Like almost everyone across the political spectrum I was initially shocked that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was the decisive vote in upholding the constitutionality of the Obama administration's health care bill. After all, he had never before been part of a 5-4 decision in which he had joined the evolving liberal bloc of justices. Even Clarence Thomas had joined them twice and Anthony Kennedy twenty-five times.
Speculation was rife in the aftermath. Conservatives had taken for granted that the right wing majority would scuttle "Obamacare." When it didn't happen, they wanted Roberts' head for being a traitor, with some speculating he was suffering from a medical condition that clouded his judgment. There was no attempt to consider why he might have acted so out of character that didn't rely on some personal defect of body or soul.
Liberals, ever optimistic, first assumed, without any evidence the conservative majority acted this way, that overwhelming legal precedent should make the Court easily uphold the legislation. After oral arguments, however, liberal commentators went into major depression, because one conservative justice after another pilloried the lawyer whose job it was to argue the case for the Obama team. Justice Kennedy, the great hope, seemed particularly dismissive of the constitutional basis for the controversial "individual mandate" to buy insurance or be penalized.
Roberts' apparent eleventh hour change of heart, abandonment of his conservative brethren, was stupefying to liberals as well, since his legal arguments seemed the by-product of his decision to uphold the law rather than source of it. Liberals speculated that perhaps Roberts had a desire to demonstrate the Court was not simply a politcally-motivated institution, which polls showed Americans had largely come to believe. From this perspective, Roberts, as Chief justice, would not want his Court to be saddled with such a legacy.
I never viewed the Court as anything but political. I perceived legal precedents as the necessary citations when Justices acted in behalf or their desired political ends. Nominees have always been vetted for their politcal reliability before any other considerations such as gender, age, race or ethnicity came into play. Moreover, they surely knew this and there is no reason to think a deeply conservative Justice would worry about how his political enemies would evaluate his career.
It is possible he might have some concern about public opinion regarding the image of the Court as an apolitical arbiter of constitutionality, but ever since Gore v. Bush the cat was totally out of the bag on that myth. If Roberts was so worried about image he would have joined the liberals on Citizens United, a gift to corporations wishing to freely use their wealth to buy elections,and a decision far more unpopular than Bush v. Gore. Polls taken in it's aftermath showed 80 percent disapproval.
But, if legal precedent and a primary desire to defend the Roberts Court from history's rebuke, weren't his motivations, and being a traitor or suffering from a mentally- disorder wasn't the explanation, what might have accounted for Roberts' turnabout?
I think a better approach to understanding Roberts' apparent apostasy is to think of his vote in political terms in the narrowest sense, namely, did he want the bill to pass on its merits based on his conservative ideology.
If one looks at the origins of the Obama bill its conservative roots are apparent. It's essence, the individual mandate, emerged from conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, was embraced by Republicans in Congress in the 1990s and, as we know, put into law in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney when he was Governor. It was a vehicle for fixing a broken health care system, while insuring a continuing primary role for large health care-oriented corporations. It was the best possible alternative to a single-payer system if one wanted to avoid that approach.
It wasn't Roberts' fault that the pragmatic corporate conservatives who were dominant in the Republican Party had been overthrown by even more right-wing ones and that a policy with conservative origins was now seen as Socialism or even Communism.
So, perhaps Roberts simply felt that the Obama bill was something he would have generally supported had it been proposed by a Republican president and passed by a Republican congress and, since he wasn't running for office as a Republican, there was no reason for him to reject it as today's Republican candidates have had to do with the bill and other policies, such as cap and trade, which their predecessors invented.
That future historians might view him as a moderate because of this, or the public be less likely to see him as someone who presided over a completely politicized Court, is an unintended consequence, not the motive for his behavior.
As for Roberts' future votes on the Court, I see no reason to imagine him siding with his health care bill allies when the issues change, particularly on the extension of the Voting Rights Act which allows the federal government to monitor the political "rules" in states with long histories of racial discrimination or the maintenance of affirmative action. In these cases, conservative ideology has never wavered and I doubt he will.
Last week, a young American, LeBron James, had a one hour ESPN special to announce the results of his job search. When he announced that he was moving from Cleveland to Miami he was routinely denounced as selfish, and a traitor to Cleveland, by its residents and members of the sports punditocracy.
I'm writing this as if I was a visitor from Mars and had no understanding of the passions sports generate, the psychopathology of fandom (Nick Hornby, in Fever Pitch, his memoir about his obsession with Arsenal, the British soccer team, says devotion to one's team is like a marriage in a country with no divorce), and the opportunities mass media outlets have to inflate their audience share by fanning the flames generated by sports mania.
But I'm also a sports fan and since age 10 have died hard with the Yankees. I still haven't accepted their seventh and final game loss to Pirates in 1960 World Series after winning three games by scores of 10-0, 12-0 and 16-3 and been a slightly less devoted follower of the Boston Celtics ("separated" after 35 years in the '90s and re-united in 2008). So I feel the pain in Cleveland---up to a point, the point being that my teams haven't lost franchise players to free agency. I can't be sure how I'd feel if Mariano Rivera deserted to the Red Sox when he had come to the end of a contract, but I would never turn grief into anger.
So, a word about LeBron James and then an attempt to explain the misplaced rage. I think the worst that can be said about LeBron is that he allowed the announcement of taking his skills to another city to be made into a reality television show, especially since he was leaving his adoring hometown. But, in an age when many star athletes leave their original teams (which they were never truly free to choose given professional leagues' rules regarding drafting of amateurs from high school and college) simply to maximize their income, LeBron's decision was an anomaly and worthy of praise not condemnation.
LeBron did not stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers even though they offered him a deal which would have exceeded Miami's bid by 30 million dollars. He did not go to New York with all the attendant glamor and even greater marketing opportunities. He didn't even choose Chicago, with a hungry fan base trying to restore the glory of the Michael Jordan era. His decision seems to have been based on a motive that is normally heralded: a paramount desire to win championships, even if it cost him money and the sole spotlight---which will have to be shared with future teammate Dwayne Wade, who nearly single-handedly brought the Miami Heat its only NBA title, and,another star newcomer, Chris Bosh.
LeBron's individual scoring statistics, which were on a pace to eclipse anyone elses lifetime totals, might be sacrificed as well. In an era of selfishness, he stood out as someone who tried to make his team better by making his teammates better. He did this for seven years before finally realizing that his efforts would fall short because a team sport championship is almost impossible when the team has only one star with a mediocre supporting cast playing in a city which can't attract top free agents.
Even if LeBron was not what he was---the embodiment of what sports fans should cherish,a superstar focused on winning who was beloved by his teammates for playing with them and not just by himself (as Jordan and Kobe Bryant have done at times in their careers)--- why do we,and not just Americans,invest so much emotionally in our teams and heroes that we can't even see them as human? After all, how would any of us feel if we were expected to make our career decisions based solely on the preferences of millions of people whose standing is based solely on their living in a city which hosts our employer? Or that we should be expected to work for our initial employer as long as they wanted us to even if we had no choice regarding who that employer was?
So, ultimately, the spectacle we've witnessed has to be understood as testimony to the role that sports play in the lives of perhaps billions of people world-wide. That role encompasses both sociological and psychological elements.
On the sociological level it fortifies a sense of community, a living symbol of one's city, country, or ethnic/racial identity during an era when other forms of collective physical competition such as warfare have largely been de-legitimized. For males, typically the most passionate fans, in urban industrial societies, where competitive capital and labor markets have weakened the cooperative bonds that existed in hunting and gathering and agricultural societies, allegiance to a team provides a means of expressing comaraderie, establishing and deepening friendships, and sharing free time.
The psychological rewards of professional sports for fans are legion, but two stand out. First, identifying with powerful and skilled athletes is a way of boosting one's one self-worth. For young males particularly, the triumphs of their favorite players and teams, compensates for their own struggles to succeed in becoming physically adept as their bodies mature and are tested in recreational sports. The frustrations of adulthood can also be alleviated by the success of one's team and even rooting with millions of others for losing teams offer distractions from the daily grind and supports the view that "misery loves company." Second, many team sports provide an opportunity for fans to act in a managerial capacity, if only in their minds and in conversations with peers. At work, one frequently must take orders, but an armchair team owner, general manager or coach can make strategic and tactical decisions and second guess those actually in charge of the team's fate. Being able to perform this pseudo-role can be extremely gratifying, as exemplified by the recent film, Big Fan, in which a parking lot attendant, hectored by his family as an under-achieving loser, is empowered by regularly calling a sports talk show to make pronouncements about the best way his beloved New York Giants football team should be run.
To someone not emotionally involved as a fan the LeBron James saga seems like a form of collective insanity, But there is a rational underpinning to the madness that can't be ignored and it's hard to imagine more benign ways of satisfying so many human needs. On the other hand, like Marx's view of religion as the opiate of the masses, finding joy in sports can make us more willing to put up with miseries in our daily lives that possibly could be be better addressed through collective social and cultural change.
Hurt Locker may win the Academy Award for best film of 2009. It has received accolades galore and it's hard to argue with the quality of the cinematic experience it provides viewers. I certainly wasn't immune to the feelings of empathy for the small group of American soldiers whose perilous existence in Iraq is brilliantly depicted by the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and an ensemble of actors. But especially once I left the theatre and escaped the ever-present tension of wondering whether THIS time the main character, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), would be blown up while attempting to defuse a bomb, I thought more deeply about the nagging misgivings I experienced while under the film's powerful spell.
Feelings, after all, are not facts---at least the only ones--- and Hurt Locker, in common with almost all depictions of war, manipulated our emotions to the point where we lost sight of the political rationale for this particular conflict, its legitimacy and consequences, not only for US soldiers, but for Iraqis whose country we invaded and devastated. When a film essentially "embeds" you on one side there is almost no possibility of not identifying with that side. The "enemy" is anonymous, faceless, simply devoted to killing the soldiers you come to know and care for.
When Clint Eastwood made Letters from Iwo Jima (2007) I thought it was both a brave and brilliant depiction of an iconic WWII battle from the perspective of the hitherto caricatured and reviled Japanese soldier. I still feel that way about the film as a work of art, but I also can understand how angry American vets of the Pacific theatre in WWII ---and others---were at the "humanization" of those infantrymen they fought against in the most unforgiving terrain. The individual Japanese soldier had a biography, a family, loved ones, and the full gamut of emotions all other humans do. But, that soldier, or ones like him, almost always willingly participated in a war of imperial conquest. Japanese soldiers raped and pillaged in China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma and countless other places, leaving tens of millions dead. That is the historical context and can't be ignored.
Likewise, in Hurt Locker, we can appreciate the individual humanity of each of the men we accompany on their missions. We see how their insecurities and fears co-exist with determination or resignation to do what soldiers are expected to do. We can't help wondering how we would react in their shoes. Every hour of every day brings the possibility of instant extinction by a sniper or being blown to bits by a carefully hidden IED.
But what don't we see? Who are the ones trying to kill them? Why are they doing it? To restore the Sunni Baath Party's hegemony that has been upended by the invaders? To prevent an Islamic Republic akin to that in Iran because the Americans, in their ignorance, have empowered political leaders whose views are mirror images of the clerical elite in that Shiite Muslim stronghold? To defend Iraq against a foreign invasion and Occupation---a nationalist resistance movement? Personal revenge because American soldiers shot a wife or brother driving towards a roadside checkpoint for not understanding commands to halt in a language they didn't speak? Not only don't we know---in truth all may be operative depending on the location of the action---but the film never indicates interest in the question at all. No more than Eastwood was concerned about why the Americans were trying to root out the Japanese from Iwo Jima and elsewhere in the first place.
At some points while viewing the film I tried, without much success, to put myself in the position of an Iraqi sniper or IED-employing guerrilla, believing, not without justification, that whatever these individual soldiers believed they were fighting for---apart from sheer survival---the American government was not in Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqi people any more than the British were in the 1920s when they gassed Iraqi villages in ways similar to the way Saddam killed Kurds generations later. Should I be rooting for the insurgents (or members of the resistance as they would prefer to be called)? Perhaps, but it was difficult to want people I "knew," who had charm and vitality, to die, even if their mission was misguided or worse.
It's true that bringing history and politics into the equation can detract from drama, but it can be done. The Battle of Algiers (1962), probably the greatest film about mass political violence ever made, managed to depict with unparalleled skill the nitty-gritty of urban guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgency while putting the larger conflict between French colonialism and a national liberation movement in the forefront of the audience's consciousness. The film took the side of the Algerian anti-colonial movement, but was scrupulous in depicting at least some of the French, most notably the head of the counter-insurgency, with some measure of sympathy as well.
If Hurt Locker falls short of greatness by eliminating the context for warfare, it partially redeems itself by at least raising an issue that war films never wish to address: the problematic nature of the war hero. There is a long tradition in movies---and I'm certain it's not limited to American ones---of glorifying the soldier who goes beyond the call of duty and, risking his own life, slays scores of enemies. Sergeant York (WWI) and Audie Murphy (WWII) were real soldiers who embodied this role---Murphy actually played himself in the movie version of his exploits. Vietnam had a fictional hero, Rambo, played by a truly fictional actor-soldier (Sylvester Stallone sat out the war in Switzerland).
In Hurt Locker the hero is Sgt. James who, gets an adrenaline rush when put in dangerous predicaments by his military specialty (i.e., de-activating explosives), but seeks out opportunities to practice his craft and/or engage the enemy even when it is entirely optional. We marvel at his bravery and ability to cheat death so often, but to her credit, Bigelow, lets us see that perhaps his personality is such that he can't do anything else. He's like Evel Knievel in uniform and without the motorcycle and can't function outside of a combat zone. War alone has given him an opportunity to achieve heroic status. In civilian life he'd most likely get killed driving recklessly, die in a bar fight or bungee jumping. Warfare has often given misfits an opportunity to succeed in the only arena they could cope with. Perhaps the most famous example is Adolf Hitler, who failed in civilian life and blossomed in WWI as a foot soldier. Germany's humiliating defeat---and his subsequent demobilization---set him on a path to restore his short-lived days of glory with consequences we all know.
But the film goes one step further than depicting the war hero with warts. It suggests that heroic soldiers not only risk their own lives, but sometimes are perceived as unnecessarily endangering those of their comrades as well. Moreover, their fellow soldiers know this. In one scene a highly sympathetic member of the team openly contemplates killing Sgt. James to prevent the latter's undisciplined aggressiveness from endangering his comrades. On another occasion, James' gung-ho antics leaves a comrade wounded and the victim expresses his anger directly at the sergeant before being evacuated by helicopter from the combat zone.
The hostility towards some would-be heroes has manifested itself in both unpopular and popular wars. In Vietnam, freshly-minted ROTC grads who became officers and wished to aggressively engage the Vietnamese occasionally found themselves blown up at night in their tents ("fragging") by combat-weary or wary vets who thought well-placed hand-grenades might send a message to the soon-to-be late lieutenants' replacements as well.
Max Hastings, the military journalist/historian of WWII has noted in his work. especially Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 and Warriors: Portraits from the Battlefield, most soldiers prefer to avoid contact with the enemy and heroes can thwart this inclination. In some cases heroic actions are appreciated by all; in others they are seen as signs of exhibitionism and the hero is a source of concern, dislike or worse.
Hurt Locker doesn't draw a firm conclusion about Sgt. James' heroism. It seems to justify some of his actions, but not others. But by showing how totally uncomfortable he feels in a civilian lifestyle, coupled with his almost manic desire to take risks in a military context and the unhappiness that produces in men we also care about, it's hard to escape the conclusion that James is not someone we can truly glorify.
What effect on audiences this nuanced portrait will have is unclear. As Anthony Swofford, the former Marine sniper and Gulf war memoirist (Jarhead), observes in describing the effects of supposed anti-Vietnam war films his fellow marines viewed before going to Iraq:
"There is talk that many Vietnam films are anti-war, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill, they turn their fighting and killing everywhere, they ignore their targets and desecrate the entire country...But actually, Vietnam films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message..." Would-be soldiers, he says, "...watch these same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage burn. Filmic images are pornography for the military man...getting him ready for his real First Fuck."
Hurt Locker may be intended to provide its audience with a complex message: we should support the troops even if we don't know why they are fighting and some of them are crazy, because we need those people at times, even if Iraq wasn't the time or place. A tough one to digest. Far easier to appreciate as military porn for the high school kids in the audience who might end up keeping unemployment rates down by signing up.
Israel's military assault in Gaza has led to what can only be called a massacre in which so far more than 1200 Gazans have died, while Israel has suffered 10 deaths, several of which have come from "friendly" fire.
According to official Israeli sources, during the entire period 2002-2008 prior to the current Israeli invasion, less than 25 Israelis have died from Hamas' rockets and no more than 1 during the six months prior to the end of the ceasefire which was occasioned by a November 4 Israeli raid which killed one Palestinian. B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, has calculated that Israeli raids and aerial attacks have killed 2,700 Palestinians during the same period.
It's hard to escape the view that Israel has wildly overreacted to Hamas' actions. By the standards of international law, Israel has committed a war of aggression and war crimes. Hamas' rocket attacks also are war crimes, but their minimal consequences never constituted a threat to the existence of the state of Israel and therefore could not legally justify Israel's response. Moreover, it is now known that Israel had been planning military intervention months before the end of the recent cease-fire. Since 2007 Israel had been blockading Gaza and destroying any hope for its economy and jeopardizing the health of its 1.5 million residents.
I come from a secular Jewish family that never had a significant Jewish ethnic identity expressed in conversations or responses to the news. My parents emigrated to the United States around 1910 and had no known relatives who died in Nazi concentration camps or were killed in other actions directed against Jews as Jews. I cannot recall a single conversation regarding the state of Israel during the time, prior to 1964, when I lived at home and thereafter. At the same time I did feel good, despite not being a Dodger fan, that Sandy Koufax was considered one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball.
I feel my background frees me from having to cope with powerful emotional sentiments towards Israel when evaluating it as a state.On the other hand, to some friends and acquaintances, and certainly to many religious or ethnically-identified Jews, it discredits me when I strongly criticize Israel's actions and even question its moral legitimacy---which is not the same thing as its undeniable existence now and in the future. I can understand this argument, but don't accept it because I can't honor emotional reasoning as a way of making sense of the world.
Emotional reasoning involves believing feelings are facts, i.e., if I feel something strong enough it must be true. To me, feelings can be guides to truth or falsehood and have no evidential value in themselves.
For many years I had little interest in Israel and that fed my ignorance of its history. I believed the conflict with the Palestinians to be too complicated to resolve and there was right on both sides---two people who had been victimized by others (i.e,Turks, the British, Germans) fighting each other in perpetuity.
I visited Israel in 1975, spontaneously and without advance preparation. I stayed on a Kibbutz for a short time and visited Tel- Aviv and Jerusalem. I found the trip fascinating, but found myself getting into endless arguments with Israelis when I took a neutral position on their conflict with the Palestinians. The 1973 war with Egypt had ended fairly recently and the country still had a siege mentality. I also had to explain why Nixon was impeached as Israelis seemed to have a love affair with him despite his anti-Semitism, about which they knew nothing.
When Henry Kissinger arrived for some event a large crowd gathered near the YMCA in Jerusalem where I was staying to protest against what they thought was his one-sided (i.e., anti-Israel) efforts to create regional peace. I was present as well, but only objected to his criminal actions in Vietnam and especially Chile, where my former student, Frank Teruggi, had been one of the two Americans executed two years earlier during the Kissinger-facilitated Pinochet coup d'etat.
My greater knowledge of how the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians developed when I read Benny Morris', The Making of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49 (1989) twenty years ago and it opened my eyes to the reality that Israel's creation was built upon the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 people who lived on the land Israel coveted. Morris, then a critic of Israeli policy, but now a supporter of a hard-line, admits his embrace of Israel is simply based on ethnic loyalty. If he were a Palestinian he would be on the other side and this, incidentally, was a view implied by Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurian, when he said:
"Why should the Arabs make peace?...We have taken their country. Sure God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We came from Israel, it's true, but two thousand years ago and what is that to them?"
Morris' work changed my attitudes towards the conflict. I have read other books and reviews since then. Some critics have said he could have gone further in showing the displacement by violence and the threat of violence was a deliberate political policy and not simply generated by military facts on the ground. He also relied too heavily on available official Israeli government documents and neglected to tap Palestinian sources---eyewitness accounts of the ethnic cleansing or what they call the Nakba (Catastrophe)---a strange omission given the vital role the testimony of survivors of Nazism has played in providing a portrait of the extermination of millions of Jews. For an alternative viewpoint, see Israeli historian Ilan Pappe's The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2007).
After reading Morris I read other works that also changed my beliefs. I discovered that in the post-war WWII period American Jews were strongly divided between Zionists and anti-Zionists and the American Jewish Committee was against the formation of a Jewish state. They favored increasing Jewish immigration from European DP (Displaced Persons) camps to Palestine in a mutli-ethnic federation still under British administration. Zionists in Palestine opposed such a confederation, even though it would have led to the immediate liberation of tens of thousands of DPs, because they wanted a Jewish state not a piece of the pie controlled by Britain.
I also learned that American Zionists opposed liberalizing immigration quotas to the US to insure that Jews in DP camps prefering to come to the U.S. would have to settle for Palestine. (American opposition to liberalizing immigration laws, whether for Jews or non-Jews in DP camps, was strong in this period). Thus, Zionists placed the need to augment the number of Jews in Palestine above the immediate well-being and desires of some of those who had barely survived the Nazi genocide.
The motives of Jewish anti-Zionists were varied. Some were ardent assimilationists; some may have feared that if there was a Jewish state Amerian Jews, if U.S. politics moved rightward and anti-Semitism grew, might be accused of dual loyalty or pressured to emigrate to Israel. Others might have been aware of the demographics of Palestine and wished to avoid the violent consequences of trying to establish Israel. Many leftist Jews may have been opposed to an ethnically-identified state in principle. Finally, some orthodox Jews had theological reasons for rejecting a homeland.
Regardless of what motivated anti-Zionists at the time what seems critical is that in the period before Israel was born it one could be Jewish and identify with the religion and/or the ethnicity and not support a Jewish state. Alternatively, one could support a Jewish state and not be supportive of Jewish self-determination if it interfered with Zionist priorities.
Finally, before the capture, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, Israeli leaders did not valorize or even focus much attention on survivors and never emphasized the relationship between the Nazi genocide and the need to have a Jewish state. Zionism, after all, was a nineteenth century ideology that predated Nazism, though Nazism created the preconditions for its evolution from ideology to practice.
The question arises whether Jews should necessarily have allegiance to the state of Israel? Why was it permissable to debate this in 1946, at a time when the situation of world Jewry was most precarious, but not now?
Perhaps the question should be approached from a more universal standpoint: religious and ethnic identity and loyalty.
Judaism is in part a religious belief system as is Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and Shinto among many others. One can decide to accept its tenets or not. If one does not, clearly there is no reason to support a state founded on religious principles---a theocratic state. Of course, a belief in Judaism is not required to ally with the Israeli state and its policies and Israel isn't a theocratic state. One can even be anti-Semitic, as Christian Zionists are, and support Israel because of religious beliefs which require the state of Israel to exist before the Rapture---after which Jews who don't convert to Christianity will be consigned to Hell.
But even if one is a religious Jew, is it necessary to give support to the actions of a religious state or co-religionists who reside there or elsewhere?
I think not. Besides the fact that within each religion there are schisms and one's particular allegiance might be at variance with those of the state in question (e.g., Shiites living in Iraq during Saddam Hussein's rule or Sunni living there now under Shiite dominance), a state can engage in behavior that is abhorrent in the name of a shared religion. Shiites around the world shouldn't be obligated to support the rule of Iranian clerics since 1979 and could want to have those rulers overthrown, even if states with non-Shiaa populations played the leading role in such upheaval. They might do this because of greater allegiance to the cause of human rights than upholding their co-religionists. I'm not suggesting this is feasible or even desirable in regard to Iran---I would strongly favor internal change there and elsewhere, hopefully peaceful----but only that Shiia supporting another method shouldn't be accused of being self-hating or infidels.
What about those who identify with Judaism simply as a shared ethnicity? Here as well, we would hardly condemn Italian-American, German-American or Japanese-American who, during WWII, wanted the US to defeat Italy, Germany or Japan as being self-hating or traitors to their ethnic group. On the contrary, we might consider them as American patriots or anti-fascists who supported democracy.
And what about Muslim Arabs who share an ethnicity and religious affiliation with Osama bin laden? Aren't we always wanting them to reject loyalty based on these membership groups and replace it with adherence to a set of values that rejects terrorism as a tactic?
If we move from ethnicity to race, haven't all-white juries in the deep south who refused to convict whites who lynched blacks such as Emmet Till rightly earned contempt? Or black jurors who refused to convict OJ? Or Al Sharpton, who defended Tawana Brawley even after it was clear she perpetrated a hoax?
Why then must Jews toe the line when it comes to Israel? Why can't they identify themselves as Jews and condemn Israeli policies and even question the moral basis of the foundation of the Israeli state on the grounds that a homeland of one oppressed people should not be created by oppressing others.
Now, all this said, it's true that the options that Jewish DPs faced after WWII were daunting. Their homes were destroyed and they often, especially in Poland, encountered virulent anti-Semitism and violence. Western countries didn't want to admit them as immigrants either. Perhaps justice would have entailed creating a Jewish state in Germany, but that was never considered as far as I know, and other non-Jewish but displaced victims of Nazis might have wanted some turf there as well.
The solution, to create a Jewish state in Palestine and do so by means of ethnic cleansing, could only be defended as realpolitik: the Palestinians had less power to exclude Jews than other countries and most in the DP camps prefered Palestine to other alternatives.
But that choice, while practical in the short term, eventually led to the tragic situation that Israel and the Palestinians face today. When a state has been created on the basis of disposession those who now have control want nothing more than a passive acceptance of the status quo. Those who have been uprooted, if they have the capability, will not accept this, or enough won't so that the victors sleep will be disturbed. The winners seek amnesia; the vanquished want to regain what they have lost. It is ironic that Jews, who justifiably want the world to "never forget" their Holocaust, would prefer the Palestinians to forget their Nakba.
Israel has compounded their "original sin"---ethnic cleansing to found their state--- by the expansion of settlements. Most Jews view this as a phenomenon distinct from the events of the late 1940s, but there are strong parallels since force and intimidation have been at the root of both expansions of Israeli territory.
It is clearly unrealistic to envision a return to 1946. Israel now exists and will continue to do so. The Palestinian tragedy can never be undone. Some political settlement will eventually be required because as much as Israel wishes to maintain the status quo demographics will make it impossible. Either Israel will have to be a non-religious bi-national state with an eventual Palestinian majority or the Palestinians will have to get their own.
As the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians prefer a two-state solution the problem involves choosing political leaders that are willing to achieve it. To date both sides have not done so and while the Israelis cast blame on their enemies for this there is no clear evidence Israelis are willing to make necessary territorial concessions if they can postpone them ad infinitum.
Regardless of rhetoric about peace, successive Israeli governments have allowed settlements to increase. Hamas' support grows in proportion to Israel's expansion and aggression. While it might not be the ideal political leadership for Palestinians in Israeli eyes Israel has no moral standing to criticize it, especially since back in the 70s and 80s it funded Islamist groups out of which Hamas developed as a counterweight against Fatah. Israeli leaders also reasoned that if such groups became powerful they would resist peace negotiations entirely, thus allowing Israel to say it had no "peace partner" and maintain the status quo. (Interestingly, this was an approach the U.S. utilized in funding Jihadists to fight the pro-Soviet Afghan government. In that case, Zbigniew Brzezinki, President Carter's National Security Advisor, hoped these intransigent extremists would force Moscow to intervene to save its allies and get bloodied---payback for Soviet support of North Vietnam. Jihadists were ideal proxies because they would never negotiate a settlement with the Afghan government or the USSR).
Hamas, it must be noted, is primarily a nationalist movement not one motivated by an international jihadist ideology such as Al Qaeda. Despite its rhetoric about never accepting the existence of Israel it has publically supported, as a practical matter, recognition of Israel within its 1967 borders, albeit with the right of return---a sticking point that could be addressed by land swaps. There is no reason to believe that Hamas is a unique nationalist movement, one unwilling to negotiate at all with its enemy. Even Osama bin Laden has offered "peace" with the U.S. if our government stopped supporting what he deems anti-Muslim policies in the Mideast.
Israel's intransigence is bolstered by the United States' willingness to "enable" its policies, chiefly by providing military aid. American Jews, the overwhelming majority of whom support Israel, if not all its policies, play a significant role in making both Democrats and Republicans maintain this stance. That is not to say that, apart from domestic politics, Israel has not served American "interests" abroad. Israel has at times been enlisted to aid allies we couldn't (e.g., advising South African intelligence services during apartheid; aiding counter-insurgency in Guatemala) or play cop to help the U.S. maintain its power in the oil-rich Mid-East. But, if American Jewry could distance itself from Israel as much as it is hoped other religious and ethnic groups can transcend tribal loyalties, it would strongly contribute to an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We live in economically perilous times so it's a rarity when a new industry is launched and becomes instantly successful. But that's what's happened with the Barack Obama Deconstruction industry. The punditocracy, blogosphere and political class have all weighed in 24/7.
Will Obama betray his progressive base? Does his appointment of Clinton administration veterans and extension of an olive branch to McCain-supporting and Obama-bashing Joe Lieberman testify to his embrace of the "America is a center-right nation" narrative that conservatives desperately wish for? Or, is he cleverly channeling Don Corleone's wisdom to "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer," and going one step further--- getting his rivals in the Democratic Party to implement his possibly more leftish policies. (In Lieberman's case, there might also be an echo of Louisiana Governor Huey Long's strategically using ex-convicts as personal assistants. Owing all to Long, their loyalty could be counted on. Only Obama's forgiveness saved Lieberman from banishment from the Democratic caucus and he's been a loyal lapdog for the President-elect ever since).
To deal with my own confusion on the matter I decided belatedly to read Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father, published in 1995 at a time when he certainly wasn't seriously contemplating running for the presidency. It may, therefore, represent a more authentic guide to his approach to politics and social policy than his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, or speeches on the campaign trail. Of course, Obama's life has changed so much since Dreams was written, a time before he entered government as a state legislator, became a U.S. Senator and ran succesfully for the White House. Perhaps his ever-widening social circle, specifically his greater contacts with economic and political elites, and new intellectual influences, have fundamentally changed his world-view. But, his unique background for a President-elect still should at least inform the way he processes new experiences and acquaintances.
What seems clear from reading his autobiography is that Obama is someone who is deeply aware, by personal experience and education, of gaping inequities within American society and the even greater ones that exist in the Third World. He is also cognizant of the role that American foreign policy has played in supporting those who tyrannize their own people, whether it be the Shah of Iran or Suharto of Indonesia.
Although, while campaigning, Obama would often refer to his "mother from Kansas" as if to conjure up an image of a cooking-baking home-maker with no political leanings, his mother was actually very sympathetic to the emerging civil rights and peace movements, anti-colonial struggles and problems of underdevelopment in Africa and Asia. His Kenyan father had similar proclivities and first-hand experience as a colonial subject.
Obama also lived in Indonesia as a small child during the early days of the pro- U.S Suharto regime which massacred as many as half a million supporters of his predecessor, a non-aligned nationalist. Obama witnessed his once confident Indonesian step-father cower in the face of political repression against those suspected of being disloyal to the new strongman.
As a rare black youth growing up in Hawaii with a white mother and grandparents he assimililated mainstream culture, but also recognized that he was different, and viewed as such, within his generally very accepting peer group. Several disturbing incidents, as well as awareness of the civil rights struggles on the mainland, nurtured a growing need to find a viable identity as a black man---not a biracial one. This quest accelerated when he went to Los Angeles and New York to attend colleges in cities with large and politically vibrant black communities.
Obama was an undergraduate in the 70s when many veterans of 60s activism became academics and re-shaped the social sciences and humanities. He was surely exposed by professors and fellow students to Marxism, feminist thought and the various strands of black nationalism and radicalism.
In Dreams from My Father Obama shows how he managed during his student days and afterward to peacefully co-exist with all the strands of black consciousness, while never fully embracing any. He remained committed, often against his instincts, to universalism and integration as opposed to identity politics and nationalism. Yet, Obama saw black nationalism as an effective psychological defense against recalcitrant white racism and a useful tool for political mobilization. What he consistently eschewed are mere words---rhetoric---ironic for someone whose own eventual meteoric political rise owed so much to that. Effectiveness is what concerned him.
He also understood, early on, that it was necessary to avoid the persona of the "angry black man" in order to make his way in the larger society. Being polite invariably put white people at ease.
Obama's work as community organizer in Chicago after leaving New York gave him a practical education in the limits of coalition building---just because two groups should have common interests doesn't mean they perceive them or are willing to focus on what unites them. Specifically, race often trumps class solidarity even in the face of economic hardship. If there is little hope, for example, of dramatic success for a grand coalition---white and black working class struggling to save factories that once employed both---better to look out for number one. The lesson Obama may have learned is that it's difficult to ask people to exert energy in behalf of goals they perceive as pie in the sky.
Obama came to realize the importance of movements from below---mobilizing anger for social change---but also their limits. He understood that insurgents in democratic socities need motivated and effective allies in the corridors of power to bring about rapid societal reform.
One of the experiences that has not been mentioned by pundits, but Obama clearly notes, was the untimely death of Harold Washington. Washington, Chicago's first black mayor and a charismatic reformer, might well have formed a symbiotic relationship with community organizers like Obama. His death occurred early in his tenure when he was moving carefully with an eye towards long-term institutional change. Washington assumed he would be in office for a long time and did not have to fast-track reforms.
The current debate over whether Obama will be inclined to move swiftly or deliberately to institute his vision might be better informed if the lessons he learned from Harold Washington's unexpectedly brief tenure is factored in. The economic crisis itself might compell rapid implementation of policies aimed at recovery, but perhaps, reflecting on Washington's fate, Obama will feel that he cannot assume he has eight or even four years to institute reforms in other arenas as well.
Although a long-time smoker, at 47 Obama probably doesn't have to worry about sudden death from cardiac arrest if he plans to serve two terms. On the other hand, the fear of assassination by a racist or someone convinced he is a secret Muslim terrorist sympathizer or the anti-Christ---widely disseminated assertions in viral emails during the campaign---should not be discounted. Obama probably has already received more death threats and hate mail than any other President-elect, if not all others put together. Perhaps that is one reason why he has assembled massive task forces to examine and evaluate every nook and cranny of government policy so he can hit the ground running on January 20, 2009. He may try to mobilize his supporters---connected by text messages and youtube---to push from below against congressional and media resistance to his programs.
Obama's decision to work quickly or with caution on issues other than economic recovery might also be affected by his unusually high approval ratings in polls. On November 6 the respected Rasmussen Poll indicated a 52-44 percent spread between those who approved of him and those who didn't. Six weeks later it has grown to 69-29. This is political capital he can spend. By 2010, after mid-term elections, he might, if history is a guide, have fewer supporters in the public and allies in the congress. But maybe he will show once again that history can be rewritten.
Still, the question remains, what is Obama's vision? On the basis of Dreams from My Father I would imagine he will try to move the U.S. closer to the kind of social democracy found in Western Europe, bolster labor unions and worker protections, rely less on military force than diplomacy and economic aid in foreign policy. He also believes in the rule of law and should seek to reverse Bush Administration's practices which border on or embrace criminality (e.g., illegal wiretaps, contravention of the Geneva Accords regarding torture).
Obama's experience as a community organizer and law professor might also conduct a massive "adult education" offensive---speaking directly to the public on a regular basis to let them understand what and why he is doing something. But Dreams also suggests that while Obama's goals are to empower the citizenry and provide more safety nets and opportunities he is open to a variety of suggestions regarding how this can be done and committed to trial and error experimentation along the way. He is, above all, results oriented and perhaps that is a major reason why he has generally chosen cabinet officials and advisors who are billed as extremely competent nuts and bolts operatives rather than visionaries. Obama himself, as he has said, will supply the vision. The danger is that his appointments, with rare exceptions such as the new Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis,are small bore actors and that, unless he can find the time to consider groundbreaking policies by tapping sources of wisdom and innovation beyond that of his appointees, his presidency may fall well short of the greatness many expect of him.
Specifically, the Obama of Dreams is a voracious reader with far-ranging tastes and unusual curiosity. He also enjoys encountering people from a wide spectrum of humanity and who hold great diversity of opinion. But Obama is not a twenty-something student, community organizer or informal world traveller anymore. As president, his unscripted time will be severely truncated, he will simultaneously have to deal with a myriad of issues, and his access to a diversity of people and perspectives may be minimal. Before he could relax by reading and playing basketball. Now he might have to choose between the two or do less of both.
The wild card in all speculation are the historical crises Obama will inherit, which may require---out of trial and error---an unprecedented transformation of U.S. economic, political and social life. After all, neither Lincoln nor FDR thought of themselves or were "radicals" when they entered the White House. Obama's biography suggests a greater capacity for it than theirs did, but even if his political ideology is now more centrist than Dreams might suggest, his embrace of pragmatism---what works---might lead him leftward gain. We shall see soon enough.
Postscript: February 6, 2009
It is too early, of course, to answer any of the important questions about Obama's course, but there are a few signs worth noting. First, as I hoped, he seems to understand that his ability to communicate directly with the citizenry---counter-acting the mainstream media tropes (i.e. wisdom comes from the center at all times) and predilections (e.g., focus on soundbites, drama, playing stenographer to politicians instead of investigating the truth of their claims) is essential for bringing dramatic social reform
Second, Obama seems to be inclined to appoint special envoys (e.g. George Mitchell to the Mid East) to solve problems rather than allow cabinet appointees to try their hand. This suggests his cabinet officials may be utilized more for carrying out routine functions than setting policy. This should reassure those on the left that having a center-right cabinet will not necessarily mean a center-right agenda.
Finally, it appears as if bi-partisanship is more of an Obama strategy of cooptation and less an end in itself. He will listen to many viewpoints, and is open to changing his opinions, but does not accept the idea that compromise in itself trumps choosing the best approach to problem-solving.
Finally, on a lighter note, I hope sending Henry Kissinger on a secret mission to negotiate with the Russians on nuclear proliferation was at least partially motivated by a desire his plane might crash or be forced to land in some country where he could promptly be arrested an hauled before a war crimes tribunal.
Plagued by record disapproval ratings and a pair of shoes during his waning days in office, President George W. Bush hopes to burnish his legacy by establishing a presidential library. Dallas has been selected for the institution's site because Baghdad's Green Zone and Wall Street were deemed insufficiently secure until The Rapture. Aside from selecting the site Mr. Bush developed the template for this project- code named Op Fuscate.
The Bush presidential library will not simply be a clone of those developed by his predecessors. The most dramatic departure will be the near absence of books, reports, memos, letters and other print documents. President Bush has often stated that he does not enjoy reading and he wants his library to be particularly user-friendly for those sharing his predilection. As Vice-president Dick Cheney recently observed, "The president doesn't even like to read newspapers. He relies on me to give him the important news. Of course, I don't cover it all. I tell him the baseball scores, but he particularly likes the comics which are hard to understand if you don't actually take a look."
The relative absence of evidence will not, however, mean evidence of absence. The institution plans to provide heavily redacted summaries of the kinds of printed matter available at his predecessors' libraries. For a nominal fee, visitors will be able to rent earphones and listen to tapes of Mr. Cheney reading from documents pre-selected for their uplifting content. One tape, for instance, will feature the president exulting in a 2004 letter to a friend that "The Texas Rangers beat the Yankees bad last night and this made me feel a lot better after I just was told another one of our convoys was attacked in Iraq."
Some highly sensitive materials will not be made available until the president chooses to declassify them at a future date, typically---never.
Besides immersing themselves in the triumphs of the current Bush Administration visitors can take time out to explore the terrain on mountain bikes, cut brush and worship at prayer services in every Christian denomination.
While excited about the having his own library, the president is cognizant of potential security problems. The building will be designed to thwart terrorist attacks there, and possibly elsewhere, in concert with the Department of Homeland Security.
A decision tio allow entry into the library will initially be based on checking photo ID, fingerprints and any records gleaned from personal, postal or electronic surveillance. In addition, behavior inside the institution will be monitored. Not surprisingly, persons requesting materials, for example, on "water-boarding endurance stats: Guantanamo vs. Abu Graihib detainees" or "extraordinary rendition travel vouchers, " among many others, will be red flagged and probably escorted to undisclosed locations for lengthy five-on-one interactions with attentive "Friends of the Library and America."
One certainty is that library security will inevitably be fluid, reacting constantly to emerging concerns. A case in point: only recently have rules been established requiring future visitors to have their shoes removed by armed attendants prior to entering the premises. Finally, Blackwater-trained guards, given blanket immunity for any security-related behavior they deem necessary, will have enormous discretion to rapidly respond to any suspicious speech or action. It is for this reason that visitors are requested to bring extra-clothing and toiletries, but not cameras, writing implements or recording equipment.
When light-heartedly questioned regarding the legality of some of the
proposed library policies, former Attorney General and currently chief
counsel to Op Fuscate, Alberto Gonzales said "The institution will want to be involved in community outreach in the broadest sense, including identifying and neutralizing potential terrorists. President Bush wants to protect our country from them while they're at the library, not wait until they're detonating a nuclear device in Orange County, Grosse Pointe, or at a visitor's restricted country club back home.
As one reads about the grim prognosis for the U.S. economy the more likely it becomes that The Great Depression is the appropriate template for our future. Unfortunately, even the most ambitious stimulus package being contemplated by our leaders might be insufficient to bring about recovery. After all, it is generally acknowledged that only the massive public spending occasioned by U.S. participation in WWII ultimately succeeded in making Americans view "depression" as a psychological state rather than economic collapse.
No one wants to have WWIII, of course. Even if such a catastrophic event were to happen, modern weaponry---nuclear weapons and missiles---would not require the mobilization of labor that the mass production of equipment for WWII's millions of ground troops once did.
But if economically and socially useful expenditures of tax dollars can't do the job---or Republicans veto any stimulus that doesn't involve military spending--- perhaps the answer lies in mobilizing labor intensive production for a faux WWII redux.
We could reinstitute a military draft, thus automatically lowering the official unemployment rate and giving people a sense---false though it may be---that the economy is improving. Credit markets can begin to thaw and our people conspicuously consume again.
Next, an army of workers can build WWII-style tanks, ships, military aircraft and appropriate weapons to supply our faux infantry, sailors and airmen. Since the mobilization will be for a faux WWII redux weaponry can be technologically modified to make them inoperable---firing blank bullets, rockets, bombs.
As for the soldiers, sailors and marines, they can engage in massive war games with faux equipment. We can even copy the Israelis and build faux towns to engage in mock counter-insurgency games. More ambitious possibilities would involve the actual re-creation of WWII's most famous battles which could employ many of those who currently re-enact Civil War combat as directors.
Above all, faux WWII will not produce the 70 million or so military and civilian deaths worldwide the real one did. This critical fact will encourage other nations to create and mobilize their own faux military resources and participate enthusiastically since, except for a few accidents, there will be no genuine casualties. In this manner the global economy will also be rejuvenated along with our own and bring us the world's good will---real not faux---that we basked in on V-E and V-J day back in 1945.
During the primary season I argued that Barack Obama's chance to become President hinged upon his ability to be perceived as an honorary "white," someone like Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods or Colin Powell. Winfrey, Woods and Powell have transcended their racial identity in a society where racism still is a significant sub-text and "blackness" is still equated for many members of the white majority with being alien, discomforting, potentially dangerous..."that one."
Obama has come close to achieving this goal because of his unflappable personality, eloquence, intelligence and political acumen. Nevertheless, until the recent economic crisis his triumph in November was still very much in doubt. Despite the great unpopularity of President Bush and the Republican Party, John McCain and Obama were in a tight race for the White House. Had Obama been white there is little doubt he would have had a double digit lead all along instead of barely edging McCain throughout the summer.
But all that has changed. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes racism can temporarily be put aside when the black candidate seems to be better equipped to lead the country from nowhere---an economic catastrophe in the making--- while his white opponent appears to want to stay the Bushonomics course.
Every day the Dow plummets, housing values plummet,unemployment and foreclosures rise and credit remains frozen Obama's numbers rise. Even if Osama Bin Laden turned himself in to McCain it wouldn't make a difference. It's the economy, stupid.
If headline-grabbing bad economic news continues unabated until November, as it should, and GOP efforts at voter suppression fall short, there is a good possibility that Democrats can not only regain the White House but have a working majority in Congress. Obama, if he has the will and the economy is righted, can begin moving the country towards a long overdue transformation--- European style regulated capitalism with a strong social safety net and vastly reduced economic inequality.
If Obama can make health care approach universality, pass new laws, such as the Free Employee Choice Act, enforce old ones making it easier for the 40 percent of workers who wish to unions (as opposed to the 12 percent who currently belong) to do so, and change the tax code to reduce wealth and income inequalities Democrats can put Republicans out of business for a generation.
But Obama's will is paramount and he may be tempermentally unsuited to using power to bring about deep reform as opposed to trying to find a middle ground with an opposition that may still have bark if no more bite. In his public life Obama has often seemed more devoted to the process of perpetual democratic deliberation than fighting in a partisan way to bring substantive outcomes in the lives of people. Perhaps he truly believes the truth is always in the middle and that is why he chooses a non-confrontational path.
On the other hand, Obama's autobiography, Dreams from My Father, suggests he might be biding his time and that while presenting himself as a man who wants us all to get along he is deeply aware of the uses of power and the realities of powerlessness. After all, his legislative career has been in settings in which his party did not have the votes to impose its will on Republicans. As president, he might turn out to be a decisive leader who will be comfortable using his power.
Much will depend on whether Obama will be preoccupied with being re-elected or whether he wants to leave an indelible mark as an agent of change. He can be another Bill Clinton---a modest overly cautious reformer---or take a tip from his predecessor, George W. Bush, who aggressively utilized all his power as chief executive to implement his policies. Bush also engaged in illegal and unethical conduct, of course, but many of his actions, such as the unprecedented use of signing statements, were perfectly legal, if seldom employed, tactics designed to thwart an uncooperative Congress. (With a Democrats in control of the Senate and House Obama has no need for signing statements, but still might find some creative ways to implement his policies if Democrats fall just short of a filibuster-proof 60 seates in the Senate).
Obama's campaign, of course, has already changed American politics in a profound way in several respects, most notably how to raise money, organize volunteers and defeat smear and fear tactics by rapid counter-punching and maintaining a positive message. If Democrats make big gains in Congress, state legislatures and statehouses Obama can also stump for reforms in voting laws and proceedures that can reduce voter suppression that has routinely disenfranchised hundreds of thousands if not millions throughout the country.
Obama has a resource few leaders have: the intellect and communication skills to educate the low-information citizen. He can mobilize public opinion in behalf of a program for profound change---to speak above the clamor of the right-wing officeholders in Congress and their media allies. The economic crisis can give him that opportunity, especially if it brings Democrats effective control of the legislative branch. But even if he falls just short of a working majority in the Senate he can frighten the opposition with the spectre of the people's wrath---but only if he chooses to arouse it.
A President Obama could certainly have a great effect on race relations. His triumph might make even extremely cynical black Americans wonder whether American society has turned a corner and that racism and discrimination, while obviously still present, may not be the all-powerful forces they once were. The effect of this change of consciousness, particularly on alienated young black males, could trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy that might begin to weaken the power of the more self-defeating aspects of black underclass culture.
At the same time Obama, if successful, will make it a bit harder for racist sentiment and discrimination to be tolerated within the white community, especially if, as is his nature, he seeks to unite all Americans around policies that make their lives easier.
Cultural changes within white and black communities would, if forthcoming, feed on each other and help the country move towards a deeper level of integration than has hitherto existed.
While outlining a best case scenario, it's necessary to acknowledge that factors beyond Obama's control could undermine his hopes. If the economy truly melts down and Obama can't fix it the racial divide could deepen as widespread insecurity leads to an exacerbation of racial tension. Whites could imagine that blacks are somehow being privileged by an Obama Administration whether true or not. Blacks might sink deeper into despair as their hopes are dashed.
The most realistic outcome of an Obama Administration is that he will bring about incremental reform and be a black Bill Clinton who can feel the pain, or appear to, of whites and blacks. Even with modest accomplishemnts Obama's tenure will have had world-historic significance. He will be the first black leader of any country with a white majority and given the legacy of race few even a year ago who could have imagined this pathbreaking accomplishment would have happened in the United States.
On June 25, 2008 the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, denied the applicability of the death penalty in cases of child rape. Both Barack Obama and John McCain publicly disagreed with the decision, but I wholeheartedly agree with the Court in this instance.
Besides generally opposing capital punishment I support the Court majority because of its practical concerns about child witness’ veracity, the likelihood that if the perpetrator was the parent a child might be more reluctant to report rape, and the increased likelihood that a perpetrator would kill the only witness to the crime. The Court also reflects my view that the death penalty, if ever justified, should be reserved for people who literally take a life. But to advocates of the death penalty for child rapists this is essentially what has been done to the victims, even if they have not physically died, because they believe child rape victims cannot ever be made psychologically whole. Since the Court chose not to to assess this contention the door unfortunately has been left open to political agitation to reverse the decision. It is this matter that concerns me.
Before addressing the evidence pertaining to long-term effects of child rape on its victims it is important to be aware of the dangers of emotional reasoning. When considering adult sexual contact with children, including forcible rape, the understandable and valid disgust that people have becomes evidence, in itself, for the belief that such an event must cause long-term or even permanent damage to the victim. But feelings are not facts and it is possible for something to be reprehensible and not typically cause such enduring effects.
The social science and psychological literature on the effects of sexual assault on children is based on two kinds of studies: clinical and non-clinical research. Clinical studies involve patients who have either chosen to see a therapist or been referred to one because of real or suspected psychological problems.
One of the severe disadvantages of clinical research is that the clinician only sees a patient when a harm has already occurred or is believed to have occurred. There is no way for the clinician to know with any certainty in most cases whether presenting symptoms, e.g., depression, sleeping disorders, anxiety, poor relationships with others, or sexual dysfunction, are necessarily caused by any particular life event. The same symptom can, in fact, have a variety of sources. The retrospective vantage point of the clinician---trying to construct a narrative to understand the patient from their past life---lends itself to the facile embrace of long-held but often unexamined just-so stories.
Since Freud Westerners widely accept the belief that childhood social experiences trump all others in determining our psychological and social functioning as adults, but the evidence for this is scant. In fact, experiences at any age can make or break us and children may be more resilient in handling trauma than adults. We are now far more sensitive to the reality of child sexual abuse than was the case in 1940, but that doesn't mean that our attempt to use abuse as an explanation for adult unhappiness is more valid simply because our culture endorses that perspective. The role of biology, pre-existing personality traits, parents, peer groups, previous trauma and the larger culture mediate our responses to what happens to us.
Clinicians also are deficient as theorists because they don't see patients that experienced sexual abuse or rape who do not have psychological symptoms, only those that do or are believed to. The asymptomatic have no need or generally any desire to see a therapist because they were sexually victimized as children any more than the non-alcoholic children of alcoholics do. The self-selection bias of patients means therapists can easily be fooled into thinking there is a 1:1 ratio between sexual victimization and long-term or permanent effects.
Given these problems it's not surprising that clinical studies reveal a strong relationship between childhood victimization and adult disorders. But, even so, a rare prospective clinical study in which children believed to be sexually abused were followed through 18 months of therapy, found that 25% had no symptoms at the time of referral and only 25% continued to have them at the end of the period of the study. The argument that symptoms could show up years later is more of an act of faith than one based on concrete evidence, because if that did happen it would not be possible to attribute it to the childhood trauma without ruling out many other factors.
Because clinical research is so flawed studies using random samples of the general population are far more valuable in assessing the psychological impact of trauma. Such studies have, through depth interviews, compared the adult functioning of persons who had sex of any kind in childhood with those who did not. In the landmark work, The Social Organization of Human Sexuality (1994), Ed Laumann et al. examined sexual histories of 3300 Americans between the ages of 18-59 and found no significant difference in the psychological and sexual adjustment between those who had any sex with adults when they were under age 14. When "forced" sex was considered by itself, no relationship was found between having such an experience and subsequent functioning in adulthood. Moreover, various measures of severity in forced sex didn't affect outcomes. Unfortunately, the data did not indicate the differential effects of forced sex by age and so it is possible younger victims were more affected in later life than older ones. But, young children do not necessarily take longer than adults to recover from trauma and in cases where being traumatized is heavily dependent on cultural factors, i.e. understanding what is considered normal behavior, very young children might be less likely than older ones and even adults to be symptomatic.
In addition to the Laumann et al. research three pychologists, Rind, Bauserman and Tromovich reviewed 59 studies and also found little evidence that child sexual abuse caused long-term psychological damage. Their work appeared in 1998 in Psychological Bulletin, a prestigious academic journal. It was promptly denounced by right-wing pundits who falsely accused the authors of defending child sexual abuse, even though this was explicitly denied by the researchers. Malcolm Gladwell, the noted science writer, cited this work in "Getting Over it," The New Yorker (November 8, 2004), in the context of making the argument that we live in an era when people are believed, without compelling evidence, to be extraordinarily fragile in the face of adversity.
Some researchers who have studied child victims of sexual abuse believe dealing with the justice system (i.e., being witnesses, including all the preparation) can be more traumatic in the long-term than the sexual abuse. This view was supported by my experience as a grand juror many years ago in a case where three 8 year olds were trading oral sex for access to a video game run by a local businessman. The first victim got her friends in on what they believed to be a great opportunity. Only when a neighbor's suspicions led to an arrest did the girls truly understand what was going on in the eyes of the larger society. By the time they testified before us three years later they could barely make eye contact. We had no difficulty indicting the perpetrator, but wondered whether the girls would have been better off had the arrangement not been discovered, they came to realize they were being exploited, ceased cooperating, and freely chose to call the police.
Most people don't look at clinical, let alone non-clinical research in making judgments about the effects of sexual victimization of children. They rely on magazine articles and television shows which utilize anecdotal evidence. Or they draw upon personal experiences or those of people they know. But such evidence is almost completely worthless if one wishes to draw general conclusions since it's possible to come up with cases to prove any point. A friend of mine's son went to jail for some teenage alcohol-induced brawl. Prior to incarceration for six months he never took school seriously and was constantly abusing drugs and alcohol. Incarceration totally changed him in a positive way, and so his mother believes it was a great thing that saved her son. But she wouldn't argue this would be the case for everyone. If her son appeared on Oprah, however, her vast audience would view things differently unless there were also guests who had the opposite experience.
I believe it is unfortunate when people don't appreciate the resilience of our species and assume that we are so fragile that terrible experiences will destroy our lives forever. But human beings cope with mortality, loss of loved ones, natural disasters, and war and keep on ticking. One doesn't have to deny victim's suffering to believe that they can and generally do move on. One of the unfortunate consequences of the "recovery" movement is that victims often stay locked into their status as victims because they are encouraged by well-meaning people to do so.
To return to the Supreme Court ruling, I feel that there is a difference between killing someone and doing terrible things to them but leaving them alive. Because with life there are possibilities that a homicide victim does not have. The Court did the right thing even if their reasoning never challenged the notion that child rape inevitably ruins victims forever.