The World Congress of Sociology, which met late in August of this year in Amsterdam, if it did nothing else,…
The World Congress of Sociology, which met late in August of this year in Amsterdam, if it did nothing else, may have shocked some of the participating sociologists into practicing their discipline on themselves. The Congress began as a venture in science. It developed into a conflict of ideology. The presence of forty representatives from the Communist countries made possible an informal encounter between East and West which absorbed and fascinated the sociologists. By contrast, the formal scholarly discussions on the program seemed somewhat tedious and remote—except when illuminated by flashes of political conflict, occasionally conflict within the West itself. All this implied the question of what sociology was: a science objective and neutral or one affected by social conflict.
The Congress provided the setting for more than an encounter: its theme, “Social Change in the 20th Century,” and the claims of sociology to depict society entire, allowed a dialogue between Communist social thinkers and their Western colleagues to open. The conversation started in a faltering and partial way, and the Soviet Russians, as distinct from some of their satellites, had no part in it. A generation of Stalinism had done its work: the Russians at Amsterdam could only be described, in one observer’s words, as Neanderthalers. But the Czechs, East Germans, and Poles were quite capable of talking to the rest of us, and were obviously delighted at the opportunity to do so. They belonged, culturally, to the West—as did indeed the old Russian intelligentsia and the Bolsheviks before Stalinism.
Why did we fail to establish contact with the Russians? Sociology as such is proscribed in the Soviet Union. The mixed bunch of official philosophers, philosopher-officials, economists, and publicists who came to the Congress had no acquaintance with the discipline. But they would have been equally lost in their own fields. Social science can develop on a Marxist basis and Marxists have done and are doing useful work in a number of countries, if generally not under Marxist dictatorships. The Russians have no social science, Marxist or otherwise. They have, instead, an ideology which they reiterate upon every occasion.
The encounter with the Russians mostly took the form of collision. But the Czechs, East Germans, and Poles sought out the Westerners and ignored, almost ostentatiously, the Russians. And the whole process was both complicated and facilitated by the fact that some of the Western sociologists present, most notably a number of French and Italians, were themselves Communists, fellow-travelers, or left socialists. Also, a strong Yugoslav delegation was present, and the Yugoslavs are exceedingly experienced in dialogues of all kinds with all camps. The lines were fluid, so fluid at times that many of the participants had to acknowledge, in one way or another, contradictions within their own camps and often found themselves more in agreement with their nominal opponents than with their allies.
Whether polemic or sympathetic exchange, all this dialogue was highly stimulating. But it also carried a lesson. The Amsterdam meetings showed, in a way that the more abstract discussions of the Congress for Cultural Freedom cannot, what the consequences are of political limitations on social inquiry. It dramatized the intellectual utility of freedom.
But the meetings may also have shown that Western sociologists do not invariably make the best use of their freedom. They were divided, at Amsterdam as elsewhere, by a number of conflicts over approach and value. Such conflicts are not necessarily bad; social science, in fact, may thrive on them. But they ought to be faced and explored, and many of the Westerners at Amsterdam seemed unready to do so. We heard the usual arguments, of course, about the scope and methods of sociology. (Henri Poincaré, the mathematician and philosopher of science, once remarked that sociologists were always writing treatises on methods they were scrupulously careful never to apply.) But the disputants, by and large, ignored a fact under their very eyes: the fact that a good many of the Westerners at Amsterdam were, as sociologists, relatively uninterested in the dialogue with the East and in the central political experience of our time. As citizens, of course, they were glad to listen. But as social scientists, they remained curiously uninvolved.
Those in the West who took the initiative in the conversations with the East were, philosophically, highly assorted. There were Catholics, existentialists, liberals; and in great numbers, Marxists, neo-Marxists, ex-Marxists. Politically, the divergences were fewer: the “democratic left” of a number of countries was much in evidence. And all those eager for conversation with the East seemed to share the view that sociology’s scientific work begins, as paradoxical as it sounds, only in historical urgency and political commitment. Before you can describe history objectively, they held, you had to live in it. Many of their colleagues took the opposite view: that sociology was a science like any other, and that their own involvement in its subject matter was of small account. Perhaps my own sympathies mislead me, but I have the impression that the pallid papers at Amsterdam came from this latter group. Faced with the theme “Social Change in the 20th Century,” they dropped an iron curtain of their own across their desks, and separated their political concerns from their scientific interests.
Even the locale of the Congress had political implications for those who looked about them. Not only is Amsterdam a charming city: its history reminds us of the historical effectiveness of bourgeois democracy. The Netherlands today is a free society which has obtained a welfare state while learning to live amid considerable political and social tension. During the Congress, in fact, the country was undergoing a cabinet crisis. The building in which the Congress met had its own historical associations; now called the Royal Institute for the Tropics, it was still known to streetcar conductors and hotel porters as the “Colonial Institute.”
The formal organization of the Congress was not entirely conducive to conversation, whether between East and West or anyone else. There were too many plenary sessions: a conversation among six hundred scholars is—perhaps luckily —impossible. And the smaller working groups into which the plenary sessions dissolved were often preempted by professors suffering from a common occupational ailment: an over estimation of the importance of their own words. But Dutch hospitality was immense and there was a large number of receptions. And the sidewalk cafés and Oriental restaurants in which Amsterdam abounds provided other opportunities for talk.
And it was talk that interested most of the delegates. Unlike scholarly gatherings in the United States, European and international meetings are not academic track meets with jobs and research grants as the prizes. The hunt for prestige, of course, is not absent from international congresses, and scholars outside the United States are no less eager than their American colleagues for its tangible benefits. But academic entrepreneurship abroad is more subtly done, more disguised, while the younger men have little to occupy them beside their immediate tasks, since jobs and grants are so few anyhow.
Talk, however, requires language. French and English were the official Congress languages, but German was more useful in dealing with most of the East Europeans. The worst linguists at the Congress were not the Americans, British, or French (most of whom seemed to assume that God had spoken to Adam in their own tongue) but the Russians. The old Russian intelligentsia was at home in French and German; their Stalinist successors overworked their interpreters.
Conversation began over the formal papers. These were uneven in quality and the arrangements for discussion were cumbersome, but they were the first things the delegates had to talk about. The papers covered an astonishing variety of topics. Opening my program at random, I found “Changes in Family Structure in the Baltic Islands,” “The Working Class in the British Social Structure,” “Some Problems of Rural Collective Settlements in Indonesia.” Economic organization, the distribution of property, class structure, family systems, education, agricultural tenure—these were the main themes on the program. Politics as such was surprisingly absent, despite the recent revival of interest in political sociology. But as we shall see, it intruded itself quickly enough.
It was in the formal sessions that the delegates first encountered the Communists. The Russian contributions precluded real conversation. Propagandistic tracts, they were written in a tone defiant of contradiction or even question. We were told of the Soviet Union’s democratic electoral law, of wide popular participation in political decision, of the equality of individuals before Soviet law—claims not requiring comment. The Soviet speakers referred rarely to problems in their own society, and then usually as “survivals” of the bourgeois era. They hardly cited statistics, and their discussions were so diffuse that they scarcely touched on those spheres in which many were less skeptical of Soviet claims of progress, like education and medicine.
But the Soviet delegation did have some notion of the kind of questions that would really interest their Western colleagues: those dealing with a class system in the “classless” society. This is the kind of thing they prepared: “The equality of citizens, firmly established in the norms of socialist law, does not however mean equalization either of the amount of payment for work or in the fields of needs and everyday capacities, as sometimes ill-informed people imagine. Equality under socialism means equal relation of everyone to the means of production and equal duty on the part of everyone to work according to his or her abilities, and an equal right of all the working people to receive compensation in accordance with their labor. Such a proposition does not exclude any property differences among the citizens of the socialist state or considerable differences in the organization of everyday life and the character of the requirements that are to be met. These property differences result, however, not from the fact that the sources of the citizens’ incomes are different, but exclusively and wholly from the fact that the compensation paid is fixed according to quantity and quality of work performed. It is individual work that is the source of income in every case.”
It is, of course, nonsense to suppose that a member of the Soviet cabinet, making a decision about the economy, and an ordinary worker—bound to do as told—enjoy “equal relations to the means of production.” And if commissar and peasant both live by their work, and not off inherited capital, what may we say of the different advantages they can bestow upon their children? The statement quoted admits the existence of class differences in income and culture in all but name. But it ignores their implications. Yet the paper in which it was contained was about the most honest of all the Soviet contributions, formal and informal, at Amsterdam. The Soviet delegates could not allow themselves to see their society as it was—or at any rate they could not talk about their real perceptions. They did not even have any very advanced techniques for gaining information about their society: their statistics were minimal and fragmentary and they seemed to have done little empirical research.
Soviet ideological fervor provoked some unfortunate reactions from the West. One American professor announced that his researches demonstrated that successful businessmen in America were self-made men, that the American myth of success was substantially correct. This did not attract quite the attention it deserved in view of the fact that everybody else’s researches showed quite the opposite. Another American declared that we no longer had a working class, only a “labor force.” This attempt to match Soviet skill in altering facts by renaming them was resisted by no less a figure than Talcott Parsons of Harvard.
The satellite delegates were much less bound by ideological straitjackets than the Russians. The Poles’ entire appearance foreshadowed, on an intellectual plane, the political explosion in Warsaw in October. They issued reports on research into the structure of their society; they brought along non-Marxist professors, who quarreled publicly and privately with their colleagues; they invited Western sociologists to teach and do research in Poland. The Czechs, who were not sociologists, collected bibliographies and books on recent inquiries into Western society. Their questions showed them to be well informed and critical. Even the then Hungarian Minister of Justice, Molnar, who was largely circumspect and silent (and, as if he anticipated the imminent revolution, depressed), said that he had come to renew contacts with “bourgeois science.” The East Germans insisted on their pleasure at being in Amsterdam. One of them said that, until recently, Karl Mannheim’s books had been verboten in his university. Mannheim was, of course, the most brilliant of Weimar Germany’s neo-Marxist sociologists. Any Marxist regime but a Stalinist one might have encouraged the study of his work.
The informal contacts at the Congress were, therefore, most illuminating for the Westerners, and possibly for the Communists as well. The Russians were very sociable, an improvement on their reported behavior at congresses even two years ago, but it was difficult to exchange more than pleasantries with them. One of them expressed sheer bewilderment at the frequent references to the “middle classes” in Western papers. “Why aren’t the categories ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’ good enough?” he asked. “Where do the ‘middle classes’ come in?” Others answered questions, not hostile or pointed but sheerly factual ones about Soviet society, in highly general, almost formula-like terms. They seemed on the defensive and ill at ease. The French sociologists, however, were reasonably satisfied after a private meeting with the Russians. But I gather that the French did most of the talking.
The Poles, on the other hand, were remarkably frank. Even the Marxists among them (and two of the professors present were members of the Central Committee of the United Workers party, the Polish version of the Communist party) seemed to prefer associating with the Westerners rather than the Russians. And the non-Marxists made no secret of their differences with their colleagues: at a private meeting with an American-British group the Poles argued violently among themselves on the methodology of the social sciences. One of the Polish Communists, and not the least of them, when asked to explain the difference between the behavior of his delegation and the immobility of the Russians, exclaimed: “It’s simple. They’ve had thirty years of it and we only ten.”
The Poles were anxious to import Western sociological research techniques—the Marxists simply because of their value as techniques, and the non-Marxists because they see them as an opening for a more critical general sociology. One Marxist professor, who deplored “anecdotal empirical sociology,” hoped to combine the measurement of social phenomena with a “reformulated and completed” Marxist theory. The Poles planned to send students to America and Britain (a number are already in France) and they began arranging for academic visits to Poland by Western professors. It would be unfortunate if the only Western visitors they got were social research technicians. However skilled the technicians, they are unlikely to infuse Polish students and professors with a new vision of society to replace the Marxist one.
The Poles were the most active and interesting of the satellites at Amsterdam precisely because they were so free of satellite intellectual characteristics. The Czechs and East Germans were as reasonable and receptive as the Poles in private, but they read no public papers. (One Polish paper, by Professor Ossowski, was the initial sensation of the Congress. Its author, a non-Marxist, analyzed the class structure of the present Communist societies in unadorned terms.) The Bulgarians and Rumanians went around talking about peace and international cooperation. The vice president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who accompanied the Minister of Justice, was sufficiently unimpressed by the official company he kept to explain that he was not personally a Marxist.
Of all the Communist delegations, the Yugoslavs were the freest. Unlike many of the Russians, all the Yugoslavs were genuine scholars, at home in sociology even if primarily economists or lawyers. They were Marxists, but they put observed facts into the Marxist vocabulary rather than insisting on the vocabulary and ignoring the facts. And they seemed more varied, more distinctive as personalities than the Russians—although perhaps this impression is the result of a political judgment. They distinguished themselves in the two special sessions on Marxism and the interpretation of social change in the 20th century, sessions that were, in many respects, the highlights of the Congress.
These sessions developed because a group of younger French and Italian sociologists wanted to discuss Marxism with their colleagues in general, and with the East Europeans in particular. Their motives were political as well as intellectual. One of the Italians was a Communist (although he publicly told a Russian that in his opinion Stalinism was the work of a social stratum and not of one man), and others were Nenni Socialists. The French intelligentsia, and not least the social scientists, are fascinated with Marxism; this reflects their ambivalence toward the French Communist party. It also reflects the persistence of an indigenously French socialist tradition on which Marx himelf drew. (The French intellectual has been defined as somebody who would not mate love to a girl with whose politics he disagreed. That seems exaggerated. But many French intellectuals can simultaneously debate supporting the Communists and speculate as to how many days they personally could survive a Communist seizure of power.)
This group was joined by another, which held that Marxism was a set of hypotheses like any other, even if a remarkably useful one; therefore, if the meeting were not to degenerate into scholasticism, it ought to provide opportunities for a critique of Marxism. This initial divergence of purpose led to some misunderstanding, but it also opened the way for a more stimulating and penetrating discussion than would have been possible had either group monopolized these sessions.
The first meeting, lasting four hours in the most smoke-filled of rooms, was egalitarian, even comradely. Some twenty-five speakers took the floor, unannounced and largely unprepared, for five minutes each. There was confusion and repetition at first, though enlivened by pronounced national differences in rhetoric and style. The French made even the most banal of observations sound like something from Pascal. The Americans clothed logic in casualness. The Southern Europeans were uniformly intense. The Germans, although well represented, were surprisingly silent. Most of the speakers were Westerners, although three Yugoslavs made a great impression. By midnight the discussion had begun to converge on a number of points. At the beginning it was a series of monologues. Later, however, the participants began to talk to each other. What did they say?
Marx had predicted that society would split into two completely antagonistic classes, that an impoverished and humiliated working class would unite to overthrow the exploiting class. But industrial society had developed a new middle class not identical with the exploiting one. The working class was itself internally differentiated and, in the advanced industrial countries, demonstrably richer. Extreme economic differences between the working and middle classes were now gone in these countries. In some, the workers had either become “bourgeois” or accepted bourgeois leadership. The revolution, in other words, had either failed to occur, or had taken forms not foreseen by Marx.
Marx had, further, viewed political power as a simple function of economic power. The state, he claimed, was an executive committee for the bourgeoisie. Yet in our time the state had frequently altered the balance of economic power between the classes to the workers’ advantage. And in Soviet Russia, the state itself had become a massive exploiting agency. Also, Marx had written of “alienation,” of men’s estrangement from the vital and healthy potentialities of their own nature. Alienation, Marx implied, would supply the psychological dynamic for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society. But alienation has, in our time, produced horrible political movements and not that brotherly commonwealth envisaged by the early socialists and—despite his professed scientific amorality—Marx himself. Finally, both Asiatic and Western speakers asserted that the problem of exploitation had shifted largely to the colonial sphere, where new forms of imperialism required new ways of analysis.
These things were said in a Marxist temper, in the conviction that much in the Marxist method was still viable, and that even Marx’s mistakes had been fruitful. Even an anti-Marxist could agree with this last. But some critical voices were raised to ask why, if Marx had made so many concrete mistakes, it was still necessary to take him as anything but a historic figure. No clear answer was really attempted. There was, to be sure, some discussion as to whether Marxism as a method of sociological analysis necessarily entailed acceptance of dialectical materialism as a philosophy. There was also much talk about removing the mythological elements from Marxism. But unfortunately, no one could say why some intelleetuals should have made a myth of what was something else in Marx’s hands.
All of this was on a fairly general plane—until more immediate problems made an insistent appearance. A Pole spoke of revising Marxist—by which he meant Stalinist—analyses of contemporary society. All that he could propose was that we should now attribute Nazism to the “petty bourgeoisie” rather than to the “monopoly capitalists.” He added that the Polish Communists were now willing to accept the “honorable capitulation” of the Polish “kulaks,” and sat down. (The more “flexible” of the Polish Marxists had avoided these sessions, intimating that they did not want to come into direct conflict with the Russians. But the speaker showed that not all Poles were flexible.) The Yugoslavs caused a stir by insisting that even nominally socialistic states could behave imperialistically toward other socialist states, and they argued that it was the task of Marxists to prevent the development of new forms of domination imposed in the name of socialism. Their references were clear—yet the Russian speaker referred later to the “valuable” comments of the Yugoslavs.
An American, Professor S. M. Lipset (a Commentary contributor) described Stalinism as simply a mode of enforced industrialization. Lipset recalled the controversy over industrialization in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s and he cited the views of both Bukharin and Trotsky, important participants in that controversy. The Russian speaker later declared that his delegation “did not find it necessary” to enter into discussion with anyone who quoted Bukharin and Trotsky.
Perhaps the Russian—he was editor of the Soviet trade union newspaper Trud—really believed that these two old Bolsheviks had been imperialist agents. His reaction was, in any case, a striking reminder of the survival of many of the most repugnant features of Stalinism. He drew a laugh from the audience, involuntarily, by assuring them that he was pleased to see knowledge of Marxism growing outside the Communist countries! He made a gesture, at least, towards real conversation with the West by declaring that there was much “merit” in a question by Professor Georges Friedmann, the distinguished French scholar who was elected President of the International Sociological Association. Friedmann had declared that workers in Russia did subordinate and laborious work, like workers everywhere; did this not affect their attitudes even in a “socialist” society? The Russian speaker, despite his cordiality, did not answer the question.
The delegates left the session exhausted but satisfied. The Yugoslavs were nearly everybody’s heroes. They seemed to be those Marxists without myth demanded by the speakers. And they talked the language of democratic and Utopian socialism. Nobody mentioned Djilas and Dedijer, who had been persecuted for trying to persuade the Yugoslav Communist party to pursue those goals.1 In general, that evening, people spoke softly.
A second meeting provided much more open conflict. There were four speakers: Professor Raymond Aron of Paris, S. M. Lipset, the Hungarian Justice Minister, Molnar, and a Yugoslav law professor, Rudolph Legradic. Lipset made a reference to the view that industrial development might have taken place in Russia even if the Czarist regime had continued. This infuriated the Russian spokesman, who had returned for more, and he ignored Lipset’s real points. One of them, on the Stalinist bureaucracy, was made later by an Italian Communist and found at least nominal acceptance by the Russian. The Yugoslav had, indeed, opened the evening with a discourse on the dangers of bureaucracy and an astonishingly Utopian demand for the elimination of the state.
Aron began by remarking that a dialogue between East and West was desirable, and that it might be easier if the East were to stop jailing and executing opponents. He declared that Western Europe and America were now welfare societies and had surpassed Soviet Russia in providing for their members—at infinitely less human and moral cost. The Russian, in his reply, rightly recalled his country’s late start and wartime losses. The rest of Aron’s points escaped him.
Molnar’s manner was singular. His very brief statement fell into two distinct parts. He began by saying that a superficial look at Communist countries might lead us to suppose that they were characterized by unequal control of the means of production, by a dictatorship not of but over the proletariat. That would be a mistake, he declared, and in the second half of his talk he told us that behind this deceptive and depressing mask lay the true and just face of social revolution. Some people had the impression that he himself nevertheless inclined privately towards the first view. Or perhaps he was simply looking at things dialectically: he did tell Aron to read Hegel.
Thus the second session on Marxism left the sphere of abstractions and dealt in hard and disputed realities. It was not alone ideas that were argued about, but the actual structure of human society. And the arguments were political, about the uses to which power was being put. This underscored the remoteness of a good deal of the Congress program. In the last analysis, knowledge about society—or the refusal of such knowledge—is something we need in order to attain political aims. And, quite apart from our aims, politics is frequently a decisive category of change in social structure.
What began, then, as detached intellectual analysis became a political controversy. And the sociologists, despite their theoretical structures and research techniques, found themselves arguing in the same terms as everybody else, even if they had an acuter sense of the social limitations on political decision. It is now, perhaps, a bit clearer why many Western sociologists retain an interest in Marxism despite Marx’s mistakes. For Marxism treats society in terms historical in conception and political in application. And it was a political contact with history that they were seeking, a search which led them into the dialogue with the East.
The Amsterdam Congress, then, gave rise to a number of reflections—many of them bearing on the political relevance of social science both in the West and in the Communist countries. Our conversations with our Communist colleagues have now been overshadowed by the dramatic and moving events in Poland and Hungary (and by the time this appears, perhaps elsewhere as well). We thought we were glimpsing a world in motion. Actually, it was a world about to explode. The mixed despair and hope with which our colleagues talked showed us that to them, de-Stalinization was a matter of spiritual life and death. The reactions of an official like Molnar, or of the restive delegates from countries not openly defiant of Stalinism (the Czechs and East Germans), were as instructive—in their own way—as the outspokenness of a man like Professor Hochfeld of Warsaw, who came to Amsterdam in the midst of his parliamentary struggle for socialist democracy.
Our experience at Amsterdam, and the things it foreshadowed, confirmed David Riesman’s criticism of the Orwellian exaggeration of the omnipotence of totalitarian rule. Through the blackest period of Stalinism many East European intellectuals, whether Marxist or not, persisted in thinking. The difference between the satellite intellectuals and the Russians, however, was disheartening. It is sobering to recall the Pole’s remark on the effects of thirty, as opposed to ten, years of Stalinism.
The immediate evidence available to us at Amsterdam, of course, concerned the fate of social inquiry in the intermediate phase of de-Stalinization. Looking back, we can now see how the forces mobilized about this issue reflected underlying political conflicts. Social inquiry as such was rejected by Stalinism: had not Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin discovered, once and for all, the laws governing social events? As Stalinist controls loosened, the Communist policy-makers were either confused or at odds on allowing the resumption of social inquiry. Some may have thought that non-Marxist or critical Marxist sociologists could be allowed their say, in the expectation that they would gradually die out. But those we met at Amsterdam were busy reproducing themselves, intellectually, by writing and teaching. Then again, social inquiry may prove an indispensable instrument of government. Public opinion surveys and studies of industrial relations, never undertaken by the Stalinists, may be precisely what a Gomulka needs.
A general turn from dogmatic rigidity in social and economic policy in some of the Soviet bloc countries, then, seems to be leading to a renewal of empirical inquiry. But empirical inquiry itself may encourage some Communists to look anew at their assumptions. A good deal of modern Western sociology originated in the effort to grasp the limits of Marxism. A similar large-scale effort in Eastern. Europe is still in the future. But at Amsterdam we witnessed stirrings in this direction, and recent political events (themselves partly the result of intellectual dissent) may open new perspectives. The anxieties of the Stalinist die-hards are easy enough to understand. Once permitted in a limited way, inquiry of this sort can break all bounds.
For the present, we can expect a pronounced increase in concrete research programs in Eastern Europe. The Poles began before Gomulka’s return, the Czechs and East Germans are in contact with the Poles, and the Yugoslav experience fits this pattern. (One Yugoslav at Amsterdam asked to meet some Western industrial sociologists. I told him that many of us in the West thought that some of our industrial research was ideologically biased. His answer was: “I know ideology when I see it: it’s the techniques and the facts I want.”) The Easterners are turning to the West for scientific assistance and collaboration. What attitude ought Western social scientists, and intellectuals generally, adopt to these requests?
It is practically our duty, I think, to accede to them. Technical issues are hard to distinguish from substantive ones. We ought to be clear that such collaboration is a political act. But unless, in the face of all recent evidence, we cling to a demonological image of the Communist regimes, we can proceed with a good conscience. Communist opinion in East Europe is far from monolithic. The recent struggles in these countries began when the Communist intellectuals seized upon the Khrushchev speech to open an attack on totalitarianism on many fronts. Many of the people we help will have taken considerable risks. Many others, in countries that have yet to go as far, are prepared to do so. Scholarly collaboration is, at once, the repayment of a debt of honor to those who have won their first battles and a gesture of encouragement to those who may tomorrow find themselves in desperate struggle.
The most important thing we can do is simple enough. It is to keep talking, to keep open our lines of intellectual communication with the East. And conversation may affect those who listen to it as well as those who participate in it. It was noticeable at Amsterdam that the Western Communists seemed to feel themselves closer to their Western colleagues than to their Soviet comrades—especially after the Soviet speeches.
It would be futile, of course, to expect very much in the way of conversation from Stalin’s professors. The “thaw” in Russia has yet to melt any number of icebergs in the social sciences. But conversation with Stalin’s professors may be the price for the chance to talk to their students, who have noticed their teachers’ discomfiture. (The old Bolshevik intellectuals who came to the Congress from Moscow were a good deal more accessible than their middle-aged colleagues, and the rising generation ought to be more accessible still.) And if a certain amount of tact is the price for talking with the Russians at all, then it may be well to consider paying it. “Tactlessness,” of course, may also bring gains and it may be a gain to upset a Soviet ideologue—not least to the ideologue himelf.
Totalitarian societies repress their own social conflicts, or their leaders may invent pseudo-conflicts to avoid the real ones. In any case, no social science is possible. In free societies, the fact that conflicts are not forcibly repressed allows them to be expressed in social science itself. But the Western social scientist, in these conditions, may find it difficult to see things as they really are. He may mistake an issue involving the fundamental nature and freedom of social science for a professional difference over methods and approach. Both Eastern and Western sociologists agreed at Amsterdam that there were objective laws governing social life. The Communists claim to have discovered them in Marxism. This claim, in Stalinist hands, became an ideological justification for exploitation and tyranny. The resistance of the Stalinists to empirical inquiry (a resistance which would have been repugnant to Marx himself) is of course due to their fear of disproof of their claim. Social inquiry, under Stalinism, was really something subversive.
But what about Western claims? Many Westerners at Amsterdam were themselves not Free of ideology. It took the form of supposing that the laws governing social life lie very near the surface, just awaiting discovery. One more inquiry (and one more grant) and there they’d be—lacking only suitably simplified packaging for freshman courses. Part of this is simply a professional attitude: sociologists need to convince themselves, and university administrators, that they really are entirely distinct from economists, historians, political scientists, and, above all, philosophers. But something else was at work.
The notion that we can begin our search for the laws of social life just anywhere rejects a good many lessons, of which the Amsterdam Congress was only the latest. A sociology that proceeds from one randomly chosen inquiry to another may be fleeing social conflict. Our task is to see our society as a whole. Inquiries subversive in the East may in the West be simply evasive. Amsterdam, then, may have reminded some of the Westerners of the problem of significance in their work. It may have turned them away from excessive preoccupation with the model of the physical sciences. A nominally free social science that is unaware of its roots in conflict may remain chained. The very measure of the strength of social science may lie in the way it diagnoses specific social conflicts which are the essence of the society in which it functions. Our frank admission of uncertainty may be our strongest weapon in the attempt to enlarge the dialogue with those minds in the East now struggling for their freedom.
Postscript. The tragic and brutal destruction of the Hungarian revolution by the Red Army demands a melancholy postscript. Professors and students alike were conspicuous in the local revolutionary committees. Organized student groups fought alongside the army and the workers’ militia in the streets and, according to the last despairing broadcasts from Hungary, fought to the end. Public criticism of Stalinism in Rakosi’s Hungary began, we may recall, with pronouncements by the Budapest intellectuals. And the Academy of Sciences used Hungary’s few brief days of freedom to appeal to scholarly bodies elsewhere for aid. Molnar, meanwhile, has disappeared: he was a member neither of Nagy’s national front government nor of Kadar’s puppet regime.
1 Djilas was arrested in Belgrade last month following publication of an article by him in the New Leader criticizing the Yugoslav Communists for failing to support the Hungarian revolution.—ED.
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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.
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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.