The Limits of Loyalty

Is loyalty a virtue or a sin?  Does the world need more of it, or less?

Donald Trump, in a controversial speech to the Boy Scouts of America on Monday, endorsed the former in no uncertain terms, rambling to the gathering of thousands of teenage boys, “As the Scout Law says, ‘A scout is trustworthy, loyal’—we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.”

The subtext of this remark was clear enough to anyone paying attention to current events.  Throughout the past week, the president has been very publicly steaming about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump feels betrayed him by recusing himself from the administration’s Russia imbroglio—and also, apparently, by not investigating Hillary Clinton for God knows what.  In an ongoing series of tweets, Trump has tarred Sessions as “beleaguered” and “VERY weak,” effectively goading him into resigning, lest the abuse continue indefinitely.

The implication—or explication, as the case may be—is that Sessions’s duty as America’s chief law enforcement officer is to protect Donald Trump from the law, not to defend the law against those who violate it, up to and including the commander-in-chief himself.  As Trump made plain in an interview with the New York Times, his hiring of Sessions was predicated on the AG serving the president—not the Constitution.

But then it’s not only Sessions who has found himself the object of Trump’s wrath on the question of absolute allegiance.  Let’s not forget James Comey, the former director of the FBI, who famously met with the president in January, when the latter said, point-blank, “I need loyalty; I expect loyalty.”  Comey’s eventual sacking—like Sessions’s, should it occur—was the result of being insufficiently faithful to the man in the Oval Office.  Of daring to think, and act, for himself.

As someone who has never been leader of the free world—nor, for that matter, held any position of real responsibility—I must confess that I remain skeptical about the value of unconditional submission in one’s day-to-day life and generally regard free agency as the far superior of the two virtues.  Indeed, I would argue (to answer my own question) that “virtue” might be altogether the wrong word to use in this context.

When thinking about loyalty, the question you must ask yourself is:  What, exactly, am I being loyal to?  Is it to a set of principles, or to another human being?  And if you are merely dedicating yourself to a person, what has he or she done to deserve it, and what, if anything, will you be getting in return?

Certainly, the spectacle of Trump demanding total fealty to Trump is the most extreme—and most cartoonish—manifestation of this latter category, since the president has shown minimal interest in reciprocating whatever devotion happens to come his way.  Except with members of his immediate family (so far, anyway), Trump’s modus operandi is to ask for everything and give nothing back.  Part and parcel of being a textbook sociopath, Trump views his fellow humans purely as a means to an end and rarely, if ever, stops to think how he might make their lives easier in the process.  It does not occur to him to treat people with respect for its own sake.  If anything, he views empathy as a sign of weakness.

This behavior may well represent an abuse and perversion of an otherwise useful human trait, but that hardly makes a difference when considering the enormous political power of the man doing the perverting.

Which brings us—by way of analogy—to Adolf Hitler.

In Germany, beginning in 1934, all members of the armed forces were required to swear a solemn oath—not to Germany, mind you, but to the man at the top.  This vow, or Reichswehreid, read, in part, “To the Leader of the German Empire and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and […] at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.”  As you might’ve guessed, soldiers who refused to comply tended not to live very long.

If that seems like an extreme and sui generis example of a personality cult run amok, let me remind you of the moment in March 2016 when, at a campaign rally in Florida, Donald Trump implored his adoring crowd to raise their right hands and pledge, “I do solemnly swear that I—no matter how I feel, no matter what the conditions, if there’s hurricanes or whatever—will vote […] for Donald J. Trump for president.”

While a stunt like that doesn’t exactly sink to the depths of the Hitler oath—Trump wasn’t about to jail or murder anyone who opted out—it is nonetheless a profoundly creepy thing for a presidential candidate in a democratic republic to say—particularly when you recall that Trump once reportedly kept an anthology of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside table.  This for a man who can otherwise go years without reading a single book.

That Trump evidently views Hitler as some sort of role model—and is haphazardly aping the Führer’s stylistic flourishes on the campaign trail—ought to give us serious pause about where his own fidelity lies—is it to the nation or himself?—and about whether his pronouncement at the Republican National Convention that he—and he alone—is capable of steering America forward was less an expression of supreme confidence than a barely-veiled threat against those who doubt that a serially-bankrupt con artist is the best man to preside over the largest economy in the world.

The problem, you see, is not that Trump is Hitler.  (He’s not.)  The problem is that he wants to be Hitler—and Mussolini and Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin and every other national figurehead who has managed to wield near-absolute authority over his citizenry—often with sarcastically high approval ratings and totally unburdened by the institutional checks and balances that America’s founders so brilliantly installed in 1787.

While Trump’s ultimate ambitions might not be as violent or imperial as those of the men I just listed—in the end, he seems to care about little beyond self-enrichment—the central lesson of the first six months of his administration—plus the first 71 years of his life—is that there is nothing he will not try to get away with at least once.  No sacred cow he will not trample.  No rule he will not bend.  No sin he will not commit.  He is a man of bottomless appetites and zero restraint.  Left to his own devices, he would spend his entire presidency arranging meetings—like the one with his cabinet last month—whose participants did nothing but praise him for being the greatest man in the history of the world.  A Kim Jong-un of the West.

Remember:  The sole reason Trump hasn’t already turned the United States into a full-blown banana republic is that he can’t.  Constitutionally-speaking, the only things stopping him from indulging his basest instincts are Congress, the courts and the American public, and we’ve seen how tenuous all three of those institutions can be.  Should the remaining branches of government fulfill their obligations as a check on executive overreach and malfeasance, we’ll be fine.  Should they falter—thereby providing Trump the untrammeled loyalty he demands—we’ll be in for the longest eight years of our lives.

All Votes Matter

Why are Republicans so scared of democracy?  Why are they so hostile toward voting?

In most of his campaign speeches this year, Bernie Sanders has made the point that, in general, voter turnout is directly correlated to Democrats winning elections.  That is, when the maximal number of people cast ballots in a given year, Democratic candidates tend to do well, while Republicans fare better when turnout is relatively low.

While evidence for this is suggestive but not conclusive, the idea is that young people and poor people are the groups who vote the least, and both demographics tend to support liberal candidates.  Thus, if Democrats could simply inspire those bums to get off the couch on the first Tuesday of every November, the party would eke out solid victories from coast to coast, and probably never lose a presidential election again.

Certainly, there are counterarguments to this theory, beginning with the fact that less-dependable voters are also less ideological, and thus more susceptible to change their minds from year to year.

Then again, we don’t really need statistical proof that high turnout favors Democrats and disadvantages Republicans.  All we need to do is observe how the two parties behave whenever the issue of voting rights comes up.

At every juncture, Democrats do all they can to expand the voter pool and erase whatever barriers remain for citizens who are already eligible to vote.  Republicans, meanwhile, take the opposite approach, digging whatever sand traps they can to make the act of voting as difficult and unpleasant as possible.

Do I exaggerate?

Year after year, it is Republicans—and only Republicans—who advocate “voter ID” laws, which would necessarily disenfranchise a significant chunk of eligible American voters who, without having broken any laws, happen not to possess the sorts of identification such laws would require.  (In big cities, for instance, many residents don’t own a driver’s license because they have no need for a car.)

In Virginia in 2008, it was Republicans who sent flyers to Democratic neighborhoods telling them to vote on the wrong day.  In 2012, five states—four of which had Republican governors—cut back on early voting, which allows those who can’t get out of work on Election Day to cast a ballot on a day that they can.  (“Too busy” is the number one reason registered voters don’t make it to the polls.)  During the Maryland gubernatorial race in 2010, a Republican consultant pulled back whatever was left of the curtain by saying, “the first and most desired outcome is voter suppression,” specifically by ensuring that “African-American voters stay home.”

Shenanigans like these—anecdotal that they are—help to erase any notion that Republicans’ real target is so-called “voter fraud”—the act of casting a ballot under false pretenses.  While it sounds reasonable to want to prevent that sort of thing, it becomes slightly less so when you learn that, according to one study, there has been a grand total of 31 instances of voter fraud in the United States since 2000—a period of time that saw roughly one billion ballots cast.

Percentage-wise, the likelihood of voter fraud affecting the outcome of an election is roughly equivalent to that of being eaten by a shark in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

No, the purpose of voter ID laws is exactly what it looks like:  To keep liberals away from the ballot box.

This being the case, we are now in the nascent stages of a major fight on this issue between representatives of our two political parties.  The fight concerns a simple but profound question:  Should all Americans be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18?

Presently, if you want to participate in the democratic process, the onus is on you to march down to City Hall and register to vote.  You must do this upon reaching the age of majority and any time you move to a different address.  God forbid you forget, don’t have time, don’t care or don’t get your application processed on time.

Now there is talk of streamlining the registration process by reversing it.  Under the new proposal—bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress—you would be automatically added to the voter rolls unless you specifically opt out.

What a splendid idea.  Indeed, it would be the most pro-voter federal policy shift since the Nineteenth Amendment, and we have the research to prove it.

Consider organ donation.  In many countries, you must give your affirmative consent to become an organ donor—typically upon renewing your driver’s license—while in others, you are made a potential donor automatically unless you actively refuse.  The outcome of these policies is striking:  In “opt-in” Germany, for instance, only 12 percent of citizens are organ donors.  Meanwhile, in “opt-out” Austria right next door, the number is 99.98 percent.

In general, you can use statistics to reach any conclusion you want, but this case seems pretty cut and dry.

Further, there is little reason to expect that automatic voter registration wouldn’t yield similar results:  At the proverbial end of the day, how many Americans are so hostile toward the democratic process that they would actively deny themselves the mere opportunity to cast a vote?  So long as they are afforded that right, what exactly is the problem?

The effect of such a system could be transformative.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are now more than 70 million Americans who are eligible to vote but haven’t even bothered to register.  That’s 70 million potential ballots that are just floating around in the ether—legitimate would-be votes with the potential to swing every race in this country.

To be sure, just because those 70 million people would suddenly become registered does not mean they would actually exercise their newly-acquired right.  Some people do not become voters for entirely deliberate reasons, and there are plenty of Americans whose grasp of the issues is such that their abstention from the process is probably for the best.  (Then again, we could say the same for many who do vote, but that’s another story.)

All things considered, automatic voter registration seems like a slam dunk—one of those simple, obvious ideas we’re embarrassed not to have thought up sooner.  Who could possibly object?

Chris Christie, for one.  Earlier this month, the New Jersey legislature passed the “Democracy Act,” which, in addition to automatic registration, would have allowed residents to register online and provided two weeks of early voting every election cycle.  However, as governor, Christie vetoed the legislation, calling it “thinly-veiled political gamesmanship” and arguing that such reforms would lead to increases in—you guessed it!—voter fraud.

We’ve already established how the latter claim is utter nonsense, but what about the former?  Are Democratic Party initiatives like early voting and automatic registration mere ploys to run up the score in favor of America’s left wing?

Sure they are.  If Democrats know—or at least assume—that high voter turnout redounds to their benefit, any maneuver to jack up turnout is axiomatically a political act.

But that’s not the point.  Everything is a political act.  The question is whether this particular political act is consistent with basic American principles and traditions.  If so, the politics behind it become irrelevant.

Call me crazy, but I would estimate that ensuring equal protection under the law is a more worthy American tradition than keeping poor people and minorities from participating in the democratic process.

Further, this shouldn’t be an especially difficult feat to pull off.  Over the past 150 years, we have amended our Constitution to clarify that the right of adult citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, sex, age and—with the Voting Rights Act—race again.

Having accomplished all of that—however haltingly—you’d think denying the vote on account of laziness and/or having a busy schedule would be a breeze to overcome, even for the Congress we’re stuck with today.

As Churchill is alleged to have said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.”

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.

A Performance From Beyond the Grave

In the six months since Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I have insisted to myself and others that he will never truly be “gone.”  Like a band that has broken up or a novelist from a bygone era, the Finest Actor of His Generation deeded us a body of work that will allow him to continue to entertain us for as long as we possess the means (and the interest) to indulge.

Sure, Hoffman’s hideously untimely demise at age 46 meant that his movie oeuvre had reached an abrupt endpoint, but what a collection of performances he gave!  From his pathetic fanboy in Boogie Nights to his appealing but possibly pedophilic priest in Doubt, from his scruffy, boisterous rock critic in Almost Famous to Truman Capote himself, Hoffman appeared not only capable of doing it all, but seemed, in his 23 years on screen, to have actually done so.

Another 23 years of Hoffman, had they existed, would have yielded countless more excellent roles, but probably not anything we hadn’t seen before, broadly-speaking.  At this point in his career, I figured, he had retained his power to impress, but had all but exhausted his power to surprise.

Then I saw Hoffman’s performance in A Most Wanted Man, and all of that thinking went out the window.  I am now somehow compelled to mourn all over again.

This movie, directed by Anton Corbijn from a novel by John le Carré, was filmed in the fall of 2012, but released only last month.  It features Hoffman in its leading role, essayed when he was very much alive and kicking, and thereby has the distinction—much like The Dark Knight in 2008—of showcasing a virtuoso performer to an audience that cannot help but view him in the past tense.

And like Heath Ledger, whose mad, manic Joker revealed an exciting, promising and altogether unexpected side to an actor everyone in the audience knew was dead, Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man allows the painful irony of introducing a whole new depth of his talent that we will never get the chance to see.

What exactly am I referring to, you ask?  What is it about his final major film appearance that so differentiates it from all that came before?

A German accent, as it turns out.

In A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman is Günther Bachmann, a German intelligence agent based in Hamburg.  He had been responsible for a major intelligence failure in the past and is now attempting to redeem himself in the present by heading off a terrorist attack in the future.  (Hamburg had played host to several key planners of the 9/11 attacks.  The film takes place shortly thereafter.)

It’s not that anyone doubted Hoffman could credibly play a spy.  Indeed, he did exactly that in 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.  Nor should anyone be taken aback by his exceptional capacity to brood, arresting our attention with little more than his mere presence and a few puffs from a cigarette.

Nope, the revelation is in the accent.  Hoffman plays a German man speaking English, and unlike virtually every other American actor to ever attempt such a stunt—including two other actors in this movie, I might add—he makes you believe he is, in fact, a native-born German.  Those who are seeing Hoffman for the first time will have no reason to assume he is actually American, just as when I first saw Titanic, I had no idea that Kate Winslet is actually British.

Obviously, that’s not all there is to the performance, nor is Hoffman all there is to the film, which is engaging and politically astute even when Hoffman is nowhere to be found.

But it’s worth underlining all the same, because Hoffman in his movies—unlike, say, Meryl Streep in hers—was not known for speaking any way except as he actually did (Capote was an exception).  That he could pass so persuasively as a European, while unsurprising in retrospect, was not something to which we had been subjected while he was alive.  Now that he’s dead, we will forever be tormented by the gazillion additional turns his career might have taken.  The infinite possibilities.  The prospect that he was an even better actor than we thought.

Of course, Hoffman is not the first great actor to shuffle off at a point when, by all outward appearances, he had plenty of life still in him.  Indeed, it was in the middle of writing the previous paragraph that I learned that Robin Williams, one of the great comic chameleons of the age, has gone off to the big genie retirement home in the sky at the frightfully young age of 63.  Who’s to say he didn’t have a secret second (or third) act in his back pocket that would have blindsided us all?

In Hoffman’s case, the loss is felt with particular intensity due, in large part, to the intensity of the man himself.  And to the paradoxical notion that, for all he had accomplished as an actor—an output so vast in both size and scope for someone only in his mid-40s—he was really just getting started.

Open-Ended Grievance

Barack Obama is one of the most thoughtful men ever to occupy the Oval Office.  He is the rare president—nay, the rare politician of any sort—who is a true intellectual, effectively reasoning his way through his job.

Anyone who still doubted the commander-in-chief’s cerebral capacities, having heretofore attributed his rhetorical magic to speechwriters and Teleprompters, was given a rather stern rebuke by the president’s comments on Friday regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter charges last week.

The 17-minute quasi-speech, extemporaneous and flowing directly from the president’s heart, covered similar territory as his celebrated “race speech” of March 2008, and seemed to make the same broad point:  On matters of race relations, the United States has progressed and matured by leaps and bounds, but is still very much a work in progress.  Racism in America is not nearly as bad as it once was—not by a long shot—but it has not altogether disappeared.  It has merely grown more subtle.

Obama’s central plea in these addresses is for white Americans to understand why many black Americans still feel they have gotten a raw deal from their mother country.  That nearly every black person, at one time or another, has found himself the object of a white person’s fear and/or suspicion for no reason except that he is black.

The implication, in light of the Zimmerman verdict, is that a white person’s irrational, prejudicial views about black people can lead to a senseless killing and, more alarming still, allow one to literally get away with murder.  In other words, this is not merely a philosophical problem.

The popular view about George Zimmerman is that the only reason he considered Trayvon Martin “suspicious,” following him across the neighborhood and thereby provoking a scuffle that led to him shooting Martin dead, is because Martin was black.  Had Martin been white, the theory goes, Zimmerman would not have given Martin’s behavior a second thought and the shooting would never have occurred.

We have no idea if this is true.  Zimmerman denies it, although he could be lying.  The audio of his phone conversation with police has him commenting, “These assholes, they always get away,” but we have no particular cause to assume he had black people in mind.  For years, his and Martin’s gated community had been rife with burglaries, break-ins and the like, committed by people of many skin colors.  Racially speaking, “these assholes” is fairly all-encompassing.

It is with these details in mind that we must consider the president’s observation that personal experiences of white people’s prejudices “inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.  And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

My question is this:  For how long will it be “inescapable”?  Under what circumstances will it no longer be morally justified to infer racist motives in cases where such prejudices are not necessarily borne out by the facts?  Assuming a white person harbors racist views is certainly justified by history, but what happens when it’s not justified by the evidence?

The president didn’t say, and I rather wish that he had.

My primary concern (beyond the Zimmerman case) is that the heretofore understandable black suspicion toward white suspicion will endure far beyond its natural lifespan.  That the notion that white people assault black people for purely racial reasons will continue to be accepted as a given, thereby allowing America’s residual racial divides to survive to fight another day.

As a highly imperfect analogy, one might consider certain Jews’ attitudes toward the Republic of Germany.

In the early years following the end of the Second World War, members of the Twelve Tribes could be forgiven for suspecting that folks with German blood were, shall we say, out to get them.  A crime committed by a German against a Jew could reasonably be assumed to have been anti-Semitic in nature.

Today, nearly seven decades since the last gas chambers were extinguished, Germany has all but outlawed anti-Semitism within its borders—denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense—and individual Germans tend not to be any more anti-Jewish than other Europeans; if anything, they are less so.

Yet there are countless Jews who still refuse to buy a German car or patronize German businesses, even here in the states.  No one has to explain why this happens, yet we are nonetheless entitled to question whether such behavior is any longer rational or even ethical.  Why should a German teenager automatically suffer for the sins of his grandfather?

The message is not “forgive and forget.”  Some people don’t deserve to be forgiven, having committed crimes that ought always to be remembered as sharply as one can muster.  Some modern-day Germans (and non-Germans) really are out to get the Jews, just as some white folk really do profile black folk, sometimes in a lethal fashion.

Rather, one should refrain, as much as one can, from combating bad faith with bad faith.  A right, two wrongs do not make.

The ultimate solution, as President Obama correctly noted, is for those still in need of enlightenment on the issue to be given the education they so urgently require.  As we wait for such an eventuality to occur (not that such a project will ever truly be complete), we would do well for ourselves and our society—if I may coin a phrase—to give each other the benefit of the doubt.