How two activist journalists became the new faces of left-wing anti-Americanism.
On August 18, security officers at London’s Heathrow Airport detained a Brazilian named David Miranda. They did so under the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act, which allows authorities to hold an individual for up to nine hours if they believe him to be in possession of “information which he knows or believes might be of material assistance” to terrorists. The officers seized Miranda’s cellphone, camera, laptop, encrypted memory sticks, and external hard drive.
Miranda is the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who, since June, has broken a series of stories about programs conducted by the National Security Agency and other Western intelligence services, all based upon leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. One such program, Prism, enables the NSA to gather data from Internet companies; Greenwald also revealed the existence of a top-secret court order that gave the agency access to telephone record logs, or “metadata,” from Verizon. Greenwald and others portrayed these legal programs in Orwellian terms, writing cryptically of sinister “mass surveillance,” as if every human being’s phone calls and emails were being overheard and read by analysts.
Miranda had been traveling from Berlin—where he had met with Laura Poitras, an American documentary filmmaker collaborating with Greenwald and Snowden—to Rio de Janeiro, where he lives with Greenwald. Even as the detention was ongoing, Greenwald was furiously depicting it as the workings of an authoritarian state bent on silencing its critics. “This was obviously designed to send a message of intimidation to those of us working journalistically on reporting on the NSA and its British counterpart,” he fumed in a blog post published the following day. Greenwald then went on to compare the British government’s “simply despotic” behavior unfavorably to the Mob, writing that “even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the U.S. national-security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples.”
Many other journalists and activists were quick to accept the line that Miranda had been targeted merely by dint of his relationship to Greenwald. Amnesty International released this statement: “There is simply no basis for believing that David Michael Miranda presents any threat whatsoever to the UK government. The only possible intent behind this detention was to harass him and his partner, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, for his role in analyzing the data released by Edward Snowden.”
Not so, according to Oliver Robbins, Britain’s deputy national-security adviser, who told a court two weeks later that Miranda had been in possession of roughly 58,000 “highly classified UK intelligence documents,” a “large proportion” of which are “either secret or top secret.” The “disclosure of the material could put the lives of British intelligence agents or their families at risk,” Robbins wrote, and “the general public could also be endangered if details about intelligence operations or methods fell into the wrong hands.”
Even if Greenwald and the Guardian had no intention of publishing this information, it is almost a certainty that it has already fallen into the wrong hands. Snowden initially fled to Hong Kong (where he publicly divulged details about Washington’s spying on China), before gaining temporary asylum in Russia; it is reasonable to assume that both Moscow and Beijing are in possession of everything he stole while working for Booz Allen Hamilton, the NSA contractor that employed him for all of three months. Writing in the National Interest, John R. Schindler, a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College and a former NSA intelligence analyst, surmised that “it could take many millions, perhaps billions, of dollars to repair the harm done, and some losses may be irreparable at any cost.”
That Miranda was carrying information about the identities and whereabouts of British undercover agents was nowhere to be found in Greenwald’s angry blog posts and interviews, nor in the distressed complaint issued by Amnesty International. Nor was it mentioned in any of the outraged statements by those media critics and journalists who, ever since the Pentagon Papers case, have developed a theory of “press freedom” that only pays lip service to governmental claims of needing to protect national-security secrets. While the Pentagon Papers dispute set an important precedent in solidifying America’s unparalleled tradition of freedom of the press, it has also left an unfortunate legacy in perpetuating a belief that the government always exaggerates the need for secrecy and that journalists who expose government secrets are never wrong to do so.
Upon the revelation that Miranda was trafficking in stolen secrets, the story peddled by Greenwald, his employer, and his partner began to change. Immediately after having been detained, Miranda told the press: “I don’t look at documents. I don’t even know if it was documents that I was carrying.” Miranda’s lawyers now say that “Mr. Miranda does not accept the assertions [UK authorities] have made,” implying that he did have knowledge of what sort of information he was ferrying. Greenwald tried to mitigate the damage by claiming that no information thus far released has harmed American or British national-security interests. That assertion has been contradicted by the British government, which claims it has redeployed personnel due to Greenwald’s disclosures. Hinting at what motivated his disclosures, Greenwald boasted that “the only thing that has been harmed are the political interests and reputations of UK and U.S. officials around the world.”
In 1975, former Central Intelligence Agency officer Philip Agee published his Inside the Company: CIA Diary, which exposed the identities of some 250 American intelligence assets; he would ultimately reveal the names of more than 2,000. Due to his revelations, several American and British agents were killed. Agee worked closely with the Soviet KGB and Cuban security services, and, as a result of his American passport being revoked, he embarked on a long sojourn through the Communist world, finally ending up in Havana, where he died in 2008.
There is a word for men like Agee and Snowden—men who betray their country, their country’s allies, their comrades, and defect to a hostile state. It is an ancient one: traitor. As Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid described Snowden to the Reno Gazette-Journal: “I think Snowden is a traitor, and I think he has hurt our country, and I hope someday he is brought to justice.” Supporters of Snowden and Bradley Manning (the former Army private who released more than a quarter million classified diplomatic cables to the anarchist web collective WikiLeaks and who was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison after being found guilty of violating the Espionage Act) claim that the men are “whistleblowers.” Far from betraying their country, both men’s backers say, they in fact served it by revealing egregious wrongdoing.
That explanation would have some weight if either man had been discriminating in his leaks, or gone through legal channels to divulge the information, instead of sharing it with less-than-salubrious figures such as Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin. “He has taken an oath,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said in June on CBS’s Face the Nation with respect to Snowden. “These oaths mean something. If you can’t keep the oath, get out. And then do something about it in a legal way.” Snowden did not begin working at Booz Allen Hamilton until March 2013. It was a job he took with the explicit goal of pilfering sensitive national-security information.
After he sought asylum in Russia, the image of Snowden in the minds of most Americans shifted from that of whistleblower to unsavory character. But Greenwald, who argued that Snowden had no choice but to seek asylum because of America’s totalitarian judicial system, was not among the majority. Were Snowden to return to the United States, Greenwald told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, he would face “the standard whistleblower treatment that the United States government gives to people, which is to put them in a cage for decades and render them incommunicado.” Greenwald repeated this accusation on ABC’s This Week: “Whistleblowers in the United States are put into prison for decades and basically ‘disappeared.’” Greenwald never bothered to specify which “whistleblowers” have “disappeared” or been rendered “incommunicado,” words that evoke Latin American dictatorships throwing people out of helicopters into the ocean. Only one government employee has received jail time under the Obama administration for revealing classified information, and the punishment has been 30 months.
The word traitor may not apply legally to Greenwald, but his role as the privileged publisher rather than thief of such classified information (indeed, Snowden never communicates on his own, but always through an intermediary such as Greenwald, Poitras, or WikiLeaks) does not absolve him of culpability in harming the national-security interests of the United States. Greenwald and other publicizers of Snowden, Manning, and WikiLeaks are engaged in a sinister enterprise that, while purporting to forward a benign agenda of promoting “transparency,” is singularly aimed at exposing the national-security secrets of the United States and its closest allies, all with a view to embarrassing Western governments by portraying them as authoritarian states that have grievously betrayed their purported ideals. They are not traitors themselves, but they serve as public-relations coordinators of treasonous actors. They are working to make traitorous actions seem valiant. Call it “treason chic.”
Writing of Communist fellow travelers in The New Meaning of Treason (1964), British essayist and novelist Rebecca West observed: “Of the other virtues, patriotism, it is to be remarked, was the first to get its dismissal. It was naive for a man to feel any conviction that his own country was the best, or even as good as any other country; just as it was naive to believe that the soldiers of any foreign army committed atrocities or to doubt that any English soldier or sailor or colonial administrator failed to do so.” Such a description perfectly describes Greenwald and other journalists of his ilk, who endlessly bemoan the (highly exaggerated) wrongdoings of the Western democracies, all while ignoring the crimes of their authoritarian adversaries. If patriotism has become passé, “the last refuge of scoundrels” in our post-national, wired world, then treason has become the sign of the truly independent and “brave” thinker who is beholden to no state.
Such figures are, instead, anti-beholden—to the United States. Examine the way, for instance, that Greenwald selectively views the disclosure of classified information, particularly the identities of undercover agents. It was not long ago that Greenwald and many of the same people now praising Snowden as a “whistleblower” were calling for the heads of those individuals they believed had revealed the name of an undercover CIA officer: Valerie Plame. “In disclosing to reporters the classified information of Plame’s CIA employment, what [former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney “Scooter”] Libby did was wrong and almost certainly illegal,” Greenwald wrote in 2005. Ironically, it was Agee’s exposés—cheered wildly at the time by left-wing critics of American foreign policy, Greenwald’s political progenitors—that led Congress to pass the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. This was the very law invoked to justify a special prosecutor’s investigation into the leaking of Plame’s identity, an investigation Greenwald lustily applauded.
Contrast Greenwald’s contempt for those who leaked the identity of Plame with his reaction to the plight of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who sparked a diplomatic crisis with Pakistan in 2011 after shooting two men dead in Lahore. Davis claimed the men had tried to attack him, and that he had acted in self-defense. Washington insisted that Davis was a State Department employee and thus protected by diplomatic immunity, a claim it would later have to retract after the Guardian irresponsibly revealed his true identity. Upon learning that the New York Times had initially heeded a U.S. government request not to disclose the details of Davis’s employment for fear of his safety, Greenwald sneered that the paper was “an active enabler of government propaganda.” Greenwald’s blatant inconsistency on the matter of covert identities suggests that he supports the divulgence of America’s clandestine activities when it can be used to slander his country and endanger its personnel, and opposes it only when it fits his own political agenda.
Another prominent journalist who criticized the American government’s reaction to the Davis episode was Jeremy Scahill, a contributor to the Nation and the radio program “Democracy Now!” Scahill essentially took the side of Pakistan, faulting the United States for deigning to send covert agents there without first informing the Pakistani government, carrying out drone attacks on Pakistani soil (which Davis was presumably aiding through his intelligence work), and for even operating clandestinely in the country at all. “The case highlights the fact that the U.S. is engaged in a covert war in Pakistan—a country it has not declared war against,” he complained to Al Jazeera, thus conflating American attempts to root out terrorists in a country that has been reluctant to do so itself, with waging war “against” the Pakistani state. The U.S. government’s claim that Davis was not a spy, and its attempt to free him from the Pakistani mob, Scahill wrote dismissively, was a “show” with an “ending” that “was carefully choreographed by both governments” (as if American officials should have blown the cover of one of their own spies, in what is perhaps the most anti-American country on earth). In killing Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil without giving Pakistani authorities prior warning, Barack Obama did precisely what he promised to do in a 2008 presidential debate with John McCain. But in the eyes of Scahill, with the use of “drones, cruise missiles, and Special Ops raids, the United States has embarked on a mission to kill its way to victory.”
In the past several years, Scahill has emerged as one of the most outspoken and oft-quoted national-security reporters in the country. Beginning his journalism career as a writer and producer for a variety of hard-left publications and media programs, he has gone on to publish two bestselling books while appearing frequently on popular television and radio programs. The publication of his latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, was accompanied by the release of an expensively produced documentary film by the same name. The book and movie establish Scahill as one of the most vocal left-wing critics of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
And yet, despite his newfound mainstream acceptance, Scahill has barely disguised the ideologies that have always underpinned his work: a fundamental hostility toward capitalism, the United States, and its democratic allies. It is these passions that, in turn, spawned a career devoted to undermining America’s foreign policy and intelligence operations.
Born in 1974 in suburban Milwaukee, Scahill dropped out of the University of Wisconsin in 1995 because “I thought my time would be better spent by entering the struggle for justice in this country.” That year, he met Philip Berrigan, the radical former priest who was a member of the pacifist trifecta: the Baltimore 4 (whose members poured their own blood over draft records), the Catonsville 9 (which burned draft cards in homemade napalm), and the Harrisburg 7 (charged with attempting to kidnap then–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger). Scahill moved into Berrigan’s Baltimore commune, Jonah House, dedicated to the principles of “nonviolence, resistance, and community.” In 1996, foreshadowing his later work as a champion of Snowden, Scahill joined an attempted break-in of the NSA, the “brains of the military death machine,” as Berrigan described it. That same year, Scahill was arrested (alongside former Chicago 7 member David Dellinger and the son of Abbie Hoffman) for the attempted occupation of a Chicago federal building in support of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who murdered two FBI agents in 1975. In 1998, Scahill was arrested once again, this time at Andrews Air Force Base, accompanying protesters who poured blood on a B-52.
During that period, Scahill moved into journalism, working as a producer for “Democracy Now!” Though the line of work might have seemed different than “peace” activism, the mission was the same. “I think that being alive in the times that we live in means to be a resister,” he said in 2007. “For me, media is a nonviolent weapon in that struggle.” In 1998, he and host Amy Goodman won a series of journalism prizes for a program alleging that Chevron was responsible for the deaths of two environmental activists who had occupied an oil platform in the Niger Delta. In 2008, an American jury unanimously exonerated Chevron of all charges in the case.
Following a brief stint as a producer on Michael Moore’s short-lived television show, The Awful Truth, Scahill trekked to the Balkans to cover the tail end of Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up for “Democracy Now!” and a variety of socialist magazines and websites. And here he displayed a propensity for siding with whomever the United States opposed, no matter how evil.
In Kosovo, still a province of Serbia, the majority ethnic Albanian population bore the brunt of violent Serb nationalism at the hands of President Slobodan Milosevic. Serb militias regularly carried out massacres of civilians, and by the end of 1998 they had driven some 300,000 Albanians from their homes. When Serbian negotiators refused a demand from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to remove most of their troops from Kosovo and grant the province autonomy, NATO, led by the United States and Great Britain, launched a 78-day bombing campaign.
While Kosovo Albanians no doubt committed offenses against Serbs, particularly after the NATO bombing run left them as victors, what lay at the heart of the Kosovo conflict were the same factors that sparked the Bosnian war years earlier: Serb ethnic chauvinism and territorial expansionism. Yet Scahill saw the situation differently. In addition to frequent condemnations of NATO and Western leaders such as President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and U.S. General Wesley Clark, Scahill’s work during the period was focused almost exclusively on isolated incidents of violence committed by ethnic Albanians—to the exclusion of the vast, methodical ethnic-cleansing campaign carried out by the Serbs, whom he portrayed as the true victims.
Scahill’s overriding thesis of the Kosovo conflict is that it was the United States that was the guilty party. “Under his rule, the nation of Yugoslavia was destroyed, dismantled, and chopped into ethnically pure para-states,” Scahill wrote—of Clinton, not Milosevic. What really irked Scahill was not the impending mass genocide of ethnic Albanians, but that NATO had acted without a UN Security Council resolution. Kosovo was “Clinton’s Iraq,” Scahill fumed in 2008. “He bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days with no United Nations mandate.”
During the war itself, Scahill reported from Belgrade, the Serb capital, where he reliably provided the Serb narrative that they were the victims of Western, imperialist aggression. The Rambouillet Agreement, which Serbia rejected (thereby triggering the NATO bombing), was akin to “one of Don Corleone’s famous offers.” While he filed dispatch after sympathetic dispatch from an enemy capital in wartime, Scahill did not report from Kosovo until after the conflict had ended and Albanian reprisals against Serbs began. The province, he wrote in 2000, “has become a living hell for Serbs, Roma people (Gypsies), Slavic Muslims, and other minorities….Washington is giving ethnic cleansing a green light.”
It was curious that, of all the events that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s, it was the postwar expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo that Scahill would label “ethnic cleansing.” During the Kosovo war itself, the Serbs launched Operation Horseshoe, in which they drove out almost the entire Albanian population. The expulsion of 1.3 million people amounted to, in the words of future U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, “the single largest European exodus in a half a century.” Serb militias separated women and children from men, thousands of whom were slaughtered and whose bodies were dumped into mass graves or incinerated. The Serbs’ behavior in Kosovo prompted President Clinton to accuse them of “deliberate, systemic efforts at genocide.” Scahill, meanwhile, dismissed war supporters’ “exaggerations” of Serb atrocities. He is far less judicious when it comes to the United States and Israel. American policy in Iraq “from 1990 to the present,” Scahill claimed, constitutes “one of the greatest mass slaughters in history.” In 2010, during a debate on MSNBC, Scahill accused Israel of perpetrating “extermination campaigns” against Palestinians.
Long after the conflict had ended, Scahill continued to display his sympathies for the Serbian aggressors. Milosevic’s death in 2006 meant the loss of “the only man in the unique position of being able to expose and detail the full extent of the U.S. role in the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s….Sadly, with Milosevic will likely die the last hope the victims of these crimes in Yugoslavia had of getting their day (if it could even be called that) in court—a tragic and unjust reality to begin with that speaks volumes about the twisted state of international justice.” Note here that Scahill was expressing sorrow for the victims of American “crimes,” not Milosevic’s.
Scahill’s big break would come in 2007 thanks to the emerging notoriety of Blackwater, the private security contractor hired to protect American diplomats in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other dangerous locales. That year, Scahill published Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a breathless exposé of the company and its alleged misdeeds. The firm was a perfect target for Scahill because it married the two things most hated by the left: capitalism and war. Scahill’s thesis was a barely concealed rehash of the old Marxist dictum that the latter is an inevitable result of the former. Blackwater, he wrote, “operates in a demand-based industry where corporate profits are intimately linked to an escalation of violence.”
Not long after the book was published, a firefight involving Blackwater guards erupted at a square in Baghdad in which 17 Iraqis died. The Iraqi government said the guards fired indiscriminately; Blackwater claimed its men had been ambushed. The event, soon dubbed the Nisour Square Massacre by Blackwater critics, led to congressional hearings, a slew of lawsuits against the company, and Scahill’s propulsion into journalistic stardom. The paperback version of Blackwater, which became a bestseller, was blurbed by film star Scarlett Johansson. “It should be mandatory reading,” she gushed. “It’s very interesting—and scary.”
To Scahill, Blackwater was a “mercenary army,” whose founder, former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, is a “committed ideologue.” The protection of American diplomats in hostile environments overseas was just a cover for Blackwater’s true aim: to serve as a “Christian supremacist fighting force” in a grand plot to “eliminate Muslims and destroy Islam globally.” According to Scahill, “the outsourcing of U.S. military operations in Muslim countries and in secular societies to such neo-crusaders reinforces the greatest fears of many in the Arab world and other opponents of the administration’s wars.” Scahill’s evidence of the company’s “neo-crusader” ethos was, to be charitable, thin; he cited the membership of one former Blackwater executive in the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a lay Catholic service organization, to claim that “some Blackwater executives even boast of their membership” in the group.
Throughout his writings on Blackwater, Scahill ascribed powers to the company it did not have. He refers to Blackwater repeatedly as a “private army” and writes as if the firm’s guards participated regularly in combat operations alongside American soldiers. “If foreign governments are not on board,” Scahill writes, “foreign soldiers—many of whose home countries oppose the U.S. wars—can still be enlisted, at a price.” But the prospect of a private army marching off to fight undeclared, illegal wars at the behest of warmongers in Washington is the stuff of fiction. Neither Blackwater, nor any other contractor, has been hired for combat operations—that is, deploying alongside American or allied soldiers to engage the enemy in the theater of war. (From 2004 to 2009, Blackwater was contracted by the CIA to assist in its campaign of targeting terrorists. The assistance was limited to tasks such as providing security for CIA officers and loading Hellfire missiles.) Private contractors have, of course, found themselves involved in combat, but in the course of protecting diplomats and facilities in war zones.
On the whole, Blackwater guards performed heroically, as in 2004 when a team of eight held off a group of gunmen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr while defending a Coalition Provisional Authority building in Najaf. In 2007, Blackwater guards saved the Polish ambassador to Iraq after a roadside bomb struck his convoy. Scahill failed to note that the company had a 100 percent success record in keeping American diplomats safe, a stunning accomplishment considering the daily death toll in Iraq at the height of its insurgency. “Blackwater is getting a bad rap,” complained Barack Obama, who was protected by Blackwater guards, when he was a senator in 2008.
In order to exaggerate the extent of private military contractors operating in war zones, Scahill has frequently presented erroneous—and inconsistent—data. The contractor corps, he claimed in a 2009 appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, “constitutes more than half of the fighting force in Afghanistan.” In a 2007 Salon article he referred to “the second largest force in Iraq” as the “estimated 126,000 private military ‘contractors.’” In another article published that same year he wrote: “The 145,000 active-duty U.S. forces are nearly matched” in numbers by employees of “companies like Blackwater USA and the former Halliburton subsidiary KBR.” In Blackwater, he referred to “tens of thousands of mercenaries” in Iraq. About the four Blackwater employees lynched in Fallujah by an Iraqi mob in March 2004, Scahill wrote: “Those men who died at Fallujah were members of Washington’s largest partner in the coalition of the willing in Iraq—bigger than Britain’s total deployment,” which, at the time, was some 9,000 soldiers.
But not according to a Congressional Budget Office report published in 2008. “As of late 2007,” the report read, “about 40 percent of the approximately 6,700 contractor personnel working for [the Department of State] in Iraq were providing security.” In other words, fewer than 3,000 men working for all “private military contractors” were under arms. That is a far cry from the “tens of thousands” or over 100,000 Scahill would regularly claim. In Afghanistan, while it’s true that, at the time of his statement, there were more contractors there than American soldiers, it is preposterous to allege that a significant number or even a majority of them were part of any “fighting force.” As for Blackwater itself, then–House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said in 2007 that “122 Blackwater employees, one-seventh of the company’s current work force in Iraq, have been terminated for improper conduct.” This would mean there were no more than 850 Blackwater employees in Iraq at the time. Indeed, Scahill contradicts himself in his own book, writing that Blackwater has a mere “2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries.”
There are legitimate concerns presented by the use of private military contractors, namely relating to oversight of their behavior in war zones (unlike soldiers, they are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice). But Scahill does not concern himself primarily with such questions. Posing as a defender of the prerogatives of the U.S. military in the face of creeping privatization, Scahill seeks to weaken what he sees as a core element of American foreign policy. “Both Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker made clear that without Blackwater and its ilk, the occupation [of Iraq] would not be tenable,” Scahill writes. In other words: no Blackwater, no American presence in Iraq. “It helped keep a draft, which would make the continuation of the war politically untenable, off the table,” he writes. The government just “rented an occupation force” with soldiers who “were used as cheap cannon fodder.” If the government were to punish the “mercenary firms with indictments for war crimes or murder or human rights violations,” it “would make wars like the one in Iraq far more difficult and arguably impossible.” And so Scahill sets out to discredit and disparage Blackwater, evidence be damned.
Not long after Blackwater appeared, the American justice system provided a coda to Scahill’s years-long campaign of hyperbole, innuendo, and fact-free defamation against the company. In 2009, a federal judge threw out the indictment of five Blackwater guards involved in the Nisour Square incident. In 2011, a district judge dismissed Blackwater’s founder, Prince, from a civil lawsuit alleging that he had defrauded the U.S. government. And in February, a three-year federal prosecution of five separate ex-Blackwater officials for a variety of offenses, including weapons violations and making false statements, resulted in charges against three of the men being dismissed and the remaining two pleading guilty to barely related misdemeanors with no jail time.
With the scalp of Blackwater in hand, Scahill moved on to a bigger, juicier target: the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies. The fruit of this effort is Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. It mounts what is essentially a 700-page rationalization of Islamist terrorism twinned with a fiery condemnation of American foreign policy right down to its title, a deliberate invocation of the Argentinian military junta’s campaign of repression, torture, and murder against political dissidents in the 1970s.
On 9/11, Scahill argues, the Bush administration grasped its chance to upturn the traditional rules of conflict by converting the entire globe into a theater of combat and anyone it didn’t like into an enemy combatant. “The world is a battlefield and we are at war,” Scahill writes. “Therefore the military can go wherever they please and do whatever it is that they want to do, in order to achieve the national-security objectives of whichever administration happens to be in power.”
Scahill is less wild in tone here than in Blackwater, yet he still manages to slip into hyperbole. For instance, writing about Abu Ghraib, he concedes that the facility was a “prison and torture chamber” under the rule of Saddam Hussein but that America made it worse and turned it into a “gulag.” (Scahill has also written that “the U.S. still runs that gulag in Guantanamo, which one could argue represents the area in Cuba where the most heinous human rights abuses have been perpetrated in recent years.”)
He also continues his theme that the United States is involved in a war against Islam, echoing the propaganda of al-Qaeda. Whereas earlier this “crusade” was attributable mainly to the “Christian Supremacist” Knights of Blackwater, now, in Scahill’s telling, it reaches up to the highest ranks of the American military. Despite the concerted efforts of General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, to reduce civilian casualties, Scahill alleges that McChrystal “shared the political view that the United States was indeed in a war against Islam.” His source for this grave allegation is “a retired military officer” who tells Scahill that McChrystal was one of several U.S. military figures constituting a group of “fellow travelers in the great crusade against Islam.” (Another source Scahill cites as an expert on American foreign policy is Gareth Porter, a notorious defender of the Khmer Rouge who alleged that the Cambodian genocide was “a myth fostered primarily by the authors of a Readers’ Digest book.”)
Reading Dirty Wars and listening to Scahill speak reveals that he is essentially opposed to the use of force by the United States or its allies. “I found it quite disgusting to see people chanting, like it was some sort of sporting event, outside of the White House,” he said on “Democracy Now!” following the death of Osama bin Laden. “This is a somber day where we should be remembering all of the victims, the 3,000 people that died in the United States and then the hundreds of thousands that died afterwards as a result of a U.S. response to this that should have been a law enforcement response and instead was to declare war on the world,” he said, thus connecting those murdered on 9/11 with those civilians who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Indeed, Scahill seems to have a problem with even the most benign expressions of American patriotism. “I hate when people chant U-S-A. #FalseNationalistCrap,” he opined on Twitter during the 2010 World Cup.)
For all his anger about American declarations of “war on the world,” Scahill never seems to generate any ire over violence perpetrated by non-Westerners. In a section of the book about terrorism in the horn of Africa, he outright defends the rampant piracy that has resulted in several deadly hostage situations on the high seas. To Scahill, it was not the pirates who were villains, but private business. “International corporations and nation-states had taken advantage of the permanent state of instability in Somalia, treating the Somali coast as their private, for-profit fishery, while others polluted it with illegal waste dumping,” he writes in Dirty Wars. In light of this rapacious, capitalist nightmare, “piracy was at times a response to these actions and some pirates viewed themselves as a sort of Somali coast guard.” (If only Scahill were so charitable to Dick Cheney.) He describes the Islamic Courts Union, Somalia’s short-lived version of the Taliban, as a motley coalition of “liberals, moderates, and extremists” united by a desire to “stabiliz[e] the country through Sharia law.” In the brief period that the group ruled much of Somalia, it shut down movie theater and co-ed events and declared jihad on neighboring Ethiopia.
To personalize the cost of America’s “dirty wars,” Scahill chose a curious subject: Anwar al-Awlaki. The firebrand Islamic preacher, who was born in New Mexico, gained notoriety as the first American citizen since the Civil War to be declared a wartime enemy and deliberately killed without trial by the United States government (via drone attack). Over the course of just a few years, Awlaki inspired a dozen terrorist plots. Some (such as the 2009 Christmas Day “underwear bomber”) failed, while others (such as the killing of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood by Nidal Malik Hasan) were monstrously successful. Through the saga of Awlaki and his targeted killing in Yemen, Scahill hopes, we can appreciate not only the wantonness of America’s “dirty wars” abroad, but the “blowback” effect they produce at home.
From the outset, Scahill seeks to humanize the man who declared jihad against his homeland. “In many ways, Awlaki’s story was a classic tale of people from a faraway land seeking a better life in America,” he writes at the outset of Dirty Wars. Awlaki, we learn, was merely a pious Muslim driven to justifiable rage by America’s wicked foreign policy and its post-9/11 backlash against domestic Muslim communities. To be sure, it was not just Scahill who believed that Awlaki was a moderate Muslim who later transformed into something else. In the late 1990s, he had emerged as one of the most prominent imams in the United States, leading a prayer service for congressional staffers and speaking at the Pentagon. But, according to Scahill, “between the global crackdown that followed 9/11 and the U.S. government’s campaign to hunt him down, something in Awlaki shifted, and he was no longer torn between allegiance to the country of his birth and his religion.”
Yet the alleged “shift,” if it can even be labeled as such, is not so easy to decipher. The good reputation Awlaki had earned among credulous non-Muslims was more a testament to their inability to recognize duplicity than it was of his genuine moderation. According to an in-depth New York Times profile, in which two dozen of his former friends and associates were interviewed, Awlaki was awakened to jihad upon visiting Afghanistan at around the time the Soviet-backed government there fell to Islamist forces; in other words, at least a decade before 9/11. Upon returning to the United States, he would “quote Abdullah Azzam, a prominent Palestinian scholar who provided theological justification for the Afghan jihad and was later known as a mentor to Osama bin Laden,” the Times reported. Several years later, ensconced at the Denver Islamic Society, he encouraged a Saudi student to travel to Chechnya and join the jihad against Russia.
Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Awlaki ministered to three of the hijackers, developing a “close relationship” with two of them, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. And although the FBI ultimately decided not to pursue a full-scale investigation of Awlaki after the attacks, the decision was controversial within the agency, with one detective telling the 9/11 Commission that he believed Awlaki “was at the center of the 9/11 story.” Days after the attacks, Awlaki publicly disputed Muslim involvement, writing that the FBI merely blamed passengers with Muslim names. In a sermon the following week, Awlaki read a condolence note from Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has endorsed the practice of female genital mutilation and capital punishment for homosexuals, has referred to suicide bombings as “heroic martyrdom operations,” and has called for Islam to “conquer” America and Europe. Scahill, who never lacks for colorful adjectives when describing people like Erik Prince (“Christian Supremacist”) or Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (“key leaders of a militant movement”), referred to Qaradawi merely as “the famous, controversial Egyptian theologian.”
But even as the mainstream media was continuing to court him as a “moderate” Islamic voice, Awlaki was showing clear signs of further radicalization. A week after 9/11, he said that the attacks were not “an attack on American freedom, on the American way of life,” but “an attack on U.S. foreign policy.” In words that can be read, at best, as a morally equivocating call for pacifism as a response to 9/11, Awlaki declared: “The fact that the U.S. has administered the death and homicide of over one million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the U.S. is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians doesn’t justify the killing of one U.S. civilian in New York City or Washington D.C. And the deaths of 6,000 civilians in New York and Washington D.C., does not justify the death of one civilian in Afghanistan.” (After his killing, Scahill told NPR’s Terry Gross that Awlaki “actually was saying things that many secular anti-war activists were saying about the sameness of violence.”)
According to Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, “a close analysis of the corpus of Awlaki’s sermons and articles shows a surprising level of consistency throughout,” and “the only significant change has been in the prescriptions for solving the perceived problems faced by the ummah (global Muslim community).” That is, Awlaki was always a radical, but would only explicitly embrace violence against Westerners after 9/11, when he was living in Yemen.
In the wake of 9/11, Awlaki fueled claims that Muslims across America were falling victim to a violent nationwide “backlash,” a slanderous picture of the remarkably restrained American response that Scahill accepts at face value. Soon, Awlaki was spouting the sort of anti-corporate hyperbole popularized by Canadian author (and Scahill’s Nation colleague) Naomi Klein. “Either accept McDonald’s, otherwise McDonnell Douglas will send their F-15s above your head,” Awlaki said in a 2003 London sermon. In one particularly popular Internet diatribe, Awlaki implored his listeners, “Whenever you see the word terrorist, replace it with the word mujahid. Whenever you see the word terrorism, replace it with the word jihad.” In 2005, six months after listening to this sermon on a laptop computer, a group of 18 Muslim men were arrested in Canada’s largest post-9/11 terrorism investigation after attempting to blow up downtown Toronto and various military installations.
According to Scahill, Awlaki never said or did anything that ought to have alarmed the U.S. government, and whatever might have alarmed them was their own fault. “You could make a reasonable case that Anwar Awlaki was a product of U.S. policy,” he told the Kremlin-funded propaganda cable station RT. Citing a 2008 Awlaki blog post, in which the cleric furiously issues a “challenge” for the U.S. to “come up with one such lecture where I encourage ‘terrorist attacks,’” Scahill opines, “But, in the eyes of the U.S. government, Awlaki’s calls for jihad amounted to encouraging such attacks,” as if “calls for jihad” amount to anything but “encouraging” violence.
If Awlaki’s sermons were not yet explicit enough to warrant the accusation that he was “encouraging” terrorism, he would soon discard any subtlety with the release in 2010 of Inspire, al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine, which he co-founded and co-edited. Its premier issue included a “hit list” of artists who had caricatured the prophet Muhammad and an accompanying piece by Awlaki urging Muslims to assassinate them. Scahill brushes the magazine aside, saying that it “played into the U.S. propaganda campaign aimed at presenting AQAP as a grave threat.” His nonchalance about the effect of such propaganda tools on young, disillusioned Muslim minds could not have been more unfortunately timed; the May issue of Inspire devoted nearly all its 40 pages to the “BBB,” or “Blessed Boston bombings,” carried out by two young men who were “inspired by INSPIRE,” as the magazine bragged. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his brother Tamerlan killed three people with a bomb attack at this year’s Boston Marathon, has told investigators that he and his sibling discovered how to build their pressure-cooker bombs from the magazine and were motivated to launch their deadly attack after listening to Awlaki’s sermons.
To be sure, hateful sermons—even those that encourage violence—are not the same thing as violence itself. “There was no hard evidence presented that Awlaki had done anything that was not protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or that would not require a major court battle to prove it was unconstitutional,” Scahill writes, employing a strange defense for a man who openly rejected the American Constitution and justice system. Elsewhere in his defense of Awlaki, Scahill claims that “words are not actions.”
Definitive proof of Awlaki’s “operational,” as opposed to simply “inspirational,” role in terrorism came in two court filings released in February. In 2009, a Nigerian graduate student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate explosive materials sewn into his undergarments while on an Amsterdam jet bound for Detroit. Abdulmutallab, who eventually plead guilty, told investigators that after absorbing Awlaki’s sermons for years, he traveled to Yemen in 2009 to find the preacher and spent three days at Awlaki’s home discussing jihad. Awlaki then sent the young Nigerian to an al-Qaeda bomb-maker, gave his blessing to an attack, and specifically told his disciple to detonate the bomb over U.S. soil, thus ensuring the highest number of possible casualties (unlike a failed 2006 attempt in which the plotters had planned to explode American-bound planes leaving from Britain over the Atlantic Ocean). Directed by Awlaki, Abdulmutallab trained for two weeks at an al-Qaeda camp in Yemen.
And what is Scahill’s analysis of this damning indictment from the attempted underwear bomber himself? He does not even mention it. Granted, this confession did not emerge publicly until 2012, months after Awlaki had been killed. But it appeared over a year before Scahill’s book was released. Instead, Scahill denies the Obama administration’s earlier, fuzzier claims of Awlaki’s involvement in the Christmas Day plot by quoting unnamed “tribal sources” in Yemen who told him that “Awlaki was not involved in the plot.” And Scahill accepts, at face value, Awlaki’s own denial of issuing any “fatwa,” though the cleric stated, after the attempt failed, “I support what Umar Farouk has done.”
Scahill’s main source for his narrative on Awlaki is the late cleric’s father, Nasser, an American-educated agricultural expert. In the acknowledgements to Dirty Wars, Scahill writes of how he stands “in awe” of the Awlaki family’s “quest for justice.” Scahill publishes a 2010 letter the elder Awlaki wrote to Obama, in which he characterized his son’s post-9/11 radicalization as “learning and preaching his religion and nothing else.” The senior Awlaki then pleaded with the president. “I would like to inform you Mr. President Obama that my son is innocent, has nothing to do with violence, and he is only a scholar of Islam.” That Scahill, the supposedly dogged investigative journalist, would convey this fable about Awlaki verbatim without any critical reflection whatsoever reveals where his sympathies lay.
Scahill’s criticism of the blowback allegedly caused by drones would be more credible if he expressed support for some other method of combatting America’s enemies. But unlike some critics, who argue against drones because they believe them to be inefficient and instead favor other methods, Scahill’s opposition is foundational. In his eyes, the U.S. lacks all legitimacy for using force, because the death of one civilian is too much. “Those whose loved ones were killed in drone strikes or cruise missile attacks or night raids will have a legitimate score to settle,” he writes, essentially arguing that relatives of civilians who die unintentionally as a result of U.S. counterterrorism actions ought to wage terrorist attacks in turn.
One of Scahill’s prime targets in Dirty Wars is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, the military’s most elite fighting force responsible for, among other accomplishments, the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Initially a hostage rescue team formed in the wake of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, JSOC transformed over the past three decades into a top-secret counterterrorism force heavily favored by President Obama, who has been averse to large-scale military deployments. JSOC often operates in areas where the United States has not declared war (such as Pakistan or Yemen) and has become a vital element in the American war on terror. Whereas most Americans probably view JSOC with admiration, Scahill sees something nefarious. It is a “global killing machine,” Obama’s embrace of which indicates that he has “doubled down on the Bush-era policy of targeted assassination as a staple of U.S. foreign policy.” As with drone strikes, Scahill’s criticism of JSOC rests on its very existence; he proposes no alternative to dealing with armed radicals who seek to sow destruction against the United States and its allies.
Scahill was bidding to be the most important voice on the far left until Greenwald zoomed past him this summer with the Snowden leaks. Like Scahill, Greenwald ascended rapidly from the precincts of the far left to mainstream acceptance. In the past six years, he has written four books, three of which have been New York Times bestsellers. And also like Scahill, he brings a pugnacious personality and Manichaean worldview to his work. Greenwald grew up near Fort Lauderdale, and his homosexuality appears to have played some role in fomenting his anti-American attitudes. “When you grow up gay, you are not part of the system, it forces you to evaluate: ‘Is it me, or is the system bad?’” he told the New York Times earlier this year. It is understandable how Greenwald, who, until the Supreme Court decided the case of Windsor v. United States earlier this year, would have been unable to bring Miranda to live with him in his native land, might have resented his country for it. Yet America has the capacity to change, as it has in quite a remarkably short period of time on the issue of homosexuality. Moreover, however disagreeable Greenwald might have found his country’s attitudes toward his sexual orientation, it can hardly justify his advocacy on behalf of some of the world’s most repulsive homophobes.
Briefly a litigator for the high-powered firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz before hanging out his own shingle, Greenwald stopped practicing law to take up political writing in 2005. Greenwald claims to have been radicalized by the Bush administration, which he believed had plunged the country into an unprecedented moral darkness. “Over the past five years, a creeping extremism has taken hold of our federal government, and it is threatening to radically alter our system of government and who we are as a nation,” he wrote in the preface to his 2006 book, How Would a Patriot Act?
While Greenwald repudiates any political classification other than that of a committed civil libertarian, he has repeatedly spoken at international socialist conferences, including one this year where he joined Scahill for an “urgent discussion about the attack on civil liberties, U.S. imperialism, and how we can fight back,” in the words of the organizers. “As someone who speaks at all sorts of political gatherings every year, I can say with certainty that no event assembles more passionate activism, genuine expertise, and provocative insights than the Socialism Conference,” Greenwald has said. “This will be my third straight year attending, and what keeps me coming back is how invigorating and inspiring it is to be in the midst of such diverse and impressive activists.”
In 2005, Greenwald started a blog, Unclaimed Territory, which was originally focused on the Valerie Plame case. He soon branched out into covering a variety of topics related to civil liberties and foreign policy, in a manner highly critical of the Bush administration and its defenders in the media, to put it gently. His vituperative writing style (“odious,” to designate someone or something he doesn’t agree with, and “smear,” to describe any criticism, no matter how mild, of something he does agree with, being two of his choice words) mixed with the detailed obsessiveness of a trained litigator, proved popular with a steadily growing number of readers in the left-wing blogosphere. He quickly rose to become one of the country’s most widely read bloggers, repeatedly earning himself a place on lists of the most influential or popular pundits in the United States. In 2007, his blog was picked up by the website Salon, and in 2012, Greenwald catapulted into international stardom when he was hired by the Guardian as a full-time blogger and reporter.
Like Scahill, Greenwald subscribes to a modernized version of the old trope attributing all that is wrong in the world to the behavior of the United States. They maintain that anything unfortunate to befall America is a result of its own behavior, or, in the parlance of left- and right-wing isolationists, blowback. Greenwald never comes out explicitly in favor of terrorist attacks. His defenses of jihad are always couched in language that seeks to justify terrorism as a logical and understandable response to Western imperialism. “As strange as it is, they actually seem to dislike it when foreign militaries bomb, invade, and occupy their countries and kill hundreds of thousands of Muslim children,” Greenwald sarcastically wrote of Muslim terrorism suspects in 2010.
“Terrorism,” Greenwald has written, is “a term of propaganda, a means of justifying one’s own state violence.” Greenwald acknowledges no distinction between the strict rules of engagement followed by Western militaries and the deliberate murder of civilians perpetrated by Islamists. “Anti-American Terrorists,” he writes (sarcastic capitalization being a Greenwaldian trademark meant to impugn his intellectual adversaries as fearmongering, self-important cretins), are motivated by “severe anger over the violence and interference the U.S. brings to their part of the world.” Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who was arrested in 2010 for attempting to set off a car bomb in Times Square, had told investigators he wanted to take revenge on America in response to the drone strikes it had launched in his native country’s ungoverned tribal areas. While we in America might view the blowing up of a car bomb in Times Square to be an utterly inappropriate response to such a policy, Greenwald reminded his readers that “a desire to exact vengeance for foreign killings on your soil is hardly a unique attribute of Pashtun culture.” On the contrary, “It’s fairly universal,” Greenwald wrote. “See, for instance, the furious American response to the one-day attack on 9/11—still going strong even after 9 years.” And so the American response to the murder of nearly 3,000 of its citizens (a mere “one-day attack”) is akin to blowing up a Nissan Pathfinder in the country’s busiest commercial plaza.
In addition to justifying the horrific violence regularly perpetrated by Islamists (most often against their fellow Muslims) as perfectly understandable reactions to American behavior, Greenwald portrays attempted terrorists as luckless victims of entrapment by the American government. The series of terrorist attacks thwarted in the United States in the dozen years since 9/11, Greenwald argues, were largely orchestrated by law-enforcement authorities to scare the American people and thereby mentally bludgeon them into supporting tougher and tougher counterterrorism measures and invasions into their privacy. In November 2010, officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Portland police arrested 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-American student, on charges of attempting to detonate a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting, an attack that would have killed scores of people. Undercover agents approached Mohamud, pretending to be members of an international terrorist organization, and provided him with the fake bomb. “The FBI successfully thwarts its own terrorist plot,” sneered Greenwald on his blog.
Entrapment, of which Greenwald accused the government, hinges on intent. And in each and every one of the post-9/11 terrorism cases, the accused individual demonstrated a clear willingness and desire to kill innocent people; in not one of these cases has a court found a defendant not guilty by reason of entrapment. Throughout the Portland investigation, for instance, according to the government’s affidavit, undercover agents repeatedly told Mohamud that the attack would lead to the death and injury of many people and offered him opportunities to back out of the plan. At every point, Mohamud acknowledged his willingness to kill people and resisted attempts to dissuade his participation. While defending Mohamud as a hapless kid targeted by unscrupulous government officials, Greenwald made time to once again play lawyer for the terrorist’s defense. Citing a video Mohamud made before the attempted attack in which he announced, “Did you think that you could invade a Muslim land, and we would not invade you,” Greenwald wrote that “accused Terrorists” repeatedly explain that “they are attempting to carry out plots in retaliation for past and ongoing American violence against Muslim civilians and deter such future acts” (emphasis in original).
Though Greenwald had already gained a loyal following in the United States, his joining the Guardian—the closest thing to a Bible for the global left—elevated him to new heights. And it was less than a year into working for the London-based paper that he would break what would become the biggest story of 2013: revelations about the extent of spying programs conducted by the National Security Agency. In his original story about the Prism program, Greenwald alleged that the NSA is able “to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders” and that it can “directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.” In reality, however, the NSA does not have anything approaching such wide and uninhibited access to the data compiled by Internet companies. Rather, as the Guardian later acknowledged, the agency obtains the information it needs via “drop boxes”—secure computer servers—established by the companies themselves. There, companies can safely deposit legally requested information. The drop boxes are simply a method of complying with subpoenas, which, like any American citizen or business concern, Internet companies are legally obliged to do. This reality is a far cry from the government having access to any and every bit of data compiled by Internet companies.
In his coverage of the NSA programs, Greenwald’s status as an unapologetic polemicist has collided with what ought to have been the news judgment of the Guardian. In his writing and frequent television appearances, he has vastly exaggerated, and at times outright lied about, the programs. For instance, in describing the Prism program on CNN, Greenwald detailed an Orwellian world in which the American government has “only one goal, and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity, not just in the United States but around the world. That is not hyperbole. That is their objective.” On MSNBC, he said that “the objective of this is to enable the NSA to monitor every single conversation and every single form of human behavior.” According to Greenwald, the problem with the NSA’s programs is not that they represent an overzealous approach to combating terrorism, for in his view the NSA actually has no interest in combating terrorism. No, the “only one goal” of the NSA is to spy on innocent American citizens. Here Greenwald did what he always does, which is to impute sinister motives to actors—in this case, the shadowy and amorphous American national-security state—he cannot substantiate with evidence. In publishing wildly sensational stories about the NSA, Greenwald is himself guilty of the very type of fearmongering that he accuses the government of perpetrating against American citizens. And it appears to be working. A July poll conducted by Pew found that 63 percent of Americans believe the government is “gathering information about the content of communications,” and a full 27 percent of Americans believe that the government has “listened to or read their phone calls and emails.”
While actively supporting (in words and materially) the work of American traitors, Greenwald simultaneously accuses American friends of Israel of putting the interests of the Jewish state before their own. “Not even our Constitution’s First Amendment has been a match for the endless exploitation of American policy, law, and resources [by the Israel lobby] to target and punish Israel’s enemies,” he wrote in 2009. Pro-Israel activists and writers, he alleged, exercise a “suffocating control over American debates and American policy.” If one does not “pledge your loyalty to our policies toward Israel and to Israel,” he once wrote, you will “be demonized and have your career ended,” an odd remark coming from a man whose career has gone from strength to strength the more outrageous his attacks on Israel have become.
Greenwald is not just content to slander Israel’s American supporters; he is a full-throated supporter of those who seek its destruction. Following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident—in which Israeli commandos raided a Turkish flotilla, attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip—Greenwald published a series of strongly worded posts condemning the Jewish State and praising those who took part in the flotilla. “It hardly seemed possible, for Israel—after its brutal devastation of Gaza and its ongoing blockade—to engage in more heinous and repugnant crimes,” he wrote, with characteristically overwrought language. Greenwald, who trades on his history as a corporate litigator to pose as an expert in international law, asserted that the Israeli blockade of Hamas is “illegal,” despite a ruling by the United Nations to the contrary. He alleged, moreover, that “the initial act of aggression was the Israeli seizing of a ship in international waters which was doing nothing hostile,” choosing here to ignore the stated, pro-Hamas sympathies of those behind the flotilla. Nor did Greenwald ever bother to retract his assertions after a United Nations inspection into the incident found that the Israeli commandos who boarded the main Turkish ship were met with “organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers.”
The most telling aspect of Greenwald’s writings about the flotilla incident, which applies to his oeuvre on Israel more generally, is that he hardly ever mentions Hamas, never mind its racism or genocidal intentions. Grappling with the nature of Hamas would complicate Greenwald’s black-and-white portrayal of the Middle East, so he ignores it completely. And then he went a step further. Noting that the Mavi Marmara incident occurred on Memorial Day, “when the meaning of ‘heroism’ is often discussed,” Greenwald wanted his readers to know that the members of the Mavi Marmara were “pure, unadulterated heroes.”
Greenwald’s temperament is never reasonable, and his writing style borders on the outlandish in its vituperation and tendency to characterize anyone who disagrees with him, even on the slightest point, as evil. He can sometimes veer off into unintentional self-parody, like the time he wrote an entire post endorsing the repeal of “Godwin’s Law,” the assertion made by journalist Mike Godwin that, “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Devised in 1990, “Godwin’s Law,” seems to have been presciently created just for Greenwald. In 2010, after ridiculing the notion that there had been any positive outcome from the invasion of Iraq, Greenwald received a public invitation from the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan to visit the region. Greenwald scoffed at the offer, writing, “It’s difficult to find an invasion in history that wasn’t supported by at least some faction of the invaded population and where that same self-justifying script wasn’t used.” He then went on to compare the war in Iraq to the Nazi “invasion” of Austria and the Sudetenland, with the Kurds, in this sickening comparison, akin to Nazi sympathizers.
In his capacity as a legally minded pontificator of the far left, Greenwald might be called the Leonard Boudin of the interactive age. Boudin was the go-to lawyer for America’s most prominent Communists, left-wing radicals, and terrorists, not to mention the post-revolutionary Cuban government of Fidel Castro. Like Boudin, Greenwald can always be relied upon to provide a defense for those who wish to do America and its allies harm. Greenwald has ranked his perverse sense of “anti-imperialism” ahead of any and all other considerations, including what many would expect to be his own self-interest. After all, how else could a gay Jew become the world’s most verbose Western apologist for homophobic, anti-Semitic fanatics and murderers?
In their critiques of the Obama administration, Greenwald and Scahill are right about one important thing, which is the general continuity in counterterrorism policies between the Bush and Obama administrations and the blatant hypocrisy of the latter in claiming it would restore the reputation of an America “tarnished” by the actions of the former. Unlike many on the left, who vigorously defend Obama policies they would surely condemn as war crimes if a Republican were pursuing them, Greenwald and Scahill are at least intellectually consistent in their broad renunciation of American foreign policy. The Obama administration had propagated “the fantasy of a clean war,” Scahill writes, the implication being that all wars are inherently “dirty,” and thus America should disarm and withdraw from the world.
While this righteous condemnation of American liberal hypocrisy is a welcome tonic, one must remember that it originates from a deep and abiding belief that America plays a fundamentally evil role in the world. It is a view that Greenwald and Scahill have repeatedly expressed. “So I say that we call for an end to the death penalty in this country, and we call for an end to the collective death penalty being meted out on the rest of the world by this criminal government,” Scahill pronounced at the Socialism 2007 conference. Raising a similar alarm about the foundational corruption of the American political system, Greenwald declares that “the worst and most tyrannical government actions in Washington are equally supported on a fully bipartisan basis.”
“All men should have a drop of treason in their veins,” Rebecca West wrote in 1964. By this she meant that no citizen should accept everything his political leaders say without question; he should be ready to acknowledge that his government, like anything created by man, is capable of error. This sentiment has been popularized in the less eloquent and more simplistic maxim “dissent is patriotic.” The American practitioners of Treason Chic like to see themselves as dissenters, which they are in the sense that they diverge from the mainstream. But in so doing, they have taken the principle to an unholy extreme. Striking a pose as concerned patriots, far more than a drop of treason courses through their veins.
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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.