Ground Zero Mosque

The outcry is xenophobic, racist, and profoundly unAmerican. It’s also completely predictable. Anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of American history knows that this country has passed through spasms of xenophobia, racism, and Protestant chauvinism on a fairly regular basis, from the nineteenth century anti-Romanist Know Nothings to the Yellow Peril, the KKK, and the Immigration Reform Act of 1924. Granted, we diverted enormous energies to attacks on our own native-born blacks and gays in the last few decades, but a strong Nativist strain has always lurked just below the surface of things; it manifests itself whenever the unemployment rate rises.

Predictable too are the hypocrisy and selective indignation that accompany the hysteria. Few American politicians paid a price for supporting the terrorist IRA in the past; few dare say anything positive (or merely not negative) about anything Islamic today. That’s because there were a lot more Irish Catholic voters back then than there are Islamic ones today. Only when they can field as substantial a bloc of voters as the Catholics, or as influential a bloc as the Jews, will people think of Islamic Americans as Americans of a certain faith, rather than as foreigners who don’t believe as we do.

There’s a Jewish aspect to the issue that troubles me, too. Both anti-Semites and AIPAC take it for granted that American Jews have dual loyalties, to Israel and America, and that Jewish loyalty to America is contingent on America’s unconditional support of Israel. So long as America and Israel are in perfect accord there is no conflict. Such people assume that Islam’s loyalties are similarly divided. But that creates an irresolvable paradox: unless American Islam adopts a posture of unconditional support for Israel, no AIPAC supporter can acknowledge an Islamic American’s patriotism without casting doubt on his or her own.

The only way out of this impasse is a truly American pluralism, a tolerance for difference–a stance that neither anti-Semites, Christianists or AIPAC totalists have ever been notably comfortable with.


A Teachable Moment

From Tom Vilsack’s press conference yesterday:

I’ve learned a lot of lessons from this experience in the last couple of days. And one of the lessons I learned is that these types of decisions require time. I didn’t take the time. I should have. And as a result, a good woman has gone through a very difficult period. And I’ll have to live with that for a long, long time…..This is a teachable moment for me and I hope a teachable moment for all of us. I think it is important to understand that each of us represents this department, each of us represents the administration and the president, and that we’ve got to be very careful about our actions and our words. And we have to make sure that we — that we think before we act. I did not think before I acted. And for that reason, this poor woman has gone through a very difficult time.

Shirley Sherrod of course was the principle victim of Vilsack’s and the NAACP’s rush to judgment, but the rest of us were victims too. If Vilsack learned a lesson about the importance of managerial due diligence, prudence, and fair play, there is a larger political lesson in the Sherrod fiasco that I dearly hope the entire Obama administration takes to heart.

Accusations of reverse racism may be hard to answer, especially for America’s first African American president, but they are not Kryptonite. Obama took a lot of flack for saying the obvious about the Henry Gates incident, but let’s face it: what he said was obvious. Gates undoubtedly had a chip on his shoulder and antagonized Officer Crowley; Crowley might not have been a racist, but he didn’t exactly cover himself or his fellow policemen with glory. The people who learned the most from that embarrassment were the haters on the right–it taught them that while turnabout may not be fair play, it really takes the wind out of your opponents’ sails.

Not too long ago, when he was railing against Rand Paul for caving in on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, David Duke said that “Today it is European Americans who are the real victims of massive discrimination.” This willful falsehood is at the very heart of backlash politics, from the KKK in the 1860s to George Wallace in the 1960s and Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh today.
Mark Williams was widely derided last week when he responded to the NAACP’s condemnation of the Tea Party by pointing out the “absurdity of a group that calls blacks ‘Colored People’ hurling charges of racism”; this week Breitbart and Fox News used the same tactics and got a mid-level agriculture department official’s scalp. Thankfully, their ploy was exposed.

This is silly season stuff; once the leaves start turning the right will go back to the serious business of unseating Democratic legislators, frustrating Obama initiatives, and otherwise turning back the clock to the Gilded Age. One can always hope that the reverse race card has jumped the shark, but it’s too potent–and too effective–a weapon for them to set it aside; the same thing is going to happen again.

Maybe next time the Obama people won’t blink.

Chinese UFO redux

This is the “actual” footage, which, appropriately enough, seems much more humdrum (and SFX-generated) than the real-life Russian rocket ship seen here. (Unless someone tells me that this one is real too–or the You Tube updates itself with a new caption: “China Welcomes Its Tralfalmadorian Visitors.”)

There’s a valuable lesson in this, about not giving too much credence to cool videos of dubious provenance, especially when accompanied by spacey, Asian-flavored, electronic soundtracks.

In the immortal words of Rosanne Rosanna Danna: “Never mind.”

Chinese UFO


A UFO shut down Xiaoshan Airport in Hangzhou, China for an hour or so on July 7th; shortly afterwards, this video began popping up all over the Internet. I have no idea what the object is, but I find it oddly beautiful. My first thought was that, if it isn’t an out-and-out fake, there might have been some sort of distortion in the camera’s lens.

AOL News (click here) ran an article in which “UFO skeptic and space flight expert” James Oberg speculates that it might have been a military test. The Christian Science Monitor argues that the object is a “superior mirage” (refracted light from the ground), but the video they embedded at the bottom of the article (from ABC news) shows a completely different (and much faker-looking, to my untrained eye) flying object.

Undoubtedly the first step in explaining this is getting the story straight. Are there any debunkers (or true believers) out there who wish to comment?

Bagism, Dragism, Shagism

Every few months, I find myself reading or thinking about an ism that I didn’t, for whatever reason, cover in Isms & Ologies. A few years ago, I was beating my head against the wall because I didn’t write about “exceptionalism,” which John McCain (and Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, et al) had suddenly reintroduced into the Republican vocabulary. I have been thinking a lot about “Neo-liberalism” over the past 24 hours, because it suddenly came to me that it’s a fair way to characterize the economic thinking of a writer I know and respect. The label is usually applied disparagingly by the left but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing–it might even be a good thing if someone serious-minded and progressive enough took positive ownership of it. I don’t believe I thought to include Glenn Beck’s favorite word “Statism,” or for that matter “Progressivism,” which at the time I wrote the book I thought were self-explanatory, or at least didn’t require a vigorous defense. “Illuminism” isn’t in there either, though Cults, Conspiracies and Secret Societies covers that base fairly well.

But to get to the point, I was catching up over at Hendrick Hertzberg’s blog this afternoon, when I came across this entry from a couple of weeks ago, “Give John a Chance.” I must have heard “Give Peace a Chance” on the radio a million times over the past four decades. I never heard the word “faggots” in its opening lines, but now that I think about it, I didn’t hear anything else either except meaningless syllables. How could I have been so incurious about what he was singing?

This is the official lyric: “Everybody’s talkin’ about Bagism, Shagism, dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, That-ism, ism, ism, ism.” If I’d known about it then, and if Yoko let it count as fair use, I would have used the line as an epigraph for my book.

Oh yes, and if Hertzberg’s explanation of bagism seems sketchy, Wikipedia explains it with great (and perhaps unwonted) confidence here. The gist of it is that “by living in a bag, a person could not be judged by others on the basis of skin color, gender, hair length, attire, age, or any other such attributes. It was presented as a form of total communication. Instead of focusing on outward appearance, the listener would hear only the bagist’s message.” There are some links but Wikipedia provides no comparable explanations for Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, or Tagism (though a number of ideas do occur to me, mostly about hippie hairstyles, androgynous clothing, and jumping to over-hasty conclusions about people you don’t know).

A useful reminder to paranoiacs

I haven’t followed the Russian spy scandal closely, but I loved this line in Charles McCarry’s New York Times op ed this morning: “The present case, involving lovable Russians instead of ruthless Americans, is a useful reminder to paranoiacs that they sometimes underestimate the extent of secret mischief while grossly overestimating its effect.”

When my mother first graduated from college, she worked in the first US delegation to the UN, where Alger Hiss had been Secretary General. Her boss used to drop his name all the time–until it was never heard again. My father was a civilian employee of the Army Signal Corps, where McCathy’s inquisition came to a crashing halt (and it was a good thing for my father that it did; he’d gone to City College with Morton Sobell, plus, his sister and brother-in-law were card carrying Communists). I grew up assuming that Hiss had been railroaded, that the Rosenbergs were, if not exactly innocent, not all that guilty either, and, in general, that the Red Scare of the 1950s was a mass delusion, fueled by right wing politics and unsubtle anti-Semitism.

I felt faintly disloyal when I picked up Whittaker Chambers’ Witness for the first time six or seven years ago, and not a little disreputable. It was introduced by Robert Novak, it had a Regnery colophon on its spine, and featured a blurb by William F. Buckley on its back cover–I might as well have been reading pornography. But once I started reading it, I was literally bowled over by its power–it was as if Oliver North or Monica Lewinsky or G. Gordon Liddy, someone whose celebrity stemmed solely from their association with a public scandal, had cashed in with a memoir that read like The Confessions of St. Augustine.

I told Barbara Epstein, my old boss from the New York Review of Books , about my new interest and she gave me a copy of Lionel Trilling’s roman a clef, The Middle of the Journey, which New York Review Editions had just reprinted. A thinly disguised Chambers is one of its characters (Trilling had known him when they were students at Columbia). The novel was published in 1947, the year before Chambers testified before HUAC. Trilling wasn’t exploiting Chamber’s notoriety; his Communist past hadn’t become public knowledge yet. But it was well-known to Trilling and presumably to many of his other Upper West Side friends.

Chambers and Hiss

There were indeed Communist spy cells during the Roosevelt and Truman years. Some of their members were shadowy and louche, like the impoverished, bisexual Chambers was in the 1930s, before he came out of the cold and made his name as a writer at Time. Some, like Hiss, were very much as McCarthy described them in his Wheeling, West Virginia speech: “those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer—the homes, the finest college education, and the finest jobs in Government we can give.”

But if Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged, my parents’ instincts were basically correct: McCarthy and his minions were dishonest and demagogic to their rotten cores. Reading Chambers’ utterly believable account of his exertions for his Soviet masters in the 1930s, it’s hard to imagine that he or anyone else in his cell (even Hiss) did all that much significant damage. Real life is messy and complicated and contradictory enough that it is possible to over-estimate both the extent of “secret mischief” and its ultimate effects.

And vice versa too, it should go without saying. And every other possible iteration as well.

The Two Faces of the Tea Party

Liberal bloggers are always tearing their hair out, asking when demagogues like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are going to be exposed as the extremists that they are by the mainstream media, or better yet, called to account by their own ideological allies.

Last week’s Weekly Standard pretty much does just that and more to Glenn Beck, in Matthew Continetti’s article “The Two Faces of the Tea Party.”

“For Beck,” Continetti writes, “conspiracy theories are not aberrations. They are central to his worldview. They are the natural consequence of assuming that the world hangs by a thread, and that everyone is out to get you.”

Whatever you think of Theodore Roosevelt, he was not Lenin. Woodrow Wilson was not Stalin. The philosophical foundations of progressivism may be wrong. The policies that progressivism generates may be counterproductive. Its view of the Constitution may betray the Founders’. Nevertheless, progressivism is a distinctly American tradition that partly came into being as a way to prevent ideologies like communism and fascism from taking root in the United States. And not even the stupidest American liberal shares the morality of the totalitarian monsters whom Beck analogizes to American politics so flippantly.

Beck himself is analogized to Barry Goldwater, the conservative firebrand and 1964 presidential hopeful whose nomination speech famously declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldwater, of course, lost big. The other face of the Tea Party is CNBC’s Rick Santelli, “a man,” Continetti tells us, “who is worried about America’s future, but who thinks the right mix of policy and leadership can cure the nation’s ills.” Santenelli is “a forward-looking, optimistic, free-market populist”–in short, a Ronald Reagan for our times. He might not be running for anything himself, but he embodies Republicanism’s next winning formula.

Continetti’s very name implies a sensible middle path of fiscal responsibility and prudential conservativism, of Tocquevillean “self interest rightly understood.” Far be it from me to question the sincerity of The Weekly Standard, which gave my Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies one of the most appreciative reviews it received, but I do take issue with its efforts to validate the Tea Party’s ugly backlash politics by throwing Glenn Beck under a bus. Not that he doesn’t deserve it, but Tea Partyism, even without Glenn Beck, is still a pretty vile brew.

Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes discovered Sarah Palin during a Weekly Standard cruise; they did as much to pump her up into a national figure as anyone except John McCain. Matthew Continetti, lest we forget, is the author of The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star (Sentinel, 2009). As grateful as I am for its critique of Glenn Beck’s demagoguery, I remain mindful that the primary agenda of The Weekly Standard is to redeem Republicanism’s electoral brand, not to question its values, ethics, or ideas.