A Call to Arms
O n September 20, a police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina, shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man whom police said they had observed sitting in a parked car with a marijuana cigarette and a pistol. Members of Scott’s family immediately contradicted this description of events on social media, claiming he had no gun and had been holding only a book. In the flash of a muzzle, Charlotte became the stage for the next act in a wrenching national drama about race and law enforcement.
Charlotte is a vibrant, growing, integrated metropolis, the very image of the “new South.” The officer involved was black, as was the police chief. The chief had in fact come to his post expressing skepticism about police treatment of blacks and had instituted innovative community-relations programs and training to address the problem of “implicit bias.”
Nonetheless, within hours of the shooting, protestors bearing handmade signs saying “It was a book” filled the streets. Before long, the protests had devolved into riots. Police cars, city buses, and private vehicles were smashed, as were office buildings and the city’s convention center. Trucks were looted and burned. Ten young African-American men set upon a white man, robbing, beating, and stomping him—and landing him in the hospital. A 26-year-old black man was shot dead by someone else in the crowd. Although 16 police officers received injuries, only one rioter was arrested.
Charlotte’s demonstrators had taken to the streets spontaneously. But the national protest movement that has emerged on this issue over the past two years does have a group, or coalition of groups, at its core, and it is called Black Lives Matter.
The Black Lives Matter website and the Twitter hash tag #BlackLivesMatter had been launched in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tomeki—all in their thirties and all veteran activists. Cullors, a performance artist based in Los Angeles, founded Dignity and Power Now, which she says has “achieved . . . victories for the abolitionist movement.” The word “abolitionist” here refers to a vision of doing away entirely with the law-enforcement and criminal-justice systems. Garza is an officer of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, having previously run a San Francisco group called People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER). She, too, speaks of abolishing the criminal-justice system, albeit more tentatively than she speaks of abolishing the present economic system. Opal Tomeki, who describes herself as a “believer and practitioner of liberation theology,” is the New York–based executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
They were inspired to create Black Lives Matter out of anguish over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch volunteer, ethnically white and Hispanic, who had shot to death the black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012. During its first year, the group drew little attention. Then came Ferguson.
In that Missouri city, on August 14, 2014, Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer. The 18-year-old and 300-pound Brown, described as a “gentle giant,” carried no weapon at the time of his death. And according to individuals who said they had witnessed the shooting, he had either been gunned down while running from the officer or facing him with his hands raised, pleading, “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
The next day, Ferguson was convulsed in rioting, and protests broke out in other cities. Black Lives Matter sponsored a series of “Freedom Rides” to Ferguson, and its Internet messages went viral. Suddenly it found itself at the center of what the New York Times called “the most formidable American protest movement of the 21st century.” On the ground in Ferguson, new leaders emerged, notably DeRay Mckesson, a former school administrator who became a peripatetic protestor in cities across the Midwest, the South, and his home town of Baltimore, and Johnetta Elzie, a 26-year-old Ferguson native.
President Obama embraced the group, inviting Mckesson, Elzie, and other Ferguson protestors to the White House on more than one occasion and appointing one, Brittany Packnett, to a task force on policing. He spoke in defense of the now ubiquitous slogan when others asked, Don’t all lives matter? And he went out of his way to defend the group at a memorial service two years later for five Dallas policemen murdered by a black sniper at a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
Is it true, as Black Lives Matters asserts and as its very name suggests, that American society as a whole deems black lives to be devoid of value?Those competing to succeed Obama followed his cue. Hillary Clinton met with a delegation of Black Lives Matter activists who, according to Time, inspired her to denounce “mass incarceration” and propose a “new New Deal” for ethnic minorities. Her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, also met with activists who came away saying that the senator was “very open to being pushed” toward their point of view. The campaign of Republican aspirant Jeb Bush claimed that he, too, had met with the group, but this was later disputed by activists.
The entertainment and news media lavished attention on the new movement. Beyoncé, Rihanna, Pharrell Williams, and dozens of others made a video of support while actor Jesse Williams won the Black Entertainment Network’s Humanitarian Award for a separate video that he had made about Black Lives Matter. He stole the show at BET’s annual award ceremony with a speech decrying “this invention called whiteness [that] uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight,” an observation aired live to an audience of 7.2 million on BET, MTV, Comedy Central, and nine other U.S. networks and streamed online before being rebroadcast in the UK, France, and Africa.
The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on Black Lives Matter while the Washington Post undertook a mammoth investigatory project to compile a complete data base on fatal police shootings, ferreting out twice as many as shown in FBI reports. In 2015, Time named Black Lives Matter a runner-up for its annual “Person of the Year.”
Where the journalists and entertainers go, philanthropists are likely to follow, and so it was in this case even as a variety of groups and advocates jostled for the Black Lives Matter banner. Google announced a half-million dollar grant to Cullors to monitor and combat police brutality. George Soros’s Open Society Institute gave $650,000 in 2015 to “groups at the core of the burgeoning #BlackLivesMatter movement.” And the Ford Foundation announced it was spearheading a consortium of donors pledging to raise $100 million over six years for the Movement for Black Lives, a self-described “united front” of the original Black Lives Matter together with some two dozen other kindred organizations.
In announcing its grant, Ford enthused: “The Movement for Black Lives has forged a new national conversation about the intractable legacy of racism, state violence, and state neglect of black communities in the United States.” But is that an accurate or complete description of the legacy of race relations with which we live? Is it true, as Black Lives Matter asserts and its very name suggests, that American society as a whole deems black lives to be devoid of value? Is it true, as it further asserts, that the deaths of blacks at the hands of police reflect racism and worse? And if these things are not true, then what is Black Lives Matter really after?
To explore this we must first look more closely at the story of Ferguson. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb labeled it “a case study of structural racism in America and a metaphor for all that had gone wrong since the end of the civil-rights movement.” Ferguson is a paradigm, to be sure, but not exactly for the things Cobb suggests it represents.
While a local grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, Obama’s Justice Department conducted its own painstaking investigation with an eye to bringing charges under federal civil-rights law. What it found, perhaps to its own surprise, was not merely ambiguity, which might have prompted the grand jurors to vote against an indictment. Rather, the evidence lent decisive support to Officer Wilson’s contention that he had acted in self-defense, and it showed that the widely circulated narrative about Brown and the actions that led to his death was a tissue of lies.
A video from a convenience-store surveillance camera captured the first act in this drama. It shows Brown reaching across the counter and brazenly helping himself to boxes of cigarillos without offering to pay, then walking to the exit. When the diminutive clerk tries to head him off, Brown shoves the man away, then menacingly turns on him until the man backs off.
The clerk called police, and the robbery was broadcast on police radio. Officer Wilson heard the call just as Brown and his accomplice, Dorian Johnson, were walking toward the officer’s SUV, which Wilson then maneuvered to block their path. The Justice Department report details what happened next:
Brown . . . reached into the SUV through the open driver’s window and punched and grabbed Wilson. This is corroborated by bruising on Wilson’s jaw and scratches on his neck, the presence of Brown’s DNA on Wilson’s collar, shirt, and pants, and Wilson’s DNA on Brown’s palm . . . .Wilson [said] that he responded . . . by withdrawing his gun because he could not access less lethal weapons while seated inside the SUV.
At this point, the conflict intensified:
Brown then grabbed the weapon and struggled with Wilson to gain control of it. Wilson fired, striking Brown in the hand. Autopsy results and bullet trajectory, skin from Brown’s palm on the outside of the SUV door as well as Brown’s DNA on the inside of the driver’s door corroborate Wilson’s account.
The forensic evidence supported the officer’s account:
According to three autopsies, Brown sustained a close range gunshot wound to the fleshy portion of his right hand . . . . Soot from the muzzle of the gun found embedded in the tissue of this wound coupled with indicia of thermal change from the heat of the muzzle indicate that Brown’s hand was within inches of the muzzle of Wilson’s gun when it was fired. The location of the recovered bullet . . . also corroborates Wilson’s account of the struggle over the gun and when the gun was fired, as do witness accounts that Wilson fired at least one shot from inside the SUV.
Brown ran and Wilson began to pursue him, but Brown stopped after about a block and turned around, heading back toward Wilson. No one knows why, although the marijuana later found in his system may have influenced his judgment. Brown’s accomplice Johnson, meanwhile, had disappeared in a different direction. The report continues:
Several witnesses stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson as he moved toward Wilson . . . . While credible witnesses gave varying accounts of exactly what Brown was doing with his hands as he moved toward Wilson—i.e., balling them, holding them out, or pulling up his pants—and varying accounts of how he was moving—i.e., “charging,” moving in “slow motion,” or “running”—they all establish that Brown was moving toward Wilson when Wilson shot him. Although some witnesses state that Brown held his hands up at shoulder level with his palms facing outward for a brief moment, these same witnesses describe Brown then dropping his hands and “charging” at Wilson.
And what of the stories of Wilson’s shooting Brown as he fled or while his hands were raised in surrender?
The autopsy results confirm that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back as he was running away because there were no entrance wounds to Brown’s back . . . . [S]ome of those accounts are inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence; some of those accounts are materially inconsistent with that witness’s own prior statements with no explanation, credible or otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time. Certain other witnesses who originally stated Brown had his hands up in surrender recanted their original accounts, admitting that they did not witness the shooting or parts of it, despite what they initially reported either to federal or local law enforcement or to the media.
The Justice Department reviewed physical evidence—crime scene, autopsy, DNA, dispatch recordings, ballistics, fingerprints, and audio recordings of the gunfire—and interviewed witnesses who saw or claimed to have seen the shooting. Eight of them confirmed Wilson’s testimony. The one white among them was disregarded as unreliable. But the other seven—five blacks and two identified as “bi-racial”—were deemed credible in that their versions were consistent internally and with the physical evidence.
These witnesses were almost all reluctant. According to the report, signs had been posted around the neighborhood that read “snitches get stitches.” Residents seemed to believe it. One of the seven “repeatedly refused to give formal statements to law enforcement for fear of reprisal should the . . . neighborhood find out that his account corroborated Wilson.” The report goes on: “Served with a county grand jury subpoena [he] refused to appear. . . . explain[ing] that he would rather go to jail than testify.” Another phoned in his account, but “prosecutors and investigators tried to no avail to interview” him. Another, when called before the grand jury, initially claimed memory loss. Another “was reluctant to identify herself and ultimately met with [detectives] in a library parking lot.” Yet another initially offered a version contrary to physical evidence; when confronted on this by FBI interrogators, she replied, “You’ve got to live the life to know it,” explaining that “she feared offering an account contrary to the narrative reported in the media that Brown had held his hands up in surrender.” In short, fear hung over the neighborhood.
The Justice Department interviewed 23 other witnesses who contradicted Wilson and inculpated him. But in the case of all 23—two whites and the rest black—investigators concluded that their stories were untrustworthy. Either their accounts changed upon retelling or were flatly contradicted by physical evidence or by well-established facts. Some may have been confused. Others were simply lying either to feel important or out of ulterior motives. Chief in the latter category was Dorian Johnson, Brown’s accomplice in the convenience-store robbery.
That Johnson was a practiced liar was already established by a prior conviction for “a crime of dishonesty” and illustrated charmingly when he told the New Yorker’s Jake Halpern that “before entering the [convenience store] he and Brown ‘never talked about stealing things’ [but] were instead immersed in a discussion ‘about the Bible and God.’” However, Johnson told Department of Justice investigators “that just prior to going to [the store], Brown engaged in a 25-minute conversation about marijuana” with a local contractor. (The stolen cigarillos were intended for use in smoking marijuana.)
It was Johnson who, according to the Justice Department report, “made multiple statements to the media immediately following the incident that spawned the popular narrative that Wilson shot Brown execution-style as he held up his hands in surrender,” a narrative that gave rise to the meme “hands up, don’t shoot.”
It is difficult to gauge how much of black Ferguson was represented by the witnesses who came forth with true accounts, and how much by those who circulated false narratives or rioted following the shooting and the grand jury’s non-indictment decision. This second round of mayhem was directly instigated by Brown’s stepfather, who can be seen on video addressing a rally, exhorting those gathered to “burn this bitch down.”
Clearly, however, a considerable part of the black community felt alienated from the police, and a second Justice Department report concluded that “Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias.” In sustaining its accusation of “racism,” the report instanced six racially pointed jokes found in the email of police or city officials. If such reprehensible items were common, they might add up to a culture of racism, but a total of six over six years of email exchanges among scores of individuals amounts to much less.
Among arrestees who were armed, 406 whites and 188 blacks were killed by police in 2015, a ratio closely reflecting the population of arrestees.The report’s focus rested on the city’s reliance for a significant part of its revenue on fines for petty violations, largely automobile-related. This practice is common in Missouri and elsewhere, and it puts a disproportionate burden on poor people, therefore on blacks. Such behavior raises the question of whether justice can be blind if it is self-interested. For these reasons, long before the events in Ferguson, some states had begun passing laws limiting the authority of municipalities to levy fines.
The report also noted that a large majority of the city’s officers are white while a majority of its citizenry is black, and that blacks “experience disparate impact in nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system,” notably that “African Americans account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67 percent of Ferguson’s population.”I n relying on “disparate impact” as a measure of discrimination, the Ferguson report provided a microcosm of an argument that goes to the heart of much national debate about race and criminal justice. President Obama deployed it in a 2015 speech: “In too many places in this country, black boys and black men, Latino boys, Latino men . . . experience being treated differently by law enforcement—in stops and in arrests, and in charges and incarcerations. The statistics are clear, up and down the criminal-justice system; there’s no dispute.” This sense of certainty comported oddly with the president’s own lament five months later at a White House forum on race and criminal justice that “we don’t really do a good job right now in collecting national data.” There is, moreover, much to dispute about how to interpret “the statistics,” as the president’s formulation, itself, unwittingly illustrated.
If black and Latino males are “treated differently,” we might ask, Differently from whom? Statistically, they are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than white males, but that disparity is dwarfed by another: the disparity with black and Latino females. There are more than 10 times as many males incarcerated as females. Could that difference be explained by factors other than discrimination against males?
Bearing in mind, then, that there might be reasons for disparities other than prejudice, let us consider the Washington Post’s database on the use of deadly force by police, since this is the issue around which Black Lives Matter and the larger national debate revolve.
Crime and Policing by the Numbers
The Post found that police killed 990 people in 2015. Of these, 494 were white, 258 black, 172 Hispanic, and 38 “other.” This means there were twice as many whites killed as blacks. On the other hand, since there are five or six times as many whites as blacks in America, clearly blacks were more likely to be killed, roughly three times as likely. But people killed by police are almost invariably in the process of being arrested or about to be arrested. This suggests that the relevant baseline against which to compare police killings is not the proportions of blacks and whites in the general population, but rather their presence in the population of arrestees.
The FBI compiles national data on arrests. For 2015, the ratio of white to black arrestees for all crimes was 70 percent to 27 percent, a ratio of about 2 1/2 to 1. If we use that as the baseline for comparison, then police kill blacks slightly more often than their numbers would warrant. However, the Washington Post lists Hispanics as a third category parallel to whites and blacks. Confusingly, the FBI, which assembles crime data, does not do so. In presenting racial statistics, it assigns Hispanics to either the white or black category while offering separate tables dividing populations between Hispanic and non-Hispanic without respect to color. When forced into the bivariate categories of black and white, Hispanics overwhelming categorize as white. (According to the census, 20 times more Hispanics self-identity as white than as black.) If those listed by the Post as Hispanic were instead assigned to one racial category or the other, it would bring the ratio of whites to blacks killed by police still into nearly perfect alignment with racial ratio of arrestees in FBI data.
The one area in which the Post reported finding a greater racial disparity was among unarmed individuals killed by police. In 2015, police killed 38 blacks and 32 whites. This ratio is out of line with the racial ratios of arrestees, but it is hard to know what to make of it. For one thing, the numbers are small and thus perhaps of little significance. For another, the Post’s “unarmed” category includes arrestees “holding an object unlikely to inflict serious injury, such as a stick or a broom handle.” In the moment, that broomstick might have felt more threatening to the officer than it appeared to the Post researcher who sorted the data. “Unarmed” does not always tell the whole story. Michael Brown was unarmed, but had he overpowered Officer Wilson, Brown might have seized Wilson’s gun. Several officers are killed each year with their own weapons. So even an unarmed arrestee can present a threat to an officer.
What makes this disparity particularly unlikely to reflect racial bias is the contrast with the numbers for arrestees who were armed. In this category, the Post found 406 whites and 188 blacks killed by police officers, a ratio closely reflecting the population of arrestees. If anti-black bias were at work, why would it cause police to kill unarmed black people but not armed ones?
Moreover, scholarly examinations of police behavior point to only modest racial disparities in the treatment of suspects, with no clear pattern. For example, a Rand Corporation study of New York’s stop-and-frisk program in 2006 found that “black pedestrians were stopped at a rate that is 20 to 30 percent lower than their representation in crime-suspect descriptions.” However, “Hispanic pedestrians were stopped disproportionately more, by 5 to 10 percent.” Whites were slightly less likely to be frisked or arrested after being stopped but slightly more likely to receive a summons. More recently, Roland Fryer Jr. a 39-year-old African-American economist at Harvard, completed studies of Houston police, showing that they were somewhat (16 to 25 percent) more likely to use force against black suspects (handcuff them, push them to the ground, and the like) but somewhat (22 percent) less likely to shoot them.
One other realm in which numbers have been tossed around in the search for racial bias is in the composition of police forces. The New York Times produced a database on “the race gap in America’s police departments.” Elaborate graphs were presented online showing the racial composition of “local police departments from 17 metropolitan areas, sorted so that departments with the largest percentage-point differences of white officers to white residents are at the top.” But according to Justice Department data, in the United States as a whole, the proportion of police who are black is 12 percent, exactly the black percentage in the population. While the Times compiled a list of cities in which blacks are “underrepresented” in police departments, the law of averages means there must be roughly as many where blacks are “overrepresented.”1
While it is surely beneficial to have ethnically diverse police departments, this has no bearing on the core issue of Black Lives Matter. Several studies have shown that black police officers are more likely to shoot, not less. The criminologist Heather Mac Donald cites the example of the Detroit Police Department, which was subject to federal oversight for 11 years, dating back to the George W. Bush administration, “for alleged abuse of civilians, including a pattern of unjustified shootings.” That department, she notes, is two-thirds black.
There is precious little evidence that racial bias determines the use of lethal force or other actions of police. This is not to say that all killings by police are justified. The South Carolina policeman who fired five rounds into the back of a fleeing Walter Scott is being tried for murder, rightly so, and this, alas, is surely not the only incident of its kind. But the large disparities between the races in all manner of unhappy encounters with the criminal-justice system are accounted for mainly by disparities in the rates of criminal behavior.
Although there are five to six times as many whites as blacks in America, more murders are committed by blacks than whites. Blacks, in fact, are about seven times more likely than whites to commit murder. The same seems to be true for robberies, based on the FBI’s national database of arrests. For other crimes, more whites than blacks are arrested. But controlling for population size, blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for aggravated assault, and other assaults, and 2.5 times more likely for rape, burglary, or larceny and other property crimes.
Not only are blacks far more likely to run afoul of the law, their victims are mostly blacks. According to FBI statistics, blacks murdered nearly five times as many blacks as they murdered whites in 2015. Criminologist Peter Moskos prepared for his vocation by working for more than a year as a policeman in Baltimore’s roughest neighborhood. He offers this stunning datum: “Each year in Baltimore’s Eastern District approximately one in every 160 men aged 15 to 34 is murdered. At this rate, more than 10 percent of men in Baltimore’s Eastern District are murdered before the age of thirty-five.”
Ironically, despite the specter of black-on-white crime, a white person is as likely to be killed by a police officer as by a black civilian. A black person on the other hand is about ten times more likely to be killed by another black civilian than by an officer. Anyone taking to heart the sanctity of black lives might well endorse stricter courts and policing rather than the reverse.
Black Lives Matter is aware of its critics’ arguments and on its website responds thus: “The continued focus on black-on-black crime is a diversionary tactic . . . . To reduce violent crime we must fight to change systems rather than demonizing people.” Indeed, changing the system is the essential goal of Black Lives Matter; police violence is a wedge issue around which to rally support. “Neither our grievances nor our solutions are limited to the police killing of our people,” the group declares. “We seek not reform but transformation.”
BLM proclaims the goal of a “radical transformation of American democracy” and the “radical organization and self-determination of our communities.” Yet the term “radical” scarcely captures the full extreme of its views. “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention,” declares a founding statement, “in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” It goes on: “Black folks . . . face . . . deadly oppression” and “genocide.” In another statement the group explains: “We came together because we were tired of Black death at the hands of the state . . . . Death by a system designed to kill Black people.” Hence the slogan: “End the war on Black people.”
This past summer, the Movement released a full-blown platform. It called for “reparations for past and continuing harms . . . . inflicted on Black people.” These would take the form of “full and free access for all Black people (including undocumented and currently and formerly incarcerated people) to lifetime education,” “a guaranteed minimum livable income for all Black people,” “corporate and government reparations focused on healing ongoing physical and mental trauma, and ensuring our access and control of food sources, housing and land.”
Additional planks “demand” “independent Black political power and Black self-determination in all areas of society . . . remaking the current U.S. political system in order to create a real democracy where Black people and all marginalized people can effectively exercise full political power.” The document’s writers further demand “direct democratic community control of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies” and “a restructuring of the economy to ensure Black communities have collective ownership.”
The group’s foreign-policy plank was no less extreme. It called for ending aid to Israel, which it described as an “apartheid state” engaged in “genocide . . . against the Palestinian people.” Some liberal Jewish groups expressed anguish, feeling compelled to draw a line against a black movement that they otherwise wished to embrace. But BLM’s view of Israel was of a piece with its view of the United States:
America is an empire that uses war to expand territory and power. American wars are unjust [and] destructive to Black communities globally . . . . The military industrial complex offers massive profits to private corporations from the death of our global diaspora . . . . The interlinked systems of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy shape the violence we face. As oppressed people living in the US, the belly of global empire, we are in a critical position to build the necessary connections for a global liberation movement. Until we are able to overturn US imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy, our brothers and sisters around the world will continue to live in chains.
It is hard to understand why liberal Jewish groups felt torn in rejecting a movement with views such as these. Radical Jewish groups, however, experienced no distress: They embraced it all. Jewish Voice for Peace endorsed the platform “in its entirety, without reservation.”
The radicalism of Black Lives Matter consists not only of extreme far-left rhetoric. The movement also exhibits an ambiguous attitude toward the use of violence. Its “freedom rides” to Ferguson often featured the implicitly threatening slogan, “no justice, no peace,” and its platform applauds “the bravery of those in Ferguson,” an apparent reference to rioters who vandalized property and burned businesses.
At a December 2014 New York protest called Millions March, which brought out large numbers of Black Lives Matter supporters, one contingent of marchers chanted, “What do we want? Dead cops. When do we want it? Now.” And another contingent assaulted and injured two isolated police officers on the Brooklyn Bridge who were trying, without using any weapon, to restrain a marcher from heaving a garbage can onto people below.
Days later, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a BLM sympathizer, ambushed and killed two policemen (one Hispanic, the other Asian) in Brooklyn after declaring his intention on Instagram to put some “pigs in a blanket.” Hours later on the streets of St. Louis, a small contingent of marchers taunted police by chanting, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.” The chant was reportedly led by Bassem Masri, a Palestinian American whom the New York Times identified as “perhaps Ferguson’s most famous live-streamer.” His face shrouded in a kaffiyeh, Masri also shouted that the police could not stand up to the “real men” of the “Palestinian resistance.” In August 2015, BLM marchers in St. Paul also broke into the “pigs in a blanket” chant.
Brinsley’s act, in declared retaliation for the death of Eric Garner after being put in a choke hold by a New York City officer trying to arrest him, was the first of a series of murders intended to retaliate for police killings of black civilians. In July 2016, five officers were killed and seven others wounded by a sniper in Dallas at a BLM protest, and in Baton Rouge days later, three officers were killed and three wounded in an ambush. In September in Phoenix, a black man ran over three police officers in an unprovoked vehicular attack, but all survived their injuries.
When the Dallas attack occurred, President Obama held a press conference in Poland, where he was attending a NATO meeting. He insisted: “Americans of all backgrounds are rightly outraged . . . . That includes protestors.” But in truth, Black Lives Matter expressed no outrage. Rather it merely dissociated itself from the murders and went on the offensive, declaring, “To assign the actions of one person to an entire movement is dangerous and irresponsible.” It did not so much as offer condolences to the fallen officers’ families. And the organizer of a BLM rally in Atlanta told CBS: “Black Lives Matter doesn’t condone shooting law enforcement. But I have to be honest: I understand why it was done.” He did not elaborate, but if the system is, as Black Lives Matter says, “designed to kill Black people” and is engaged in “genocide” against them, violence would be a reasonable response.
In the Footsteps of the Panthers
BLM applauds, and in some cases lionizes, an earlier generation of black militants whose entire métier was violence, in particular the murder of police officers.
The founding Black Lives Matter group treats Assata Shakur as something of patron saint. The group’s website features a quote from her, and Patrisse Cullors, one of its three co-leaders, recited the quote in a television interview, explaining:
This is how we close out every meeting, every event, every action. This is from our beloved Assata Shakur, who is on the FBI[’s] most wanted list, and she is a powerful leader who we are inspired by. Many of us have “Assata taught me” sweaters.
Indeed, according to the New York Times, “T-shirts and hoodies that read ‘ASSATA TAUGHT ME’ . . . .became part of [Black Lives Matter’s] protest iconography.”
The core of the ‘black liberation movement,’ which supplanted the civil-rights movement, was the Black Panther Party. BLM sees itself in its direct line of descent.Assata Shakur, the former Joanne Chesimard, is the one female on the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists. She was convicted of murdering New Jersey state trooper Woerner Foster in 1973 and served several years in prison before being broken out by some of her comrades in the Black Liberation Army and finding her way to Cuba, where she has lived since. She was believed by law-enforcement officials to have been involved in more of the group’s crimes than the one murder for which she was convicted. Newsday quoted an unnamed former BLA “soldier” who described her as “the soul of the group. She was very active, and she was very strong.”
The Black Liberation Army, an outgrowth of the Black Panther Party, is accused by the Fraternal Order of Police of the murder of 13 police officers. The BLA did not dispute that it engaged in such activity. Rather, members described these actions as merely “soldiers fighting soldiers.”
Such braggadocio masked a still more vicious reality. Investigative journalist Bryan Burrough captured something of the group’s sick sadism in recounting for Politico the January 1972 murders of New York police officers Greg Foster (who was black) and Rocco Laurie, a crime for which the BLA took credit in a letter to news organizations:
A moment after the officers passed, the three [BLA “soldiers”] turned and drew pistols [and] began firing directly into their backs. Foster was hit eight times . . . Six bullets hit Rocco Laurie. . . . As the two men lay dying, their three assassins marched calmly toward them. A witness later claimed one of the shooters, hollered, “Shoot ’em in the balls,” and . . . all three again opened fire. Three bullets were fired directly into Greg Foster’s eyes; two more were shot into Rocco Laurie’s groin. When both men lay still, two of the assassins . . . ran toward a waiting Chrysler, while the third man, apparently intoxicated by the moment, reportedly danced a jig over the dead men’s bodies.
Shakur is not the only cop-killer whose cause is championed by the Movement for Black Lives. Its platform contains a call to “cease all current investigations and cold cases into former activists,” specifically listing “activists and freedom fighters . . . of the ’60s and ’70s.” The list included Imam Jamil Al Amin, Kamau Sadiki, and the San Francisco Eight. Al Amin, the former H. Rap Brown, had opened fire on two black police officers who were attempting to arrest him on a warrant. He killed one and wounded the other and was convicted of murder. Sadiki, the former Freddie Hilton, was a BLA member convicted of the ambush murder of Atlanta policeman James R. Greene. The San Francisco Eight were former BLA members charged in 2010 with the murder of a police sergeant who died at his desk in Ingleside, California, in 1971 when the station was bombed.
The Black Lives Matter website explains that the group is “working to (re)build the black liberation movement.” It does not mention the civil-rights movement, which vanquished Jim Crow by awakening the nation’s conscience and securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Having achieved its key goals, that movement was largely supplanted by the “black liberation movement,” which gave voice to black rage but accomplished little else.
The core of this later movement was the Black Panther Party, and Black Lives Matter sees itself in its direct line of descent. The parallel between Black Lives Matter and the Panthers was expressed by Ferguson organizer Johnetta Elzie, who, said the New York Times, “often wore dark lipstick, . . . oversize sunglasses and a leather jacket . . . channeling a Black Panther.” It was drawn explicitly by Stanley Nelson, the maker of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution, a two-hour Public Broadcasting documentary aired this year. This film, like the Movement for Black Lives, was financed by the Ford Foundation, on whose website Nelson explained: “Given the events in this country over the last year and a half or so, using the Panthers as an organizing tool seemed natural.” Thus, rather than give time on camera to any Panther detractors, Nelson produced what The Daily Beast’s cultural editor Michael Moynihan called a “hagiography.” In a statement issued to accompany the film, Nelson left little doubt that this was precisely his intent:
The Black Panther Party emerged out of a love for their people and a devotion to empowering them. This powerful display of the human spirit, rooted in heart, is what compelled me to communicate this story accurately . . . . Nearly half a century later, we find our voices in a renewed chorus for justice and equality. We continue to witness a state apparatus that perpetuates a culture of fear and aggression with frequent and unwarranted displays of racial violence and oppression.
The connection was also drawn by the New York Times, which gave over much of the front page of its Arts section to a breathless review of Power to the People, “an important new book” of photos of the Black Panthers by an ardent devotee, Stephen Shames, in collaboration with former party chairman, Bobby Seale. The book, intoned the Times, “has much to say about the current racial crisis.” The reviewer continued: “During the past half-century much has changed, yet little has changed, as the campaign to end systemic racism and violence against minorities, exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement, remains as vital as ever.”
Yet the truth about the Panthers could scarcely be uglier. Their signature slogan was “Off the pig,” meaning murder policemen, and murder they did. Party founder and guiding spirit Huey Newton was convicted of shooting to death an Oakland officer, a conviction that was overturned on the technicality that the judge had failed to inform the jury that it had the option of finding “involuntary manslaughter” if it believed Newton was impaired when firing. But Hugh Pearson, the black author of the most complete and dispassionate history of the Panthers, found two unrelated Newton associates who each said that Huey had confessed to them he had indeed murdered the officer.
Eldridge Cleaver, the party’s other most powerful leader, also gunned down a policeman, leading to a siege and protracted shootout in which one Panther was killed while trying either to surrender or escape. Typical of much racial discourse that persists to this day, a luminous list of literati at the New York Review of Books—Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Jessica Mitford, John Gunther, and scores more—rushed to declare that the Panthers “were victims of an attack by Oakland police.” But David Hilliard, the party’s chief of staff, acknowledged the true story in his memoirs: “Eldridge . . . gives me the plan . . . . We’ll transport a cache of guns from my house to West Oakland, catch a policeman on the way, and gun him down.”
The principal victims of Panther violence, however, may not have been police but black civilians. In Soul on Ice, the book that made him famous, Cleaver describes the act of raping white women as his personal “insurrection,” while explaining that he first raped a number of black women “for practice.” Newton, too, raped at least one black woman, a story recounted in the left-leaning New Times by liberal journalists who also detailed, as has Hugh Pearson, the toll of Panther violence. It ranged from Newton’s murder of a 17-year-old black prostitute and the pistol-whipping of a black tailor to a deadly feud between the Panthers and a rival armed group called US.
Panther apologists make much of the group’s health and education programs, but these were rackets. When an organization of legitimate black-owned businesses offered to provide food for the Panthers’ ballyhooed breakfast program, Newton insisted that it would take only cash.
Arguably, in fact, the victims of the Panthers’ most extreme violence were Panthers—those who dissented or were members of rival factions or were seen by Newton as competitors. Alex Rackley, to cite just one example, was accused of spying for the authorities. He was bludgeoned and scalded with boiling water over several days before being taken out and shot. Three Panthers confessed to the crime. Several others were gunned down in internecine struggles. Male party members were “disciplined” by terrible beatings and bullwhippings, females by being forced into prostitution.
The Real America
While Black Lives Matter is run by people who nonetheless seem to embrace the Panthers’ legacy, many of its adherents and sympathizers are motivated simply by revulsion over the various publicized cases in which police have killed blacks, and by the dismay at the situation that these events symbolize—enduring inequality between black and white in America. How to redress this inequality and to reduce the number of lethal acts by police are important questions. But their consideration is impeded rather than advanced by rhetoric about a “war on blacks” or the claim that endemic racism lies at the root of these problems.
In truth, this society has made enormous efforts to eliminate racial disparities and to compensate for the historical injustices done to blacks through slavery and discrimination. For some 40 years now, under the rubric “affirmative action,” blacks have received preference in admission to colleges and universities and in many jobs. In addition, federal, state, and local governments have spent immense sums toward the goal of assisting those in need. These programs affect more whites than blacks in absolute numbers, but relative to population, they affect more blacks, and this was often the intent. The entire “war on poverty” was initiated by the Johnson administration out of the momentum and spirit of the civil-rights revolution of the 1960s, that is, with the goal of closing the racial gap very much in mind. (Hilariously, Hugh Pearson reports that in 1967, “Newton, Seale, and Bobby Hutton took their paychecks from the antipoverty program and opened up the first Black Panther office.”)
A 2014 study by the House Budget Committee found that the federal government alone had spent 799 billion dollars on such programs, meaning the total with state and local funds must exceed one trillion a year. All of these efforts including affirmative action presumably have contributed to a measurable narrowing of the disparities. How to narrow them further is a matter that deserves far-reaching consideration, but this inquiry will not be advanced by demagoguery including the absurd notion that American society, or any substantial part of it, doubts that black lives matter.
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The Truth About Black Lives Matter
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Exactly one week later, a Star Wars cantina of the American extremist right featuring everyone from David Duke to a white-nationalist Twitter personality named “Baked Alaska” gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue honoring the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. A video promoting the gathering railed against “the international Jewish system, the capitalist system, and the forces of globalism.” Amid sporadic street battles between far-right and “antifa” (anti-fascist) activists, a neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotestors, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Here, in the time span of just seven days, was the dual nature of contemporary American anti-Semitism laid bare. The most glaring difference between these two displays of hate lies not so much in their substance—both adhere to similar conspiracy theories articulating nefarious, world-altering Jewish power—but rather their self-characterization. The animosity expressed toward Jews in Charlottesville was open and unambiguous, with demonstrators proudly confessing their hatred in the familiar language of Nazis and European fascists.
The socialists in Chicago, meanwhile, though calling for a literal second Holocaust on the shores of the Mediterranean, would fervently and indignantly deny they are anti-Semitic. On the contrary, they claim the mantle of “anti-fascism” and insist that this identity naturally makes them allies of the Jewish people. As for those Jews who might oppose their often violent tactics, they are at best bystanders to fascism, at worst collaborators in “white supremacy.”
So, whereas white nationalists explicitly embrace a tribalism that excludes Jews regardless of their skin color, the progressives of the DSA and the broader “woke” community conceive of themselves as universalists—though their universalism is one that conspicuously excludes the national longings of Jews and Jews alone. And whereas the extreme right-wingers are sincere in their anti-Semitism, the socialists who called for the elimination of Israel are just as sincere in their belief that they are not anti-Semitic, even though anti-Semitism is the inevitable consequence of their rhetoric and worldview.
The sheer bluntness of far-right anti-Semitism makes it easier to identify and stigmatize as beyond the pale; individuals like David Duke and the hosts of the “Daily Shoah” podcast make no pretense of residing within the mainstream of American political debate. But the humanist appeals of the far left, whose every libel against the Jewish state is paired with a righteous invocation of “justice” for the Palestinian people, invariably trigger repetitive and esoteric debates over whether this or that article, allusion, allegory, statement, policy, or political initiative is anti-Semitic or just critical of Israel. What this difference in self-definition means is that there is rarely, if ever, any argument about the substantive nature of right-wing anti-Semitism (despicable, reprehensible, wicked, choose your adjective), while the very existence of left-wing anti-Semitism is widely doubted and almost always indignantly denied by those accused of practicing it.T o be sure, these recent manifestations of anti-Semitism occur on the left and right extremes. And statistics tell a rather comforting story about the state of anti-Semitism in America. Since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking it in 1979, anti-Jewish hate crime is at an historic low; indeed, it has been declining since a recent peak of 1,554 incidents in 2006. America, for the most part, remains a very philo-Semitic country, one of the safest, most welcoming countries for Jews on earth. A recent Pew poll found Jews to be the most admired religious group in the United States.1 If American Jews have anything to dread, it’s less anti-Semitism than the loss of Jewish peoplehood through assimilation, that is being “loved to death” by Gentiles.2 Few American Jews can say that anti-Semitism has a seriously deleterious impact on their life, that it has denied them educational or employment opportunities, or that they fear for the physical safety of themselves or their families because of their Jewish identity.
The question is whether the extremes are beginning to move in on the center. In the past year alone, the DSA’s rolls tripled from 8,000 to 25,000 dues-paying members, who have established a conspicuous presence on social media reaching far beyond what their relatively miniscule numbers attest. The DSA has been the subject of widespread media coverage, ranging from the curious to the adulatory. The white supremacists, meanwhile, found themselves understandably heartened by the strange difficulty President Donald Trump had in disavowing them. He claimed, in fact, that there had been some “very fine people” among their ranks. “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville,” tweeted David Duke, while the white-nationalist Richard Spencer said, “I’m proud of him for speaking the truth.”
Indeed, among the more troubling aspects of our highly troubling political predicament—and one that, from a Jewish perspective, provokes not a small amount of angst—is that so many ideas, individuals, and movements that could once reliably be categorized as “extreme,” in the literal sense of articulating the views of a very small minority, are no longer so easily dismissed. The DSA is part of a much broader revival of the socialist idea in America, as exemplified by the growing readership of journals like Jacobin and Current Affairs, the popularity of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast, and the insurgent presidential campaign of self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders—who, according to a Harvard-Harris poll, is now the most popular politician in the United States. Since 2015, the average age of a DSA member dropped from 64 to 30, and a 2016 Harvard poll found a majority of Millennials do not support capitalism.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Donald Trump offers “nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics,” according to Nicholas Grossman, a lecturer in political science at the University of Illinois. A party that was once reliably internationalist and assertive against Russian aggression now supports a president who often preaches isolationism and never has even a mildly critical thing to say about the KGB thug ruling over the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Like ripping the bandage off an ugly and oozing wound, Trump’s presidential campaign unleashed a bevy of unpleasant social forces that at the very least have an indirect bearing on Jewish welfare. The most unpleasant of those forces has been the so-called alternative right, or “alt-right,” a highly race-conscious political movement whose adherents are divided on the “JQ” (Jewish Question). Throughout last year’s campaign, Jewish journalists (this author included) were hit with a barrage of luridly anti-Semitic Twitter messages from self-described members of the alt-right. The tamer missives instructed us to leave America for Israel, others superimposed our faces onto the bodies of concentration camp victims.3
I do not believe Donald Trump is himself an anti-Semite, if only because anti-Semitism is mainly a preoccupation—as distinct from a prejudice—and Trump is too narcissistic to indulge any preoccupation other than himself. And there is no evidence to suggest that he subscribes to the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories favored by his alt-right supporters. But his casual resort to populism, nativism, and conspiracy theory creates a narrative environment highly favorable to anti-Semites.
Nativism, of which Trump was an early and active practitioner, is never good for the Jews, no matter how affluent or comfortable they may be and notwithstanding whether they are even the target of its particular wrath. Racial divisions, which by any measure have grown significantly worse in the year since Trump was elected, hurt all Americans, obviously, but they have a distinct impact on Jews, who are left in a precarious position as racial identities calcify. Not only are the newly emboldened white supremacists of the alt-right invariably anti-Semites, but in the increasingly racialist taxonomy of the progressive left—which more and more mainstream liberals are beginning to parrot—Jews are considered possessors of “white privilege” and, thus, members of the class to be divested of its “power” once the revolution comes. In the racially stratified society that both extremes envision, Jews lose out, simultaneously perceived (by the far right) as wily allies and manipulators of ethnic minorities in a plot to mongrelize America and (by the far left) as opportunistic “Zionists” ingratiating themselves with a racist and exploitative “white” establishment that keeps minorities down.T his politics is bad for all Americans, and Jewish Americans in particular. More and more, one sees the racialized language of the American left being applied to the Middle East conflict, wherein Israel (which is, in point of fact, one of the most racially diverse countries in the world) is referred to as a “white supremacist” state no different from that of apartheid South Africa. In a book just published by MIT Press, ornamented with a forward by Cornel West and entitled “Whites, Jews, and Us,” a French-Algerian political activist named Houria Bouteldja asks, “What can we offer white people in exchange for their decline and for the wars that will ensue?” Drawing the Jews into her race war, Bouteldja, according to the book’s jacket copy, “challenges widespread assumptions among the left in the United States and Europe—that anti-Semitism plays any role in Arab–Israeli conflicts, for example, or that philo-Semitism doesn’t in itself embody an oppressive position.” Jew-hatred is virtuous, and appreciation of the Jews is racism.
Few political activists of late have done more to racialize the Arab–Israeli conflict—and, through insidious extension of the American racial hierarchy, designate American Jews as oppressors—than the Brooklyn-born Arab activist Linda Sarsour. An organizer of the Women’s March, Sarsour has seamlessly insinuated herself into a variety of high-profile progressive campaigns, a somewhat incongruent position given her reactionary views on topics like women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. (“10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia,” she tweets. “Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame.”) Sarsour, who is of Palestinian descent, claims that one cannot simultaneously be a feminist and a Zionist, when it is the exact opposite that is true: No genuine believer in female equality can deny the right of Israel to exist. The Jewish state respects the rights of women more than do any of its neighbors. In an April 2017 interview, Sarsour said that she had become a high-school teacher for the purpose of “inspiring young people of color like me.” Just three months earlier, however, in a video for Vox, Sarsour confessed, “When I wasn’t wearing hijab I was just some ordinary white girl from New York City.” The donning of Muslim garb, then, confers a racial caste of “color,” which in turn confers virtue, which in turn confers a claim on political power.
This attempt to describe the Israeli–Arab conflict in American racial vernacular marks Jews as white (a perverse mirror of Nazi biological racism) and thus implicates them as beneficiaries of “structural racism,” “white privilege,” and the whole litany of benefits afforded to white people at birth in the form of—to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’s abstruse phrase—the “glowing amulet” of “whiteness.” “It’s time to admit that Arthur Balfour was a white supremacist and an anti-Semite,” reads the headline of a recent piece in—where else? —the Forward, incriminating Jewish nationalism as uniquely perfidious by dint of the fact that, like most men of his time, a (non-Jewish) British official who endorsed the Zionist idea a century ago held views that would today be considered racist. Reading figures like Bouteldja and Sarsour brings to mind the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner’s observation that “the racialization of the world has to be the most unexpected result of the antidiscrimination battle of the last half-century; it has ensured that the battle continuously re-creates the curse from which it is trying to break free.”
If Jews are white, and if white people—as a group—enjoy tangible and enduring advantages over everyone else, then this racially essentialist rhetoric ends up with Jews accused of abetting white supremacy, if not being white supremacists themselves. This is one of the overlooked ways in which the term “white supremacy” has become devoid of meaning in the age of Donald Trump, with everyone and everything from David Duke to James Comey to the American Civil Liberties Union accused of upholding it. Take the case of Ben Shapiro, the Jewish conservative polemicist. At the start of the school year, Shapiro was scheduled to give a talk at UC Berkeley, his alma matter. In advance, various left-wing groups put out a call for protest in which they labeled Shapiro—an Orthodox Jew—a “fascist thug” and “white supremacist.” An inconvenient fact ignored by Shapiro’s detractors is that, according to the ADL, he was the top target of online abuse from actual white supremacists during the 2016 presidential election. (Berkeley ultimately had to spend $600,000 protecting the event from leftist rioters.)
A more pernicious form of this discourse is practiced by left-wing writers who, insincerely claiming to have the interests of Jews at heart, scold them and their communal organizations for not doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism. Criticizing Jews for not fully signing up with the “Resistance” (which in form and function is fast becoming the 21st-century version of the interwar Popular Front), they then slyly indict Jews for being complicit in not only their own victimization but that of the entire country at the hands of Donald Trump. The first and foremost practitioner of this bullying and rather artful form of anti-Semitism is Jeet Heer, a Canadian comic-book critic who has achieved some repute on the American left due to his frenetic Twitter activity and availability when the New Republic needed to replace its staff that had quit en masse in 2014. Last year, when Heer came across a video of a Donald Trump supporter chanting “JEW-S-A” at a rally, he declared on Twitter: “We really need to see more comment from official Jewish groups like ADL on way Trump campaign has energized anti-Semitism.”
But of course “Jewish groups” have had plenty to say about the anti-Semitism expressed by some Trump supporters—too much, in the view of their critics. Just two weeks earlier, the ADL had released a report analyzing over 2 million anti-Semitic tweets targeting Jewish journalists over the previous year. This wasn’t the first time the ADL raised its voice against Trump and the alt-right movement he emboldened, nor would it be the last. Indeed, two minutes’ worth of Googling would have shown Heer that his pronouncements about organizational Jewish apathy were wholly without foundation.4
It’s tempting to dismiss Heer’s observation as mere “concern trolling,” a form of Internet discourse characterized by insincere expressions of worry. But what he did was nastier. Immediately presented with evidence for the inaccuracy of his claims, he sneered back with a bit of wisdom from the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, yet cast as mild threat: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” In other words: How can you Jews expect anyone to care about your kind if you don’t sufficiently oppose—as arbitrarily judged by moi, Jeet Heer—Donald Trump?
If this sort of critique were coming from a Jewish donor upset that his preferred organization wasn’t doing enough to combat anti-Semitism, or a Gentile with a proven record of concern for Jewish causes, it wouldn’t have turned the stomach. What made Heer’s interjection revolting is that, to put it mildly, he’s not exactly known for being sympathetic toward the Jewish plight. In 2015, Heer put his name to a petition calling upon an international comic-book festival to drop the Israeli company SodaStream as a co-sponsor because the Jewish state is “built on the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities and sustained through racism and discrimination.” Heer’s name appeared alongside that of Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist who won second place in the Iranian government’s 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition. For his writings on Israel, Heer has been praised as being “very good on the conflict” by none other than Philip Weiss, proprietor of the anti-Semitic hate site Mondoweiss.
In light of this track record, Heer’s newfound concern about anti-Semitism appeared rather dubious. Indeed, the bizarre way in which he expressed this concern—as, ultimately, a critique not of anti-Semitism per se but of the country’s foremost Jewish civil-rights organization—suggests he cares about anti-Semitism insofar as its existence can be used as a weapon to beat his political adversaries. And since the incorrigibly Zionist American Jewish establishment ranks high on that list (just below that of Donald Trump and his supporters), Heer found a way to blame it for anti-Semitism. And what does that tell you? It tells you that—presented with a 16-second video of a man chanting “JEW-S-A” at a Donald Trump rally—Heer’s first impulse was to condemn not the anti-Semite but the Jews.
Heer isn’t the only leftist (or New Republic writer) to assume this rhetorical cudgel. In a piece entitled “The Dismal Failure of Jewish Groups to Confront Trump,” one Stephen Lurie attacked the ADL for advising its members to stay away from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right Rally” and let police handle any provocations from neo-Nazis. “We do not have a Jewish organizational home for the fight against fascism,” he quotes a far-left Jewish activist, who apparently thinks that we live in the Weimar Republic and not a stable democracy in which law-enforcement officers and not the balaclava-wearing thugs of antifa maintain the peace. Like Jewish Communists of yore, Lurie wants to bully Jews into abandoning liberalism for the extreme left, under the pretext that mainstream organizations just won’t cut it in the fight against “white supremacy.” Indeed, Lurie writes, some “Jewish institutions and power players…have defended and enabled white supremacy.” The main group he fingers with this outrageous slander is the Republican Jewish Coalition, the implication being that this explicitly partisan Republican organization’s discrete support for the Republican president “enables white supremacy.”
It is impossible to imagine Heer, Lurie, or other progressive writers similarly taking the NAACP to task for its perceived lack of concern about racism, or castigating the Human Rights Campaign for insufficiently combating homophobia. No, it is only the cowardice of Jews that is condemned—condemned for supposedly ignoring a form of bigotry that, when expressed on the left, these writers themselves ignore or even defend. The logical gymnastics of these two New Republic writers is what happens when, at base, one fundamentally resents Jews: You end up blaming them for anti-Semitism. Blaming Jews for not sufficiently caring enough about anti-Semitism is emotionally the same as claiming that Jews are to blame for anti-Semitism. Both signal an envy and resentment of Jews predicated upon a belief that they have some kind of authority that the claimant doesn’t and therefore needs to undermine.T his past election, one could not help but notice how the media seemingly discovered anti-Semitism when it emanated from the right, and then only when its targets were Jews on the left. It was enough to make one ask where they had been when left-wing anti-Semitism had been a more serious and pervasive problem. From at least 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan made his last serious attempt at securing the GOP presidential nomination) to 2016 (when the Republican presidential nominee did more to earn the support of white supremacists and neo-Nazis than any of his predecessors), anti-Semitism was primarily a preserve of the American left. In that two-decade period—spanning the collapse of the Oslo Accords and rise of the Second Intifada to the rancorous debate over the Iraq War and obsession with “neocons” to the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitic conspiracy made unprecedented inroads into respectable precincts of the American academy, the liberal intelligentsia, and the Democratic Party.
The main form that left-wing anti-Semitism takes in the United States today is unhinged obsession with the wrongs, real or perceived, of the state of Israel, and the belief that its Jewish supporters in the United States exercise a nefarious control over the levers of American foreign policy. In this respect, contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is not altogether different from that of the far right, though it usually lacks the biological component deeming Jews a distinct and inferior race. (Consider the left-wing anti-Semite’s eagerness to identify and promote Jewish “dissidents” who can attest to their co-religionists’ craftiness and deceit.) The unholy synergy of left and right anti-Semitism was recently epitomized by former CIA agent and liberal stalwart Valerie Plame’s hearty endorsement, on Twitter, of an article written for an extreme right-wing website by a fellow former CIA officer named Philip Giraldi: “America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars.” Plame eventually apologized for sharing the article with her 50,000 followers, but not before insisting that “many neocon hawks are Jewish” and that “just FYI, I am of Jewish descent.”
The main fora in which left-wing anti-Semitism appears is academia. According to the ADL, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses doubled from 2014 to 2015, the latest year that data are available. Writing in National Affairs, Ruth Wisse observes that “not since the war in Vietnam has there been a campus crusade as dynamic as the movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.” Every academic year, a seeming surfeit of controversies erupt on campuses across the country involving the harassment of pro-Israel students and organizations, the disruption of events involving Israeli speakers (even ones who identify as left-wing), and blatantly anti-Semitic outbursts by professors and student activists. There was the Oberlin professor of rhetoric, Joy Karega, who posted statements on social media claiming that Israel had created ISIS and had orchestrated the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is the Rutgers associate professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir Puar, who popularized the ludicrous term “pinkwashing” to defame Israel’s LGBT acceptance as a massive conspiracy to obscure its oppression of Palestinians. Her latest book, The Right to Maim, academically peer-reviewed and published by Duke University Press, attacks Israel for sparing the lives of Palestinian civilians, accusing its military of “shooting to maim rather than to kill” so that it may keep “Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them.”
One could go on and on about such affronts not only to Jews and supporters of Israel but to common sense, basic justice, and anyone who believes in the prudent use of taxpayer dollars. That several organizations exist solely for the purpose of monitoring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation on American campuses attests to the prolificacy of the problem. But it’s unclear just how reflective these isolated examples of the college experience really are. A 2017 Stanford study purporting to examine the issue interviewed 66 Jewish students at five California campuses noted for “being particularly fertile for anti-Semitism and for having an active presence of student groups critical of Israel and Zionism.” It concluded that “contrary to widely shared impressions, we found a picture of campus life that is neither threatening nor alarmist…students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, comfortable as Jews on their campuses.” To the extent that Jewish students do feel pressured, the report attempted to spread the blame around, indicting pro-Israel activists alongside those agitating against it. “[Survey respondents] fear that entering political debate, especially when they feel the social pressures of both Jewish and non-Jewish activist communities, will carry social costs that they are unwilling to bear.”
Yet by its own admission, the report “only engaged students who were either unengaged or minimally engaged in organized Jewish life on their campuses.” Researchers made a study of anti-Semitism, then, by interviewing the Jews least likely to experience it. “Most people don’t really think I’m Jewish because I look very Latina…it doesn’t come up in conversation,” one such student said in an interview. Ultimately, the report revealed more about the attitudes of unengaged (and, thus, uninformed) Jews than about the state of anti-Semitism on college campuses. That may certainly be useful in its own right as a means of understanding how unaffiliated Jews view debates over Israel, but it is not an accurate marker of developments on college campuses more broadly.
A more extensive 2016 Brandeis study of Jewish students at 50 schools found 34 percent agreed at least “somewhat” that their campus has a hostile environment toward Israel. Yet the variation was wide; at some schools, only 3 percent agreed, while at others, 70 percent did. Only 15 percent reported a hostile environment towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was found to be more prevalent at public universities than private ones, with the determinative factor being the presence of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Important context often lost in conversations about campus anti-Semitism, and reassuring to those concerned about it, is that it is simply not the most important issue roiling higher education. “At most schools,” the report found, “fewer than 10 percent of Jewish students listed issues pertaining to either Jews or Israel as among the most pressing on campus.”F or generations, American Jews have depended on anti-Semitism’s remaining within a moral quarantine, a cordon sanitaire, and America has reliably kept this societal virus contained. While there are no major signs that this barricade is breaking down in the immediate future, there are worrying indications on the political horizon.
Surveying the situation at the international level, the declining global position of the United States—both in terms of its hard military and economic power relative to rising challengers and its position as a credible beacon of liberal democratic values—does not portend well for Jews, American or otherwise. American leadership of the free world, has, in addition to ensuring Israel’s security, underwritten the postwar liberal world order. And it is the constituent members of that order, the liberal democratic states, that have served as the best guarantor of the Jews’ life and safety over their 6,000-year history. Were America’s global leadership role to diminish or evaporate, it would not only facilitate the rise of authoritarian states like Iran and terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda, committed to the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, but inexorably lead to a worldwide rollback of liberal democracy, an outcome that would inevitably redound to the detriment of Jews.
Domestically, political polarization and the collapse of public trust in every American institution save the military are demolishing what little confidence Americans have left in their system and governing elites, not to mention preparing the ground for some ominous political scenarios. Widely cited survey data reveal that the percentage of American Millennials who believe it “essential” to live in a liberal democracy hovers at just over 25 percent. If Trump is impeached or loses the next election, a good 40 percent of the country will be outraged and susceptible to belief in a stab-in-the-back theory accounting for his defeat. Whom will they blame? Perhaps the “neoconservatives,” who disproportionately make up the ranks of Trump’s harshest critics on the right?
Ultimately, the degree to which anti-Semitism becomes a problem in America hinges on the strength of the antibodies within the country’s communal DNA to protect its pluralistic and liberal values. But even if this resistance to tribalism and the cult of personality is strong, it may not be enough to abate the rise of an intellectual and societal disease that, throughout history, thrives upon economic distress, xenophobia, political uncertainty, ethnic chauvinism, conspiracy theory, and weakening democratic norms.
1 Somewhat paradoxically, according to FBI crime statistics, the majority of religiously based hate crimes target Jews, more than double the amount targeting Muslims. This indicates more the commitment of the country’s relatively small number of hard-core anti-Semites than pervasive anti-Semitism.
4 The ADL has had to maintain a delicate balancing act in the age of Trump, coming under fire by many conservative Jews for a perceived partisan tilt against the right. This makes Heer’s complaint all the more ignorant — and unhelpful.
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Review of 'The Once and Future Liberal' By Mark Lilla
Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, tells us that “the story of how a successful liberal politics of solidarity became a failed pseudo-politics of identity is not a simple one.” And about this, he’s right. Lilla quotes from the feminist authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Manifesto: “The most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Feminists looked to instantiate the “radical” and electrifying phrase which insisted that “the personal is political.” The phrase, argues Lilla, was generally seen in “a somewhat Marxist fashion to mean that everything that seems personal is in fact political.”
The upshot was fragmentation. White feminists were deemed racist by black feminists—and both were found wanting by lesbians, who also had black and white contingents. “What all these groups wanted,” explains Lilla, “was more than social justice and an end to the [Vietnam] war. They also wanted there to be no space between what they felt inside and what they saw and did in the world.” He goes on: “The more obsessed with personal identity liberals become, the less willing they become to engage in reasoned political debate.” In the end, those on the left came to a realization: “You can win a debate by claiming the greatest degree of victimization and thus the greatest outrage at being subjected to questioning.”
But Lilla’s insights into the emotional underpinnings of political correctness are undercut by an inadequate, almost bizarre sense of history. He appears to be referring to the 1970s when, zigzagging through history, he writes that “no recognition of personal or group identity was coming from the Democratic Party, which at the time was dominated by racist Dixiecrats and white union officials of questionable rectitude.”
What is he talking about? Is Lilla referring to the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern? Is he referring obliquely to George Wallace? If so, why is Wallace never mentioned? Lilla seems not to know that it was the 1972 McGovern Democratic Convention that introduced minority seating to be set aside for blacks and women.
At only 140 pages, this is a short book. But even so, Lilla could have devoted a few pages to Frankfurt ideologist Herbert Marcuse and his influence on the left. In the 1960s, Marcuse argued that leftists and liberals were entitled to restrain centrist and conservative speech on the grounds that the universities had to act as a counterweight to society at large. But this was not just rhetoric; in the campus disruption of the early 1970s at schools such as Yale, Cornell, and Amherst, Marcuse’s ideals were pushed to the fore.
If Lilla’s argument comes off as flaccid, perhaps that’s because the aim of The Once and Future Liberal is more practical than principled. “The only way” to protect our rights, he tells the reader, “is to elect liberal Democratic governors and state legislators who’ll appoint liberal state attorneys.” According to Lilla, “the paradox of identity liberalism” is that it undercuts “the things it professes to want,” namely political power. He insists, rightly, that politics has to be about persuasion but then contradicts himself in arguing that “politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” In other words, Lilla wants a better path to total victory.
Given what Lilla, descending into hysteria, describes as “the Republican rage for destruction,” liberals and Democrats have to win elections lest the civil rights of blacks, women, and gays are rolled back. As proof of the ever-looming danger, he notes that when the “crisis of the mid-1970s threatened…the country turned not against corporations and banks, but against liberalism.” Yet he gives no hint of the trail of liberal failures that led to the crisis of the mid-’70s. You’d never know reading Lilla, for example, that the Black Power movement intensified racial hostilities that were then further exacerbated by affirmative action and busing. And you’d have no idea that, at considerable cost, the poverty programs of the Great Society failed to bring poorer African Americans into the economic mainstream. Nor does Lilla deal with the devotion to Keynesianism that produced inflation without economic growth during the Carter presidency.
Despite his discursive ambling through the recent history of American political life, Lilla has a one-word explanation for identity politics: Reaganism. “Identity,” he writes, is “Reaganism for lefties.” What’s crucial in combating Reaganism, he argues, is to concentrate on our “shared political” status as citizens. “Citizenship is a crucial weapon in the battle against Reaganite dogma because it brings home that fact that we are part of a legitimate common enterprise.” But then he asserts that the “American right uses the term citizenship today as a means of exclusion.” The passage might lead the reader to think that Lilla would take up the question of immigration and borders. But he doesn’t, and the closing passages of the book dribble off into characteristic zigzags. Lilla tells us that “Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity” but then goes on, without evidence, to assert the accuracy of the Black Lives Matter claim that African-Americans have been singled out for police mistreatment.
It would be nice to argue that The Once and Future Liberal is a near miss, a book that might have had enduring importance if only it went that extra step. But Lilla’s passing insights on the perils of a politically correct identity politics drown in the rhetoric of conventional bromides that fill most of the pages of this disappointing book.
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n Athens several years ago, I had dinner with a man running for the national parliament. I asked him whether he thought he had a shot at winning. He was sure of victory, he told me. “I have hired a very famous political consultant from Washington,” he said. “He is the man who elected Reagan. Expensive. But the best.”
The political genius he then described was a minor political flunky I had met in Washington long ago, a more-or-less anonymous member of the Republican National Committee before he faded from view at the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mutual acquaintances told me he still lived in a nice neighborhood in Northern Virginia, but they never could figure out what the hell he did to earn his money. (This is a recurring mystery throughout the capital.) I had to come to Greece to find the answer.
It is one of the dark arts of Washington, this practice of American political hacks traveling to faraway lands and suckering foreign politicians into paying vast sums for splashy, state-of-the-art, essentially worthless “services.” And it’s perfectly legal. Paul Manafort, who briefly managed Donald Trump’s campaign last summer, was known as a pioneer of the globe-trotting racket. If he hadn’t, as it were, veered out of his gutter into the slightly higher lane of U.S. presidential politics, he likely could have hoovered cash from the patch pockets of clueless clients from Ouagadougou to Zagreb for the rest of his natural life and nobody in Washington would have noticed.
But he veered, and now he and a colleague find themselves indicted by Robert Mueller, the Inspector Javert of the Russian-collusion scandal. When those indictments landed, they instantly set in motion the familiar scramble. Trump fans announced that the indictments were proof that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians—or, in the crisp, emphatic phrasing of a tweet by the world’s Number One Trump Fan, Donald Trump: “NO COLLUSION!!!!” The Russian-scandal fetishists in the press corps replied in chorus: It’s still early! Javert required more time, and so will Mueller, and so will they.
A good Washington scandal requires a few essential elements. One is a superabundance of information. From these data points, conspiracy-minded reporters can begin to trace associations, warranted or not, and from the associations, they can infer motives and objectives with which, stretched together, they can limn a full-blown conspiracy theory. The Manafort indictment released a flood of new information, and at once reporters were pawing for nuggets that might eventually form a compelling case for collusion.
They failed to find any because Manafort’s indictment, in essence, involved his efforts to launder his profits from his international political work, not his work for the Trump campaign. Fortunately for the obsessives, another element is required for a good scandal: a colorful cast. The various Clinton scandals brought us Asian money-launderers and ChiCom bankers, along with an entire Faulkner-novel’s worth of bumpkins, sharpies, and backwoods swindlers, plus that intern in the thong. Watergate, the mother lode of Washington scandals, featured a host of implausible characters, from the central-casting villain G. Gordon Liddy to Sam Ervin, a lifelong segregationist and racist who became a hero to liberals everywhere.
Here, at last, is one area where the Russian scandal has begun to show promise. Manafort and his business partner seem too banal to hold the interest of anyone but a scandal obsessive. Beneath the pile of paper Mueller dumped on them, however, another creature could be seen peeking out shyly. This would be the diminutive figure of George Papadopoulos. An unpaid campaign adviser to Trump, Papadopoulos pled guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of his conversations with Russian agents. He is quickly becoming the stuff of legend.
Papadopoulos is an exemplar of a type long known to American politics. He is the nebbish bedazzled by the big time—achingly ambitious, though lacking the skill, or the cunning, to climb the greasy pole. So he remains at the periphery of the action, ever eager to serve. Papadopoulos’s résumé, for a man under 30, is impressively padded. He said he served as the U.S. representative to the Model United Nations in 2012, though nobody recalls seeing him there. He boasted of a four-year career at the Hudson Institute, though in fact he spent one year there as an unpaid intern and three doing contract research for one of Hudson’s scholars. On his LinkedIn page, he listed himself as a keynote speaker at a Greek American conference in 2008, but in fact he participated only in a panel discussion. The real keynoter was Michael Dukakis.
With this hunger for achievement, real or imagined, Papadopoulos could not let a presidential campaign go by without climbing aboard. In late 2015, he somehow attached himself to Ben Carson’s campaign. He was never paid and lasted four months. His presence went largely unnoticed. “If there was any work product, I never saw it,” Carson’s campaign manager told Time. The deputy campaign manager couldn’t even recall his name. Then suddenly, in April 2016, Papadopoulos appeared on a list of “foreign-policy advisers” to Donald Trump—and, according to Mueller’s court filings, resolved to make his mark by acting as a liaison between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
While Mueller tells the story of Papadopoulos’s adventures in the dry, Joe Friday prose of a legal document, it could easily be the script for a Peter Sellers movie from the Cold War era. The young man’s résumé is enough to impress the campaign’s impressionable officials as they scavenge for foreign-policy advisers: “Hey, Corey! This dude was in the Model United Nations!”
Papadopoulus (played by Sellers) sets about his mission. A few weeks after signing on to the campaign, he travels to Europe, where he meets a mysterious “Professor” (Peter Ustinov). “Initially the Professor seemed uninterested in Papadopoulos,” says Mueller’s indictment. A likely story! Yet when Papadopoulus lets drop that he’s an adviser to Trump, the Professor suddenly “appeared to take great interest” in him. They arrange a meeting in London to which the Professor invites a “female Russian national” (Elke Sommer). Without much effort, the femme fatale convinces Papadopoulus that she is Vladimir Putin’s niece. (“I weel tell z’American I em niece of Great Leader! Zat idjut belief ennytink!”) Over the next several months our hero sends many emails to campaign officials and to the Professor, trying to arrange a meeting between them. As far we know from the indictment, nothing came of his mighty efforts.
And there matters lay until January 2017, when the FBI came calling. Agents asked Papadopoulos about his interactions with the Russians. Even though he must have known that hundreds of his emails on the subject would soon be available to the FBI, he lied and told the agents that the contacts had occurred many months before he joined the campaign. History will record Papadopoulos as the man who forgot that emails carry dates on them. After the FBI interview, according to the indictment, he tried to destroy evidence with the same competence he has brought to his other endeavors. He closed his Facebook account, on which several communications with the Russians had taken place. He threw out his old cellphone. (That should do it!) After that, he began wearing a blindfold, on the theory that if he couldn’t see the FBI, the FBI couldn’t see him.
I made that last one up, obviously. For now, the great hope of scandal hobbyists is that Papadopoulus was wearing a wire between the time he secretly pled guilty and the time his plea was made public. This would have allowed him to gather all kinds of incriminating dirt in conversations with former colleagues. And the dirt is there, all right, as the Manafort indictment proves. Unfortunately for our scandal fetishists, so far none of it shows what their hearts most desire: active collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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An affair to remember
All this changed with the release in 1967 of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate. These two films, made in nouveau European style, treated familiar subjects—a pair of Depression-era bank robbers and a college graduate in search of a place in the adult world—in an unmistakably modern manner. Both films were commercial successes that catapulted their makers and stars into the top echelon of what came to be known as “the new Hollywood.”
Bonnie and Clyde inaugurated a new era in which violence on screen simultaneously became bloodier and more aestheticized, and it has had enduring impact as a result. But it was The Graduate that altered the direction of American moviemaking with its specific appeal to younger and hipper moviegoers who had turned their backs on more traditional cinematic fare. When it opened in New York in December, the movie critic Hollis Alpert reported with bemusement that young people were lining up in below-freezing weather to see it, and that they showed no signs of being dismayed by the cold: “It was as though they all knew they were going to see something good, something made for them.”
The Graduate, whose aimless post-collegiate title character is seduced by the glamorous but neurotic wife of his father’s business partner, is part of the common stock of American reference. Now, a half-century later, it has become the subject of a book-length study, Beverly Gray’s Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation.1 As is so often the case with pop-culture books, Seduced by Mrs. Robinson is almost as much about its self-absorbed Baby Boomer author (“The Graduate taught me to dance to the beat of my own drums”) as its subject. It has the further disadvantage of following in the footsteps of Mark Harris’s magisterial Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008), in which the film is placed in the context of Hollywood’s mid-’60s cultural flux. But Gray’s book offers us a chance to revisit this seminal motion picture and consider just why it was that The Graduate spoke to Baby Boomers in a distinctively personal way.T he Graduate began life in 1963 as a novella of the same name by Charles Webb, a California-born writer who saw his book not as a comic novel but as a serious artistic statement about America’s increasingly disaffected youth. It found its way into the hands of a producer named Lawrence Turman who saw The Graduate as an opportunity to make the cinematic equivalent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Turman optioned the book, then sent it to Mike Nichols, who in 1963 was still best known for his comic partnership with Elaine May but had just made his directorial debut with the original Broadway production of Barefoot in the Park.
Both men saw that The Graduate posed a problem to anyone seeking to put it on the screen. In Turman’s words, “In the book the character of Benjamin Braddock is sort of a whiny pain in the fanny [whom] you want to shake or spank.” To this end, they turned to Buck Henry, who had co-created the popular TV comedy Get Smart with Mel Brooks, to write a screenplay that would retain much of Webb’s dryly witty dialogue (“I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends”) while making Benjamin less priggish.
Nichols’s first major act was casting Dustin Hoffman, an obscure New York stage actor pushing 30, for the title role. No one but Nichols seems to have thought him suitable in any way. Not only was Hoffman short and nondescript-looking, but he was unmistakably Jewish, whereas Benjamin is supposedly the scion of a newly monied WASP family from southern California. Nevertheless, Nichols decided he wanted “a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself,” in order to underline Benjamin’s alienation from the world of his parents.
Nichols filled the other roles in equally unexpected ways. He hired the Oscar winner Anne Bancroft, only six years Hoffman’s senior, to play the unbalanced temptress who lures Benjamin into her bed, then responds with volcanic rage when he falls in love with her beautiful daughter Elaine. He and Henry also steered clear of on-screen references to the campus protests that had only recently started to convulse America. Instead, he set The Graduate in a timeless upper-middle-class milieu inhabited by people more interested in social climbing than self-actualization—the same milieu from which Benjamin is so alienated that he is reduced to near-speechlessness whenever his family and their friends ask him what he plans to do now that he has graduated.
The film’s only explicit allusion to its cultural moment is the use on the soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the painfully earnest anthem of youthful angst that is for all intents and purposes the theme song of The Graduate. Nevertheless, Henry’s screenplay leaves little doubt that the film was in every way a work of its time and place. As he later explained to Mark Harris, it is a study of “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in sync with.…Nobody had made a film specifically about that.”
This aspect of The Graduate is made explicit in a speech by Benjamin that has no direct counterpart in the novel: “It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean, no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
The Graduate was Nichols’s second film, following his wildly successful movie version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Albee’s play was a snarling critique of the American dream, which he believed to be a snare and a delusion. The Graduate had the same skeptical view of postwar America, but its pessimism was played for laughs. When Benjamin is assured by a businessman in the opening scene that the secret to success in America is “plastics,” we are meant to laugh contemptuously at the smugness of so blinkered a view of life. Moreover, the contempt is as real as the laughter: The Graduate has it both ways. For the same reason, the farcical quality of the climactic scene (in which Benjamin breaks up Elaine’s marriage to a handsome young WASP and carts her off to an unknown fate) is played without musical underscoring, a signal that what Benjamin is doing is really no laughing matter.
The youth-oriented message of The Graduate came through loud and clear to its intended audience, which paid no heed to the mixed reviews from middle-aged reviewers unable to grasp what Nichols and Henry were up to. Not so Roger Ebert, the newly appointed 25-year-old movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who called The Graduate “the funniest American comedy of the year…because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.”
Even more revealing was the response of David Brinkley, then the co-anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast, who dismissed The Graduate as “frantic nonsense” but added that his college-age son and his classmates “liked it because it said about the parents and others what they would have said about us if they had made the movie—that we are self-centered and materialistic, that we are licentious and deeply hypocritical about it, that we try to make them into walking advertisements for our own affluence.”
A year after the release of The Graduate, a film-industry report cited in Pictures at a Revolution revealed that “48 percent of all movie tickets in America were now being sold to filmgoers under the age of 24.” A very high percentage of those tickets were to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. At long last, Hollywood had figured out what the Baby Boomers wanted to see.A nd how does The Graduate look a half-century later? To begin with, it now appears to have been Mike Nichols’s creative “road not taken.” In later years, Nichols became less an auteur than a Hollywood director who thought like a Broadway director, choosing vehicles of solid middlebrow-liberal appeal and serving them faithfully without imposing a strong creative vision of his own. In The Graduate, by contrast, he revealed himself to be powerfully aware of the same European filmmaking trends that shaped Bonnie and Clyde. Within a naturalistic framework, he deployed non-naturalistic “new wave” cinematographic techniques with prodigious assurance—and he was willing to end The Graduate on an ambiguous note instead of wrapping it up neatly and pleasingly, letting the camera linger on the unsure faces of Hoffman and Ross as they ride off into an unsettling future.
It is this ambiguity, coupled with Nichols’s prescient decision not to allow The Graduate to become a literal portrayal of American campus life in the troubled mid-’60s, that has kept the film fresh. But The Graduate is fresh in a very particular way: It is a young person’s movie, the tale of a boy-man terrified by the prospect of growing up to be like his parents. Therein lay the source of its appeal to young audiences. The Graduate showed them what they, too, feared most, and hinted at a possible escape route.
In the words of Beverly Gray, who saw The Graduate when it first came out in 1967: “The Graduate appeared in movie houses just as we young Americans were discovering how badly we wanted to distance ourselves from the world of our parents….That polite young high achiever, those loving but smothering parents, those comfortable but slightly bland surroundings: They combined to form an only slightly exaggerated version of my own cozy West L.A. world.”
Yet to watch The Graduate today—especially if you first saw it when much younger—is also to be struck by the extreme unattractiveness of its central character. Hoffman plays Benjamin not as the comically ineffectual nebbish of Jewish tradition but as a near-catatonic robot who speaks by turns in a flat monotone and a frightened nasal whine. It is impossible to understand why Mrs. Robinson would want to go to bed with such a mousy creature, much less why Elaine would run off with him—an impression that has lately acquired an overlay of retrospective irony in the wake of accusations that Hoffman has sexually harassed female colleagues on more than one occasion. Precisely because Benjamin is so unlikable, it is harder for modern-day viewers to identify with him in the same way as did Gray and her fellow Boomers. To watch a Graduate-influenced film like Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995), a poignant romantic comedy about a group of Gen-X college graduates who deliberately choose not to get on with their lives, is to see a closely similar dilemma dramatized in an infinitely more “relatable” way, one in which the crippling anxiety of the principal characters is presented as both understandable and pitiable, thus making it funnier.
Be that as it may, The Graduate is a still-vivid snapshot of a turning point in American cultural history. Before Benjamin Braddock, American films typically portrayed men who were not overgrown, smooth-faced children but full-grown adults, sometimes misguided but incontestably mature. After him, permanent immaturity became the default position of Hollywood-style masculinity.
For this reason, it will be interesting to see what the Millennials, so many of whom demand to be shielded from the “triggering” realities of adult life, make of The Graduate if and when they come to view it. I have a feeling that it will speak to a fair number of them far more persuasively than it did to those of us who—unlike Benjamin Braddock—longed when young to climb the high hill of adulthood and see for ourselves what awaited us on the far side.
1 Algonquin, 278 pages
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“I think that’s best left to states and locales to decide,” DeVos replied. “If the underlying question is . . .”
Murphy interrupted. “You can’t say definitively today that guns shouldn’t be in schools?”
“Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming, I think probably there, I would imagine that there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Murphy continued his line of questioning unfazed. “If President Trump moves forward with his plan to ban gun-free school zones, will you support that proposal?”
“I will support what the president-elect does,” DeVos replied. “But, senator, if the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual due to gun violence.”
Because all this happened several million outrage cycles ago, you may have forgotten what happened next. Rather than mention DeVos’s sympathy for the victims of gun violence, or her support for federalism, or even her deference to the president, the media elite fixated on her hypothetical aside about grizzly bears.
“Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate,” read the NBC News headline. “Citing grizzlies, education nominee says states should determine school gun policies,” reported CNN. “Sorry, Betsy DeVos,” read a headline at the Atlantic, “Guns Aren’t a Bear Necessity in Schools.”
DeVos never said that they were, of course. Nor did she “cite” the bear threat in any definitive way. What she did was decline the opportunity to make a blanket judgment about guns and schools because, in a continent-spanning nation of more than 300 million people, one standard might not apply to every circumstance.
After all, there might be—there are—cases when guns are necessary for security. Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill authorizing some retired police officers to carry firearms while working as school guards. McAuliffe is a Democrat.
In her answer to Murphy, DeVos referred to a private meeting with Senator Enzi, who had told her of a school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep away grizzly bears. And maybe, she reasoned aloud, the school might have a gun on the premises in case the fence doesn’t work.
As it turns out, the school in Wapiti is gun-free. But we know that only because the Washington Post treated DeVos’s offhand remark as though it were the equivalent of Alexander Butterfield’s revealing the existence of the secret White House tapes. “Betsy DeVos said there’s probably a gun at a Wyoming school to ward off grizzlies,” read the Post headline. “There isn’t.” Oh, snap!
The article, like the one by NBC News, ended with a snarky tweet. The Post quoted user “Adam B.,” who wrote, “‘We need guns in schools because of grizzly bears.’ You know what else stops bears? Doors.” Clever.
And telling. It becomes more difficult every day to distinguish between once-storied journalistic institutions and the jabbering of anonymous egg-avatar Twitter accounts. The eagerness with which the press misinterprets and misconstrues Trump officials is something to behold. The “context” the best and brightest in media are always eager to provide us suddenly goes poof when the opportunity arises to mock, impugn, or castigate the president and his crew. This tendency is especially pronounced when the alleged gaffe fits neatly into a prefabricated media stereotype: that DeVos is unqualified, say, or that Rick Perry is, well, Rick Perry.
On November 2, the secretary of energy appeared at an event sponsored by Axios.com and NBC News. He described a recent trip to Africa:
It’s going to take fossil fuels to push power out to those villages in Africa, where a young girl told me to my face, “One of the reasons that electricity is so important to me is not only because I won’t have to try to read by the light of a fire, and have those fumes literally killing people, but also from the standpoint of sexual assault.” When the lights are on, when you have light, it shines the righteousness, if you will, on those types of acts. So from the standpoint of how you really affect people’s lives, fossil fuels is going to play a role in that.
This heartfelt story of the impact of electrification on rural communities was immediately distorted into a metaphor for Republican ignorance and cruelty.
“Energy Secretary Rick Perry Just Made a Bizarre Claim About Sexual Assault and Fossil Fuels,” read the Buzzfeed headline. “Energy Secretary Rick Perry Says Fossil Fuels Can Prevent Sexual Assault,” read the headline from NBC News. “Rick Perry Says the Best Way to Prevent Rape Is Oil, Glorious Oil,” said the Daily Beast.
“Oh, that Rick Perry,” wrote Gail Collins in a New York Times column. “Whenever the word ‘oil’ is mentioned, Perry responds like a dog on the scent of a hamburger.” You will note that the word “oil” is not mentioned at all in Perry’s remarks.
You will note, too, that what Perry said was entirely commonsensical. While the precise relation between public lighting and public safety is unknown, who can doubt that brightly lit areas feel safer than dark ones—and that, as things stand today, cities and towns are most likely to be powered by fossil fuels? “The value of bright street lights for dispirited gray areas rises from the reassurance they offer to some people who need to go out on the sidewalk, or would like to, but lacking the good light would not do so,” wrote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Thus the lights induce these people to contribute their own eyes to the upkeep of the street.” But c’mon, what did Jane Jacobs know?
No member of the Trump administration so rankles the press as the president himself. On the November morning I began this column, I awoke to outrage that President Trump had supposedly violated diplomatic protocol while visiting Japan and its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. “President Trump feeds fish, winds up pouring entire box of food into koi pond,” read the CNN headline. An article on CBSNews.com headlined “Trump empties box of fish food into Japanese koi pond” began: “President Donald Trump’s visit to Japan briefly took a turn from formal to fishy.” A Bloomberg reporter traveling with the president tweeted, “Trump and Abe spooning fish food into a pond. (Toward the end, @potus decided to just dump the whole box in for the fish).”
Except that’s not what Trump “decided.” In fact, Trump had done exactly what Abe had done a few seconds before. That fact was buried in write-ups of the viral video of Trump and the fish. “President Trump was criticized for throwing an entire box of fish food into a koi pond during his visit to Japan,” read a Tweet from the New York Daily News, linking to a report on phony criticism Trump received because of erroneous reporting from outlets like the News.
There’s an endless, circular, Möbius-strip-like quality to all this nonsense. Journalists are so eager to catch the president and his subordinates doing wrong that they routinely traduce the very canons of journalism they are supposed to hold dear. Partisan and personal animus, laziness, cynicism, and the oversharing culture of social media are a toxic mix. The press in 2017 is a lot like those Japanese koi fish: frenzied, overstimulated, and utterly mindless.
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Review of 'Lessons in Hope' By George Weigel
Standing before the eternal flame, a frail John Paul shed silent tears for 6 million victims, including some of his own childhood friends from Krakow. Then, after reciting verses from Psalm 31, he began: “In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. … Silence, because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.” Parkinson’s disease strained his voice, but it was clear that the pope’s irrepressible humanity and spiritual strength had once more stood him in good stead.
George Weigel watched the address from NBC’s Jerusalem studios, where he was providing live analysis for the network. As he recalls in Lessons in Hope, his touching and insightful memoir of his time as the pope’s biographer, “Our newsroom felt the impact of those words, spoken with the weight of history bearing down on John Paul and all who heard him: normally a place of bedlam, the newsroom fell completely silent.” The pope, he writes, had “invited the world to look, hard, at the stuff of its redemption.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published his biography of John Paul in two volumes, Witness to Hope (1999) and The End and the Beginning (2010). His new book completes a John Paul triptych, and it paints a more informal, behind-the-scenes portrait. Readers, Catholic and otherwise, will finish the book feeling almost as though they knew the 264th successor of Peter. Lessons in Hope is also full of clerical gossip. Yet Weigel never loses sight of his main purpose: to illuminate the character and mind of the “emblematic figure of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The book’s most important contribution comes in its restatement of John Paul’s profound political thought at a time when it is sorely needed. Throughout, Weigel reminds us of the pope’s defense of the freedom of conscience; his emphasis on culture as the primary engine of history; and his strong support for democracy and the free economy.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the pope continued to promote these ideas in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus. The 1991 document reiterated the Church’s opposition to socialist regimes that reduce man to “a molecule within the social organism” and trample his right to earn “a living through his own initiative.” Centesimus Annus also took aim at welfare states for usurping the role of civil society and draining “human energies.” The pope went on to explain the benefits, material and moral, of free enterprise within a democratic, rule-of-law framework.
Yet a libertarian manifesto Centesimus Annus was not. It took note of free societies’ tendency to breed spiritual poverty, materialism, and social incohesion, which in turn could lead to soft totalitarianism. John Paul called on state, civil society, and people of God to supply the “robust public moral culture” (in Weigel’s words) that would curb these excesses and ensure that free-market democracies are ordered to the common good.
When Weigel emerged as America’s preeminent interpreter of John Paul, in the 1980s and ’90s, these ideas were ascendant among Catholic thinkers. In addition to Weigel, proponents included the philosopher Michael Novak and Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things magazine (both now dead). These were faithful Catholics (in Neuhaus’s case, a relatively late convert) nevertheless at peace with the free society, especially the American model. They had many qualms with secular modernity, to be sure. But with them, there was no question that free societies and markets are preferable to unfree ones.
How things have changed. Today all the energy in those Catholic intellectual circles is generated by writers and thinkers who see modernity as beyond redemption and freedom itself as the problem. For them, the main question is no longer how to correct the free society’s course (by shoring up moral foundations, through evangelization, etc.). That ship has sailed or perhaps sunk, according to this view. The challenges now are to protect the Church against progressivism’s blows and to see beyond the free society as a political horizon.
Certainly the trends that worried John Paul in Centesimus Annus have accelerated since the encyclical was issued. “The claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life” has become even more hegemonic than it was in 1991. “Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” increasingly get treated as ideological lepers. And with the weakening of transcendent truths, ideas are “easily manipulated for reasons of power.”
Thus a once-orthodox believer finds himself or herself compelled to proclaim that there is no biological basis to gender; that men can menstruate and become pregnant; that there are dozens of family forms, all as valuable and deserving of recognition as the conjugal union of a man and a woman; and that speaking of the West’s Judeo-Christian patrimony is tantamount to espousing white supremacy. John Paul’s warnings read like a description of the present.
The new illiberal Catholics—a label many of these thinkers embrace—argue that these developments aren’t a distortion of the idea of the free society but represent its very essence. This is a mistake. Basic to the free society is the freedom of conscience, a principle enshrined in democratic constitutions across the West and, I might add, in the Catholic Church’s post–Vatican II magisterium. Under John Paul, religious liberty became Rome’s watchword in the fight against Communist totalitarianism, and today it is the Church’s best weapon against the encroachments of secular progressivism. The battle is far from lost, moreover. There is pushback in the courts, at the ballot box, and online. Sometimes it takes demagogic forms that should discomfit people of faith. Then again, there is a reason such pushback is called “reaction.”
A bigger challenge for Catholics prepared to part ways with the free society as an ideal is this: What should Christian politics stand for in the 21st century? Setting aside dreams of reuniting throne and altar and similar nostalgia, the most cogent answer offered by Catholic illiberalism is that the Church should be agnostic with respect to regimes. As Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule has recently written, Christians should be ready to jettison all “ultimate allegiances,” including to the Constitution, while allying with any party or regime when necessary.
What at first glance looks like an uncompromising Christian politics—cunning, tactical, and committed to nothing but the interests of the Church—is actually a rather passive vision. For a Christianity that is “radically flexible” in politics is one that doesn’t transform modernity from within. In practice, it could easily look like the Vatican Ostpolitik diplomacy that sought to appease Moscow before John Paul was elected.
Karol Wojtya discarded Ostpolitik as soon as he took the Petrine office. Instead, he preached freedom and democracy—and meant it. Already as archbishop of Krakow under Communism, he had created free spaces where religious and nonreligious dissidents could engage in dialogue. As pope, he expressed genuine admiration for the classically liberal and decidedly secular Vaclav Havel. He hailed the U.S. Constitution as the source of “ordered freedom.” And when, in 1987, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet asked him why he kept fussing about democracy, seeing as “one system of government is as good as another,” the pope responded: No, “the people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”
The most heroic and politically effective Christian figure of the 20th century, in other words, didn’t follow the path of radical flexibility. His Polish experience had taught him that there are differences between regimes—that some are bound to uphold conscience and human dignity, even if they sometimes fall short of these commitments, while others trample rights by design. The very worst of the latter kind could even whisk one’s boyhood friends away to extermination camps. There could be no radical Christian flexibility after the Holocaust.