Saturday, July 23, 2022

Learn from History, Save the Democratic Party ... and the Country

History is a story told by the winners.

That is an old saw. It is understood by victims of racial/ethnic discrimination and women, who have found themselves written out of history books since time immemorial.  When they ask, “What about us?”  they are faced with hard-headed and hard-hearted men of the more powerful tribes, who scoff at the notion that their petty little complaints – and their trivial heroes – should possibly capture equal time.

Liberal people all understand and accept this now.  At least when it comes to ethnic and gender issues.  But where liberals have a blind spot is when it comes to battles over the souls of political parties.  If, perchance, these liberals are center-left Democrats, the ones whose preferred candidates almost invariably win the nomination and frequently the general elections, they have no compassion whatsoever for the complaints of the folks to their party’s political left.  Those complaints are known simply as whining, divisiveness, and the stuff by which Republican victories are made.  Strong sentiments.  But that’s what happen when compassion is gone.

Look at the data.  From 1992 until 2000, the Dems were led by Bill Clinton, who campaigned as a “Southern Democrat” from the political center.   He was succeeded by his handpicked successor, Tennessee’s Al Gore – Gore’s nomination was frankly inevitable, but it is safe to say that he wasn’t yet Mr. “Inconvenient Truth,” he was the heir apparent from the party’s center-left wing.  In 2004, John Kerry beat back more progressive challengers to take the nomination -- remember “the Scream,” not the painting, but the yell that doomed Howard Dean?    In 2008, the progressives had their moment – they pushed Barack Obama, who ran a truly inspired campaign, to the finish line, only to discover that he would allow centrists Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Joe Biden to serve as his chief lieutenants, not to mention his former foe named Clinton.    

And that led us to 2016.  The Democrats faced a surprisingly tough challenger named Bernie Sanders, who had a singular focus against economic inequity that resonated with much of the party’s base.  But when Sanders threatened Hillary Clinton’s seemingly hereditary claim to the throne, she had the party’s leadership in her back pocket and was able to summon hundreds upon hundreds of Superdelegates.  The party’s largest media outlets treated those Superdelegates as fully legit, and Sanders had no chance.  Clinton prevailed. 

Then came 2020.  At that point, the progressives in the party who had given Bernie more than 40% of the primary vote in 2016 – especially the younger voters, who voted primarily for him – were feeling like those “losers” who were left out of the history books.  What they experienced was that Joe Biden, the guy the media and the party elites originally thought was “due” (i.e., the successor to B. Clinton in 1996, Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004, Obama in 2012, and H. Clinton in 2016), was failing miserably in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.  And immediately after Nevada, Bernie appeared poised to lead the race.  This, they thought, was their time – finally a real progressive seemed to be on top.  Then what happened?   The media and the party elites came down on him like a Mack Truck.  I'm not referring to the other candidates, but rather the talking heads and op-ed writers.  So negative.  So gratuitous.  Digging up stories about who he supported 40 years in the past.  Just one hit after another.  It was as if all the talking heads decided at the same time, "we better not nominate him or Trump will be President forever."  And sure enough, he went down the tubes, Biden’s centrist competitors quickly cleared the road, and Biden drove right in to victory.  All he needed was to do well in a single primary in a small state that never votes Democrat in the fall, and the race was effectively over.

 To Biden’s base, aka the center-left of the party and especially the older voters, there was nothing odd about any of this.  It was just the majority candidate winning a nomination and then doing what his supporters thought he was best suited to do – beating the maniacal Donald Trump in the general election.  But to the party’s progressives, the folks who occupy the leftist third, or the younger third (or both), this was just another example of history being a story told by the victors.  Just another example of how they don’t really belong to this political party, any more than many African-Americans living in the Jim Crow south felt that they belonged to this country.

I went through all of this to explain just how difficult it has become for a politician to unify the Democratic Party. There is not simply mutual disrespect between Dems and Republicans, there is a hell of a division within the Party – along ideological and largely age-based lines.  This is why precisely one percent – that’s right, ONE percent of Democratic voters under 30 “strongly” approve of the job Joe Biden is doing.  That number is as low as it is because of the above history and the resentment it creates.  And Biden’s supporters are being tone deaf to this dynamic in a way that they would never allow themselves to be tone deaf to the cries of women or people of color. 

It's a problem, one that takes truly inspired leadership to solve.  I would love to find such a leader.  Maybe my own Congressperson, Jamie Raskin, has the combo of smarts and integrity to make this happen.  Does he have the temperament?  The courage?  I don’t know.  But I’d love it if he tried.  My one practical suggestion as to how to unify the party I have voiced before:  a combination of ranked voting, to satisfy the centrists, and a commitment on the part of the centrist media/political leaders not to panic and turn on the progressive candidate should s/he appear poised to actually win a Democratic nomination, to satisfy the progressives.  The Dems, in short, should run positive campaigns within the ranks – making their own case for themselves, rather than denigrating their opponents as commies or the alike – but it is also time for ranked voting, thereby actually making the party MORE democratic, which should be something all Democrats believe in. 

And remember, all of this would be happening as part of the most righteous of causes – removing from power a party that has been taken over by Donald Trump and those who have, at one time or another, kissed his ring.  Let the words of Trump’s former press secretary, Stephanie Grisham (printed in today’s NY Times), remind you of just who the Democrats are fighting: “I don’t think I can rebrand; I think this will follow me forever…. I believe that I was part of something unusually evil.”  The only way to fight something unusually evil is with a force that is unified and potent.  There is no time to waste.   

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Peace and Polarization

 I know I have not been regularly blogging, but I have been regularly writing.  On my website,, you can find a new page devoted to two of my obsessions -- Peace and Polarization.  I recommend for your perusal two documents in particular on that page -- a statement on American Political Polarization and the diary I have been keeping recounting reflections on the recent fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  



Friday, October 23, 2020

Spinoza on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity

Spinoza's political theory is a highly underrated aspect of his overall philosophy. Back in the 1930s, when Professor Harry Wolfson came up with what was then considered the most comprehensive tome on Spinoza's thought (a 795 page work called "The Philosophy of Spinoza"), only ten pages were devoted to politics.  Similarly, when Oxford University recently came up with a 666 page compendium of essays by leading contemporary Spinoza scholars, only a single essay (26 pages) dealt with his politics.  Yet of the seven treatises he wrote, two included the words "Political Treatise" in the title -- indeed, politics was at the heart of what Spinoza was working on at the time of his death at the age of 44.  Not surprisingly, Spinoza's politics have been highly influential to a diverse set of thinkers, including John Locke, Moses Mendelssohn, and  Henry Kissinger. The political theories of the Enlightenment clearly owe a substantial debt to Spinoza's views.  

This past year, I have embarked on a lengthy effort to explore the foundational principles of Spinoza's politics.  I was especially struck by the importance Spinoza placed on fraternity, a societal characteristic that is sorely lacking today in contemporary America.  This research on Spinoza has inspired me to re-double my thinking about a topic I addressed in my first novel, "The Creed Room" --  namely, how to best build fraternity in a society that is not only polarized, but in which political leaders seem to be increasingly indifferent to retaining their credibility or honoring basic human values.  Building fraternity is surely a wonderful aspiration.  But these days, how to do it appropriately is easier said than done. 

The result of my research into Spinoza's politics is an essay that I delivered this past week at a meeting of the Washington Spinoza Society. Here is the essay.  I hope you enjoy it.  

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Just Say No to "One-Sentencing"

One of the services I enjoy performing for my society is spreading allergies -- to certain kinds of writing. I enjoy helping people become allergic to, for example: (a) the strawman fallacy, (b) the fallacy of the excluded middle, (c) what-aboutism, (d) the technique of pretending that one invariably has found the "golden mean" when all one has found is a position, and (e) the attitude that a person can be writing about political-economic matters with the perpetual certitude of a mathematician ("isn't it funny that I'm always right and my political opponents are always wrong?").
So today, I would like to coin a term for a phenomenon to which I hope you will become allergic: to "one-sentence." Let me give two examples of this unfortunate type of pseudo-persuasive writing. Example 1: "I'd like to begin by saying that I found President Clinton's conduct with Ms. Lewinsky to be deplorable and in no way, shape or form do I condone it. [But allow me now to spend the next 10 minutes attacking President Clinton's political enemies and by implication supporting him.]" Example 2: "I have spent countless time working for a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians and have seen it as the ideal way of resolving this conflict. [But allow me now to give you that ten or fifteen reasons why I think the one-state solution is a terrific solution, is the only viable solution, and is the only solution at this point that is consistent with the basic principles of morality. And allow me in fact to bury the two-state solution 5,000 feet underground and then spit on its coffin.]"
Honestly, whenever you see someone starting an argument with a single sentence that is supposed to show that they are NOT a one-sided, unsubtle thinker but are rather sympathetic to the other side ... they are either insulting your intelligence or they really are a one-sided, unsubtle thinker. Because if someone, to return to the Clinton example, really did find his conduct to be deplorable, they wouldn't have taken precisely 1% of their speech criticizing it.
So there you have "one-sentencing." Next time someone tries to "one-sentence" you, protect yourself. Don't be "had" by that kind of rhetoric.

Steve Curless

Sunday, July 12, 2020

My Response to Peter Beinart

I am happy that the N.Y. Times published Peter Beinart's opinion piece calling for the end of the Jewish State. Beinart does a relatively nice job of making the argument for what is in essence a "United States of the Middle East" (my words, not his) in which pre-‘48 Palestine would be populated by Jews and Palestinians alike, living in complete equality and moving about freely, much as we in the USA move about from Florida to Maine, Alaska to Arizona.  Beinart says that the Jewish State would be replaced by a "Jewish home that is also, equally, a Palestinian home" and that this home would provide "refuge and rejuvenation for Jews across the world."

Now lest this sound like a utopian piece, Beinart does admit at one point that the "process of achieving equality would be long and difficult," adding that it "would most likely meet resistance from both Palestinians and Jewish hard liners." But, he argues, if the Irish and South Africans can largely reconcile, so can the people of Israel/Palestine.

When I was at a yeshiva, I was told once by an Orthodox rabbi that each Jew should wake up every morning questioning the existence of God. Well I would add in a similar spirit that every Zionist should wake up every morning questioning the virtues of Zionism. Particularly for those of us Americans who love our nation's purported commitment to pluralism and equality, if it's right for us, why wouldn't it be right for the people of Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hebron, Nablus and Jerusalem? The thing is, though, when I ask that question about God, I still come up with "yes" and when I ask that question about the "United States of the Middle East," I still come up with "no."

You see, when I have visited England, Japan or Italy, I see a country devoted to the language, history, and culture of a particular people. I see nations with a special relationship to the ancestral faiths and holidays of that people. And I see that culture shine and develop in a way that goes far beyond mere "refuge and rejuvenation" -- I see it grow organically. The world is filled with countries like that. My Arab cousins have enjoyed a number of them. It is no coincidence that my beloved Spinoza, for example, has taken root far better in Israel, as a Jewish State, than in the pluralistic salad bar known as the United States -- countries with a dominant ethnic flavor polish the gems that their group has given us, and whether you love him or hate him, it was the Jewish world that gave us Spinoza so it is the Jewish world that tends to be most interested in what he has to offer.

It is no coincidence that the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington was founded by two Americans who fell in love with their ancestral faiths in Israel and Saudi Arabia, respectively. America can be a "Jewish home" -- but there are homes, and then there are HOMES -- and if you are a Mexican American, an African American or yes, a Jewish American, you know the difference.

In yesterday's New York Times, the deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League asked a rhetorical question, responding to Beinart's piece: "Where else on earth would the idea of an independent sovereign state disappearing from the map be acceptable except in the case of Israel?" Nowhere, of course -- or everywhere, because we live in a time of deep polarization, tribalization, and alienation from the "other," in which for example more and more Americans are wishing that Lincoln had allowed the South to leave the Union so that we can have our politicians and they can have theirs.

Fortunately, though, Lincoln did preserve the Union and slavery was abolished. And there are plenty of things in Israel that should be abolished, including the notion that the Jewish People can arrive in large numbers around the end of the 19th century and boot the Arabs in the region into what Beinart correctly calls "an archipelago of Palestinian towns, scattered across as little as 70 percent of the West Bank, under Israeli control." No, just like the United States during the first century of its existence, Israel has a lot of growing up to do, and leaders like Bibi Netanyahu are part of the problem, not the solution. So, too, are those American Jews who claim to oppose Bibi but invariably oppose any efforts to put pressure on his expansionist dreams. But Zionism does not entail expansionism. The two-state solution makes room for a robust Palestinian state next to a robust Jewish state -- not robust by expansionist standards, but rather based on the goal that both sides deserve a "peace of earth" in which to grow their own gardens in peace. 

As the child of leftist parents, I understand better than most the dreams of absolute equality.  I understand the corruptibility of private property in all its forms.  And I appreciate that to a degree, choosing a “Jewish State” and a “Palestinian State” over a “United States of the Middle East” is choosing to privatize land more than it needs to be privatized.  But as an individual, I have also come to appreciate the extent to which human autonomy and self-expression – in other words, freedom in the positive sense of that term – are fostered by some degree of privatization.  And we all must recognize that in our world, the vast majority of useful land is divided into nation-states in which certain ethnic groups tend to hold a permanent majority and use that majority to express themselves as a people – linguistically, historically, religiously, philosophically, aesthetically …. The list is endless.

If you speak to Jewish anti-Zionists, you will note that the one thing that they can least abide is when someone mentions the Holocaust (or other pogroms) in connection with the raison d’etre for Israel.    As soon as that happens, they will reflexively start calling the Zionist dream one that is grounded in PTSD, and refer to Zionists as “emotionally-based” people who fail to see that the “United States of the Middle East” (or some similarly “egalitarian” approach) is the only fair, rational solution to the fact that two peoples occupy the same land.  The truth is, though, that events like the Holocaust and the Expulsion of Spanish Jews in 1492 are significant in part because they tell us what life can be like in societies that truly appeared to be welcoming environments for thriving Jewish communities.  We in America have offered another such environment – and yet we have also seen Jewish people banned from hotels, placed on a quota system in colleges, and sent back to die in Europe when they arrived in ships off of American shores seeking refuge.  Beinart ignores all of this history when he glibly assumes that a society in the Middle East that starts out as 50% Jewish (that is how he described what a one-state solution would look like on his CNN appearance today) would remain a “Jewish society.”

The truth is that most Jews are attached to Israel because it is more than just a place of temporary hospitality to Jews.  It is a place where Jews live as a permanent majority.  It is a place where the Jewish culture flourishes to the max.  It is a place where Jewish history isn’t marginalized, and the Hebrew language isn’t marginalized, and where – if there is to be a movement to rejuvenate the language of Yiddish on a large scale, it will almost certainly happen there.  Most Jews are attached to Israel just as we are attached to our spouses, our children, and our oldest friends.  You are darned right that these are deep emotional attachments, and we’re not likely to choose the kind of pot-luck that Beinart has to offer if we can instead hold what we currently have.  After all, if the Germans, the Dutch, the English, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Koreans … and the Arabs can have their countries, why can’t we?

But we are at a crossroads, we Zionists.  We see a leader of Israel who seems to have washed his hands of the fate of our Abrahamic cousins from Palestine.  And we see this leader getting re-elected over and over again by an electorate who is moving further and further to the right politically.  Particularly here in America, Jews and allies who have fought for Zionism must make a choice.  Either we call for a United States of the Middle East, as Beinart has.  Or we start calling for the United States to put real pressure on Israel to treat the Arabs in pre-‘48 Palestine like full-fledged members of the moral community who have the same natural rights as any other people, including the right of self-determination.  If that means putting a stop to the extent of the United States’ financial and military support for Israel, so be it.  We need to mean business that it is time for both sides to work hard for the two-state solution that we have been advocating for so long.  Yes, the Palestinians have hardly demonstrated a deep desire for that solution.  But frankly, the leadership of Israel hasn’t demonstrated one either, at least not lately. It’s time for us to take a stand that two states isn’t a request, it’s a demand.   

Either that, or go with Beinart.  Because as wrong as he is (from my perspective), there are worse solutions than advocating for another United States.