Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

25 November 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

    [For brief comment on Trump’s blood libel, click here.]

    “ The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”
    William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)
This may be the most dismal Thanksgiving since my “tradition” of Thanksgiving messages began eight years ago. Yeats’ chilling but accurate words again ring true, almost a century after he wrote them.

Again the worst are strong amongst us. The mindlessly brutal Islamic State waxes strong and wealthy, despite near-universal condemnation and thousands of air strikes. Here at home, an over-the-top self-promoter who has no conception of consistency or cause and effect leads the pack of presidential hopefuls in a once-great American political party.

Among his vanishingly small clot of specific policies, Trump wants to deport 11.5 million peaceful, hard-working people. Wasn’t that the kind of thing Hitler and Stalin used to do?

And isn’t Trump’s incessant, capricious, loose-cannon approach to life and policy a dead ringer (pun intended) for Adolf’s? Isn’t his utter dependence on raw anger as the driving force of his campaign?

Should he ever come close to the nomination, let alone the presidency, video comparison of his rants and “policies” with Adolf’s will probably finish Trump off. But his mere presence on our big stage is a deep and enduring national embarrassment.

More dismal still is the outlook for international peace. The circumstances of the so-called “Great War” that Yeats’ immortal poem lamented seem to be repeating themselves. Again nations are massing in a gigantic free-for-all, without much reason or sense. Only the locus is changed: a bit more to the south and east.

Ask the average educated person what the First World War was all about, and he or she will mumble something about Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. Then ask what the murdered Archduke stood for, and why his assassination triggered a continent-wide war. You will get a blank stare.

No one but historians recalls why so many fought so catastrophically, even using crude chemical weapons. All that remains is lonely cemeteries, with countless graves in endless straight rows, and the still-searing memory of tens of millions of unnecessary, violent, premature deaths. Every November, otherwise advanced nations celebrate this senseless catastrophe without really knowing why.

The flower of a generation of youth in Britain, France, Germany (and elsewhere) perished in innumerable gruesome ways. And for what? Virtually no one today knows or cares.

And so it will be with this century’s “Great War,” now brewing in Syria and Iraq. A century from now, if our species survives, all anyone will remember will be the death and destruction. The gravestones and monuments will stand as dismal reminders of our species’ inability to learn from our mistakes.

There are differences, to be sure. The major powers have kept their ordinary ground troops out, at least so far. And no major power even has hinted at using nuclear weapons for anything other than their sole rational purpose: deterrence. So our new Great War, which already has begun, need not be a veritable “Second Coming” of Satan.

Yet minor but well-armed regional powers are circling like vultures over a weakened rat: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Egypt. After losing a civilian airliner to Egyptian terrorists and a military jet to Turkish forces, Russia may be falling into the trap of yet another war with remnants of the Ottoman Empire. How many recall today that that struggle was also part of the Great War—a part in which the Ottoman Empire mostly prevailed?

First they stop the tourism. Then they withdraw ambassadors. Then, after a “suitable” interval, the fighting begins. Isn’t that our species’ dismal history to date? Dare we hope that, this time, things will be different?

Yet, said the bard, hope springs eternal in the human breast. And so it must be on Thanksgiving, the happiest and most American of holidays. Even this dismal fall, there are things to be thankful for.

First and foremost, we Yanks have (apart from Chancellor Angela Merkel), the wisest and most moral leader of any major power today. He dispatched the mass-murderer bin Laden with ninjas. He also has devoted eight years of his presidency to winding down the two unnecessary wars he inherited from his predecessor, each of which is a contributing cause of the dismal Second Coming.

So many leaders today combine primitive tribalism with idle daydreams of imperial glory. In contrast, President Obama uses his keen mind to predict and avoid undesirable consequences.

Let us recall his late-2002 prediction of what our Yankee invasion and occupation of Iraq would bring:
“[I know that] Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military [has] a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.”
Our President made those remarks in October 2002, as a state senator in Illinois, six years before running for the presidency and almost two years before the keynote speech that thrust him into the national spotlight. Now, thirteen years later, we know how right he was.

His insight into consequences could not have been more accurate if he had been a biblical prophet. We Yanks should be thankful, every day, that our White Holds a leader who can see around corners and above the tribalism and idle dreams of glory that consume lesser men. Given our status at the world’s chief superpower, every human being on our planet also should give thanks.

While our structurally defective politics are not as promising as the remaining fourteen months of Barack Obama’s presidency, we Yanks are still a mostly practical and resilient people. Despite the abysses of ignorance, stupidity and pride that our media delight in, we still have our common sense.

After all, our blond-coiffed would-be führer commands the support of only about a quarter of likely GOP primary voters—at best an eighth of all likely voters. In a nation like ours, even 12.5% is far too much support for such a man; but it’s still a tiny minority. The chances of Donald Trump ever sitting in the White House, even as an honored guest, are minuscule.

Most Americans understand that deporting millions of peaceful, productive people is not something democracies do. It’s something vile dictators do.

Since our Founding, we Yanks have had a simple, powerful credo: live and let live; thrive and let thrive. The vast majority of us ken that once-despised groups eventually become vital parts of us, making our melting-pot stew tastier. It happened to the Irish, the Germans, the French, and the Italians. It happened to refugees from the Balkans and points east. It happened to the Jews, including my ancestors. It’s still happening to blacks (far too slowly) and to gays and Lesbians, and soon (we can hope) to peaceful Muslims.

Where would we Yanks be without salsa (both the audible and edible kind), piñatas, Latin dances, and Latin spirit? Where would we be without Apple—the world’s most valuable company, which made high technology accessible to the average Joe, Mary and teenager? How many recall that Steve Jobs’ grandparents were Syrian immigrants?

Immigration turns the social and economic dynamo that energizes our nation. Turn off the tap, and we Yanks dry up, culturally, spiritually and morally. Our melting pot will go flat. Then selfishness and self-righteousness will supplant generosity, greatness of spirit and willingness to learn and grow. Most of us Yanks understand these things, and we can be thankful for that.

So as the dogs of war gather near the birthplace of three great Western religions, and as a temporary (we hope) insanity grips our national politics, let us recall our national heritage. Let us recapture the realistic, pragmatic and wise approach of our Founders, who dedicated their “Lives, Fortunes and sacred Honor” to a new kind of nation. The nation they founded eventually became a beacon of robust immigration, clear thinking, equality of all men and women, and distrust of “foreign entanglements.” Let us respect and admire our current leader who, although his ancestors could have been slaves here, represents the best of us and our traditions.

Most of all, on this most American of national holidays, let us remember what this day stands for. Four centuries ago, there was a feast of plenty involving native peoples and white refugees from foreign religious persecution. Friendly cooperation between the two very different groups made the feast possible, not to mention the white man’s survival in New England. (Our dismal near-genocide of native peoples came later.)

Let us give thanks that we can still recall why we have this holiday. Let us give thanks that we still have our brains, our pragmatism and our hearts, and that we now have a President who bears them in his genes.

Let us give thanks for the chance of progress and survival, which is all evolution ever promised. Let us Yanks give thanks for the quirks of fate and history, and for the wisdom of our forbears, which put us in our species’ vanguard.

Let us give thanks for our collective determination there to remain, not by force, but by generosity, persuasion, and example. And let us give thanks that Germany, which once experienced a temporary insanity of its own, is now helping lead the way.

Donald Trump’s Blood Libel

One of the more dismal phenomena of this Thanksgiving season is our press’ wimpery in the face of rampant political lies and distortions. And one of the more outrageous lies is Donald Trump’s blood libel.

I use the term “blood libel” because it’s familiar to Jews like me.

I’m a well-assimilated, non-religious American Jew, whose family had Christmas trees when I was growing up. Yet I am conscious of—and proud of—my ethnic Jewish heritage. So I know the dismal history of Jews in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, from which my ancestors wisely fled.

The blood libels against us Jews were crude and fantastic lies. We Jews killed Christ, they said. We also killed Christian babies in our allegedly cabalistic, secret ceremonies. Sometimes we even ate them.

Of course those blood libels were and are absurd. The Romans, not Jews, killed Christ. Ever heard of Herod? Judaism is a non-violent religion. It took the Nazis and their Holocaust, plus genocide in the Warsaw ghetto, to turn us into fighters. And most Jews, especially in the nineteenth century, kept kosher—a series of strictly observed dietary laws. Whether babies or not, Christians were simply not on the menu.

But blood libels don’t have to be true. They can be absurd—sometimes the more absurd the “better.” Their purpose is not to educate, edify or enlighten. Their purpose is to drive hate, feed bitterness, incite pogroms, and score cheap points for rancid politicians.

And so it was with Trump’s vile blood libel: that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the Twin Towers’ downfall on 9/11.

There is, of course, no evidence for this alleged phenomenon other than Trump’s own lie. The lie was so stark as to cause our usually mincing media to use harsh words like “false” and “untrue.”

But even those words are wimpy compared to the level of calumny and its vile intent. The notion that American Muslims—99.9% of whom are peaceful and just as glad to be Americans as any other immigrants—celebrated 9/11 is a blood libel no less than Jews allegedly killing Christ.

Not only that. It’s un-American. Virtually every major American ethnic group—from the Pilgrims who gave us Thanksgiving to Syrians and Central Americans today—came to this country to get away from some sort of persecution. Upon arriving, their universal feeling was and is vast relief, coupled with a desire to become Americans (and accepted as such) as quickly and completely as possible. Muslims are no different.

So in creating a new blood libel on our own soil, Donald Trump is smuggling into our homeland the very horrors that most of us or our ancestors fled. He is attacking the essence of this country: refuge from mindless enmity and evil.

Accordingly, every one of us—and especially we Jews—should call Trump out for what he is: a profoundly un-American and profoundly dangerous demagogue, and a national shame and disgrace.