To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Thursday, March 26, 2015

As Israel Challenges Obama's Iran Diplomacy, Washington's 'Farewell Address' Has Never Been More Timely; Prez Should Read it On National TV

It’ll take more than rhetoric to rebalance the seriously skewed US-Israel “special relationship,” but having President Obama recite George Washington’s warning about the dangers posed by "passionate attachments” to foreign governments might be a good place to start.  Herewith, the relevant passages of that 1796 “Farewell” address, which has not only stood the test of time, but has never been more timely.  


…Nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest...
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils. Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Magic Of My Father's City: Ghosts Of St. Patrick's Days Past

St. Patrick's Day Parade, NYC 1959

It was a world of parades and pubs and politics, my father’s world, a world that was shaped by the ethnic milieu of that day and also transcended it. It made for a life in the 20th century that really was a life in full.  

There he is, in the photo above, Himself, as the New York Irish would say it, the late Detective Captain William J McGowan (1923-2000), leading the New York City Police Department's Emerald Society up Fifth Avenue as a sergeant in the late 1950s. Historically, the decision to march up the avenue was a very calculated affront to the WASP elite of the 19th century who did not have a particular fondness for the dominant immigrant class of that Know Nothing era.

My father (1923-2000) spent 6 years in the US Navy as an aviator during WW II before going "on the Job" in 1946. Along with his cousin, late Detective Harry Fitzgerald and several others, he co-founded the NYPD Emerald Society in 1952, serving twice as its president and once as president of the Grand Council of Emerald Societies. He also played a key role in the formation and organizational politics of the department's other fraternal organizations, such as the Shomrim Society (for Jewish officers) and the Pulaski Society (for Poles). Although white flight was cutting into the traditional "Irish vote," during the 1950's and 1960's the Emerald Society played a big part in the city's Democratic politics. Politics worked differently in that era, from the ground up, rather then the top-down model we now have. Men like my father, and others in the leadership of ethnic organizations like the Emerald Society were the civic glue that held everything together, fostering accountability on the part of political elites that they don't feel now, in the age of Big Money.

The work brought my father close to former New York City Mayors Robert Wagner and Abraham Beame, as well as to Robert Kennedy, Teddy Kennedy, Averell Harriman and a host of judges, lesser politicians and others with "big jobs," as the saying went in those days, at least among a certain slice of the Greatest Generation. He brought the Emerald Society Pipe and Drum Band---you know, the beefy guys with the tall hairy hats--- onto the Ed Sullivan show one year and got an on-air shout-out for that (or knock-down, as the Irish peculiarly say), was a fixture on Jack McCarthy’s St Patrick’s Day special on WPIX, where McCarthy always inquired about “Nellie” my father’s mother, and escorted the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, on his historic journey to the US in 1957.  The Boston Irish actually delayed their parade for a day that year so that Briscoe---Dublin’s first Jewish Lord Mayor---could experience the real thing in the New York.

Robert Briscoe, Lord Mayor Of Dublin, St. Patrick's Day, 1957 

With Senator Robert F. Kennedy and future NYC mayor Abe Beame, 1966

I’d say you could call me a “Paddy” but then I’d have to punch you. It’s also not true in the strict sense of the slur. My father was 100% Irish, though with both of his parents born here. But I’m part German, from my mother, Ellen Lilienthal.

My father retired from the department after 27 years, going on to open Danny Boy's Pub at 51st And Second Avenue which was a fixture on Manhattan's East Side for nearly fifteen years. (The New Yorker's Talk Of The Town observed closing night in their June 4, 1984 edition.)

The place was a magnet for all sorts of New York "characters," where a gruff democracy and a militant decency ruled. Class was in the way you treated people, not the airs and attitudes you projected or the poses that you struck. There was name-dropping to be sure, but I can’t recall the kind of social status “signaling” that passes for conversation now. Any Friday night would see half of police headquarters mingling with diplomats from the UN and an assortment of labor leaders, the occasional hansome cab driver, his horse waiting at the curb, along with a few priests and a lot of very pretty women who could have inspired the creators of Mad Men. There’d be a good number of “newspapermen,” as media people used to call themselves, with the guys from UPI grabbing the phone to call in stories and a headline writer from the first Murdoch ownership of the New York Post ginning himself up most afternoons, literally, before returning to the newsroom in order to write that day’s “wood,” as the tabloid trade refers to it. (Vanessa The UnDressa!; Headless Body In Topless Bar!) The occasional celebrity too: Truman Capote was a Sunday evening regular, nursing a Sunday evening sadness, though most of the literary crowd that came in occasionally found a better welcome uptown when Elaine Kaufman, who’d worked at another Irish bar down the block from Danny Boys and hung out with my father after hours now and then, opened up her infamous salon. The New York Irish certainly have their insular side, but the pub was an inclusive, all-are-welcome kind of joint; Open doors for the hoi polloi and for the swells. Except for Jimmy Breslin. My father considered him a populist phony and barred for him life.

St Patrick’s Day was a madhouse: Cousins; uncles and aunts; in-laws; my parents’ friends from the “old neighborhood” in Flatbush; partners of my father’s from the Job, priests, a nun here and there, and a floodtide of people from the parade, river of them, torrents of them, from noon when we opened til 4AM when we closed. For us, it was a family event--all hands on deck, with my brothers and sisters---some still in grammar school--- busing tables, scooping up glasses, and keeping all the service bars in ice. It was, you can imagine, a big day for the till---an “owner’s day” as the run-ragged staff would call it. It certainly made putting eight kids through college a little easier than it would have been, even on a Captain’s pension. Thank God Danny Boy’s could afford to pay musicians who could actually sing. Danny Boy is a beautifully written song and can be even more beautiful when sung correctly, especially the heartbreaking second verse (lyrics below). But it’s a hell of a wail when you've got a hundred tipsy Irishpeople, and those who are Irish for the day, making a go of it on their own.        

What I remember most about Danny Boy’s though is the echoes of the conversation, the craic as the Irish call it, a word that captures the inventiveness and velocity of it quite well, along with its addictive quality. Sitting by myself at the bar as a young aspiring writer not long after college, I often had a hard time keeping up as I scribbled like mad to get it all down. After a few hours and as many beers, the banter would take wing, the quotidian shifting into the profound, moving to a place that was almost beyond language itself, even if you could still hear Irish brogues and New York accents. Meanwhile further down the bar and a little closer to Planet Earth, a couple of old Irish guys would be hitting each other over the head with folded-up twenty dollar bills---like cavemen with sticks--- as they argued over who had right to buy the last round. There’s a reason why James Joyce set Ulysses in a pub, why the sacred and the profane seem so comfortable side by side. In the same way that “Kilroy” was there, so too were Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Stately Plump Buck Mulligan (Introibo ad altare Dei)in spirit at least.   

"Here we are," Himself would say, savoring the ineffability of the moment and sipping a Dewar's before heading home. The till would have stuffed into a crumpled paper bag and tucked under his arm---my father’s way of confusing would-be robbers---bringing it home for my mother, the real brains of the operation, to do the accounts. "Letsee Go! Letsee Go," the Chinese porter would yell, literally sweeping the late-stayers out the door, before picking up the change that had dropped behind the bar rail. I must have filled a thousand bar napkins with what I heard and saw back then. I keep them in storage, in shoeboxes stacked by year, like the cardboard caskets you might see in a coroner’s office.   

Inevitably however, the parades and the pub gave way to a funeral procession. My father lived exactly six months into the 21st century, passing away on July 1, 2000. 

His life was so representative of the political , the social and the cultural forces and dynamics at play in America at large  ---so bound up with the events of the 20th century century, both large and small --- that it would have been somehow inappropriate for him to breathe too much of this century’s air. When his time was gone, he was gone too, little need to quarrel with the bouncer. Like he and the rest of the Paddy's Day parade had done on Fifth Avenue, however, he stopped traffic in death as well. As the cortege wound its way from our family home in Westchester County toward the Pinelawn veteran’s cemetery on Long Island, the NYPD highway patrol kept other motorists frozen on parkway entry ramps as we rode by, throwing sharp salutes at the hearse. Everyone’s gonna go someday; its none too shabby to have stopped New York City traffic in a couple of the five boroughs when you do.

Many memories, that parade. Many lives, that pub. Much thanks to that man, in sunshine and in shadow. Horseman Pass By. 


Danny Boy
Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer's in the meadow 
 Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.
And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

As Per A Possible 'Nuclear Iran,' Someone Really Should Tell Netanyahu That 'Hitler Is Dead'

In keeping with his penchant for political rhetoric that places Israel within a mythic framework, Benjamin Netanyahu filled his speech to Congress last week with references to the 4000 year long history of various efforts “to destroy the Jewish people.” He sounded the alarm on the specter of a nuclear Iran by invoking the evil Persian viceroy Haman who unsuccessfully plotted against the Jews, as depicted in the Book of Esther. He also referenced the worldwide menace of Nazism, not merely its peril for European Jews, and underscored the Holocaust by giving a shout-out to Elie Wiesel, who was seated right next to Netanyahu's wife, Sara. Netanyahu closed his address with a scriptural reference to Moses, noting the image of him emblazoned on gallery of the Congressional chamber. “Moses gave us a message that has steeled our resolve for thousands of years,” against enemies, the Israeli Prime Minister reminded the audience before shifting into Hebrew. “Be strong and resolute, neither fear nor dread them.”

Jim Fallows at the Atlantic has explored the what he has called Netanyahu’s “use and misuse of history,” although he does so in a very careful manner, with one eye on the Atlantic’s reigning  pro Israel pieties. Rather than holding forth in his own voice, he quotes from his reader mail. Netanyahu’s bringing up of the Holocaust, a history professor from the Southwest tells Fallows, is the “historical  equivalent of hollering.”

To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, the Holocaust is not particularly good to think with. Its extremity serves as a bludgeon. Its use is nearly always intended to cut off debate or critique, to seize the moral high ground, and ideally to incite panic. I don't know the best response to the Iranian threat, which I take seriously. But I suspect hysteria is unhelpful—and if that's true, so is raising the specter of the Holocaust, as Netanyahu does every time he discusses this topic.

Another correspondent, who identified himself to Fallows as Jewish, took Netanyahu to task for that for implying that “it will always be 1938 for Israel and for the Jews of the world.” 
In Bibi's mind, does Israel—and do the Jewish people—lose a significant aspect of their ("our") place in the world if the threat of annihilation is not present?  He can say that "they" would like to live in peace with all the other peoples of the world, but what would it take from Iran—or Egypt (or Russia, for that matter)—in order to permanently eliminate the sense that Israel is potentially facing an Existential Threat?  In my humble opinion, nothing could.

Fallows’ Atlantic colleague Peter Beinart pushed back too on Netanyahu's loose historical (and mytho-historial) analogies. He chose to do so in Haaretz, however, and stressed that “Netanyahu did not invent this way of thinking.”  
From the beginning of the Hebrew Bible to the end, Jewish texts speak of an eternal, implacable enemy: Esau, Amalek, Agag, Haman. On Tisha B’Av, Jews link the catastrophes of our history – from the destruction of the Temples to the beginning of the First Crusade to the Expulsion of Jews from Spain – by insisting they occurred on the same day. And, of course, less than a century ago, the mightiest power in Europe did try to exterminate the Jewish people – and succeeded in butchering one-third.
But Jewish tradition also warns against allowing analogies with the past to obscure our understanding of the present. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks , Maimonides insisted that since the nations Jews fought inbiblical times no longer exist, we cannot identify any contemporarynation with Amalek. (Or, by implication, with Amalek’s heir, Haman).
In his speech to Congress about Iran, Netanyahu violated that tradition. And he violated the obligation of any wise leader: To see current foes not as a facsimile of past ones, but as they really are.

Another Atlantic writer, former TNR literary editor Leon Wieseltier, has not yet weighed in on the Netanyahu speech. Leon, of course, tends to be a bit dismissive of the whole blogging thing, as per his infamous, and culturally chauvinistic, 2010 smear of Andrew Sullivan and what Wieseltier insinuated was Sullivan’s theologically inferior Roman Catholic reverence for the Trinity.    

But at the risk of using the historical archive to challenge Netanyahu’s misuse of historical analogies, a re-reading of Leon Wieseltier’s Hitler Is Dead from the New Republic of 2002 during an earlier period of Jewish “panic” offers a preview of sorts of what he might say when he get around to sharing it with us. This piece came as the second Palestinian Intifada had bought terrorist violence to the cafes of Tel Aviv,  and as the Israeli security establishment, backed up by its neoconservative echo chamber in the States had begun to beat the war drum for invading Iraq to take out Saddam Hussein. (Jeffery Goldberg’s alarmist, badly-sourced New Yorker report on Saddam’s WMD program had been published just two months before.) It was also written in the shadow of rising anti Semitism, in the Arab world and in Europe. “All this has left many Jews speculating morbidly about being the last Jews,” Wieseltier wrote. 

As if answering Netanyahu speech, Wieseltier denounces the historical view that  “every enemy of the Jews is the same enemy,” along with the idea that “there is only one war, and it is a war against extinction, and it is a timeless war.” This kind of thinking “is a political argument disguised as a historical argument. It is designed to paralyze thought and to paralyze diplomacy.”

Whether Wielseltier will agree with the New York Times editorial board who scored the speech as “exploitative political theatre,” I think this essay suggests that he’ll appreciate the Netanyahu address more in terms of its  histrionic value than as an actionable assessment of history.

As Wieseltier so elegantly wrote:

Has history ever toyed so wantonly with a people as history toyed with the Jews in the 1940s? It was a decade of ashes and honey; a decade so battering and so emboldening that it tested the capacity of those who experienced it to hold a stable view of the world, to hold a belief in the world. When the light finally shone from Zion, it illuminated also a smoldering national ruin; and after such darkness, pessimism must have seemed like common sense, and a holy anger like the merest inference from life.

But it was in the midst of that turbulence, in 1948, that the scholar and man of letters Simon Rawidowicz published a great retort to pessimism, a wise and learned essay called "Am Ha-Holekh Va-Met," "The Ever-Dying People."

 "The world has many images of Israel," Rawidowicz instructed, "but Israel has only one image of itself: that of an expiring people, forever on the verge of ceasing to be. ... He who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora period which did not consider itself the final link in Israel's chain. Each always saw before it the abyss ready to swallow it up. ... Often it seems as if the overwhelming majority of our people go about driven by the panic of being the last."

In its apocalyptic season, such an observation was out of season. In recent weeks I have thought often of Rawidowicz's mordant attempt to calm his brethren, to ease them, affectionately and by the improvement of their historical sense, out of their tradition of panic.

For there is a Jewish panic now. The savagery of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the virulent anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the Arab world, the rise in anti-Jewish words and deeds in Europe: All this has left many Jews speculating morbidly about being the last Jews. And the Jews of the United States significantly exceed the Jews of Israel in this morbidity. The community is sunk in excitability, in the imagination of disaster. There is a loss of intellectual control. Death is at every Jewish door. Fear is wild. Reason is derailed. Anxiety is the supreme proof of authenticity. Imprecise and inflammatory analogies abound. Holocaust imagery is everywhere.

Wieseltier’s closing section argues that the real challenge, at least of that historical moment, is “To prepare oneself for the bad without preparing oneself for the worst.” The first requirement of security is to see clearly, he advises. "The facts, the facts, the facts; and then the feelings.”

… The acknowledgment of contemporary anti-Semitism must be followed by an analysis of contemporary anti-Semitism, so that the magnitude of the danger may be soberly assessed. Is the peril "as great, if not greater" than the peril of the 1930s? I do not see it

It is easier to believe that the world does not change than to believe that the world changes slowly. But this is a false lucidity. Racism is real and anti- Semitism is real, but racism is not the only cause of what happens to blacks and anti-Semitism is not the only cause of what happens to Jews. A normal existence is an existence with many causes. The bad is not always the worst. To prepare oneself for the bad without preparing oneself for the worst: This is the spiritual challenge of a liberal order.

The Jewish genius for worry has served the Jews well, but Hitler is dead. The confict between Israel and the Palestinians is harsh and long, but it is theology (or politics) to insist that it is a confict like no other, or that it is the end. The first requirement of security is to see clearly. The facts, the facts, the facts; and then the feelings.

Arafat is small and mendacious, the political culture of the Palestinians is fevered and uncompromising, the regimes in Riyadh and Cairo and Baghdad pander to their populations with anti-Semitic and anti-American poisons, the American government is leaderless and inconstant; but Israel remembers direr days.

Pessimism is an injustice that we do to ourselves. Nobody ever rescued themselves with despair. "An ever-dying people is an ever-living people," Rawidowicz sagely remarked. "A nation always on the verge of ceasing to be is a nation that never ceases to be." It is one of the lessons that we can learn from the last Jews who came before us.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Quote Of The Day: On Netanyahu Speech, Congress Says ‘Hail Bibi’ While Tom Friedman Says ‘Rubs Me the Wrong Way’

Netanyahu got 22 standing ovations from Congress yesterday, which made Times columnist  Tom Friedman a bit testy today. In his concluding paragraph Friedman wrote:

I still don’t know if I will support this Iran deal, but I also have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader trying to scuttle the negotiations by my own government before they’re done. Rubs me the wrong way.

As blunt as this sounds, in the context of what he has said before, Friedman is actually being kinda tame. In 2011 after Netanyahu’s second appearance before a joint session of Congress drew 29 standing ovations, Friedman said that the applause was “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations said Friedman’s remark was ”ugly” and should be withdrawn. Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote that Friedman was insinuating "that the entire U.S. Congress is bought and paid for by a cabal of Jews.”  

They’ll be those who may pushback against Friedman and defend Congress for inviting Netanyahu. But the anti Semitism charge has lost almost all of its sting, at least in terms of acknowledging the role that the Israel lobby played in yesterday's spectacle. Anyone making it just looks either clueless, intentionally deceptive, overly given to "straw man" argumentation, lacking in national pride, or a combination thereof.