ANDREW YOUNG is unquestionably a prominent figure in American politics today, and one of growing international importance as well. Before…
Andrew young is unquestionably a prominent figure in American politics today, and one of growing international importance as well. Before his remarkably rapid rise—owing largely to the role he played in Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign—Young served as Congressman from Atlanta’s 5th District, and before that as Executive Director of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In both these capacities he was known as a skilled negotiator—tough, but also conciliatory when necessary—and a racial moderate; he was the only black Congressman who voted to confirm Gerald Ford as Vice President, for example. It is only since his appointment as United States Ambassador to the United Nations that Young has seemingly gone out of his way to court political controversy and to adopt the provocative, outspoken manner that has become his trademark in office.
From the beginning, Young has seen that appointment as something more than just a diplomatic assignment. He has referred time and again to its symbolic significance, calling it a sign of America’s racial progress and the harbinger of a new relationship between the U.S. and the countries of the Third World. He seems to see himself as a kind of diplomatic avenging angel, called upon to right the wrongs of past American foreign policy, to put the United States on the “right side of the moral issues in this world,” and to “repair the damage” which was done during the years when America supported the “worst leadership groups” and became party to a “vast network of oppression” instead of siding with “oppressed peoples everywhere.”
The torrent of controversy provoked by Young during his first months in office seemed designed to call attention to his new, crusading role and to the new American stance which it presumably symbolized. Conor Cruise O’Brien has observed that Young “knows how to be indiscreet and makes his indiscretions work in his favor,” and this assessment is probably right. Though Young outraged many people by calling Cuban troops in Angola “a force for stability,” or advising Americans not to be “paranoid” about “a few thousand” Communist soldiers in Africa, or by hurling indiscriminate charges of racism at U.S. allies, adversaries, past Presidents, and even the borough of Queens, he also strengthened his credibility at the UN by saying such things and enlarged his popularity among many American blacks. Not long after Young took office, the Nigerian foreign minister called him the “symbol of a new and constructive United States policy toward Africa,” and three leaders of the NAACP, including Roy Wilkins, praised him for speaking the “brutal, unvarnished truth” about racism in America and urged President Carter not to let the “enemies of racial progress” sway him from supporting Young.
President Carter has needed no such urging. He has been almost reverential toward Young, calling him the “finest elected official” and the “best man” he has ever known, as well as a “national treasure” and “Third World hero.” Repeatedly, the President has made a point of affirming his “complete faith” in the way Young has gone about fulfilling his diplomatic responsibilities.1 In token of all this, Young is the first U.S. Ambasssador to have his own full-time staff on the seventh floor of the State Department—down the hall from Secretary of State Vance; he is the only U.S. diplomat permitted to engage in fund-raising activities on behalf of Democratic candidates; and his advice is solicited on many vital policy questions having nothing to do with Africa or the Third World. Carter’s initial decision to stop development of the neutron bomb, for example, was reportedly influenced by Young, who feared that production of the bomb would make the U.S. position difficult to defend at the special UN session on disarmament.
Is it then the case that the views which Young has been articulating so freely during his tenure at the UN reflect the policies of the United States government? Young himself suggests as much. Whenever he creates a furor, he defends himself by claiming first that his remarks have been taken out of context and, second, that they represent a fairly accurate reflection of policy—a policy that is in process of changing to become “much more in tune with the thinking of the rest of the world.”
Lately, of course, the President has been expressing views about the activities of the Russians and the Cubans in Africa that diverge sharply from those of Young. Nevertheless, it remains unclear whether or to what extent Young speaks for himself or on behalf of the administration. Whatever the answer to that question may turn out to be, Young’s political attitudes, as represented by his public utterances during the year-and-a-half since he took office, do indeed, as he himself says, point toward a fundamental revision of American foreign policy—though a revision with very different moral implications from those he ascribes to it. Young’s views may or may not be consonant with those of President Carter. But if they are, then the conception of human rights articulated by the Carter administration is a sham, put forward to disguise a rather cynical accommodation to a world in which Communist totalitarianism is the dominant reality.
To understand Young’s thinking, one must understand that all his political judgments are made from the vantage point of the American civil-rights movement of the 1960’s. When an interviewer commented on “how often you interpret world events through your own civil-rights experience,” Young answered: “It’s true. I mean, it’s all I got. Everybody is determined by his own experience.” That experience, in Young’s view, is relevant not only to America but to all sorts of countries and situations no matter how far removed they may be from the specific conditions that existed in the American South under segregation. Whether he is speaking in Lagos to a World Conference on Action Against Apartheid, or in Maputo at a conference in support of black nationalist movements in Namibia (South West Africa) and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Young continually draws a parallel between the struggles fought in the 50’s and 60’s against Jim Crow in the South and the struggle currently being fought against white minority rule in Africa.
And it is not only Africa that elicits this parallel. Young is no less hesitant in drawing comparisons between the American civil-rights movement and the current dissident movement in the Soviet Union. He has said, for example, that the Shcharansky and Ginzburg trials “remind me very much of my own days in the civil-rights movement.” Repression in Mississippi, he has also said, “just made more people more determined,” and “[t]he same things will happen in Russia.” Furthermore, “as the Soviet Union becomes more prosperous, as more and more people are exposed to any kind of art and culture,” especially through the medium of television, there will be a “human-rights explosion that will not be unlike our civil-rights movement.” Young’s experience in the civil-rights movement even provides a model for his approach to the politics of the United Nations. Just as the black movement in the U.S. built a broad coalition for change, so too, he says, is it necessary at the world body “to build coalitions that cross racial and geographic and ideological lines.”
So central is the civil-rights movement in Young’s scheme of things that he credits it with having started a “political revolution” that brought about a “radical reformation of American foreign policy.” In his speech to the Maputo conference in May 1977, Young explained to his African audience how the civil-rights movement evolved into the anti-war protest movement, which in turn created a “new approach to the problems we face everywhere in the world.” Thanks to this “new approach,” which grew “out of a concern for the end to racism, and an end to militarism and imperialism,” American foreign policy is now profoundly different from what it was during “the tragedy of the past twenty years,” when American tax dollars were used “not to develop, not to feed the hungry, but essentially as part of an apparatus of repression in many places on the face of the earth.” At long last, the cold war is behind us, and what used to be “an adversary relationship between East and West . . . is giving way to much more cooperation. . . .”
Of course, Young is aware that the transformation is not yet total. The U.S. still spends “close to $100 billion a year [sic] on so-called military preparedness,” and many Americans still persist in seeing a “so-called ‘clear and present danger’” in Communism as a result of a “massive education campaign run by the government and private agencies.” But the outlook is improving. Americans are gradually coming to acknowledge the past racism of our government, and to recognize the truth of W.E.B. Du Bois’s dictum that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” At a conference in Lagos against apartheid, Young noted approvingly that though much of the “imperialism, neocolonialism, capitalism, or what have you” of the United States is still present, the situation is in the process of being transformed by the Carter administration.
Given this general view of the world, it is not surprising to discover that Young sees no reason for the U.S. to oppose Communism militarily, or even to confront it ideologically. He simply does not believe that the Soviet Union and its allies pose a military or strategic threat to the United States. The whole question of the Horn of Africa, for example, is in Young’s opinion vastly exaggerated, and he pronounces it “ridiculous” to find “this enormous strategic significance in a thousand miles of sand.” Indeed, if there are strategic interests at stake at all in the Horn of Africa, the United States has only benefited from the Soviet action, for it will prove to be “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam”—“the Russians have done more to hurt themselves than we could have ever done to hurt them.”
Nor, according to Young, does the fact that Cuba is a Communist regime allied with the Soviet Union have any bearing on the situation. “Cubans are people,” he said after Cuban advisers arrived in Ethiopia. “They might do good things. They might do bad things. Let’s wait and see before we jump to conclusions.” When asked on Meet the Press whether he was for, against, or neutral toward the Cuban presence in Africa, Young replied: “I think I would treat the Cuban presence just like I would treat the Israeli presence or the French presence or the American presence. I would ask the question: What are they doing?”
What, then, are the Cubans doing in Africa in Young’s opinion? The answer has varied on different occasions, but always the motives imputed have been honorable ones. When the Cubans first arrived in Angola, Young thought that “they were essentially opposing racism, and driving the South Africans out”; later, when the civil war was over and the Neto regime installed in power, Young explained that the Cubans were “basically doing technical assistance,” and in fact representing our own interests by protecting Gulf Oil’s installations in Cabinda. Whatever their motives, crass political expediency was not among them: “I don’t believe that Cuba is in Africa because it was ordered there by the Russians. I believe that Cuba is in Africa because it really has shared a sense of colonial oppression and domination.”
It was only when the Cubans (for reasons not quite covered by Young’s analysis) “used military means to try to resolve a conflict of Angolans themselves” that he was ready to condemn “that military role.” But even while he expressed concern about “the continuation of death and destruction almost everywhere there is a Cuban military presence,” he did not feel that any kind of U.S. military response was called for, and he continues to oppose any such response whether in Angola, in the Horn of Africa, in Zaire, or in Rhodesia. To reply with force would, in the first place, only compound the violence (“I don’t think it’s right for us to become a destructive force because they are a destructive force”) and in the second place would never work “because the Soviets are willing to put so much more in weaponry into a situation in Africa,” while “[t]he American people have sort of determined that our foreign policy for the near future, anyway, ought to avoid any military involvement in which the shores of the United States are not threatened.” And this is all for the best, according to Young, since in any case the U.S. “fares better in the world through peaceful economic competition wherever possible.” “The sooner the fighting stops and the trading starts,” he has declared, “the quicker we win.”
If Young sees no strategic grounds for opposing Communist advances, neither does he see any moral ones, for he does not feel qualified to pass judgment on the Communist system of government. Concerning Angola, for example, he has said that “There’s nothing wrong with their deciding to live under a socialist [sic] system,” though he did not quite explain what “deciding” meant in this connection. He himself, as he once explained it, would not want to live in a place like Mozambique, for example, yet in the course of a visit there he “found that in the midst of that liberation movement there was in addition to the Communist social structure a remnant of humanism. . . . I say they are Communist but they are also humanist.”
The question of human rights, too, according to Young, is relative rather than absolute, in the sense that it is “understandable that people in different circumstances should have different perceptions of what human rights are.” In a speech delivered at the Riverside Church in New York on Human Rights Sunday, Young urged Americans to broaden their definition of human rights to take account of these “different perceptions,” and to understand that for the poor people of the world, the most pressing concern is overcoming poverty, not political freedom. In effect, therefore, “For most of the world, civil and political rights . . . come as luxuries that are far away in the future.” Applying this “different-perceptions” theory to the Soviet Union, Young explained rather ingeniously how under that particular style of government, human rights—redefined, of course—have been preserved. In part, this appears to have been due to differences in climate:
. . . we must recognize that they are growing up in circumstances different from ours. They have, therefore, developed a completely different concept of human rights. For them, human rights are essentially not civil and political, but economic. . . . One lives in a land where, in most of that land, the sun sets as early as three o’clock in the afternoon, and where the planting season is minimal. Under those circumstances the struggle for human rights inevitably becomes far more economic in its expression than it would in a country such as ours, where we almost take it for granted that anything can grow almost anywhere year ’round.
But even the acknowledged defects of Communism do not grant us the right to judge it, in Young’s opinion, because our own record on human rights is far from clean. While it is true that there is no political liberty in the Soviet Union, “We unfortunately have been very reluctant to accept the concept of economic responsibility for all of our citizens.” And while it is true that the Soviet Union represses its dissidents, “many of our own students were shot down on their own campuses” as a result of their political activities against the war in Vietnam. And even if we do not go in for literal torture, as some other countries do, the United States “still has subtle but very strong systems of intimidation at work that inhibit the possibilities of our poor, our discriminated against, and our dissidents, from speaking fully to address themselves.” To illustrate this point, he has observed that a young black in America “is much more likely to go to jail and find himself abused there” than is a young white; and that the poor find it more difficult than the rich to gain adequate legal representation. No wonder, then, that at a meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights, a body which includes some of the harshest despotisms on the planet, Young said, “I see my country as vulnerable as anybody else’s around the table.” He made a similar point during the Shcharansky trial when he said that there are “hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people whom I would call political prisoners” in the United States.
Young’s willingness to give certain countries the benefit of the doubt extends even to Uganda. He acknowledges that there have been “massive violations of human rights and destruction of people” in that country, but is not sure how much violence is “done as a matter of government policy and how much is done as a result of an imminent kind of chaos.” Then, too, Western nations have no right to be sanctimonious about Idi Amin, since they “contributed to overthrowing” the government of Milton Obote (a “left-leaning intellectual”) and thereby paved the way for Amin’s tyranny. Uganda, therefore, “is not just an African problem, [but] a Western one . . . a result of the excesses of both colonialism and neocolonialism.”
There is, of course, a limit to Young’s moral relativism. It does not extend to South Korea, Iran, Chile, the Philippines, or any of the other countries belonging presumably to that “vast network of oppression” to which we became a party in past years. Nor does it extend to South Africa, which Young has singled out from among all the countries of the world for unique moral condemnation. Here, for once, the question of human rights is paramount and there is not a trace of that hesitation to pass judgment which Young so frequently displays toward other governments that deny their citizens democratic rights. Here, and only here, “the whole conscience of the world is . . . on trial.”
Appearing on Face the Nation on May 21, 1978, only a few days after Communist-backed forces invaded Zaire’s Shaba province and had reportedly launched a major offensive in Eritrea, Young assessed the African situation: “I think our policy is doing very well,” he said, “and frankly, I think we are much better off in Africa now . . . than we have been for the last decade.” Considered in light of the preceding week’s events—and indeed, in light of events that have taken place over the entire period since Young and Carter took charge of our African policy—Young’s reply was well-nigh staggering.
There are now Cuban military personnel and civilian “advisers” stationed in some fifteen African countries, most of them concentrated in southern Africa and the Horn, the two zones where military conflict on the continent is most intense. The 25,000-man Cuban force in Angola, which is financed by the Soviet Union at a rate of $2½ million a day, is greater by one-quarter than it was when Carter took office, and serves the double purpose of securing the Communist hold on Angola and aiding pro-Soviet insurgents in neighboring countries. The Cubans guard the Cabinda oilfields (the source of yearly revenues of close to $1 billion which keep the MPLA regime afloat); fight a continuing war in the countryside against the guerrilla forces of UNITA and FNLA (the two nationalist movements defeated in the civil war); and maintain order in the capital city of Luanda, where they put down an attempted coup in May of last year. From their Angolan base, the Cubans train SWAPO and ZAPU guerrillas in the use of Soviet weapons for an eventual takeover in Namibia and Zimbabwe. Here, too, they have trained and armed the Congolese National Liberation Front, the rebel group that invaded Shaba province this past May (the second such invasion in fourteen months) in an effort to topple the Mobutu government. In addition to the Angola operation, Moscow has also stepped up arms shipments to the Patriotic Front in Zambia and Mozambique, and flown groups of Malawian recruits to Cuba for military training. Reviewing these efforts in a joint communiqué issued on April 24, 1978, the Soviet Union and Cuba pledged to increase “assistance and support” to all the pro-Moscow insurgencies in the region.
In the Horn, 12,000 Cuban troops, 1,000 Soviet “advisers,” and $1 billion of Soviet weapons enabled Ethiopia to drive Somali forces out of the Ogaden desert in March of this year. Not content with this victory, and despite implicit assurances to Washington that the Somali withdrawal would be followed by “substantial reductions” in Cuban and Soviet forces in Ethiopia, Moscow soon sought to establish its control over the entire Horn. On April 9, just three days after Ethiopian President Mengistu returned from a hasty visit to Moscow, there was an abortive coup against the government of Somali President Mohammed Siad Barre, which Somalia charged had been instigated by the Soviet Union and Cuba. Not long after, Ethiopian troops backed by an enlarged Cuban force of 17,000 (and, according to Mengistu, backed also by forces from the Soviet Union, East Germany, and South Yemen) stepped up their offensive against the Eritrean secessionist movement.
In short, during the first year and a half of the Carter Presidency, two areas of considerable strategic importance—southern Africa, with its vast mineral deposits, and the Horn of Africa, with its proximity both to the vital sea routes through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and to the world’s largest oil reserves in Saudi Arabia—have fallen under increasing assault from the Soviet Union and its allied forces. While all this has been going on, Young has retained his equanimity and urged Americans not to overreact, in accordance with his well-earned reputation in the Carter administration as a “cool-it person.” There have, however, been occasions when even Young has lost his equanimity. This happened, for example, when it was announced that an internal settlement had been reached in Rhodesia between the Smith government and three black leaders, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, and Senator Jeremiah Chirau. Young was obviously taken by surprise and refused to believe it at first (“Our intelligence reports [said] that this would not happen, certainly not soon”). Then he went on to say that the settlement—which would guarantee the white 4 per cent of the population 28 per cent of the seats for ten years in a parliament elected by universal suffrage—would not work because it did not “address the issues that have some 40,000 people fighting” (the actual number is closer to 10,000). Comparing it to the “three or four internal settlements in Vietnam” which failed to stop the fighting there, Young predicted that the settlement would lead to a “black-on-black civil war,” followed by a “massive commitment of Soviet weapons.” He added that even if the U.S. and other Western countries recognized the new Salisbury government (which “would be very difficult”), such recognition would not mean much unless they were willing to send troops in to back it up, if necessary. “I don’t think we are ready to do that,” Young concluded, thereby announcing in advance that the United States would abstain from any action in the situation, and virtually inviting the Soviet Union and Cuba to intervene.
Young is against the internal settlement, which envisions independence before the end of the year, free and fair elections open to all parties (including the guerrillas who would be encouraged to return and to participate on an equal basis in the new order), on the ground that it is insufficiently representative (though in fact it would be one of the most democratic states in Africa). Instead, he supports the Anglo-American plan which requires all parties to agree to a settlement—the white majority, the internally-based black groups, and the two wings of the Patriotic Front led by Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe—after which a free election will take place to determine the composition of a new government. But this assumes, first of all, that both Nkomo and Mugabe really want a free election—in which, most observers feel, they would not do very well—and secondly, that a consensus could be reached by all the parties involved not only about the terms for a settlement, but about a future democratic state as well. Hard as it was to reach a compromise between the white minority and the moderate black internal leaders, it is impossible to imagine a compromise between Ian Smith and Mugabe (who has said that there should be no amnesty for “war criminals”). It is also exceedingly difficult to imagine that a consensus could ever be reached between Mugabe, who has opposed multiparty democracy as a “luxury” and has called for a “one-party state,” and Muzorewa, the most popular of the internal leaders, who has called for a multiparty, multiracial, constitutional democracy with a bill of rights, an independent judiciary, and a “mixed type of economy.”
Indeed, the irreconcilability of these two positions, held by two black leaders, is an ironic commentary on Young’s belief, which he has expressed so often at the United Nations and which is such an integral part of his total outlook, that the East-West conflict between totalitarianism and democracy has come to an end, and that race is the main dividing line in the world today. In fact, however, the decisive issue in Rhodesia is not the imperfections of the democracy envisioned by the internal settlement, or even the resistance to white minority rule, which the settlement would end. Rather, it is whether or not the future Zimbabwe will be democratic or totalitarian.
One need not accept Muzorewa’s contention that Young has been “terribly brainwashed by the Patriotic Front and the so-called front-line states” to notice his clear bias in their favor. Indeed he has asserted, in a recent BBC interview, that “We are on the side of the front-line presidents in the Rhodesian situation.” In consonance with this, he has spoken of the guerrillas with extreme deference. “People who are engaged in negotiated settlements,” he told the Maputo conference in support of the Front, “hardly have the moral right to tell the people who are engaged in armed struggle how to run their paths and determine their freedom.” And in further token of his admiration, Young publicly implored “my brother Robert Mugabe . . . not to think of us in the same context as our involvement in Vietnam now in 1977.”
In adopting this ingratiating stance toward the Patriotic Front, and by opposing a course that would seek to strengthen its democratic opponents, Young is no doubt motivated in part by the wish to maintain his “credibility” with such Front supporters in Africa as Samora Machel of Mozambique, Agostinho Neto of Angola, and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. At the same time, there is little to suggest, in light of his overall political point of view, that he would regard the installation of a Mugabe-type regime in Zimbabwe as cause for concern. Certainly it would be no more harmful to U.S. interests, from his point of view, than a Neto regime in Angola, and it might even be helpful. After all, Rhodesia under Mugabe would be “stable,” the U.S. could trade with it (importing its chrome, for example, without political embarrassment), and, like Mozambique, it might even be “humanistic” as well as Communist.
In the end, it is Young’s apparent lack of commitment to political freedom, and his ability to turn a blind eye to oppression if it is carried out by African and other Third World regimes in the name of a progressive ideology, that is the most troubling aspect of his thought and of his performance at the United Nations. More is at issue than a mere disagreement over policy when Young finds it possible to assert, for example, that the “success” of Mozambique “makes East and West alike look to this nation with new hope and with new courage.” Leaving aside the FRELIMO regime’s disastrous economic performance, it would be an understatement to say that it has not respected the principle of majority rule, given the fact that Machel has pledged to “liquidate abrasive forces in the service of imperialism” and is currently holding some 100,000 people in forced-labor camps on suspicion of opposing the regime’s policies.
And Mozambique is only one example of Young’s indifference to the issue of political freedom in Africa except insofar as it pertains to the question of white minority rule. He has also spoken of the “impressive leadership” of SWAPO, the Namibian “liberation” movement, and conferred upon it the “Freedom Now” slogan, without, however, mentioning the arrest and detention in Zambia and Tanzania (under conditions marked by what the New Republic has called “unspeakable cruelties”) of over 1,000 SWAPO dissidents, whose only crime was calling for a democratic party congress.
Young seems equally unconcerned about the fate of freedom elsewhere in the Third World, so long as the regime in question calls itself “progressive.” On the very day that Young was welcoming Vietnam into the United Nations in the most lyrical terms, for example, the New York Times published an article by Henry Kamm containing extensively detailed accounts by refugees of the harsh political persecution which had led them to flee Vietnam by boat, at great risk to their lives. Young has expressed his admiration for “Vietnam’s struggle for independence,” and in a statement delivered by an aide in Bangkok this March, he observed, in an obvious reference to America’s role in the Vietnam war, that “no part of the world has borne more tragic witness than Asia to the devastation of modern man’s technology and intolerance of other socioeconomic systems.” But nowhere in this speech about “basic human needs” did he mention the plight of the refugees from Communist Indochina or, for that matter, the holocaust taking place across the border in Cambodia.
To understand how Young can have evolved into an advocate of U.S. acquiescence in a new system of tyranny, one must again turn to the formative political experience of his life, the civil-rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. In a sense, that movement was innocent about international affairs. Though influenced by, and in turn influencing, the anti-colonialist movements of Africa, the civil-rights movement never really had much interest in international questions. Justifiably preoccupied with solving problems in this country, it did not feel called upon to develop a perspective on American foreign policy, which during this period was concerned above all with the containment of Communism. To the degree that the issue of Communism impinged on the civil-rights movement, it did so in one of two ways: the opponents of integration sought to discredit the movement by calling it Communist, and the American Communist party, posing as a dedicated opponent of racial injustice, sought to use the movement to further its own political objectives. Neither attempt was new, and neither was particularly successful.2 But perhaps inevitably, a tendency developed to view “the enemy of my enemy as my friend,” and some in the civil-rights movement began to identify anti-Communism with opposition to racial progress and to view Communism as a sincere ally of the black freedom struggle. Young in his civil-rights days may have been influenced by this misperception of the role of Communism. Only recently he referred to Paul Robeson—an inveterate apologist for Stalinism—as “the hero of my youth,” and he continues to see no contradiction between Robeson’s defense of black freedom and his support for Stalinist totalitarianism.
Apart from all this, Young’s insistence that the civil-rights movement in America can serve as a paradigm for such differing phenomena as the racial conflict in South Africa and the dissident movement in the Soviet Union reveals a parochialism that accounts in some measure for his failure to understand the nature of totalitarianism. It also accounts for his nonchalant attitude toward political democracy, whose virtues are difficult to appreciate fully without understanding what their absence would entail. In his Reflections on Gandhi, George Orwell wrote: “It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where the opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary.” Ironically, by looking at the world strictly in terms of his own experience in the civil-rights movement, Young not only misperceives different political situations, but also fails to understand why his own movement was able to appeal so successfully to the conscience of America.
The same parochialism which explains Young’s failure to distinguish sufficiently between democracy and totalitarianism also accounts for his inability to see any distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian societies. Referring recently to the restoration of democracy in Portugal, Spain, and Greece, Young said that “totalitarian states and oppressive regimes fall suddenly and without much warning.” He did not seem to understand that the right-wing regimes in these countries could be replaced as quickly and as smoothly as they were precisely because they were not totalitarian in the sense of controlling every aspect of human existence. For this same reason, the prospects for a democratic political evolution in South Africa—despite its perilous racial situation and its despicable policy of apartheid—are more hopeful than they are in the Soviet Union or Vietnam. To condemn this society more strongly than any other, as Young has done, bespeaks something less than a consistent moral standard on human rights.
But to attribute Young’s political views simply to a naiveté born of a parochial view of the world is insufficient. His objection to anti-Communism, his denunciation of U.S. “militarism” and “imperialism,” his opposition to the use of American military power under any circumstances, his readiness to justify Soviet despotism as a product of Russian economic backwardness or to blame Amin’s tyranny on Western colonialism, his benignly relativistic attitude toward Third World dictatorships of the Left, in contrast to his absolutistic assurance about right-wing dictatorships—all these bespeak a political perspective that has much more in common with the New Politics movement of the past decade than with the civil-rights movement of the decade before that. This more recent movement has had an impact on American political culture no less far-reaching (though infinitely less constructive) than the civil-rights movement had on the nation’s racial attitudes; and it now finds itself well represented in the Carter administration’s foreign-policy establishment, especially among the younger members. In virtually every one of his political attitudes Young reflects the conventional wisdom of the New Politics and its two key ideas: that the East-West conflict has now given way to the North-South “dialogue,” and that Communism does not constitute a threat to the West.
Obviously this point of view, with its downgrading of political freedom, is well calculated to make Young popular in a forum dominated, as the UN is, by member states which are not democratic. Just as obviously it is indispensable to the role Young wishes to play of chief intermediary between black Africa and the United States. Yet in his eagerness to demonstrate his solidarity with the new Marxist-Leninist elite of black Africa, Young finds himself today for the most part on the side not of the oppressed but of the oppressors. In Angola, for example, thousands of young people from rebel villages in the northern and central part of the country are being rounded up and shipped to Cuba’s Oriente province where they are forced to cut sugar cane and undergo political indoctrination. At the same time, and in a far more comfortable setting, the sons and daughters of Angola’s new ruling class are receiving technical and political training in Cuba’s Isle of Pines at schools named after President Agostinho Neto. Here, in the division between slaves and slave masters, between the victims of the new order and those who rule over it, we have a true paradigm of revolutionary Africa.
President Carter has said that Andrew Young “has a great sensitivity about the yearnings” of Third World peoples, as well as an understanding of the reasons for their “animosities and hatred” toward the United States. “I think,” said the President, “he’s made great strides in repairing [the] damage that [has] been done.” While it is no doubt true that Young has established friendly relations with some leaders who are otherwise hostile to America, he has done so at the expense of a retreat from the principles of liberty and democracy. Worse still, this retreat has involved a solidarity with totalitarian rulers in the Third World whose victims might well pray to be delivered from such “sensitivity” to their “yearnings.” For their sake, as well as for our own, one can only hope that President Carter’s recent warnings about Soviet-Cuban adventurism in Africa mean that Young is not the “point man” of this administration, as he has claimed to be, but rather the rearguard legacy of a political movement spawned by Vietnam and now on its way to being left behind.
1 Young has been equally lavish in his praise of Carter. According to Young, the President is “free of racism” and “has the capacity as President of the United States to do more to put an end to racism than anybody since Martin Luther King.” This is remarkable praise from Young, all the more so since Carter admittedly took no part in the civil-rights movement and used racially questionable tactics in his 1970 gubernatorial race in Georgia. But Carter is an avowedly repentant sinner and this may account for what Newsweek has called the “almost mystical friendship” between the President and Young.
2 A full account of the long history of the relationship between the American Communist party and the racial protest movement in this country appears in Wilson Record's excellent volume, Race and Radicalism: The NAACP and the Communist Party in Conflict (Cornell University Press, 1964).
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The World According to Andrew Young
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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.