A therapist I know — OK, since you dragged it out of me, my therapist — told me that I’d be astonished if I knew how many emergency calls she got the night that Sarah Palin gave her convention speech.
Actually, I wasn’t that surprised. Judging from the number of unnerved post-Palin phone calls and e-mails that I got, I wonder why I didn’t think of calling her myself.
Why was it such a psychic downer? Movement conservatives might gloat that it was because Palin kicked Los Angeles liberals in the kishkas, made unanswerable arguments, strutted her Super Woman stuff, and — worst of all — signaled their inevitable defeat come November.
I don’t think so. For one thing, we all know that Election Day comes after the High Holy Days, which means there’s plenty of time before the book on McCain/Palin — the Book of Life, that is — gets written. Who shall win, and who shall lose is still (theologically speaking, anyway) up for grabs.
For another, there’s no evidence that the independents who were the key targets of her speech are buying what Palin is selling.
I don’t doubt that some people experience a presidential campaign as one long audition for the show that will be playing on their television sets these next four years. But I’m hoping that the 5 percent to 10 percent of undecideds in the 18 battleground states who will swing the Electoral College more resemble the savvy mass audiences of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” than voters for the next “American Idol” or the mob in “Coriolanus.” Why should a single performance by the governor of Alaska, or even several of them, bedazzle millions of otherwise skeptical Americans into throwing away their bull—t detectors? The historic disapproval ratings of the incumbent president are continuing evidence that the American mainstream has soured on the culture wars’ politics of group against group and the rest of the ressentiment at the heart of Palin’s message. So what accounts for the panic Palin provoked?
Part of it, I think, is that we catastrophize. By “we,” I don’t mean liberals. I mean the many functioning neurotics among us who think that a doctor’s every “hmmm” during a physical is a portent of tragic doom; who mentally extrapolate from routine family conflicts to irreparable ruptures; and whose pessimism is relentlessly fed by cable news, which — in order to hang on to our attention — portrays every freeway car chase as a potential shootout; depicts every global brushfire as the start of World War III; and shouts, “Breaking news!” so frequently that the scary music that accompanies it is itself enough to spike the nation’s blood pressure.
This is not just a Jewish phenomenon, though a few thousand years of expecting to be scapegoated, persecuted, exiled or killed certainly contributes to the melancholic gene Jews are known for carrying, the optimism of a Ben-Gurion or Sandy Koufax notwithstanding. No, this gloominess is a nonethnic worrywartism, arising from the fear and sensationalism fanned by politicians and news media alike.
This is not to say that putting Sarah Palin one melanoma from the presidency would mean good times. It would be more like James Dobson with nuclear weapons. But while her Rovian apparatchiks are stoking the worst among us with passionate intensity, it’s not inevitable that the best will lose all conviction in the voting booth.
When a political candidate convinces half a country to hope again, it’s a double-edged sword. The endorphins and neurotransmitters that wash our brains when we welcome the future instead of dreading it are as powerful as any drug. It’s like love. Unless you let your guard down, unless you permit vulnerability to trump cynicism, you rarely can get what you want. That’s why Howard Dean or John Edwards or Hillary Clinton were, for many people, so thrilling to support. That’s why hardened political operatives call that kind of enthusiasm “drinking the Kool-Aid.” That’s why, when the fall comes, it’s so painful.
But my therapist, if I understand her, has another take on this. She thinks that people identify too much with candidates. Their ups have become our ups; their downs, ours as well. And by identifying with them so closely, we inevitably make ourselves vulnerable to outside factors, to forces we can’t control. And the more political media we consume — on cable, online, on e-mail, on radio, in print — the more we cultivate the illusion that we ourselves are actual political players, that our advice is urgently needed, that everything depends on our counsel.
I’m totally guilty on this charge. “Go negative!” I yell to Obama and Biden when I see them on my screen. “Put McCain on the defensive! Go after his strength! Make the POW thing irrelevant to the presidency! Destroy the ‘maverick’ charade! Call their lies lies!” But my tirades, instead of making me feel better, only underline my powerlessness to second guess the campaign’s strategy or reshape its tone and message.
I don’t mean to diminish the importance of every single citizen in a democracy. Registering to vote, giving money, going door-to-door, expressing our opinions: there is plenty that each of us can do, and the collective action that comes from that commitment can move mountains and make history.
But there is a difference between pitching in and hitching our psyches to the day-to-day vicissitudes of campaignland or to the news media’s breathless “narrative” of the horse race. One is about us, and it is within our power to control what we ourselves do. The other is about them, and it is a kind of annihilation to cede our identity and our well-being to people outside ourselves, whether those people be candidates and commentators — or audiences, critics, velvet-rope guardians, fashionistas, studio executives, admissions committees or that hottie over there at the bar.
As for me, I’m trying to unplug. I’m still reading the papers, but I’ve gone cold turkey — well, room-temperature turkey — on cable (except for C-SPAN and “The Daily Show”), blogs (except for a few), radio (except for NPR) and every other source of political news that I thought I was obligated to mainline in real time 24/7. If I fall off the wagon, maybe there’s some 12-step group for media addicts I can join, or a 1-800-TVDETOX hotline I can call. All this may make me a lesser media yakker, I know, but think of the dough I’ll be saving on therapy.
War Marks Defining Moment for Jews
The current war with Iraq marks a defining moment in the
lives of American Jews and their lives in this country. For generations, Jews
have lived, for the most part, on the left-wing edge of the
They have been — in Hollywood, in the political world,
academia and the media — generally hostile to the idea of the projection of
American power and the idea of a new American empire.
This may soon be changing. Although initially somewhat less
supportive of the Iraq invasion than other Americans, Jews are far more behind
the projection of American power, arguably, than at any time since World War
II. Over half of Jews strongly supported the Bush policy before the outbreak of
hostility, according to the Pew Research Center; that percentage has likely
increased more recently, as has occurred in the rest of the population.
How should Jews deal with the fact that America, by invading
Iraq, has become in many ways an openly more assertive kind of empire?
This is no exaggeration. The utter failure of the European
“allies” and the U.N. to stop Iraq’s weapons programs has forced the United
States, with whatever allies it can muster, to operate largely without NATO,
E.U. or U.N. approval.
Yet is becoming an empire necessarily bad?
It depends, clearly, on the nature of the empire. Given the
current world chaos, not only in the Middle East but in North Asia as well,
some power needs to assert itself over the outlaw regimes that seek to gain
weapons of mass destruction.
The U.N. is useless for this; France too interested in
selling its products; Germany too shell-shocked by its past; Russia still
resentful of its decline. Only America can, or better, will, provide a
counterweight for order.
Jews, for many reasons, need to rally to this notion, not
only because of Iraq’s lethal anti-Semitic and anti-Israel stance, but because
Jews, as an exposed minority, need a legal, responsible ordered world system.
The alternative — a world controlled by the likes of Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong
Il — is terrifying.
This support should not be simply couched in terms of
support for Israel. The latent anti-Semitic elements on the left and right —
from Arab activists to Democratic Rep. James Moran and Pat Buchanan — can
easily make the point that Jews pushed the Iraq war simply for Israel’s sake.
Would they, for example, back a possible strike at North Korea or somewhere
else that could be launched for the same principles?
In a sense, we need to transcend two now powerful notions of
Jewish identity. The first, now largely predominant, is one tied up with the
current State of Israel.
This loyalty is understandable but not sufficient for
American Jews’ political identity. As great an idea as the Jewish State may be,
it is only a comparatively small force or ideal compared to that projected by
the might of diverse American republic.
The other is what could be called the “perpetual shtetl”
notion of Judaism. In this, we are always victims and must associate with those
forces — minorities, Third World nations, oppressed genders and sexual groups —
no matter what the consequences to ourselves or the nation. This view
represents a kind of nostalgic identification with either czarist oppression of
the last century or with the experiences of the 1960s.
Neither of these views takes into account the new world
situation. Today it is only America — in Iraq today, in Bosnia before and
perhaps North Korea tomorrow — that stands between global disorder, including
the eventual destruction of Israel and any hope for progress in the 21st
This American empire represents something new and worth our
loyalty. It was designed, as Thomas Jefferson suggested, as “an empire for
liberty.” We do not seek to conquer Iraq like scores of invaders leading up to the
Turks or British, most recently.
After our victory in 1945, we did not occupy permanently
Germany or Japan. Indeed, we even endure strong dissent from these countries
and those we saved from conquest, like France and South Korea. We acknowledge
that dissent is a testament to our national virtues.
But is this new empire good for the Jews?
Throughout our history, Jews have flourished under strong,
and at least basically just, empire. This was true under Cyrus the Great of
Persia, under Alexander and the Ptolemies of Egypt, where Jews constructed
their greatest centers of learning, first in Babylon and then Alexandria. By
the time of the birth of Christ, and before the collapse of the Judaic State,
two-thirds of all Jews already lived outside Palestine, mostly in areas under
some form of strong imperial control.
Even under Rome, which extinguished Jewish independence,
many of our scholars, teachers, craftsmen and traders found a comfortable
existence. Many became citizens, perhaps most famously, Saul of Tarsus, later
to be known as St. Paul. Indeed, after the Second Revolt and the expulsion from
Jerusalem, Jews largely benefited from Pax Romana.
This was particularly true under the enlightened Antonine
emperors. Jewish cultural and community life flourished from the Galilee —
Tiberius alone boasted 13 synagogues — to Mesopotamia, in Alexandria, Spain,
France and Rome, itself.
It was under Roman rule, for example, that the Mishnah was
written. Synagogues were even established and named after emperors like Severus.
Under Rome, we became, for the first time, a truly Diaspora people with global
This was no accident. At its best, Rome, like America, posed
an ideal of breathtaking scope and cosmopolitan vision. It sought to be a
transnational empire open to diverse races and, in exchange for loyalty,
allowing a wide breadth of religious practice and philosophical practice.
“Rome,” wrote Areistedes, a Greek writer in the second
century, “is a citadel which has all the peoples of the earth as its villagers.”
This universalist notion was perhaps best expressed by
Marcus Aurelius, the emperor and philosopher, who assumed the principate in 161
C.E. at the death of highly regarded Antoninus Pius. Aurelius claimed that he
arose each morning to “do the work of man.”
“For me, Antoninus,” Aurelius wrote, “my city and fatherland
is Rome, but as a man, the world. “
When the order of this empire came about, it was a disaster
for the Jews. As cities declined, commerce waned and superstition, including
within both Christianity and Judaism, waxed, our civilization declined. It was
only with new and healthier imperial structures — notably the Persian
Sassanians and, ironically, the early Islamic empire — that Jewish culture
began to revive again, most notably in Muslim-controlled Spain.
Today’s American empire, not surprisingly, now serves as the
primary center of Jewish culture, creativity and commerce. Israel is important,
but it is essentially a dependency of the American empire.
The connections of Israel to Europe, so beloved by many
liberal Israelis, are likely to weaken further as anti-Semitism and
pro-Islamicist force grow, particularly in France. Israelis, likely in the
hundreds of thousands, gravitate here.
The question is what do Jews owe as citizens of this empire?
I think we have much to offer. To survive, America must keep
its moral compass. It is right for us to question unjust acts and also require
virtue, particularly in areas such as overconsumption of fossil fuels. Our
intellectual and commercial sharpness, and history-shaped experience, represent
an important asset to America.
Will this mean a new American Jewish identity?
Yes, to some extent. Clearly the war in Iraq will accelerate
the gradual shift of Jews toward the center and, to a lesser extent, even to
Both the old shtetl mentality and that of the 1960s will
also fade, particularly among the young and more recent newcomers to the
country. Recent Russian or Persian immigrants are not likely to be as
enraptured by an old Stalinist like Castro or willing to cut a break to an
anti-Semitic monster like Saddam, as those Jews still romantically attached to
the spent utopianism of the left.
At the same time, the left, the traditional home for many
Jews, seems destined to become increasingly inhospitable to Jews. We have
already seen the marginalization of pro-Israel leftists.
The antiwar movement, with its powerful links in both Europe
and America, with those sympathetic or even supportive of terrorists, places
the opposition uncomfortably in bed with those who want to kill Jews, simply
because they are Jews, in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Tunisia and New York — or LAX
and Sherman Oaks.
Does this mean all Jews will become conservatives after the
No, although most will become further to the right on
foreign policy, as the fact that few Jews in Congress, including liberals, have
been prominent in the opposition to the war. But they will not, I believe,
become a bunch of Rush Limbaugh or even Dennis Praeger “dittoheads.” There are
simply too many issues — abortion, school prayer and economic justice — that
separate most Jews from the Republican mainstream.
But, Jews, like other Americans, will emerge from this war a
changed people. We will come, I believe, with an enhanced notion of connection
to the American empire and to our critical place within it. Â