More than history, the Jews have memory.
In his marvelous little book, Zakhor (“Memory”), Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi notes that Jewish historiography ends with the destruction of the Second Temple, revived only with the Continental Enlightenment and its reach into the communities of France and Germany.
Jewish memory, by contrast continues on, making sense of current events by analogy with Biblical ones. It’s a method not entirely alien to American history itself. The New England settlers saw themselves as latter-day Israelites, guided by God across a forbidding body of water, fleeing a corrupt Egypt to establish His kingdom on Earth in a new land. Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States feature the Israelite crossing the Red Sea. Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet (I have not read it, so I can make no recommendation one way or the other) chronicles the role of Moses in American thought, American memory.
But if America could draw on a new founding to make Moses its central prophet, the Jews, in exile, usually turned to a different Biblical story, the Book of Esther. Scattered, everywhere a minority, at the mercy of temporal powers who were usually not friendly, the Jews frequently found reason to compare their situation to the Jews in the Babylonian exile, rescued from extinction by Divine Providence hidden in natural events, hopeful of soon returning home.
It was not unusual for local communities, and even families, to celebrate such rescues by declaring local “Purims,” often recording the events in local chronicles by paralleling the very words of the Book of Esther.
Even though there is now a Jewish Commonwealth for the first time since 70 AD, the current Purim Parallel practically writes itself. Genocidal theocratic Persian seeks nuclear bomb for destruction of Jewish people, twists current world power’s leader to its own ends to obtain such. The comparison was given an added push by the timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress – on Tuesday, the day before the Fast of Esther, commemorating Esther’s own fast before she approached the King to plead her case. Most of the commentaries I’ve seen put Netanyahu in the role of Esther, braving the dangers of speaking truth to power (in the old Lefty phrase) in order to save his people.
I don’t think that’s quite right.
Netanyahu’s role here much more close parallels that of Mordecai, imploring Esther to do the right thing and risk her own position and comfort to save her people. Netanyahu deftly explained why the approaching deal is a bad idea, why it’s a threat to Israel, but also – more importantly, given the audience – a threat to the United States. He appealed to the common civilization and shared values between Israel and the United States.
But thought Bibi can persuade, he cannot directly influence. He has no vote in the US, he must act through others, igniting a serious debate where there had been none, inviting others to bring to bear direct political pressure.
Which means that you and I, friends, are Esther.
It is incumbent upon us to act, to persuade Congress to oppose the agreement when it is reached, to retain or increase sanctions, to prevent the administration from giving power, legitimacy, and trade to our enemies as Americans and Jews.
It is our role to step out of our comfortable positions in a wealthy, friendly, welcoming society and use what influence and power we have to prevent any agreement that even contemplates an Iranian bomb from being anything more than a dead letter.
Given this, the actual words of Mordecai’s plea are even more ominous for an American Jewish community used to security but facing new demographic and ideological threats:
Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house from among all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s household will perish. And who knows if you became Queen for such a time as this?
There is actually a dispute as to how to translate Mordecai’s last sentence. Some translate it as, “And who knows if you will remain Queen a year from now?” meaning that Esther might lose her position as Queen. Others translate it as, “And who knows if this isn’t the reason you became Queen?”
The two translations aren’t necessarily at odds: the calendar date for the actual massacre was a year off from Esther’s approach to the King. Mordecai could have been arguing that if Esther didn’t fulfill her purpose in being Queen, God could easily enough arrange for her fall from power and its protections.
There is, or should be, a growing unease among Jews in the United States, this exceptional home for us with its exceptional relationship to us. Too many Jews have traded in their Jewish identity for a Democratic Party one, replacing eternal transcendent values for temporary, political issues of the day. A small minority, the 10% who are Orthodox, are having the great majority of the children, and with even Modern Orthodoxy teetering a little unsurely, the future of Judaism in the States looks potentially smaller, poorer, and more inward-looking.
The President, in his desire to reach a deal with Iran’s mullahs, has put Jewish Americans, but especially Jewish Democrats, in a position of having to choose between identities many had come to see as identical. There are any number of powerful and influential Jewish Democrats, and who knows that they didn’t achieve these positions for such a time as this?
Rabbi David Fohrman points out something I hadn’t noticed before. Two tribes – Judah and Benjamin (plus some Levites, but leave them aside, they’re not a full tribe here) – are actually in exile in Babylon. Those are the only two tribes left in the southern Kingdom of Judah after the northern Kingdom of Israel had been conquered a couple of centuries earlier.
Mordecai was from Benjamin. Esther was from Benjamin. But the decree was phrased as “Yehudim,” Judahites. Haman didn’t care about tribal differences, but Mordecai would have caught the wording. Benjamin and Judah had often had a somewhat tense relationship. Would Esther think that the decree didn’t mean Benjamin, that she and others from her tribe could ride this out?
Mordecai’s demand means this, too: we’re all in this together, Benjamin and Judah. Don’t think this doesn’t mean you. It does.
Similarly Netanyahu is telling American Jews: don’t think this doesn’t mean you. The Islamists, the anti-semites, the BDS-ers and the campus radicals have it in for all of us. You may be secular, you may be comfortable, you may be wealthy, you may even be intermarried or atheist, it doesn’t matter. They mean you, too.
And to non-Jewish Americans, Netanyahu is saying the same thing: the Islamists are coming for you, too. This is a civilizational war we’re fighting, and we’re part of the same team. Some of you may think you can buy safety by cutting a deal that puts Israel at risk, but you can’t. And you’re putting your country and your children and your future in danger if you try.
Will the American Jews extend themselves on behalf of the Israeli Jews, or will we huddle together, trying to ride out the storm?
There are some, Alan Dershowitz, AIPAC, Larry Mizel & Norm Brownstein, who have risen to the occasion. Since 2005, I’ve been on the email list for Jewish NOLA, and its president, Michael Weil, sent out an email this afternoon very supportive of Netanyahu’s speech and its message.
Too many, however, including our own JCRC here in Denver, the ADL, and other organizations charged specifically with advocating for Israel, have taken the safe route. Happy to opine on just about any partisan political social or economic issue, they have fallen silent, ostensibly afraid to make Israel “partisan.” In doing so, of course, they are acquiescing the an administration that has chosen to politicize Israel to try to isolate it, because it stands in the way of its Middle East Grand Strategy. They have, perversely, allowed Israel to become the one topic they won’t discuss.
That’s not good enough.
There is one final parallel. The Purim story doesn’t end with the King revoking his decree and saving the Jews. In some interpretations, the King is prevented by Persian law from revoking a decree, in others he’s too proud to admit a mistake. Regardless of the reason, the King instead issues another decree – a change in policy, if you will – permitting the Jews the defend themselves. It’s a striking thing, a King risking the internal stability of his empire by permitting a subject people to take self-defense into their own hands on a national scale. But he does it, confident that he’s not unleashing chaos, but rather encouraging justice.
Too often, we have valued stability in the Middle East above all else (indeed, stability is given as the reason for welcoming a nuclear-tipped Iran into a role a regional hegemon). It would take a brave president indeed, or at least a confident and secure one, to welcome an Israeli effort to defend itself against an Iranian bomb. It may mean waiting until the next president, who, while not repudiating whatever agreement this one reaches, winks and nods at such an effort.
Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weiser, known to us by the acronym “Malbim,” from his initials, wrote a much-beloved commentary on the Book of Esther. As with most rabbinic commentaries on the Bible, it goes line-by-line, so it falls to the reader to pull together the themes. Fortunately, there’s a more accessible translation, Turnabout, by Mendel Weinbach, which weaves the Malbim’s commentary together into a coherent narrative, faithful to the original.
It opens like this:
The king looked down from a palace tower and sighed. Achashveirosh was a king with a problem. He had power and wealth, and ruled over the entire known world, all 127 nations in it. But he did not like the limited monarchy which characterized his reign. He hated to hear foolish talk about the king’s responsibility to his subjects. How he longed for the absolute power of a Sancheirev or Nevuchadnetzar, who treated their subjects as slaves and had the freedom of doing whatever they desired with them. And talk of wealth! His finance minister was always cutting down on his personal spending with the argument that the national treasury belonged to the people and that the king was only its guardian. How wonderful it would be to have the powers of a Pharaoh and to know that all of the nation’s riches were his own to use as he wished. But it wasn’t the finance minister alone who annoyed this king. Whatever he did he always had to ask some minister or other for advice or approval. Every time he planned some drastic move he was reminded of the laws of the land. So he dreamed of the day that he would no longer have to worry about ministers and laws, and he could exercise his royal judgment freely.
Then this, later on, as the rationale and fallout from his plan to punish Vashti:
The parliament of ministers must be stripped of its power to issue and approve legislation. Henceforth, the king must rule by ukase. His royal decree will automatically become the law of the land, without the approval of any ministers, and it will be recorded in the permanent statutes of the kingdom.
Of course, the Malbim lived in various parts of the Russian and Turkish empires, from 1809-1879, and Turnabout was published in 1971, making both the timelessness and the relevance of the commentary all the more remarkable, no?
But behind that, there is a more visceral reaction. The real purpose of higher education is to learn the knowledge and skills required for success later in life. So if someone has already become a success, whether or not he went to college is irrelevant. If he has achieved the end, what does it matter that he didn’t do it by way of that specific means? But for the mainstream elites, particularly those at the top level in the media, a college education is not simply a means to an end. It is itself a key attainment that confers a special social status.
There are no real class divisions in America except one: the college-educated versus the non-college educated. It helps to think of this in terms borrowed from the world of a Jane Austen novel: graduating from college is what makes you a “gentleman.” (A degree from an Ivy League school makes you part of the aristocracy.) It qualifies you to marry the right people and hold the right kind of positions. It makes you respectable. And even if you don’t achieve much in the world of work and business, even if you’re still working as a barista ten years later, you still retain that special status. It’s a modern form of “genteel poverty,” which is considered superior to the regular kind of poverty.
If you don’t have a college degree, by contrast, you are looked down upon as a vulgar commoner who is presumptuously attempting to rise above his station. Which is pretty much what they’re saying about Scott Walker. This prejudice is particularly strong when applied to anyone from the right, whose retrograde views are easily attributed to his lack of attendance at the gentleman’s finishing school that is the university.
Paul Johnson, in The Birth of the Modern, explains what such a society can end up looking like, and how it differs from pretty much everything American:
China was that worst of all systems: a society run by its intelligentsia, a cathedocracy ruled from the scholar’s chair….
The system was obnoxious because it placed scholars at the top, followed in descending order by farmers, artisans, and merchants. What it meant in practice was that the country was ruled by those who were good at passing highly formalized examinations. So early 19th-century China, with its rapidly increasing population, had many of the symptoms of underdeveloped Third World societies today, especially an overproduction of literate men (not technocrats or scientists) in relation to the capacity of the political and economic system to employ them usefully. The educational system trained Mandarins for official life in the narrowest sense, not for anything else, least of all commerce….
As the intelligentsia grew in size, the ethics of the system were progressively destroyed. Degrees, studentships, and places in the academies, as well as the statutory jobs themselves, were all in time put up for sale… All these men had high notions of their worth and healthy appetites for power and money. All that they had been taught in the academies was how to write examination essays. All they learned in their jobs was how to translate the minuscule slice of power each exercised into money, in the form of bribes from those whose activities they controlled…
We’re not quite at that point yet, although the outlines are clear enough. It’s much too much to suggest that the path of Merit vs. Mandarin will be determined by the 2016 election, but how we react to Walker’s success without a degree is a marker on how far we’ve gone along this path.
Listening to the reporters on This American Life complain about being criticized for vocal fry makes me wonder why these people ever went into radio in the first place.
Yes, the story is nominally about how mean people can be on the Internet. and the complaint tweets and emails they’re reading are pretty cruel. And they do seem to focus on younger, women reporters. And they quickly reviewed previous trendy complaints: upspeak and using “like” in place of a comma.
First, growling is going to be more noticeable in sopranos than baritones. Stop trying to make a disparate impact claim out of what people like and don’t like to hear.
When Ira Glass interviews one young woman producer, who fries, upspeaks, and “like”s her way through the whole conversation, she moans that “people actually have a problem with the way I talk? Seriously?”
Yes, they do. You’re in radio, for crying out loud. It’s a vocal medium, and your voice is your tool for communicating. If it’s grating, annoying, or distracting, people aren’t going to be paying attention to what it is that’s so important that you have to say. It’s why print reporters have editors, and it’s why magazines and newspapers spend all that time worrying about layout, graphics, and fonts.
If you want to be on the air, you need to find a way to speak that doesn’t send people screaming from the room. Or content yourself with being a writer.
It goes without saying that reporting, opinion, and satire are not occasions for retaliatory violence.
Yet at the January 12th daily White House press briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest repeated it no fewer than eight times.
Who can this bland truism of a sermon be meant for? Westerners take it for granted. Islamists reject it out of hand. It simultaneously fails to reassure, persuade, or defend.
It was meant, instead, to threaten. Each repetition was paired with a reason why news organizations might do well to consider self-censoring their reporting and their commentary. A number of times, Earnest invoked the idea that printing potentially offensive material might endanger the lives of American service personnel serving overseas – a notion for which there is approximately zero evidence. (One wonders whether or not the servicemen and women themselves were ever consulted about being used in this fashion.)
Earnest ominously suggested that newspapers might need to take into account their own calculations of the risks to themselves involved in reprinting cartoons or controversial material, that they or their reporters might be subject to violent attacks as a result:
The first thing is I think that there are any number of reasons that media organizations have made a decision not to reprint the cartoons. In some cases, maybe they were concerned about their physical safety. In other cases, they were exercising some judgment in a different way. So we certainly would leave it to media organizations to make a decision like this.
He also proposed that considerations of taste, journalistic judgment, and ethics might come into play:
And, again, those decisions aren’t just driven by safety; they’re also driven by certain ethics and journalistic standards. And these are complicated issues but ultimately ones that journalists should make.
There was a faint mention, prompted by insistent questioning, that a free press was something that our military is out there defending, but that only served to heighten the need for self-censorship in order to protect them.
And I think you could make the case, as I mentioned earlier, that a lot of men and women in uniform — not just from American soldiers, but French soldiers and British soldiers and others are fighting for that principle in a very real way.
In fact, given the opportunity in a question to say that American newspapers really should consider themselves safe, Earnest passed it up, in favor of another statement that journalists were just going to have to make that assessment themselves:
Q: Are you saying that based on your knowledge, the White House — you guys know a thing or two about security — that American media organizations shouldn’t be afraid of writing something or showing a cartoon that would offend jihadis because, hey, you, as the White House say, America is the place where you don’t have to be afraid of that because we have sufficient security here? …
A: What I’m saying is that individual news organizations have to assess that risk for themselves.
Earnest then went on to mention the risks journalists routinely take to bring stories to their readers – without mentioning that reporting on ISIS from Iraq entails, or should entail, slightly different security concerns from printing satirical cartoons in Paris or New York.
Put together, the logic of the briefing reads like satire itself: No speech can justify violence like what we saw in Paris, but news organizations need to think about what they’re printing, the kinds of risks they’re taking printing it, since we really can’t protect them, and how they might endanger our servicemen who are fighting to protect their right to print this sort of thing.
Here’s what a robust defense of the spirit of the First Amendment would look like: “Americans – indeed all people – have the right to unfettered free speech, be it reporting, opinion, or satire. It is not the job of this government to pass judgment on the content of that speech. It is the job of this government to make sure that Americans can exercise that right without fear for their safety.”
We didn’t get that.
Instead, then-Secretary of State Clinton supported the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) notorious UN Resolution 16/18. That resolution would effectively criminalize criticism of Islam, encouraging countries to ban speech that serves as an “incitement to violence.” While under Western law “incitement” means encouraging violence, Islamists interpret it to mean “offending to the point of provoking violence.” Such laws would surrender our free press to the Islamist mob.
The administration’s support for Resolution 16/18, and active cooperation in its development, lends a decidedly more sinister cast to its statements. In this context, the repeated statements that nothing that gets printed can justify violence begins to seem a little less like an attempt to state a principle, and a little more like a Chicago politician’s traditional warning: nice little newspaper you got there, shame if anything happened to it.
How long will it be before we see Earnest making the case for Resolution 16/18 simultaneously on the patriotic grounds of protecting our troops, and as a preferable alternative to the violence that “irresponsible” speech invites? We would then have the spectacle of a United States President using the threat of Islamist terror attacks to justify Islamist restrictions on a free press.
Even though, it goes without saying, such violence can’t be justified.
Overseas and in Canada, Islamists have succeeded in using the notion of “defaming” a religion in order to misuse libel laws and shut down criticism of Islam or Islamic leaders. Fortunately, the US has proven more resistant to such abuses.
As an end-around, Islamists seeking to suppress free speech in the name of “respect” for Islam are using a treacherous linguistic bait-and-switch to get restrictions written into national laws.
Historically, incitement to violence – or any criminal act – has been considered at least a justification for prior restraint, and sometimes even a criminal act in itself. This Findlaw page on the legendary Judge Learned Hand discusses changing standards for what constitutes incitement – and therefore what written material might be subject to prior restraint. It is clear that the term means encouraging or instructing someone to commit a crime:
At that time, the legality of written or spoken words was usually judged by the probable result of the words—that is, if the words had the tendency to produce unlawful conduct, then they could be banned. Hand took a different approach: his solution focused on the words themselves, rather than on a guess at the public’s reaction to them. He invented what became known as the incitement test: if the words told someone to break the law, if they instructed the person that it was a duty or interest to do so, then they could be banned. The Masses magazine praised conscientious objectors and antiwar demonstrators, but it never actually told readers they should behave similarly. For this reason, Hand ruled that the postmaster could not ban the magazine.
Here’s a case of modern-day incitement, although for some obscure reason, charges were never brought:
This definition places the burden where it belongs: on the mob and on the guy who yelled, “Burn it down!” or “Kill the Jew!” That is, the mob who actually did the destruction, the individual who actually committed the act, and the person who inspired them to commit that act.
Islamists seek to reverse this logic, and therefore, gain power over our speech and our writing. They do this by subtly redefining incitement, so that if someone published cartoons insulting to Islam, and a mob uses that as a pretext for wreaking havoc, the publisher of the cartoons will have “incited” the mob’s behavior, even though this wasn’t the intent of the speech or the writing.
Take this 2012 oped by Randall Hamud, a San Diego attorney who gained brief notoriety in the aftermath of 9/11 for representing some men accused of being involved with the plot. Here, Hamud is trying to make the case that Mark Nakoulay, of Beghazi Video fame, may have committed a criminal act by making and distributing the video.
In 1919, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote that free speech did not include the right to falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater resulting in a panic. If there were a clear and present danger of substantive evil, such speech would not be protected. In 1969, the Supreme Court held that government cannot punish advocacy in the abstract. However, advocacy can be criminalized where it urges “imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
You see what he did there? The video doesn’t even come close to urging imminent lawless action, and the action presumed taken – riots by an Islamist mob – are certainly not what Nakoulay had in mind. On a nontrivial technical note, the Court said “and” rather than “or,” meaning that the lawless action taken has to be the one contemplated by the speaker.
Consider the following scenario. Jyllands-Posten publishes a series of juvenile cartoons making fun of Muhammad. The local imam takes those cartoons, waves them around at Friday prayers, and demands satisfaction. Young Arab men then stream out of the mosques, burning and smashing the business district of their town.
Under the traditional definition of “incitement,” the imam would be guilty of incitement, and the mob would be guilty of property destruction.
Under the revised, Hamudian definition, the publisher would be guilty of incitement, and the imam would off scot free.
Whenever Muslim mobs rampage allegedly over some perceived slight, or Islamists walk into a newspaper and murder the staff, apologists would argue that they were “incited” to do so by the cartoons/editorial/image/oped/sandwich, effectively giving the most-touchy, most thin-skinned guy with access to a knife veto power over what we can say.
I’d like to be able to report that the US government, leader of the free world and primary defender of liberty across the globe, is having none of it. Sadly, in 2011, then-Secretary of State Clinton enthusiastically endorsed UN Human Right Council (sic) Resolution 16/18. Whether this is the result of useful idiocy or active sympathy is beside the point – the US government has opened to door to subverting the 1st Amendment at the behest of our enemies.
Randall Hamud, by the way, was presented in 2002 with something called the “Alex Odeh Freedom of Speech Award.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Cloud Cuckooland) has appointed Andre Carson (D-IN) to serve on the Permanent House Select Committee on Intelligence.
Rep. Carson is a Muslim, which in and of itself would not be problematic. If, say, Dr. Zudhi Jasser or Dr. Qanta Ahmed were to be elected to Congress, I can’t think of a place where they should be more welcomed.
But Rep. Carson is no Dr. Ahmed or Dr. Jasser. Rep. Carson is both a fan of and beloved by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political operations here in the United States. Carson has a long history of associating with the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim American Society, both groups recognized by Egypt and the UAE as being part of the Muslim Brotherhood’s American political and influence operations.
The appointment comes a week after a set of bloody Islamist attacks in France, and less than a month after Egyptian President Sisi, whose country exists in a state of low-grade warfare against the Brotherhood, issued what amounted to a call for an Islamic reformation.
The appointment puts someone with close ties to America’s enemies on its most sensitive committee, and the one most directly involved with fighting that threat here and overseas. Why on earth would you give someone like that access to a routine diet of sensitive operational and finished intelligence?
Given the fact that the mainstream media has mostly reported on the novelty of having a Muslim on the Intelligence Committee, the question answers itself. Pelosi is looking to court a voting bloc, another of the Democrats’ increasingly incompatible identity interest groups in its increasingly unstable and incoherent coalition. That is also helps to prove that America is no place for the oft-heralded, never-materialized backlash against Muslims. Pelosi and most Democrats have long since acquiesced in CAIR’s and the MAS’s assertions that the worst thing about terrorist murders is that Muslims might be blamed for them. What better way to prove that’s not the case than to put an Islamist sympathizer on the committee most responsible for overseering America’s conduct of its war on That Which Has Nothing To Do With Islam?
This is deranged.
In what looks like the wide-open Republican nominating process for 2016, word is that Rick Santorum is once again considering a run. Santorum is a genuinely decent guy, and though I think he’d be a disaster as a nominee, having him up on the stage would add a lot to the debates. Better than anyone else, Santorum made the connection between social issues and economic ones. The state, by adopting policies that deliberately undermine the traditional family, ends up creating welfare and entitlement dependencies that hobble the economy and create additional dependencies. And as the welfare check replaces the father, the corrosion turns back on itself in a cycle of decay. Historically, this has been seen as a problem in minority communities, but in 2012, the number was 40% nationwide. The idea that this problem would stay contained in the easily-ignored black community was always a mirage. Santorum, almost alone among national politicians, has been effective in drawing these connections.
He’s also the only Republican candidate that I had a chance to meet personally. I went to the 2011 debate in Sioux City, Iowa, representing Who Said You Said, and Santorum was the only candidate who personally came out to the media area to answer questions. All the rest sent flacks to spin, but Santorum stood there and patiently answered my questions about free trade for five minutes. He had no reason to do that, other than that to a retail politician, everyone - everyone – matters.
Santorum, a former US Senator from Pennsylvania, came in second in the delegate count in 2012, and if he runs, he’ll be thinking that he can repeat Romney’s route to the nomination, when Romney parleyed his second-place 2008 finish into “next-in-line” status. I doubt that will work, for a variety of reasons. The libertarian wing of the party is strong and better-organized than it was in 2012; Romney won in 2012 because he entered the race as the front-runner, and Santorum will not; Romney effectively positioned himself as most people’s default second choice, in large part by not going out of his way to offend segments of the party; it remains to be seen whether or not Santorum can pull off the same trick, and his recent comments about Rand Paul and Ted Cruz don’t bode well on that score.
If Rick Santorum were to run in 2016, I won’t be supporting him in the primaries. His priorities aren’t mine, and I doubt he has much appeal outside of the breadbasket and the South. The one electoral benefit he might bring to the party would be to weaken the equally socially-conservative Mike Huckabee. But his presence on the stage will do a lot to remind the country of the mutually-reinforcing damage caused by the intrusive welfare state and a state not even neutral on, but actively hostile to, essential moral values.
The Hill was kind enough to pick up my op-ed on the Charlie Hebdo massacre yesterday in Paris. You can read the whole thing, of course, but here’s my favorite bit:
There was a time when we understood what was at stake. The fearful editor and wrecked printing press were staples of Hollywood westerns for decades, but this sort of thing happens in real life here, on occasion.
In the run-up to the Civil War, abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy made plenty of enemies on St. Louis with his anti-slavery newspaper, so much so that they destroyed his printing press three times and ran him off, across the river to the free state of Illinois.
The fourth time, they crossed the river, threw the press in the river, killed Lovejoy, and burned his warehouse.
I doubt those at the Washington Post, New York Times, or Yale University Press teach or retell that story today by implying that Lovejoy would have been better-advised to tone it down because deeply held and easily bruised feelings were at stake.
What do the Snowden leaks and the North Korean attack on Sony have in common? (Other than large authoritarian patrons, that is.)
They’re both textbook examples of hostile foreign intelligence operations, Snowden targeting the NSA, the Norks tarketing Sony.
First, target the opposition with damaging leaks. These aren’t just routine leaks that make an organization look bad to people who don’t like them anyway. They’re leaks designed to separate the target from its friends. In the case of the NSA, it was driving a wedge between the NSA and the American public who depend on a robust intelligence-gathering operation for national protection. In Sony’s case, it was the release of emails between a studio head and a very successful producer making fun of the president, with a racial element, and complaints about the behavior of some of the more popular people in Hollywood. This had the effect of separating the studio from its natural allies in liberal Hollywood.
The leaks might have done some mostly transient damage on their own. But really, they were just wrong-footing the target, and making it both emotionally difficult and politically unpopular to come to their defense when the real attack happened. When George Clooney tries to “explain” why nobody came to Sony’s defense, he’s totally missing that part – Sony had been effectively isolated already. Once Amy Pascal got caught assuming that President Obama only like movies with black actors, or with black themes, nobody wanted to be on their side.
So now, momentarily unpopular, the target is trying to figure out how to deal with the PR tsunami they’re on the wrong side of. Sony is used to defining the narrative, the NSA used to not being a part of any narrative. This is unfamiliar territory for them.
At that point, the actual attack part of the operation. In the case of the NSA, this meant revealing foreign intelligence operations, the kind of things we expect our intelligence services to be doing, damaging relationships with our allies, revealing sources and methods to our enemies, and forcing the agency to defend itself for doing its job.
In the case of Sony, the attack was different – threaten the theater’s revenue stream and make sure that it got the message about what is and isn’t acceptable to produce, and make them look weak and feckless in the process. The weak point was the theater chains. It’s been rightly pointed out that once they decided not to show the film, there wasn’t much Sony could do about regular distribution. But none of that mattered, as Sony took the additional PR hit of looking as though it was directly caving to pressure from the guy Jonah Goldberg likes to call, the Pillsbury Doughboy from Hell.
If all this sounds familiar to critics of President Obama who are also conversant with political theory, it should. Some of these elements are part and parcel of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” in the political arena. Not for nothing are some of my friends currently and formerly in the intelligence community among the foremost admirers of Alinsky’s genius, if not his aims or the effect he’s had on the US political culture. Much of what he did amounts to applying hostile intelligence operations to domestic politics.
Personally, I think this transition is incredibly poisonous to the body politic. It’s helpful to have a default position of “distrust” when it comes to foreign countries, even our allies. (When someone asks why we would spy on our friends, the correct response is, “To make sure they still are.) Countries all have diverse interests which won’t necessarily coincide with ours, their foreign policy decision-making processes are usually at-best translucent and often opaque. It’s entirely reasonable to believe that, short of the actual annihilation of humanity, countries are in competition at a very basic level.
Little if any of that should hold for fellow Americans of different political parties. Our system, as an open one, only works if we can basically trust that everyone has the country’s best interests at heart, even has basically the same goals in mind, and we’re more or less arguing over how to get there. The problem with Alinskyite politics isn’t that it’s effective – it’s that its effectiveness comes at the price of an overarching sense of community and trust that’s necessary for the country’s politics to operate. I know for a fact there are plenty of conservatives who think that Obama is working for the enemy, and while I don’t share that mindset, I also don’t think he always puts the country’s goals first, or thinks that US power and prosperity are necessarily good things – he’s as much said so on any number of occasions. What’s worse, the Alinsky Attitude leads him to try to criminalize political opposition, something that’s never really happened before here in the US. When you treat routine political opposition like activity hostile to the country, the mutual suspicions you engender are liable to linger on for a long time.
In any case, what is so clear in the realm of domestic politics, or in the Sony case, should be equally clear in the Snowden Operation. But it’s also another reason as to why the motives of the leaker matter. And what’s more, you can start to figure some of this out before the actual attack happens.
In either case, if we had been thinking, “You know, the guys leaking this stuff might not really have our best interests at heart, and maybe we want to discount our level of outrage over this accordingly,” the second part of the attack would have been blunted, because we would have see Part II with eyes more sympathetic to the target.
Instead of bugging Merkel’s phones (which now, it seems, may not have happened at all) being seen as yet another diabolical plot by an agency bent on being the World Repository for Everything You’ve Ever Said or Written, they would have seemed like what they look like now – the kind of thing you want your spy agencies up to. Sure, we got there eventually, more or less, but in the interim Putin was able to make all kinds of mischief in Ukraine and elsewhere, while our intelligence community was busily defending its right to exist.
Instead of thinking, “Wow, I sure don’t want to stand up for those guys,” much of Hollywood would have instead been scrambling to find some way to help their competitor, or potential future employer or partner find a way to distribute their movie, and we would have been thinking, “Wow, this sure stinks for Sony to be stuck in this position, doesn’t it?” From what I saw on social media, people were upset at being dictated to by Kim, but felt betrayed by Sony, and only to a much lesser extent by the theater chains.
What does this mean for the next time? Mostly, it means that motives matter, and need to be taken into account. And it means that people who fall for the initial narrative – mostly libertarians over the NSA, and liberals over Sony – are getting played by our enemies. We’re trained by our political culture not to look at motives; questions about motives are seen as ad hominem, secondary to the issue at best, and gutter politics at worst. It’s another reason to hate what Chicago Gangster Government has done to us, but it’s really just good, basic counterintelligence work, which is what we’re dealing with when we’re dealing with foreign governments and their agents.
The irony is that the kind of Stage 1 attack is, at heart, ad hominem about motives. The NSA must have nefarious motives for collecting phone metadata. Sony must be populated with jerks (above and beyond normal Hollywood standards) and racists (of the wrong sort).
We can yell at each other, divide ourselves up into red team and blue team, fight tooth and nail for this or that office or over this or that bill. But when a foreign entity launches an attack of any kind – even, or perhaps especially – one that seeks to divide us, we need to have the self-discipline not to bite. There’s nothing the matter with questioning the motives of those whose first goal is to get us to question our neighbors.