Confronting Bigotry---When and How?

By David A. Lehrer

For the past forty-four years I have been active in the civil rights field with a primary focus on anti-Semitism and racial and ethnic bias. My early years dealt with numerous acts of bigotry ranging from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Ford, George Brown (talking about Jews controlling the banks) to the gutter level hate of a resurgent Klan and its leaders David Duke and Tom Metzger.  

 In later decades, although bigotry was usually less overt and less present. Nevertheless, the change in the nature and extent of hate was often not reflected in the community's responses----the "sky is falling" remained the predominant tenor.

 One significant lesson I have drawn from my experiences is that the response to what appears to be anti-Semitism and hate must be measured, accurate, commensurate with the offense and, where appropriate, forgiving. Vengeful furies who are perpetually indignant, always claiming that the "sky is falling" and assuming the worst motivations from even the flimsiest of evidence, lose the confidence of the public and, eventually, the potential to impact public attitudes. Much like the boy "crying wolf," after a while, people won't (and, frankly, shouldn't) listen.

 The past couple of months, as in few times in recent memory, illustrate what can go wrong when excessive and inconsistent responses to insensitivity and bigotry impinge on the accurate assessment of misdeeds. Republicans and Democrats have transgressed.

 First came the Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia storm when the guardians of rectitude and virtue were unleashed with seismic force. Virtually the entire media, and much of our political leadership, were in a race to see who could condemn Northam first. His conduct was undeniably, racist and insensitive and merited condemnation, scrutiny and an apology.

 But the focus of virtually all the condemnations was on the decades old event itself and the risk-free condemnation of Northam's stupidity and insensitivity. What was almost totally missing from the discussion was whether the act of a twenty-five-year old in a fraternity-like environment was conduct requiring summary removal from an important job without a dispassionate examination of the man's life in the decades since.  

 It is often much easier to come up with a catchy sound-bite excoriating the bad act and the actor; it is more difficult to suggest that we all make mistakes and that what is relevant is whether the act reflects deep seated bigotry or racist bias.  

 Similarly, a storm of outrage and indignity was generated by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar's (D-Minn) recent (and repeated) anti-Semitic slur that asserted that Jewish contributions and financial means account for Israel's support in the Congress, and that AIPAC is the culprit. The stereotype is a classic anti-Semitic canard but its hold on the body politic is a fraction of what it was decades ago. Surely it needs to be responded to and its purveyor condemned---but that's the easy part.

 What is more challenging is measuring the response knowing that it is not the end of the world or a threat to the Republic or American Jews. Omar deserves to be criticized and ostracized by her party and the opposition (which she was). She does not, however, merit the self-righteous and hypocritical piling on by the president of the United States or the vice-president. Nor does Omar's transgression warrant a national petition campaign that demands her "censure" and removal from her seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee as the Simon Wiesenthal Center has undertaken.  

 The nuclear option was invoked for a tactical skirmish with a freshman congresswoman.

 Unfortunately, there is little to be gained by a measured and moderate analysis---the headlines go to the vocal, the brazen and the first-out-of-the-box with a comment. Few will later ask if there are consistent standards for evaluating offensiveness.  

 For example, why is the president listened to regarding Omar when, during his campaign, he blithely asserted to a Jewish group, "I know you are not going to support me because I don't want your money.... you want to control your own politicians"? I don't recall the Wiesenthal Center calling for Trump to be politically ostracized and neutered.  

 When the president and groups like Wiesenthal come out with guns blaring,yet have been virtually silent about other bigoted and stereotypic comments, the reserve of goodwill and believability that a minority community has gets depleted. The public will legitimately question what their motivations for indignation are and why now?  

 Every public act of bigotry or seeming racial/religious/ethnic insensitivity needs to be examined, the motivation assessed, the response evaluated, and the impact considered. There is no one size fits all perpetual state of outrage---as the rapid-fire defenders of Jussie Smollett (the actor with the discredited claim of being the victim of a hate crime) learned. Facts are troublesome.

 There were numerous times over the past several decades when I was approached by the press to comment about what seemed like a bigoted remark by a public figure or corporation---Cong. Bob Dornan describing a Soviet spokesman as a "disloyal betraying little Jew", Michael Jackson singing "kick me, kike me, Jew me sue me"[They Don't Care About Us-1995], Walt Disney's original Three Little Pigs cartoon's depiction of the wolf as a menacing, hook-nosed Jewish peddler---but held my fire to determine what the context, the intent and the import of the alleged offenses were.

 The response (or absence of one, as with The Three Little Pigs) was then calibrated to the act---not pre-ordained by a covert agenda to secure PR, claim "purity" or the moral high ground, or to curry favor with one political party over another. In the case of Dornan, I was virtually his sole defender against an onslaught accusing him of bigotry.

 Whether Northam or Omar or Smollett-or even someone accused in the "Me Too" maelstrom--we all ought to hold our fire and our conclusions before going on the attack to label someone as an irredeemable bigot or predator. There are few charges that are as indelible. Such accusations also make the "offender's" redemption and altering course less likely. The weapon of righteous indignation and condemnation must be wielded with care, precision, fairness and, most of all, honesty and consistency; none of which we have seen much of recently.

Community Advocates on the BBC

Community Advocates' David A. Lehrer appeared on the BBC's 5 Live last night discussing civil rights, hate crimes, etc. The show is broadcast live throughout the UK and Europe. The program begins at 1:23:10 (in the link below) and runs for approximately one half hour.
The broadcast is aimed at British insomniacs---it is broadcast all night long.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0002t70

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Interview on KPCC's AIRTALK February 21 2019

Discussion of Jesse Smollett Incident and faux Hate Crime

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Hate crime or fake attack: the twists and turns of the Jussie Smollett case

AirTalk® | February 21, 2019

Last month, “Empire” actor and R&B singer Jussie Smollett told Chicago police that two men physically attacked him and yelled racial and homophobic slurs.

Smollett said he was attacked by two masked men as he was walking home from a Subway sandwich shop at around 2 a.m on Jan. 29. Police say the investigation shifted after they questioned two brothers who were in the area that morning.

The 36-year-old was charged Wednesday with felony disorderly conduct, a charge that could bring up to three years in prison. Police say the actor hired two brothers to help him stage an attack against himself.

Smollett turned himself in and was arrested earlier Thursday to face accusations that he filed a false police report.

LISTEN HERE

Guests:

Dominic Patten, senior editor at Deadline Hollywood, the entertainment news site, who’s been following the story; he tweets @DeadlineDominic

Michael Kraut, criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, and former prosecutor who worked as a Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles for close to 15 years

Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino

David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates, Inc., a nonprofit organization looking at race relations; former Los Angeles regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for 27 years; he tweets @dlehrer

Why Trump is Bad for Israel

By David A. Lehrer and Janice Kamenir-Reznik

OCTOBER 17, 2018 

There are few policy arenas in which President Donald Trump has been more successful in his misdirection of the nation's attention than the Middle East. For many in the Jewish community - including many in its leadership - there is a reticence to speak up about the outrages of the Trump administration, in large measure because of the president's perceived "support" for Israel.

After all, he recognized Jerusalem as the nation's capital, he moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, he has been a staunch advocate for Israel in international bodies, and he embraces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while making virtually no demands on him. It looks so appealing.

But the reality is that much of what Trump has done vis-a-vis Israel is, in fact, a superficial performance - rhetorically, diplomatically and symbolically - that is at odds with the very policies that will help the Jewish state in the long term. In fact, his policies put the nation, and what exists of an international order striving for calm, in greater peril than it has been in many years.

Community Advocates, in partnership with Jews United for Democracy and Justice ("JUDJ"), four major synagogues (Valley Beth Shalom, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Stephen Wise Temple, Leo Baeck Temple), and the Jewish Center for Justice recently hosted an event at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino featuring Dennis Ross, former Middle East envoy and special adviser for Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia in several administrations.

Ross is among the most knowledgeable experts in the world on the diplomacy of the Middle East. He has served as the point man in negotiations between the Arab states, Israel and the United States in every administration since President George H.W. Bush (under Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama). He facilitated the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty; he brokered the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the 1997 Hebron accord, and intensively worked to bring together Israel and Syria in a peace deal. He is also the author of several authoritative books on the region and the peace process.

If one wants a thoughtful, fact-based, nonpartisan analysis of what is transpiring in the Middle East, what the future portends and what the real-world implications of policy decisions are, there is no one who knows more and has more experience in the region than Dennis Ross. He is the best of the Middle East mavens.

In describing Trump administration policies toward the region's issues, Ross spoke of a "crisis of values" and "a real Russia problem." Trump has made the situation far worse than it has been in decades.

"Trump's world view - much like his domestic agenda - in its simplicity and absence of grounding in facts is dangerous to everyone involved. "

For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced plans to provide Syria with S300 surface-to-air missiles as well as sophisticated electronic counter measures, which the Trump administration has not objected to. Those moves, combined with "malign Iranian activities," has put Israel in a nearly impossible, precarious and potentially existentially dangerous position. Ross observed that until now,

the Russians have given the Israelis a free hand to carry out operations (in Syria) and they (the Israelis) have carried out more than 200 operations in Syria against Iranian and Shia militia targets. They no longer have a free hand and the Iranians have been given a free hand. ... The Israelis won't allow themselves to be put in a position where they are threatened in almost an existential way by what the Iranians are introducing into Lebanon and Syria. ...so far, they have had to manage the Russians entirely on their own. Do you think it's an accident that Prime Minister Netanyahu has made nine visits to Moscow to see Putin? (emphasis added)

Ross made clear how the Trump response to Russia's actions in Syria, to essentially absent himself from the conflict, differs from his predecessors and places Israel in peril.

Historically, there was a relationship that we had where we kind of said to the Israelis 'OK, you are responsible for dealing with the threats in the region, we will provide the material support, but when it comes to the Soviets and others outside the region that might threaten or inhibit you, that's on us.' That was the historic posture of Republican and Democratic presidents alike - and I know that since I served in most of those administrations. That has not been the case now." (emphasis added)

Ross laid out the steps that the administration should take to counter Russia, Iran and the Shia militias - none of which is happening. Rather, Trump has offered a vague pledge, "'I'll call Putin at some point.'" Ross sarcastically observed, "well, that's reassuring." The way to deal with Putin, Ross advised, is not to follow the Trump playbook. "He (Putin) is a transactionalist ... you have to speak his language, you don't tout him with incredible offers."

Trump's missteps aren't just related to Russia and the Middle East,

We have walked away from a 'rules-based international order. ... [Trump sees] no value in multilateral institutions. ... the essence of what Trump said to the U.N. is that national sovereignty trumps everything else. Well, we've seen what that means - that means that governments can do whatever they want to their own people and national sovereignty precludes anyone from the outside being able to intervene and do anything about it.

The whole import of 'Never Again' was that it wasn't supposed to be a slogan, it was supposed to be a principle. But when the principle is national sovereignty, you can forget 'Never Again.'

Ross couldn't have been clearer. He sees Trump as a huge threat to whatever equilibrium might exist in the Middle East by his inexplicable inaction vis-a-vis Russia. That failure of will increases the likelihood of escalation as the Israelis defend their interests against the Iranians, the Shia militias and the Syrians; all without the United States neutralizing the Russians.

In its simplicity and absence of grounding in facts, Trump's world view - much like his domestic agenda - is dangerous to everyone involved. As Ross observed, "what we are contending with now is really an assault on our values; by the way, it's not just an assault on our democratic values, it's an assault on our Jewish values."

Last week saw further confirmation of the Trump administration's denigration of the values that are intrinsic to the survival of the Jewish state: American moral leadership.

In his dismissal of taking action against the Saudis in the Oct. 2 disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump betrayed a disdain for America's leadership role in the world if it might exact a price on our economy - "they're [the Saudis] are spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment ... that doesn't help us" - he responded when asked about Khashoggi.

A far cry from President Harry Truman recognizing Israel in 1948 despite threats of retaliation from the Arab states, or President Richard Nixon sending arms to Israel in 1973 notwithstanding the Saudis' imposing a painful and costly oil embargo on us. 

President John Kennedy once urged Americans "to bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Trump is brazenly rewriting our 60-year-old American creed.

Symbolic gestures, such as moving the embassy to Jerusalem, might bring momentary satisfaction, but too much is at stake to think in such short-sighted terms. Looking at the big picture, as Ross so eloquently stated, leads to the inevitable conclusion that Trump's failure of will with the Russians isn't good for Israel, for the international order, or for the prospects for a moderately peaceful world.

David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, Inc. Janice Kamenir-Reznik is a longtime community leader in Los Angeles.

Eisen and Ross on Ethical Democracy

By Ryan Torok | Oct 10, 2018

Author and CNN commentator Norman Eisenbelieves there is an "axis of illiberalism that is anchored on the two sides of the [Atlantic] ocean," when it comes to President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

Eisen, the former ambassador to the Czech Republic and ethics czar under President Barack Obama, made his remarks at a Sept. 26 event at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) titled "The Assault on Ethical Democracy at Home and in Europe." He was also in town to promote his recently published book, "The Last Palace," inspired by his experiences living in the Ambassador's Residence in the Czech Republic.

Ambassador and Middle East expert Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, co-headlined the conversation, organized by Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ) and Community Advocates, Inc.,headed by David Lehrer.

The event drew about 600 people, including former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Jewish World Watch co-founder Janice Kamenir-Reznik, who was among the founding members of JUDJ in 2017.

Eisen spoke of how the Petschek House (the name of the palace in his book), was a metaphor for the three main surges of democracy Europe experienced over the last century: in 1918 and in 1945, at the end of World War I and World War II, respectively; and in 1989, when the Berlin wall came down.

Referring to a Rosh Hashanah sermon denouncing President Trump by VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Eisen said, "Every one of these surges has been met with on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean eventually with a counterattack, but never before -I feel liberated by the rabbi's sermon to say whatever I want - has the counterattack invaded the Oval Office, the holy of holies of American democracy. So we are in a very unique situation now."

Eisen quipped, "I can say [Rabbi Feinstein's] inspiring Rosh Hashanah sermon made it all the way to the East Coast. I only shared it with my fellow socialists, so no one was outraged by it."

Ross was also blunt when it came to critiquing the current president. He called on the Jewish community to stand up and speak out against his falsehoods.  

"We look at these populist leaders who challenge expertise, who want to fuzz facts and the reality," Ross said. "Jews are the people of the book. If you're the people of the book, you really cannot believe in alternative facts."

With his anti-immigrant rhetoric, his quotas on refugees and his "America First" slogan, Trump's emphasis on nationalism undercuts Jewish values, Ross added.

"In our tradition, we're supposed to accept the stranger," he said. "Accepting the stranger appears 36 times in the Torah. The idea that you accept 'the other' is the essence of democracy. The idea of rejecting the other is the essence of nationalism."

Despite his criticism of the current presidency, Ross said he is nonetheless optimistic that things will eventually return to normal.

"[I] can't predict if it will be a short eclipse or a long night," he said, "but the dawn of democracy always comes back."

Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook

View our October 10th program presented jointly with the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and the USC Center for thePolitical Future. Click here.
Is the voting system in the United States rigged? What is the impact of gerrymandering and campaign contributions? Are ordinary people locked out of the political process? 

Watch a fascinating discussion with,

Christian Grose, USC Professor of Political Science,

Danielle Cendejas, Senior Vice President, The Strategy Group,

Tim Smith, Executive Producer, "Rigged: The Voter Suppression Playbook" film, and Gentry Collins, former political director of the Republican National Committee.

The program is moderated by Bob Shrum, director of USC's Center for the Political Future.  

Deadline LA Radio Broadcast


Community Advocates' president David A. Lehrer was a guest on Deadline L.A. on September 24th at 6:30PM on 90.7 FM (KPFK).

Deadline L. A. examines the media, state and local news and newsworthy cultural events. It is hosted by Howard Blume, an education reporter at The Los Angeles Times. Lehrer and Blume are joined by Jill Barshay, a reporter with The Hechinger Report---a non-profit independent news organization.   

The program discusses a recently issued study that found that a community's preference for Trump is associated with higher rates of teasing and bullying in Virginia middle schools.  

These are among the first findings of a "trickle down" effect of Trumpian politics, words and action.

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Connecting the Dots---After the Fact

September 4, 2018

This past weekend the movie Operation Finale opened. It is the story of the historic identification, abduction and trial of the architect of Nazi Germany's Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, by the Israeli government. He was arrested in Argentina in 1960, the trial took place in Israel in December 1961 and Eichmann was hanged in June 1962.

What is of some interest to me are the several commentators and critics of the movie who raise the question as to why Eichmann wasn't nabbed sooner---after all, they write, there were reports Eichmann sightings in Argentina well prior to his abduction in 1960.

As one who monitored extremists and received reports of Nazi sightings over my 27years with the Anti- Defamation League ("ADL"), I can vouch for the fact that it is far easier to connect the dots after the fact than when they are being observed-----it is rarely clear at a given time that what a "witness" sees is, in fact, true, accurate or worthy of follow up. People often see what they want to see and recollect with a greater certainty than is warranted. 

A brilliant analysis of "post hoc dot connecting" was offered by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker and later in his best-selling book, The Tipping Point. It's never as obvious in the moment whether "evidence" confirms a "fact." 

In 1980, I was the counsel and director of "fact-finding" for the ADL for the western United States. Among other activities, my job entailed monitoring extremist groups. We would read publications, "cover" meetings, and otherwise monitor the workings and leaders of far right and far left extremist groups---from neo-Nazis to the Posse Comitatus, and the Klan, to PLO front groups to pro-Soviet activists. We were magnets for folks providing "tips" and tidbits of information about what they thought were relevant goings on. 

One day I received a call from Sig Halbreich, an elderly Holocaust survivor and a leader in the survivor community. Sig, as the Los Angeles Times' obit in 2008  noted, 

became one of the Holocaust's most vocal witnesses, giving talks in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, churches and synagogues. By the time he stopped, about three years ago [2005], he had given 2,500 free lectures around the world on the abominations he lived through during Hitler's reign. 

Sig had spent over five years in concentration camps, including more than twoyears in Auschwitz, where, because of his pharmacy training, he worked in the  camp hospital. Sig had lectured to school children about his experiences for the  ADL and numerous other groups. He was indefatigable. 

One day in Spring, 1980 Sig called me to arrange a meeting to tell me some  "very important news." He came to my office at 6505 Wilshire Boulevard and, in hushed tones, revealed that he had found where Josef Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death" of Auschwitz, was hiding. I was, naturally, intrigued by the notion that an 80+ year old survivor in LA had discovered where the most notorious of all living Nazis was hiding. I held my breath. 

Sig proceeded to tell me that Mengele was playing piano in a restaurant bar on Vermont Avenue in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, at a  place called Luigi's. 

Being a lifelong resident of Los Feliz I knew exactly where Luigi's was. At first  blush (and second and third as well) it seemed odd to me that of all the places on  the planet, Mengele would have chosen to "hide out" in a city with over half a million Jews and thousands of Holocaust survivors. There were clearly alternative locales----even in the US, let alone around the world--where the likelihood of meeting someone who might recognize him would be considerably less than LA. 

Additionally, there were top notch law enforcement agencies which were actively pursuing Nazis.  Not only were the Israelis looking for him, but the United States government had a then brand-new Office of Special Investigations ("OSI") in the  US Department of Justice that was specifically created to find and prosecute Nazi war criminals. 

Halbreich explained that he had visited Luigi's twice and was "certain" that the  pianist was the missing Mengele. He told me that given his experiences in  Auschwitz and the numerous times during his time there that he had seen evildoer, there was no doubt in his mind that the pianist was who he said it was. 

Despite my skepticism, I promised Sig that I would follow up. I happened to know  an investigator in Washington, DC who worked for the Office of Special  Investigations ("OSI") --the perfect person to ask to investigate the allegation. 

My contact promised to "check it out," and he did.   

He got both the OSI team and the FBI to investigate and they determined that the pianist at Luigi's was NOT Mengele, he wasn't even German---rather a South American immigrant with some musical talent. 

Sig never believed what the government concluded, or I reported to him--he was convinced that he had found Mengele. He described the Mengele sighting in his autobiography, Before-During-After, published in 1991 (over a decade after the  Luigi investigation) that "I saw him at Luigi's in Los Angeles." 

The writers of Operation Finale can be forgiven if they have a few facts wrong intheir version of events six decades ago, hardly a major issue. It is also mistaken to assert, as some have, that the Israelis weren't committed to finding Nazi war criminals even if they didn't manage to pursue every "hot" lead---some of them weren't so "hot."

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The Obligation to Speak Up in the Age of Trump

 

 

 

August 2018

Many in the Jewish world has been fascinated by the internecine discussion on the role of our leaders, from Federations to rabbis, regarding speaking up about Donald Trump. Do Jewish leaders, especially as we approach the High Holidays and are called to have an "accounting of our souls," have a moral, religious or civic obligation to provide leadership and guidance in these challenging times?

For many Jewish organizations Trump and his actions are viewed as a partisan political matter---he has advocates and supporters and naysayers and detractors, nothing out of the ordinary drama and tension of politics in their view (at least as expressed publicly).

That attitude views Trump as within the traditional American political vocabulary---highly partisan but the leader of a Republican regime that Democrats and "liberals/progressives"  naturally, and reflexively, deride. Many Jewish organizations and leaders have decided that the dysfunction and bigotry that has been on display in the Oval Office is simply "politics as usual."

Trump's ostensible support for Israel gives further justification to these leaders to avoid controversy and maintain their silence. Federations are caught between what most of their members perceive as a dangerous president (some 70% of the Jewish community remain affiliated with the Democrats and reject Trump) while a vocal minority views Trump as a leader worthy of support and, perhaps more importantly, a vessel of pro-Israel policy (about 25%). 

Either the Trump supporters are enormously, and disproportionately, generous to Federations and thus hold sway in enforcing omerta, or Federation leaders can't read polls.

Rabbis, the spiritual leaders of the community, have similarly been caught in a bind. Many have traditionally adopted self-protective policies of avoiding "partisan" political issues. For a clergyman whose congregation contains Republicans, independents and Democrats having an iron clad rule of "no politics from the pulpit" cushions them from pressures that could be divisive, destabilizing and even explosive.

The dilemma that both Federations and rabbis face is deciding whether Trump is so out of the ordinary that the normal rules of neutrality and the pareve avoidance of taking a stand remain acceptable courses of (in)action. Is Trump so extraordinarily different that the failure to speak out is an abdication of leadership and the silent acquiescence to a threat to the functioning of our democracy?

For many observers of the American scene that question has been asked and answered---Trump is sui generis and dangerous. The New Yorker's David Remnick last week wrote:

It should serve as a warning to Americans in the era of Donald Trump about the fragility of principles and institutions, particularly when those principles and institutions are under attack by a leader who was ostensibly elected to protect them.

.... Trump's rages...are part of a concerted effort to undermine precepts of American constitutionalism and to cast his lot with the illiberal and authoritarian movements now on the rise around the world.

...His targets include immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, women, Muslims, judges, environmentalists, and any person--foreign or domestic--who dares to question him.

As a lawyer who has spent over forty years in the civil rights field (twenty-seven as the counsel and director of the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles) I have no hesitation in echoing Remnick's analysis of the unique danger presented by Trump.

He is as dangerous a threat to the security of the Jewish community, other minority groups and our democracy as any overt, blaring anti-Semite or racist that has emerged in the United States over the past half century.

For decades, I was a "fact-finder" (i.e. I closely monitored the activities of extremists of the right and left) studying and intimately knowing the machinations of the David Dukes, the Gerald L. K Smiths, the Tom Metzgers, the Richard Butlers, the Aryan Nations, the Posse Comitatus, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Louis Farrakhan, the Organization of Arab Students, and countless other extremists.

They were irritants---occasionally dangerous and threatening---but they spoke in a confined echo chamber. Their reach and impact were severely limited by society's overwhelming rejection of their divisive, hateful messages and, most importantly, the fact that American political leadership and establishment voices---whether Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, or Ronald Reagan, the George Bushes or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama---openly, unambiguously and frequently condemned their appeals to bigotry.

While there were the occasional, temporary violations of norms (e.g. Willie Horton ads), there never was a leader who would avoid condemning the rhetoric of division or the bigots who made overt appeals to bigotry. For decades, poll after poll revealed the increasing acceptance of norms of tolerance and civility and the valuing of diversity and our leaders mirrored those views. Extremists were rejected and ostracized. No politician who valued their office dared to consort with, or in any way excuse or justify, bigots.

Unfortunately, in the age of instant and constant news, many now assume that if someone isn't wearing a hood and sheet, spewing racial invective or otherwise engaging in vulgar and overt bigotry they are less of a threat. In fact, a suit and tie and the trappings of power simply mask bigotry---the absence of shrill invective does not lessen the danger or threat----it heightens them through misdirection.

Trump's rhetoric of division, his manifest racism and targeting of minorities, his rejection of argumentation based on facts and data and his dismissive abandonment of reason are the very tools that bigots have used and are using to persuade the disgruntled and the unhappy. He blatantly erodes the norms that our society in general, and in particular minorities, have relied on to protect those who are different. We all become the easy targets of calumnies and conspiracy theories when there is no appeal to reason and rationality.

No president in living memory has come close to having the corrosive impact of Trump on our historic norms of inter-group relations. He promotes (indeed he seems to relish) division, rancor, provoking tension, hate and even violence.  

As Admiral William McRaven wrote to Trump last week, "Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation."

There is no viable argument that the era of Trump is "politics as usual." In real time he undermines the protections that have kept Jews and other minorities safe in America for decades. 

This is the moment, the High Holidays are the time, when Jewish leaders must look into their souls (cheshbon ha'nefesh) and decide what they are about. Do the outliers who admire Trump call the shots and veto our leaders' speaking out for decency and American and Jewish security? Or, do our leaders follow what is manifestly the proper, moral and correct course---condemn this president for the clear and present danger he is to our nation and our community.

Whatever Happened to Civility in America?

by Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais                                                               07/26/2018

The “us vs. them” tone of American politics, most visibly emanating from the White House, but infecting all the country’s political rhetoric, has now spread to daily life. The polarization leads some to question the country’s ability to keep its democratic traditions and hold together as one nation. A recent poll conducted with bipartisan sponsorship by the Biden and Bush Institutes found that 50% of Americans believe that the United States is in “Real danger of becoming a nondemocratic authoritarian country and 80% of Americans are either very or somewhat concerned about the condition of our democracy.”

This is not the first time such concerns have been driven by generational, economic, and cultural disruption. The 1975 musical, Chicago, captured the lament of many Americans in the Jazz Age of the 1920’s as the Lost Generation, memorialized by F. Scott Fitzgerald, blew up the prevailing Victorian values of the time. The opening lines of the song sound as current today as they were when they were first sung on Broadway in the year after President Richard Nixon’s resignation from office.

“Whatever happened to fair dealing
And pure ethics
And nice manners?
Why is it now everyone’s a pain in the ass?
Whatever happened to class?”

You have Democratic Socialists harassing the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security as she tried to eat dinner in a Washington restaurant and a leading member of Congress inviting citizens to harass people working in the White House. At the same time Congressman Adam Schiff has been accosted on the street in his suburban district by people shouting, “There’s that ass hole. He’s the son of a bitch trying to get Trump.” To put it mildly, nice manners seem to be disappearing across the country.

The most recent annual study of civility in America by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, found that four of five Americans experienced incidents of incivility in a wide variety of places and settings. These included “most typically while shopping (39%), while driving (39%) or on social media (38%).” The frequency of such incidents has increased markedly since Donald Trump became President. From 2016 to 2018, incidents of incivility experienced by individual Americans each week, both on and off line, rose by over two-thirds—from 6.2 to 10.6 incidents.

It’s not that Americans no longer value civility. Of those surveyed, 84% said civility builds national pride and 71% said it helps ease tension and conflict. Almost everyone (93%) thought the lack of civility was a problem and most (71%) hoped for a more civil future.

But hope does not constitute a strategy. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the lack of civility risks becoming like the weather: something everyone talks about, but no one does anything about it.

That’s not true, however, of Millennials, now in their twenties and thirties, and the generation following them, Plurals, the oldest of whom are just becoming adults. These younger generations are twice as likely as older Generation X and Baby Boomers to believe that civility will improve in the next few years. That’s because Millennials and Plurals are the generations mostly willing to do something about it by avoiding controversial topics like abortion or terrorism in their interactions with others to reduce the chances of the conversation turning uncivil.

Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean that younger generations want to reduce the right of other Americans to exercise their right to freedom of speech. Research by Morris Levy, a Millennial professor of political science at USC, found that his generation, as part of their overall tendency to be tolerant and inclusive, are just as willing, if not more so, to hear people with opposing views speak their mind. But they want people to do so in a non-confrontational, polite manner, carving out an exception to First Amendment rights if someone is uncivil.

Ironically, the attitudes of younger Americans toward free speech was summed up quite well in retiring Supreme Court Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion on the question of whether or not a Colorado baker could refuse to bake a cake for a same sex marriage couple. In sending the case back to the lower courts for review, Justice Kennedy specifically cited the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of the plaintiff, “which showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his objection.” In other words, it’s OK for governmental entities to exercise freedom of speech, but they need to be nice about it when they do.

And, in fact, evidence is emerging that by being “nice” Millennials and Plurals are already enhancing civility in American schools and workplaces. About four in ten Plurals think training to reduce incivility, such as anti-bullying messages, should be mandatory in the nation’s schools. Such training in America’s workplaces has led to incidents of workplace incivility dropping by about 15% in the last two years.

We can only hope that this increase in civility instigated by younger generations will spread to the nation’s politics. What’s missing is a President who will contribute to establishing and encouraging a culture of civility, and an opposition willing to do the same. Hopefully this ugly period will end in the not too distant future, once Millennials and their Pluralist siblings have their say.

Dr. Michael Hais has served as Vice President for Entertainment Research at Frank N. Magid Associates. He earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Maryland.

Morley Winograd is a Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School Center on Communication and Leadership Policy. Morley Winograd and Mike Hais are co-authors of three books on the millennial generation. Mr. Winograd is also the President of the non-profit Campaign for Free College Tuition.

The article was written in co-operation with Community Advocates, Inc.

Why Were Some LA Jewish Organizations Silent During Trump’s Immigration Crisis?

 

The following op/ed appeared in The Forward on July 2, 2018.

By David A. Lehrer, Rob Eshman, Janice Kamenir-Reznik and Rabbi Laura Geller*

July 2, 2018

The immediate crisis involving the separation of children from their parents at our Southern border seems to be receding. On June 26, a federal judge in California ordered that the policy of family separation be discontinued and that all separated families must be reunited.

What will not recede as quickly is the memory of how countless leaders and organizations responded to this callous display of inhumanity. What did people say and do when the president of the United States ordered agents of the state to separate mothers from their children and place those kids — some, mere toddlers — in cages where they were denied basic human needs (touching, warmth, consoling) that could cause permanent impairment?

Many Jewish organizations and leaders spoke out, organized demonstrations, showed up at detention centers and supported those organizations working to help reunite families. But some significant Jewish organizations and leaders didn’t show up, and their silence was deafening.

Two of these organizations are located in Los Angeles: The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Both these visible, high budget organizations were sadly missing in action in the crisis that human relations, tolerance and decency just endured.

The Jewish Federation, which once had a vital community relations arm (long since abandoned), has been mute on the issue of what Trump’s policies signify. What most see as the “official” arm of the Los Angeles Jewish community chose to remain silent about the human crisis.

According to Federation leadership, a “process” needed to be followed before a statement could be issued. Whatever that process might have been resulted in the Federation missing the opportunity to speak publicly in response to this grotesque emergency.

Not that many years ago, the Federation managed to take stands on tough issues from busing to affirmative action —- the issue of incarcerating little kids is not a tough one. To hope that a crisis will blow over is not a good strategy for dealing with matters of such transcendent importance.

If the tables had been turned, and it was the Federation or the Jewish community or Israel under attack, Jewish community leadership would not be pleased when the search for allies is met with silence or inertia in the unspoken hope that the trauma will pass, and an accounting avoided.

An equally troubling response was the Simon Wiesenthal’s Center’s press release on the border crisis.

It was only on June 19, days into the crisis, that the Center’s rabbinic leadership chose to speak up about what was happening on our borders. The Center condemned the government’s actions as “unacceptable.” Not only is “unacceptable” a rather mild rebuke (a bad wine is “unacceptable”) the statement focused less on Trump’s “nativism, demagoguery and capricious cruelty” than on the criticism of critics of the president’s policies. The condemnation of this low point in American political morality was almost a perfunctory sidebar and in stark contrast to numerous Los Angeles clergy who not only voiced their deep concerns but chose to be arrested when Attorney General Sessions came to town.

In a move sure to please the Trump administration and in a bizarre twist to what taking a moral stand demands, Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abe Cooper focused their ire on those who dared to mention the Holocaust as a reminder of what Trump’s policies could lead to. Former CIA director Michael Hayden and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and others were “denounce[d]” for their “sickening and immoral misappropriation of the Nazi Holocaust.” They weren’t just “unacceptable,” they were “sickening and immoral.”

Neither Hayden nor Scarborough were saying that the federal government was committing a Holocaust; rather they noted that when our country is employing tactics previously utilized by the Nazis, that should be unacceptable to every American. We would add: and doubly so to every Jew.

In stark contrast, we are grateful to the Anti-Defamation League for its powerful video of Hidden Children of the Holocaust which discussed the decades-long impact of children being torn away from their parents. Would the Wiesenthal Center rabbis critique this as Holocaust “misappropriation” and “sickening and immoral”?

Silence, or equivocation, in the face of political outrages and immoral conduct ignores the most basic of the Holocaust’s lessons — the obligation to speak up, to stand up, to show up, when bigotry and hateful actions arise — even at its earliest stages.

The separation of families at our borders tested the conscience and humanity of the American people; thankfully, most Americans passed and forced a change in this barbaric practice; many Jewish organizations and leaders did as well.

Sadly, some did not answer the call — clearly placing other values ahead of a core Jewish tenet (“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”) of treating others with the respect and dignity that we ourselves would want to be accorded.

We are concerned that even with the recent decision to stop separating children from their parents at our border, much still needs to be resolved — including returning those children who have been separated from their parents to those parents (the administration has no plans to make that happen).

We expect that all our leaders, including those in the Jewish community, will stand up for and speak out for what tradition (and most especially Jewish tradition and history) requires; to do what is right and just… and compassionate.

*David Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, Inc. a Los Angeles based human relations organization. He was counsel and regional director of the ADL for 27 years.                                  Rob Eshman is the former editor-in-chief and publisher of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.                                                                                                                                       Janice Kamenir-Reznik is an attorney and community activist in Los Angeles.                             Laura Geller is the rabbi emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

 

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Trump, Fantasy and Reality

From Donald Trump to Stormy Daniels to Rudolph Giuliani to Michael Avenatti there is virtually no escape from the Washington circus---all news all the time in multiple forms.

That reality makes it all the more important to sift through the flood of information to find the incident or comments that offer some insight into what is animating the chaos and what lies ahead.

 On Wednesday the nation witnessed, but paid insufficient attention to, a clarifying moment that offered a glimmer into Donald Trump's mind and the world in which he lives.

 He and Melania attended a meeting at FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) ostensibly to discuss the upcoming hurricane season and FEMA's preparations.

 Trump welcomed each cabinet member in attendance with a brief comment on the job they were doing (only Attorney General Jeff Sessions was short-changed on laudatory comments from the boss) with the predictable sidebars having nothing to do with the topic at hand (e.g. the Black unemployment rate).

 Trump then then launched into a brief commentary about the "great people" and the "great job" that FEMA has done in recent disaster relief efforts. For a while he followed the script.  

 But then, suddenly, he let loose with his all too predictable extemporaneous "thoughts." Thoughts that were, simply, bizarre. He decided to single out the Coast Guard for special praise because, of all things, their "branding" (i.e. they are part of our armed forces, but he cares about their marketing prowess) and their courage in rescuing Texans,

increased branding---the brand of the Coast Guard has been something incredible what's happened. Saved 16,000 people, many of them in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane. That didn't work out too well." [Watch video here, emphasis added].

But the branding faux pas was the least of his strange thoughts.  

 At a cabinet meeting at FEMA, seemingly aimed to encourage and praise a federal agency before the most challenging part of its year---hurricane season Trump betrays what is so wrong with him and his dealings with the world. In performing what should be a straightforward and mundane task, the president of the United States couldn't avoid demonstrating his bizarre magical thinking---believing that something is actually so because he says it is so.  

 Trump's assertion that the Coast Guard rescued 16,000 people, many of whom went out to sea "to watch the hurricane"--- is simply not true, it never happened. Politifact rates it a "Pants on fire" falsehood. The Republican governor of Texas and sheriff of Harris County both wondered what Trump was talking about.

It's not an assertion that he needed to make as a debating point or to advance an argument he was in. It was a gratuitous comment that scarily offers an insight into how reckless and sloppy Trump's mind is.  

One has to wonder what animates the president to brazenly describe his fantasies and then to actually believe them. If you watch him make his claim, he appears genuine---reality is not an issue that he seems concerned about.  

 That magical thinking concurrently betrays his shocking lack of logical thinking.  

What normal, sane, fact-constrained individual would assume that thousands of people would take to their boats during a category 4 storm with winds blowing at 130 miles per hour to "watch the hurricane."  

It simply defies common sense. And if one heard it, normal folks---let alone the president of the United States---would do a little fact checking before making such a screwy assertion before the world.  

 But not Trump.

Trump seems to have no filter where logic intercedes before he makes an assertion; the tragedy is that those around him are all too eager to acquiesce to his crazy musings. He asserts, the heads nod and for those of his aides who have some modicum of common sense and attempt to do clean up-he decries and demeans them.

The video and transcript can't be cleaned up, his nuttiness is indisputable, Trump simply makes things up and thinks he is right.

 Fortunately, in this case, no one pays a price for his mendacity. But that same lack of rigor and logic are revealed in areas that matter to the country, to our security, to our democratic institutions and our future.  

The sycophants who surround him and the Congressional leaders who lack spine will someday have to see and declare that this emperor has no clothes. It is they who stand between us and disaster. As a wag once observed, "A lie has no power whatsoever by its mere utterance. Its power emerges when someone else agrees to believe the lie."

Karski & The Lords of Humanity

Two and a half years ago I had the opportunity to view a film that was being considered for an Academy Award nomination in the documentary category,
Karski and the Lords of Humanity. It was shown for one week to qualify for the nomination. I was lucky enough to view it.

At the time I wrote the below blog.

The film will be screened this Sunday at 4:00PM at Hillel at UCLA (574 Hilgard Avenue, Westwood). I urge you not to miss it.

Karski's story is an inspiring one----a model of courage, commitment to principle,
and moral rectitude. It chronicles the amazing acts of an individual who cared passionately about matters greater than himself. 

An much needed message in these troubled times when courage and a moral compass are in such short supply.


The link for making a reservation is here.

 

A Real Super Hero

 

    By David A. Lehrer                                                                                                    November 10, 2015

Hollywood and our culture seems to be fascinated by "super heroes" people who have "super" powers and do extraordinary deeds---rescuing people in danger, calling attention to injustice and pursuing fairness.

In the real world there are rare "super" heroes who do perform deeds but they have no "super" powers----just the same capacities as ordinary mortals. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a real life "super" hero, Jan Karski, during my career at the Anti-Defamation League. His heroic life is the subject of a documentary that is the Polish entry in Academy Award contest for best documentary, and which will be screened this coming week in Pasadena.

Jan Karski is one of the most amazing heroes of the twentieth century---a member of the Polish underground during World War II who was a courier between the Polish government in exile (first in Paris and then London) and Poland under the Nazi occupation. Having been captured by the Soviets when Poland was divided in 1939 then captured and tortured by the Nazis he was by the age of 26 a veteran of the two major totalitarianisms that haunted the century.

Rather than retreat from the battle he determined to change history. Because of his photographic memory he was an especially valued courier. He was asked to assess the plight of the Jews in Poland before coming to London in October, 1942. To be as accurate as possible he was smuggled INTO the Warsaw Ghetto where he saw first-hand,

Karski, who was Catholic, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, as the Nazis were deporting hundreds of thousands of Warsaw's Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Walking through the ghetto, he saw corpses piled in the gutter, emaciated children clothed in rags, and dazed men and women slumped against decrepit buildings.

When gunfire suddenly erupted, Karski's comrades hurried him into a nearby apartment. He watched as two uniformed teenagers with pistols came down the street. "They are here for the 'Jew hunt,'" Karski was told. Hitler Youth members would amuse themselves by venturing into the Jewish part of the city and shooting people at random.

Days later, Karski would travel to Izbica, in southern Poland, to witness Jews being delivered to a sorting station where they were robbed and stripped and then sent to the Belzec extermination camp.

Karski smuggled himself across occupied Europe (he had been caught and tortured on earlier courier missions and miraculously escaped) to Spain and then to London to report on what he had seen. He met with Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and sought a meeting with Winston Churchill (which was not granted). He traveled to Washington where he met with Jewish leaders, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and ultimately, President Roosevelt.

He sought to impress upon the leaders the plight of the Jews of Europe,

This was not the first time FDR heard about the mass murder of Europe's Jews. For nearly a year, detailed reports about the killings had been reaching the White House. In fact, when American Jewish leaders had their very first meeting with the president on this subject, in December 1942, FDR told them he was already "well acquainted" with the massacres they described. But the meeting with Karski was the first time President Roosevelt encountered an actual eyewitness to the killings.

Despite Karski's harrowing first-person account of the atrocities, the president was not moved. FDR was, as Karski politely described it, "rather noncommittal."

Roosevelt viewed the suffering of the Jews as just another unfortunate aspect of what civilians suffer in every war. He did not believe it was justified for the U.S. to use any resources to rescue Jews from the Nazis. Nor did he want to have to deal with large numbers of rescued Jewish refugees, clamoring to be admitted to the United States.

After his meetings, in 1944, Karski wrote, Story of a Secret State, with a long chapter on the Holocaust in Poland. Karski felt that he had failed in wartime mission to awaken the world to action, but his actions were profound and unique.

Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, awarded its highest honor, Righteous Among the Nations, to Karski noting that, "he had incurred enormous risk in penetrating into the Warsaw ghetto and a camp, and then committed himself wholly to the case of rescuing the Jews." He was made an honorary citizen of Israel in 1994. In 2012, President Obama posthumously awarded Karski the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

You can see a preview of the movie here. He was an amazingly brave "super" hero whose life can help us reset our moral compass.

 

"An Era of Half-Witted Intolerance"

The civil rights and the human relations fields are unique in being arenas in which everyone is an expert. Having worked in this field for over forty years, I have yet to find someone who doesn't have an opinion about how race, inter-religious and inter-ethnic relations are faring.

In a diverse society such as ours, we all have experiences with other groups which entitle us to be mavens and to give expression to those feelings.

To make the field more fraught, there is inevitably an overlay of political attitudes that color people's assessment of the state of inter-group relations. Those on the left tend to paint a grim picture to spur the unmotivated into action to forge a better world. Those on the center right tend to focus on the progress that has been made in recent decades and dismiss evidence of intolerance as anomalous.

It is unusual to find a pundit who has a world view who transcends the orthodoxies of his political prism to offer a refreshing, honest and profoundly accurate assessment of trends in the world of intergroup relations, yet it happens.

The Washington Post has a superb column by Michael Gerson, former speech writer for President George W. Bush---"The Trump era is a renaissance of half-witted intolerance." It is a perceptive and revelatory assessment of how prejudice and bigotry work and how President Trump promotes an environment of intolerance.

Gerson rightfully dismisses the distraction of Trump's occasional rhetoric of acceptance of differences and tolerance. Today offered an example of Trump's sleights of hand. He pardoned an African American boxer who died in 1946, a feint towards tolerance; an act that suckers in far too people who miss the bigger picture of what Trump is causing.

Gerson makes clear that Trump's bigotry is not accidental or incidental, "Whatever else Trumpism may be, it is the systematic organization of resentment against outgroups. Trump's record is rich in dehumanization." For Trump resentment and the singling out of minorities is "an organizing principle and it has resulted in a series of radiating consequences."

Gerson explains the impact of Trump's invidious bigotry. It "has given permission for the shameful expression of shameful sentiments." And the increasing expression of bigotry has revealed the depressing silence of people who know better who ought to be forcefully rejecting the resentment and hate. It has revealed "the cowardice of a much broader faction within the GOP---those who know better but say little."

This truth is applicable beyond the GOP.

There are "civil rights" leaders in our community "who know better" yet ignore Trump's malign actions for personal or institutional reasons. Among the most prominent local apologists is the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Rabbi Marvin Hier. As a student of the Holocaust, he certainly knows what can happen when minorities are stigmatized and made the target of resentment by political leaders. Yet Hier simply chooses to ignore the lessons of history that his museum offers; like many leaders of the GOP, he can't seem to rush to Trump's side often enough, visibly acquiescing to his "half-witted intolerance."

Gerson asserts correctly that Trump's attitudes have also made the Republican party more xenophobic and granted permission to the fringe elements that have plagued the right for decades (McCarthyites in the 50s, John Birchers in the 60s); "Trump has not only given permission to those on the fringes; he has also changed the Republican mean to be more mean."

From Charlottesville and the neo-Nazis that Trump had trouble condemning to the fans of Alex Jones that he sidles up to, to the 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets that were sent from some 3 million Twitter handles in 2017, to the incidents of incivility and violence that fill the news nearly every day-----Trump has empowered extremists to feel unburdened and unshackled, they have truly become "more mean."

Gerson's analysis is chillingly accurate and a reminder of the dangers of Trump beyond an incompetent foreign policy, the subversion of environmental protections, the erosion of democratic norms and constitutional protections, and whatever other realm he chooses to devastate; for all its other malfeasances, the Trump era is tragically also "a renaissance of half-witted intolerance."

Ignoring Hate---Trump Style

As with so much else over the past sixteen months, Donald Trump has managed to undermine the way bigotry is treated in the public eye.

For the past few decades, it has been a bit of ritual dance that gets played in the arena of civil rights: someone makes an offensive comment or acts in an overtly insensitive way and the furies of righteousness descend on the offender. The person apologizes, claims no offense was intended and everyone moves on.

Occasionally, when the offense is particularly egregious, the offender commits to “training” or a rehab program of one sort or another (addiction, diversity training, anger management, etc.).

It has been fairly rote, yet it imparts a lesson to the larger community that bigotry and prejudice are not cost free---that there are certain norms and expectations of conduct, especially if the person is in the public arena, that he/she is expected to adhere to.     

For most Americans, it has become an axiom that bigotry and uncivil behavior is unacceptable in public life. In fact, there is some justification for the view that political correctness (delineating what is acceptable and appropriate speech/action in the realm of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious matters) has, on occasion, gone too far. “Micro-aggressions” and implicit bias constrict the limits on what is within bounds.

 If extreme sensitivity is on one end of the continuum, what we witnessed this week in the West Virginia Republican senate race---is on the other. The regression to a time of ignoring bigotry and the craven willingness to tolerate hate in the pursuit of other, “more important,” goals.

Don Blankenship, the convicted former head of Massey Energy, was a candidate for the Republican nomination for Senate this past Tuesday. Mercifully, he came in third and lost. But in his losing may have revealed more about Republican party leadership in the age of Trump than we care to know.

His campaign was an insurgent, anti-establishment one. He railed against the powers that be in Washington and the Republican party, with a special animus directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell made clear early on that he had one disfavored candidate for the Republican nomination, Blankenship, a man who had no chance of unseating the present incumbent, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. Not unreasonably, McConnell calculated that a man who just got out of prison for crimes related to the death of 29 West Virginia miners in 2010 was not the ticket to retaining GOP control of the US Senate.

In response, Blankenship took on McConnell, and racism was his tool.

McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is the Secretary of Transportation and is Taiwanese American (she was born in Taipei). Her father is James S.C. Chao, head of the Foremost Group, a large, New York-based shipping line, one of whose ships was found in Colombia to have cocaine hidden on board in 2014.

Blankenship repeatedly referred to McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch” and then made repeated references to McConnell’s and Chow’s “China family” and the senator’s purported efforts to “create millions of jobs for China people.”

Blankenship’s use of “China people” appears to be his bizarre attempt to be politically correct by being gender neutral; but “Chinaman” or “China people” are as offensive as the “N-word” or “kike.” His defense of his use of the term was nearly comical.

What is most distressing about this incident is not that there is someone as obtuse and bigoted running for office as Blankenship---that’s not news (even if he did garner nearly 20% of the vote). Rather, what is alarming is that the powers in the Republican party failed to label Blankenship for the bigot that he is.

Trump tweeted that the “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State” [sic]. For Trump, the problem isn’t the candidate’s bigotry, or his conviction for criminal conduct, or his manifest lack of leadership skills---it’s his odds of winning. Were he a more effective bigot, who knows what the president would write?

McConnell was similarly craven in his response to Blankenship’s bigotry (even though it was his wife who was pilloried). When asked about Blankenship’s racism, McConnell said that how he would characterize Blankenship’s ads would depend on what happened in the election, “Well, we’re going to find out what happens in West Virginia tonight, and I may have more to say tomorrow.” Apparently, if he had the Republican standard bearer to deal with, the ads would be deemed inoffensive. Bigotry is defined on a sliding scale.

Both President Trump and Senator McConnell condemned Blankenship for amoral, utilitarian reasons---because he would undoubtedly lose in the general election---not because he deserved to lose due to his bigotry. A bigot wasn’t ostracized for his hate and prejudice but for his ineffectiveness.

When evaluating bigotry depends on political winds and the effectiveness of its purveyor we have reason to be troubled; were he alive, George Wallace might yet be able to make a comeback.  

Blankenship

Blankenship

A Criminal Sin

By David A. Lehrer

 

 From his initial descent down the escalator at Trump Tower to his absence at the White House Correspondents' Dinner Trump has displayed on an uncanny ability to dominate the headlines in the American press. What Trump does, or doesn't do, manages to suck up virtually all the media's attention relegating context, explanations, and perspectives on the flow of events to a footnote in the coverage, if any mention at all.

 

On most issues, his musings and diatribes need little context for most people to discern their falsity-they are often blatant lies, exaggerations and mischaracterizations that are fairly obvious to anyone who is not a died in the wool trumpkin (here is an analysis of one of his "most comprehensively disproven tweets"). His now proven lies regarding payments to Stormy Daniels, his incessant  attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department, the intelligence community, Robert Mueller, James Comey, and anyone who disagrees withhim speak for themselves; no help is needed to decipher his victimized mind at play. He misrepresents reality at a rate of 6.5 untruths per day  (according to a study by the Washington Post) most of his lies are on topics that don't go to how Americans view themselves, their communities or their country. 

 What is more troublesome are his characterizations of complex issues where his untruths are harder to discern and their impact truly insidious. In particular, his negative narrative of crime in America is truly dangerous with serious and bizarre policy implications.

On the issue of crime, Trump's dystopian description of crime in America during his presidential campaign was particularly outrageous.

I'll be able to make sure that when you walk down the street
in your inner city, or wherever you are, you're not going to be shot....your child isn't going to be shot.

His constant refrain alleging rampant crime in American cities, his disdain for predominantly Black communities, his decrying of Mexican immigrants as murderers and thugs combined to gin up fear of crime across the country and provided a useful vehicle for his claim to be the savior who can keep us all safe.

His campaign rhetoric was topped off by his dark inaugural speech and the bizarre assertion that, "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."

Where Trump's predecessors tried to calm fears and unwarranted anxiety (e.g. FDR's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself") this president raises illusory boogeymen to stoke fear and division.

The reality of crime in America over the past few decades is precisely the opposite of the "carnage" scenario that the president has trumpeted. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik described what is really going on,

In the city [New York] where more than 2,000 people used to be murdered each year,                             328 were killed in 2014,the  lowest tally since the first half of the twentieth century."                       (Last year, the tally was still lower.) It wasn't just New York. Violent crime fell in Atlanta,               Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, and not by a little but by a lot.

More important, the quality of life changed dramatically, particularly for the most                              vulnerable. Sharkey, studying the crime decline in six American cities, concludes,                                         "As the degree of violence has fallen, the gap between the neighborhoods of the poor                             and nonpoor has narrowed." In Cleveland in the eighties, the level of violence in poor              neighborhoods was about seventy per cent higher than in the rest of the city; by 2010,
that number had dropped to twenty-four per cent. The reduction of fear allowed much                           else to blossom: "Subway cars, commuter lines, and buses in U.S. cities filled up, as                        residents and commuters became more willing to leave their cars behind and travel to                            and from work together.. . . Fans came back to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and just                              as many began to show up for night games as for day games." The big city was revived.                            From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, the transformation of America's inner cities                      from wastelands  to self-conscious espresso zones became the comedy of our time.

The data aren't hidden, this reality is being lived by most Americans (the overall crime rate in Los Angeles is the lowest it has been since the 1950s and 60s), yet Trump has embedded this pernicious notion of carnage into the psyche of many who have become increasingly fearful. Gopnik helps explain the phenomenon (watch his recent appearance on CNN here).

Yet little trace of this transformation troubles our art, or even much of our public discourse.                    Our pundits either take the great crime decline for granted or focus on the troubles
it has helped create, like high housing prices in San Francisco or Brooklyn.                                             Even when we pay attention to the comedy, we rarely look at the cause.

                                               ****

This lack of appreciation is partly a question of media attention-deficit disorder:                                      if there is little news value in Dog Bites Man, there is none whatever in Dog Does Not                           Bite Man. It is part of the neutral unseen background of events, even if there had                                previously been an epidemic of dog bites. But it's hard for those who didn't live                                   through the great crime wave of the sixties, seventies, and eighties to fully understand                          the scale or the horror of it, or the improbabilityof its end.

Not only do the media ignore what doesn't happen, there is little percentage in rational candidates questioning the claimed increase in the incidence of crime, no matter how minimal the rate. There are always victims with heart-rending stories, pointing out how anomalous crimes are wins few friends.

The media ignore the profound transformation, candidates avoid countering the hyperbolic assertions, advertisers for burglar alarm systems and security devices bombard the airwaves with commercial depicting break ins and violent crimes and all the while the numbers for those crimes remain at historic lows.

Gopnik speculates as to why we are experiencing this profound transformation,  

An epidemic of violence was resolved without addressing what were thought to                                            be its underlying disorders. We cured the crime wave without fixing "the broken                                          black family," that neocon bugaboo. For that matter, we cured it without greater                               income equality or even remotely solving the gun problem.
The story of the crime decline is about the wisdom of single steps and small sanities.                                 We could end cholera-in London, they did-without really understanding how                                        cholera bacteria work. We have curbed crime without knowing how we did it,                                  perhaps simply by doing it in many ways at once. It is possible to see this as a                                         kind of humanist miracle, a lesson about the self-organizing and, sometimes,                                          self-healing capacities of human communities that's as humbling, in its way, as any
mystery that faith can offer.

 

Given the transformation of America that we are living through what we need is a courageous politician to wake us up to this reality, to decry the demagoguery and dissembling that surrounds the issue and acknowledge that so much of our energy, resources and fears are incorrectly targeted.

Trump is manifestly not that politician---he is a good part of the ailment, he is clearly not the cure.