This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, which you can read here.
I’m posting a link to this piece by Peter Beinart not because I agree with all of his argument or its framing, but because it clarified for me a few things I tried to say in my original post. The key point in his piece–written by a longtime liberal Zionist, writing in the Jewish Daily Forward–is the sentence “Her fiercest critics in Congress are guiltier of bigotry than she is.” (And he’s not talking about just the Republicans, as we’ll see). And her fiercest critics outside of Congress are guiltier of supporting bigotry* than she is. Using Beinart’s list (and starting with the easy ones):
- Anyone who supported Trump’s “Muslim ban”–and many of her most vocal critics in Congress did so–is guilty of much worse bigotry than even the worst possible misinterpretation of Ilhan Omar’s tweets.
- Mike Pompeo, who is Secretary of State and thus in charge of US foreign policy, has spread repeated lies about Muslims in America, and received an award from a vicious hate group, ACT for America (read the Beinart for details). Anyone who voted to approve Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State–and they all did–is guilty of much worse bigotry than Ilhan Omar’s tweets.
- Donald Trump ran for office on the historically antisemitic slogan “America first.” (There’s an unambiguously antisemitic “trope!”) He referred to the “fine people” in Charlottesville who chanted “Jews will not replace us.” As Beinert writes, ” If you denounce Ilhan Omar but support Donald Trump, you don’t really oppose bigotry. You don’t even really oppose anti-Semitism.” Everyone who has supported Donald Trump actively supports bigotry exponentially worse than anything anyone can imagine in Ilhan Omar’s tweets.
OK, those are some easy ones. And you may say that a Democratic representative like Omar should be held to a higher standard than Donald Trump. I’d hope so, too. But here’s another quotation from Beinert:
- “Establishing two legal systems in the same territory—one for Jews and one for Palestinians, as Israel does in the West Bank—is bigotry. Guaranteeing Jews in the West Bank citizenship, due process, free movement and the right to vote for the government that controls their lives while denying those rights to their Palestinian neighbors is bigotry.”
Anyone who supports aid to Israel–which, like the apartheid state of South Africa, established and enforces these two legal systems and denies equal rights to Palestinians–is guilty of supporting much worse bigotry than even the worst possible misinterpretation of Ilhan Omar’s tweets. If you supported any Democratic candidate for President in 2016 (yes, including Bernie Sanders, whom I supported) you supported this bigotry. If you voted for almost any Democrat for Congress in 2018–except Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, and maybe a couple of others–you supported this bigotry.
The Democratic statement denouncing Ilhan Omar’s tweets starts by saying “We are and always will be strong supporters of Israel in Congress….” Thus this statement itself affirms bigotry in worse ways–more material, more consequential, more brutal, worse in every way–than the worst possible misinterpretation of Ilhan Omar’s tweets.
That second list could go on, and on, and on. As I said in my original post, I think the assumptions made by the attacks on Omar that AIPAC represents a uniform Jewish American people to be more deeply antisemitic than anything Omar tweeted.
The nicest way I can think of to sum up my point is to say that we need a sense of proportion here. If we had a sense of proportion, anyone who has put energy into denouncing and questioning and scolding and carefully parsing the history of the “tropes” behind Ilhan Omar’s tweets (and this includes me) should spend exponentially more time denouncing both Republicans and Democrats in Congress for the bigotry Beinart outlines and that I summarize above.
Put another way, in a world with a sense of proportion, a few friends and allies of Ilhan Omar might have sent her some private e-mails advising her on more careful phrasing of her tweets that would be less likely to provoke what I think are (mostly but not all) biased and bigoted misinterpretations. If we had a sense of proportion, the media, the op-ed pages, the Democratic Party, and others would be issuing resolutions condemning the serious bigotry (of antisemitic and other sorts) that pervades the Trump administration, and the bigotry of Israel and its enablers and supporters.
I hope someday to see a world–or even just a Democratic Party–with that sense of proportion.
*”Bigotry” is not a word I use often; I don’t know much about its history or implications. (Maybe it’s a keyword?). But it’s the word in Beinart’s article that I’m taking off from here, so I’m using it throughout this post.
I believe people were right to tell Ilhan Omar that there is an antisemitic history behind a word like “hypnotize” when applied to Jews. I also believe she did not know that history, and think she handled the critique with grace, and she was right to say that she apologized and learned from that experience. That looked like a rare case of productive public dialogue (even though of course there was tons of nasty Islamophobic discourse around it).
But with the situation that made the news this week, I just don’t see it. All I see is the Democrats–including Omar herself at this point, but in particular the Democratic leadership–falling into the trap that the real antisemites like McCarthy have set for them. Above all, I don’t see why anyone sees anything antisemitic in the “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” tweet. AIPAC is a lobbying group that has a stranglehold over US foreign policy in the Middle East, just as the NRA has a stranglehold over US gun policy. They use money to enforce that stranglehold. That’s a fact; there’s nothing controversial about it. As Jonathan aptly stated, the NRA would love to have the kind of taboo against mentioning their money that AIPAC just displayed that they have working in their favor. A bunch of right-wingers (some of whom have histories of actual antisemitism) invoked that taboo, and the Democratic leadership jumped on board to enforce that taboo. That infuriates me.
But OK, let’s look at the “trope” (a word they’re borrowing from literary theory, I guess? I am quickly coming to hate it, though it’s a perfectly good word). “It’s all about the Benjamins” is a common way of saying, basically, “follow the money.” Always a good mantra in politics. It refers to the fact that Benjamin (Franklin) is on the $100 bill. Benjamin Franklin was not Jewish. There’s nothing “Jewish” about AIPAC money or the power they wield; both the money and the power has a lot to do, in fact, with their alliance with the Christian Right. [If Omar had said “follow the Jewish money” or something like that, it would be a completely different story].
The only way I can see of interpreting the tweet–or really, its follow-up, where she specified that she was talking about AIPAC–as antisemitic is if you assume that AIPAC represents “the Jews.” THAT ASSUMPTION IS ANTISEMITIC. Sorry to put it in all caps, but there is almost nothing that offends my sense of Jewish identity (which is admittedly complicated and often gets questioned when I invoke it, but this isn’t about me) more than that assumption. AIPAC is not a Jewish lobby; in particular, it’s not *the* Jewish lobby. It’s a pro-Israel lobby group. If anyone–supportive of OR critical of Israel–treats them as “the Jewish lobby”–that is antisemitic, because it treats Jewish people as an ideological monolith, and they/we are not that, and never have been.
Yes, there is a nasty history of attributing undue power to Jews, that they putatively exercise through money. I’m familiar with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and with Henry Ford, and with Nazi ideology. I think that history puts on us critics of Israel a responsibility to avoid rhetoric that does that. But that responsibility does not–it cannot–prevent anyone from criticizing actually existing powerful groups, even if they exercise that power through money, and even if their power is on behalf of a state that calls itself the Jewish state. Responsibility and care do not require unilateral rhetorical disarmament. There *is* a very powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US. [This whole incident demonstrates that fact]. AIPAC is its most public and powerful face. AIPAC uses money as one way to exercise that power. Ilhan Omar said nothing more than that. Saying that is not antisemitic.
Finally (wow, this is long) I will point out that if you dig deep enough, you can find something antisemitic in one origin of the “trope” she used. The song “All About the Benjamins” contains the line “you should do what we do, stack chips like Hebrews.” Interestingly, that line is left off at least one version of the song, implying that someone was perhaps aware of its implications. I don’t know much about the song’s history; I’d be interested to know if there have been critiques of Puff Daddy for that line. But the phrase predates that song, and has had currency (sorry for the pun) well beyond it. It was the title of a 2002 movie. I’ve used the phrase; I’ve heard it dozens of times.
I can’t see a plausible argument that Omar used that line to reference that one line in the song (which comes nowhere near the “Benjamins” line). I point it out to note that a well-informed analysis could find links between all sorts of expressions in American English and all kinds of racism and hatred. I don’t even want to proliferate examples, but I promise that you used an expression in the past week that references antiblack racism, and probably antisemitism too, as directly as saying “all about the Benjamins” references that antisemitic line. In other words, to quote a different Benjamin (@BenEhrenreich, on Twitter): “There is plenty of actual anti-Semitism out there but calling out AIPAC sure ain’t it.”
Sunday night, as he was dying of cancer downtown, David Bowie was also in my apartment in upper Manhattan, singing my son to sleep. One of the unexpected great joys of having a child has been the opportunity to sing, over and over for more than six years now, the lullaby David Bowie wrote for his newborn son in 1971. Titled “Kooks,” the song appeared on one of his earliest, prettiest albums, Hunky Dory, the one with the soft-focus cover image of a very feminine face looking upward, lips slightly parted, one hand brushing back long straight blonde hair that flows down onto the figure’s shoulders. Reviewers at the time saw the cover as evoking Bacall or Garbo — Bowie himself cited Dietrich as the main influence — but of course it was Bowie himself, imagining and projecting himself into a stardom that at the time he made Hunky Dory he was not even close to attaining…
It is impossible to disagree with Hillary Clinton’s blunt comment that Trump’s threat Wednesday night not to respect the election results was a “horrifying” thing to say. No doubt it was the most newsworthy moment in a debate that mostly consisted of the candidates saying things we already knew about their positions, and about what they think of each other (though if there were any minds left to be changed by this debate, I suspect the unhinged misogyny of the moment when he muttered “such a nasty woman” will sway more of them than anything else either of them said).
But the pundits and the Twittersphere coalesced around a response to Trump’s comments that I think people should think twice about. The standard line goes something like this: Trump’s coy threat to keep us “in suspense” on whether he will accept the election results is “beyond the pale.” It goes against 240 years of tradition of peaceful transitions of power (it seems worth pointing out that the number is actually somewhat lower, since it would be hard to describe the election of 1860 as a peaceful transition). This statement violates “the most basic principle of democracy” (sometimes of “American democracy”) and is—even according to some Republican pundits–“disqualifying” (as if Trump hasn’t made statements daily for a year that should have disqualified him long ago).
Here’s the thing: while I agree that Trump is nutty and fascistic and that his reasons for threatening not to accept the election results are delusional and dangerous, I have cringed and squirmed at the dominant response to his statement, which has been to hold up the US electoral system as the paragon of unsullied democracy, and to hold up the uncontested transition of power as the highest principle of that democracy.
First, the US electoral system. I could settle this point by saying two words: electoral college. Isn’t the idea that the person getting the most votes in a head-to-head contest should win a pretty high principle of democracy? Beyond that aspect of the system, and everything else in our Constitution that was put there not to enable democracy but to prevent it, it’s important to look at how terrible our electoral system is from top to bottom, from election day not being a holiday to the pervasive efforts at highly racialized forms of voter suppression in dozens of states to the fact that our election “system” is really fifty different systems, mostly run by volunteers supervised by political hacks and appointees.
No, the election can’t be “rigged” in the way Donald Trump means that term, but there are innumerable ways that elections are rigged racially, rigged against broad participation, rigged against candidates outside the D/R duopoly, gerrymandered, and rigged by party machines on both sides. For a variety of reasons most of that rigging these days benefits the party Trump recently captured, but the Republicans’ styles of rigging have been matched by Democratic styles in the fairly recent past. (I wrote about this kind of election corruption in an op-ed I published back in 2004 about my experience poll-watching in Chicago in the late 1980s).
But we are obligated to be shocked, shocked, that anyone could use the word “rigged” to refer to the election process. Again, I think Trump’s claim is baseless and stupid in its specifics (or lack thereof). But I won’t let his stupidity force me to pretend I think we have a wonderfully democratic process.
As for elevating the uncontested and peaceful transition of power to the highest principle of democracy, instead of two words, I have one number: 2000. I can’t be the last person on earth who thinks that the fact that millions of people did not turn out in the streets when that election was stolen was a sign of the anemic weakness of American democracy, not of its strength. No, I’m not saying Al Gore should have been installed by force (the idea that he could have inspired that level of loyalty is pretty laughable). But a serious commitment to electoral democracy should have resulted in mass demonstrations—long before the case got to the Supreme Court—demanding that every vote be counted, that an election in which bad ballot design resulted in thousands of Jews in Florida having their votes tallied as for the anti-Semitic candidate was fatally flawed; that an election in which sheriffs closed off roads between African American neighborhoods and polling places should have been re-done…I could go on. Instead it was the right that mobilized thugs to intimidate vote-counters (does anyone remember the phrase “Brooks Brothers riot?” Google it), and it was the right wing of the Supreme Court that nullified democracy by stopping the vote counting and installing Bush and Cheney.
In short, I’m arguing that in 2000, a commitment to the peaceful transition
of power resulted in more damage to democracy than anything else could have. (And, to be clear, I am wishing there had been massive nonviolent civil disobedience and not saying there should have been riots in the streets; I’ll leave arguments that democracy requires that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” to out-of-the-mainstream radicals like Thomas Jefferson). And, as a result, Bush and Cheney were free to use 9/11 as an excuse to trample on innumerable democratic principles at home and abroad, not least by joining Tony Blair and other “democratic” leaders in ignoring the largest anti-war demonstrations in the history of the world and launching the invasion of Iraq.
Those of us who went into the streets to try to prevent that crime, and who chanted “this is what democracy looks like,” were invoking and embodying a richer and deeper understanding of democracy than the one held by those mainstream liberals who glorify the US electoral system and elevate the peaceful transition of power above all else. I’m perfectly happy that Trump’s statement is being used to further discredit him, and at a more general level I’m relieved that the Democratic standard-bearer has proved stunningly effective at baiting Trump and quashing his electoral chances. But even as I share the desire to denounce Trump’s thuggish threats, I can’t go along with these two dubious claims about U.S. democracy.
The piece that was very briefly here under this title moved to the Avidly blog.