Maybe it’s my background as a Soviet-era Jewish Russian emigre, but I’ve always found calls from politicians to denounce someone or something unsettling.
From the days of Ancient Rome when senators would pressure each other to out-denounce political enemies to appease the emperor, to the French Revolution where the Sans-Culottes pamphlets read: “Denounce the crimes, denounce the criminals, a double reward awaits you, for denunciation is a Virtue,” to the famous Moscow show trials where everyone was called upon to denounce Trotsky (but most everyone was shot anyway), to the struggle-sessions of Maoist China, where the condemned were forced to denounce their own counter-revolutionary crimes (the bigger the better), every post-revolutionary zealot demands proclamations of support buttressed by formulaic denunciations of agreed upon enemies.
“Denounce Trotsky,” “Denounce Robespierre,” “Denounce LePen,” “Denounce Trump,” “Denounce Hatred”—the formalization of political and moral criticism into clamors for formulaic pronouncements of denunciation creates a presumption of guilt by past silence and intimates support of the abominable in the absence of a direct and timely condemnation (of course, the definition of “direct and timely” is left to the accuser).
Further, does a political leader denouncing something that most society agrees is reprehensible magically make it go away? Does a president’s denunciation of hatred, bigotry and anti-semitism somehow reassure us that society has, all of a sudden, woken up to the evils of these things? Are we really living in times that require elected officials to educate the public about the evils of things that we as a society already understand are evil? Should the president also condemn murder? Pedophilia? Burglary? Should the president condemn any number of things that, as a society, we agree are reprehensible?
No one, least of all President Trump’s critics, really believes that a bigot, homophobe, or anti-semite will look at a presidential denunciation and suddenly have an epiphany and repent.
Trump denounced prejudice, hatred, and anti-semitism as anti-American on the two biggest stages available to him as president: first, in his inaugural address and more recently at the outset of his address to Congress. These denunciations did not mollify critics or change anyone’s mind about bigotry.
What does change things, however, is action. When there was a perceived uptick in anti-semitism, falsely and predictably reported as a tidal wave that manifested most publicly in five waves of bomb threats against Jewish community centers around the country, the press and Trump’s political opponents made hay of what they deemed the president’s silence and intimated his culpability because of it. However, the federal government, led by the president, has taken action since the earliest bomb threats began January 9. From the outset, the FBI has investigated and the Justice Department has stepped up its involvement more recently. Further—in a more symbolic, but also important gesture—Vice President Mike Pence came to show his support at a desecrated Jewish cemetery.
These actions, when they were reported, were always cast as fig-leaves in the shadow of accusation. But the reality is that the federal government, headed up by Donald Trump, took the anti-semitic threats seriously and acted vigorously on them from the start. These efforts, while still far from over, resulted in Friday’s arrest of Juan Thompson, a Muslim Bernie Sanders voter who had been fired by The Intercept for creating false sources for his stories. But, if we’re to believe the reportage, these actions and even arrest are meaningless. It’s the condemnation that matters.
Of course, even when it’s provided, the condemnation isn’t quite ever enough…is it? CNN writes: “The president did mention the threats in his speech Tuesday evening, but did not outline a plan to stop them.” Steve Goldstein, partisan and former employee of various Senate Democrats who is now director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect had this to say:
The President’s sudden acknowledgement is a Band-Aid on the cancer of Antisemitism that has infected his own Administration. His statement today is a pathetic asterisk of condescension after weeks in which he and his staff have committed grotesque acts and omissions reflecting Antisemitism, yet day after day have refused to apologize and correct the record. Make no mistake: The Anti-Semitism coming out of this Administration is the worst we have ever seen from any Administration.” [Random capitalization in the original.]
What’s telling is that now, even in light of Thompson’s arrest in connection with the bomb threats and exposure as a Leftist who has no truck with Trump, there has been no attempt by the media or Trump’s critics to walk back their calls for denunciation or even a moment of self-reflection to question whether they jumped to conclusions that didn’t comport to the facts on the ground.
Truth is, responding to calls for condemnation from a politician is a fool’s errand as the goalposts keep moving and the game is rigged from the start. The minute any politician is “called to condemn” it is too late. The moment he or she responds to those calls, the game of political checkers begins—the script is already written: “After being pressured by various X-ish groups, the president finally condemns Y.” The formula is old and tired, and much of the body politic, at this point, sees through it.
This expectation of continuous official condemnation turns denouncements by civil servants into political theater and virtue signalling of the highest order. It cheapens true condemnation and action. Speech becomes more important than the action. A large portion of our society, thus seems to conflate—no, elevate—speech over action. This only rewards the platitudinous over the virtuous and it solves exactly nothing.
Further, the need for a constant stream of moral denunciations by political leaders turns on its head the notion that the society at large determines its own national mores. Instead, it creates an atmosphere where the populace looks to the government—politicians—for moral leadership.
Let me repeat—this forces people to look to politicians for moral leadership. P-o-l-i-t-i-c-i-a-n-s.
Of course there is a place for denunciations and condemnation, but not as part of a high decibel whisper campaign regarding a politician’s character or with regards to a moral position upon which most reasonable people already agree. Explanation, denunciation, and condemnation are sometimes necessary and worthwhile to maintain a civic trust, especially when there are truly moral and ambiguous questions regarding affiliations and alliances.
For instance, I’m still waiting for the Women’s March movement to denounce, or at least address issues surrounding Linda Sarsour, the organizer of January’s Women’s March on Washington, or speaker Angela Davis’ attempt to conflate the Women’s March with “Justice for Palestine” or to explain how the women’s movement addresses its close association with Rasmea Yousef Odeh—organizer of the upcoming anti-Trump “A Day Without a Woman” protest—who was convicted in Israel in 1970 for her role in two terrorist bombings, one of which killed two students. Odeh, when convicted of lying to immigration authorities about being convicted of terrorism, said: “This case just shows that the U.S. attorney’s office is nothing but a tool for the U.S government and its support of Israel.”
If we’re going to address anti-semitism, why not at least examine the possibility that it might exist in these quarters as well? But the New York Times and Washington Post, both of which seem to take the issue of anti-semitism so seriously, are oddly reluctant to examine the history of a woman who actually confessed to helping to kill Jews and then lied about it when she immigrated to the United States. You’d think there’d be at least the semblance of a story there. Nope. Crickets.
As members of the body politic, we can and do voice our opposition to morally reprehensible ideas and actions all the time. To expect our elected representatives to do it for us is to shirk our own responsibility in the civic process and to elevate the pronouncements of elected representatives, politicians, our servants, above our own.
Ultimately, however, it’s the job of the people and not politicians to set and maintain a set of moral boundaries and acceptable behavior. To expect otherwise is to go down a dangerous road. When we do this we run the risk of becoming a society that conflates the legal with moral and the political with the ethical.