Thank “God” for John Boehner!

Published: The Good Men Project (April 28, 2016)

I’ve never liked John Boehner. From the moment he weaseled his way into the House Republican leadership by virtue of his corporate connections (which, to be fair, is how most modern politicians get the job) to his penchant for maudlin emotionalism, virtually everything about the Ohioan rubbed me the wrong way. I’m still nauseous at the fact that, thanks to the Republican takeover of the House in 2010, he was two heartbeats away from the presidency for more than four years.

Nevertheless, while  his recent appearance at a Stanford University forum didn’t change my opinions in any way, it offered some useful insights into the thinking of the Republican establishment which Boehner used to not only represent, but actually lead. Some choice excerpts:

1. Ted Cruz is “Lucifer in the flesh.”

Boehner is hardly the first congressional Republican to denounce Cruz – indeed, the Texas Senator’s unpopularity among his colleagues is practically a thing of legend – but his explanation for why he hates Cruz is quite revealing. “I have Democrat friends and Republican friends,” Boehner explained to the rapt audience. “I get along with almost everyone, but I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.” Considering that Boehner eventually resigned from the Speakership because he found working with Tea Partyers to be too stressful, it makes sense that he would harbor a particular grudge for the man who practically single-handedly engineered a government shutdown. More importantly, it offers an ominous foreshadowing of what might be in store for America if Cruz ascends to the presidency.

2. Boehner and Donald Trump play golf together and are “texting buddies.”

Although the current media narrative emphasizes the Republican establishment’s disdain for Trump, I suspect many of them will fall into line behind him if he winds up being the GOP presidential nominee. Certainly this is the case for the former House Speaker. “Boehner for the most part accepted Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, though he did express his surprise at the candidate’s success,” explained The Stanford Daily. “While he did not praise Trump’s policies, the former Speaker did say he would vote for Trump in the general election if he becomes the Republican nominee.” Believe it or not, Cruz himself made a valid point about the deeper meaning behind Boehner’s warm feelings for Trump: “If you are wondering who actually has stood up to Washington, then John Boehner has made it crystal clear. John Boehner in his remarks described Donald Trump as his texting and golfing buddy.”

3. Boehner shares Trump’s sexism.

When Boehner mockingly impersonated Hillary Clinton by summarizing her message as “Oh, I’m a woman, vote for me,” he did more than take a cheap partisan swipe. Like Trump before him (who recently said that Clinton wouldn’t as successful as she is if she had been a man), Boehner doesn’t hesitate to dredge up base prejudices in order to advance his personal agenda. Since no one can know for sure how Clinton would have fared against Sanders if they had both been men, the argument that she only did well because of her gender is akin to claiming that racial minorities at universities were only accepted due to affirmative action. Demeaning speculations may be comforting when you happen to dislike their target, but ultimately they impugn not only that one individual, but everyone else from that same background who aspires to success despite generations of oppression. Unless you can prove that the other person succeeded because of what they are rather than who they are – and neither Trump nor Boehner could do this for Clinton – insinuations to the contrary are beneath contempt.

When the final words are written about Boehner’s career, he will most likely be remembered as a non-entity. The Republican Party underwent major upheavals during his tenure as Speaker of the House – the rise of the Tea Party, the government shutdown, the Donald Trump phenomenon – and he mostly sat on the sidelines, trying to manage an institution torn between hateful radicals and the acquiescent corporatists who feared them. There isn’t much dignity left in the man… but, as his appearance at Stanford shows us, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two from him.

The Trump Jokes Are On Us

Published: Salon (April 26, 2016)

There is an element of the Shakespearean to the Donald Trump campaign. Comedy and tragedy are often inextricably linked in melodrama, and as Trump rambles and bloviates his way through the American presidential election process (and perhaps, one fears, to the presidency itself), an intriguing narrative arc is taking shape. It began almost exactly five years ago, at a moment when the most powerful people in the world literally laughed at him. Being humiliated on international television tends to become a defining moment, and for Trump it led to a personal quest that he prove himself not to be a joke. In his effort to do so, he has managed to drag much of the country down to his level.

The day was May 1, 2011. Halfway across the world, United States Navy SEALs were in the process of assassinating Osama bin Laden, but only a handful of the attendees at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner knew that. The politicians and celebrities had gathered at the so-called Nerd Prom to poke good-natured fun at the nation’s most powerful men and women — and, in particular, Donald Trump. Best known at that time as a self-promoting real estate mogul and reality TV star, Trump had briefly emerged as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination by peddling a bizarre conspiracy theory that President Obama hadn’t been born in Hawaii. That night Obama responded to these claims by publicizing certified copies of his certificate of live birth (ironically accompanied by Rick Derringer’s “Real American”), then poked fun at Trump for everything from being a conspiracy theorist and his tacky tastes to hosting “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Trump smiled gamely at first, but by the time comedian Seth Meyers took over, his grin turned into a scowl. Meyers’ lobbed one grenade after another at Trump — his hair, his accent, his racism, his reputation as a vapid celebrity, nothing was spared. One particularly cruel line summed up the spirit of the evening: “Donald Trump has been saying he’ll run for president as a Republican, which is surprising, because I just thought he was running as a joke.”

Multiple reports have relayed that Trump was absolutely furious at how he was treated, with The New York Times recently identifying this moment as one that fueled his subsequent political actions. “That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world,” wrote Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns. “And it captured the degree to which Mr. Trump’s campaign is driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.”

After tucking tail between his legs for the 2012 election cycle, Trump reemerged for the 2016 election with a speech that immediately incurred controversy by perpetuating the racist and false claim that undocumented Mexican immigrants were more likely to bring crime and rape. The establishment denounced him, but he shot to the top of Republican polls — in the same way, as he must have noticed, that he gained attention years earlier by promoting the racially-charged birther allegations. Bigotry about Mexicans was soon followed by attacks against Muslims, women, andAfrican Americans (often using Obama as his proxy), garnering him outrage and popularity in equal measure. What Trump learned was, quite simply, that celebrities had the unique ability to turn their fame into a politically viable cult of personality. “Here’s the trick to cults of personality: the leader has to embody the people but also stand above them,” lamented historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat. “He must appear ordinary, to allow people to relate to him. And yet he must also be seen as extraordinary, so that people will grant him permission to be the arbiter of their individual and national destiny.”

The grand irony here is that, by doubling down on his bigotry and fueling that with pure celebrity appeal, Trump didn’t prove that he wasn’t a joke — but he has revealed a particularly unsavory aspect of our national character. Americans like to believe that our political discourse is driven by ideology or, barring that, naked self-interest; yet a man like Trump doesn’t succeed in a nation of either idealistic or rational individuals. A Trump flourishes when we have been consumed by two of our basest instincts: The racism, sexism, and other forms of tribalism that rip us apart instead of bringing us together, and the shallow showboating that has allowed Trump to dominate news coverage and effectively manipulate social media. In a quintessentially epic tragicomic way, Trump’s grandiose narcissism, delusion, and assorted bigotries have become a nation’s shame instead of merely his own. Now instead of being the butt of the joke, he is the set up.

This has not only caused immeasurable harm to our political culture, but as Salon’s Sophia A. McClennen points out in a piece questioning Trump’s mental health, “Much to the chagrin of the reasonable conservatives who wonder what has happened to their party, it is now often difficult to distinguish Republican rhetoric from the ravings of someone suffering from diminished mental capacity.” Regardless of whether Trump becomes president, he has won nearly 9 million primary votes already — that’s before today’s “Acela Primary” day — and wreaked chaos in one of America’s two major political parties. It’s genuinely humbling to contemplate what this says about the political consciousness of a large segment of our country. Or, at the very least, it needs to be.

Are there any lessons to be learned from this debacle? The most obvious is to be vigilant about the ease with which various forms of bigotry can be manipulated by demagogues for political effect, but most educated people were already aware of that and it hasn’t make much difference. Besides, an intelligent and influential complex of left-wing comedians already exists to take the wind out of the sails of someone like Trump, but as Salon’s Jacob Sugarman writes, “[t]hat these routines have left Trump unscathed is a testament not only to the insularity of their audiences but the slipperiness of their subject.”

At the end of the last century, “Teflon” Ronald Reagan and “Slick Willie” Clinton could politically survive any scandal, due in part to their personal charisma and in part because an America oversaturated with corruption had grown numb to it; at the start of this one, “Sleazy Donald” Trump (Ted Cruz’s only positive achievement was coining that nickname) is immune to ridicule because we’ve grown accustomed to seeing both him and others like him laughed at. Of course, whereas the scandalized politicians of the past acted only on their own behalf, the derision to which Trump is subjected by its very nature extends to his supporters as well. That’s why they didn’t care that Meyers and Obama humiliated Trump five years ago, and why they won’t care what arrows the likes of John Oliver and Stephen Colbert can sling at him today.

The problem isn’t that the Americans who share Trump’s racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other prejudices don’t know that they are viewed as comical, but rather that they’ve responded by doubling-down on the qualities that cause them to be mocked. Thus the ease with which they’ve adopted Trump’s quest to be taken seriously as their own.

That said, perhaps there is another lesson from this story that we should take to heart. When Trump found himself a laughingstock in front of the world five years ago, he had a rare opportunity to reflect on his public persona and try, if he wanted, to become a better man. Instead he focused solely on his desire to be taken seriously. Certainly we should be able to agree that it’s dangerous to elect as president someone who can stoop to such depths in his thirst for validation. People get hurt when our culture deems it acceptable to promote racist conspiracy theories (for proof on how birtherism is racist, see this study) or make generalizations about groups of people based on their gender, race, or religion. Just because every individual has a right to express these views, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held socially accountable for doing so. When we laugh at those who peddle asininity and hate, we recognize that doing these things is a sign of poor character. Once the laughter stops — or, at least in this case, stops mattering — it will mean that we’ve become a dumber and more hateful society.

Alas, it turns out that many voters are receptive to the kinds of flaws Trump possesses, and as a result he has gone farther than anyone expected in a presidential election. Win or lose, every jab issued by Obama and Meyers still applies — and if anything, the sting has been amplified. Trump can still hear the laughter, and he still doesn’t get the joke. The only difference is that America is now part of the punchline.


How will we preserve our digital future?

Published: The Daily Dot (April 24, 2016)

Some of my fondest childhood memories were set in libraries. I still recall wandering through stacks of books, my eyes glancing from title to title in the hope that they would land on some previously-undiscovered treasure. Sometimes I would take a step into the past by setting up a roll of microfilm and letting it whir through the scanner until it landed on an intriguing story from a bygone era.

The sights, the sounds, even the smells of these libraries linger in my brain long after I last set foot in them. As the Library of Congress celebrates its 216th anniversary today, it’s worth taking a moment to ask: What sources will be available to future young scholars?

The Library of Congress is one of the oldest cultural institutions in Washington, D.C. Founded as a legislative library in 1800, it gradually expanded into that of an all-purpose center for scholarly research; as a result, it is currently the largest library in the world. Its collection includes more than 38 million books and printed materials, 3.6 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 7.1 million pieces of sheet music, and 70 million manuscripts. On top of this, the library “receives some 15,000 items each working day and adds approximately 12,000 items to the collections daily.”

What sources will be available to future young scholars?

Needless to say, this is quite a step forward from 1815, when the library became an international sensation after purchasing 6,487 books from Thomas Jefferson’s estate. Now in a world where we live online, through social media posts and websites and email, it’s hard to imagine how we will preserve our digital future. The days have long past in which a library’s responsibilities were limited to safeguarding and cataloguing books.

This is why Michael Agresta writes in Slate that “a library without books was unthinkable. Now it seems almost inevitable.”

After discussing how the advent of the Internet has caused a decline in library attendance—and, in many cases, sharp cuts in funding—Agresta points out that “librarians have begun to identify a rationale for institutional survival in the ancillary public benefits noted above, in particular the principle of a ‘third place’ focused on learning.” To cultivate this image, many libraries establish “maker spaces” in which bookshelves have been replaced by collections of old and new technologies, where people can study in ways that aren’t necessarily possible with only an Internet connection.

This trend is also evident in Britain, where the Independent Library Report discovered that libraries are actually making a comeback by reinventing themselves as community hubs that focus on “the need to create digital literacy—and in an ideal world, digital fluency.”

Similarly, a 2013 Pew Poll found that 90 percent of respondents believe their communities would be negatively impacted if public libraries closed, particularly those for whom libraries are frequently their best opportunity at conducting meaningful intellectual research (e.g., the unemployed or people from lower income families). By recasting libraries as locuses of digital scholarship—places where anyone can come, regardless of their economic background, and have access to both the Internet and a wide range of digital resources—modern libraries have found new ways of staying relevant in the 21st century world.

In that same year, the Boston Public Library launched the Digital Public Library of America, which endeavors to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans free of charge. As Robert Darnton of the New York Review of Books explained, “the DPLA will be a distributed system of electronic content that will make the holdings of public and research libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies available, effortlessly and free of charge, to readers located at every connecting point of the Web.” While it won’t serve as a substitute for the communal atmosphere provided by institutional libraries themselves, it will allow them to maintain an indispensable role by channeling their resources to broader audiences throughout the nation—in effect, taking libraries home to each and every American.

There are concerns about the mass digitization of libraries, however.

“What worries us all,” explains Nancy Cline, Larsen librarian of Harvard College, in an interview with Harvard Magazine, “is that we really haven’t tested the longevity for a lot of these digital resources.” Whereas paper and ink are physically tangible and thus capable of being preserved throughout the generations, digital technology has only existed for a few decades. There is no reliable way of knowing whether these materials will remain intact, become degraded, or in some other way get compromised. In a worst-case, nightmarish scenario, it is entirely possible that millions of pages of material could be wiped away overnight.

This brings us back to the future of the Library of Congress. On the one hand, it is important that the Library of Congress embrace the same “maker space” mentality that is helping smaller libraries remain relevant. Because the Internet and projects like DPLA have given ordinary citizens access to the kind of information that used to only be available at libraries, it is no longer sufficient for the Library of Congress to merely view itself as a repository for data. It needs to also recognize its potential as a place where individuals can congregate for scholarly purposes, a need that cannot be met from an iPhone or one’s home computer.

At the same time, we need to be careful about letting technological progress blind us to the verities of tried-and-true methods of preserving information. There is a good reason why paper-and-ink have endured for so long as the main method of record-keeping, whether for novels and other fictional literature to scholarly works. We know that it is effective and, consequently, the Library of Congress should never allow the passion for digitization to cause it to dispense with books in the process.

This is one of those rare situations in which we not only can have it both ways, but should absolutely insist on doing so. I say this not only as a PhD student and writer, but as the adult counterpart to that curious teenager who made an informal home in his local libraries.

Laptop Love Letter

Published: The Good Men Project (April 21, 2016)

When I was a child, I had a stuffed bear named (appropriately) Mr. Bear. He went wherever I did, and whenever he was damaged or lost, I’d feel devastated. It is normal for children to anthropomorphize inanimate objects – particularly stuffed animals – because, even if on a subconscious level we know better, there is nevertheless unshakable sense that they are truly alive.

This brings me to Croc, my laptop computer.

I don’t think I’ve ever owned a single computer longer than Croc. When I first purchased the Lenovo Thinkpad in 2012, I couldn’t have imagined the memories we would soon share. I had just started my PhD program studying history at Lehigh University, moved into a new house in a new city, and was preparing for the next phase of my adult life.

Then my writing career took off. I had always dreamed of being a professional writer, but right around the time that Croc entered my life, that ambition was realized in ways I had never imagined. More than four years later, I have had 571 articles published, the vast majority of which were composed on this machine. It has been used to inspire me, conduct research for me, and present me with my moments of triumph after a new piece has been published.

Croc has also played a key role in my social life. It has helped me maintain old friendship and start new ones, develop meaningful connections with far-flung correspondents who enjoy my articles, and plug me into a world far beyond the confines of the small Pennsylvania city where I live. Thanks to online dating, it has also allowed me to pursue a romantic life – from serious relationships to casual encounters – that may not have been otherwise possible for a socially awkward Aspie. Finally, it has been a place for escape when the pressures of my professional and personal lives become too great. One of my favorite pastimes has been to turn on Croc, settle down with a movie or TV series, and retreat into a completely new world.

Yet as you can see in the picture that adorns this article, Croc is huffing and puffing through his final days. The screen is falling apart, the keyboard is maddeningly sticky, and the whole device in general gives off an aura of decrepitude. For a while I’ve been in denial about this reality, but practical considerations can only be suppressed for so long. It is time to say goodbye to Croc… even if that little inner child is still clinging to him.

As a parting thought for a computer that I have loved for so long, I will share the story of how he got his name. When I first opened Croc, I had never used a touch pad instead of a mouse, and was amused at the scaly sensation beneath my fingertips. It reminded me of crocodile scales – and then, when I happened to watch an online review for a movie named “Croc,” I knew that this moniker was its destiny.

You will be missed, sweet Croc. Indeed, I can’t fathom how I could ever forget you.

Why Andrew Jackson never should have been on the $20 to begin with

Published: Salon (April 21, 2016)

It’s official: Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew has announced that abolitionist Harriet Tubman will replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. And, while Jackson will still reportedly remain on the reverse side of the bill, the move is nonetheless a momentous one.

Naturally there are many people who will complain about this decision, but since Tubman’s legacy leading slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad is beyond reproach, these critics will most likely turn to defending Jackson. As a preemptive rebuttal to such arguments, here are the four reasons why Jackson needs to go:

He is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Native Americans.
When it comes to Native American history, Jackson ranks right up there with the worst genocidal tyrants. Because white Southerners in the early 19th century craved the land inhabited by native tribes like the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee, they needed the government to expel the original inhabitants so they could seize the property for themselves. Although the law only permitted voluntary and peaceful removals of natives from their land, Jackson ignored the law (as well as the Supreme Court itself) and forcibly expelled the Choctaws and Creeks from their ancestral home. Thousands of them died during the brutal journey westward, prompting them to refer to their exodus as the “Trail of Tears.”

He was an open practitioner of cronyism.
Although the term “spoils system” became popular during Jackson’s presidency, this isn’t because he introduced the practice of firing existing government employees and replacing them with his own friends and supporters. Presidents and other democratic leaders had been doing this since the dawn of recorded history. But, without question, Jackson made the problem much worse. In his first annual message to Congress, Jackson openly advocated rotating public offices among party supporters, claiming that an applicant’s qualifications mattered less than avoiding the creation of a class of corrupt civil servants. While this position would have made sense had Jackson established an impartial hiring method in its stead, when he fired 20 percent of federal officeholders during his presidency, they were almost invariably replaced by pro-Jackson partisans without regard to their individual merits.

He was an imperialist.
Roughly a decade before the Mexican-American War annexed the West and increased America’s size by 500,000 square miles, Jackson sowed the seeds of discontent between our two countries. In keeping with his expansionist policies, Jackson sought to purchase the Mexican border province of Texas so that whites could acquire land there. Instead of outright invading Mexico, Jackson encouraged American settlement into Texas and attempted to purchase the territory through diplomatic overtures that only increased tensions between our two countries. When Sam Houston led a revolt against the Mexican government in 1835, Jackson avoided supporting either side, but he enthusiastically backed James K. Polk (his protégé) when the latter ran for president on a platform that made outright war against Mexico inevitable.

He probably would have hated being on the $20 bill anyway.
If there is one positive aspect of Jackson’s legacy, it was his courageous battle against the Second Bank of the United States. “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” he declared in a famous statement vetoing renewal of the bank’s charter, arguing that any privately-owned centralized bank could manipulate currency to exploit low-income Americans and exert undue influence over economic policy. The good news is that Jackson succeeded in destroying the corrupt centralized bank; the bad news is that, eighty years later, the Second Bank of the United States would be replaced by another central banking system, the Federal Reserve. Considering the pride he felt in destroying one centralized bank, it stands to reason that Jackson would have been appalled to find his visage adorning a common form of currency from another one.

After spending our entire lifetimes using money that only features white men, it is necessary (indeed, long overdue) that we feature a figure who doesn’t fall within that narrow demographic profile. In light of her remarkable contributions to the cause of racial equality, Harriet Tubman is an ideal choice to break this color and gender line in one fell swoop. That said, even if Tubman had replaced Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill (which was originally rumored to be the plan), Jackson still should have been ousted from the $20. His own poor legacy on race relations, honest government, and honorable foreign policy demand it… and, frankly, it’s quite possible that he would have wanted this anyway.

In short: If anyone tries to tell you that Jackson deserves to stay on the $20 bill, don’t listen to them. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Why Bernie Sanders lost the Jewish vote

Published: Quartz (April 20, 2016)

Senator Bernie Sanders is the most successful Jewish presidential candidate to date. But he did not prevail in the Apr. 19 Democratic primary in New York–despite the state’s massive Jewish community and his personal ties to Brooklyn. Even if Sanders does not end up the Democratic nominee, his efforts to push Americans politics to the left will be remembered for years to come. Among the most notable parts of his legacy may well be his attitudes toward Israel–which may also have cost him the support of his fellow Jews at the polls (who voted against him 58% to 42% in New York).

We can start with Sanders’ views on Israel. Although Sanders is unwavering in his support for Israel’s right to exist, he has also harshly criticized the Jewish state’s myriad human rights abuses against Palestinians. This was particularly apparent in the Apr. 15 debate. Sanders explained that although he is “100% pro-Israel in the long run,” he wants America “to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity” and believes that listening to the Palestinian side “does not make me anti-Israel.” These are bold positions for any mainstream presidential candidate to take. And while the risk of anti-Semitism accusations may be somewhat mitigated for Sanders, his willingness to speak ill of Israel could result in him being accused of something arguably worse—being a self-hating Jew. Even if Sanders does not end up the Democratic nominee, his efforts to push Americans politics to the left will be remembered.

As a Jew who has been on the receiving end of this particular taunt, I can personally attest to how infuriating the insult is. Nevertheless, there are emotionally (if not logically) sound reasons why so many Jews feel intensely protective of Israel.

Chief among them is the existential terror that accompanies the reality of being “a Jew.” Anyone with a cursory familiarity of Jewish history knows that we have been brutally persecuted for millennia: the Roman diaspora, Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms, and German Holocaust are merely a few of the most conspicuous occasions in which powerful nations have not only discriminated against Jews, but actively worked to wipe out the Jewish community.

After 5,000 years of such treatment, it makes sense that many Jews are extremely sensitive about potential persecution. This sensitivity translates into the potential abandonment of any presidential candidate who speaks negatively about Israel, even one who is Jewish. After 5,000 years of such treatment, it makes sense that many Jews are extremely sensitive about potential persecution.

At the same time, however, Sanders’s positions on the issue are indicative of a growing liberalism within the American Jewish community. Indeed, numerous pollshave found that Israel ranks relatively low among Jewish voters’ priorities. And progressive humanism is just as integral to the Jewish tradition as support for Israel.
Jews have overwhelmingly voted Democratic since the 1920s—which, not coincidentally, was right around the time the Democratic party was becoming the more progressive of America’s two major political parties. Although assimilation and socioeconomic advancement have somewhat dampened these left-wing tendencies over the past 90 or so years, Jews remain a largely liberal lot.

This is in no small part because our centuries of persecution have left many of us with a keen sense of empathy. Our sympathy for the marginalized, persecuted, or suffering is also why Jews have been disproportionately active in fighting racial inequality, promoting gay rights, organizing and supporting labor unions, and backing left-wing third-party candidates. When it comes to Israel, this humanistic narrative is often at odds with historical fears of persecution. For Sanders, it’s clear which side has more influence. Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in February, he said his cultural background teaches him “that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me.” As millennial Jews like myself participate in the political process, we are beginning to feel less tied to Israel than ever before.

It also explains why, as millennial Jews like myself participate in the political process, we are beginning to feel less tied to Israel than ever before. “Younger Jews’ waning support for Israel in its dealings with Palestinians may not be so surprising,” explained Jason Horowitz recently in The New York Times.“Unlike their parents and grandparents, who grew up when Jews were still reeling from the Holocaust, they know Israel primarily as a powerful nation rather than an existential necessity.”

From this progressive vantage point, humanist Jews find their religion actually motivating them to criticize their motherland. After all, why would we support any powerful entity that treats others in the same way that Jews were once treated?

Ironically, Sanders’ progressive interpretation of American Jewishness may be hurting him among some segments of Jewish voters. Although Sanders is the most left-wing candidate in this election, the Clinton dynasty enjoys strong popularity within the Jewish community. When Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, Jewish support for the Democratic ticket shot up by 16 points from the previous presidential election, giving him the best showing of any Democratic candidate in a quarter century. During his wife’s first presidential bid 16 years later,Jews preferred Clinton over then-senator Barack Obama by a wide margin.

Sanders’ progressive interpretation of American Jewishness may be hurting him among Jewish voters. This can be attributed in part to the Clintons’ warm personal relationships with individual Jews. Bill Clinton hired more Jews for powerful roles in his administration than any president before him, and the Clintons’ son-in-law is Jewish. But it also has to do with the Clintons’ hawkish commitment to Israel, which was best captured by Hillary’sunequivocally pro-Israel speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Of course, there is no way of knowing what’s primarily responsible for Sanders’ poor showing among Jewish voters–it could be his views on Israel, or the Jewish community’s longstanding loyalty to the Clintons. But for better or worse, the current trend shows that most Jewish voters aren’t going to play the identity politics game when it comes to their electoral decisions.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the way Sanders’ politics have brought a new phase in the identity of American Jewry to the mainstream. We are gradually becoming a culture that perceives its heritage through a distinctly American paradigm. When we assess what being Jewish means to our political values, we don’t think solely in terms of what would be superficially best for the Jewish community specifically. Rather, we use our experience as a historically persecuted minority to inform our advocacy. It’s the difference between memorializing our oppression and committing ourselves to rooting out prejudice and oppression—wherever that may occur.
We aren’t there yet, but we’re getting closer.

Why have we forgotten about free speech?

Published: The Good Men Project (April 19, 2016)

Last week I had a conversation with Mark Schierbecker, and it has put me in a bit of a bind. I reached out to him for an interview because I care about First Amendment issues and he has, without question, qualifications to discuss them. While covering a student protest at the University of Missouri, a professor named Melissa Click led a mob of students to physically eject him from the area – a clear violation of his constitutional rights as a journalist.

Here is what bothered me, on a deep philosophical level, about that conversation. While I suspect Schierbercker is more of a classical liberal, and I am of a New Left variety, we agree on one key point – that there is never a situation in which the exchange of information, ideas, and opinions should be in any way inhibited. Whenever someone argues that you shouldn’t speak your mind, they set a precedent so dangerous that it must be opposed by all involved. It’s the kind of behavior that is so threatening, it undermines every single other freedom that we can conceivably enjoy in a society worthy of the term “liberty.”

Schierbecker told me a story that illustrated this point.

“In one of my classes we would frequently diverge from the lecture topic to talk about current events – one of the things I actually liked about their class since we engage in frank discussion of hard conversations,” he explained (first during our interview and then in a follow up email). “The Wednesday after I shot the video the big conversation was about me. My classmates wanted to know why I had intruded on the protesters’ space. While this is happening my phone is buzzing every minute. The professor at one point pointedly asked me if my classmates deserved my attention since I kept checking my phone. This same professor later asked me to drop the assault charges against Click. Several students came to me afterward in the following weeks and told me they were disappointed I became a target and felt like they couldn’t defend me without being a target themselves.”

The question we need to ask ourselves is simply this: Is each of us willing to accept that we will be offended, even angered to the point where our blood will boil in rage, because our right to say exactly what we think is infinitely precious? There is no religion, no field of science, no artistic genre or political movement that could ever be safe in a society that doesn’t place an individual’s ability to say whatever he or she thinks without fear of sanction as sacrosanct.

Unfortunately there is a subculture among progressives who want to violate precisely that ideal. When Schierbecker was ejected from that protest, it was because the protesters opposing perceived racial affronts at the University of Missouri didn’t understand that every right for which they are fighting as a group stems from the abstract concept that rights belong to individuals. When organizations like Concerned Student 1950 organize to protest the racial climate on Mizzou’s campus, they exercise their agency as individuals to support a cause which impacts all of them as individuals (in this case based along society’s shared experiences cause by systemic racial discrimination). Schierbecker did likewise – albeit as a lone journalist – when he decided to document their public activities.

All of their rights are equal.

Do we truly believe that, though? How often do we accuse people of being bigoted – racist, sexist, etc. – because we know it will attach a stigma to their freedom of action? Haven’t we learned that trying to silence someone by attaching a derogatory term to them is inherently unjust? That is why the McCarthy era stands out as a terrible period in the history of left-wing politics; as long as someone could find a way to connect the word “communist” to your words or ideas, you were forced to either retreat or face social, professional, and even legal ruin.

Whenever a political movement argues that the act of individuals asserting their basic rights can be in itself dangerous, it is destined to become repressive.  True, political repression is far worse than the social kind, but it is inarguable that what happened to Schierbecker is intensely disturbing. His First Amendment rights were blatantly violated by left-wingers whose diagnoses of America’s race, gender, and class problems are very close to my own… but who are trying to win the argument by stifling debate.

Frankly, I think Schierbecker is quite lucky. Because he had a camera rolling, he was able to share his experience with the world, and that has given him an audience I suspect he will use very well with his newly amplified voice. My concern goes to the entire left-wing movement, where a respected American university can act as one to blatantly undermine the foundation of all freedom – especially so when it comes to the intellectual freedom for which universities once ostensibly stood. This is our movement’s Achilles’ heel, and it weakens the entire body of the ideals for which we stand.

Why aren’t we more worried about this?

How Pennsylvania Could Save America

Published: The Good Men Project (April 16, 2016)

If you’re a liberal Democrat and want cause to hope, take a look at the Pennsylvania Senate race right now. Even as the Democratic Party establishment frustrates progressives with its tendency to support bland moderates over inspiring idealists (see: the Clinton-Sanders presidential primary), my home state is giving Americans a sign that local leaders can actually listen to their voters.

Some background: Right now Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is up for reelection. Three candidates are competing on the Democratic side to oppose him – Admiral and former congressman Joe Sestak, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, and former Secretary of Environmental Protection Kathleen McGinty. Because McGinty is widely regarded as the “smart” choice, she’s been heavily pushed by former governor Ed Rendell and endorsed by President Obama and Vice President Biden. This is in spite of the fact that McGinty has a very problematic history of being linked to fracking interests, which if nothing else calls into question her credentials as a legitimate advocate for environmental protection.

If Pennsylvania Democrats were following the precedent of the party, this would be the part where I’d discuss how the leaders are lining up behind McGinty despite this spotty record. After all, Sestak is widely disliked by the establishment for bucking their will and running against Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 Senate election, while Fetterman… Well, Fetterman is something altogether different. Sporting a shaved head, long goatee, and prominent tattoos, Fetterman looks more like a biker or barroom brawler than a future Senator. Because he is smart and has a consistently progressive record, though, he connects with ordinary voters. If the Sanders campaign has taught us anything, though, it’s that grassroots popularity is by no means guaranteed to result in electoral victory… especially when the establishment has clearly expressed its preference for a different candidate.

Instead of the predictable approach, however, Pennsylvania Democrats are thinking for themselves. In an interview with the Tribune-Review, Party Chairman Marcel Groen refused to support any one candidate, even acknowledging that Fetterman is probably the most electable of the three. The Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee refused to endorse any of the three candidates when it met last month (a two-thirds majority from members was required to qualify for official endorsement, a barrier that Specter had no problem surmounting in 2010), and partially as a result, right now Sestak has a commanding lead over McGinty in the polls (although Fetterman is, lamentably, running a distant third).

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a local party leader. He told me about how, while attending a Democratic event, an activist surprised at his presence remarked, “You are supporting McGinty.” When my friend responded that he wasn’t specifically in favor of her candidacy, the activist replied that “by you I mean the Democratic establishment.” He’s only sort of right. In the end, although the Democratic Party as a proper institution remains in the thrall of establishmentarians like McGinty (and a certain national counterpart, not to be named), its individual leaders are hearing the people and becoming more responsive to their wishes. If either Sestak or Fetterman wins during the primary on April 26th, it will be a sign that there is cause for hope at least in Pennsylvania… and quite, possibly, beyond the boundaries of the Keystone State.