Category: Culture

Trump’s post-truth presidency

Trump’s attack on his own intelligence services was both extraordinary and expected

By Hussein Ibish in The National, Feb 2, 2019

 

This week starkly illustrated a remarkable feature of Donald Trump’s administration: this president does not do policy; he only does politics.

Policy professionals always struggle to square sound foreign policy with the effective domestic politics that political leaders require. This tension cannot be completely resolved, although its intensity varies, depending on circumstances and personalities.

This conundrum has now sunk to its American nadir.

It’s not just that most current administration officials are internationalist hawks, while the president has neo-isolationist impulses.

It’s that Mr Trump simply does not see international strategic problems as arising against a backdrop of verifiable realities. Instead of a realistic representation of circumstances as they are, akin to a photograph, he sees a blank canvas, on which he can paint whatever surrealist landscapes best suit his agenda.

Hence, this week’s bizarre confrontation between Mr Trump and all 17 US intelligence agencies, led by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

On January 29, Mr Coats, flanked by the CIA and FBI chiefs, presented their 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment to Congress.

The annual National Intelligence Strategy document, on which it is based, is usually released in a redacted public version and a classified one for those with clearance.

This year, intelligence chiefs took the extraordinary step of issuing their entire strategy publicly.

Mr Coats said that they wanted to reassure the public that the agencies remain committed to producing “nuanced, independent, and unvarnished intelligence”, and not serving any other purpose.

That honesty and independence has been repeatedly questioned by Mr Trump who routinely denigrates US intelligence services, dismisses their findings, has compared them to Nazis and even sided with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over them.

The intelligence chiefs were essentially saying that, in light of the accusations the president has levelled against them, transparency was their best defence.

They knew they were provoking an argument they needed to win.

Certainly, they will have anticipated howls of protest from the White House, given that so many of their “independent and unvarnished” findings contradict core assertions that the president frequently cites as political rationalisations.

While Mr Trump constantly hypes the “progress” he has made with Pyongyang, the assessment finds that North Korea is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons” because its leaders view them as “critical to regime survival”.

It states that Russia has, indeed, engaged in election meddling, information warfare, and efforts to divide the West and undermine the post-Second World War international order. Mr Trump disputes all of this. He welcomes the division of the West, denigrates the international order, and dismisses allegations of Russian interference.

The assessment holds that, for all its other malign behaviour, Iran has not yet violated the terms of the nuclear agreement, which the president cites as a major reason for withdrawing from the deal.

While Mr Trump insists that ISIS has been thoroughly crushed to justify his order to withdraw all US forces from Syria, the assessment finds that it remains a potent threat.

And, most damningly, it makes no mention whatsoever of the entirely fictional “national security crisis” that has prompted Mr Trump to deploy thousands of US forces at the Mexican border and supposedly justifies building his wall.

The fact-based reality offered by the Annual Threat Assessment flatly refutes many fundamental claims Mr Trump relies on to justify his actions.

After the gauntlet was thrown down by the intelligence community, Mr Trump, inevitably, picked it up and hurled a series of insults, via Twitter, back at the agencies he characterises as the “deep state”. These included saying the intelligence services were simply “wrong” and that they “should go back to school”.

This is a particularly disturbing aspect of the relentless campaign of deinstitutionalisation this column has been consistently tracking. Yet again, Mr Trump is lashing out at another authoritative source of information and analysis that remains free of – or is actively resisting – his control.

He has admitted that he denounces the “fake news media” to blunt bad news or criticism of him by the press. He attacks his own intelligence services to rebut their contradictions of his ceaseless false claims.

As for the FBI and other police, Mr Trump is evidently concerned about what they may uncover about his activities, and those of his associates who have not yet been arrested or imprisoned.

Astonishingly, but true to form, he quickly compounded his assault on reality by tweeting that the intelligence chiefs’ statements had been “totally misquoted”, that they never really debunked his fraudulent claims, and that this profound and serious dispute isn’t real and was fabricated by the press.

Mr Trump’s biggest advantage in political and rhetorical fights seems to be his unique shamelessness and boundless willingness to lie when almost anyone else would at least think twice.

Clearly, there’s no room for “unvarnished intelligence” and other inconvenient facts that interfere with his political imperatives.

Mr Trump only does politics, but he heads a government full of highly competent experts. For their continued professionalism, they are traduced and abused by their own chief, who then blames journalists.

During an actual crisis – and there will eventually be one – the president and intelligence services must support each other with trust and confidence. But how can they, when the chasm between them is only widening as Mr Trump’s term staggers on?

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

 

https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/trump-s-attack-on-his-own-intelligence-services-was-both-extraordinary-and-expected-1.820751

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2019/02/03/trumps-post-truth-presidency/

What we should be talking about

 

Seems a mea culpa – Latin for “Oops!” – is in order. Who knew our prodigal practitioner could issue a challenge and then dictate rules of engagement for any who dared?  My last ramble apparently strayed far afield from doctor’s orders.

Oops! #2 – my last letter left the impression that China’s “Great Wall” was something of a success.  It was not.  Like Sam Cooke’s song, don’t know much about history.  Especially sixteenth century Ming Dynasty history.  It is a wonderful world, but I’ve got to admit – don’t know much about Chinese history during any century.

Then I read Michael Schuman’s article “China Built a Big, Beautiful Wall, Too. It failed.”  Everything I thought I knew about that wall was wrong.  So wrong it reminded me of an unscripted television moment in 2008.  MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough was attempting to defend the indefensible, reciting all the usual excuses for yet another assault on besieged Gaza.  Israel calls it “mowing the lawn” – a genteel euphemism for its periodic butchery of a trapped people with nowhere to run.

Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was a guest on Joe’s show that day. When finally allowed to respond, Brzezinski was brutal. “You know, you have such a stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on that it’s almost embarrassing to listen to you.”

Reading Schuman’s article (in Bloomberg.com) it was obvious I, too, had a “stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on” in sixteenth century China.   Schuman’s conclusion is a sobering, cautionary tale for our own times.

“The ultimate lesson of the Great Wall of China is that a physical barrier, no matter how expensive and impressive, will fail if detached from a broader set of policies to alleviate the sources of insecurity along the border. The Ming never figured that out. Hopefully Washington’s mandarins will.”

Still part of that dwindling minority fired up for Trump’s big, beautiful wall that Mexico will pay for (when hell freezes over)?  Ask yourself what it is about this particular border in the year 2019 of the Common Era that preserves it for all eternity. Why not the borders of 1845 or those that may exist a thousand years from now?

Trump’s “Great Wall” is an exercise in arrogance, a billboard for bigotry. “On this side we are exceptional Americans. On that side, you are not exceptional – stay away.”  Walls deny our own sordid history.  For centuries we have meddled where we did not belong and we have stolen what is not ours.  Like it or not, Americans play a part in much of today’s human misery.

We who have much have a duty to repair what we can, to apologize and pay for what we cannot, and to learn to see our neighbors as equal to ourselves regardless of color or creed or which side of a border we find ourselves on.

This is what we should be talking about.

Jacques d’Nalgar
Hot Springs, Arkansas

 

Photograph: AFP

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2019/01/25/what-we-should-be-talking-about/

My conscience leaves me no other choice

Time to Break the Silence on Palestine

By Michelle Alexander, Jan. 19, 2019

 

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the lectern at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. The United States had been in active combat in Vietnam for two years and tens of thousands of people had been killed, including some 10,000 American troops. The political establishment — from left to right — backed the war, and more than 400,000 American service members were in Vietnam, their lives on the line.

Many of King’s strongest allies urged him to remain silent about the war or at least to soft-pedal any criticism. They knew that if he told the whole truth about the unjust and disastrous war he would be falsely labeled a Communist, suffer retaliation and severe backlash, alienate supporters and threaten the fragile progress of the civil rights movement.

King rejected all the well-meaning advice and said, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Quoting a statement by the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, he said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal” and added, “that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”

It was a lonely, moral stance. And it cost him. But it set an example of what is required of us if we are to honor our deepest values in times of crisis, even when silence would better serve our personal interests or the communities and causes we hold most dear. It’s what I think about when I go over the excuses and rationalizations that have kept me largely silent on one of the great moral challenges of our time: the crisis in Israel-Palestine.

I have not been alone. Until very recently, the entire Congress has remained mostly silent on the human rights nightmare that has unfolded in the occupied territories. Our elected representatives, who operate in a political environment where Israel’s political lobby holds well-documented power, have consistently minimized and deflected criticism of the State of Israel, even as it has grown more emboldened in its occupation of Palestinian territory and adopted some practices reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow segregation in the United States.

Many civil rights activists and organizations have remained silent as well, not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear loss of funding from foundations, and false charges of anti-Semitism. They worry, as I once did, that their important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by smear campaigns.

Similarly, many students are fearful of expressing support for Palestinian rights because of the McCarthyite tactics of secret organizations like Canary Mission, which blacklists those who publicly dare to support boycotts against Israel, jeopardizing their employment prospects and future careers.

Reading King’s speech at Riverside more than 50 years later, I am left with little doubt that his teachings and message require us to speak out passionately against the human rights crisis in Israel-Palestine, despite the risks and despite the complexity of the issues. King argued, when speaking of Vietnam, that even “when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict,” we must not be mesmerized by uncertainty. “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

And so, if we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions: unrelenting violations of international law, continued occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, home demolitions and land confiscations. We must cry out at the treatment of Palestinians at checkpoints, the routine searches of their homes and restrictions on their movements, and the severely limited access to decent housing, schools, food, hospitals and water that many of them face.

We must not tolerate Israel’s refusal even to discuss the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, as prescribed by United Nations resolutions, and we ought to question the U.S. government funds that have supported multiple hostilities and thousands of civilian casualties in Gaza, as well as the $38 billion the U.S. government has pledged in military support to Israel.

And finally, we must, with as much courage and conviction as we can muster, speak out against the system of legal discrimination that exists inside Israel, a system complete with, according to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians — such as the new nation-state law that says explicitly that only Jewish Israelis have the right of self-determination in Israel, ignoring the rights of the Arab minority that makes up 21 percent of the population.

Of course, there will be those who say that we can’t know for sure what King would do or think regarding Israel-Palestine today. That is true. The evidence regarding King’s views on Israel is complicated and contradictory.

Although the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee denounced Israel’s actions against Palestinians, King found himself conflicted. Like many black leaders of the time, he recognized European Jewry as a persecuted, oppressed and homeless people striving to build a nation of their own, and he wanted to show solidarity with the Jewish community, which had been a critically important ally in the civil rights movement.

Ultimately, King canceled a pilgrimage to Israel in 1967 after Israel captured the West Bank. During a phone call about the visit with his advisers, he said, “I just think that if I go, the Arab world, and of course Africa and Asia for that matter, would interpret this as endorsing everything that Israel has done, and I do have questions of doubt.”

He continued to support Israel’s right to exist but also said on national television that it would be necessary for Israel to return parts of its conquered territory to achieve true peace and security and to avoid exacerbating the conflict. There was no way King could publicly reconcile his commitment to nonviolence and justice for all people, everywhere, with what had transpired after the 1967 war.

Today, we can only speculate about where King would stand. Yet I find myself in agreement with the historian Robin D.G. Kelley, who concluded that, if King had the opportunity to study the current situation in the same way he had studied Vietnam, “his unequivocal opposition to violence, colonialism, racism and militarism would have made him an incisive critic of Israel’s current policies.”

Indeed, King’s views may have evolved alongside many other spiritually grounded thinkers, like Rabbi Brian Walt, who has spoken publicly about the reasons that he abandoned his faith in what he viewed as political Zionism. To him, he recently explained to me, liberal Zionism meant that he believed in the creation of a Jewish state that would be a desperately needed safe haven and cultural center for Jewish people around the world, “a state that would reflect as well as honor the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition.” He said he grew up in South Africa in a family that shared those views and identified as a liberal Zionist, until his experiences in the occupied territories forever changed him.

During more than 20 visits to the West Bank and Gaza, he saw horrific human rights abuses, including Palestinian homes being bulldozed while people cried — children’s toys strewn over one demolished site — and saw Palestinian lands being confiscated to make way for new illegal settlements subsidized by the Israeli government. He was forced to reckon with the reality that these demolitions, settlements and acts of violent dispossession were not rogue moves, but fully supported and enabled by the Israeli military. For him, the turning point was witnessing legalized discrimination against Palestinians — including streets for Jews only — which, he said, was worse in some ways than what he had witnessed as a boy in South Africa.

Not so long ago, it was fairly rare to hear this perspective. That is no longer the case.

Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, aims to educate the American public about “the forced displacement of approximately 750,000 Palestinians that began with Israel’s establishment and that continues to this day.” Growing numbers of people of all faiths and backgrounds have spoken out with more boldness and courage. American organizations such as If Not Now support young American Jews as they struggle to break the deadly silence that still exists among too many people regarding the occupation, and hundreds of secular and faith-based groups have joined the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

In view of these developments, it seems the days when critiques of Zionism and the actions of the State of Israel can be written off as anti-Semitism are coming to an end. There seems to be increased understanding that criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic.

This is not to say that anti-Semitism is not real. Neo-Nazism is resurging in Germany within a growing anti-immigrant movement. Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent in 2017, and many of us are still mourning what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history. We must be mindful in this climate that, while criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, it can slide there.

Fortunately, people like the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II are leading by example, pledging allegiance to the fight against anti-Semitism while also demonstrating unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian people struggling to survive under Israeli occupation.

He declared in a riveting speech last year that we cannot talk about justice without addressing the displacement of native peoples, the systemic racism of colonialism and the injustice of government repression. In the same breath he said: “I want to say, as clearly as I know how, that the humanity and the dignity of any person or people cannot in any way diminish the humanity and dignity of another person or another people. To hold fast to the image of God in every person is to insist that the Palestinian child is as precious as the Jewish child.”

Guided by this kind of moral clarity, faith groups are taking action. In 2016, the pension board of the United Methodist Church excluded from its multibillion-dollar pension fund Israeli banks whose loans for settlement construction violate international law. Similarly, the United Church of Christ the year before passed a resolution calling for divestments and boycotts of companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

Even in Congress, change is on the horizon. For the first time, two sitting members, Representatives Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, publicly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. In 2017, Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, introduced a resolution to ensure that no U.S. military aid went to support Israel’s juvenile military detention system. Israel regularly prosecutes Palestinian children detainees in the occupied territories in military court.

None of this is to say that the tide has turned entirely or that retaliation has ceased against those who express strong support for Palestinian rights. To the contrary, just as King received fierce, overwhelming criticism for his speech condemning the Vietnam War — 168 major newspapers, including The Times, denounced the address the following day — those who speak publicly in support of the liberation of the Palestinian people still risk condemnation and backlash.

Bahia Amawi, an American speech pathologist of Palestinian descent, was recently terminated for refusing to sign a contract that contains an anti-boycott pledge stating that she does not, and will not, participate in boycotting the State of Israel. In November, Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN for giving a speech in support of Palestinian rights that was grossly misinterpreted as expressing support for violence. Canary Mission continues to pose a serious threat to student activists.

And just over a week ago, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, apparently under pressure mainly from segments of the Jewish community and others, rescinded an honor it bestowed upon the civil rights icon Angela Davis, who has been a vocal critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and supports B.D.S.

But that attack backfired. Within 48 hours, academics and activists had mobilized in response. The mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, as well as the Birmingham School Board and the City Council, expressed outrage at the institute’s decision. The council unanimously passed a resolution in Davis’ honor, and an alternative event is being organized to celebrate her decades-long commitment to liberation for all.

I cannot say for certain that King would applaud Birmingham for its zealous defense of Angela Davis’s solidarity with Palestinian people. But I do. In this new year, I aim to speak with greater courage and conviction about injustices beyond our borders, particularly those that are funded by our government, and stand in solidarity with struggles for democracy and freedom. My conscience leaves me no other choice.

Michelle Alexander became a New York Times columnist in 2018. She is a civil rights lawyer and advocate, legal scholar and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” 

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/19/opinion/sunday/martin-luther-king-palestine-israel.html

Photograph:  https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-hX02I7JY-oo/TluhEyG3WhI/AAAAAAAAA-Q/C8kqKo-euqA/mlk2.jpg or http://bit.ly/uQ6gKI

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2019/01/21/my-conscience-leaves-me-no-other-choice/

Everyone loves a parade

 

Dear editor,

George Bernard Shaw is credited with this bit of wisdom:  “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.”  John Naisbitt, American author and speaker, was perhaps following that sage advice when he wrote “leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it.”

If you’re looking for a parade to get out in front of, there’s a ridiculous one right under your noses.  Day after day, and week after week, circus clowns prance and parade their blissful ignorance and brazen bigotry across these very pages.  Some rise, like the mythological phoenix, from the ashes of their self-imposed “burnout” exile to ponder the preposterous.  Others feel compelled to call down damnation on heathens and heretics alike.  And Democrats…

Our petulant president’s next barrage of mangled tweets will soon have us chasing new shiny objects, but the latest outrage du jour is remarkable Rashida Tlaib, newly representing in the hallowed halls of Congress.  Oldest of 14 children growing up in rough-and-tumble Detroit, she had the unmitigated audacity to use a common vulgarity to describe our purest President.  Republicans everywhere are clutching their pearls and swooning over her disrespect of Donald Trump.

No matter that our tangerine POTUS is on record using the same language and worse.  “You lie!” screamed a Congressman at Obama’s first State of the Union speech.  Remember?  Were your petticoats ruffled then?

Of course not.  You were too busy breathlessly following Trump’s intrepid quest for The Lost Birth Certificate.

To his beguiled Dear Leader personality cult, he can do no wrong.  He has never done wrong and yea, verily, will maketh America great again.  He will build a big, beautiful wall to protect us from caravans of impoverished invaders in flip-flops.  Mexico will pay for it.

To dream The Impossible Wall.  If you can’t smell its stupidity and sheer vanity, your olfactory sensibilities have utterly abandoned you.  How is a wall going to stop suicidal terrorists in airplanes?  Or home-grown vigilantes with assault rifles?

They must not teach history in medical school.  A recently thrown gauntlet insists walls always work.  Walls alone never work.  Hadrian’s Wall had garrisons stationed every Roman mile.  The Great Wall of China was built to rush defenders to wherever the enemy appeared.  The “wall” between East and West Germany was rigorously patrolled by shoot-to-kill soldiers.  Even the much-lauded wall holding Palestine’s refugees at bay and out of sight is adorned with phallic watchtowers and remote-controlled machine guns.¹

Not all walls work.  The walls of Jericho came a-tumbling down.  A trick pony got past Troy’s walls.  Jerusalem’s walls certainly didn’t prevent annihilation.

Walls are all about us and them.  About exceptionalism.  Walls are an immoral, ugly desecration of this beautiful planet.  Must we continue this selfish madness until her beauty is a long forgotten fable told only in the dust of whirlwinds?

Fortress America.  Is that what you want?  Tell me, patriots, are walls Christian?

Jacques d’Nalgar
Hot Springs, Arkansas

 

¹ This sentence was slightly edited after I had already submitted this letter.  The original version read, “Even the much-lauded wall holding Palestine’s refugees at bay and out of sight has phallic observation towers and remote-controlled machine guns.”  The edited version has a slightly more contemptible ring to it…

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2019/01/16/everyone-loves-a-parade/

Oklahoma is worth the wait

A poem to progressives plotting mass exodus

By Lauren Zuniga, November 18, 2010

 

There is a sick pit in your stomach.
A plantation in your front yard.
The static flicker of black and white.
An absurd talking picture,
where sepia skin is now villain.
You are not sure who to trust anymore.
Everyone walks backward in your neighborhood.
You are surrounded by billboards with hate-sized font.
You are looking for a secret handshake.
A fish with feet drawn in the sand.
Blue paint on the door frame.
You resent even the dirt for being so damn red.
At night you are a furious search engine.
Screaming down the track toward
some kind of Shangri-La.
Portland has no jobs.
Canada doesn’t want you.
You hear property is cheap in Costa Rica.
Even Cuba seems safer than your next PTA meeting.
Anywhere is better than here.
But here is your home.
Here is where you chose to raise your kids
because the people are so friendly.
Do not let them drive you away.
Here is where you are needed the most.
Here is where the sunset stretches its arms wide as forgiveness across stolen plains.
Here is where Clara Luper sat down at the Katz lunch counter and asked to be served.
Here is where black and white soldiers fought alongside each other for the first time.
Where Kate Barnard was elected before she could even vote.
Where hippies squatted in Paseo until it became an art district.
Here is where Charlie Christian learned guitar.
Where Wayne Coyne keeps the bubble.
Where Woodrow Wilson Guthrie played the harmonica for sandwiches.
Here is where the healing has to take place.
Tell them you are not moving.
Oklahoma is worth the wait.
Sometimes evolution feels like
the stinging cramp in the back of your knees when you grow too fast for your outdated bones.
Sometimes it feels like a house in the city
with three goats, 10 chickens and 12 wild kids.
Tear up the sidewalk.
Plant a garden.
Bake a squash casserole and invite
all your terrified neighbors over.
Say “As-Salamu alaykum” to everyone you meet.
Fill out all government forms in Español.
Check all the boxes for your race.
Ride your bike to work. Make art in the streets.
Feed people without a license.
Go to city council meetings.
Sit in at the state House and Senate.
Wear a purple boa. Don’t apologize for your presence.
Write love letters to mothers and fathers in prison.
To the wardens, the police officers, the judges.
Write love letters to queer kids and their bullies.
Tell them you are staying here for THEM.
Kiss a Republican on the cheek.
Show them how to love someone you don’t understand.
DO SOMETHING with that tight fist.
That broken heart.
That liberal mouth.
Progress is a series
of small bold moves.
Don’t leave.
Here is where
we need you.

 

https://www.okgazette.com/oklahoma/a-poem-to-progressives-plotting-mass-exodus/Content?oid=2950601

Photograph of Eric Barlow walking through his garlic field (Matt Black, 2014). https://medium.com/matter/why-the-california-drought-is-all-your-fault-55f81a947ce2

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2019/01/09/oklahoma-is-worth-the-wait/

The triumph of fundamentalism

The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah

By Michael David Lukas, Dec. 1, 2018

 

It’s the question that Jewish parents instinctively dread.

A few months ago, I was sitting on the couch with my 3-year-old daughter, watching YouTube videos about animals in space, when out of nowhere she looked up at me and asked:

“Dada, can we celebrate Christmas?”

“We don’t celebrate Christmas,” I told her, putting on my serious voice. “We celebrate Hanukkah.”

Like generations of Jewish parents before me, I did my best to sell her on the relative merits of Hanukkah. True, Christmas might have those sparkly trees, ornaments and fruitcake. But we have latkes, jelly doughnuts and eight nights of presents.

“Do we have Santa?” she asked, hopefully.

“No,” I said, and her face dropped. “They do.”

I tried to reiterate the part about the jelly doughnuts and the eight nights of presents. But she wasn’t having any of it. I can’t say I blame her. During the rest of the year, the Jewish holidays we celebrate are like special, bonus celebrations we get to have on top of everything else going on in the calendar.

With Hanukkah and Christmas, however, it’s a zero-sum game.

Most of the year, it isn’t hard for our family to feel both American and Jewish. But in December — when there are wreaths and Peppa Pig Christmas specials and inflatable Santas everywhere you look — that dual identity becomes more of a question. Which is why Hanukkah is a big deal for mostly assimilated Jews like myself.

The only trouble is the actual holiday. Not the latkes and the dreidels, but the story of Hanukkah, which at its heart is an eight-night-long celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence.

For most of the past 2000 years, Hanukkah was an afterthought on the Jewish calendar, a wintertime festival of lights during which people spun tops and ate greasy food to commemorate what has to be one of God’s least impressive miracles — a small container of oil lasted for eight nights! More recently, as Jews have become assimilated into American society, the holiday has evolved into a kind of Semitic sidekick for Christmas, a minor festival pumped up into something it was never meant to be so that Jewish kids won’t feel bad about not having a tree.

This is the version of Hanukkah that I grew up with: presents and chocolate gelt; latkes with sour cream and applesauce; a few somber, off-key songs that no one fully remembered, about Judah Maccabee. This is the version of Hanukkah I had in mind when my daughter and I walked down to our local branch of the Oakland Public Library to check out a stack of books about the holiday.

Most of the books we found presented a familiar narrative — dreidels and menorahs and pious Maccabees doing battle against their enemies — but between the lines, there were some hints at a darker story, enough to send me to Wikipedia and the Books of Maccabees on the (definitely not Jewish but very helpful) Bible Gateway website, which led me back to the library for another stack of books, this one for myself.

According to most modern scholars — and a few rabbis I called on to help me out — the story of Hanukkah is based on a historical conflict between the Maccabees and the Hellenized Jews, the former being religious zealots who lived in the hills of Judea and practiced an ancient form of guerrilla warfare, the latter being mostly city-dwelling assimilationists who ate pork, didn’t circumcise their male children and made the occasional sacrificial offering to pagan gods.

Some of the details are up for debate, depending on which texts you consult. But everyone agrees that the Maccabees won out in the end and imposed their version of Judaism on the formerly Hellenized Jews. So Hanukkah, in essence, commemorates the triumph of fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism. Our assimilationist answer to Christmas is really a holiday about subjugating assimilated Jews.

The more I thought about all this, the more it disturbed me. For what am I if not a Hellenized Jew? (O.K., an Americanized Jew, but what’s the difference, really?) I eat pork every so often. Before having children, my wife and I agonized over the question of circumcision. And while I’ve never offered burned sacrifices to Zeus, I do go to yoga occasionally. When it comes down to it, it’s pretty clear that the Maccabees would have hated me. They would have hated me because I’m assimilated and because I’m the product of intermarriage. And while I can’t say for certain what the Maccabees would have thought about my fondness for Bernie Sanders or my practice of Reconstructionist Judaism, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have liked those things either.

Given all this, there’s a part of me that wants to skip out on Hanukkah altogether. Why should I light candles and sing songs to celebrate a group of violent fundamentalists?

The answer, frankly, is that it’s not my choice. With my daughter ready to sign up for Team Santa, we have to celebrate something, and I’m not quite Hellenized enough to get a Christmas tree.

So this year, for lack of a better alternative, I’m going to try to embrace Hanukkah in all its contradictions. When I light the candles, I’m going to celebrate the possibility of light in dark times, the importance of even the smallest miracles. And when everyone else is singing about the Maccabees, I’ll be saying a prayer for the Hellenized Jews and for the “renegade Jews” of our day.

Then I’m going to sneak my daughter an extra piece of chocolate gelt and break out the presents. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about beating Santa.

Michael David Lukas is the author of the novel “The Last Watchman of Old Cairo.”

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/01/opinion/sunday/the-hypocrisy-of-hanukkah.html

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2018/12/08/the-triumph-of-fundamentalism/

Old grievances

Pastors, Not Politicians, Turned Dixie Republican

By Chris Ladd, Mar 27, 2017, 09:16am

 

“White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party.”

Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969

Thirty years ago, archconservative Rick Perry was a Democrat and liberal icon Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. Back then there were a few Republican Congressmen and Senators from Southern states, but state and local politics in the South was still dominated by Democrats. By 2014 that had changed entirely as the last of the Deep South states completed their transition from single-party Democratic rule to single party rule under Republicans. The flight of the Dixiecrats was complete.

Reasons for the switch are not so hard to understand. Legend has it that President Johnson, after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, mourned “we’ve lost the South for a generation.” That quote might be apocryphal, but it accurately reflects contemporary opinion. Fiery segregationist George Wallace would carry five Southern states in his third party run for President in 1968. Southern anger over the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights reforms was no secret and no surprise.

While the “why” behind the flight of the Dixiecrats is obvious, the “how” is more difficult to establish, shrouded in myths and half-truths. Analysts often explain the great exodus of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party by referencing the Southern Strategy, a cynical campaign ploy supposedly executed by Richard Nixon in his ’68 and ’72 Presidential campaigns, but that explanation falls flat. Though the Southern backlash against the Civil Rights Acts showed up immediately at the top of the ticket, Republicans farther down the ballot gained very little ground in the South between ’68 and ’84. Democrats there occasionally chose Republican candidates for positions in Washington, but they stuck with Democrats for local offices.

Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservativesfrom the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980, and never quite figured out how to build a persuasive appeal to voters there. Every cynical strategy cooked up in a Washington boardroom withered under local conditions. The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors.

Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program. Southern religious institutions would lead a wave of political activism that helped keep white nationalism alive inside an increasingly unfriendly national climate. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church.

Jesus and Segregation

There is still today a Southern Baptist Church. More than a century and a half after the Civil War, and decades after the Methodists and Presbyterians reunited with their Yankee neighbors, America’s largest denomination remains defined, right down to the name over the door, by an 1845 split over slavery.

Spirituality may be personal, but organized religion, like race, is a cultural construct. When you’ve lost the ability to mobilize supporters based on race, religion will serve as a capable proxy. What was lost under the banner of “segregation forever” has been tenuously preserved through a continuing “culture war.” A fight for white nationalism and white cultural supremacy has in some ways been more successful after its transformation into an expressly religious, rather than merely racist crusade.

Religion is endlessly pliable. So long as pastors or priests (or in this case, televangelists) are willing to apply their theological creativity to serve political demands, religious institutions can be bent to advance any policy goal. With remarkably little prodding, Christian churches in Germany fanned the flames for Hitler. Liberation theology thrived alongside Communist activism in Latin America. The Southern Baptist Church was organized specifically to protect slavery and white supremacy from the influence of their brethren in the North, a role that has never ceased to distort its identity, beliefs and practices.

In 1956, the Supreme Court had recently struck down school segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education case. President Eisenhower had sponsored sweeping civil rights legislation. Dr. Martin Luther King was organizing bus boycotts in Montgomery. Pressure was building against segregation across the South. At that time, there may have been no more influential figure in the Southern Baptist Convention than W.A. Criswell, the pastor of the enormous First Baptist Church in Dallas.

At a convention in South Carolina, Criswell turned his popular fire and brimstone style on the “blasphemous and unbiblical” agitators who threatened the Southern way of life. Beyond all the boilerplate racist invective, Criswell outlined an eerily prescient rhetorical stance, a framework capable of outlasting Jim Crow. In a passage that managed to avoid explicit racism, he described what would become the primary political weapon of the culture wars:

Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made – a land of the free and the home of the brave.

Long after the battle over whites’ only bathrooms had been lost, evangelical communities in Houston or Charlotte can continue the war over a “bathroom bill” using a rhetorical structure Criswell and others built. He had constructed a strangely circular, quasi-libertarian argument in which a right to oppress others becomes a fundamental right born of a religious imperative, protected by the First Amendment. Criswell’s bizarre formula, as it metastasized and took hold elsewhere, could allow white nationalists to continue their campaign as a “culture war” long after the battle to protect segregated institutions had been lost.

Southern Baptists remained at the vanguard of the fight to preserve Jim Crow until the fight was lost. A generation later you might hear Southern Baptists mention that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Baptist minister. They are less likely to explain that King was not permitted to worship in a Southern Baptist Church. African-American Baptists had their own parallel institutions, a structure that continues today.

Evangelical resistance to the civil rights movement was not uniform, but dissent was rare and muted. Southern Baptist superstar Billy Graham was cautiously sympathetic to King. Early in King’s career, in 1957, Graham once allowed King to lead a prayer from the pulpit in one of his campaigns in faraway New York City. Graham advised King and other civil rights leaders on organizational matters and offered considerable back-channel support to the movement. However, in public Graham was careful to keep a safe distance and avoided the kind of open displays of sympathy for civil rights that might have complicated his career.

King was once invited to speak at a Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville in 1961. Churches responded with a powerful backlash, slashing the seminary’s donations so steeply that it was forced to apologize for the move. Henlee Barnette, the Baptist professor responsible for King’s invitation at the seminary, nearly lost his job and became something of an outcast, a status he would retain until he was finally pressured to retire from teaching in 1977.

In 1965, after President Johnson’s second landmark Civil Rights Act was passed, the Southern Baptists formally abandoned the fight against segregation with a bland statement urging members to obey the law. In 1968, the Southern Baptist Convention formally endorsed desegregation. That same year, in a remarkably passive-aggressive counter to their apparent concession on civil rights, they elected W.A. Criswell to lead the denomination.

Onward, Christian Soldiers

Defeated and demoralized, segregationists in the 1970’s faced a frustrating problem – how to rebuild a white nationalist political program without using the discredited rhetoric of race. Religion would provide them their answer. Armed with the superficially race-neutral rhetorical formula Criswell had described, prominent Southern Baptist ministers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson would emerge to take up the fight. All they needed was a spark to light a new wave of political activism.

In 1967, Mississippi began offering tuition grants to white studentsallowing them to attend private segregated schools. A federal court struck down the move two years later, but the tax-exempt status of these private, segregated schools remained a matter of contention for many years. Under that rubric, evangelical churches across the South led an explosion of new private schools, many of them explicitly segregated. Battles over the status of these institutions reached a climax when the Carter Administration in 1978 signaled its intention to press for their desegregation.

It was the status of these schools, a growing source of church recruitment and revenue, that finally stirred the grassroots to action. Televangelist Jerry Falwell would unite with a broader group of politically connected conservatives to form the Moral Majority in 1979. His partner in the effort, Paul Weyrich, made clear that it was the schools issue that launched the organization, an emphasis reflected in chain events across the 1980 Presidential campaign.

The rise of the religious right is usually credited to abortion activism, but few evangelicals cared about the subject in the 70’s. The Southern Baptist Convention expressed support for laws liberalizing abortion access in 1971. Criswell himself expressed support for the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe, taking the traditional theological position that life began at birth, not conception. The denomination did not adopt a firm pro-life stance until 1980.

In August of 1980, Criswell and other Southern Baptist leaders hosted Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for a rally in Dallas. Reagan in his speech never used the word “abortion,” but he enthusiastically and explicitly supported the ministers’ position on protecting private religious schools. That was what they needed to hear.

Evangelical ministers, previously reluctant to lend their pulpits to political activists, launched a massive wave of activism in Southern pews in support of the Reagan campaign. The new President would not forget their support. Less than a year into his Administration, Reagan officials pressed the IRS to drop its campaign to desegregate private schools.

In a casually triumphant moment in 1981, Reagan advisor Lee Atwater let down his guard, laying bare the racial logic behind the Republican campaigns in the South:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N…r, n…r, n…r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n…r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N…r, n…r.”

For decades, men like Atwater had been searching for the perfect “abstract” phrasing, a magic political dog whistle that could communicate that “N…r, n…r” message behind a veneer of respectable language. Though quick to take credit for Reagan’s win, the truth was that Atwater and others like him had mostly failed. Their efforts to construct their dog whistle out of taxes and other traditional Republican talking points never quite connected on a deep enough emotional plane to turn the tide at the local level.

It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.” Southern conservatives discovered that they could preserve white nationalism through a proxy fight for Christian Nationalism. They came to recognize that a weak, largely empty Republican grassroots structure in the South was ripe for takeover and colonization.

Fired by the success of their efforts at the top of the ballot in 1980, newly activated congregations pressed further, launching organized efforts to move their members from pew to precinct, filling the largely empty Republican infrastructure in the South. By the late 80’s religious activists like Stephen Hotze in Houston were beginning to cut out the middleman, going around pastors to recruit political warriors in the pews. Hotze circulated a professionally rendered video in 1990, called “Restoring America,” that included step-by-step instructions for taking control of Republican precinct and county organizations. Religious nationalists began to purge traditional Republicans from the region’s few GOP institutions.

The Southern Strategy was not a successful Republican initiative. It was a delayed reaction by Republican operatives to events they neither precipitated nor fully understood. Republicans did not trigger the flight of the Dixiecrats, they were buried by it.

A young Texas legislator, Rick Perry, spent much of 1988 campaigning for his fellow Southern Democrat, Al Gore. In the crowded landscape of Texas Democratic politics, Perry showed little breakout potential, but he was aware of the activism that was sweeping Democratic Southern conservatives into empty Republican precincts all over the state. The next year Perry made a bold move, switching to the GOP and rising immediately to the front ranks as a potential statewide candidate.

It was in the 90’s, not the 70’s, that Southern conservatives at the local level finally took flight into the GOP. Armed with the strange, apparently race-neutral logic Reverend Criswell had laid out in the fight for Jim Crow, and organized by a new generation of religious leaders, an enormous wave of party-switching transformed grassroots politics in the South. Republicans seized control of the Texas state legislature in 2002 for the first time ever apart from Reconstruction. When Republicans took control of the Arkansas legislature in 2014, the flight of the Dixiecrats was over and Republicans controlled state government across all of the former Confederacy.

The Past Is Never Dead

Russell Moore became the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s social outreach arm in 2013. In that capacity, he began to challenge many of the darker elements of the church’s history. From a post in the church traditionally dedicated to hand-wringing over gay rights and dirty movies, Moore criticized those who stirred up hatred against refugees and ignored matters of racial justice. He drew sharp criticism when he denounced the Confederate Flag, explaining, “The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”

The real fury came when Moore applied to Donald Trump the same standard of conduct Baptists had demanded of Bill Clinton. Southern Baptist leaders in the 90’s savaged President Clinton as the details of the Lewinski Affair began to surface. Moore drew the obvious comparison last year between Trump and Bill Clinton, urging voters to reject the 2016 Republican nominee. As religious leaders lined up solidly behind Trump last fall, Moore commented, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”

In the end, evangelical voters backed Donald Trump by a steeper marginthan their support for Romney in ‘12.

Today, W.A. Criswell’s Dallas megachurch is pastored by Robert Jeffress, who has remained faithful to the most bigoted strains of the olde tyme religion. He has led an effort to withdraw funding for Russell Moore’s organization. Jeffress has called the Catholic Church “a Babylonian mystery religion.” He explained that Obama was sent to pave the way for the Antichrist. He has demogogued relentlessly on gay marriage. And naturally, he endorsed Donald Trump.

Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, retooled the ministry he inherited, turning it into something a civil rights era segregationist could love without reservation. Graham, who earns more than $800,000 a year as the head of his inherited charity, has made anti-Muslim rhetoric a centerpiece of his public profile and ministry. While his father quietly befriended Martin Luther King, the younger Graham has chosen a different path. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Graham explained that black people can solve the problem of police violence if they teach their children “respect for authority and obedience.” Franklin Graham enthusiastically supports Donald Trump.

Jerry Falwell’s son also inherited the family business, serving now as president of his father’s university. His support for Trump is less surprising than Graham’s, and far less of a departure from his father’s work. Falwell spoke in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention.

Russell Moore may envision an evangelical movement unhindered by racism and bigotry, but just like Henlee Barnette, the Baptist professor who invited King to speak at a Southern Baptist seminary, Moore is wrestling with a powerful heritage. For Jeffress, the heir to W.A. Criswell’s pulpit, to champion an effort to silence Moore, reflects the powerful persistence of an unacknowledged past. After being pressed into an apology for his “unnecessarily harsh” criticisms, Moore has been allowed to keep his job – for now.

Public perception that a “Southern strategy” conceived and initiated by clever Republicans turned the South red is worse than false. By deflecting responsibility onto some shadowy “other” it blocks us from reckoning with the past or changing our future. History is a powerful tide, especially when it runs unseen and concealed. A refusal to honestly confront our past leaves us to repeat our mistakes over and over again.

Texas House member Rick Perry was taking a chance in 1989, when he decided to leave the Democratic Party to become a Republican. He leaned heavily on the emerging religious right and their campaign to convert the state’s Democratic majority. His efforts were richly rewarded. Baptist mega-pastor Robert Jeffress was a major supporter along with other evangelical leaders. Now Perry, after becoming the longest-serving governor in Texas history, sits in Donald Trump’s cabinet as the Secretary of Energy.

No one needs to say “N..r, n..r” anymore. With help from evangelical pastors, this new generation of politicians has found a new political party and a fresh language with which to stir old grievances and feed their power. By merely refining their rhetoric and activating evangelical congregations, a new generation of Southern conservatives grow ever closer to winning a fight their forebears once thought was lost.

 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrisladd/2017/03/27/pastors-not-politicians-turned-dixie-republican/

Photograph of Rick Perry and John Sharp serving together as Democrats in the Texas Legislature in 1987 (Texas State Library and Archives Commission).

Permanent link to this article: https://levantium.com/2018/12/08/old-grievances/