Google Doodle: Cesar Chavez Picked Over Easter, But It’s Not a “Snub” to Christians

Published:  mic (March 31, 2013)

The Internet is aroar right now. Why? Because even though it’s Easter, Google decided to honor Cesar Chavez instead of Jesus Christ in its banner today.

A quote from Henry Cabot Lodge comes to mind:

“The facility of saying something is counterbalanced by the difficulty of saying anything worth hearing.”

Unfortunately, we live in an era in which the trivial becomes controversial with depressing regularity. “Easter” and “Cesar Chavez” are already among the top search engine trends, FoxNews Radio pundits from Glenn Beck to Todd Starnes are waxing apoplectic at the thought of a “leftist” being honored over their Lord and Savior, and Twitter is bursting with the outrage of God-fearing websurfers publicizing their resolve to switch to Bing, declaring that “Google goes left,” and telling the company to “take your Chavez doodle and your insulting snub to all Christians and go away.” Now that the furor is (inevitably) starting to be picked up as a major story by mainstream media outlets, an issue that by all rights should have remained in the realm of the meaningless has metamorphosed into the “newsworthy.” As such, the following deconstruction has been rendered regrettably necessary:

1. The facts about Google:

First and foremost, the company hasn’t had an Easter Doodle since 2000. What’s more, today is Cesar Chavez’s birthday, an occasion that not only warrants recognition in its own right (see Point 3), but was actually declared a holiday in a presidential proclamation by Barack Obama back in 2011. Finally, a careful review of Google’s past banners shows that they have often “snubbed” major religious groups by posting unrelated doodles on their most sacred holidays, from celebrating its own eleventh birthday on Yom Kippur 2009 (Full disclosure: I’m Jewish and didn’t even notice) to focusing on the Olympics (as well as the birthdays of Julia Child, Amelia Earhart, and Gustav Klimt) during Ramadan 2012.

2. The facts about being “snubbed”:

As you may have noticed, the word “snubbed” has been used ironically here up to this point (hence the quotes). That is because the offense taken by those Christians who feel “snubbed” by Google’s decision is, simply put, logically inexplicable. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary helpfully explains, to snub one has “to check or stop with a cutting retort” or “to treat with contempt or neglect.” Since Google obviously didn’t actually say anything to insult Christians with their banner (thus ruling out the first definition), one is left with the conclusion that these individuals feel they have been “treated with contempt or neglect.” Yet as explained before, Google has always been erratic at best about recognizing religious holidays. This not only invalidates the idea that they were attempting to insult Christianity by showing “contempt” or “neglect” through the absence of any reference to Easter, but puts the onus on Google’s critics to explan how exactly any offense could be considered to have taken place.

Since it would be impossible for Google to honor every single sacred holiday from each of the creeds held by its billions of users, why do they feel that certain religions not only deserve recognition, but are entitled to it and to such an extent that its practitioners have a right to feel “snubbed” when due homage isn’t paid? Do they feel that all businesses should be compelled to pay these respects, or simply the larger ones like Google? Does this privilege extend to Christianity alone, or does it extend to all major world religions? What about atheists and secularists?

3. The facts about Cesar Chavez:

Born exactly 86 years ago today, Chavez was a labor and civil rights activist best known for his work to improve the plight of American farm workers, whose hardships were (and still are) often ignored due to the disproportionate number of Hispanics and Asians in the agricultural labor sector. After co-founding the United Farm Workers union with fellow activist Dolores Huerta, Chavez organized numerous strikes and boycotts that were designed to pressure business and political institutions into providing higher wages and better working conditions. Like Martin Luther King, he practiced a form of assertive non-violent protest rooted firmly in the American protest tradition of intellectuals like Henry David Thoreau. What’s more (and also like King), Chavez avoided narrow ideological and partisan labels, instead focusing his political energies on advocating the interests of the people he represented by forging alliances with any influential faction that sympathized with his cause (usually liberals like Robert Kennedy). Given the dire working conditions on our farms today and the fact that racism still influences our agricultural policies (see this white-washed Super Bowl ad from earlier this year or the Republican congressman who referred to California farm workers as “wetbacks”) his message certainly remains relevant … and if nothing else, Chavez deserves far better than to have his legacy simplistically reduced to the epithet of “socialism” by those who mistake red-baiting for intelligent discourse.

Of course, I don’t want to end this article on such a strident note. Fortunately, the 16th Century Spanish theologian Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada better known as St. Teresa of Avila offers me the best way to close this article. Consider it my Easter gift to my Abrahamic coreligionists:

“Our souls may lose their peace and even disturb other people’s, if we are always criticizing trivial actions which often are not real defects at all, but we construe them wrongly through our ignorance of their motives.”

Colorado Passes Domestic Violence Gun Ban Law

Published: mic (March 30, 2013)

One might hope that a law which keeps guns out of the hands of perpetrators of domestic violence would receive bipartisan support.

One would think.

As reported by the Huffington Post, “a Colorado bill that prohibits convicted domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms passed in the House Judiciary Committee on a 7-4 party line vote, with all Democrats approving the bill.”

While champions of women’s rights celebrated this new measure, its Republican opponents saw nothing but an ominous sign that the America they had grown to know and love was being lost. As State Senator Kevin Lundberg intoned, “This arc is headed toward tyranny, and it is clear.”

My mind wanders back nearly half a century. In 1964, the American historian Richard Hofstadter produced a landmark essay called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in which he discussed an ailment in the American body politic that he felt flared up with unusual frequently — i.e., the titular “paranoid style.”

“The paranoid spokesman,” Hofstadter writes, “sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.” Indeed, such a person tended (and still tends) to see modern liberalism as the greatest realization of this inherently irrational worldview, guided by a “now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism.”

Given that this article deals with gun control, discerning readers will have by now figured out the direction in which I’m heading with those Hofstadter excerpts. Despite the flurry of mass shootings from Aurora to Newtown, countless right-wingers and libertarians remain staunchly opposed to even the most modest firearms regulations because they insist such measures violate the Second Amendment.

One’s initial response might be to rebut these shrill claims by citing Supreme Court precedent on Second Amendment law, most importantly the decision in United States v. Miller (1939) in which the National Firearms Act of 1934 was unanimously upheld on the grounds that, unless a law impacted a weapon in a way that specifically “has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”

Unfortunately, gun control opponents usually respond to these by either reinterpreting the language of the Supreme Court to suit their own agenda or, barring that, arguing that any modicum of gun control is a sure sign that we are ” headed toward tyranny.” In short, they insist on seeing this issue in the “apocalyptic terms” described by Hofstadter.

The problem, as seen by the opposition to a bill protecting women, is that the price for their paranoia is too often paid by other people. National statistics from last year show that 1 out of 4 women will become victims of domestic violence, with 1.3 million suffering a third degree assault by an intimate partner each year. In Colorado alone, over 17,000 criminal domestic violence cases were filed in the state’s courts six years ago, while nearly half of the murders in that state were committed by a partner. Residents of the Centennial State are clearly (and rightly) sickened by this situation … hence why a recent poll found that 80% of state voters believed judges should be able “to order someone who is ‘convicted of domestic violence or given a restraining order’ to surrender their guns to the court.”

If it wasn’t for the inordinate political clout of the NRA and the paranoid mentality of the radical right, there wouldn’t be any question about whether a law keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers should be passed. Our society ought to be ashamed of the fact that such common sense legislation is even called into question.

It goes a long way toward explaining why Hofstadter, when pre-emptively addressing the matter of whether the term “paranoid style” was unfairly disparaging, wrote, “Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good.”

Jay Leno: History Ph.D Student Watches ‘Tonight Show’ and Laments

Published: mic (March 25, 2013)

Although it’s being rumored that NBC is planning on replacing Tonight Show host Jay Leno with Jimmy Fallon, Leno is still outranking his late night competitors at present. That said, I can’t help but wonder who those people are, since it amazes me that no one has picked up on this hilarious (and sobering) incident.

On the February 26 episode, Leno did his weekly “Headlines” routine, wherein he spends several minutes showing the audience humorous newspaper misprints and inadvertently suggestive titles. While his critics often deride these segments for being too on-the-nose, they remain one of his longest running bits, as well as a reliable crowd pleaser. To open this set, Leno pulled out a casino advertisement that read “Stay Where The Presidents Play,” underneath which were pictures of rolled up $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills. For those of you who can’t immediately recall which national heroes appear on which monetary tender, those feature Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Benjamin Franklin.

Even if you didn’t find that funny, I hope you at least immediately got the joke. Because the audience sure didn’t.

Check out the clip if you don’t believe me. After Leno reads the headline, his audience — which normally cracks up at even his least successful gags — simply murmurs in confusion, with only a few scattered laughs breaking up what must have been palpable discomfort. After a brief pause, Leno exasperatedly begins to explain “See Benjamin Franklin was not president …” before trailing off, simply glancing at Ricky Minor and, in his best kidding-on-the-square voice, quipping, “I see who’s buying this paper.”

Two thoughts. First, there is the necessary observation that we as a nation should not be surprised at the low quality of our political culture when an obvious joke about our founding fathers goes above the heads of a mainstream TV audience. Maybe I’m a tad naive (certainly my overestimation of the education of the average American shows insufficient cynicism for the academic world I inhabit), but I still expected better. Not that everyone would necessarily know the full details of Franklin’s and Hamilton’s careers, of course, but at least be aware that neither of them ever served as president.

But there is a second level on which the incident unnerves. Rewinding the footage, I noticed the precise way Leno read the punchline, sarcastically exclaiming, “You know, presidents like Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin …” Even if someone hadn’t previously known that the two men hadn’t been president, whatever happened to basic deductive reasoning skills? Given the context of his remark and the heavy emphasis he placed on the two names, shouldn’t they have been able to figure out that Hamilton and Franklin had been wrongly listed?

This may seem like nitpicking … and that’s because it is. Then again, not every day has a flurry of newsworthy stories, and sometimes smaller items get lost in the shuffle of big events even though their implications make them worthy of a little extra attention. While I happen to enjoy Leno’s show more than most people my age, I certainly wouldn’t argue that his comedy is highbrow (for that matter, I doubt he would either). As such, what does it say when a joke built on such rudimentary historical knowledge and comic delivery goes over so many people’s heads?

I’ll leave you to answer that question yourself and instead conclude with the comment that I’m amazed this clip hasn’t gone viral. After all, Leno’s making headlines right now anyway.

Leno’s making headlines … Headlines … Get it?

There’s Nothing More Pathetic Than a Pennsylvania Bigot in 2013

Published: mic (March 23, 2013)The Express Times (March 23, 2013)

From neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan to the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, there is nothing more inherently pathetic than a bigot in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

This isn’t to say that bigots aren’t a pitiful sight as a general rule. As the philosopher Eric Hoffer noted in his classic monograph on mass movements and fanatical ideologies The True Believe, “The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race, or his holy cause.” Although this insight was meant to apply to all forms of political zealotry, it had special relevance for those based on hate. “Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life,” he explained later in his book. “Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance.”

Sadly, this tendency has been given a disturbing reality in my home state. According to a report released earlier in March by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which specializes in studying and monitoring hate groups in America, Pennsylvania is home to nearly three dozen organizations based around racial and/or religious intolerance.

Of these, more than three-quarters fall into one of two categories: white supremacists such as neo-Nazis (including the Creativity Alliance in Philadelphia and branches of the National Socialist Movement throughout the Lehigh Valley and East Pennsylvania), the Ku Klux Klan (including chapters in Export, Honesdale and York), skinheads (including The Hated in Philadelphia, the Keystone State Racist Skinheads in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and Volksfront in Pittsburgh), and white nationalists (including the Council of Conservative Citizens in Revere and the European American Action Coalition in Pittston); and black separatists, including the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ (branches in Allentown, Coatesville, Norristown, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), the Nation of Islam (branches in Chester, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), and the New Black Panther Party (in Philadelphia).

There are two ironies to all of this. The most obvious one is that these organizations exist in a polity that has long served as an exemplar of the very principles of religious, racial and cultural pluralism which these hate groups flout. From the first colonial charter drawn up by William Penn in 1682 (which guaranteed freedom of worship and established much of the framework for democratic governance later integrated into our federal Constitution) to our commonwealth’s role as a center of abolitionist activity in the years leading up to the Civil War, it is hard to imagine a state whose history is less welcoming to intolerance than Pennsylvania. As the historian Henry Adams once put it, “Had New England, New York and Virginia been swept out of existence in 1800, democracy could have better spared them all than have lost Pennsylvania.”

On a deeper level, however, there is the simple fact that these groups are on the wrong side of history. This is not to say that America doesn’t continue to grapple with serious issues on its road toward racial, religious and sexual progressivism. Even as we are led by our first black president, we are also confronted with the rise of the Tea Party, with its heavy racist streak (as made clear by studies like the sweeping 2010 survey published by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality); with the likelihood that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected minority voters from discrimination at the polls, will be partially or entirely overturned by the Supreme Court; and with continuing signs of racial unrest, from the prevalence of gang violence in our inner cities to police brutality against profiled minorities.

At the same time, while immediate battles may be lost (the Supreme Court case on the Voting Rights Act comes to mind), it is worth noting that even the main culprits behind those manifestations of racial prejudice that persist today will still pay lip service to the principles embodied by Pennsylvania, even if they fail to uphold their spirit. This is hardly ideal, of course, but it underscores the simple fact that extremist groups like the ones identified in the new SPLC report are woefully out of touch with the zeitgeist of this era. In their quest for ideological fulfillment and a sense of personal meaning, they have transformed themselves into caricatures too cartoonish to be respected except by one another. That, more than anything else, underscores just how pathetic it is to be a bigot in Pennsylvania.

Mississippi Anti-Bloomberg Law: Complete Hypocrisy

Published: mic (March 21, 2013)

I was reluctant to use the same Thomas Jefferson quote twice in less than two weeks, but because the governor of Mississippi missed his golden opportunity to mention it, I simply had to post it again:

“The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.”

This is cited in regard to the “Anti-Bloomberg Law” that was just passed in the Magnolia State, in part as a reaction to the movement set afoot by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban the sale of large, sugary drinks. According to the newly signed statute, counties, districts, and towns will have no authority to regulate portion sizes in foods or beverages.

“It simply is not the role of the government to micro-regulate citizens’ dietary decisions,” Governor Phil Bryant explained. “The responsibility for one’s personal health depends on individual choices about a proper diet and appropriate exercise.”

While there is an immediate temptation among civil libertarians to simply praise the principles in Bryant’s statement, it’s worth noting that his words were rather narrow in their scope. He didn’t say that it was wrong for the government to have any role in deciding what citizens do to their own bodies, which is the broader philosophical premise upon which any opposition to dietary regulations must be connected if it is to carry intellectual weight. Instead he focused simply on one specific manifestation of that larger issue — i.e., food and beverage regulation — without delving at all into the deeper Jeffersonian logic that motivated his state’s new policy.

The reason for this, of course, is that the leaders of Mississippi wouldn’t take too kindly to a full application of the Jeffersonianism embodied in the earlier quote. After all, this is the same government that is trying to shut down its state’s last remaining abortion clinic, explicitly bans same sex marriage, has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, due in large part due to its active prosecution of the war on drugs, and only ratified the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery last month. These are not the policies of a state that agrees with Jefferson’s observation about the state needing to stay out of “acts of the body.”

This hypocrisy is hardly limited to Mississippi. Mayor Bloomberg, for all of his faults, has been one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates of gay rights, spearheading the successful effort to legalize homosexual marriage in his own state and personally presiding over New York City’s first gay wedding. When advancing his cause, Bloomberg has very often used similarly Jeffersonian arguments as Bryant … but then flouted their implications on matters like drug policy, anti-smoking laws, and of course attempts to regulate fast food.

The sad thing is that these hypocrisies aren’t unique to Bryant and Bloomberg; they are, in fact, the rule among most politicians. It is one of the great weaknesses of our current political culture that statesmen from all sides — Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, socialists — too often espouse a panoply of ideas without ever seriously scrutinizing the ideological underpinnings needed to justify them. Like Orwellian sheep, the habit is to bleat certain platitudes with passion and vigor, regardless of whether the ideas become paradoxical at crucial points. It is a habit that has significantly diminished the quality of our public discourse … and, as citizens from New York City to Mississippi can attest, we all pay a price for it.

I leave you with another Jeffersonian quote:

“The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or his estate, which would more nearly relate to the state. Will the magistrate make a law that he not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.”

Obama Has Failed to Live Up to Previous Statements About Marijuana Decriminalization

Published: mic (March 10, 2013)

The marijuana editorial you are about to read begins with a recent speech by Ron Paul and ends with a tongue-lashing penned more than a century ago by a presidential prostitute.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Last Friday, former Congressman Paul (R-Texas) spoke to a gathering of prominent Canadian conservatives to declare that “the drug war needs to be repealed.” Reading his remarks, one might have been reminded of the words of another idealistic legislator nine years earlier:

“The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we’re operating the drug war.”

Unlike Paul, that statesman — a then-obscure state Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama — was destined to acquire real political power, one that he has sadly failed to use to fulfill the promise of his statement from 2004. To understand why that has happened, one can turn to Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who earlier this year introduced HR-499 (a House bill to end the federal ban on marijuana) and was asked a few weeks later which special interest groups were most effective in blocking progress on the measure. As he candidly explained:

“The law enforcement industrial complex. All those on the gravy train of the drug war which means parts of law enforcement and their private sector vendors.”

The term “law enforcement industrial complex” can’t be emphasized enough. In addition to the multitude of law enforcement agencies which directly or indirectly depend on the drug war to keep personnel on the payrolls, receive large financial allocations in state and/or federal budgets, and even continue to exist at all (viz., the Drug Enforcement Agency), a large and growing number of American prisons are contracted out to private, for-profit businesses, creating a $70 billion industry in the process.

Since the financial success of these companies depends on cheaply housing as many inmates as possible, they naturally have a vested interest in maintaining — and when possible strengthening — our current drug laws. As laid out in the annual report of the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest of these firms, their growth “could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”

The human and financial toll of the federal ban on marijuana is, quite literally, inestimable. Our most recent statistics on the total number of inmates incarcerated for specifically pot-related offenses date back to 2004; at that time, more than 44,000 people were in state or federal prison for marijuana crimes (one-eighth of the total number of incarcerated drug offenders), and even that figure failed to incorporate any data on the more than 700,000 inmates at local jails. By the beginning of this decade, roughly 6,200 people were being sent to jail each year for growing, trafficking, or possessing marijuana, while over 750,000 arrests were occurring annually for simple possession, as compared to the less than 650,000 made due to violent crimes. The total cost of this anti-marijuana crusade was, at least back when it was last tabulated in 2004, more than $1 billion.

While some of this could be at least hypothetically justified if marijuana posed a serious threat to public health and safety, neither claim holds up to either empirical analysis or jurisprudential scrutiny. Only 7.3% of federal imprisoned marijuana offenders committed their crimes with a weapon, ranking as the least likely of any drug offenders to have used guns while breaking the law. In fact, the existing evidence shows no meaningful correlation between marijuana use and violent crime, with aggressive marijuana users usually being people who had violent histories before their relationship with the drug.

Even studies focused on comparing the criminological predictive effects of alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana have determined that, of the three, only “alcohol and cocaine use appear to play a significant role in explaining violence.” Likewise, studies have repeatedly found that marijuana is no more unhealthy (and arguably less so) than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco, a point best summed up by the World Health Organization’s conclusion that based “on existing patterns of use, cannabis poses a much less serious public health problem than is currently posed by alcohol and tobacco in Western societies.”

Then again, the very notion of having the state regulate what we do to our own bodies goes against the essence of our Founding Fathers’ principles. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “the error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.”

This brings us back to President Obama. Although he has so far refrained from using federal law enforcement officials to prosecute recreational marijuana users in Colorado and Washington (where it was legalized last year), he has also failed to use his presidential power to even push for decriminalization.

The insightful argument he made less than a decade ago has been cast aside, buckling like so many of his other principles under the pressure of the powerful special interest groups that do more to govern our country than its elected officials. Instead Americans are being left with vague reassurances about an impending national “conversation” on the subject and halfhearted attempts to find a middle ground.

This half-heartedness, as things stand, is practically and morally unacceptable on this issue — practically so because it is insufficient against the enormous power of the law enforcement industrial complex, and morally so because it allows the rights of our citizens and the will of our Founding Fathers to continue being thwarted. What we need is strong leadership that will have the courage to puncture overinflated fallacies and defy special interest groups that place profit over principle.

If Obama fails to show that leadership during his presidency, the same criticism will be made of him as has been made of so many of his predecessors … and it is here that I return to the words of the aforementioned 19th Century prostitute, as directed against President Chester Arthur when he began to disgust her with his own wavering principles:

“Why do you take such comfort in half measures? Does it never strike you that there must be back of them only half a mind — a certain half-heartedness — in fact, only half a man? Why do you not do what you do with your whole soul? Or have you only half of one?”

April 20, 2015, 4:11 p.m.: This article has been updated.


Hugo Chavez’s Real Legacy is One of Vicious Anti-Semitism Against the Jews of Venezuela

Published: mic (March 10, 2013)

To anyone who may doubt the appalling nature of the late Hugo Chavez’s mistreatment of his nation’s Jewish community, it’s worth noting that communist dictators are generally a pretty vile bunch. As such, it should go without saying that when one Marxist authoritarian feels compelled to call out another one on a humanitarian flaw, decent people everywhere should take notice.

Such was the case when, in an interview with The Atlantic back in 2010, Fidel Castro drew attention to the anti-Semitism plaguing Chavez’s rhetoric and policies as the leader of Venezuela. Of course, sensitive as always to Chavez’s notoriously delicate ego, Castro was careful not to name Chavez directly in his criticism. Instead he focused on the notorious Holocaust denial and Jew-baiting of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who had developed close ties with Chavez), declaring, “I don’t think anyone has been slandered more than the Jews” and reviewing in great detail how Jews have been persecuted for millennia and “blamed and slandered for everything.”

When the question inevitably arose as to why Castro didn’t simply relay these views to Ahmadinejad himself, the erstwhile Cuban president offered a characteristically cryptic answer: “I am saying this so you can communicate it.” Within 24 hours, the real reason for Castro’s approach to the situation became clear, as Chavez came forward with a shrill denunciation of what he ambiguously referred to as the “people” who were “saying that I am anti-Jewish and an enemy of the Jews.” Being the two most prominent Latin American leftists in the world, Castro and Chavez frequently professed admiration for each other and closely followed the other one’s public utterance. As such, even though Chavez was as indirect in attacking Castro as Castro had been in criticizing him, geopolitical observers agreed that the world had just witnessed a genuine butting of the heads between the two men on the issue of Jewish rights.

Castro had good reason to chide the Venezuelan leader, a point that deserves more focus as the world tries to process his legacy after his recent death. Although the first half-decade of his reign (1999-2004) was relatively free of anti-Semitic incidents, Chavez’s growing closeness with Iran was soon coupled with a systematic program of vilification and social marginalization against the 35,000 Jews in his country (Venezuela’s total population: 29.3 million). First there was a police raid on a Jewish school in an unsuccessful and transparently spurious attempt to prove that it was involved in an Israel-orchestrated plot to assassinate a federal prosecutor. By 2005, Chavez was decrying “the descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ” for having “taken possession of all the wealth of the world.” One year later, a Jewish legislator was publicly attacked by the President of the Chamber of the State of Miranda (a member of Chavez’s inner circle) with the claim that Jews had killed Jesus Christ and thus deserved to be slaughtered by Hitler. Shortly after that, the monthly newsletter for Docencia Participativa, a government-affiliated educational institute, began publishing cartoons with grotesquely stereotypical caricatures of Jews, most of them charging the world Jewish community with an agenda of global domination.

Over time, strings of anti-Semitic occurrences against Jewish institutions would repeatedly break out. A short list includes: Four separate instances of vandalism taking place against the Israelite Association of Venezuela and the Hebraica Community Center in the summer of 2006; synagogues being ransacked and vandalized (and in one case even bombed) in the early winter of 2009; members of the state police being caught painting “We don’t want Jews here!” on the nation’s largest synagogue in March 2009; state-controlled street corner newsstands selling copies of the debunked anti-Semitic conspiracy theory document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 2010; the Jewish ancestry of Chavez’s opponent in last year’s presidential election being widely cited during the campaign against him. As one Jewish journalist in Caracas summed it up at the time, although “the Venezuelan people aren’t anti-Semitic,” there was little doubt that the state was implementing a policy of “officially sanctioned anti-Semitism.”

It is telling that, amid all this, Chavez repeatedly insisted that he was only being accused of anti-Semitism because Zionists wished to discredit his opposition to alleged Israeli human rights abuses. While it is indeed true that many Jewish groups have a habit of labeling any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic (more on that in a moment), much of what Chavez said and did was directed against Jews as a general group rather than limited to the State of Israel (including all of the examples cited in the previous two paragraphs). Not only did this render it impossible for him to convincingly assert that he was merely being an anti-Zionist, but it undermined his credibility on the numerous occasions when he used strong language to condemn Israeli policies. Whether it was because he harbored genuine animus against Jews or merely wished to cozy up to a Jew-baiting despot halfway across the globe, the end result was that his brand of anti-Semitism became inextricably linked to the arguments he made against Israel, regardless of whether the latter were actually anti-Semitic in their own right.

The irony of all this is that when anti-Semitism unrelated to Israel is linked to anti-Zionist arguments, the anti-Zionists themselves also pay a price. It’s obvious enough that supporters of Israel who want to silence debate about their country are quick to cite the anti-Semitism of people like Chavez as erroneous proof that only bigots disapprove of that nation’s actions. What’s more, Jews who are open to hearing thoughtful criticism of Israel are quickly turned off to it due to the fear that, as has happened so often in the past, they will wind up enabling ideological forces bent on destroying them. Likewise, non-Jews who are interested in learning more about the Arab-Israeli conflict are frequently turned off to criticisms of Israel when they see them associated with bigotry. Needless to say, the growth of anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism throughout the world — the Hungarian politicians who declared Jews to be a national security risk, the gunman who murdered three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in France, the advertisement in Greece that intertwines a swastika with a Jewish star — only makes matters worse.

This perhaps explains why Castro, despite being “a severe critic of Israel” who severed diplomatic ties with Israel in 1973 and permitted Palestinian militants to train in his country, had little difficulty skewering Israel in one breath and anti-Semitism in another. Although Castro’s own record on Jewish rights is far from pristine, he was still able to distinguish between non-prejudiced political opinion and flat-out hatred of Jews. While the world may never know what motivated him to speak out against Chavez vis-a-vis Ahmadinejad, his observations speak to the exact nature of the late totalitarian’s place in Jewish history — i.e., that of furthering the abuse of a legitimate point of view in the name of advancing an ancient prejudice. To paraphrase one of Marxism’s earliest leaders, who wrote that “anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools,” it may be said that Hugo Chavez helped illustrate the maxim that “anti-Semitism is the anti-Zionism of fools.”

5 Underrated Songs That Blow Today’s Pop Music Out of the Water

Published: mic (March 4, 2013)

When I think of the cookie-cutter music so often churned out today the visceral club beats of a Nicki Minaj or Kesha, the vapid tween-targeted sugar pop of Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers I can’t help but remember a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, back when the legendary French sociologist went on his famous tour of America in the 1830s:

“It would be to waste the time of my readers and my own if I strove to demonstrate how the general mediocrity of fortunes, the absence of superfluous wealth, the universal desire for comfort, and the constant efforts by which everyone attempts to procure it make the taste for the useful predominate over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man. Democratic nations, among whom all these things exist, will therefore cultivate the arts that serve to render life easy in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful.”

As an antidote to the cynicism one might feel from recent artistic trends that seem to bear out de Tocqueville’s observation, I’ve decided to spotlight five underrated recent songs (“recent” being a relative term here) that I believe deserve more attention. These pieces deserve praise not merely for sounding great, but for saying something substantial while doing so.

1. Akala: Find No Enemy:

What makes “Find No Enemy” so refreshing, aside from the smoothness of the track itself, is the deftness with which it deflates the cognitive processes that prompt us to classify and prejudge each other based on racial, sexual, and national criteria. The ideas he presents in this song aren’t especially new (one thinks back to masterpiece’s John Lennon’s “Imagine”), but he makes his points with praiseworthy eloquence. Even better, he cites specific present-day examples the massacres in Africa, Islamophobia throughout the West, the war in Iraq, inner-city racial profiling that take his denunciations out of the realm of the abstract and firmly roots them in the soil of the world we inhabit today.

2. Dispatch: We Hold A Gun:

As Brad Corrigan (aka “Braddigan”) of Dispatch put it, “We Hold A Gun” is a scathing condemnation of the American education system. “So many schools receive funds based on grades and standardized testing, so you can have illiterate kids going through the system who don’t have a clue about who they are and what they were made for. That song is meant to be a little bit jarring in the imagery, but at the same time, absolutely we can make a change, absolutely we can take better care of our kids.”

3. Macklemore: Same Love:

Considering the homophobia that runs rampant in the hip-hop community today, Macklemore should be lauded simply for having the courage to make a song about gay rights, regardless of its ultimate quality. Fortunately, though, “Same Love” is one of the best rap songs produced in a very long time, from Macklemore’s disarmingly forthright acknowledgment of his own childhood misconceptions about homosexuality to the manner in which he deconstructs the anti-gay rights arguments so often used today. Most striking of all is the narrative framework which he uses to send this message i.e., that of a lifelong relationship between two homosexual lovers. Rarely do hip-hop songs manage to tug at the heartstrings, but “Same Love” pulls it off.

4. The Mars Volta: The Widow:

Like “We Hold A Gun,” “The Widow” is notable for its jarringly descriptive language. Whereas the Dispatch song is intended as social commentary on America’s education system, however, “The Widow” provides a glimpse into the mind of a drug addict (a topic with which The Mars Volta was tragically all too familiar, due to the death of their sound technician Jeremy Michael Ward to a drug overdose). Given the extent to which music often deals with drug addiction in a casual or even playful fashion, this song is a nice break from that pace to show the other side of the proverbial coin.

5. 3 Doors Down: Citizen Soldier:

Yes, I know, it isn’t fashionable for a liberal columnist to feel moved by songs that appeal to patriotism, military heroism, and other tropes of American nationalism … but as both a historian and, yes, as an American, I find that this song just gets to me. The lyrics are a tad generic, but the historian in me can’t help but love the music video, which very cleverly juxtaposes images from America’s current conflicts with those from our past, tracing all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Given the left-wing iconoclasm that pervades all realms of mainstream American culture, straightforward adulation of our men and women in uniform is just as courageous as any progressive statement one might see made in a song.