Is It Time for the Jews to Leave?

“Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” asks Jeffrey Goldberg in the title of an Atlantic Monthly cover story. Of course it’s a cover story. With a provocative title like that, could it be anything less? The title certainly grabs our attention.
So what is Goldberg’s answer to his provocative question?

Although Goldberg’s answer is slightly equivocal, it seems to be yes. In his conclusion, Goldberg tells us that he is “predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly.” What then is that evidence? It is almost entirely anecdotal and impressionistic, with a few “facts” thrown in the mix to make the argument appear more objective.

Goldberg does produce a few statistics that suggest anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. For example, he writes that, according to the French Interior Ministry, although the number of Jews in France (about 475,000) represents less than 1 percent of the country’s population, “51% of all racist attacks targeted Jews.” He then assures us, without specifics, that the “statistics in other countries, including Great Britain, are similarly dismal.”

Later in the article, however, he does give some details about Great Britain. “According to the Community Security Trust [which Goldberg elsewhere identifies as “a Jewish organization that monitors anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom”], 2014 saw the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United Kingdom, which is home to 300,000 Jews, since the organization began its monitoring efforts in 1984; it recorded 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents. This is more than double the number of incidents in 2013, and exceeds the previous record, from 2009, of 931 incidents.” (How the Community Security Trust determines what constitutes an “anti-Semitic incident” is not explained.)

There are a few other statistics strewn throughout the article (“The Berlin rally last fall against anti-Semitism that featured Angela Merkel drew a paltry 5,000 people, most of them Jews.” “In Greece, a recent survey found that 69 percent of adults hold anti-Semitic views, and the fascists of the country’s Golden Dawn Party are open in their Jew-hatred.” It is not explained who conducted the “survey,” how it was conducted, or what was determined to be an “anti-Semitic view.”), but really statistics are not Goldberg’s thing. Goldberg proves or, more accurately, illustrates his thesis with stories of acts of anti-Semitic aggression perpetrated against individual Jews in Europe.

To prove that “[t]hings have gone terribly wrong for the Jews of Europe lately,” he reminds us of the attack at a kosher market that followed the Charlie Hebdo killings. He tells us about a rabbi and his sons who were killed in Toulouse outside a synagogue by a “radicalized” French citizen of Algerian descent, who then chased down and shot, in a schoolyard, an 8-year old girl. He visits a Jewish vocational high school outside Paris, in which each “of the 10 students had a story to tell about brutality.” He recounts the story of the “most persecuted Jew” in Europe, a Chabad Hasidic rabbi in a city in southern Sweden, who avoids venturing out in public with his wife for fear that they will be targeted together.

These and similar anecdotes are offered to paint a portrait of a continent that is rampant with anti-Semitism, not as virulent as the strain of anti-Semitism that overtook Europe in 1933 (“comparing 2015 to 1933, the year Hitler came to power [as American billionaire Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, recently did] is irresponsible.”). But isn’t that exactly where Europe is headed?, Goldberg seems to ask. “It is not 1933. But could it be 1929?”

The problem with this approach—trying to prove a point with a smattering of statistics and a handful of illustrative anecdotes—is that it can be used to “prove” almost anything. No doubt, if Goldberg had wanted to title his article “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave America?” he could have written a piece with just as many statistics and just as many individual stories as he has assembled in The Atlantic. (To find his data, he wouldn’t have to look much farther than press releases from the Anti-Defamation League, which recently announced that its “audit” showed that the “total number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased by 21 percent in 2014 in a year marked by a violent anti-Semitic shooting attack targeting Jewish community buildings in Kansas and anti-Jewish expressions linked to the war in Gaza.”)

That is not, however, the story Goldberg wants to tell, at least not today. (Thirty years ago, Goldberg tells us, he moved to Israel “to participate in the drama of Jewish national self-determination” and “also because I believed that life in the Diaspora, including the America Diaspora, wasn’t particularly safe for Jews, or Judaism. Several years in Israel, and some somber thinking about the American Jewish condition, cured me of that particular belief.”) Today, Goldberg is fairly sanguine about “the American Jewish condition.” Even acknowledging that, according to FBI statistics, “Jews are by far the most-frequent victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in America,” Goldberg dismisses this as “anti-Semitism on the margins.” Why anti-Semitic incidents are “on the margins” in the U.S. but deeply troubling in Europe, Goldberg does not explain. Perhaps it’s supposed to be self-evident.

Still, he sells his doomsday predictions about Europe pretty hard, nowhere more so than in his account of a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Reminding us that “four people were murdered at the Jewish Museum of Belgium,” by a French Muslim of “jihadist bent” who had recently spent time with ISIS in Syria, Goldberg seems, frankly, disappointed when the police officers guarding the Anne Frank House insist that “we have never had an attack.” Since this fact does not serve Goldberg’s narrative—how could an institution as “iconic” as the Anne Frank House not have been attacked by anti-Semites?—Goldberg challenges the policeman’s view by “counting” the original Gestapo raid on the House in 1944 that resulted in the arrest of the Frank family. If the Dutch can protect the Anne Frank House, perhaps there is hope, but Goldberg will have none of it.

Grudgingly, he acknowledges that the current leaders of many European countries—German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Goldberg quotes her as saying that “Germany’s support for Israel’s security is part of our national ethos” and that [a]nyone who hits someone wearing a Jewish skullcap is hitting us all”), Manuel Valls, the prime minister of France (“The choice was made by the French revolution in 1789 to recognize Jews as full citizens. To understand what the idea of the republic is about, you have to understand the central role played by the emancipation of the Jews. It is a founding principle.”), Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron (“I think it is unfair and wrong to lay at the door of the Jewish communities of Europe policies pursued by the government of Israel that people might not agree with—completely wrong.”), even Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s right-wing National Front party (“I don’t see Jews as a community. I see fellow countrymen who are of Jewish faith but who are fellow countrymen and I think all French have the right to see themselves protected from the threats that weigh on them.”)—are making a “heartfelt” fight against anti-Semitism.

“The question,” he asks, “is, will it work?” And, in his answer, which is basically no, Goldberg gives his game away. Why won’t it work? Because the “governments of Europe are having a terrible time in their struggle against the manifestations of radical Islamist ideology” and because “the general publics of these countries do not seem nearly as engaged in the issue as their leaders.” The problem isn’t that the Germans and the French and the British are violently anti-Semitic. It is that they are not “sufficiently engaged” and that the people who are engaged, the people who are anti-Semitic and commit anti-Semitic acts, are radical Islamists—people defiantly outside the mainstream of the cultures in which they live. What Goldberg’s statistics and anecdotes ultimately establish is that the Jews don’t have a European problem, and the Europeans don’t have a Jewish problem. They both have a radical Islamist problem. (It is no accident that virtually every one of Goldberg’s anecdotes about an anti-Semitic incident in Europe involves an attack perpetrated by a radicalized Muslim.)

Nevertheless, let’s suppose for a minute that Goldberg has made his point. We still need to ask, if the Jews are to “leave” Europe to avoid further anti-Semitic attacks, where are they to go? Given Goldberg’s views about the marginality of anti-Semitism in the U.S., one might assume that he would encourage European Jews to move, like the characters in the final scene of “Fiddler on the Roof,” to places like “Chicago America” and “New York America.” (“We’ll be neighbors!” they tell each other.) But, although Goldberg never expressly comes out and says it, his answer, despite his own disillusioning experience there thirty years ago, appears to be: Israel.

That certainly is the practical answer. Given the ongoing debate in the United States over immigration policy, one does not foresee any U.S. administration suddenly flinging re-open the doors at Ellis Island to a new flood of European Jewish immigrants. Israel is, of course, another story. After the kosher-market attack in Paris, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to extend this invitation: “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray. The state of Israel is your home.”

But if you were searching for a safe haven from radical Islamist attacks, Israel has got to be the last place you would go. The constant external threat to Israel from its Muslim neighbors (and enemies) is, as Netanyahu argued—it was the central theme of his recent reelection campaign—“existential,” and in his last-minute electioneering fear-mongering about Arabs going to the polls in Israel in “droves,” Netanyahu effectively acknowledged an existential internal threat to Israel Jews from the country’s own (growing) Arab population. If you are a Jew in Europe, are you really going to improve your chances of avoiding anti-Semitism by moving to Israel?

The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who is quoted extensively in Goldberg’s article, summarizes the dilemma of the European Jew when he tells Goldberg: “It is an irony of history that people who move to Israel as Jews might be moving to a state that in the next decades becomes a bi-national state with a Jewish minority, because of the occupation of the West Bank and the settlements. Moving from France to escape the attacks of Arabs to a country that will not be Jewish does not make a lot of sense.” If anti-Semitic threats from radical Islamists are the justification for Jews to get up and move, does Goldberg’s next cover story needs to ask “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Israel?”

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The “Truth” About Fact-based Movies

Controversy about the accuracy of the “facts” in a fact-based film is hardly new. Accusations of factual inaccuracy have become a staple of award season campaigning and journalism, part of an annual orgy of “fact-checking,” with charges of falsity leveled against many Oscar-winning films (examples: “Schindler’s List,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “The King’s Speech”) and runners-up (like “Zero Dark Thirty”). But this year, with fully half of Oscar’s Best Picture Nominees (“American Sniper,” “Selma,” “The Imitation Game, “The Theory of Everything”) and a number of other top nominees (“Foxcatcher,” “Wild,” “Unbroken”) falling into the fact-based category, the Truth Squads have gone into overdrive.

“Selma” has probably come into the most—or, at least, the most high-profile—criticism, specifically for its portrayal of the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in the words of The Wrap, became only the “Latest to Criticize ‘Selma’s’ Ava DuVernay Over LBJ Portrayal” when she used her op-ed column to opine that DuVernay’s depiction of Johnson as an “obstacle” to passage of the Voting Rights Act was “egregious.” (“NY Times’ Maureen Dowd Slams ‘Selma” for ‘Artful Falsehood” headlined The Hollywood Reporter.) In Dowd’s view, Johnson and King should have been portrayed as “allies,” but now she fears that a “generation of young would see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens.”

How exactly did DuVernay create this “artful falsehood”? What “facts” did she get wrong? Dowd, like other critics of the film, points to the scene in the film in which Johnson explains to King that, while he (Johnson) supports a voting rights bill in principle, as a political priority, it is more important to the president to push his War on Poverty first. “This voting thing is just going to have to wait,” LBJ says in the film. Former Johnson aides, like Jack Valenti and Joseph Califano, Jr., have raised a fuss about this scene, suggesting that it portrays Johnson as an enemy of King and the civil rights movement. Dowd, while not entirely agreeing with the Johnson partisans, still comes to this conclusion: “There was no need for DuVernay to diminish L.B.J., given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him.”

But come on, Ms. Dowd. It’s not as if the movie’s Johnson is made to say that that the voting rights act has to await enactment until Johnson can push through Congress tax cuts for the rich. The fact that his priority is the eradication of poverty is hardly a slap at the man or a stain on his reputation. It’s a reasonable, if not the only, interpretation of his record, one for which there is, at least, some support, gleaned from facts cited in fact by Dowd herself in her column.

What’s wrong with Dowd’s analysis is her ultimate conclusion, premised, as it is, on the notion that there is only one “truth” that ought to be honored by filmmakers and novelists and playwrights who want to dramatize historical events. Dowd is so sure of her position that she cites herself on the issue: “As I have written about ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ and ‘Argo,’ and as The New York Review of Books makes clear about ‘The Imitation Game,’ the truth is dramatic and fascinating enough. Why twist it?”

The problem is: who’s to say what the “truth” is and when it is being twisted? That problem is, in fact, amply demonstrated by the very New York Review article Dowd goes out of her way to invoke. In that article, entitled “A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing,” Christian Caryl criticizes the film for portraying its protagonist, Alan Turing, one of the most important figures in the history of mathematics and computing, as a “tortured genius” and as “a martyr of a homophobic Establishment.”

Caryl argues that the filmmakers distort history in numerous ways, among them: by showing Turing and a small group of colleagues working for two years, without success, at breaking the allegedly “unbreakable” Nazi Enigma codes before Turing, more or less single-handedly, invents a computing machine that allows the English to decipher the Enigma codes completely; by, in Caryl’s words, “transform[ing] the real Turing, vivacious and forceful, into just the sort of mythological gay man, whiney and weak, that homophobes love to hate”; and by ending the story with Turing committing suicide, after he elected to undergo chemical castration procedures, rather than go to prison for violating England’s anti-sodomy laws.

Caryl is no doubt correct that Turing—even Turing and his small band of colleagues—were hardly working in isolation. “In fact, Bletchley Park [the top secret research facility where Turing worked during World War II]—and not only Turing’s legendary Hut 8—was doing productive work from the very beginning of the war…. By the end of the war there were some 9,000 people working on the project, processing thousands of intercepts per day.” Okay, but how does the movie distort history by portraying Turing and his Hut 8 team as the ones who broke the Enigma code? Does the fact that others—even many others—were doing “productive work” at Bletchley Park detract from Turing’s accomplishments?

The film is hardly alone in crediting Turing with breaking the Enigma codes, although there were important innovations that proceeded, and important innovations that followed, Turing’s work. In his recent bestseller, The Innovators (see pages 77-79), Walter Isaacson explains that, before Turing and his team came up with their device, known as the “bombe,” Polish scientists had created a machine that could read some German messages, and that, after the Germans adopted a different system of encoding their most important messages, a different team at Bletchley Park invented a device, called the Colossus, that allowed the British to read these more highly encrypted messages, but none of this proves that “The Imitation Game” “distorts” history by focusing on what Turning and his Hut 8 team actually did accomplish.

On that issue, at least, one can understand Caryl’s point and the evidence he might marshal to support it. On his other points, Caryl is, however, on much shakier ground. “The Imitation Game” portrays Turing as moody and socially awkward. There appears to be more than a little evidence to support this in the historical record. Isaacson (p.41), for example, quotes a letter to Turing’s parents from the headmaster of a boarding school Turing attended: “Undoubtedly, he’s not a ‘normal’ boy; not the worse for that, but probably less happy.” Caryl argues that the portrayal of Turing as an unhappy man is contravened by “the fact that he had a sprightly sense of humor, something that comes through vividly in the accounts of his friends.”

What kind of evidence is this? It’s a little like accepting, at face value, the testimonials from friends and neighbors (“he was always such a nice, well-behaved young man”) that invariably appear on the local news during reports on the arrest of a serial killer. And since when is a sense of humor (even a “sprightly” one) proof of an upbeat disposition?

Even more egregious is Caryl’s assertion that Turing’s death “might” have been the result of an accident, rather than suicide. Caryl makes reference to two different biographies of Turing, one, published in 1983, by Andrews Hodges, for whom Turing’s death was “clearly a suicide,” and the other, by Jack Copeland, his “more recent biographer,” who “isn’t so sure.” Copeland, according to Caryl, “offers sound evidence that the death might have actually been accidental, the result of a self-rigged laboratory where Turing was conducting experiments with cyanide. He left no suicide letter.” Moreover, Caryl writes, “Copeland also leaves open the possibility of foul play, which can’t be dismissed out of hand, when you consider that all of this happened during the period of McCarthyite hysteria, an era when homosexuality was regarded as an inherent ‘security risk.’”

The fact that Copeland “isn’t so sure” Turing committed suicide and that he speculates that “foul play” might have been involved is hardly a basis to chastise the makers of “The Imitation Game” for “distorting” history when all they did was portray the generally accepted version of Turing’s story for which there is also sound evidence and which, given Turing’s circumstances—his criminal conviction, his chemical castration—is at least as likely to be true as Caryl’s and Copeland’s more fanciful alternative theories.

Why then was Maureen Dowd so quick to cite Caryl’s article in support of her assertion that filmmakers need only dramatize the “truth” without alteration or embellishment or “twisting” it? Because Caryl, like Dowd, seems to be convinced that his own version of the “truth” is, in fact, the truth and anyone else’s version is a distortion, even if, as is clearly the case with Caryl’s arguments, it is built on a platform made up largely of speculation. If Maureen Dowd wanted to write a version of “Selma” in which Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson are allies, she could do it and no one could rightfully say that was a “distortion.” If Christian Caryl wanted to make a version of “The Imitation Game” in which Alan Turing was a genius with a “sprightly sense of humor” who was ultimately done in by evil forces, he could do it, and all we could do is say, well, it might have happened that way (and hope that he enlisted Oliver Stone to direct the movie).

But it is foolish to dismiss “Selma” and “The Imitation Game” as historical distortions because the filmmakers’ interpretation of events may not completely correspond with our own, just as it is foolish to dismiss “American Sniper” because it whitewashes the character of its protagonist, Chris Kyle, and because it doesn’t make a point of saying that we went to war in Iraq for the wrong reasons, and just as it is foolish to dismiss “The Theory of Everything” because it is too “sympathetic” to Stephen Hawking.

“Fact-checking” a movie that is “based on” or “inspired by” historical events is not a useful exercise. It’s not a documentary (and even documentaries have a point of view and are edited to include and exclude certain “facts.”). The real test of a movie is not, or ought not to be, whether the film gets every “fact” right, but whether, overall, its interpretation of historical events is a legitimate one, recognizing that there might well be other alternative interpretations of those same events. This doesn’t justify propaganda, which, by definition, does not offer a legitimate interpretation of history, nor does it excuse blatantly false factual lapses, such as the suggestion in “Selma” that Lyndon Johnson authorized J. Edgar Hoover to investigate and exploit Martin Luther King’s extra-marital activities. (Some of Ava DuVernay’s admirers, such as Ann Hornaday, of The Washington Post, have tried to pass this off as an editing gaffe, but Duvernay had to be aware of what her film was implying, even if she didn’t come right out and say it.) But “Selma” is too good and too important a film to be dismissed because of this one mistake.

An historical film cannot be false, but it does not have to be completely “accurate,” either. Ultimately, a film and its filmmakers do not have to answer for the “truth” of the picture—who but God, after all, ever really knows the “truth”? Rather, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, the ultimate test is the “truthiness” of the piece. No matter how many factual “errors” the critics of a film may cite, if the movie ultimately gives us a reasonable, supportable, generally accurate interpretation of historical events, it passes the truthiness test and deserves to be judged, not as a polemic, but as a work of art.

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Walk, Don’t Run

I know that Move.On.org wants to draft Elizabeth Warren to run for president because I got in my inbox its recent online “poll” purportedly asking for my opinion about the idea of a draft Warren campaign. The Move.On polls were open for 24 hours, like a Black Friday internet special, during which the “members” of Move.On, of which there are something like eight million (I guess I count as one because I’m on the group’s email distribution list), voted overwhelmingly to support a $1-million Draft Warren campaign.

Now, Salon reports, “the Howard Dean-founded group Democracy for America formally joined MoveOn.org’s ‘Run Warren Run’ campaign and announced it would invest $250,000 in the effort.” As Mr. Dean himself might have said, yeaoooow!

The Run Warren Run effort got even further support this week in an op-ed piece by The New York Times’s center-right columnist David Brooks, entitled “Warren Can Win.” Perhaps Brooks did not write his own headline (Remember that Mitt Romney’s campaign insisted that Romney never approved the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” until his infamous op-ed article of that name appeared in the Times.), but, in any case, it is misleading because Brooks does not argue that Senator Warren can win the presidency.

Actually, he doesn’t even argue that she has much of a chance of winning the Democratic Party’s nomination. His conclusion: “The history of populist candidates is that they never actually get the nomination. The establishment wins. That’s still likely. But there is something in the air. The fundamental truth is that every structural and historical advantage favors Clinton, but every day more Democrats embrace the emotion and view defined by Warren.”

There is “something in the air”! Not much in the way of hard evidence, especially coming from a writer who loves to cite the latest research of social scientists in his columns. Why then did one of the Times’s “conservative” op-ed voices choose to weigh in on the matter? It almost puts one in mind of Nixon’s supporters and their attempts to meddle in the 1972 Democratic primaries. Something in the air, indeed.

But let’s give Brooks the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was merely observing, as he is paid to do, shifts in the dynamics of our political system that aren’t necessarily quantifiable. In fact, let’s give the progressive wing of the Democratic Party—the faction that sometimes refers to itself as the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party—the benefit of the doubt and credit it for finding its own way to Elizabeth Warren’s Senate chambers without help from the likes of David Brooks.

The proposition that Elizabeth Warren should run for president is a terrible idea. Not because Senator Warren’s ideas are bad or her ideals are unworthy. They’re not. Keeping Wall Street in check and getting the political system to focus on the ill effects of growing inequality in America are laudable goals. But they are not going to win national elections. Progressive programs simply do not sell. And if you have any doubts about that ask President McGovern or President Mondale or President Dukakis or President Kerry. Or look at the results of the 2014 mid-term elections.

Yes, the Clintons are slippery. Yes, they have ties to Wall Street. Yes, they are willing to “triangulate” on any issue. But, to paraphrase then-Senator Barrack Obama, Hillary Clinton is progressive enough. The former First Lady/Senator/Secretary of State will, on the whole, end up in more or less the right place when it counts—on issues like health care, social welfare, women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, foreign policy, even on most economic issues. Okay, she would not be in favor of strict regulations of Big Business. She would not be as strongly pro-labor or pro-environment or as pro-gressive as Elizabeth Warren, but she has a lot better chance of getting votes from people who are not being polled by Move.On.org.

Considering how adamant the GOP is about trying to cut taxes on millionaires and deregulating industry and repealing the Affordable Care Act, considering that the GOP seems to have a lock on the House for at least the next few terms and that getting the Senate back into Democratic hands is possible but hardly a sure thing—heck, just considering that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is going to be 82 years old in March, we cannot afford to let the Republicans take the White House in 2016. We can’t be like those Republicans who insist that, if only John McCain and Mitt Romney had been “true” conservatives, they would have been elected President, and we can’t let 2016 be 1972 or, well, 1984.

We can admire Senator Warren. We can love Senator Warren. We can empathize with her anger about the undue power exercised by Wall Street and the one-percenters, but we have to be ready to tell her “Liz, you’re right to be angry, but, when you’re angry, maybe you can walk it off—and whatever you do, please, don’t run.”

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Mistakes Were Made

It has become a commonplace in our political discourse to accept, as fact, that government is incompetent. And, heaven knows, there’s been plenty of evidence of late to support that assertion.

You’ve got the Center for Disease Control’s haphazard response to the much-hyped “Ebola crisis.” You’ve got multiple embarrassments involving the Secret Service—an intruder making it all the way across the White House lawn and into the East Room before being tackled by an off-duty agent, the private security guard with a gun (and a criminal record) being allowed to ride in an elevator with the President, the disclosure that, when the White House was shot at a few years ago, the shooting was discovered not by the Secret Service but by a woman cleaning up broken glass on a White House balcony several days after the incident.

You’ve got real scandals at the Veteran’s Administration and trumped-up scandals at the IRS, and then you’ve got your evergreen scandals like Benghazi, “Fast and Furious,” the roll-out of the Obamacare website, and the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis. (Government didn’t suddenly start having problems when President Obama was inaugurated.)

“Incompetence Running Wild” headlined an editorial on Investors.com. “Incompetence Meets Mendacity in Obama Administration’s Ebola Response” announced the National Review Online. But it’s not just right-wing commentators who have seen these events as proof that governmental programs are hopelessly incompetent.

“It’s ravaging Americans’ already tenuous faith in the competence of our government and its bureaucracies,” wrote Frank Bruni in his New York Times column.
But why is this proof of the inadequacies of government bureaucracies? Why isn’t it proof of problems faced by all bureaucracies, public and private?

Consider that today alone, just the Business section of Mr. Bruni’s paper, the newspaper of record, reported on these stories:

• The hacking of 76 million personal accounts and seven million business accounts maintained by the nation’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase.

• The disclosure that 14 million cars from 11 different manufacturers (including Toyota, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors) had to be recalled because of a defect in their air bags that had already caused three deaths and over 100 injuries.

• The warning by security experts that people trying to use Apple’s on line data storage service, known as iCloud, were being targeted and that their passwords were being stolen and their activities spied on.

• In more Apple-related news, analysis of the new Apple Pay system that concluded: “using Apple Pay to shop on my phone or tablet ….That system has lots of room for improvement. It’s limited, still buggy and seemed to result in multiple charges for some purchases—at least on Day 1.”

• The acknowledgment by the retail chain Staples that its computer systems had been compromised and its customers’ credit card information left unprotected. (This story reported on prior breaches at Target, Home Depot, Neiman Marcus, Dairy Queen and P. F. Chang, among others.)

• The levying by the European Commission of over $100 million in fines against four major banks (including—there it is again—JPMorgan Chase) for illegally manipulating interest rates.

Now that was just today. There is also, of course, the shocking example of General Motors and how it managed to ignore information about defective ignition switches for more than a decade. The death toll caused by those defects (now 29 and counting) was literally yesterday’s news.

So was the story about Trinity Industries, a “highway guardrail maker accused of selling systems that can malfunction during crashes,” that was found guilty by a Texas jury of defrauding the federal government, according to the New York Times. (Damage award: $525 million.) And the day before that, there was the story about giant drugmaker AbbVie’s calling off its so-called “inversion,” its plan to merge itself into the much smaller UK company Shire, a corporate decision that will cost AbbVie, in the form of a break-up fee to Shire, more than $1.6 billion.

Indeed, every day brings us stories of malfeasance and misfeasance in the private sector—environmental pollution, contaminated food, automobile recalls, fraudulent practices, terrible investments, and, of course, pure and simple greed. But somehow nobody gathers together those stories under headlines like “Incompetence Rampant in America’s Boardrooms” or writes editorials suggesting that we need to jettison the capitalist system because of repeated displays of ineptitude or worse by corporate bureaucrats.

Republicans repeatedly denounce the Affordable Care Act on the ground that it allegedly allows some faceless government bureaucrat to make their health care decisions for them. (How many times has the House voted to repeal Obamacare?) But is it really better to hand over our health care decisions to faceless bureaucrats at for-profit insurance companies?

The reality is that bureaucracies, public and private, are prone to error—that people are prone to error. It isn’t government that’s the problem. After all, governments and corporations don’t kill people. People kill people.

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For Israel, With Love

So my rabbi wants me to be “for” Israel. That was the clear point of his sermon on Rosh Hashanah.

I had recently read an article entitled “Muzzled by the Minority,” in which Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recounted conversations with “rabbis [who] vowed that, going forward, they would simply remain silent on the subject in public, rather than subject themselves to arbitrary litmus tests of loyalty to Israel,” so I was not expecting my rabbi to touch—much less, dwell—in his sermon on the subject of support for Israel, but there it was, the message passionately delivered, too, and to more than polite applause from a large number of congregants.

The ostensible “theme” at our temple for this year’s high holiday services is “If not now, when?,” which, the rabbi explained, comes from a famous quotation from the religious scholar Hillel. The full saying translates as something like this: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Starting with a discussion of rising anti-Semitism throughout the world (the topic of a recent, widely circulated story in the New York Times), the rabbi stressed the need for Jews to be for themselves (ourselves?), because, let’s face it, who else is going to be for them (us)? Then he argued that, as far as the world is concerned, there is no difference between “Israel” and “Jews, basing this assertion largely on the fact that, in anti-Semitic protests in Europe and elsewhere , the signs of the protesters say things like “Death to Jews,” not “Death to Israel.” Perhaps using the sentiments of the most rabid anti-Semites as a touchstone is not the best foundation for judging world public opinion; it’s a little bit like arguing that all Americans are fundamentally racist based on the comments of people like Donald Sterling. Nevertheless, building on this equation of Israel and Jews, the rabbi concluded that being for ourselves as Jews has to mean being for Israel.

But what exactly does it mean to be “for” Israel?

The rabbi offered very few specifics. As close as he came was to suggest that, as worthy as many charitable causes may be, perhaps it was time for American Jews to take money that they might otherwise donate to non-Jewish philanthropies and direct it instead to a charity that is specifically directed in some way to helping Israel and Israelis. And, although he did not press on us the traditional appeal to buy Israel bonds, he did point out that Israel has the highest number of start-ups in the world and that Israel has the third highest number of companies listed on NASDAQ, many of which, he urged, would make excellent additions to our investment portfolios.

There is more than a little irony to be found in the rabbi’s simultaneous expression of concern over growing anti-Semitism and advocacy of investments in, and donations to, Israeli profits and non-profits. In response to The New York Times story on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of The Anti-Defamation League, wrote a letter to the Times, in which he cited a poll conducted by The ADL “to get a better read on the level of anti-Semitic attitudes among the adult population” in Europe. “In Belgium, France, Germany and Italy,” he wrote, “the poll found that some of the most common anti-Semitic stereotypes are surprisingly resilient.” Foxman then cited exactly one poll question to prove his point: “When asked if they agreed with the statement ‘Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind,’ 33 percent of the population in Belgium agreed. The responses varied little from country to country. In France, it was 31 percent of the population; in Germany, 28; and in Italy, 28.” If this is a rational test for anti-Semitism, it’s a good thing that the rabbi’s sermon—advocating, in essence, less giving to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and more to The Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center Dana-Dwek Children’s Hospital—didn’t make it onto You Tube.

Although he never went beyond the specifics of giving to Israeli charities and investing in Israeli companies, it’s hard not to believe that, when the rabbi passionately urged us to be “for” Israel, he had something more in mind.

But what?

Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not criticize positions taken by the Netanyahu government?

Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you must support AIPAC?

Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not believe that Israel should aggressively pursue a “two-state solution” and the creation of an independent Palestinian state?

Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not believe that Israel should stop the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza?

Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not be offended when the Israeli government seems to go out of its way to embarrass American officials, as it did when Israel’s Interior Minister timed the announcement of 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem to coincide with a visit by Vice President Biden?

Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not disapprove of the outsized influence the ultra-Orthodox have in Israel over such life events as marriage, divorce and religious conversion?

Was the rabbi suggesting that to be “for” Israel you can not be concerned about demographic trends (particularly the growth of Israel’s Arab population) that seem to undermine Israel’s ability to remain both a “Jewish state” and a democratic state?

Unfortunately, the rabbi couldn’t explain what he meant by being “for” Israel without, as Rabbi Yoffie predicted, risking offense to a sizeable part of the congregation. And so the rabbi was “for”—and urged the congregation to be “for”–Israel in the same way that many American politicians are “for” America, which is either (when the term is used by left-wing politicians) a meaningless sop to patriotic sentimentality or code (when used by right-wing politicians) for suggesting that those who disagree with them are, as Michele Bachmann once described President Obama, “anti-American.”

But just as our moderately liberal president is no more “anti-American” than the very conservative Ms. Bachmann, American Jews who ardently support a “two state solution” or who express concerns about Israel becoming an “apartheid state” are no more “anti-Israel” than Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister and former Foreign Minister, who has repeatedly expressed such support and such concerns.

“Ask two Jews, you get three opinions” is an old saying. That goes, as it happens, for what it means to be “for” Israel as much as it does for any other controversial issue, and it would have been nice if the rabbi had acknowledged as much when he admonished us to be “for” Israel in his Rosh Hashanah sermon. Perhaps he thought it went without saying—but since when does anything go without saying among a group of Jews?

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Irreconcilable Differences

On Monday, three days before the Scottish referendum on independence from the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned the residents of Scotland that “independence would not be a trial separation” and that, if they vote for independence, “there’s no going back from this, no rerun.”

Apparently, it didn’t take long for Cameron to realize that this was probably not the best approach to take. (Perhaps somebody had brought him that day’s New York Times, in which historian Niall Ferguson published an op-ed piece entitled “Scots Must Vote Nae,” whose title must have brought some comfort to Cameron but whose text contained this bit of wisdom: “Telling a Scot, ‘You can’t do this — if you do, terrible things will happen to you,’ has been a losing negotiating strategy since time immemorial. If you went into a Glasgow pub tonight and said to the average Glaswegian, ‘If you down that beer, you’ll get your head kicked in,’ he would react by draining his glass to the dregs and telling the barman, ‘Same again.’”)

By Tuesday, however, Cameron had abandoned the stick and was offering carrots (or something more like carats). Cameron, along with the leaders of the Labour and Liberal parties, promised that, if the Scots vote no on Thursday, the UK would grant “extensive new powers” to the Scottish parliament.

The “Vow,” which appeared in the form of a letter to The Daily Record, was immediately dismissed by the leader of the Scotland Yes movement, Alex Salmond, as a “last-minute desperate offer of nothing.”

Still, Salmond may be hedging his bets. Responding to Mr. Cameron’s threats on Monday, Salmond issued a statement that “the next time [Cameron] comes to Scotland it will not be to love-bomb or engage in desperate last-minute scaremongering…. It will be to engage in serious post-referendum talks.”

Serious post-referendum talks, it is worth noting, could take place whether the Scots vote “yes” (and the British have to negotiate the terms of independence) or “no” (and the British have to make good on their “vow” of “extensive new powers”).

Given that a good deal of the impetus for Scottish independence seems to be rooted in a concern about preservation of social welfare policies (of which the Conservatives in Parliament are not perhaps the most trusted supporters), and, in particular, on concern about cuts by the UK Parliament to the budget of the National Health Service, the inclusion in the “Vow” of a specific commitment that the Scottish Parliament will have “the final say on how much is spent on the NHS” suggests that the “Vow” may be more than a “last-minute desperate offer of nothing.”

And so it appears that the last best hope of the UK to deflect Scotland’s move toward independence comes down to the promise of what, in American terms, would be considered greater states’ rights.

In a recent post (“Scotland, Maybe”), I posited that, given the seemingly insurmountable divide between the red states and the blue states in this country, perhaps we, too, might consider a divorce. If a “devolution” of power from London to Glasgow can arguably solve Scotland’s problems, why couldn’t we Yanks solve our problems with a greater states’ rights agenda? Unfortunately, we can’t because the issues that divide us are different from the issues that divide Britain and Scotland.

The disputes that are driving a wedge between Scotland and Britain are focused on economic issues and economic ideology. (It is telling that Scots in favor of independence express concerns about issues like cuts to the National Health Service, and also talk a great deal about things like free university tuition.) It’s not that difficult to have one part of a country adopt more liberal (or more conservative) economic policies than another.

Even we have managed that successfully. Some states have high taxes, some low. Some states spend a lot of money on welfare programs, on health care, on education, and the like; some don’t. Some states have adopted a relatively high minimum wage; some have adopted “right to work” laws. While this can create vigorous economic competition among the states—think of the recent frenzied bidding war for the location of a new Tesla plant, it isn’t driving us apart.

In this country, however, the divisions go deeper than economics or, at least, wider, and encompass a number of moral issues—most prominently, abortion, but other issues, like marriage equality, too—on which one side (the conservative side, as it happens) is unwilling to co-exist with the other side. Blue states can live with the fact that many red states refuse, on principle, to expand Medicaid, and red states, despite the endless attempts to “repeal Obamacare,” can live with the fact that other states are embracing the Affordable Care Act.

But so-called pro-lifers are never going to accept abortion as a legitimate choice anywhere. In this sense, abortion, as an issue in the twenty-first century, is like slavery in the nineteenth. We could have been—we were at our founding—a country in part of which slavery was legal and, indeed, acceptable, but, as Abraham Lincoln asked: “Can we, as a nation, continue, together permanently—forever—half slave, and half free?” Too many Americans ultimately recognized slavery for the great evil that it is, and the union could not hold.

For many Americans—and huge numbers of them live in the red states, abortion is just as immoral, just as evil, just as intolerable as slavery, and it is hard to imagine the opponents of abortion reconciling themselves to living in an America where, if only in some states, the “murder” of “innocent children” by means of abortion is a lawful act. One can see conservatives living, to use another of Lincoln’s phrases, in a “house divided” on many economic and cultural issues. Let California have high taxes. Let New York have gun control. Let Colorado and Washington legalize marijuana. We don’t like it, but that’s them, that’s there.

But abortion is different. To its opponents, abortion is a sin, immoral, an abomination, an offense to God that cannot be tolerated anywhere in our union any more than slavery could, ultimately, be tolerated anywhere in our union. And that is why, even if the “devolution” of power to Scotland can avert a crisis in the United Kingdom, there will probably never be a states’ rights solution to the abiding division between the red states and the blue states. We don’t need a war between the states to resolve this irresolvable problem. We simply need to recognize that the problem is irresolvable and do what people do when they discover that they have irreconcilable differences.

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Scotland, Maybe

Is Scotland going to secede from the United Kingdom? We’ll see soon enough. Scotland votes on its independence from the United Kingdom on September 18. But why is independence even an issue, especially if secession is as bad an idea as it is portrayed to be by the British government, the British press and business interests in both England and Scotland?

The Guardian’s report on the upcoming election is typical: “[W] ith big banks and oil companies being pushed off the fence to warn of the pitfalls of a decision to break up the UK…. It prompted me to wonder if Alex Salmond [Scotland’s First Minister and the chief proponent of Scottish independence] hadn’t woken up in a sweat from a dream in which the yes campaign had won and begged them to save him from the consequences.”

Those consequences might include, it has been threatened, the relocation to London of the headquarters of various financial institutions, including The Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyd’s Bank, increased prices on retail goods, and loss of the use of the British pound as the national currency. At the moment, the election in Scotland must be counted as a tossup, although the opposition seems to have gained a small lead, but, if independence could lead to such dire consequences, why is there any doubt about the outcome?

The reason secession is an issue is that, despite the risks, a good portion, if not a majority, of the Scottish people find the idea of independence attractive. Scots like the idea of more liberal economic policies—of more government services and a more expansive safety net—than the Conservatives who dominate the UK parliament can tolerate. The contrast between the current composition of the Scottish parliament and the national parliament is stark. In the Scottish Parliament, the left-wing Scottish Nationalist Party or SNP (which is pushing independence) controls an absolute majority, 65 of the 129 seats.

By contrast, the Scottish Conservatives currently control only 15 seats in the Scottish parliament, and only one of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. Admittedly, the Scottish National Party does not dominate Scotland’s representation at Westminster the way it dominates the Scottish Parliament, but Scotland’s liberal tendencies are reflected in the representatives it does send to London. (41 of Scotland’s current MPs are from the Labour Party, 11 are from the Liberal Democrats, 6 are from the SNP, and, of course, there is that one very lonely Conservative.)

One way of looking at the Scottish independence movement is to see it as a rebellion against a national government controlled by the party of Margaret Thatcher, with its propensity for free-market, pro-austerity, anti-welfare-state economics. The leftist policies of the SNP are featured prominently on the party’s website, which highlights four “Popular Policies” (“Independence,” “The Economy and Jobs”—with an emphasis on the role of the government in helping to create jobs, “Health and Wellbeing”—with increased funding for the Health service and a commitment to “keeping health free,” and “Affordable Housing”).

If these are the kind of policies Scots prefer—and their choices for parliamentary representation suggest that they are, then it’s no wonder many Scots seem to look on the government in London under David Cameron the way Texans view the government in Washington under Barrack Obama—like an occupying power that is preventing them from having the kind of government they want.

Whatever the potential downside, and the British government and the British press are only too willing to point out just how down that side is, the right to live in a society governed by social and economic policies that accord with the prevailing beliefs of the governed may begin to look like a risk worth taking. Whatever the Scots decide, the idea of Scottish independence should not be dismissed, as it was by The Economist, as simply “nuts.”

In fact, the Scots may be on to something. We Americans are long past the point of being inspired by the words that made Barack Obama a national figure (You know, the one about red states and blue states and the United States). We have suffered with political divisiveness too long to really believe that we are truly one nation under God. Texas and Arizona are not really part of the same country as New York and California.
We do not, except in the most abstract sense, have common values, and even when we are prepared to avow adherence to a common abstraction—“freedom” and “liberty” are perfect examples, we don’t mean the same thing at all.

In Blue America, freedom and liberty mean things like the right to choose an abortion (or not), the right to marry the person you love (even if that person is of the same gender as you), the right not to be profiled by the police, the right of every working man or woman to a living wage. In Red America, freedom and liberty mean something else entirely, things like the right to life, the right to carry a gun, the right to be free from government regulation, the right to “keep your hard-earned money.” We may incant the same holy phrases, but we are not singing from the same hymnal.

The political divisions between our two largest states, California and Texas, are illustrative and nearly as stark as the contrast between the Scottish Parliament and the UK’s. Both of California’s senators are Democrats, as are 39 of its 53 House members. Both of Texas’s senators are Republican, as are 26 of its 36 House members. It is hard to think of any domestic policy issue on which these two Congressional delegations could ever agree, and it’s not even clear at this point that they could agree on a matter of foreign policy. (Texas Senator Ted Cruz, for example, recently dismissed President Obama’s proposed strategy for dealing with ISIS as “unserious.”)

Given the breadth of the political divide, why are we trying to live as one country? Why is each half of the county trying to impose its values—its notion of freedom and liberty—on the other? If California wants strict gun control and Texas wants “open carry” laws, if California wants to promote the Affordable Care Act and Texas wants to repeal it, if California wants to allow abortions and Texas wants to ban them, if California wants to teach evolution in its schools as a fact and Texas as a theory, if, if, if, so many ifs. Why are we trying to save this very unhappy and dysfunctional marriage between the red and the blue? Maybe the time has come to follow the example of Scotland and, at least, consider a two-state solution for the formerly United States.

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Too Jewish

Eric Cantor lost because…

Peter Suderman, in a blog post on Reason.com, does a good job of summarizing potential explanations.

Theory 1: “It was about immigration reform and ‘amnesty.’” This was certainly the analysis most commentators offered on election night.

Theory 2: “It was about big business, crony capitalism, and corporate welfare.”

Theory 3: “It was about local-level constituent service.”

Theory 4: “It was about reform conservatism.” (Citing Ezra Klein: “His loss suggests reform conservatism doesn’t have much of a constituency, even among Republican primary voters. The Republican base, at least in Cantor’s district, isn’t in the mood for technocratic solutionism. It’s still angry, and it still believes that any accommodation is too much accommodation.”)

Theory 5: by voting in the Republican primary, “Democrats staged an operation chaos to give Cantor the boot.” (This theory was endorsed by Cantor’s pollster, John McLaughlin.)

And then there’s this.

Theory 6: “Virginia Republicans didn’t want to vote for Cantor because he’s Jewish.” As soon as Suderman advances this theory, however, he dismisses it: “The problem with this explanation is that it doesn’t explain why that became an issue now. Cantor’s religion has never been an issue in his district before.”

There are, however, at least three reasons why Cantor’s religion may have become an issue now.

First, the redrawing of Cantor’s district. Cantor was not running in the same district that had originally elected him. Cantor’s district had been redrawn in 2010 to include more Republican, but also more rural, voters. Cantor’s religion was clearly anomalous in a district where, the New York Times reports, Jews represent something like one-quarter of one percent of the population. The addition to the district of more rural voters might well have made the territory less fertile ground for the only Jewish Republican in the House.

Second, the ascendancy of the Tea Party. While affirmation of religious faith has been a cornerstone of conservative politics for some time, the Tea Party has been particularly open about espousing “Christian” values. The website Teaparty.org assures us that, although “you do not have to be a Christian to enjoy freedom,” we are a “Christian nation.” (Actually, lest there be any doubt, the website is more emphatic than that. “Yes, we are a Christian nation,” it declares.)

To see how deeply ingrained Christian values are in the Tea Party movement, consider the other brewing Tea Party-versus- Establishment Republican story of the moment, the contest between Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran and his Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel. McDaniel was able to force the six-term incumbent Cochran into a runoff by delivering, in the words of The Hill, “a political sermon of sorts, drawing from the scripture of the Founding Fathers to make a case for Christians to stand up and fight to reclaim America’s culture and re-establish the nation’s Christian foundation.”

Third, the open religiosity of Cantor’s opponent. Cantor’s challenger, David Brat, is uniquely qualified to serve as a messenger for the Tea Party’s Christian values. As The New York Times reported, Brat, a Roman Catholic, has a divinity degree from the Princeton Theological Seminary and regularly invokes God and “Judeo-Christian values” in his speeches. He is the author of an article on usury and capitalism, in which he posed the questions: “What is the Christian response to an ever-increasing size of government? What does God want?” On election night, from Brat’s standpoint, he may have gotten his answer. After defeating Cantor, Brat called in to Fox News and spoke of his victory in religious terms, calling the defeat of Cantor a “miracle” and opining that “God acted through the people on my behalf.” How was Cantor ever going to compete with that?

This is not to say that there was anti-semitism at play in the Cantor-Brat election. Although the Times reports that there had been a “whisper campaign” against Cantor when he first ran for the House—at that time, his opponent was portrayed as the “only Christian in the race,” there was “nothing of that sort this time,” a “Jewish lobbyist and Cantor supporter” reportedly told the Times.

Still, it’s silly to pretend that Cantor’s religion had nothing to do with the outcome of the election. “What do you think—too Jewish?” is the punchline to any number of jokes. In a “Christian nation,” in a district where there is a smaller percentage of Jews than there is a percentage of fat in non-fat milk, in an election where the winning candidate claims that his victory is an expression of God’s will, it’s just possible that simply being Jewish was too Jewish.

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Private Lives and Public Careers: Some Thoughts on the Allen-Farrow Controversy

All my life, and certainly since seeing Robert Frost recite his poem “Dedication” at John Kennedy’s inauguration over half a century ago, I have thought of Frost as the “canonized…rural sage, beloved by a public raised on poems of his like ‘Birches’ and ‘The Road Not Taken,’” as Jennifer Schuessler described Frost in a review of a recently published volume of his letters. “But,” Schuessler added, “that image soon became shadowed by a darker one, stemming from a three-volume biography by his handpicked chronicler, Lawrence Thompson, who emerged from decades of assiduous note-taking with a portrait of the poet as a cruel, jealous megalomaniac —‘a monster of egotism’ who left behind ‘a wake of destroyed human lives,’ as the critic Helen Vendler memorably put it on the cover of The New York Times Book Review in 1970.”

Robert Frost—a monster of egotism, destroyer of human lives? Who knew? Well, obviously readers of the three-volume Thompson biography did, but what about the rest of us? What are we supposed to do with this information? Are we still allowed to admire Frost’s work? Should schools still be allowed to teach it? Do our feelings about the poet taint our admiration for the poetry?

I ask these questions because Schuessler’s review appeared in the New York Times only days after the Times published Nicholas Kristof ‘s Sunday op-ed column challenging the propriety of a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award given to Woody Allen by the Hollywood Foreign Press. After quoting extensively from Dylan Farrow’s “open letter” accusing Allen (Dylan’s father) of child molestation, and after acknowledging that he (Kristof) is a personal friend of Dylan Farrow’s mother (Mia) and brother (Ronan), and after admitting that “none of us can be certain what happened,” Kristof raises this question about the award to Allen: “The standard to send someone to prison is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but shouldn’t the standard to honor someone be that they are unimpeachably, well, honorable?”

For Kristof, the answer is clear: “[T]he Golden Globes sided with Allen, in effect accusing Dylan either of lying or of not mattering. That’s the message that celebrities in film, music and sports too often send to abuse victims…. When evidence is ambiguous, do we really need to leap to our feet and lionize an alleged molester?” Allen has, of course, denied the allegations, but to Kristof and others who have chosen to side with Dylan, that hardly matters. In the court of public opinion, Kristof seems to believe, the rule should be guilty until proven innocent.

Notice what Kristof has done in his column. He pretends to be fair by calling Allen an “alleged” molester but then treats Farrow as an “abuse victim.” If Allen had been honored as a “humanitarian,” like the winners of the Jean Hersholt award at the Oscars, Kristof might have had a point. But the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave Allen a lifetime achievement award for his filmmaking, not for his good works. It did not “side” with Allen, nor did it “accuse” Dylan of lying. It is Kristof, not the Hollywood Foreign Press, who has chosen to turn an acknowledgment of the quality of Allen’s five decades of film work into a “message” to “abuse victims,” a category that may or may not include Dylan Farrow (“none of us can be certain of what happened”).

Does Kristof really believe that we can only “honor” the “unimpeachably honorable”? Well, where does that leave us with Frost, among others? By definition, applying Kristof’s standards would mean that we could never “honor” Bill Clinton for his many achievements since he was, quite literally, impeached, and, presumably, that would also have precluded honors for Teddy Kennedy after Chappaquiddick and maybe even Jack Kennedy once the stories of his womanizing became known. Could an athlete who is a wife-beater be honored as an MVP—even if he is, indisputably, the best player in his sport? Could a writer who is accused by his ex-spouse of psychological oppression win a Pulitzer Prize? (Think Claire Bloom and Philip Roth.)

This is not a question of line-drawing nor a slippery slope argument, as in: if we refuse to honor Woody Allen because he might be a child molester, then must we disqualify anyone who engages in less physical forms of child or spousal abuse or in other hurtful behavior—where do we draw the line? This is a question about whether we draw the line at all. Should we ever let the private conduct of public figures affect our judgment of the quality of their work?

Do we stop watching Roman Polanski’s films because he was indicted on six counts of criminal behavior, including rape? (If so, ironically, we would miss some of Mia Farrow’s best work in “Rosemary’s Baby.”) Do we stop listening to Phil Spector’s records because he was convicted of murder? Or do we simply stop giving them prizes? But if we simply disqualify people like Polanski and Spector, what then would the prizes mean? Not best performance by an actor; really just best performance by an actor whose personal conduct we find “unimpeachable”? A rather more limited universe of potential honorees. Maybe they’d just have to give the best actor award to Tom Hanks in perpetuity.

Once upon a time, even the famous were able to lead private lives, and they were allowed to be judged by their public acts and public personas. But the time when we respected the privacy of public figures—when the president of the United States could carry on a secret affair with the world’s biggest movie star—is long since past, and in the internet age, for all practical purposes, privacy is dead. No one, least of all the famous, leads a truly private life, but, in a world where private acts inevitably become public property, we may still judge the public and the private by different standards.

Is Woody Allen a great man? Certainly not. (Even if he is not guilty of child molestation, the whole messy Woody-Mia-Soon Yi affair renders his conduct less than admirable.) But is the writer-director of, among other films, “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Husbands and Wives,” “Match Point,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “Blue Jasmine,” a great filmmaker? Yes, yes he is, and we should never be confused about which question we are answering.

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Some Reflections on the Zimmerman Verdict

For the latter half of the twentieth century and arguably into the twenty-first, Texas was the black hole of American politics, the place that gave us not only the Kennedy assassination but, through Lyndon Johnson and the two Presidents Bush, three wars, as well as much of the oil that ended up polluting our major cities.

Recently, however, Florida has made a strong bid to overtake Texas to become the new black hole. There was, of course, the fiasco of the 2000 election with its hanging chads and butterfly ballot and inexplicably large turnout of Palm Beach voters for Pat Buchanan, and it’s largely been down hill from there. Since 2000, Florida has seen, among other things, continued mismanagement of the electoral process (in 2012,an estimated 2 million Florida voters lived in precincts that had to stay open more than 90 minutes after the polls were scheduled to close because of the length of the lines outside polling places), the advent of the nation’s first “Stand Your Ground” statute, and, most recently, the George Zimmerman trial.

There has been much outrage expressed over the verdict in the Zimmerman case. Googling “outrage over Zimmerman verdict,” one finds reports of demonstrations in Los Angeles, arrests at protests in New York, “outrage” from the NAACP, the inevitable “outrage” from Michael Moore, “outrage” on Twitter from “celebs,” even “outrage” from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who reportedly called the verdict “an apparent travesty of justice.”

There are many things about the Zimmerman case that are saddening and discouraging, but the actual verdict was not a travesty of justice. Notwithstanding the foolish and wrong-headed remarks of Juror B37 on Anderson Cooper’s TV show (in which she said, among other things, that Zimmerman was “justified” in shooting Trayvon Martin), the fact is that, in a criminal trial, where guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and in which there were no first-hand witnesses other than the defendant, and in which Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, while never formally invoked by the defense, was undoubtedly a silent presence in the courtroom, a criminal conviction for murder was never in the cards.

It has been argued that the case was overcharged and the prosecution should have pressed only manslaughter charges (rather than murder or manslaughter charge that ultimately went to the jury), but it’s hard to underestimate the outrage that would have attended an initial indictment that not included a murder charge. It has been argued that the prosecution did a poor job, especially in preparing its witnesses, but, even if the prosecution witness testimony had been impeccable, it would still have been in conflict with the testimony of defense witnesses. It has been argued that the state of Florida took too long to investigate the case and bring an indictment, thereby perhaps losing valuable evidence to the corrosive effects of time, but this is not even speculation; it is wishful thinking.

Given the limitations of what the prosecution could prove, convicting Zimmerman would have required the jury to ignore what had to be reasonable doubts about what actually happened when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin.

In a carefully worded formal statement, issued by the White House, several days before President Obama’s less formal statements to the White House press corps, the President said: “The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy…. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.” While this is a considerable improvement on Governor Cuomo’s intemperate remarks, it is hardly recognition of the fact that the jury verdict was probably the correct one.

The President came closer to acknowledging that in his extended remarks in the White House briefing room: “The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a case such as this reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury has spoken, that’s how our system works.” But “reasonable doubt” was more than relevant in the criminal case; it was, or, at least, should have been, the essence of the jury’s verdict. It is probably too much, however, to expect the President to come out and say this.

At least he did not go in the other direction, invoking his powers as president and proclaiming, as presidents are wont to do in moments of crisis, that he would bring the full resources of the federal government to bear on this case and would not rest until George Zimmerman was brought to justice. Here is what he said: “I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government, the criminal code. And law enforcement is traditionally done at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.”

Despite what must have been considerable pressure to echo the demands of the NAACP and others for the federal government to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman, Obama’s remarks couldn’t leave anyone with the impression that the President would expect (much less direct) the Attorney General to prosecute Zimmerman under federal statutes. Such a prosecution would require the government to prove Zimmerman’s motives, never an easy thing to do, and to delve again into the murky facts concerning what actually happened on the night Trayvon Martin was killed. Perhaps Attorney General Holder will find a sound basis for a federal prosecution, and if he does, he should bring it, but, if he doesn’t find a sound basis, he should let the matter rest. Another acquittal will help no one.

Rather than acceding to the demands for a federal prosecution, the President deflected them. While clearly and properly expressing the sadness of the African-American community and explaining that sorrow to the other Americans, the President’s ultimate message was that the problem was not the Zimmerman verdict; the problem is the underlying laws and the legal system that enforces them. He suggested that perhaps we might want to rethink the utility of Stand Your Ground laws, that we might work on finding ways to make law enforcement more effective and even-handed, that we might want to find a way to “bolster and reinforce our African-American boys.”

“We have to be vigilant, and we have to work on these issues,” he said, and then he concluded that “we’re becoming a more perfect union—not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.” Put another way, he might have said that we are working to make sure that, as a country, we do not all become Florida.

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