The Democrats and the need for an anti-interventionist foreign policy – posted 2/17/2019

February 17, 2019 Leave a comment

With more Democrats announcing their candidacy for President everyday, one central policy question emerges: will the Democrats in 2020 pursue a foreign policy that is different than the Republicans?

A strong argument can be made that unlike on domestic policy, where there are stark differences, the two parties have a one-party foreign policy. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, it was not apparent that there was any difference between Trump and Clinton. As a supporter of the Iraq War and as a foreign policy hawk, Clinton was in a weak position to offer an alternative to Trump.

In 2018, when Republicans pushed increasing the military budget $165 billion over two years, hardly any Democrats opposed it.

The Democrats need to go a different route in 2020. Instead of mimicking Republicans, Democrats should pursue a fundamentally different, less interventionist foreign policy. The Democrats must act to cut the military budget. The world has dramatically changed since the end off the Cold War but both parties continue to act like the same circumstances are at play.

Instead of learning from historical experience, neither party has integrated lessons that should have been learned from our disastrous military interventions of the last sixty years. With our web of military bases all over the world, we prepare to intervene in every hotspot worldwide, immediately, if any threat is perceived.

Both our experiences in Vietnam and Iraq should dictate a more modest and strategically smart foreign policy. America cannot be the world’s policeman. We should have learned that lesson but we haven’t. There is a mystifying lack of discussion about strategy in what we are trying to accomplish internationally.

No clear goals are articulated. Confusion reigns as to where our national security faces a real threat. Trump’s foreign policy of cozying up to Putin and dictators everywhere while shredding old alliances stands in opposition to any notion of democratic values. It appears to be Steve Bannon’s dream of a Fascist International.

At the same time, American empire bumps up against so many nation’s rights to self-determination. Politicians throw money at the Pentagon, not wanting to be perceived as weak on defense. The end result is a senseless muddle, leading to a continuation of endless Middle Eastern wars and kneejerk imperialism.

I would submit that learning from the Vietnam and Iraq experiences would move us in a different direction. In both wars, Americans were lied into quagmires, with horrendous unforeseen consequences. Over 58,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese died and for what? The Iraq war has taken and continues to take its own brutal toll. The alleged reason for our intervention was a fraud: there were no weapons of mass destruction.

In both situations, Congress took a back seat to White Houses that lied without compunction. Yet, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress – not the President – the responsibility to declare war.

You might think the harm caused would have led to a deep reassessment but it has not. We continue to act like it is a Cold War world with threats everywhere. Mention the word “terrorism” and the U.S. military will have an expeditionary force waiting in the wings.

This is not learning from experience. Our real national security threat is climate change. It is not another national state rival or terrorism. The spread of fascist and authoritarian governments around the world is a threat to America but it is not a threat we should be militarily engaging. Protecting human rights, the rule of law and democratic government can best be exported by the power of its practice at home.

Part of what makes the anti-interventionist transition so hard is the economic strength of our military-industrial complex. The weapons industries that feed off war want their gravy train to continue. They lobby hard.

A major challenge is demonstrating how a bloated and overfunded military budget leads to underfunding domestic infrastructure and priorities. There is a direct relationship there. Absurdly, the U.S. government spends more on the military than the next ten nations combined, with minimal public discussion about whether such a level of funding is even reasonable. Hint: it is not.

For anti-interventionists, a great place to begin is challenging current priorities such as U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Here is one summary of that war written by Robert Worth:

“Yemen now has the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the worst cholera outbreak in recorded history and among the highest rate of child malnutrition. An estimated 16 million people, more than half the country’s population are threatened by starvation.”

Unconscionably, America has contributed to the death toll by selling huge quantities of arms to the Saudis which they have used in Yemen. Notably, we have sold fighter planes and the F-15. Saudi Arabia is our number one weapons customer.. The Saudis have earned a reputation for indiscriminate bombing of civilians, using our bombs and cluster munitions. These airstrikes are war crimes. Over the last four years, 10,000 civilians have been killed and 40,000 more have been wounded.

Between April 2015 and October 2018, 84,701 children have died from severe acute malnutrition. Reporters describe skeletal, starving children filling already overcrowded hospitals with huge numbers begging for help everywhere.

The Senate has advanced a resolution to remove most U.S. troops in Yemen and to rescind all U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia related to its war in Yemen. Democrats unanimously voted in favor as did some prominent Republicans. The bill passed 56 to 41. The bill is a major step in wresting back some war powers from the executive branch. If the bill passes the House, it will very likely face a veto from President Trump.

Still, for the Democrats, staking out independent stands, like on Yemen, will be most important. The Democrats’ best chance in 2020 is to pose dramatic alternatives to the moral collapse and corruption represented by Trump. It will be interesting to see who will stand for something new and who will represent the same old, same old.

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Where Immigration Restrictionism Has Led – posted 1/27/2019

January 27, 2019 Leave a comment

Those who chant “build the wall” and who favor highly restrictive immigration policy need a history lesson. America has had experience with imposing extremely restrictive immigration quotas. In the period before and during World War II, extreme immigration restrictionism held sway.

The results speak volumes: the restrictive quotas were an unmitigated disaster.

There are some clear parallels between the pre-World War II period and our own time. Because of violence and the threat of persecution, unprecedented numbers became refugees. Americans in the 1930’s and early 1940’s worried refugees would take their jobs. The fear was that new immigrants would compete with low-skilled workers and would drive down wages. High unemployment during the Depression reinforced that fear.

Also, some Americans saw immigrants as threatening the national culture because the immigrants were allegedly not assimilating. Proponents of the 1924 Immigration Act favored Northern Europeans over Jews, Catholics and Italians.

Even before World War II, laws from the 1920’s imposed narrow and specific limits on the number who could immigrate to the United States in any given year. The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, especially Jews. The law also effectively prohibited all Asians from immigrating to America.

Strong currents of nativism led many lawmakers to line up on the immigration restrictionist side. America Firsters of that time saw immigrants as representing a threat to the nation’s well-being.

How this played out for Jews seeking relief from Hitler and the Nazis is an object lesson. While people can rightly point to Nazi antisemitism and the Nazis’ accompanying violence, the sad reality is that it was the American unwillingness to offer refuge that was a central cause of the poor response to the Nazis’ monstrous crimes.

Leading up to World War II and during the war, the American State Department (and the FDR Administration) had no intention of resettling large numbers of European Jews in the United States. In fact, the State Department feared Hitler might release tens of thousands of Jews into Allied hands.

The U.S. government under FDR never developed any contingency plan for large scale Jewish immigration nor did they ever seriously get behind rescue options, even after 1942 when the Nazi extermination plan became widely known.

U.S. government officials also feared German refugees could be spies and they worried such immigrants could threaten national security.

A dark truth is that the United States could have saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis but the immigration restrictionists and their supporters prevented it. Anti-immigrant and antisemitic attitudes were widespread.

In February 1939, two members of Congress, Senator Robert Wagner,a Democrat from New York, and Representative Edith Rogers, a Republican from Massachusetts, introduced a bill to allow an additional 20,000 German Jewish children above the allowed quota to immigrate to the United States.

The bill’s opponents took an America First approach to rejecting refugees. The argument made by opponents was that America should focus on helping its own needy citizens, rather than taking in anyone new. The bill never even made it to a vote in Congress. It did not get out of committee.

A Gallup poll from January 1939 asked if Americans would support bringing even 10,000 German refugee children into the United States. Public opinion ran 2:1 against. While polls were less rigorous in those days, there is little reason to doubt its accuracy.

For those who might think knowledge of the Nazi crimes against the Jews was not sufficiently publicized, I would point out that Kristallnacht happened in November 1938. Kristallnacht was a pogrom in which 267 synagogues throughout Germany and Austria were destroyed or damaged, along with vandalism of 7,000 Jewish businesses. The Nazis arrested 30,000 Jewish men and put them in concentration camps. The Nazis also ransacked Jewish homes, hospitals and schools.

Many newspapers, including the New York Times, reported on Kristallnacht and condemned it. It is a hard argument to say Americans were unaware of the Nazi crimes although many never imagined Nazi persecution would lead to genocide. The sad reality is that Americans remained largely indifferent to the plight of Germany’s Jews.

After Kristallnacht, more Jews fled Germany for survival. Hannah Arendt has described the response to the pre-World War II refugee crisis:

“The refugees were welcomed nowhere and could be assimilated nowhere. Once they had left their homeland, they remained homeless, once they left their state they remained stateless, once they had been deprived of their human rights, they were rightless , the scum of the earth.”

Arendt’s quote speaks directly to our time as well. The view of immigrants she describes could be now. Those who favor the application of international law are demagogued as favoring open borders. Dehumanization of immigrants and a failure to understand the circumstances driving them is the new normal.

After World War II, the United States, in an effort of rectification , advanced asylum law to help people fleeing persecution. There was a desire not to repeat the experience that had befallen Jewish refugees.

Recent experience shows America is backsliding, unlearning the lessons about refugees from World War II. We used to think we had a moral obligation to help people fleeing persecution. Now, on our southern border, our government is repeating the same errors made eighty years ago.

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Lenny Bruce and My Uncle Dave – revised version, posted 1/13/2019

January 13, 2019 1 comment

Six years ago, I wrote an earlier version of this piece which I have now revised and updated substantially. I tried to get the Philadelphia Inquirer to publish it, without success. Jon

When I was 10 years old, I had my first experience with the law. My dad took me to court in downtown Philadelphia. It was the early 1960’s and it was not just any court. It was the court where my uncle, the Honorable E. David Keiser, presided. Uncle Dave was a magistrate in the lower courts in Philadelphia.

I do not remember much about that day but some details remain vivid. It was right after New Years Day. I sat up on the bench with Uncle Dave which I thought was cool.

The only case I remember was a case where the defendant was a transvestite. I think he was being prosecuted for being a transvestite. The case involved some New Year’s eve revelry. For a sheltered kid from the suburbs, this was eye-opening stuff.

One other thing I do remember. My dad pointed out a guy in the back of the courtroom. My dad said.”That’s the bag man”. I did not know about courts or bag men. My dad explained it to me. The bag man was the guy who took bribes and payoffs. Apparently, the magistrate got a cut, as did others.

I puzzled over that. The bagman was so publicly out there and he appeared to be just another part of the normal court proceedings.

Uncle Dave was not a lawyer. Back in those days, being a lawyer was not a necessary prerequisite for becoming a magistrate in Philadelphia. Uncle Dave first got elected magistrate in 1941 and he was continuously reelected through 1965.

My mom told me Uncle Dave was a neighborhood bigshot, kind of a mini-rock star. He circulated and gave away small amounts of money and candy to neighborhood kids. He and his girl friend Tina lived in the same building as my grandmother at 2601 Parkway in Philadelphia.

I found out some years back that the legendary comedian Lenny Bruce had appeared before my Uncle Dave. It turned out that Lenny has a long bit about his Philadelphia bust and court appearance on his album “Lenny Bruce Live at the Curran Theater”.

For those who may not know anything about Lenny Bruce, some explanation is in order. Before there was Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Chris Rock, there was Lenny Bruce. It seems tame to say he was an original bad boy. Lenny was a fearless boundary pusher, way ahead of his time. He was committed to exposing The Lie.

Readers might have seen Lenny’s character in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. He shows up as a character in the show.

Lenny upset many people in that unforgiving era. I suppose he was most famous for talking dirty but that is a shallow perspective on his artistry. He was a compulsive, no-holds-barred, truth teller. He prided himself on not repeating the same dopey routines. As his career evolved, he went free form in comedy, talking about whatever was on his mind. In this respect, he was a forerunner of comedians like Carlin.

During the 5 year period from 1961 until the year he died in 1966, Lenny was actively persecuted and he faced a number of narcotics and obscenity charges. The Philadelphia narcotics bust, along with another 1961 obscenity bust in San Francisco, provide much of the the material for his Curran Theater performance.

Lenny came to Philadelphia in September 1961 to perform at the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken. The Red Hill was a nationally famous jazz club of that era.

When he arrived in Philadelphia, Lenny went to a local doctor and then a pharmacy to have his prescriptions filled. Lenny was a serious drug addict.

As Lenny recounts, four Philadelphia police officers came to his hotel room and repeatedly knocked on the door. Lenny was in bed and he yelled back that he did not want to be disturbed. The cops broke the door down. The cops had a search warrant and they were hunting for drugs and drug paraphernalia. One cop said,

“Hey, whaddya doin’ with all these books here? Hee-hee!“, as he read the titles. Lenny replied,” I smoke them at night. They’re all dipped in secret sticklach…I’ll tell you something if you’re ever in a strange town, just clip the ad for the local jazz club out of the paper, roll it up and smoke it – and you’ll be right out of your kayach.”

After being bailed out, Lenny started calling lawyers. He said he went through 15. He got referred to a criminal defense lawyer named Gary Levy. Lenny asked him, “Okay how much is this going to cost me?”. Levy replied, “Lenny, this will cost you $10,000.” “What”.Lenny exploded, “That’s a telephone number! Are you crazy?”

Levy responded that he had to give money to the D.A.’s Office, to Magistrate Keiser, to the police, the bail bondsman, and he, of course, needed his fee. Lenny then tried to bargain Levy down from $10,000 to $5,000 and then $3,500. No deal was reached and Lenny said he was going to sleep on it. That night he decided to fire Levy and he went to the press. He told reporters, “Magistrate Keiser is a crook”. He had decided to name names and quote prices. He explained that Attorney Levy had made the offer.

When Levy was asked about Lenny’s allegation, Levy said, “He’s a liar. He’s a sick kid. The kid’s crazy.” Levy said he would sue Lenny for slander. Levy went on to say: “I wouldn’t know who to pay off. Payoffs certainly are not going on in the courts of our land.”

When Magistrate Keiser was asked about the bribery charge, he said, “This is the first time I have heard anything of this nature…But it sounds ridiculous”.

Lenny had never been to court before the Philadelphia bust. He described his view of judges this way. “I thought judges were …”I listen, I am wise, the scales. I listen to all, then I weigh what I hear”.

When Lenny appeared in court, Magistrate Keiser led off with, “This looks like a sinister character to me.” He was so prejudiced that Lenny said there was no need for a D.A.. Lenny described Keiser as ” a momser, my first villain, and my first lover who did me in and told a lie.”

This is how Albert Goldman, Lenny’s biographer described Keiser:.

“On a salary of $18,000 a year, he has become a rich man, presiding over his business in bribes and gratuities from a palatially furnished office better suited to a big corporation head than it is to a local judge.”

Lenny realized that if he paid a bribe he would become a mark for crooked cops and judges all over the country. There is a tradition in America of big-name entertainers and politicians settling problems by payoffs in order to salvage their careers. Donald Trump’s payments to silence Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal are very much in this tradition.

Lenny wanted to fight it out on the law which he believed in. I do not know for sure but I would not be surprised if Lenny’s famous saying, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls” comes from this experience. The case against Lenny was eventually dropped by a grand jury but this was just the beginning of his troubles.

It is now over 50 years past the events I have described. I saw the bag man in Magistrate Keiser’s court. Lenny did not deserve the persecution he received. Years of legal battles broke him and turned him into a self-described “drug addict meshuganah”. All the fights cost him a fortune and stressed him beyond the breaking point.

As for my Uncle Dave, in 1966 he received a 21 count indictment for bribery, extortion, and perversion of public justice. In 1971, after a lengthy court battle, The Pennsylvania Supreme Court removed him from the bench.

Albert Goldman accurately wrote that Lenny worshiped the gods of spontaneity, candor and free association. I think he is an insufficiently appreciated American hero and comic genius. In writing this piece, I wanted to honor his memory and encourage people to listen. He is still funny.

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It is past time to restore and raise the minimum wage in New Hampshire – posted 1/6/2019

January 6, 2019 Leave a comment

Back in 2012, a small group of fast food workers in New York launched the Fight for $15 movement. In the six years since the movement started, the success of the effort to raise the minimum wage has been remarkable.

Twenty-two million low wage workers have gotten a raise. The National Employment Law Project estimates the movement has won $68 billion in raises. Twenty states and two dozen local jurisdictions have dramatically upped their minimum wages, including all New England states, with the exception of New Hampshire.

All the dire predictions about the adverse consequences of minimum wage increases have proven to be false. Contrary to the doomsayers, the sky has not fallen and in many jurisdictions, employment has actually increased.

Massachusetts and Vermont are raising their state minimum wage to $15, effective in 2023 and 2024 respectively. Massachusetts is now at $12 an hour and Vermont is now at $11.50 an hour. Maine has approved a $12 an hour minimum wage, effective in 2020.

So what is with New Hampshire? The minimum wage in New Hampshire is $7.25 an hour. It is not enough to say we are contrarian. That is too nice. In this instance, New Hampshire government is anti-worker, callously out of touch with what it costs to live today.

Low wages translate into workers living in poverty.

In 2011, our state legislature repealed the state minimum wage law. Because the federal minimum wage pre-empted state law, New Hampshire was prevented from crashing under the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. If not for the federal law, New Hampshire would have had no wage floor.

Exploitation could have become the new normal.

I recall earlier minimum wage fights in New Hampshire when advocates fought to raise the state minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour. It took five legislative efforts over a period of ten years to achieve that raise which passed in the 2007 legislative session.

So many of the old arguments against a minimum wage increase are the same as you hear now: it will hurt business, especially small business. It will require price increases and it will cause hourly cuts and job losses. If those arguments have merit, how come so many states have successfully raised the minimum wage with good economic results?

For low wage workers, raising the minimum wage is a much needed step to help overcome decades of stagnating wages. Both low wage and middle income workers have experienced stagnating wages for the last forty years.

While the harm has been significant for both low and middle income workers, it is low wage workers who have been particularly hammered. The cost of living, especially the cost of housing, health care, and higher education have outpaced wages. The terrible crisis of homelessness is one outcome.

Recognizing that low wages is a problem is something that those with the most income, wealth, and political power have tried to obscure but weak wage growth is a result of deliberate and intentional policy choices by the powerful. The income of the one percent has not been stagnant – it has skyrocketed. Policy choices can be reversed as many states are showing.

I have to say I am struck by the fact that Massachusetts is implementing a minimum wage that is double the New Hampshire minimum. How to explain that? The disparity is enormous.

When I previously worked as a lobbyist in the New Hampshire legislature, I learned the rule to never use a Massachusetts example to make your case. Massachusetts was Taxachusetts. It was the Big Satan to the south, full of rules and regulations. You have to ask though: how can one state be so much more generous to its workers than the other?

Polling shows that raising the minimum wage to at least $12.50 an hour is massively popular with Americans across the board. Even raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 is supported by 63% of Americans. Those who believe this is just a blue state phenomenon are wrong.

In the 2018 mid-terms, voters in Arkansas and Missouri approved ballot initiatives raising the minimum wage. Arkansas is moving up to $11 an hour and Missouri, through some steps, is going from $7.85 an hour to $12 an hour.

I saw that there are bills in the upcoming New Hampshire legislature to restore and raise the minimum wage in our state. With the Democratic majorities in both Houses, passage of minimum wage legislation is an almost certain likelihood. It will be interesting to see how Governor Sununu responds.

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George Soros and the Antisemitic Stereotype – posted 12/24/2018

December 24, 2018 4 comments

There is a long history of people on the far right casting Jews as malign puppet masters, who work behind the scenes to manipulate both national and international events for their selfish gain. The puppet master is always fantastically wealthy, greedy and amoral.

In our era, the puppet master stereotype has been embodied by George Soros. Few people, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, have been more vilified by the far right. Both the number and intensity of the attacks on Soros are astounding.

President Trump has tweeted that Soros had paid professionals to demonstrate against his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter posted that Soros controlled the Honduran migrant caravan. President Trump’s son, Donald Jr., retweeted a claim from comedian Roseanne Barr that Soros “was a nazi who turned in his fellow Jews”.

The actor James Woods tweeted that Soros was “satanic”. Trump attorney, Rudi Giuliani, retweeted a post calling Soros “the anti-Christ”. On Twitter, Soros has been accused of supporting both Colin Kaepernick and the mass shooter at Las Vegas.

Outside the United States, especially in Eastern Europe, Soros has achieved an even greater level of notoriety, with nationalist and authoritarian governments running propaganda campaigns against him.

So who is this alleged puppet master with his fingers in so many pies?

The short answer is that Soros is a Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist. Soros was born Gyorgy Schwartz into a Jewish family in Budapest. Because of the rise of the Nazis and antisemitism in Hungary, Soros’s father changed the family name and dispersed family members to live with Hungarian people he trusted and paid for their efforts. Members of the Soros family, including George, pretended to be Christians just to survive.

Soros’s father sent young George to live with a Hungarian government official. One of the man’s duties was to inventory confiscated Jewish property. Soros once accompanied the man in the performance of his duties. He has acknowledged the incident, but the story led to a wild smear that casts Soros as a Nazi collaborator who sent his fellow Jews to the gas chambers.

In actuality, Soros’s father, Tivadar, saved not only his own family from the Nazis but also heroically saved many other Hungarian Jews. Soros’s father, with help from George,  created thousands of fake documents for people trying to flee the Nazis.

Soros was very lucky to have survived the war and survival depended on hiding identity. Two-thirds of Hungary’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators.

After the war, Soros fled Hungary and moved to England. In 1951, he graduated from the London School of Economics. While there he became a student of the philosopher, Karl Popper, who became a lifelong influence. Popper favored open societies committed to media freedom and civil rights over closed authoritarian societies.

In 1956, Soros moved to the United States, where he made a fortune on Wall Street. He was an expert at buying currencies and securities in one market that he turned around and sold legally for profit in the international market. Through his financial acumen, Soros became one of the 100 richest people in the world.

Soros went on to found the Open Society Foundation. Over the years, he has given away billions of dollars, funding organizations and initiatives that promote liberal democracy, independent media and political pluralism. The experience of living through Nazism and Stalinism shaped his world view.

Over the last 25 years, he has been a big Democratic Party donor. His Open Society Foundation has also funded many other progressive organizations.

Soros has been compared to the Koch brothers, except that he supports progressive and liberal causes. I would have to say that Soros has been an atypical member of the ruling class. Concerned about climate change, economic inequality and racism, he funds initiatives that infuriate many on the right.

While it is understandable that many on the right would dislike someone who funds the other side, that does not begin to explain the hatred unleashed against Soros. Much of the hatred directed against Soros is rooted in antisemitic stereotypes.

The classic image is the all-powerful Jewish financier who profits and manipulates at the expense of suffering gentiles. Think the Rothschilds and Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Antisemites have long fantasized that Jewish masterminds are behind international conspiracies and global plots. It was a staple of Nazi propaganda. As someone stereotyped as a shadowy and cosmopolitan globalist, Soros is continuously accused, with no evidence, of all manner of evil.

Attacks on Soros have particularly increased since the 2015 European refugee crisis. Soros did back charities that helped migrants and he supported the European Union settlement efforts which were not popular among masses of people in Europe.

The extreme right-wing Hungarian government of Viktor Orban has used Soros as a foil, falsely claiming that Soros plotted to send millions of immigrants to Hungary. Similarly in Romania, the ruling party has blamed their countries’ problems on Soros. In 2015, Putin ejected the Open Society Foundation from Russia, saying it was a threat to their constitutional system.

Ruling elites have found it useful to exploit antisemitic fantasies such as those attached to Soros. Pushing blame onto Jews like Soros and deflecting anger away from ruling classes has a long history. The pattern invariably asserts itself in times of severe economic strain or acute political conflict.

Antisemitism takes different forms in different historical periods. Once it was primarily about the religious mythology that accused the Jews of killing Christ. Now there is the populist narrative with coded antisemitic references to globalists. The absence of explicit slurs does not make it less antisemitic. Those who fail to see the antisemitism are missing the history.

The coded antisemitism about Soros is a dogwhistle for all the neo-nazis, white supremacists and closeted haters out there. It reminds me of campaign consultant Lee Atwater talking about how Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves.

Antisemitism must be understood and thoroughly repudiated, whenever it shows its face. History shows that antisemitic rhetoric leads to violence against Jews. Casual assertions that Soros is a monster need to be seen for what they are: 21st century Jew hating.

 

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Spiro Agnew and the Corruption Defense – posted 12/9/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/27/2018

December 9, 2018 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 12/27/2018 under the title “The Corruption Defense”.

How does a corrupt, high-ranking government official, who is under criminal investigation, maintain his grip on power? On TV, I saw Roger Stone describe the game plan: “admit nothing, deny everything and counterattack”.

Stone was not the first in American politics to advocate such a game plan. Forty-five years ago, then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, pioneered the modern model.

For those who may not remember or were not around yet, Agnew was Richard Nixon’s Vice-President. He is the only vice-president in U.S. history forced to resign the position. The story of Agnew’s fall is brilliantly evoked in Rachel Maddow’s podcast, Bag Man. It is a story with historical resonance.

President Nixon plucked Agnew from obscurity and put him on the national ticket in 1968. At the time, Agnew was a political unknown. He had served as Baltimore County Executive and he had a two year stint as governor of Maryland.

Agnew quickly became extremely popular with the right wing base of the Republican Party. As Maddow says, he created the mold for confrontational conservatism. Agnew played the role of attack dog. I still remember vintage Agnew, lambasting Nixon opponents as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals”.

Agnew had a way with words. For those who lived it, who can forget “nattering nabobs of negativism” or “pusillanimous pussyfooting on law and order”. Agnew was a bomb thrower on the stump. He particularly loved attacking anti-war student demonstrators and the press.

For those on the political right, Agnew was the blunt and honest outsider, willing to speak truths no one else would speak. He was adored for trashing liberals, radicals, and minorities. Agnew played a moralist, devoted to the silent majority. He presented himself as a pillar of rectitude and conservative integrity.

What no one knew was that contrary to the image, Agnew was a criminal and his criminality was long-standing. Since the start of his political career as Baltimore County Executive, he was on the take. Agnew received kickbacks on contracts he had the power to control. For years he took illegal bribes and payoffs. He had two bag men in his employ.

Shockingly, Agnew continued the bribery and extortion as a governor and even when he was in the White House. Agnew regularly received visitors at the White House and in his office in the Executive Office Building who passed along thousands of dollars of cash stuffed into plain envelopes. In exchange, Agnew steered federal contracts to the paying-off businessmen. Until the investigation into his criminal activities, Agnew never stopped taking bribes. He put the federal government up for sale.

If it were not for three federal prosecutors – Barney Skolnick, Tim Baker and Ron Liebman – Agnew might have gotten away with his crimes and he might have become president when Nixon resigned. The prosecutors decided to follow the money. They quickly assembled a solid case with multiple witnesses and documents. Participants in Agnew’s shake-downs started singing to the prosecutors..

When news of the investigation became public, Agnew fought back. He famously said, “ I will not resign, if indicted”. Agnew alleged he was the victim of a witch hunt and he smeared the investigators as biased and corrupt. He attacked the Justice Department for leaks and he said the press and liberals were out to get him.

Agnew’s P.R. strategy was to change the story by making criminal misconduct by Justice Department leakers, not his own crimes, the focus of public attention. Agnew’s lawyers sought to force the press to testify about sources. They subpoenaed nine reporters.

At the same time, Agnew had a private plan to obstruct his own investigation. He tried to use his political power to smother the investigation into his crimes. Agnew enlisted Nixon’s inner staff, Bob Haldemann and John Ehrlichman, in the obstruction effort.

They devised a plan to have Maryland’s senator, Glenn Beall, pressure his brother, George Beall, the United States Attorney for Maryland into dropping the Agnew investigation. Senator Beall owed Nixon because Nixon helped him win back his senate seat in 1970.

On the Nixon tapes, you can hear Nixon ask about Senator Beall, “Is he a good boy?”. Completely independent of Watergate, Nixon, Agnew, and the inner circle of most trusted White House advisors made a robust effort to obstruct the Agnew investigation.

Agnew wanted the U.S. Attorney to fire the prosecutor, Barney Skolnick, who Agnew said was a Democrat. Much strategizing went into the best scheme to stop the investigation. Agnew himself had personally lobbied Senator Beall many times to ask him to lean on his little brother. When that failed, the plotters decided to use later-President George H.W. Bush to reach out to Senator Beall. Bush was then chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Bush participated in this criminal scheme and he did try to influence Senator Beall but Beall would not go along.

When the obstruction effort failed, Nixon turned on Agnew. Nixon began to see Agnew as a threat to himself. Nixon wanted Agnew to resign but Agnew refused. Agnew actually wanted to be impeached. Agnew worried more about criminal indictment and doing jail time than impeachment which he thought he might beat.

Things totally fell apart between Nixon and Agnew. Agnew believed Nixon was threatening to have him murdered and he wrote about that repeatedly. He publicly worried he might have a convenient accident.

Agnew pled to a felony count of tax evasion. The IRS had also been investigating Agnew and his unusual spending. It turned out Agnew had a secret life with mistresses, sports cars and jewelry he bought. Prosecutors could have brought multiple criminal indictments against him but for the Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, immediately getting Agnew out of the line of succession to the presidency was the highest priority.

Back then, no one knew if you could indict a sitting Vice President. Initially, Agnew, like Nixon, took the position that they could not be indicted because of their positions.

Agnew never showed a shred of remorse. Until the end and after, he argued his innocence, saying he was railroaded by the Justice Department and the press. He never stopped stoking his supporters. Even after Agnew’s resignation, his hardcore supporters believed he was a victim.

Under the terms of his resignation, Agnew did no jail time nor did he have to pay back bribe money. He did have to resign the vice-presidency immediately. Prosecutors did place in the record a forty page statement that detailed the factual allegations against Agnew.

It was not until years later in 1981 that a taxpayer lawsuit brought by George Washington University law students forced Agnew to pay back the State of Maryland $268,482 for the kickbacks he had received.

Denying everything, smearing prosecutors, obstructing justice and screaming witch hunt did not ultimately work. The problem for Agnew was that in spite of his best efforts, he could never bury his crimes or explain them away.

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The Forgotten History of Antisemitism in America – posted 11/25/2018 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/16/2018

November 25, 2018 3 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 12/16/2018 under the title “Hatred Rising”.

As an American Jew, I must say that I have been surprised by the resurgence of antisemitism here. Probably, like many others, I did not see it coming.

The relative economic success of American Jews, awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust and the American tradition of religious tolerance have all mitigated against seeing antisemitism as a formidable threat. We have been through a long period during which antisemitism undeniably receded.

There is a foundational American history of welcoming Jews and immigrants of all nationalities and religions that is symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. For me, and I expect for many other American Jews, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting shook that foundation.

I think it would be a mistake to view the Pittsburgh shootings as an isolated event. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has reported 1986 antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2017. Antisemitic incidents are defined as harassment, vandalism, and physical assault.

The 2017 statistics represent a 57% increase over 2016, the largest single-year escalation since ADL began tracking these incidents in 1979.

Unfortunately, there is also good reason to think the numbers are an undercount. Studies show that only about half of all hate crimes get reported to the police. Many local law enforcement agencies do not provide hate crime data to the federal government because the reporting requirement is voluntary. There is also uncertainty as to whether all hate crimes have been properly identified.

While many rightly point to the Trump campaign and presidency as a supercharger of bigotry, I would like to focus  on the largely forgotten history of antisemitism in America to explain recent events. As with racism, antisemitism has deep roots here.

One hundred years ago, antisemitism and racism had far more social acceptance than they do today. Jews and people of color were excluded from neighborhoods, jobs, clubs, and colleges. Indeed, very prominent Americans – Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and Father Charles Coughlin – publicly voiced antisemitic or pro-Nazi views.

Ford, the auto magnate, was singled out by Hitler for praise in his book, Mein Kampf. His collection of articles titled “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem” was a Hitler favorite. Ford attributed all evil to Jews or to Jewish capitalists. He distributed half a million copies of his volume to his vast network of dealerships and subscribers. Ford did business with the Nazis during the war and he was the first American recipient of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, Nazi Germany’s highest honor.

Lindbergh, the much-admired aviator, was an America-Firster. He spoke against the “mongrelization” of America, in favor of white racial purity. He claimed Jews, through their ownership of the media, were trying to drag America into war against Germany, something he opposed. Lindbergh also received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from Hitler.

Father Coughlin, a Catholic radio priest from the Detroit area, with an audience of an estimated 30 million listeners, used his radio program to promote antisemitism. In the 1930’s, Coughlin supported Hitler and Benito Mussolini. He saw Jewish bankers behind the Russia revolution. He was eventually forced off the air in 1939 because of his pro-fascist views. At the time, he was one of the most prominent Catholic speakers on political issues in America. He was a forerunner of the rise of televangelism.

In the 1930’s, there was an active Nazi movement in the United States, the German-American Bund. At its height in 1939, the movement packed a rally with 20,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Also, of note, the Ku Klux Klan had achieved massive national popularity in the early 1920’s with an estimated membership of four million. The Klan emphasized white supremacy and opposing Catholics, Jews and immigrants. In that period, the Klan’s widespread campaigns of lynching and terror commanded their widest popularity.

I think the nativist, anti-immigrant political tendency of the 1920’s and 1930’s is entirely consistent with the anti-immigrant hysteria directed against Latinos, Syrians, and Muslims today. History reveals the dangerous repercussions of such racist and anti-immigrant perspectives, which cannot be emphasized enough.

Exhibit A is the experience of the Jewish people. When over 1.5 million Eastern European Jews arrived in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many nativist organizations advocated for federal restrictions on Jewish immigration. Following in the tradition of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924 drastically decreased immigration of specific groups of Europeans, including Eastern European Jews, by imposing strict quotas.

Supporters of the 1924 Act believed that bringing in more immigrants would adversely affect employment for native-born Americans. They sought to establish an American identity that favored native-born white Americans over Jews and people of color. Eugenics, the science of selective breeding aimed at improving the genetic quality of a population, was a big influence on those favoring the quotas.

A Roper poll in the late 1930’s showed that 70 to 85% of Americans opposed raising quotas to help Jewish refugees enter the United States. I think that atmosphere of hostility to Jewish immigration paved the way for what came later.

We can now see the tremendous harm caused by the restrictionist immigration policies. Thousands of Jews who wanted to escape the hell of Nazism were turned away and not allowed into the United States because of the strict quotas. As a result, hundreds of thousands needlessly died in the Holocaust.

Both before and during World War II, the U.S. government played a shameful role in abandoning the European Jewish refugees. They were joined in this abandonment by newspapers and churches. They failed to respond, adopting a posture of passive acquiescence and worse.

I would place antisemitism as the fundamental reason Americans and the other European allies did not respond sooner to the Holocaust. Many people in the United States and Europe knew what the Nazis were up to with their Final Solution but looked the other way. The dehumanization of Jews by antisemites contributed to their indifference and passivity. The response by all the Allies was too little, too late.

To this day, the story remains little known about how U.S. government officials deliberately created bureaucratic obstacles for refugees seeking visas. I would particularly mention Breckinridge Long, a State Department official, a diplomat, and a powerful antisemite. Under Long, 90% of the quota places available to immigrants from countries under German or Italian control were never filled. If they had been filled, an estimated 190,000 more people could have escaped the Nazis.

The story of the European Jewish refugees is best captured in the famous 1939 voyage of the German liner St. Louis which carried 937 passengers. The U.S. government did not allow the passengers to land since they did not have U.S. immigration visas and had not passed a security screening. The boat was ultimately forced back to Europe and 254 of those passengers were killed by the Nazis.

If anything, the consequences of curbing Jewish immigration in the 1920’s and 1930’s highlights the present danger faced by immigrants in our era. Many of them are literally running for their lives, a reality that is not sufficiently appreciated.

The fact that antisemitism has a very long and tragic history in no way lessens our collective responsibility to oppose it now, especially given the alarming rise in hate crimes in this country. It is the same regressive force it has always been, redirecting popular anger onto a convenient scapegoat. All who oppose antisemitism, racism, and the alt right need to join together in solidarity.

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