Stop Punching People in the Face

Leave it to America’s far left to make fighting Nazis seem unreasonable.

This past Saturday, my hometown of Boston, Mass., became a focal point in the racial and political unrest that has seized the nation since the deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., the previous weekend.  In the City of Beans, a gang of similarly-minded individuals planned to hold a “free speech rally” on Boston Common—speech that presumably would include incitements to racial and anti-Semitic violence, à la Charlottesville.

In response, city residents mounted what could only be described as an overwhelming show of counter-force:  a phalanx of 40,000 sign-wielding liberals who marched two miles from Roxbury to the Common in a concerted effort to demonstrate just how undesirable racism has become in this increasingly welcoming New England town.

Of those 40,000 people, 33 were arrested for disorderly conduct such as throwing rocks and bottles at police and instigating scuffles with those they deemed to be their mortal enemies—i.e., Nazis, Klansmen and the like.

In such a contentious, emotionally-wrought environment, 33 arrests might seem like small potatoes—a negligible amount of hooliganism in an otherwise respectful and orderly exercise of free assembly in an uncertain time.

Indeed, it would be an impressively small figure, except for one thing:  There were virtually no white supremacists on Boston Common that day.

Yes:  Initially, several representatives of America’s leading neo-Nazi groups—including those who appeared in Charlottesville—were slotted to speak at the Common’s Parkman Bandstand on Saturday.  However, because the blowback to this event was so ferocious—on the part of both ordinary citizens and the city’s mayor and chief of police—nearly all of the most contemptible and poisonous of these genocidal thugs opted to get the hell out of town before the thing ever really got off the ground.

What remained of this “free speech rally,” then, was a disparate, minuscule and heavily cordoned-off collection of libertarian weirdos whose unifying purpose seemed to be nothing more concrete than to celebrate the right to gather in a public park and make an unholy spectacle of yourself.  Among the few who actually spoke (not that anyone could hear them) were an Indian-American entrepreneur running for U.S. Senate in 2018, along with the deaconess of a Rhode Island religious sect whose rituals include smoking cannabis through a giant ram’s horn.

There were no Confederate battle flags.  No Nazi salutes.  No tiki torches.  No “Jews will not replace us.”  No nothing.

In short—and to the world’s great relief—Boston was not Charlottesville.  Not by a long shot.  And yet, by their conduct, certain members of the heaving counter-protest seemed determined to believe that it was, and that the men and women squeezed into the Parkman Bandstand—some of whom carried rainbow flags and signs reading “Black Lives DO Matter”—were an existential threat to liberal democracy and deserving of the maximal abuse one can inflict in broad daylight while surrounded by Boston’s finest.

The result—as seen on TV—was that a handful of hapless white men in red caps—some of them undoubtedly scared out of their wits—were pushed, shoved, screamed at and put in such danger of serious bodily harm that they required a police escort back to their vehicles or some other private space.  Indeed, without all those cops standing nearby, there is little doubt the scene would’ve turned real ugly, real fast.

This will not stand, my friends.  This aggression will not stand.

If combating racism is to be the great mission of the Resistance under Donald Trump—and why on Earth shouldn’t it be?—we must follow the example of the 39,967 who did not cause trouble in Boston, while robustly condemning the 33 who couldn’t summon the willpower to act like normal members of society.

Don’t ever forget:  The whole point of opposing white supremacy is that violence, hatred and intimidation are intrinsically harmful to democracy and all human relations.  Accordingly, the anti-fascist left cannot become associated—even for a moment—with violence, hatred and intimidation.  If we want history to view us as the good guys in this fight, we need to earn that distinction by behaving better than our opponents.  We cannot allow ourselves to sink to their level.

In his insane press conference last Tuesday, Donald Trump attempted to draw a moral equivalence between white supremacists and those who resist them, suggesting that the “alt-left” can be just as intolerant and thuggish as the alt-right.  Well, guess what:  Every time a member of our team does something stupid—such as punching a Trump supporter in the face—we make Trump’s point for him.  And every time we tacitly (if not openly) cheer that stupidity on, we become complicit in fostering the type of culture that we claim to find un-American and repulsive.

Is that what we want?  To prove that Nazis are only slightly less respectable than we are?  With the future of Western civilization at stake, I think we ought to aim a bit higher than that.

Repeat after me:  Nothing good can ever come from violence.  Being officially opposed to fascism does not entitle you to employ fascistic tactics to achieve desired ends, and there is nothing more fascistic than threatening physical harm upon those with whom you disagree—up to and including those who ruddy well deserve it.

To that end, our challenge today is to not permit the cause of anti-fascism to be defined by the group that has made a portmanteau of that very term:  “Antifa.”  New to the American vernacular, but in fact derived from European agitators in the 1930s, Antifa—a loose confederation of quasi-anarchists, helpfully profiled in this month’s Atlantic—defines itself in explicitly confrontational and often violent terms, and seems interested not in winning the understanding of its enemies but in beating them into submission.  You know:  Just like Nazis.

This is not the way to win the moral high ground, folks.  And it sure ain’t the way to win elections.

Equally dangerous—and equally worth underlining—is the left’s abandonment of all subtlety and nuance in the name of effecting a more multicultural world.  If there is any lesson we should draw from the protests in Boston, it’s to resist the urge to accuse anyone we don’t like as a card-carrying racist or anti-Semite.  While it’s apparently true that every Nazi and Klansman in America is an enthusiastic Trump supporter, not every Trump supporter is a Nazi or Klansman—nor, indeed, is every conservative or libertarian a Trump supporter in any way, shape or form.

Every time we liberals aggressively assume otherwise—as practically everyone in Boston did, despite ample evidence to the contrary, both before and after the fact—we turn ourselves into the hysterical, intolerant caricatures that the alt-right suspects we’ve always been, making it that much more difficult to change hearts and minds or be taken seriously by those who are skeptical of our true motives.

As I watched the scene on Boston Common—crisply described by Matt Taibbi on Twitter as “basically thirty people or so surrounded by the whole city of Boston”—I understood why conservatives feel under siege by a culture that doesn’t seem to care what they think.  The way counter-protesters dismissed the very idea of a rally that welcomed unpopular opinions—the way Police Commissioner Bill Evans carelessly remarked, “Their message isn’t what we want to hear”—it’s no wonder the alt-right has come to label us all as “snowflakes” who cannot handle the open airing of competing views in the public square.

Having been on the winning side of virtually every battle in America’s ongoing culture war, it is not necessary for liberals to tar and feather every person on Earth who might possibly speak—or think—an unwelcome idea.  Witch hunts should be limited to when there are actual witches on site—as there were in Charlottesville last week, and as there is in the Oval Office right now—and when they occur, they should be conducted by the forces of reason, restraint and truth, and not by Antifa, which traffics in bullying, propaganda and sometimes even death.

There is nothing to be gained by playing as dirty—or even one-tenth as dirty—as the darkest forces that have ever bestrode the face of America.  Morally-speaking, standing toe-to-toe against literal Nazis is the easiest battle any of us will ever be required to wage, and we would do well always to remember the wise man who famously cautioned, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is our moment to prove that we leftists really are on the right side of history, and with modern-day Klansmen on the march and a racial arsonist in the White House, there is absolutely no margin for error.

This is not a drill, people.  We have to get this one right.

Advertisements

Searching for Sister Souljah

Last weekend, a gang of racist and anti-Semitic terrorists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, murdering a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others in an unambiguous show of intimidation and blind hatred toward a wide swath of their fellow human beings.

In response to this clear-cut example of American white supremacy run amok, the president of the United States did what he does best:  Blame everyone but himself.  Provided a golden opportunity to appear presidential for the first time in his life, Donald Trump instead managed to denounce violence and bigotry in general but somehow forget to identify the groups responsible for the violence and bigotry perpetrated on Friday night.  The unrest in Charlottesville, Trump said on Saturday, was the fault of agitators “on many sides”—an argument he amplified on Tuesday, when he attempted to equate the “alt-right” with the heretofore non-existent “alt-left.”

As with most previous instances of Trump saying the exact opposite of what he should have said, there was no mystery as to why he avoided condemning neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates by name:  They are his most loyal and vociferous defenders.  Every one of them voted for him last November, and losing their support now would constitute an existential threat to his presidency in the election of 2020, if not sooner.  As ever, Trump’s only true instinct is self-preservation, and if a second civil war is the cost of winning his next campaign, so be it.

What Trump desperately needs—what America desperately needs—is a Sister Souljah moment.

As students of the 1990s will recall, Sister Souljah was an African-American musician and social critic who reacted to the 1992 Los Angeles race riots by remarking, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”  Asked to comment, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton renounced any association Sister Souljah might’ve had with the Democratic Party, saying, “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

Clinton’s unequivocal disavowal of left-wing extremism—in the heat of a presidential campaign, no less—won plaudits as a mild profile in political courage, positioning him firmly in the center of the Democratic Party, while also drawing suspicion from many on the far left.  In the years since, the term “Sister Souljah moment” has become shorthand for a politician distancing himself from elements of his own ideological team, thereby risking his political fortune for the sake of moral rectitude.

To be sure, examples of such brave stands since 1992 have been few and far between.  Perhaps the most famous—and costly—condemnation came in the 2000 GOP primaries, where candidate John McCain bellowed to a crowd in Virginia, “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”  While McCain’s bold (if equivocating) rebuke to the then-dominant “religious right” helped further cement his reputation as a straight-talking “maverick,” it did him no favors at the ballot box:  As it turned out, most Republican primary voters liked the religious right just fine, thank you very much.

Much more recent—and, arguably, much more admirable—was an interview with Bernie Sanders in February 2016, during which CNN’s Jake Tapper raised the issue of “Bernie bros”—i.e., Sanders enthusiasts whose pathological antipathy toward Hillary Clinton seemed rooted almost entirely in rank misogyny.  “Look, we don’t want that crap,” Sanders told Tapper.  “Anybody who is supporting me and is doing sexist things…we don’t want them.  I don’t want them.  That’s not what this campaign is about.”

The Tapper interview didn’t receive a huge amount of press at the time, but it was a signal test of character for the feisty senator from Vermont, and he passed with flying colors.  While there is nothing difficult about decrying sexism in all its ugly forms—or at least there shouldn’t be—Sanders went a step further by specifically disowning the people who are sexism’s leading practitioners—namely, his core voters—and, what’s more, by suggesting that if those idiots didn’t get their act together right quick, he would just as well not have their support at all.  He’d rather lose honorably than win at the hands of a bunch of cretins.

That moment is a mere 18 months old, yet today it feels unimaginably quaint—a relic from a long-bygone era in which chivalry was not a four-letter word and basic human decency was considered more valuable than gold.

Will America witness another Sister Souljah moment like that again?  Will we ever get it from the man currently in the Oval Office?

Indeed, it is very easy to imagine how such a disavowal would be arrived at, since Donald Trump has been offered one opening after another to give it the old college try.  Faced with the murderous, torch-wielding skinheads who comprise his natural constituency—and his electoral firewall—he would merely need to step up to a podium and proclaim, “Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all other forms of bigotry represent a cancer on the American way of life and will not be tolerated so long as I am president.  Furthermore, I cannot in good conscience accept the vote or endorsement of any individual who holds such poisonous views, for I could not live with myself knowing that I had gotten to where I am on a platform of race-baiting, violence, hatred and cruelty.”

Should Trump ever issue a statement to that effect—and mean it—it would signify a willingness not just to throw his basket of deplorables under the bus once and for all, but also to enlarge his base of support to include at least a sliver of the nearly two-thirds of Americans who do not currently approve of his job performance as commander-in-chief but could potentially change their minds in the future.  It would enable him, at long last, to become a president for all Americans—not just the ones in the SS boots and the white hoods.

Could Donald Trump ever rise to that occasion?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Unbelievable

If the continued existence of Donald Trump has produced any redeeming value for the American culture—and “if” is definitely the correct word—it has been the opportunity for us to argue about Donald Trump.  And for all the millions of words that have been expended on who Trump is and what he represents, we have yet to reach any real consensus on either score—a fact so improbable and bizarre that many of us have failed to even notice it.

Obviously, we’re not talking about whether the Republican presidential nominee is an infantile, boorish windbag.  On that we can all agree.

The more interesting argument—interesting because of its apparent insolubility—is the one that invariably takes the form of, “Is Trump really an X, or does he just play one on TV?”  While the identity of X changes from day to day, it has generally been some variation of “racist,” “misogynist,” “fascist,” “anti-Semite,” “Islamophobe” or some similarly charming personal quirk.

If the list of incidents that have inspired this debate is too enormous to tackle all at once, they have all conveniently followed the same basic pattern.  First, Trump will say (or tweet) something objectively repugnant about some racial, ethnic or social group.  Second, the press will roundly call him out for trafficking in racism, sexism, etc.  Third, Trump will express bewilderment that anyone could possibly infer sinister undertones in the offending remark, since everyone knows he is the least racist/sexist/whatever-ist person in the whole wide world.  Fourth, the press will present him with incontrovertible proof that his comment—by, in extension, he—represents the very definition of rank bigotry of the most obvious and odious form.  And fifth (as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has put it), Trump will retort with some variation of, “I know you are, but what am I?”

Certainly, Trump is neither the first nor last presidential candidate to be caught red-handed saying something appalling.  What sets him apart, however, is his fanatical insistence on doubling down, playing innocent and never giving an inch.  No matter how far beyond the pale he has trotted, never once has he apologized for the substance of anything he has said (or endorsed others for saying), always and forever projecting his prejudices onto those accusing him of the same.

Hence the aforementioned mystery:  Is he for real, or is this all a big elaborate performance?

Back in February, HBO’s John Oliver—addressing Trump directly—probably spoke for most of us in asserting, “You are either racist or you are pretending to be, and at some point there is no difference.”  Fair enough, except that Oliver’s formulation makes an implicit assumption that isn’t necessarily warranted—namely, that Trump consciously knows what he’s doing.  By framing the debate as, “Is he a bona fide bigot or is he merely pandering to bigots?” we are granting him a level of guile that he might not actually possess.

To be on the safe side, then, I would pose the $64,000 question as follows:  Deep down, is Trump as ignorant and prejudiced as he appears, or is he wholly oblivious to the consequences of his ugly behavior—i.e. ignorant of his own ignorance?  In other words, when he says, “I don’t think X is sexist” or “I don’t think Y is anti-immigrant,” could he be telling his own version of the truth?  When—to take the most recent example—he retweets an anti-Semitic graphic culled from an anti-Semitic website, is it possible that he is so thick—so utterly lacking in self-awareness and the cultural history of America—that he authentically, in his heart of hearts, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about?

Given what we know that we know about this wretched excuse for a human being, I think it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that Trump is simply a dolt whose narcissism and gall preludes him from seeing what’s directly in front of his nose.  That he is such a profound sociopath that the very notion of causing someone offense—and needing to make amends for it—is totally alien to his way of seeing the world.

On the other hand, because we also know of his bald cynicism and general low regard for the American public—paired with his undeniable ability to tap into his supporters’ most violent passions and fears—it would require a massive leap of faith to take Trump at his word that he doesn’t perceive any racial or ethnic dimension to what is driving Republican voters so crazy in the first place.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump is trying to have it both ways:  He panders to the GOP base by speaking their own hateful language, then proceeds to placate everyone else by denying he did any such thing.  That—much like on his reality TV shows—he is playing out his fantasy as a devious puppet master who thinks he’s the cleverest person in the room.

But if that’s really what he’s up to, then why has he done such a lousy job of hiding it?  If the idea is to blow racial “dog whistles” that only his supporters can hear, why is it so easy for the rest of us to hear them as well?  Does he truly think the general public is that naïve?  Who’s fooling who?

In 1996, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a momentous biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, which argued that our country’s most brazenly duplicitous founding father was able to reside comfortably on both sides of innumerable issues thanks to an elaborate, lifelong game of self-deception—as Ellis put it, by “essentially playing hide-and-seek within himself.”  That is, Jefferson could say or write something one day, then totally deny having done so the next day, and deem himself to be telling the truth both times.  That he was, in effect, an early adopter of the George Costanza maxim, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Having just recently discovered Ellis’s book, I now wonder if Trump’s mind operates in much the same way.  Whether it’s likely that, through his many decades as an amoral businessman, he has trained himself to lie in a manner that manages to deceive even himself.  That when he says “believe me”—as he does every time he says something completely unbelievable—his boundless self-confidence comes not from flagrant dishonesty so much as from having drunk his own Kool-Aid.

Accepting this appraisal of Trump’s character—this odd combination of obliviousness and compartmentalization—it becomes plausible that he would see a Star of David superimposed over a pile of money, not realize its anti-Semitic connotations and, when confronted with them, work backwards from “I’m a wonderful person who would never do anything anti-Semitic” to “Therefore, this graphic can’t be anti-Semitic, either.”  It goes without saying that this approach to reality does not permit the introduction of contradictory evidence, and that is where all conflict begins.

As for the John Oliver question—Does it really matter if Trump’s bigotry is genuine or inadvertent?—I would argue it would certainly make a difference if he became president.  Deliberate, open prejudice—for all the misery it wreaks on society—has the one advantage of being, well, deliberate.  If Trump is fully cognizant of how offensive his antics are, it means he is capable—at least in theory—of reining himself in.

However, if he is so blind to basic social etiquette that he can’t even recognize racism when he sees it, then he couldn’t possibly be expected to become a less awful person, since—in his own mind—he would have no reason to do so.

Based on the events of the last year, I think we may finally have found the secret to what makes Donald Trump tick.

Goodbye to Some of That

Here was a thoughtful Facebook post this week from George Takei:

“We have made progress.  Few even notice that the top contenders for the Oval Office are a woman senator, a black neurosurgeon, a Jewish socialist and a total douchebag.”

True enough.  And we could go even further than that:  It seems that equally few people have noticed that one of the five Democratic nominees is Catholic, as are not one, not two, but six of the Republicans.  This in a country that has elected only one Catholic president and nominated only two others.  So much for the fear of an American leader taking his cues directly from the Holy See.

Then there’s the fact that one GOP candidate is the son of Cuban immigrants, another is the son of Indian immigrants and a third wasn’t even born in the United States.

In previous elections, any of those pieces of trivia would be major headline news, and we would spend months ruminating, for instance, on how having foreign-born parents might affect a potential president’s foreign policy—as some people are still doing with our current president and his African father.

But in this election?  Not so much.

Not really at all, in fact.  I mentioned that one of the Democratic nominees is Catholic.  Quick:  Which one is it?  Did the thought even occur to you until now?  If so, has this person’s Catholicism had any impact on your interest (or lack thereof) in electing him leader of the free world?

For that matter, has Bernie Sanders’ Judaism had any measurable influence—in either direction—on his overall popularity?  Is there a statistically significant chunk of Republican voters who support (or oppose) Ben Carson because he is black, or does his unlikely success in the polls exist entirely outside the context of race?

Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?

To be sure, none of these people has won a damn thing at this point in the 2016 presidential contest.  Anybody can run for president, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that a minority or two would slip in every now and again.

The difference this time—as George Takei’s quip suggests—is that many of these demographic oddballs are being taken seriously and could actually win the nomination, if not the presidency, and hardly anybody seems to care about how “historic” these would-be presidencies would be.

A Cuban commander-in-chief?  Yawn.  An African-American in the Oval?  Been there, done that.  A woman as the most powerful human being on Earth?  Yeah, sure, why not?

Perhaps I’m being needlessly optimistic.  With 15 weeks to go before the first primaries, it’s still too early to take an accurate measure of what America really thinks about its options on the ballot next fall.

However, as gauged by media coverage—a not entirely useless barometer of cultural trends—the attention on this year’s contenders is focused less on identity and more on…well, not issues, per se, but definitely on the things coming out of these folks’ mouths.

With Ben Carson, for instance, the interest has been entirely on his muted speaking style, his career as a neurosurgeon and—for liberals, anyway—his galling opinions about Muslims and gun control.

And why not?  When a serious candidate walks around saying things like, “Obamacare is […] the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” there really isn’t time to notice the color of his skin or any other details not immediately relevant to what his policies might be.

(Admittedly, a non-black candidate probably wouldn’t have uttered that particular sentence, although Carson didn’t let his non-Jewishness prevent him from saying the Holocaust might have been avoided if the Jews had been packing heat.)

In other words, Carson’s outlandish worldview has transcended his race and everything else about him.  To the degree that his public comments can be considered “substance,” our public discourse on his candidacy has, in fact, been almost entirely substantive.

Likewise with Bernie Sanders.  The Vermont senator has become universally recognized for being a democratic socialist and not—so far as anyone can tell—for being Jewish.  His theories about making the United States a bit more like Scandinavia—galvanizing to liberals, infuriating to conservatives—has totally eclipsed any concerns (or thrills) that his faith might otherwise have caused.

In 2000, the nomination of Joe Lieberman for vice president created a minor national tizzy—particularly within the Jewish community.  This time, one could be forgiven for not knowing what Sanders’ religion is.  He’s certainly never brought it up himself.

Maybe this will change.  Should Sanders replicate Barack Obama’s 2008 miracle and defeat Hillary Clinton, it might only be a matter of time before we start wondering (for instance) whether having a Jewish commander-in-chief would be counterproductive in our ongoing negotiations with the Arab world, or whether a Sanders presidency would engender a new era of conspiracy-mongering amongst America’s anti-Semitic community, in the way that Obama’s presidency has seen a flowering of our country’s residual racism.

And should Clinton maintain her lead and fulfill her destiny, it probably won’t just be T.I. musing about how women can’t be trusted with power because their hormones might get the better of them.  Some 92 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified female presidential candidate, but the road to that destination might be a whole lot messier than we think.

But I’m willing to be surprised.  Maybe the United States really has moved beyond identity-based prejudices in choosing national leaders.  Maybe electing our first black president—twice!—had the effect of getting all of our demographic hang-ups out of our system, and now we are prepared to elect anybody with the smarts and the fortitude to take on the most difficult job on planet Earth.

Soon enough, we’ll know for sure.  In the meantime, we can give ourselves a soft pat on the back for ignoring or looking past the genetic characteristics of our presidential contestants and focusing, instead, on things that really matter.  Like those damn e-mails.

Petty Prejudice

Ignorance and bigotry are never good things.  But at what point should we stop concerning ourselves with every last occurrence of them and, instead, just carry on with our lives?

In our attempts to rid society of all manner of cultural and ethnic prejudice, is it possible to go too far?  Does every instance of insensitivity merit a national conversation and a formal condemnation by the Anti-Defamation League or the ACLU?

In a world with far more racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia than any of us would like—but also with more multiculturalism and legal equality than at any point in history—should we not simply ignore those who insist on living in a backward dystopia, instead of dignifying their stupidity by including it in the daily news cycle?

Of course, I could be referring to anything here—what with the religiously and racially-charged events of the past few months, to say nothing of the 400 years before that—but in this particular week I am struck by the coverage of a bizarre little episode in Lynn, Massachusetts.  There, residents are in a tizzy following an act of anti-Semitic vandalism in an old town cemetery.

What sort of vandalism, you ask?  Were headstones knocked over and broken?  Were swastikas or other graffiti sprayed onto sacred family plots?  Did members of the Westboro Baptist Church turn up with their hateful placards and promises of God’s eternal wrath?

None of the above, thankfully.

What happened at the Pride of Lynn Cemetery, rather, is that a woman walked past the grounds’ Holocaust memorial—a modestly-sized obelisk—and noticed that a pile of raw pork had been laid at its base.

Pork, of course, is regarded in Jewish tradition as treif and unclean.  Jewish dietary laws forbid the consumption of all pig-based products, and anti-Semites enjoy nothing so much as referring to Jews themselves as “swine.”

As such, to purposefully dump several chunks of the unholy protein at the foot of a memorial to six million murdered Jews is a sign of profound and unmistakable disrespect—crude, obvious, offensive.  Contemptuous and contemptible.

But that’s all it is:  A callous prank by some anonymous anti-Jewish jerk.  A person so clueless and fanatical that he sacrificed a perfectly good dinner just so he could let everyone know what a terrible person he is.

In point of fact, this drive-by porking does not signal the end of civilization as we know it.  It is not an act of cultural warfare that should disrupt our sleep or cause us to worry about an imminent surge in anti-Semitism on Boston’s North Shore.

Make no mistake:  Violent provocations against Jews in the West are a real threat, with slaughters and beatings and protests arising from one end of so-called civilized society to the other.  In some areas—particularly in Europe—the situation is only getting worse.

As far as crimes against world Jewry go, planting raw pork in a cemetery is not a first-order concern.  Not even close.  Indeed, strictly speaking, it’s not even a crime, insomuch as no property was damaged and no persons were harmed.  (Not physically, at least.)

But you’d never know that from the reaction, which was not only swift but completely over-the-top.

The woman who first spotted the offending meat reported becoming “physically ill” at the sight of it, adding that the perpetrator(s) “wanted to cause pain and they did.”  Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, director of a local Chabad, said, “It’s beyond belief that in today’s day and age, right here, right now we could see something that I can only characterize as vile.”

No, it’s not.  It’s completely believable that some idiot would do this in any day and age.  That’s what idiots do:  They think of the most noxious transgressions against good taste and social harmony and see how much trouble they can cause.

The only question is how the rest of us—fine, upstanding citizens that we are—respond to such delinquency.

My humble advice:  Don’t respond at all.  Don’t be provoked.  Don’t engage.  Don’t give civilization’s lowest-hanging fruit the idea that their dumb opinions are worth airing, because they’re not.

It’s like most parents say about dealing with schoolyard bullies:  Just ignore them, and eventually they’ll go away.  Or, if you prefer, the way we constantly console ourselves about terrorism:  The only way the bad guys win is if they force us to change how we live our lives.

If you’re an observant Jew with a well-calibrated moral compass, you have every reason to be repulsed by such a frontal assault on your belief system.  At the same time, however, your faith ought to be strong enough—and your skin thick enough—to be able to dismiss such cretinism as a regrettable byproduct of living in a free society in which certain people get a rush from emotionally wounding others.

By totally flipping out every time it happens, you only encourage copycats to try something even worse.

Don’t give them that chance.  Don’t elevate their rotten ideas into a full-blown threat to society—not when there are so many actual menaces to be dealt with.

Regarding public prejudice, we have to learn to distinguish between the serious and the petty, to know which indecencies are worth worrying about and which are merely indecent.  There aren’t enough hours in the day to stomp out every last manifestation of individual bias, nor can we afford to be so naïve as to believe such a thing were possible, even with all the time in the world.

In response to Porkgate, the good people of Lynn held a rally in support of their Jewish brethren, and local police are investigating the incident as a possible “hate crime.”

Really?  We’re raising hell and expending precious law enforcement resources for what was, ultimately, a tasteless joke?

I don’t pretend to understand the mind of a person who sneaks into a cemetery with a sack of raw meat, but my guess is that he’s pretty darned pleased with himself for all he has accomplished.  As the lady said, his object was to wreak psychological havoc, and damned if we didn’t oblige him.  He cast out his bait and we took it.

We didn’t need to make all that fuss.  Those who discovered the profane slabs could have picked them up, tossed them in the garbage and continued on their merry way.  No one would be the wiser, and the perpetrator would have nothing to show for his pointless stunt.

It’s easy to comprehend the desire not to let anything slide, and to affirm our country’s traditions of pluralism and religious tolerance at every opportunity.  It’s encouraging that the city of Lynn takes the scourge of anti-Semitism seriously and is prepared to use the full force of the law to put an end to it once and for all.

I just worry that such efforts will have precisely the opposite effect, and that by treating all anti-Semitism as equally harmful, we will become progressively less adept at recognizing the real thing.

The G Word

Today in Germany, it’s against the law to deny the existence of the Holocaust.

Today in Turkey, it’s against the law to affirm the existence of the Holocaust.

We’re talking here about two different Holocausts, but the point is the same:  Some countries have the courage to fess up to past atrocities, while others are abject cowards.

For us Americans, the responsibility to acknowledge other countries’ grievous sins would seemingly be straightforward.  And yet, in practice, it has become so fraught and complicated that you’d think we’d committed the crimes ourselves.

I’m speaking, of course, of the annual disgrace that is the American president’s failure to call the Armenian genocide by its rightful name.

Beginning on April 24, 1915—exactly a century ago—the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey began a process of premeditated, systematic murder against Christian Armenians living within its borders.  Generally, this was done either through outright slaughter or through prolonged “death marches,” whereby victims would ultimately starve.

At the start of World War I, Armenians numbered roughly two million within the empire itself.  By 1922, about 400,000 were left.

While there remains a debate about the exact numbers, a broad historical consensus has emerged that what happened to Armenians under the Ottoman Turks was, in fact, genocide.  That is, it was a deliberate attempt to annihilate an entire people on the basis of their ethnicity.

(An interesting linguistic footnote:  The word “genocide” did not exist until 1943.  In 1915, U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau referred to the Ottomans’ treatment of Armenians as “race extermination”—a term that, as Christopher Hitchens observed, is “more electrifying” than the one we now use.)

A century on, the legacy of the Armenian Holocaust is as contentious as ever.  However, the basic facts are only “controversial” in the sense that the basic facts about climate change are “controversial.”  Politicians continue to argue, but among the folks who actually know what they’re talking about—in this case, historians—the science is resoundingly settled.

Which brings us to the unnervingly Orwellian chapter of this story:  The careful refusal by every American president to utter the word “genocide” whenever the subject comes up.

It’s weird and frightening that this is the case, and in more ways than one—even when just considering the present occupant of the Oval Office.

You see, it’s not as if Barack Obama avoids the issue altogether.  Thanks to the efforts of the Armenian community in America and elsewhere, he doesn’t have a choice.

During this centennial week, Obama aides have met with several Armenian-American groups, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is in Armenia’s capital to mark the anniversary.  National Security Advisor Susan Rice, meeting with Turkish officials, called for “an open and frank dialogue in Turkey about the atrocities of 1915.”

Nor—while we’re at it—does Obama himself deny the truth that is staring him directly in the face.  In January 2008, as a presidential candidate, he said, “The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact.”

And yet, in the six-plus years of the Obama administration, the word “genocide” has never passed the lips of any American official.

The explanation for this is depressingly straightforward:  Turkey, a strategic U.S. ally, denies that such a genocide ever took place, and the U.S. is terrified that if we declare otherwise, our relationship with Turkey will suffer irreparable harm.

That’s right:  Our government, in our name, is publicly maintaining a major historical lie in order to placate a foreign country that murdered a million and a half of its own citizens and, a hundred years later, still pretends that it didn’t.

By comparison, just imagine a world in which it was official U.S. policy not to formally recognize an organized plot by Hitler’s Germany to eradicate the Jewish population of Eastern Europe.  (To say nothing of the continent’s gays, Gypsies, Poles and others.)  Imagine if Germany today claimed that the six million Jewish casualties were essentially a fog-of-war coincidence.  Imagine if Angela Merkel arrested and jailed anyone who implied otherwise and the U.S. did nothing meaningful to stop her.

We don’t need to imagine it.  Replace “Germany” with “Turkey” and “Jews” with “Armenians,” and you’re left, more or less, with the world we have.

The Turkish government acknowledges that a great many Armenians were killed in the First World War, but denies that it was the Ottomans’ fault.  Further, thanks to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, anyone who argues to the contrary can be imprisoned for the crime of “denigrating the Turkish Nation.”  By not going all the way in our condemnation, we Americans—the people who are supposed to be leading the world in justice and freedom—allow the practice to continue.

It’s a moral disgrace by all involved—an insult to Armenians, to history and to truth itself.  And everybody knows it.

That’s the creepiest part:  It’s not just that so many officials are saying something untrue.  They’re saying something untrue that everybody knows is untrue.

It’s the very essence of totalitarianism:  Create your own reality and exert no effort in making anyone believe it.

In actual dictatorships, this strategy works because the leaders wield absolute control over their citizens.  (To wit:  If you’re being starved, tortured, raped, etc., the fact that your government is also duplicitous is not a particularly high concern.)

On the other hand, such transparent dishonesty never works in democracies like ours, because our system is designed to make it impossible.  So long as we retain the freedom of expression, the separation of powers and a reasonably competent press corps, the truth will (eventually) rise to the surface.

So the president will eventually come around on this issue, and the Republic of Turkey will just have to deal with it.

Until that happens, however, Obama’s ongoing squeamishness will continue to validate the pessimism of many voters that the promise of “change” in Washington is an illusion.  That campaign pledges, however sincere at the time, will always ultimately be overruled by entrenched interests at home and abroad.  That insurgents who vow to “shake things up” are no match for the status quo.

To be sure, there’s no point in being naïve about these things.  If you’re the leader of the free world, you can’t just go insulting other countries willy-nilly and expect nothing bad to happen in return.  You have to accept the world as it is, politics is the art of the possible, blah blah blah.

But does the bar for political pragmatism really have to be set this low?  By acceding to other nations’ fantasies about the facts of history, aren’t we diminishing not just history but ourselves?  Are we not paying a random that any other wrongheaded country could demand as well?

Why would we do this?  Why should the bad guys win?

It’s certainly not inevitable.  Just look at Germany.

A mere seven decades after committing the most horrible crime against humanity in modern times, the Federal Republic of Germany stands not just as a stable, functioning, open society, but as Europe’s premier economic power and—crucially—just about as un-anti-Semitic as it’s possible for such a country to be.

Of course, in a nation so large, pockets of anti-Jewish sentiment still percolate, some of which manifest themselves through violence.  However, the overall prevalence of German anti-Semitism today is no greater than that of most other nations in Western Europe, and is considerably smaller than some (looking at you, France).

More to the point:  Since completely reinventing itself during and after the Cold War, Germany, in its official acts, has never stopped apologizing for its wretched past, even going so far (as I noted earlier) of punishing anyone who “approves of, denies or belittles an act committed under the rule of National Socialism,” along with anyone who “assaults the human dignity of others by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population.”  This might explain why the country’s Jewish population doubled in the first five years after reunification, and then doubled again over the next decade and a half.

In America, of course, those sorts of laws would be completely unconstitutional, as the First Amendment guarantees the right to insult whoever you want.  However, as both a Jew and a defender of human dignity, I appreciate the sentiment.  Better to outlaw lies than truth.

This is all to say that Turkey will ultimately come to terms with the darkest period in its history, and all the reconciliation that it entails.  We can’t be sure how long it will take for such a proud nation to own up to its past cruelties.  But there is one thing of which we can be sure:  It will have no reason to take that leap until it stops being enabled into complacency by superpowers like us.

Terrorism is a Cliché

If there is anything more depressing about the attack on Charlie Hebdo than the attack itself, it is the fact that there is nothing new or interesting to be said about it.  The context and apparent reasons for the assault are old news; as such, everything has already been said many times before.

Indeed, as I attempt to formulate my own response to this latest obscenity against human decency and the freedom of expression, I find myself merely repeating other people’s responses to other such obscenities over the last many years, both before and after September 11, 2001.

Charlie Hebdo—for the few of you who miraculously still do not know—is a French satirical newspaper operating out of Paris.  It ran continuously from 1970-1981, and then again from 1992 to the present day.  (“Hebdo” is French for “weekly,” and “Charlie” is an inside joke involving both Charles de Gaulle and Charlie Brown.)

Like The Onion here in the States, Charlie Hebdo operates on the principle that just about everything is fair game for parody and ridicule, including and especially organized religion.  As a result, the publication has regularly come under fire for its treatment of such revered figures as the Prophet Muhammad, among others.  In November 2011, such ire turned violent when the paper’s headquarters was firebombed by Muslim extremists, in response to an edition featuring a cartoon of Muhammad on its cover.

Further threats of violence against Charlie Hebdo have periodically surfaced in the three years since, and this past Wednesday, three would-be jihadists made good on that threat by storming the paper’s newsroom and murdering 12 people, including its editor-in-chief and several of its famed cartoonists.  On their way out, the assailants were heard shouting, “We have avenged the prophet!”  The killers have since been killed.  They are believed to have been connected to al Qaeda, although many details are yet unclear.

For those of us on the sidelines—we who have taken it upon ourselves merely to make sense of senseless acts like this—there is a great deal to say:  many principles to defend, many facts to establish.  However, in doing so, we are forced to repeat ourselves rather than come up with anything new.  It’s a shame we have to expend such efforts in the first place—we are, after all, applying reason to people who have none—but then again, it seems we have no other choice.  Better to reintroduce ancient clichés than bear witness to barbarism in silence.

We could start, for instance, with the old trope, “Not all Muslims are terrorists”—an assertion that is invariably preceded and/or followed by its rejoinder, “Yes, but virtually all terrorists are Muslim.”  The first statement is obviously true—only a complete idiot would argue otherwise—while the second is obviously false and yet is nonetheless, shall we say, a bit more true than most of us would like to admit.

In other words, the argument here is exactly the same one we had after the September 11 attacks—namely, “Is Islam the problem?”  If Islam is truly “a religion of peace,” then why are there so many officially Muslim nations that traffic in violence and war, using certain Islamic doctrine as justification?

Alternatively, we could expand the question to encompass religion as a whole, since there is no shortage of Christian and Jewish extremists who also take the dictates of their faiths into their own hands.  Could the root cause of ideological mass murder in the 21st century not be Islam but rather religious-based intolerance of every sort?  Have we really made no progress in this debate since the Twin Towers fell?

Whichever side you take (there are more than two), perhaps the more salient point in the present context is the level of risk one assumes in broaching this subject at all.  The way that Bill Maher’s old joke, “Never say Islam isn’t a religion of peace, because if you do, they’ll kill you,” manages to be funnier than it should be.

Because of course our primary subject of concern in the Charlie Hebdo assault is the inalienable right to express one’s views—yes, even when such views make some people uncomfortable, angry or—perish the thought!—offended.

As many of us well know, Charlie Hebdo is not the first Western publication to be physically targeted for printing provocative caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.  In 2005, a Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten similarly rendered Muhammad in cartoon form, in order to make a few points about free speech and religious prohibitions thereof, and within days all hell proceeded to break loose from one end of the continent to the other—an uproar that included riots, attacks on multiple European diplomatic missions and some 200 deaths, all told.

As such, because exactly this sort of thing has happened before—and quite recently, at that—we don’t need to wonder what it all means:  We can just dig up what all the smart people wrote in 2005 and 2006.

As it happens, one of the smartest and sharpest of those reactions came from an old favorite of mine, Christopher Hitchens, who wrote passionately in favor of the right to insult organized religion at all costs.  (“The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.”)  And so we have a perfectly cogent analysis of the Charlie Hebdo situation penned by someone who’s been dead for three years.

As well, in case you need further proof of the dull repetitiveness of the West’s run-ins with theocratic loony toons, I would direct you to a wonderfully illuminating chat in 2010 between Hitchens and Salman Rushdie—a man who, despite radical Islam’s best efforts, is still very much alive.  Their talk considers several key points about the Danish cartoon fiasco, and watching it today, one is taken aback by how perfectly it corresponds to the mess at Charlie Hebdo, as if the two events were completely interchangeable.  In many respects, they are.

For instance, Rushdie proposes dividing the central question about free speech into two parts.  First:  Are news outlets duty-bound to reprint offensive cartoons out of solidarity with a publication that has been attacked?  And second:  Should that first paper have been more circumspect about printing those images in the first place, knowing the fuss that it would cause?

In other words, is the right to be offensive sometimes trumped by the wisdom to hold back?  Is there a distinction between offending in order to make a point and offending for its own sake?  Is the First Amendment not always as important as good taste?

By now, there has been exhaustive back-and-forth online and in print about these very important questions, including the charge that some of the folks at Charlie Hebdo are just plain racist.  That the “I am Charlie” solidarity is a function of the relatively high level of anti-Muslim prejudice around the world today, and that a comparable paper that had published anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic cartoons would not enjoy such international goodwill following a terrorist attack.  As many have said, it’s easy to defend free speech when you happen to agree with the speech in question.

My answer to this:  Who cares?

The right to free expression should be defended regardless of the content, and the fact that we’re less likely to defend speech we don’t like is precisely why we have the First Amendment in the first place.

The question about good taste is an interesting one, but in this instance it’s also, finally, beside the point.  The only reason we’re wondering whether the editors of Charlie Hebdo should have used more discretion is because their cartoons yielded a violent response.  If satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad were not so radioactive—if they didn’t so predictably lead some people to go out and commit mass murder—then taste would be the only thing to discuss, and the First Amendment would hardly enter into it.  We would talk about provocative religious images the way we talk about provocative non-religious images:  With passion and indignation, but without the hysterical claim that they should not exist at all.

No, the real problem here is the lack of sophistication inherent in those who don’t have the stomach for ideas they don’t share, and who would rather such ideas not be uttered and are prepared to threaten and/or attack those who utter them.

And the problem behind the problem, like every other cliché I’ve noted, has been astutely espoused in the past, in this case by comedian Lewis Black.  The central fact about al Qaeda and their ilk, Black surmised on his album The End of the Universe, is that they have no sense of humor.  That they take their faith literally and without a whiff of irony or self-criticism, resulting in untold misery for millions of people.

“Patriotism is important, and religion is vital,” said Black, “But without a sense of humor, religion and patriotism can get crazy […] and we see that in our enemy.”

Black once wrote a memoir titled Nothing’s Sacred, and satire is founded upon that very notion:  No subject is out of bounds, nor should it be.  This means that so long as satirists exist, someone somewhere is going to be offended by what they have to say.  There is no getting around this fact.  Individual writers and publications are free to self-censor for reasons of taste, but it should be their decision alone, and they should never be compelled to restrict their content out of fear of violence.

The problem, you see, is not the people who offend.  The problem is the people who (to quote Hitchens again) are determined to be offended and, paradoxically, will stop at nothing to prevent the rest of us from offending them.

Maybe I could explain this phenomenon better, but it would just be one more cliché.