How does one make it on TV as an “expert” on prejudice? I have never seen any reference to a “degree” on prejudice or professorship of prejudice. And yet I see the same faces turning up on TV all the time. What does one put on one’s business card to get that invite, from CNN, to air your solemn opinions on “hate?”
It took a while before I realized it was no different than getting on TV for anything else; it was all about self promotion. You just have to advertise yourself as an expert and hope no one asks too many questions.
One of the biggest experts on “prejudice” is Bret Stephens, Pulitzer-winning columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He made his name as a “prejudice expert” during the confirmation hearing of former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in 2013. There had been many accusations of anti-Semitism thrown at Hagel but no solid evidence to convince the skeptics. Till Bret Stephens broke the impasse by proclaiming “Eureka!” in his column:
“Prejudice—like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations—has an olfactory element–“
And then he pronounced that with Hagel the smell was “especially ripe.” That performance gained Stephens quite the reputation in the “prejudice detecting” field. And this election season with Donald Trump and his movement going from one victory to the next, Stephens has been especially busy. In fact Stephens has likened Trump to Mussolini and other fascists of the ’30s. And he found Trump’s stench to be so bad that racists the world over were coming to him.
“With the instinct of house flies… [they] recognize the familiar smell, and they want more of it.”
Of course, for some the aroma coming from Donald Trump was redolent of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, in the wake of charges from Israeli military leaders that the government’s political culture is fascist or even Nazi-like. And articles with headlines like “Trump and Netanyahu, purveyors of hate” have been popping up (that one written by Chemi Shalev, the respected Haaretz columnist).
So it was especially appropriate that Bret Stephens was a guest on last Sunday’s edition of the CNN foreign policy show, GPS, to discuss the US and Israel’s emanation.
Peter Beinart, another guest on the show, made the Netanyahu-Trump comparison. He argued that the government in Israel has a kind of “hyper nationalist thuggish authoritarian politics… a little bit ala Donald Trump, and the military is pushing back.”
Stephens responded that Beinart had missed the point. Israeli fascism was not the thing to focus on here, the only issue worth discussing was the military’s overreach:
The basic issue is, does — do the civilians control the military? Whether you like the policies or views of those civilians. And that seems to me fundamental in any democracy …Douglas MacArthur was probably a better general than the people who succeeded him. He still deserved to be fired.
The “basic issue” — said Stephens– was that General Yair Galon, the deputy chief of staff of the Israeli army, gave a speech on Holocaust day that warned Israeli society was reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. Of course, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies did not like that speech. Netanyahu summoned the Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to condemn the speech. But Ya’alon refused, quit his job, and himself gave a speech saying that fascistic elements were on the rise in Israel.
Stephens said that whether or not you like the “policies” and “views” of the civilian leaders (the “fascists,” in Ya’alon’s view), there are larger principles here than just fascism.
In a democracy the principle of civilian control over the military — of a military staying away from politics is very important. It’s what Obama asserted with [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal. Harry Truman with Douglas MacArthur– and should be the case in Israel.
The storyline Stephens is selling as to what the “basic issue’ is really about, is that civilians need to control a too assertive military. Netanyahu is just defending democracy from the generals, like the way Truman needed to stop MacArthur from having an independent foreign policy in Asia. This is how Truman described the “basic issue” with MacArthur:
By his repeated public statements he was not only confusing our allies as to the true course of our policies but, in fact, was also setting his policy against the President’s… If I allowed him to defy the civil authorities in this manner, I myself would be violating my oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.
As for McChrystal, this was how President Obama justified his firing of the general: his behavior “undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.”
What are the Israeli generals’ “public statements” that if Netanyahu countenanced them would undermine the civilian control of the military and violate his oath of office?
First it was the Golan speech in which the general talked about echoes of Nazism, in a clear reference to the politicians’ approval of an Israeli medic who had murdered a Palestinian man accused of an attack on an Israeli soldier as the man lay incapacitated on the ground:
If there is something that scares us about the memory of the Holocaust, it is identifying nauseating processes that occurred in Europe in general and Germany in particular, 70, 80 and 90 years ago, and finding evidence of their presence here among us, today, in 2016.
Additionally, there was this statement from Golan’s boss the chief of staff, following the same shooting by the Israeli medic:
Israel’s military chief, Gadi Eisenkot, publicly cautioned troops to use only “measured and considered force” against a wave of Palestinian street attacks and said those who deviate from orders would face punishment.
An opinion poll, however, showed 57 percent of Israelis believed the soldier should never have been arrested. And Mr Netanyahu took the unusual step of telephoning the conscript’s father to say “I understand your distress” and assure him of a fair investigation.
So maybe it is this Eisenkot statement that reminds Stephens of other cases of military overreach: one that “undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.” That Eisenkot statement– reminding his soldiers that in spite of Netanyahu’s phone call to the family, in spite of Avigdor Lieberman visiting the killer in court, in spite of the widespread support of the murdering medic by the Israeli public, — If you murder a Palestinian you will be punished. Or maybe it’s the combined threat of the Golan speech and the Eisenkot “political” statement that Netanyahu and Stephens feel make them such a threat to Israeli democracy.
I wonder how Stephens would react to the identical situation here. Let us say this past Memorial Day an American general gave a speech like Golan’s speech about fascism:
[T]here is nothing easier than hating the alien. Nothing is easier and more simple than provoking anxiety and horror. Nothing is easier and simpler than brutalization, jadedness and self-righteousness.
On memorial day, it is appropriate to discuss our own ability to uproot from our midst signs of intolerance, signs of violence, and self-destruction on the path toward moral deterioration. In fact, Memorial Day is an opportunity for introspection. …. Memorial Day to be a day for national soul-searching. And in this national soul-searching we must include some unsettling phenomena.
And what if Donald Trump would demand this general be fired? Trump would espouse the very same principles Stephens is so very concerned about in Israel:
in a democracy the principle of civilian control over the military — of a military staying away from politics is very important.
I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine which side of that fight Bret Stephens would be on, no doubt using only the very highest of principles.
I would say, as I have written here, that rather than fearing for Israeli democracy, Golan’s speech was particularly annoying to Netanyahu because of all his portfolios the “interpreting the Holocaust’ portfolio was the one he feels the most possessive about. And so he thought it breached some “separation of powers” when a lowly Israeli deputy chief of staff, who has an entirely different lesson of the Holocaust, dared to share his opinion publicly on the subject.
But this wasn’t just Golan or Peter Beinart, his old punching bag, who Stephens was disagreeing with. A parade of right wing ex colleagues of Netanyahu have come out and said that Netanyahu, his government and a growing number of supporters are fascistic, and that is now the basic issue in Israeli political life. One of these men is the former Defense Minister Ya’alon, from Netanyahu’s own party, and even by Stephens’s standard a right winger, who announced that he was “fearful for Israel’s future” under the current leadership. His warning has so resonated on the center left that there is talk of overcoming political differences to try to save Israeli democracy, by forming a coalition that would include right wingers like Yaalon and Benny Begin as well as Meretz on the left. (See columns by Uri Avnery and Akiva Eldar.)
Thankfully, on CNN the subject turned from Israel to one that Stephens has a much better nose for: non Jewish fascism. And as usual Stephens was at his principled best. He said:
It’s important that Donald Trump and what he represents, this kind of ethnic.. conservatism, or populism be decisively rebuked…
How righteous Stephens is when it comes to the American scene. He has been warning for a long time in his Wall Street Journal columns (here and here) that Trump affirms “his supporters’ most shameless ideological instincts.” He has cautioned us about why “vulnerable” people are drawn to “strong” leaders:
Then again, the pain you’re in is the pain you tell yourself you’re in. Or, at least, the pain you’re told you’re in, usually by political doctors who specialize in hyping the misery of others…… Which leads to the hysteria, the penchant for histrionic rhetoric, the promise of drastic measures, the disdain for civility, the combination of victimhood and bullying…
Well that sounds pretty terrifying, doesn’t it? And Bret Stephens has taken upon himself, as a “decent conservative” (in his own words ) and one of the few intellectuals capable of it, the great responsibility of interpreting history for the American people and drawing what to him are its obvious lessons.
“In the work of preserving civilization, nine-tenths of the job is to understand the past and stress its most obvious lessons.”
Now maybe it was the case that with the whole country watching him on CNN Stephens was uncharacteristically taciturn about Jewish fascism, but to the affluent and educated readers who flock to the WSJ he would be more forthcoming. Yet one discovers that in his column, “Netanyahu and the Generals,” Stephens defends Israeli fascism in print as well. And as is his wont, he does so exactly the way he attacks American fascism: with the most hifalutin principles.
He tells us that the Israeli military is a “Sparta… in the service of leftist goals.” And a Sparta that exhibits great arrogance:
“that they should so brazenly dismiss the ideological, religious or electoral considerations that are the stuff of democracy.”
I remind you that Stephens on CNN denounced Trump for marshaling the same forces that in Israel Stephens extols: “It’s important that Donald Trump and what he represents, this kind of ethnic.. conservatism, or populism be decisively rebuked.”
And I think that any student of 20th century history would have to acknowledge that this “ideological, religious and electoral consideration” that Stephens so stoutly defends in Israel as the “stuff of democracy” sounds remarkably similar to what fascism’s defenders have exalted as “the volk” and the “people’s will.”
As for the thinkers and activists and writers and even Israeli generals who are calling attention to the fascist menace in Israel, Stephens has this to say,
“There’s a larger point here, relevant not only to Israel– about the danger those who believe themselves to be virtuous pose to those who merely wish to be free.”
“Those who merely wish to be free.” What a stirring phrase to describe people who defend a racial murder.
Maybe this “larger point” is also relevant to the United States and to the likes of Bret Stephens, Jennifer Rubin, Jeffrey Goldberg, et al, all who believe themselves to be the most virtuous, who always champion the highest principles (for others), who are the most judgmental (of non-Jews and non-kosher Jews) who are the most disingenuous and tendentious, who are the last to “smell” their own fascists but become bloodhounds with anyone else’s.
Is the Stephens-Rubin group of “virtuous people” a danger to those who “merely wish to be free” in America, as well? Because that’s exactly what some Trump supporters think of Bret Stephens lecturing them, and exhibiting a gross double standard for American and Israeli political life.
How much resentment of Jews in this country does Bret Stephens cause, when on the same show that he tries to cover up his own ethnicity’s “fascism”, he virtuously and unselfconsciously calls on American populism to be decisively rebuked.
For those who are worried about rising antisemitism among Trump supporters, as I am, Let me make a recommendation that I am very confident will do more to combat anti-Semitism than will anything coming out of the forthcoming ADL’s anti-Semitism study: tribal Jews who are sympathetic to their own ethnic fascists should not be the ones leading the very public and avowedly-principled war against Trump and his supporters.