceptions, the Third World sided with the Communist world against the democratic world.
On June 22, the Secretary of Labor, Ray Marshall, told a press conference that the United States will now likely leave the International Labor Organization. It is a little heartbreaking to those who have cared much about this organization which once seemed to hold such promise. But why did it happen? Because the Third World objectively chose to back Communism against democracy. They know this. And they will make a distinct judgment about which way the world is headed depending on whether we make clear to them that we know it.
Jean-François Revel puts the case at the most extreme in his new book, The Totalitarian Temptation2 He describes a world struggle between a truly revolutionary democratic model of society (to give Secretary Vance his due, he did quote Archibald MacLeish: “The cause of human liberty is now the one great revolutionary cause”) and a “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist model, with all its little brothers,” implementing a brand of totalitarian socialism which Revel calls “unofficial Stalinism.” These, Revel writes, are the real reactionaries, but in his view they are winning, because more and more the world finds such regimes to be more attractive:
Therefore . . . the new American revolution, or the new world revolution that started in America, will probably fail—not because of the United States but because the world steadily rejects democracy.
This is the “worst case,” and there are those who are resigned to it and appear already to have made their peace with it. Thus, George Kennan in his new book, The Cloud of Danger: Current Realities of American Foreign Policy, asserts that democracy is a North Atlantic phenomenon, and in no way a “natural form of rule for people outside those narrow perimeters.” It were folly and worse, he maintains, to go about correcting and improving “the political habits of large parts of the world’s population.”
This is an arguable point—does it not display a lofty disdain for what is after all a well-documented and universal human aspiration, namely, the desire to be free? But my point is a different one. I believe that Mr. Kennan underestimates the impact on the democracies of the totalitarian attack (for example: more than half a dozen British universities are now banning Jewish spokesmen from their campuses on the ground that Zionism is a form of racism). Most of the world is not free, and what we can do about that is problematic. But surely we can do something—surely we should do everything—to preserve that part of the world which is free. The point, Revel’s point, in putting the case at its worst is not to become resigned to the present state of affairs but to elicit countermeasures that will prevent the worst case from coming true. And it is here that the issue of human rights becomes essential.
For the moment our first task is our own defense. An implacable, forceful, and unvarying counterattack—“castigating mercilessly the prevailing mendacity,” as Walter Laqueur puts it3—whenever the issue of human rights and the nature of our respective societies is raised by our adversaries or their objective allies could yet save the democratic world from “Finlandization from within.” Human rights is the single greatest weapon we have left for the defense of liberty. It would be calamitous if we allowed ourselves to be robbed of it by the voices of fear and guilt, inside the government or out.
1 June 26, 1977. The Times may not have known it, but it was onto a government secret here of possibly more interest than the Pentagon Papers. In the first half of the 1970's the Democratic opposition generally attacked the foreign policy of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford era as aggressive, risk-taking, and sometimes mindlessly anti-Communist. In truth, within the Republican administration itself, and at least within the more sophisticated circles of the Democratic opposition, it was understood that, to the contrary, what was going on was precisely a “kind of defensive, rear-guard foreign policy of retreat. . . .” Moreover, it was understood that the Russians understood it this way.
2 See the review by Stephen Haseler on page 79 of this issue.—Ed.
3 “The Issue of Human Rights,” COMMENTARY, May 1977.
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The Politics of Human Rights
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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.