Why are the mainstream media so eager to celebrate an unjust attack on the NYPD?
In April, the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting was awarded to the Associated Press for a series of articles it published about the New York Police Department’s “clandestine spying program that monitored daily life in Muslim communities.” The AP’s assertions were so extensive that they filled more than 50 separate pieces, the first published in August of last year. Its reporters alleged that since the attacks of September 11, the New York City Police Department’s Intelligence Division had placed entire Muslim communities under scrutiny with “no evidence of wrongdoing.” The department, they wrote, had infiltrated mosques and Muslim student groups with no legal basis to do so. It had operated far outside its geographical jurisdiction and had cast too wide a net when monitoring and analyzing American Muslims.
The NYPD had joined the CIA in an “unprecedented partnership,” blurring the line between foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering, and had operated in secrecy with “scant oversight.” It had run afoul of legal constraints, especially a series of limitations on its intelligence-gathering to which the NYPD itself had agreed following a court case in 1985. It had violated civil-liberties rules in a way that would not be permitted of federal institutions. And after all this misbehavior, the results were mixed in any case.
The articles were quickly and widely disseminated and elicited expressions of deep outrage among Muslim Americans and civil-liberties activists. They created fissures between the police and the communities it sought to protect, undermined confidence in the NYPD, and attracted national attention—which, according to the AP’s Pulitzer citation, “result[ed] in congressional calls for a federal investigation and a debate over the proper role of domestic intelligence-gathering.” As well they should have. A free citizenry relies on a free press to uncover civil-liberties abuses.
But any serious discussion about the alleged methods and practices of the NYPD Intelligence Division should have begun with one question: Was the AP’s investigation accurate?
The answer is no.
The articles misrepresent the scope, purpose, and rationale behind many of the NYPD Intelligence Division’s programs. They confuse events and policies in ways that are misleading and cast the tale they are telling in the worst possible light. I know all this to be true, because I worked directly for the deputy commissioner of the Intelligence Division for the last seven years, first as a special assistant and then, for the last four years, until May 2012, as his director of intelligence analysis, overseeing all the city’s terrorism investigations.
Nonetheless, the articles were accepted as gospel—perhaps because the accuracy of the work was beside the point. They were celebrated precisely for what they alleged, not what they proved. Their purpose was not to foster serious debate about NYPD anti-terrorism activities, and there has been no such serious debate in their wake.
The legal and policy questions surrounding how to safeguard civil liberties while defending society from acts of terrorism are certainly complex. There is, inevitably, a difficult balance we must strike between security and liberty, and it demands rigorous and ongoing debate about American anti-terrorist methods. Rather than raising these issues in a thoughtful way to inspire reasoned discussion, however, the series of articles made broad allegations and cherry-picked and misconstrued examples to support particularly damaging charges.
This article is intended to restore the context, accuracy, and critical detail left out by the AP and thereby convey the truth of what is an honorable and successful story of sustained, life-saving police work in a climate of unprecedented threat. It is impossible to respond to every AP allegation and distortion even in this generous space. I will therefore focus on the three subjects that have dominated headlines about alleged NYPD misconduct since the articles were published: first, a supposed human-mapping program run by the department; second, counterterrorism efforts outside New York City; and third, actions involving universities. In honing in on these hot-button issues, I will also refute a number of attendant accusations about the ethics and efficacy of NYPD methods.
But first, some background on the evolution of the Intelligence Division and its strategy.
On February 26, 1993, a massive car bomb was detonated below the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The 1,336-pound device was intended to knock the North Tower into the South Tower, bringing both down and killing thousands. The plot failed but still killed six people and injured 1,042 more.
Although the suspects were dismissed as incompetent, their associates were already plotting another attack. The extremist cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the Blind Sheikh, was at the heart of this follow-up plan to attack the United Nations, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, the George Washington Bridge, and the FBI’s New York office. That so-called Landmarks Plot was thwarted by an informant who had infiltrated the group.
Almost all the participants in both plots were ultimately arrested, tried, and brought to justice, and that temporarily closed the case for most Americans. But on the morning of September 11, 2001, Islamist terrorism crashed back into New York City when 19 al-Qaeda members hijacked four commercial passenger airliners and rammed two of them into the World Trade Center, killing 2,749 people and completing the mission begun in 1993.
Having been attacked twice successfully in the span of eight years, the city could no longer completely defer the responsibility of counterterrorism to the federal government, determined Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. While the NYPD was prepared to work with the federal agencies, the department determined it would have to make systemic and autonomous changes in how to protect the city from further attacks.
To meet that challenge, in January 2002, the NYPD became the first police department in the country to develop its own Counterterrorism Bureau. The new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and Commissioner Kelly appointed Marine Corps Lieutenant General Frank Libutti to run it. To head a restructured Intelligence Division, the department recruited David Cohen, a 35-year veteran of the CIA who had led both the operational and analytical branches of the agency.
This was no mere cosmetic relabeling or shuffling of the bureaucratic deck. The department increased its representation on the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force from 17 detectives to 120. It reassigned fluent speakers of Arabic, Pashto, Farsi, and Urdu to counterterrorism duties. And it posted senior officers in 11 cities around the world to build relationships with local police agencies and visit the scenes of terrorist attacks abroad.
The NYPD also incorporated a crucial civilian component to fight terrorism. A corps of expert analysts in foreign affairs, intelligence, and counterterrorism were recruited from top graduate schools as well as from the intelligence community inside the Beltway. These well-trained and well-educated civilians were tasked with studying evolving methods of attack and terrorist hot spots around the world.
Additionally, the department cast a wide net for collaboration, working with law-enforcement agencies throughout the northeast and mid-Atlantic and partnering with 11,000 members of the region’s private-security industry through a program called NYPD Shield.
Preventing another 9/11 meant studying the attacks of 1993 and 2001 and the thwarted Landmarks Plot. The 1993 attack and the plot were local affairs, planned by groups of regionally based conspirators, six of whom originated from the Palestinian territories, Egypt, and Kuwait. The men lived in New York City and New Jersey, and the sites of their radicalization included the Al Kifah Refugee Center and Al Farouq Mosque, both on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and the Al Salam Mosque in Jersey City. These mosques were in thrall to the Blind Sheikh.
The 9/11 attack was carried out by men from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon. They had been trained overseas before blending into the population of the United States. At least six of them chose to live in Paterson, New Jersey, specifically because there was “an Arabic-speaking community there,” as the 9/11 Commission Report says. Vitally, in the Landmarks Plot (the only one against New York that was derailed during this eight-year period) a confidential informant who was able to penetrate the conspiracy was the critical factor in detecting and disrupting the plan before it became an attack.
These trends meant that the department had to figure out how to (a) find individuals from abroad who had buried themselves in local communities and (b) utilize human intelligence (confidential informants) to penetrate conspiracies before they came to fruition.
If the task wasn’t challenging enough, the NYPD also had to contend with a piece of legal architecture known as the Handschu Guidelines, a binding agreement overseen by a federal judge following the settlement of a lawsuit in 1985. No other police department in the country is bound by these rules, which at the time stipulated in part that police were not allowed to investigate political activity before having specific knowledge of criminal activity. After 9/11, the department was understandably concerned that prohibitions in the guidelines might interfere with its ability to prevent terrorist attacks. As a result, in 2002, the NYPD proposed to a federal court that the terms of the guidelines be modified; the court agreed.
The modified guidelines begin by stating a general principle: “In its effort to anticipate or prevent unlawful activity, including terrorist acts, the NYPD must, at times, initiate investigations in advance of unlawful conduct.” Clearly, conducting an investigation following a successful attack, as was done in 1993 or 2001, was no longer acceptable. Plots had to be disrupted before they went operational.
The new Handschu rules also state: “The NYPD is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public” and “to conduct online search activity and to access online sites and forums on the same terms…as members of the public.” The department is further authorized to “prepare general reports and assessments…for purposes of strategic or operational planning.” It is therefore entirely legal for the Police Department to search online, visit public places, or map neighborhoods.
The Demographics Unit
The AP Claim: The NYPD has engaged in a “human-mapping” program without citing any evidence of wrongdoing. This program has placed entire Muslim communities under scrutiny.
For some, the very act of gathering intelligence is an illegitimate use of police power. But to find and stop terrorists, the Police Department uses many of the same methods that are used to arrest drug dealers, human traffickers, and gang leaders. Detectives develop detailed information about the nature of the crime and the people involved. While tips from the public are useful, the police cannot rely on them exclusively to detect terrorism conspiracies.
In 2003, with that in mind, the Intelligence Division created the Demographics Unit. Its mission was to identify “venues of radicalization” or “hot spots” in order to detect and disrupt terrorist plots in their beginning stages. The unit was also charged with identifying the locations in certain communities where foreign operatives might hope to lie low, just as the 9/11 hijackers did in Paterson, New Jersey. Given the rich diversity of the ethnic and cultural landscape of New York City, officers in the unit were specifically chosen for their unique language capabilities and cultural knowledge. Individuals were matched to geographic areas where they would be best able to distinguish the benign from the threatening. Proud to be Americans and members of the NYPD, the majority of these officers were Muslims.
A September 22, 2011, AP article paints a frightening portrait of the Demographics Unit and the work it did: “The New York Police Department put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed, and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Associated Press,” runs the article’s opening paragraph. “The documents describe in extraordinary detail a secret program intended to catalog life inside Muslim neighborhoods as people immigrated, got jobs, became citizens, and started businesses. The documents undercut the NYPD’s claim that its officers only follow leads when investigating terrorism.”
But this police-state nightmare bears no resemblance to the nuanced work of the Demographics Unit. The unit employed what is called a risk-basis model. In the three Islamist plots against New York between 1993 and 2001, the vast majority of the conspirators were from a limited group of countries: Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The risk-basis model would therefore indicate that these countries could be deemed “higher risk” or “of concern” in relationship to terrorism.
A similar risk-based model is exactly what the Transportation Safety Agency (TSA) recently adopted in the wake of a different terrorist plot—that of the 2009 Christmas Day Bomber, who failed to bring down a plane above Detroit only because he couldn’t ignite the explosive device concealed in his underwear. The TSA made a list of “countries of concern,” and now passengers from those 14 states face additional scrutiny, such as pat-downs and having their carry-on luggage examined under the new rules. (There is a great deal of overlap between the countries on the TSA list, developed by the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, and those states the NYPD has considered “countries of concern.”)
Plainclothes officers of the Demographics Unit were deployed for this mission. They went into neighborhoods that had heavy concentrations of populations from the “countries of interest” and walked around, purchased a cup of tea or coffee, had lunch and observed the individuals in the public establishments they entered. This is an important point: Only public locations were visited. Doing so was perfectly within the purview of the NYPD, for, as the Handschu Guidelines say: “The NYPD is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public.”
Here’s what they did not do: Plainclothes officers did not conduct blanket ongoing surveillance of communities. Not only is that an impossible task, but it also would have been inefficient and had a low likelihood of identifying terrorist plots in their early stages. At its largest, during a brief period after the July 7, 2005, attacks in London, the unit had 16 officers—hardly enough to monitor a neighborhood, much less whole communities. Officers would take a first pass to familiarize themselves with luncheonettes, dollar stores, and other legitimate businesses and record what they saw. They would be very unlikely to return unless there was reason to believe that a location might be a “venue of radicalization.”
How did the AP treat this? Its writers claimed that “the department has dispatched teams of undercover officers, known as ‘rakers,’ into minority neighborhoods as part of a human-mapping program, according to officials directly involved in the program.” As mentioned above, individuals involved were not undercover officers. Undercover officers are provided with fake identities and misrepresent who they are. Plainclothes officers of the Demographics Unit carried no false identification and did not purport to be anyone in particular. This was a blatant error on the part of the AP. In addition, the AP claimed, “Police have also used informants, known as ‘mosque crawlers,’ to monitor sermons, even when there’s no evidence of wrongdoing.” As a matter of Police Department policy, undercover officers and confidential informants do not enter a mosque unless they are following up on a lead vetted under the terms of the Handschu Guidelines. The AP’s description of “mosque crawlers” roving from mosque to mosque without express legal permission to enter that location is pure fiction.
Still, there was the collection of information, and that is really what troubled people. So why cover social and recreational sites to begin with? The answer: Radicalization frequently occurs in nontraditional locations, not only religious centers. One of the key findings of the 2004 attack on a Madrid train station (inspired by al-Qaeda) and the 2005 attack on the London Underground (committed by al-Qaeda) was that the plotters had not radicalized in mosques. In Spain, different members of the terrorist cluster were radicalized in a barbershop, an apartment, and an unidentified store where some “watched videos containing images of exercises in training camps, as well as images that exalted the value of the jihad,” according to court testimony. In the U.K., the venues of the radicalization of the 7/7 bombers included the Iqra Learning Center bookstore and the “al-Qaeda gym” (the Hamara Healthy Living Centre), both in Beeston.
The AP articles claimed that the NYPD “kept files on individuals” gathered by the Demographics Unit. This is a significant distortion of reality. Yes, to be sure, observation reports were prepared. Naturally, such reports included the names of store owners and customers and the information gleaned from conversations. However, no files about particular individuals were created. The Word-document reports and area-familiarization summaries about visits to public locations were kept on the shelf so that they might be accessed in the event of a fast-moving plot. It would give the department a head start on geographically based knowledge, including data about venues of radicalization and potential “flophouses” or other locations where operatives from specific countries might seek to conceal themselves.
For example, the Demographics Unit was critical in identifying the Islamic Books and Tapes bookstore in Brooklyn as a venue for radicalization. Information the unit collected about the store provided a predicate for an investigation that thwarted a 2004 plot against the Herald Square subway station. The unit also played a role in forming the initiation of an investigation that led to the 2008 identification of Abdel Hameed Shehadeh, a New Yorker who was arrested and is currently facing federal charges for allegedly lying about his plans to travel to Afghanistan in order to kill U.S. servicemen. Both operations were conducted in accordance with the Handschu Guidelines.
Anyone who suggests that the efforts of this unit (which was renamed the Zone Assessment Unit in September 2010) did not comport with legal rules either has not read the Handschu Guidelines, has misunderstood them, or has willfully overlooked their meaning. The AP’s reporters and editors were in one of these categories. Anyone who denies the success of the demographics initiative is fortunate not to carry the burden of responsibility should there actually be a counterterrorism failure resulting in an attack. I, for one, would have borne that responsibility. The AP team would not have.
Outside City Limits
The AP Claim: The NYPD’s Intelligence Division operates far outside its geographical jurisdiction without the knowledge of local agencies.
If vast oceans and international borders cannot hinder terror plots against the United States, invisible lines separating states and counties certainly cannot. The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center was launched from Jersey City. The 2005 attack on the London Underground was launched from Leeds, 180 miles north of the capital. More recently, Faisal Shahzad’s 2010 plot to explode a bomb in an SUV in Times Square on a summer Saturday night on behalf of the Pakistani Taliban was launched from Bridgeport, Connecticut.
It is perfectly legal for the NYPD to travel beyond the boundaries of New York City to investigate cases or visit commercial establishments where terrorists might be radicalizing. Similarly, it is legal to obtain information outside of New York that the Intelligence Division may use “to prepare general reports and assessments concerning terrorism and other unlawful activities or the purposes of strategic or operational planning.”
In order to help its partner agencies better understand their own jurisdictions, the Demographics Unit was deployed on select occasions to jurisdictions in New Jersey and Long Island. This led the AP to determine that “the NYPD operates far outside its borders and targets ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil-liberties rules if practiced by the federal government.” What’s more, according to the August 23 article, “it does so with unprecedented help from the CIA in a partnership that has blurred the bright line between foreign and domestic spying.”
The notion of the NYPD as a rolling team of rogue spies would be comically preposterous if it weren’t so damaging. First, the NYPD is not the federal government. Second, these operations were not unilateral. Local agencies were involved. Any reports or assessments were shared with the local police agencies. What local police chose to tell or not to tell the politicians in their areas was beyond the NYPD’s purview.
As the New Jersey Star-Ledger reported on March 6, 2012:
Although recent disclosures that in 2007 the New York Police Department spied on Muslims in New Jersey have unleashed a furor, interviews with a dozen former state and federal officials show the department’s presence was widely known among the state’s law enforcement officials. In fact, it seems that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, almost everyone—including Gov. Chris Christie, who was U.S. Attorney for New Jersey at the time—knew to varying degrees the NYPD was scouring the state, where some of the hijackings were planned and one was launched.
A different initiative included the selective use of undercover officers and confidential informants outside city limits. As with the investigation of the 1993 plot against the World Trade Center, which refused to be limited to one side of the Hudson River, a number of terrorist investigations that began inside city limits bled over into adjacent jurisdictions. Any such investigative activity involving human sources had to be conducted in strict accordance with the Handschu Guidelines, just as if those investigations were limited to New York City.
NYPD efforts beyond city limits led to the arrests of the New Jersey–based Mohamed Alessa and Carlos Almonte at John F. Kennedy Airport in June 2010. They were headed to Somalia to join the terrorist organization al Shabaab. Their apprehension marked the conclusion of a three-and-a-half-year investigation by the FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Forces in New York and New Jersey. Also involved: the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark. The case against Alessa and Almonte was developed through the careful work of an NYPD undercover officer who made contact with the men in 2009 and became a trusted confidant in northern New Jersey.
Similarly, the investigation that led to the arrest of Jose Pimentel began with an investigation in New York City and moved upstate to the Albany region. In November 2011, Pimentel was one hour away from completing the construction of a pipe bomb intended for detonation in New York City when he was nabbed by police. The department’s intelligence program was built to facilitate exactly the kind of regional collaboration that made his detention possible.
One AP headline blared, “NYPD’s spying programs yielded only mixed results.” Strictly speaking, “mixed results” is accurate in that for the programs to have yielded non-mixed results, they would have been 100 percent successful or 100 percent unsuccessful. But the implication of the headline is that results have been disappointing. The record of just one aspect of these initiatives tells a dramatically different story. Read on.
The AP Claim: The NYPD has investigated and infiltrated Muslim student groups without any legal basis to do so.
At universities students are expected to explore new ideas, challenge themselves, and engage in robust debate involving multiple dissenting opinions. The NYPD has been especially sensitive in any operational work that risks infringing on this protected space. Allegations that police have been infiltrating Muslim student groups at colleges in the city and schools beyond city limits, including Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, are serious and need to be addressed.
But in covering this topic, the AP conflated two different elements of investigative work: open-sourced Internet searches and undercover officers. “Investigators have been infiltrating Muslim student groups at Brooklyn College and other schools in the city, monitoring their Internet activity and placing undercover agents in their ranks,” reads an October 11 story. “Legal experts say the operation may have broken a 19-year-old pact with the colleges and violated U.S. privacy laws, jeopardizing millions of dollars in federal research money and student aid.” This is a dramatic misinterpretation of the nature and scope of the department’s actions.
The first investigative initiative involving students began in 2006 and involved the NYPD Intelligence Division’s Cyber Unit. Officers reviewed Muslim Student Association (MSA) websites, all of which were publicly available, for a period of six months—and with good reason.
Consider the following stories from Great Britain: On March 30, 2004, British authorities disrupted an al-Qaeda plot to mount a bomb attack in the United Kingdom. The individuals involved had obtained 1,300 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer for making bombs. They considered targeting a shopping mall, a nightclub, the U.K.’s 4,200-mile network of underground high-pressure gas pipelines, various British synagogues, Parliament, and a soccer stadium. Four of the seven conspirators were either current university students, dropouts, or graduates of London Metropolitan University, the University of Hertfordshire, and Brunel University. One was an active member of the latter’s Islamic society.
The 2005 London subway plot killed 52 commuters, injured 700, and severe disrupted the city’s transport infrastructure. One of the suicide bombers was a recent graduate of Leeds Metropolitan University, one a recent dropout from the same university, and one a university student at Thomas Danby College in Leeds at the time of the attack.
Next summer, on August 9, British authorities disrupted an al-Qaeda conspiracy to detonate liquid explosives on nine transatlantic airliners traveling from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada. Four of the nine conspirators were either current university students, dropouts, or graduates from London Metropolitan University, City University, Brunel University, and Middlesex University. One had been president of London Metropolitan University’s Islamic Society.
Most important, the trend is not limited to the U.K. Right here in New York, Mohammed Junaid Babar and Syed Fahad Hashmi, who were arrested in connection with the previously referenced 2004 plot in the U.K. and pled guilty to al-Qaeda-related terrorist activities, had been radicalized through the university-based New York branch of al-Muhajiroun, an Islamist student group in Britain to which several of the subway bombers were linked. The group actively recruited at the Muslim Student Associations of Brooklyn College, Queens College, and other universities in New York City. More recently, the NYPD learned that Adis Medunjanin, indicted for his participation in the most serious plot on American soil since 9/11—the 2009 Najibullah Zazi plot to detonate explosives in the New York City subway system—was an active member of the Queens College Muslim Student Association.
So what did the NYPD do about campus radicalization and recruitment? For a six-month period, beginning in November 2006 and ending in May 2007, Intelligence Division detectives conducted public-information Internet searches to determine if radicalization and recruitment to terrorism were occurring on local university campuses and, if so, to what extent.
Detectives visited publicly available websites of universities and colleges in and around New York City, catalogued what they saw, and assembled the information into 23 biweekly reports. (Once again, NYPD members investigating counterterrorism activities are authorized by the Handschu Guidelines to search websites open to the public for the purpose of developing intelligence information to detect or prevent terrorism or other unlawful activities.) They were looking mostly at speakers, conferences, and events held at MSAs that might—even if inadvertently—support terrorism or provide a recruiting venue for extremist Islamist groups.
Fortunately, the vast majority of speakers, conferences, and events held at Muslim Student Associations in the tristate area were nonthreatening in nature, and in May 2007 the initiative was closed. The information from the biweekly reports was not entered into any database.
Nevertheless, not everything going on at universities was benign. Detectives learned that Jesse Curtis Morton, who has just recently pled guilty to “using his position as a leader of Revolution Muslim Internet sites to conspire to solicit murder, make threatening communications, and use the Internet to place others in fear,” according to the Eastern District of Virginia, spoke at Stony Brook University as a leader of the Islamic Thinkers Society. In April 2007, detectives learned that Morton’s co-founder of Revolution Muslim, Yousef al-Khattab, spoke at Brooklyn College’s Islamic Society.
Wholly separate from this initiative is the use of undercover officers in investigations that sometimes involved MSA-related activities. Of course, one could be forgiven for thinking that an investigation involving students from City University of New York on a whitewater-rafting trip was a direct consequence of these open-source Internet searches, given how the AP conflated the two. It was not.
Here is how the AP managed to conflate the discrete phenomena in a February 18 article: “Police talked with local authorities about professors 300 miles (480 kilometers) away in Buffalo and even sent an undercover agent on a whitewater-rafting trip, where he recorded students’ names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed. Detectives trawled Muslim student websites every day and, although professors and students had not been accused of any wrongdoing, their names were recorded in reports prepared for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.”
The trip fell under a classic investigative framework after information obtained by the NYPD raised the possibility that an individual or group of individuals were engaged in or planning to engage in unlawful activity.
Much has been made of the benign nature of this particular event where no discussion of terrorism occurred. A post about the trip on New York magazine’s website claims, “What has civil-liberties advocates really worried is just how far the NYPD has stretched the parameters of its domestic espionage program—until now, at least, the official line was that the force only pursued leads about suspected criminal activity. Clearly, that’s no longer the case.”
Such histrionics are hardly warranted. In the subway-bomb-plot trial of Najibullah Zazi and Adis Medunjanin, it was disclosed that operational planning for the plot occurred on the basketball courts of Kissena Park and while hiking on Bear Mountain, north of New York City. Neither a bucolic setting nor a recreational endeavor guarantees peaceful intentions.
The AP also has claimed that these and other investigations have occurred with insufficient oversight. One article uncritically quoted New York Civil Liberties Union lawyer Christopher Dunn, who declared of the NYPD anti-terrorism program: “At the end of the day, it’s pure and simple a rogue domestic surveillance operation.” He continued: “One of the hallmarks of the intelligence division over the last 10 years is that, not only has it gotten extremely aggressive and sophisticated, but it’s operating completely on its own. There are no checks. There is no oversight.”
In particular, the AP has asserted that the modified Handschu Guidelines gave the NYPD operational carte blanche. “He scrapped the old rules and replaced them with more lenient ones,” reads an August 23, 2011, article describing U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight Jr.’s decision to modify the guidelines in 2002. “It was a turning point for the NYPD.”
But far from providing evidence of this charge, the whitewater-rafting case reveals it as folly. The Handschu Guidelines require written authorization from the deputy commissioner of intelligence when utilizing human intelligence. That requirement was met here as it has been in every other case. Moreover, an internal committee reviews each investigation to ensure compliance, and a legal unit based in the Intelligence Division evaluates every field intelligence report generated through an investigation. This committee meets regularly every month, and at one meeting at the end of my tenure, no fewer than 10 attorneys and five assistant or deputy commissioners were in attendance. It is important to note that investigations are discontinued unless they reasonably indicate that an unlawful act has been, is being, or will be committed.
As a matter of Police Department policy, undercover officers and confidential informants do not enter a mosque unless they are doing so as part of an investigation of a person or institution approved under the Handschu Guidelines. Likewise, when undercover officers or confidential informants have attended a private event organized by a student group, they have done so only on the basis of a lead or investigation reviewed and authorized in writing at the highest levels of the department.
Given my dual role as a former director of intelligence analysis at the NYPD and a visiting lecturer at Columbia University, I took a special interest in this issue and personally reviewed the documents in question to see the number of times that NYPD human sources were present on local campuses in the last five years. The numbers are very small and almost always involved intelligence-collection efforts limited to individuals who were under investigation, not the broader student body.
So, yes, in 2006, given the trends observed both here and overseas, the NYPD thought it prudent to learn more about what was occurring at Muslim Student Associations in the region via open sources, and the six-month initiative generated six months’ worth of public-information reports. The NYPD did not send undercover sources to infiltrate MSAs throughout the northeast. Both the open-source initiative and the few investigations where undercover officers examined the activities of university students as part of an ongoing investigation authorized by Handschu Guidelines have led to a greater understanding of the relationship between terrorism and university organizations and have, as a result, kept New York City safer.
In total, the NYPD has helped to prevent 14 terrorist attacks on New York City and its surrounding areas and permitted exactly zero deadly plots to materialize in the 11 years since 9/11. Its success, based on the math alone, is indisputable. But in a free country, success is not enough. Civil libertarians are correct in asserting that safety at the cost of political freedom would betray the highest American ideals. And the unlawful targeting of New York City’s minorities would constitute nothing less than a cultural and spiritual gutting of the greatest, most diverse city history has seen. But neither of those travesties have occurred, thanks to the genius of America’s Constitution and the NYPD’s exquisite adherence to it.
Sadly, the absence of wrongdoing goes only so far in a media-driven society shaped by the 24-hour news cycle and explosive headlines. The damage the AP inflicted upon the NYPD’s reputation cannot be mitigated wholly by this or any other honest airing of the facts. Indeed, one can argue that inflicting such damage—not debating police methodology—was the point of the AP’s series.
The war on the NYPD’s method of combating terrorism is a war on the war on terror by proxy—an effort to portray the least controversial aspect of homeland security as instead a matter of great civil-libertarian concern. Long before the AP series, the war on the war began with efforts to discredit the federal government’s endeavors to collect intelligence from combatants and terror suspects captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. It zoomed in on the rights of those detained overseas and at the American base in Guantánamo Bay. Now it has come home, to take on a once universally heralded and supported effort at domestic counterterrorism at the epicenter of the 9/11 attacks, New York City.
Having impugned military and intelligence efforts to fight terrorism, these foes are now taking aim at the most conventional kind of anti-terror approach—one that works within the domestic criminal-justice system, is overseen by courts, and is being managed by a police department that has rigorously kept to the terms of legal limits to which it agreed nearly 30 years ago.
By portraying the NYPD efforts as rogue operations, the AP and the Pulitzer committee are seeking to slacken attempts inside the United States to stop terrorist plots before they happen. Letting these false and misleading stories alter local counterterrorism work would be catastrophic. It has taken many hard years to craft the effective anti-terrorism policies that serve us so well today. Now, with al-Qaeda on the ropes, our renewed sense of security can morph easily into complacency—and terrorists will be sure to exploit any new opportunities to attack. The price of maintaining the safety of New Yorkers has been kept remarkably low, not only for residents but for the country as a whole. Preventing another devastating attack from occurring in the city after 2001 was much more than a local necessity. Such an attack would have been devastating to national morale.
And it still would be.
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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.