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Israel The Political Animal

A Misguided Argument About Anti-Semitism

This is not class warfare.
This is not class warfare.

(This essay originally appeared in the Algemeiner on February 11, 2014.)

In the Wall Street Journal of February 3, Harvard’s Ruth R. Wisse published an Op-Ed titled “The Dark Side of the War on ‘the One Percent.” In the article, Wisse argues for a “structural” connection between “anti-Semitism and American class conflict.” First tracing the rise of nineteenth century European anti-Semitism in the accusation that Jews took “unfair advantage of the emerging democratic order in Europe, with its promise of individual rights and competition, in order to dominate the fields of finance, culture and social ideas,” Wisse proceeds to find like grounds for potential anti-Semitic outbreak in President Obama’s and American progressives’ “sallies against Wall Street and the ‘one percent.’” She warns, therefore, against “[s]toking class envy” in a “politics of grievance directed against ‘the rich’” for fear of igniting a “politics of blame directed specifically at Jews.”

Wisse’s argument is both grievously mistaken and dangerously misguided. It is mistaken because it mischaracterizes the connection between anti-Semitism and class conflict, and it is misguided because the argument is, contrary to its concern, actually detrimental to Jewish interests.

First, when Wisse speaks of a “structural connection between a politics of blame directed specifically at Jews and a politics of grievance directed against “the rich,” she is mistaken in her use of the word “structural.” What is structural isinherent, part of the makeup of a thing. To claim that aggrieved attention to any perceived excess accumulation of wealth in a society will inevitably lead to Jews and an outbreak of anti-Semitism is oddly, inadvertently, actually to accept the anti-Semitic formulation of Jews and wealth. In any contemporary Western society, attention to wealth will at least as likely, in far greater numbers, lead the attentive to Christians, atheists and many other groups. The choice of the anti-Semitic to focus on Jews only or particularly is thus selective, not structural, a development contingent on the genuine social and psychological causes of anti-Semitism, not on a true measure of Jewish wealth and power.

Ironically, Wisse is herself selective, seemingly constructing a necessary entailment of reasons and conclusions, leading from progressive concern with gross income and wealth inequality to the incitement of anti-Semitism. Yet, just as Wisse shapes her argument by her choice of the word “structural,” so does she by her use of phraseology such as “class envy,” a “war on the one percent,” and a “politics of grievance.” The problem might well be otherwise expressed and the argument, then, otherwise viewed. Ever did those people with consider any peep of objection from those people without to be an unseemly display of envy and resentment. The Bourbons of France and the Romanovs of Russia also thought themselves set upon and, like Tom Perkins, the victims of “class warfare.”

The Bourbons and the Romanovs themselves, however, were engaged in no class warfare: they were just a feature of nature, like the course of the sun, the divine-right hand of God, or the invisible hand of the free market. (See for this last the recently passed Farm Bill.) It is not “class warfare” or envy that is stoked when state governors, like that of Wisconsin, funded by two of the wealthiest brothers in the United States, campaign (to invoke more military vocabulary) to revoke the labor rights of public employees and to set private employees with their dwindling 401k’s enviously against public-sector employees, who often enjoy the genuine pensions the resentful should wish for themselves and not seek to take from their fellows in a “politics of grievance.”

The language shapes everything. It molds the argument the writer develops. It directs the understanding of the reader to whom the argument is made. If we speak, with less bile, as I did, not of envy and grievance but of “concern with gross income and wealth inequality,” perhaps we invoke less frightening ill will. If we recall James Madison, from Federalist No. 10, who advised that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property” and that the “regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation,” then perhaps we sound less alarmingly revolutionary, or at least revolutionary in a reassuring and founding American way.

Yet while Wisse is mistaken in the language she employs, and her argument misshapen by that language, she is also misguided in the implications to which she leads by this argument.

The force of Wisse’s argument is to drive American Jews self-interestedly away from “progressivism.” This would be, to echo Wisse, a “dangerous” development. To clarify how, we must briefly attend to language again.

The term “progressive” like so much political nomenclature, opens a broad umbrella. It may, depending on individual usage, cover everyone on the left from moderate Democrats to full-out liberals to socialists to postcolonial culture warriors to recalcitrant Marxists. The farthest left of these, like the far right, have ugly histories with Jews. In the anti-Zionism of some today, they are no friends to Jews now. But among those who was also called progressive was the Republican President Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was the trust busting conservationist who dramatically expanded the national parks and signed into law the first federal food and drug legislation. In that spirit, it is American progressivism that gave birth over the twentieth century to the full range of labor and economic and social safety net protections on which Americans have come to rely almost as if they are – to choose a word – structural features of reality, though, of course, they are not. They are social enlightenments born not of envy and grievance, but of the progressive belief that the quality of a life – the inherent value of it – should not be measured by the quantification only of what that one life can earn for itself in the free market. It is American progressivism that brought us the civil rights era, with its continuing and expanding benefit in access and human dignity to so many different minorities, including Jews, for it is only that era that brought to a close, for instance, the Jewish quota at Wisse’s Harvard, and ensured, similarly, that I might be admitted to graduate school at Columbia University on merit and not denied entry by reason of my Jewish birth because of longstanding quotas there.

Progressivism made the America in which Jews may feel so secure. To think that American Jews should fear progressive interest in economic justice, progressive belief in what Madison gave us as the proper “regulation of these various and interfering interests” that arise from and expand “the various and unequal distribution of property” is to counsel Jews most unwisely against their own interests. For an America committed in belief and in policy to serving equity and justice will remain for Jews a secure home.

More strategically, with regard to the profound American-Jewish interest in Israel, Wisse’s misidentification would only exacerbate a problem that has indeed developed in the farther left reaches of Western progressivism. It is visible for all to see that Marxist-inspired post-nationalism has joined with postcolonial analyses of culture and power to fixate perversely on Israel and Jewish nationalism as the exemplars of what they oppose. The true current danger is that this irrational, though fashionable misunderstanding is leaking toward more moderate quarters of progressivism. We see this in the growing attention in academia, for instance, to the BDS campaign.

This growing tendency requires a response. It needs to be combated. One way to do that is to clarify both what true progressivism is and what Israel is, which is, in the latter case, despite the pressures of seven decades of conflict and of internal theocratic forces, a nation that has been from the start and remains, socially, astonishingly progressive. Israel’s enemies are enemies of all that is progressive. They are among the most retrograde and increasingly regressive societies in the world, and true progressives should be among Israel’s most natural allies.

But it is true, too, that the political desire to moderate, rather than amplify, systematically arising economic inequities will remain a defining feature of progressive political philosophy. Grossly mistaking and mischaracterizing that profoundly moral commitment as a danger to Jews would work to drive a wedge where one already needs to be removed. Israel and Jews need to work to maintain and recover allies whose sympathies should naturally be theirs, not to sever those ties by declaring those allies’ highest ideals a danger to Jewish interests.

That misguidance would be the danger to Jews.

AJA

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The Political Animal

See Ted Kennedy Smile

Will the the GOP’s defeat of efforts to appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau turn out to have been a Pyrrhic victory? This video says yes.

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The Political Animal

The Republican War on Workers Heats Up

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday that if Republican efforts to cut federal spending resulted in the loss of government jobs, “so be it.”

Ah, but you know – they’re government jobs, government workers, union workers, government employee union workers, barely workers, you know how they are, drawing salaries when I’m out of work, with pensions, while my plan was dissolved. It’s practically socialist. It needs to stop. They need to be stopped. Get rid of their unions. Let ‘em lose their jobs. Then we can all live the way I do. So now

Gov. Scott Walker’s (R-WI) recent “budget repair bill,” … would effectively eliminate state workers’ right to collectively bargain, and his coinciding threat to deploy the National Guard to stop a walkout. Yesterday, the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers criticized Walker, saying that collective bargaining is “fundamental” to the middle class.

Approximately 13,000 peaceful protesters flooded the state Capitol yesterday, including nearly 800 Madison East High School students who left school to protest Walker’s bill. Democratic lawmakers listened to testimonies from citizens for more than 20 hours, stretching into the early morning. Many people who hadn’t yet gotten to speak pulled out sleeping bags.

Responding to his inappropriate threat to use the National Guard against resisting workers, Walker said last night on Greta Van Susteren’s On The Record that the National Guard has contingency plans for natural disasters, and a worker “walk-off is part of [the] contingency plan”:

VAN SUSTEREN: You have the Guard on alert. Why, if that is true?

WALKER: No, in our case we have contingency plans that we put into place that are updated from where they were before. The National Guard is part of that. They would be part of that whether it is a snow emergency, tornado, earthquake, flood, anything else. And a work walk-off is part of contingency plan.

This is a first campaign in a long envisioned and prepared conservative war on unionism’s last bastion in the United States. As I wrote in

The Next GOP Assault on Working Americans: State Bankruptcy

it has been going on for over thirty years. It has taken the form of nearly stagnant wages, while the accumulation of wealth among the richest Americans has reached proportions beyond all previous measure. It grew in the increased turn to a contingent labor force, steadily shorn of worker protections, benefits, and even full-time employment, a labor force even begrudged its unemployment benefits at time of financial crisis. All of the enhanced conditions of labor with which the American worker entered the second half of the twentieth century were won for it by labor unions and labor rights activists, especially from the 1930s onwards, including those unemployment benefits. In the early 1950’s union membership peaked at somewhere between 28-35%. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data is available from the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage was down, but still at over 20%. As of 2010, according the Bureau, the percentage was down to 11.9% – 6.9 percent in the private sector. Where have the numbers maintained and grown? In public sector union membership, currently at 36.2%.

….

Once more, the wealthy, and the party of the wealthy – the GOP – have set workers upon each other to fight for the scraps, while the superrich stand back and get tax cuts.

Just the other day, one of the fomenters of insurrection in the country over the past two years, Rush Limbaugh – completely without care to the meaning of the Rep. Giffords shooting in Tucson, and the longer record of results – had this to say:

This is something that, you know, let me put it to you in terms you can understand, all right? Final comment of the day during the substantive programming content portion of the program. After the election in November, repeal Obamacare, defund it all, doesn’t happen, number of other things that voters who sent all these freshmen to Washington to stop, arrest, cease and desist, if it doesn’t happen, we go Egypt on Obama. (Emphasis added)

An idea for American workers, to adopt Limbaugh’s metaphor at the minimal level of mass protest, is to organize a nationwide influx of protesters into Wisconsin in recognition of what the struggle there represents. For while, conservatives would not accept an increase in taxes on people with incomes over $200 thousand per year – and only on the income over the $200 thousand – they can live with federal workers losing their jobs and government employees across the nation suffering their pensions to be taken from them, and their rights to bargain for wages eliminated.

Meanwhile, reported The New York Times and others,

Intent on fixing a banking system that contributed heavily to the recent financial crisis, lawmakers and regulators pushed Wall Street to overhaul its pay practices. Big banks responded by shifting more compensation into stock, a move intended to align employees’ interests more closely with those of investors and discourage excessive risk-taking.

But it turns out that executives have a way to get around those best-laid plans. Using complex investment transactions, they can limit the downside on their holdings, or even profit, as other shareholders are suffering.

More than a quarter of Goldman Sachs’s partners, a highly influential group of around 475 top executives, used these hedging strategies from July 2007 through November 2010, according to a New York Times analysis of regulatory filings. The arrangements were intended to protect their personal portfolios when the firm’s stock was highly volatile, especially at the height of the crisis.

In some cases, executives saved millions of dollars by using these tactics. One prominent Goldman investment banker avoided more than $7 million in losses over a four-month period.

Such transactions are at the center of a debate over whether Wall Street executives should be allowed to hedge their stock holdings. The concern with hedging is that executives can easily break the ties between compensation and company performance. Employees who hedge their holdings are less concerned about a falling share price. That’s why the government barred top executives at banks that received multiple bailouts from using the strategies until they paid back the funds.
….

The filings illustrate how routinely Goldman’s executives used the strategies. From July 2007 through November 2010, at least 135 partners used options to protect themselves from stock drops or to profit if shares held steady.

Several used such transactions routinely. Among them: David J. Greenwald, Goldman’s deputy general counsel overseeing its international businesses; Peter C. Aberg, a senior executive in the mortgage group; and Jack Levy, co-chairman of mergers and acquisitions. Howard Wietschner, the co-head of a hedge fund advisory group, had at least 32 such arrangements.

Shareholders over the same period endured roller coaster volatility. Goldman shares peaked at $248 in fall 2007 before dropping to $52 a year later after Lehman Brothers failed. At $164.83 on Friday, the stock still has not reached its former highs.

Regulators are taking a hard look at the practices. The Financial Stability Board, a group of global banking supervisors, wants firms to restrict employees from using the strategies. The Federal Reserve is examining hedging in its review of bank compensation.

Over these three decades and more, conservatives have pointedly highlighted any speech suggestive of class warfare. Spread the wealth around? Why, certainly not. It should be concentrated in the bank accounts of a few. That has to be the Lord’s plan. Besides, they earned it fair and square – just like those Goldman Sachs partners.

This is class warfare, and it’s being waged by oligarchic predators and the conservative business, political, and media activists who are their centurions on the working people of the country.

AJA

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