Friday, June 26, 2009

The Numbing Code of Hatespeech

In a recent post (I Just Don't Get It), I wondered out loud why so much of the criticism of President Obama is on the one hand so vicious and hateful and on the other hand seems to make so little sense. My article clearly struck a nerve with many people on both sides of the issue as it generated more than 110 strong comments.

It's sad but expected to see these types of over-the-top distortions during election campaigns--and we did. But once the country has made its choice and a four-year, no-cut contract is given to a new president, it is normal and logical for everyone to come together for at least a while to see how the new guy does.

But we are seeing the exact opposite. Since Obama took office six months ago, the hate, anger, distortions, and demonization has only picked up in volume and intensity--even as he has attacked head-on the numerous disasters and challenges he inherited.

I talked about this in my last article and was still left scratching my head. I just didn't get it.

Then Bill Maher came here to Aspen. He seemed to get it perfectly and gave us his version of the answer. "You know why all these Republicans and Right wingers are calling Obama a socialist, and a Nazi, and a terrorist, and a secret Muslim? Because they can't call him the word they really want to use. Nigger."

That sounded a little harsh to me but his audience--the average age was well above 60--all seemed to be nodding their heads and sending knowing glances back and forth.

The N-word is a little jarring for my taste but it got me thinking--and doing a little research. First I Googled "obama nigger" and came up with half a million links. . That seemed like a lot.

So I went further and checked a few of them out. Not pretty.

But aren't these racists really part of the radical fringe? Certainly most of them are. But all those liberals who were nodding their heads at Bill Maher's comments were saying something as well. As I've said repeatedly, I just don't get it. So let's dig deeper. is arguably the New York Times of Conservative websites. All of the top Right wing commentators post there. So when I get an email from Townhall offering me 50 percent off on their latest bumper sticker, that's pretty Republican mainstream. And what is that sticker? It is a clever jab stating "Somewhere In Kenya, A Village Is Missing It's Idiot." The promotion goes on to point out that it is a well-known fact that President Obama was born in Kenya--not in Hawaii as his birth certificate says--so not only is he an idiot, he is a Black African idiot.

I then hear about the Missouri state legislator Cynthia Davis--the chair of the House Standing Committee on Families and Children--who has stated her strong opposition to continuing the government meal programs that provide free lunches to poor children through the summer. Ms. Davis points out that the program ignores the value of hunger as a motivational tool and she goes on to point out that giving hungry kids free meals in a group setting undermines family bonding. Her amazing and outrageous position (which she repeated several times during her week of notoriety) received national attention and now is yesterday's news.

But as someone who was born and raised in Missouri, I heard the Republican legislator and mother of seven from O'Fallon loud and clear. In Missouri, when you talk about programs for the poor, you mean handouts to black, neglected children from St. Louis and Kansas City whose irresponsible families are being supported by the good American (white) citizens of the rural counties who have the right values and raise their children properly. You just have to know the code.

And then there are the upscale Republican Women of Anne Arundel County (MD) who came out on their website last week encouraging all their members to wear something patriotic (and comfortable shoes) to the Annapolis Fourth of July parade. That was right above the paragraph in which their president wrote a piece comparing Obama to Hitler. Like Rep. Davis of Missouri, the suburban Washington D.C. ladies were upbraided on national television and eventually removed the attack from their site claiming it was the opinion of one person--not the organization. No apology from the group--but then again they only compared the new president of United States to a genocidal murderer. No big deal.

Yet another example comes from Republican strategist Frank Gaffney who declared after our president's amazing speech to the Muslim world in Cairo that Obama may "still" be a Muslim--our first Black Muslim terrorist president. He cites numerous code phrases used by Obama during his Cairo speech that gave him away. In his Washington Times column Gaffney goes on to say Obama might not be a Muslim but he is certainly like Hitler.

There's that Hitler thing again. Is it only crazy radicals who would make such an outrageous connection? Apparently not. A Google check of "Obama Hitler" yielded almost 7 MILLION links. The "Obama Hitler Similarities" check came up with only 1.6 million. As with "Obama Nigger" it makes for some pretty shocking reading and viewing.

So what's going on here? I have said that I just don't get it and even after Bill Maher's epiphany it is still somewhat confusing. Maybe it's that vicious spurious attacks have become so numbingly common that they're just part of the background noise. But I'm paying more attention to the code of hatespeech and things are becoming a little clearer. And a lot more depressing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I Just Don't Get It

Is it just me or does more and more of what we see and read in the media make no sense? Why do so many seemingly intelligent people keep repeating lies and distortions as though they were true? Why do those same people speak in the present or future tense about things that have already happened? Why do "journalists" seek responses and reactions to these distortions as though they were real news instead of just ignoring them? I just don't get it.

For example, I keep hearing concerns and warnings about President Obama's socialist plan to redistribute the wealth in our country. But we know for a fact that has already happened.

Over the last eight years, we have witnessed the greatest redistribution of wealth in our country's history. We saw unprecedented amounts moved from average investors and workers into the pockets of those who run companies and work on Wall Street. We have seen the Bush tax cuts tilt the playing field to reward the richest Americans at the expense of everyone else. Those aren't opinions--those are facts.

Although I haven't seen statistics, I am certain that we now have more Americans who earn more in a month than the average worker makes in a whole year than ever before. And yet, now that the horse is out of the barn, there is a huge outcry that Obama wants to redistribute the wealth. I just don't get it.

Critics are also wringing their hands and screaming on a daily basis on the radio, Fox News, and CNBC that the Obama government is taking over businesses, deciding how much money executives in private companies should make, and destroying the free market system that has served us so well over the years.

But wait a minute. That system DIDN'T serve us well at all. It brought us to the brink of economic meltdown. Last year the conservative free market Treasury secretary Henry Paulson gathered the heads of all the major banks in a room and ordered them to accept $125 billion in TARP money immediately. He told the country that without an immediate $800 billion government bailout, our whole world financial system would collapse.

This was LAST year, when Bush was still president. You remember Bush. He's the guy who told us weekly that the economy was fundamentally sound right up until the minute that his Treasury secretary accurately told us we were on the verge of falling into the abyss.

Bush is the guy who spent more than a trillion on the Iraq war (including hundreds of millions in cash that were thrown off the back of trucks (to appease the Iraqi masses) and billions in no-bid contracts to his buddies and contributors from Blackwater, Halliburton, and others who have since been charged with ripping off the American people. He's the guy who passed the prescription drug benefit with no discussion or apparent concern regarding how we would pay for it. He's the guy who took a budget surplus and in eight years more than doubled the national debt to over than $10 trillion.

At no time during this bankrupting of our country during good economic times did the subject of how we were going to pay for all this ever come up in the Republican-controlled Congress or from the White House. Never. Instead the richest Americans got tax cuts and we were all told to go shopping and keep borrowing.

Now all of Bush's former supporters and defenders have suddenly become fiscal conservatives and are screaming their outrage claiming that Obama wants to do what Bush and Cheney have already done--run up trillions in deficits and bury the country in debt. Only unlike Bush and Cheney, Obama has an excuse--the economy is in a death spiral. Politics aside, this criticism coming from the very people who created the problem seems to make no sense. I just don't get it.

They claim that Obama wants to take over and run our banks and auto makers. But these banks and auto makers were broke and came to Washington on bended knee asking for life support. The leaders of these companies made hundreds of millions of dollars for themselves while they made stupid and greedy decisions that ran their companies (and our economy) into the ground and jeopardized the jobs of hundreds of thousands of their workers.

So Obama has come up with money to save the economy but now insists that the same people and practices that created this mess will not be allowed to continue on the taxpayer's dime. He has never talked about putting conditions and restrictions on a successful company. If he was taking over and running Google or Apple or Procter and Gamble then his critics might have a point. But we're talking about American corporate institutions that were destroyed by incompetent, greedy managers.

And for this, CNBC's Larry Kudlow and the Fox News chorus scream out in harmony that our president is a socialist who is stifling free enterprise and ruining the system that made America great. It seems pretty clear that he is actually insisting that we change the approach that led the economy off a cliff. I just don't get it.

Finally, we are now dealing with the election in Iran. Obama's response has been measured, smart, and consistent according to most people including a broad range of conservative commentators. But the Right wing attack dogs have been relentlessly critical from the moment the election ended and it became clear that there were irregularities to the last few days when Iranian demonstrators have been shot in the street.

It has been striking to watch Republican lawmakers like Saxby Chambliss, John McCain, Lindsay Graham and others talk about how our president has a responsibility to to get very involved in the internal election process of another country where it appears there have been irregularities that caused the wrong person to win.

I'm old enough--and so are they--to remember our own presidential election of eight years ago. Many around the world believe that Bush's brother, the Florida secretary of state, and a Republican Supreme Court stole the presidency of the United States from its rightful winner. Reasonable people can disagree about whether that actually happened but there is no doubt that there was at least the impression of impropriety.

How would these Republicans who are so critical of Obama have weighed in if the leaders of France, Germany, or Saudi Arabia tried to become actively involved in helping us sort out what happened? What if they questioned the accuracy of our results and the morality of our elected officials and said they could not sit quietly by and watch the will of the people overwhelmed by politics? It's a rhetorical question. We all know the answer. And oh, by the way, I just don't get it.

Obama responded perfectly in his news conference when he said that these critics have the luxury of shooting from the hip and saying whatever they want. He's the only one who is President of the United States and has to think before he talks. As one commentator put it, "Obama is playing chess while the rest of these guys are playing checkers. He's thinking ten moves down the road while they are thinking about today's news cycle."

I have only met Obama once and don't know him well. He has made some mistakes and will surely make more. By the way, he has been sharply criticized by members of his own party and Left-leaning commentators like Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, and Keith Olberman for several his statements and positions. He has also been praised by those same people. THAT I GET.

But I can't understand the level and intensity of attacks that are being levelled at a man who, by all assessments, has surrounded himself with good people of both parties, who has brought our economy back from the brink of collapse, and who has three times as many Americans believing we are now on the right track as felt that way six months ago.

If there was an election coming up next month then it might make sense. But Obama is just a few months into a four year, no-cut contract. We are at war. He inherited an economy that was and still is a disaster. He was given the ball in the top of the ninth with his team behind 9-0 and told to go out and win the game. Is it fair to blame him for the loss if his team comes back to lose 9-7?

He's going to need a lot of luck and all of our support but instead he has been greeted with a solid barrage of unfair criticism from people who claim to be patriotic and care about our country.

I just don't get it.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

My Pro-Israel Friends Need Pro-zac

Before writing this, I think it is important to talk a little about who I am.

For the last 25 years, my involvement in the Jewish community and Israel have shaped my life. I have chaired campaigns, led missions, and served on the boards of Israel Bonds, Federation, United Jewish Appeal, CLAL, AIPAC, and two Jewish day schools. I have made 20 trips to Israel and studied Jewish texts religiously (I couldn't resist the pun). I still work hard, serve on and chair boards of, and have great affection for those organizations and take my Judaism very seriously. Jewish wisdom is the filter through which I try to run the major decisions in my life.

That's why I am so shocked and dismayed over the debilitating pathology that has gripped much of the organized Jewish community today--particularly those of my friends who proudly call themselves "pro-Israel."

What was once a proud, smart, intelligent, nuanced, and diverse movement has devolved into a combination cult-booster club championed by a handful of amazing people who lead a throng of angry, paranoid, one-issue folks with tunnel vision who often blur the difference between being a player and a fan.

Many of these people are my good friends--folks I really like, hang out with, and respect for most of what they do. That's what makes this so sad.

The deterioration of logic and perspective has been building for a while but it kicked into high gear over the last year when my Jewish friends discovered the power of blast emails. Suddenly ominous screeds decrying acts of anti-semitism and Israel hatred (most of them full of lies and distortions) started flying around the internet like shrapnel.

The senders seemed far more interested in being the first to share the latest tale of outrage than they were in determining the truth of what they were forwarding. I commented on this phenomenon last year (There's Never Enough Anti-Semitism to Make Some Jews Happy) and again when the hatred and paranoia hit new levels with the demonization of Obama during the presidential campaign.

While all this was going on, these same people were sending me more and more blasts making sure that I never forgot that 6 million of our people were killed by "them" during the Holocaust along with constant reminders that Obama was a secret Muslim, a friend of terrorists, not really an American, and wanted to destroy Israel. On a more pleasant note, there were constant triumphalist reminders of how fabulous and accomplished the Jewish people are and testimonials from real or fabricated Israelis telling us how wonderful things are in our homeland but that they need our hopes and prayers.

Discussion--a hallmark of Jewish interaction--was not encouraged. We were often instructed to forward the email to hundreds of our friends if we agreed--whatever that means--but we were told to simply delete it if we took issue with anything.

This was the biggest red flag of all. Judaism has survived and grown against all odds over the years due to its focus on dialogue and discussion. We are instructed by the Talmud to learn from all people. We are the people of "reply to all," not of "delete." We have always been the people of factcheck--not those who blindly race to forward provocative lies in order to be first in line.

This pathology seemed to peak last week after President Obama delivered his amazing speech in Cairo.

As most Americans, Israelis, and the rest of the world expressed their hope and admiration, my Jewish pro-Israel friends were going crazy with fear and anger. My strong suspicion is that few, if any, of them actually listened to Obama's speech. They were simply forwarding emails they received from self-proclaimed pro-Israel writers who knew before Obama opened his mouth that they would hate what he said.

Some have characterized me as an Obama apologist who will defend him no matter what he does. I admit that I am thrilled that Obama is our president but he doesn't need me to defend him. Many of his critics seem to have forgotten that the election is over and we have Obama as our president for the next 43 months regardless. We can't get upset over a speech and vote him out of office tomorrow. It doesn't work that way.

My agenda is not to defend Obama. It's to keep our conversation focused and balanced and to weed out the lies, distortions, anger, paranoia and triumphalism that have fouled our collective garden in recent years.

As bad as these qualities are, they are not the biggest loss we have suffered from this phenomenon.

That loss is the lack of focus on many of the challenges and issues that we need to confront as a people that get completely lost in the din created by the pro-Israel cult.

For example, with all the legitimate concern expressed over Iran and the Palestinian terrorists who want Israel, Jews, and America destroyed (all valid concerns), there is no discussion at all of the fact that Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a religious Jewish terrorist named Yigal Amir who to this day is regarded as a hero by most religious Israelis. Although he remains proud of his murderous act, the pardon of Amir is supported by a shocking 30 percent of all Israelis. Worth a discussion?

There has been much emailing accurately documenting the continuous bombing of Sderot and other locations near Gaza which prompted the Israeli incursion and bombing of that area months ago. I haven't heard a word, however, about the press accounts documenting that prominent Israeli rabbis were encouraging soldiers to behave cruelly and "show no mercy" to the Gaza civilians they encountered. Worth a discussion?

Ultimately, the "other"--in this case the Palestinian leaders and Muslims in general--are portrayed as being completely unwilling and/or disinterested in engaging in productive peace negotiations. Many of them deserve that criticism. But the implication is that their Jewish and Israeli counterparts are far more open-minded, and eager for peace.

My friend Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic--a Jewish American who lived and served as a West Bank prison guard in the Israeli army--shared this disquieting piece in his blog. This is a must-see for my many triumphalist Jewish friends. if you don't open any other links in this post, please watch this one. Worth a discussion? Have you received a copy of this from your Jewish pro-Israel friends?

What does it mean for an American Jew to be pro-Israel anyway? We are lucky enough to live at a time when any of us could literally move there tomorrow if we really wanted to or cared that much. We could vote in their elections and have our kids serve in the Israeli army and be full participants in the future of the Jewish homeland. Short of that, we could learn to communicate in Hebrew and own second or third or fourth homes there. That's what my Israeli friends have told me they would like us to do.

But none of my most strident pro-Israel American friends have done any of those things. They just pontificate, forward emails, get more and more afraid and angry, and try to convince others to do the same. Call me a self-hating Jew, but I don't think this is a good thing.

Now a growing number of those friends tell me they have never been more fearful than they are right now and I am right there with them. It's just that we are afraid for different reasons. They are worried that Obama has a secret agenda to "slit Israel's throat" and deliver the Jewish state into the hands of its enemies. I can't find a single reason to share that concern. Everything Obama has said and done and the team he has chosen to help him deal with the Middle East gives me reason for great hope.

My fear is that the principles of fairness, honesty, and intellectual rigor and the values that have made and kept Judaism great and vibrant over the centuries are being cast aside by a group of people who call themselves leaders and mean well but who now define being Jewish and pro-Israel as a spectator sport.

They sit in the stands screaming at the refs and complaining about the dirty play of the other team--often justifiably. But they no longer look in the mirror and focus on the one thing that we can actually do something about--how we can do better and take our own game to a higher level.

Unless and until we define being pro-Israel and seriously Jewish as involving BOTH of those behaviors then we will truly have reason to be very afraid.