Ron Radosh

Ron Radosh

How a High Minimum Wage Closed Down a San Francisco Bookstore

February 6th, 2015 - 2:53 pm

The Left, as well as most Democrats, favor and regularly call for an increase in the minimum wage. They argue that inequality is growing, that families earning the minimum wage cannot support themselves at the current rate, and that the best way to address the issue is to build up pressure for a mandated wage increase.

They are correct that growing income inequality and the widening gap between the rich and the rest of the country have to be addressed. Reform conservatives have in fact addressed the issue for some time, as in this article by Matthew Continetti, and this one by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. Perhaps one of the most insightful articles by a conservative on the issue is this piece by Prof. Patrick Gerry of the University of South Dakota.

Conservatives by and large have made the argument that increasing the minimum wage will not solve the problem, but will only make it harder for lower income people to get beginning jobs, and will adversely affect students who have to work while in college or during the summer. Most have used this argument, made here by economist Stephen Bronars. On the other side, Ron Unz has waged a campaign in favor of raising it to $12 an hour.

This is already a large increase from the federal minimum wage of $7.25. I understand the need to raise the minimum wage, but wouldn’t it make more sense to do it over a number of years, taking inflation into account? To instantly raise it by a very large amount will produce a new set of problems that the Left does not want to address.

A few days ago, ABC 7 News in San Francisco reported that Alan Beatts, owner of the popular independent bookstore Borderlands Books, announced that he was shutting its doors. The reason he gave was the ballot initiative, passed in the previous mid-term elections, which mandated that the minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour by 2018. While the rest of the nation focused on the incredible Republican victory in the midterms, “progressive” activists bragged that in the cities and states, their campaigns and protests worked, as regular citizens voted on behalf of their agenda.

After running the numbers, Beatts determined that he could not afford the increase which would put him in the red. He had survived the birth of Amazon and San Francisco’s current minimum wage of $11.05 per hour, but $15 was the tipping point for him. (You can see him explain his decision in more detail on Morning Joe.)

Unfortunately, those who worked there will be joining the ranks of the unemployed.

In his case, the small bookstore has only five employees including Beatts, three of whom get the minimum wage. He pointed out that book stores will be especially hard hit, because they won’t be able to absorb the increase gradually by raising prices: the prices are already printed on the book. But it would also affect other small businesses, including auto body shops, gas stations, mom and pop stores, shoemakers, etc. In the future, if not sooner, San Francisco may find large numbers of people previously employed and paying taxes to the city unable to find employment, and now adding to the expenses of the city and state.

All this reminds me of the fate of the Eighth Street Bookshop, a very popular bookstore in New York’s Greenwich Village which closed decades ago. Ted and Eli Wilentz opened the store way back in 1947 and closed it 1979. At its height, it had a stock of 60,000 books, and was a literary salon as well as a site where authors regularly appeared. After a fire, it was rebuilt, and former employee and writer Bill Reed noted:

The Eighth Street Bookshop rapidly became a literary gathering-spot reflecting and in turn influencing the latest local, national and international vogues in everything from poetry to astrophysics. Over the next few decades Eighth Street would become as fine a book emporium as any in the U.S., and a worthy rival to Blackwell’s in London.

The owners were on the political left, and the store became a beacon of the 1960s counter-culture, and was known throughout the nation by readers. Reed continues:

Most Greenwich Village retailers had gone the way of high-tech security systems to snare shoplifters, Eighth Street did not require one to “Please check all bags, etc. at the front counter.” So lax was overall security that one employee who worked there was able to steal many thousands of dollars from the till before getting caught. A self-styled struggling artist, even though the Wilentzes paid wages nearly twice as high as any other bookstore in the city, he most likely felt his actions justified. But emblematic of the fluffy white cloud of paradox hanging over the place, when this not-so-petty thief was finally uncovered and sent packing he was given generous severance pay. Just what you might expect from a couple of only partially reconstructed lefties like Ted and Eli. The aforementioned pilferer notwithstanding, working at Eighth Street was considered a sinecure by most who toiled there. Another time, an employee, known for his hangovers, mistakenly ordered a mammoth number of non-refundable books: “Just give me one of everything,” he had told a salesman. Typically, he was allowed to stay on.

So the brothers paid twice as much as other bookstores in New York City, and even let an embezzler who worked there off, because he was a struggling artist. But this did not warm the hearts of the Left. In the ’70s, a fledging leftist group began an effort to unionize small independent businesses, including bookstores. Whom did they choose to begin their new campaign, and to post picket lines in front of?

The answer, of course, is the Eighth Street Bookshop. The socialist writer and activist Michael Harrington (whose own books were sold there and did quite well) led a picket line in front of the store, chastising it for hiring workers who were not union members. That the owners were small businessmen who were also leftists and who already paid higher wages than other bookstores did not matter.

As Reed writes:

Under a headline reading, “Great Moments in Labor History,” the October 1, 1979 issue of the Village Voice reported that the store’s personnel had shown up for work earlier that week to find, without prior notification, the locks on the door changed. The Voice implied that Eli Wilentz, rather than give in to unionizing his operation, as the majority of his employees were now pushing for, Eli Wilentz decided to close up his store for good (although Eli later denied that was the reason). A sign in the window read:

“To customers and friends — After thirty-two years of running the bookshop, I have decided to retire. I appreciate your friendship over the years. Long live Greenwich Village and its poets, writers and readers.”

When it comes down to it, small businesses (which are responsible for creating most new jobs) have to make a profit and can’t run on a deficit the way that countries can. It doesn’t matter how much their owners want to stay open or what their political beliefs are. In the end the business has to be profitable to make their investment worthwhile and all of their hard work worth it. That is the way economics works, no matter how many wish it wasn’t so.

I would like to do an update on my last column, which apparently angered many PJM readers.  Since I wrote it, there have been new developments which should be taken into consideration  when looking at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s forthcoming speech to both houses of Congress. I previously expressed the view that Netanyahu should have handled things differently and worked to stop Iran from getting a bomb without making an appearance in Washington since that  had the effect of  enraging the administration. Some have argued his action could even endanger the U.S.-Israeli alliance as well as bipartisan support of Israel.

The view that it is a folly for Netanyahu to appear was argued today by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, a strong supporter of Israel who is a liberal Democrat. Cohen writes that the U.S. has to give the negotiations more time to succeed, and agrees with the administration that  “additional sanctions may drive the Iranians from the table.” I find that argument more than naïve. Cohen ignores the many statements of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who insists that Iran must develop a bomb and that it has a right to do so. It can thus be argued that no matter how long the U.S. keeps extending the deadline, Iran will work steadily day by day to come as close as possible to achieve their goal.  Certainly, negotiations without sanctions will make it easier.

Cohen also ignores that Iran already has more than one bomb’s worth of enriched material, a plutonium track close to completion and almost 90 percent there. Moreover, Iran recently announced that it is building two more nuclear plants — proving that the administration is wrong when it claims Iran’s nuclear program has been halted.

Cohen, however, has another concern — that Netanyahu’s appearance could endanger the long-standing “bipartisan understanding and support of Israel” and that “support of Israel will become a partisan political issue in the United States.” In other words, Democrats could be incensed at what they see as an insult to the president and the nation and therefore might be more inclined to reject a vote for sanctions should the current talks lack results.

Cohen’s argument questioning the effectiveness of Netanyahu’s visit was reinforced by an analysis appearing in today’s Times of Israel. In this issue, Raphael Ahren writes:

It is highly doubtful, however, that the prime minister’s March 3 speech will succeed in making Israel much safer; if anything, it could turn out to be counterproductive.  A polished and passionate speech, delivered in unaccented American English, is sure to be greeted with minutes-long standing ovations. But will it persuade even a single lawmaker to change his or her position on the Iran sanctions bills that are currently under discussion in Washington?

The bill under discussion, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, known as the Kirk-Menendez bill, began being circulated out of the Senate Banking Committee on January 16th. It threatens to expand sanctions on Iran should it not come to a comprehensive nuclear deal by the official deadline of July 1, 2015. Ahren believes that no one will change their position as a result of this speech, because the legislators are already familiar with the issues, and have already made their decision on how to vote when the Kirk-Menendez bill comes before the House and Senate. He fears that Bibi’s speech “might actually lead the Iran sanctions bills to fail when otherwise they might have succeeded, according to several experts, including top officials in Jerusalem.” In other words, his sources tell him that the affront to the White House “will lead some Congressmen who originally favored the sanctions bill to vote against it, making its success virtually impossible.” An Israeli expert on U.S-Israeli relations told him that “Netanyahu’s actions were so blatant that some Democrats, who might otherwise support more sanctions, will side with the president.”

This argument, however, has lost force as a result of developments that took place today. An important group of Senate Democrats — including Menendez and New York’s Chuck Schumer –has told the administration in a letter that they will not support a vote on the sanctions bill until March 24th, therefore  putting off  what had previously been imminent. And if a vote was taken, with Democrats holding off, the Kirk-Menendez bill would not have enough votes to overtake a presidential veto. They also told Obama, as the Times of Israel reports, they will support passage “only if there is no political framework agreement because, as the letter [to the President] states, we remain hopeful that diplomacy will succeed in reversing Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon capability.” The letter ended, however, with the understanding that “they remain very skeptical that Iran is committed to making the concessions necessary to demonstrate to the world that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful by March 24.”

So while the Democrats have delayed acting until March, a step that appears at first glance to  give Obama more time to negotiate while Iran enriches its stockpile and builds more centrifuges, in reality, as The Hill reports, in effect the letter “warned the White House” that they will vote for a sanctions bill in two months — not a long time period — if Iran does “not roll back the country’s nuclear program.” Moreover, in addition to Democrats Menendez and Schumer, there will now be 10 additional Democrats pledging to do so in both the House and Senate. The signers include Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Gary Peters (Mich), Bob Casey Jr. (PA), Ben Cardin (MD), Chris Coons (Del), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Debbie Stabenow (Michigan). These Democrats have made it clear that they are not buying the administration’s line that to put forth a sanctions bill will empower those so-called hard-liners in Iran.  To the contrary, they argue that a bill would put serious pressure on the Iranian regime to pull back, which they will not do without the pressure of sanctions. On the other hand, their move gives the administration a little breathing room and forestalls Republicans who would have wanted to act more quickly.

The last line of the Menendez letter says that the bill is “reasonable and pragmatic,” but “sends a strong signal to Iran…that endless negotiations under the interim agreement are dangerous, unacceptable, and could leave Iran with a threshold nuclear weapon capability.” And as Omri Ceren of The Israel Project points out, the bill can no longer be portrayed as simply a message of Republican and neo-conservative hardliners in the U.S. Instead of Democrats staying “frozen on the sidelines,” it means when it comes up for a vote it will be with bipartisan support.

Josh Block, CEO of The Israel Project, points out in a message just sent out that, contrary to those who argue the Democrats caved in to Obama (as in the analysis in Times of Israel), the Democrats’ letter to the White House says that if the negotiations fail by the July deadline “there will be negative consequences.” All the steps putting the bill in the process of going to the Senate will now have solid bipartisan support. It has already just been officially introduced, Block reports, “with 16 original co-sponsors, nine Republicans and seven Democrats.” This means, he notes, that the sponsors already have between 62 and 65 supporters of the bill, “close to the 67 needed for an override of a veto.” There are 52 Republicans, 10 Democrats, and three more who co-sponsored the bill in the last Congress. Thus, Block concludes, “opponents of the bill, including the White House, have misrepresented it and implied [incorrectly] that it would impose sanctions during negotiations.” As we know, the bill would implement sanctions only after the Iranians have not reached an agreement by July.

In light of this, I think that Netanyahu’s upcoming speech will actually have the effect of bolstering both Republican and Democrat support of the bill.  Marc Thiessen  has written a compelling argument for why Bibi should come and present his speech. He writes in his Washington Post column that in fact Netanyahu is not doing anything that the Obama administration itself has not done:

Clearly, it is not a breach of protocol for a foreign leader to lobby Congress. After all, Obama himself deployed British Prime Minister David Cameron to lobby lawmakers to oppose new sanctions on Iran. It seems Netanyahu’s crime is not so much a breach of diplomatic protocol, but rather, opposing the administration’s position…..If the leader of one of our closest allies is so worried about the deal Obama is going to cut with Iran that he is willing to risk a diplomatic rift with the administration to speak out, perhaps the problem is not with Israel, but with the Obama administration.

Thiessen also exposes the hypocrisy of the administration:

Obama claims that new sanctions on Iran “will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails.” If the mere threat of sanctions is enough to derail Iran’s nuclear talks, then whatever deal is in the works is not worth having. It means that Obama is far more desperate for a deal than Tehran is — which is a sure-fire way to guarantee a bad agreement.

I now think Netanyahu has good reason to come and give his speech, since it will bolster the resolution of  Congress, will be an appeal to both Republicans and Democrats, and will reach  the American people with his sharp analysis of the high stakes if Iran got a nuclear weapon.  At this point, Netanyahu would have much more to lose by doing an about face and canceling his trip.

Both Washington and Jerusalem are buzzing about two top officials who have decided to publicly criticize the government in which they served. One worked in the Obama administration and the other in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

In the U.S., the person in question is Dennis Ross, who was the chief negotiator for the Arab-Israeli conflict from 1993 to 2001, and a special assistant to the president for the Middle East and South Asia from 2009 to 2011. Considered to be a skilled and knowledgeable diplomat by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, Ross resigned from his post in 2011 without making any public statement.

Now he has decided to come forth, by penning two op-eds in the New York Times, the first appearing last September, and the second a few days ago. In September, Ross stated, as the title stressed, that “Islamists Are Not Our Friends.” Among the Sunnis, Ross singled out ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter of which the Obama administration was backing in Egypt at the time of the Arab Spring and thereafter. The Brotherhood, Ross wrote, “was Islamist before it was Egyptian.”  Ross, unlike the Obama team, favored making a clear break with the Assad regime in Syria, which would have ensured that the U.S. did not end up “partnering with Iran against ISIS,” which is now what the administration seems to be doing.

In his second op-ed, Ross turned to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Referring to Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court for violations of human rights, Ross told a European official that “it’s time to stop giving the Palestinians a pass.” He then proceeded to recount the three major negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis that attempted to resolve the conflict: Clinton’s in 2000, Olmert’s in 2008, and Kerry’s last year. To each set of proposals, the answer of the Palestinians was “either ‘no’ or no response.” That is because, as he put it, “Palestinian political culture is rooted in a narrative of injustice.”

 [Its sense of grievance] treats concessions to Israel as illegitimate. Compromise is portrayed as betrayal, and negotiations- which are by definition about mutual concessions- will inevitably force any Palestinian leader to challenge his people by making a politically costly decision.

Today, Ross realizes that all the pressure now is on Israel and virtually none on the Palestinians, emphasizing what “Israel must do and what Palestinians should get.” He thinks it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who should be held accountable and who should have their international support by Europe weakened, and that such support should come to an end. Only such action “could well change their calculus.”   Nothing will be accomplished unless Palestinians show they are willing to compromise. They also have to be able to deal realistically with the settlement of the refugee issue “that allows Israel to retain its Jewish character.” In other words, the Palestinians have to give up the “right of return.”

In Israel, it is former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, picked personally in 2009 by Netanyahu to represent Israel in the U.S., who is now challenging the direction of the government and leader he once served. The issue is Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress.  The purpose of the prime minister’s talk will be to argue on behalf of tough sanctions on Iran if it continues to prepare its infrastructure to quickly build a nuclear weapon, and to urge Congress to pass a resolution in favor of sanctions if Iran doesn’t come to an agreement by the next deadline. The president is not happy, refusing to meet with Netanyahu when he’s in the country and promising to veto the sanctions bill should it arrive on his desk.

Speaking during a television interview yesterday in Israel, Oren stated that Netanyahu should cancel his upcoming speech set for March 3, which will take place two weeks before Israel’s elections. The reason, Oren told Israel’s Channel 2, was to avoid a rift with the American government. “Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior,” he argued, “are needed to guard [Israel’s] interests in the White House.” Netanyahu’s behavior has “created the impression of a cynical political move” which Oren believes “could hurt our attempts to act against Iran.” Israel, he wrote on Twitter, must not sacrifice one of its two most important needs — “preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and strengthening our relationship with the US.”

In making this argument, Oren — now a leader of the new Kulanu party  who is on its election list of those running for the Knesset in the March elections — is clearly being political himself, by staking out a new stance distancing himself from his former boss. His position also puts him in line with other opponents of the prime minister, including Hatnua party leader Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid. Lapid argued that Bibi was ruining Israel’s relationship with the U.S. purely for political gain. As one unnamed U.S. official told Israel’s Channel 2, close cooperation between Israel and the U.S. on “strategic matters” was being jeopardized for Bibi’s “political interests while disrupting the correct working relationship” between the two nations. The term “strategic matters” was a euphemism for the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

So who is correct, Bibi or Oren, Livni and Lapid? Those who make the case for Bibi include Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who writes that “there is nothing wrong with an Israeli Prime Minister doing his utmost to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, even if it offends the sensibilities of the American president,” and Caroline Glick, who is now being considered by Netanyahu to be on Likud’s list for the Knesset from a safe Likud district. At and the Jerusalem Post, Glick writes that Speaker Boehner was correct to invite Netanyahu, because “Boehner didn’t invite Netanyahu because he cares about Israel’s election. He invited Netanyahu because he cares about US national security. He believes that by having Netanyahu speak on the issues of Iran’s nuclear program and radical Islam, he will advance America’s national security.”

I think that both Boteach and Glick are wrong in stating their case. Of course, Boehner was within his rights to offer Bibi a platform, and Netanyahu within his to accept the offer. The question is whether or not his acceptance of the offer will help or harm the effort to rein in Iran. Congress will most likely pass resolutions for sanctions against Iran if necessary without Netanyahu’s speech, and the conflict over his acceptance gives ammunition to those against sanctions, such as the editors of the New York Times, who argue that the invitation  is a “hostile attempt to lobby Congress to enact more sanctions against Iran, a measure that Mr. Obama has rightly threatened to veto.”

Glick is undoubtedly correct when she argues that Obama has such a radical position that even Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey stated publicly that he never expected the administration to present a position that “sounds like talking points that come straight out of  Tehran.” And last week, Obama verged on overt anti-Semitism when he told the press that the senators opposing his agenda were doing so because of pressure on them from donors. Everyone knows that he was referring obliquely to Jewish donors, and to lobbies like AIPAC.

This truth does not mitigate the dangers to our common goal of stopping Iran. Jonathan S. Tobin spells out the main reason why Netanyahu’s speech could serve the interests of those who favor appeasement of the mullahs:

Though his American fans are thrilled with the idea of Netanyahu addressing Congress and rallying it to the cause of stopping Iran, the prime minister did the White House a favor by accepting Boehner’s invitation without going through the normal protocol of consulting with the State Department and/or the White House. Instead of the focus being on Obama’s illogical opposition to any pressure on an Iranian regime that has been stonewalling him and running out the clock in nuclear negotiations, attention has been focused on the prime minister’s chutzpah. There is already a strong majority in both Houses of Congress for more sanctions on Iran, a step that would strengthen Obama’s hand in negotiations, and the controversy over Netanyahu’s appearance gives some weak-willed Democrats an excuse to do the president’s bidding and sink the proposed legislation.

We all understand that Obama wants détente with Iran, and is willing to give them the bomb and even forge an alliance with this state that is responsible for terrorism throughout the world, because he sees them as part of a new alliance against ISIS. Why, then, give his supporters an issue to turn the public’s attention from a failed foreign policy, and to allow them to portray Netanyahu as the opponent of peace and a firm American-Israeli alliance? Therefore, I agree fully with Tobin’s conclusion:

The prime minister would do well to stay home and to lobby quietly and effectively for Congress to raise the pressure on Iran. But even if he does give the speech, the U.S.-Israel alliance is sufficiently strong to withstand Obama’s assault on it. Blowing smoke about revenge is as close to a real rupture in relations with Israel as Obama and his staff will get.


Israeli Election Update: Netanyahu Likely to Remain Prime Minister

Photo: The March on Selma; King with Ralph Abernathy and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

In Selma, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was all about the film Selma. As the local newspaper reported:

The Queen City shined in the spotlight Sunday as thousands of people welcomed the cast and crew of the movie “Selma” to town and marched on the same bridge that changed history 50 years ago.

The film’s director Ava DuVernay, its producers Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, star David Oyelowo, and [rapper] Common and John Legend who together wrote the movie’s powerful song Glory were all in Selma for the historic day….

Of course, celebrities joined King in Selma at the time of the actual march. But they were there to give support to the civil rights movement, not to publicize a film.  There’s no doubt that in their own minds, Winfrey and company believe they are honoring King, and not building up momentum for their movie. Selma, in fact, tanked at the box office and did badly compared to the other Oscar “Best Picture” nominees, and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is the film that  broke the box office weekend record.

Criticisms of the historical inaccuracies of the film, and of director DuVernay’s distortions, continue to grow. On Sunday, Maureen Dowd devoted her column to the issue, and for once got things right. It is a shame, she writes, that young people who learn about Selma from the movie will see the relationship between King and Lyndon Johnson through the director’s lens. “The director’s talent,” she puts it, “makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”

It is true that LBJ stalwarts, like Joseph  Califano, Jr. in his angry , exaggerated Johnson’s role, seeking to make him the one who pushed for civil rights rather than King and the movement. But if you read the piece by the African-American writer David Lewis in a 2006 article in The New Yorker, where he quotes from the second volume of  Taylor Branch’s magisterial three-volume biography of King, you will learn about the real relationship between King and Johnson:

[Branch] briskly relates how Johnson moved from annoyed doubt about Selma to outright collaboration within a matter of weeks. He urged King to expose the worst of voting conditions in Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, but he could hardly have had in mind the brutal reaction of Selma’s sheriff, Jim Clark. For King’s purposes, however, Clark and his deputies were ideal—studio-cast thugs guaranteed to provoke national outrage and instigate federal intervention….

[Branch’s book] vividly captures the exact hour when the political order of the Deep South finally invalidated itself in the eyes of mainstream America. The carnage inflicted by municipal and state police at the bridge and along the marchers’ route of retreat accomplished for voting rights what song, prayer, and marching had not.

In essence, the civil rights movement upped the ante and led to a changed America, while in Lyndon Johnson they found a sympathetic Southern politician who might have tactically disagreed with the pace that King demanded, but who approved of his goal. Of course, DuVernay argues that she was making a film, and that she is not a historian or a documentarian. That is a cop-out. On the one hand they push the film as a depiction of the truth; and when they are caught creating stick-figure villains, they reply by saying accuracy isn’t the point. One cannot have it both ways. Or as Dowd writes, “filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season.”

And now, yet another distortion in the film has come to light. Last week I wrote about the downgrading of the role of Ralph Abernathy. Now Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, has publicly written about her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose key role in support of the march was also erased from history in Selma. She writes:

The religious inspiration that led us to Selma continues, and the photograph of my father marching in the front row there — with King, Ralph Bunche, John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian — has become iconic. What a pity that my father’s presence is not included in “Selma.” More than a historical error, the film erases one of the central accomplishments of the civil rights movement, its inclusiveness, and one of King’s great joys: his close friendship with my father. The photograph reminds us that religious coalitions can transcend and overcome political conflicts, and it also reminds us that our Jewish prophetic tradition came alive in the civil rights movement. Judaism seemed to be at the very heart of being American.

Not only was King’s friend Rabbi Heschel erased from the film, most people do not realize that King was a defender of Israel and stood in solidarity with the Jewish state against its enemies.  King considered himself an ally of American Jews in their common fight for civil rights.  As Dumisani Washington writes, “Israel’s enemies refuse to accept the fact that the unparalleled civil rights champion of the 20th century was a staunch, vocal supporter of Israel and loyal friend to the Jewish people.” King had said the following:

Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.

All this leads me to end with what is perhaps the most disgraceful celebration of Martin Luther King’s legacy — the decision by two universities to have the ’60s revolutionary  Communist Party activist Angela Davis chosen as the speaker to commemorate King’s life and vision. That honor is given her by the Univ.of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California-Santa Cruz.

Davis is a hater of Israel, a defender of terrorist groups that fight Israel, and, as I pointed out in an earlier column, a woman who melded together black nationalism with Marxism-Leninism. She was an unabashed defender of the Soviet Union, a lifelong Stalinist who fought with the Soviet leaders to fight movements of democracy anywhere in the Soviet bloc, and a woman who condemned that period’s dissidents as traitors to socialism. Those associated with her at the time called King “da Lawd” and “Uncle Tom King.” To have someone who opposed King’s politics and tactics honor him today is the height of hypocrisy.

As for Selma, it is perhaps necessary to have new generations learn about the brave people who fought to fulfill America’s democratic promise. The March on Selma as it actually occurred was dramatic and a significant turning point.  It did not need Hollywood filmmakers distorting the contributions of LBJ, Ralph Abernathy, Abraham Joshua Heschel and others to the achievement of the Voting Rights Act to honor the bravery of those who risked their lives in nonviolent protest. The truth, on its own, is enough.

The Truth, History, and the Movie Selma

January 12th, 2015 - 8:04 am


The nationwide release of the film Selma, which concentrates on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1965 Selma marches for the cause of African-American voting rights in the segregated South, has been received with much fanfare and enthusiastic accolades. It is likely to be short-listed for “Best Picture” from the voters in this year’s Academy Awards.

Questions have been raised, however, about the film’s historical accuracy in its depiction of LBJ’s relationship to Dr. King, and his role in securing the Voting Rights Act, first by Joseph A. Califano Jr., chief advisor for domestic affairs to Johnson, and then by many others.

A major distortion that film critics did not notice was the absence of Ralph Abernathy, who, as King’s chief lieutenant, was always by his side during the marches. King said that he “was the best friend I have in the world”:

Dr. Abernathy and King travelled together, often sharing the same hotel rooms, jail cells, and leisure times with their wives, children, family, and friends. They fought together against segregation and discrimination, helped to establish new legislation, and tried to instill a new sense of pride, dignity, and self-worth in African Americans.

Abernathy suffered bombings, beatings by southern policemen and State Troopers, 44 arrests, and daily death threats against his life and those of his wife and children. His family’s land and automobile were confiscated and he had to re-purchase his automobile at a public auction. Some of his colleagues and some volunteers in the civil rights movement who worked with him were murdered.

Why, then, is Abernathy not shown at King’s side during the marches in Selma? Instead, he has been removed in much the same way they did it in Stalin’s Soviet Union, where photos of purged leaders who stood next to Stalin were erased and encyclopedia entries about them taken out of new editions.

While there are some sightings of Abernathy, his children stress that “the depiction of the role of [our] father is grossly mischaracterized.” Not only were King and Abernathy partners in the creation of the Selma protests, Abernathy, as journalist Jim Galloway writes, was even taken out of the opening scene at the White House, depicted as a one-and-one meeting of King with LBJ, which actually occurred with Abernathy present. In fact, King never went to the White House without Abernathy.

Selma’s director, Ava DuVernay, apparently gave in to the wishes of the King family that Abernathy’s role be diminished. Galloway suggests this took place because of their anger at what Abernathy wrote in his 1989 autobiography, in which he claimed that the night before he was assassinated in 1968, King had spent the night with two women. The film does let viewers know that King was not faithful to his wife, but the King family never forgave Abernathy for what he wrote. Abernathy’s own son has a different suggestion, which is that today people like a simplification of history and only have room for one hero to celebrate, who supposedly alone created the movement he led. King, therefore, was the “only symbol of the movement.”

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Cuban dissidents meet in Havana.

Cuban dissidents meet in Havana.

Charles Krauthammer gets it right. He writes the following about the Cuba deal in his most recent column:

Obama brought back nothing on democratization, a staggering betrayal of Cuba’s human-rights crusaders. No free speech. No free assembly. No independent political parties. No hint of free elections. Not even the kind of 1975 Helsinki Final Act that we got from the Soviets as part of detente, granting structure and review to human-rights promises. These provided us with significant leverage in supporting the dissident movements in Eastern Europe that eventually brought down communist rule.

Indeed, on Tuesday — a short time after the dramatic announcement of a new Cuba policy — Cuban dissidents announced that the Castro regime has arrested leading opposition figures, and prohibited others from leaving their place of residence. They report:

Reinaldo Escobar was arrested when he left the building where he lives in the company of the activist Eliécer Ávila, founder of the group “Somos Más” (We are More). Both were handcuffed and put in a patrol car waiting in front of the building in the Havana neighborhood of Neuvo Vedado. Reinaldo’s daughter, Luz, who was with her father, has not been arrested, but a State Security agency told her, “We are not going to let you leave.” The same official visited Luz Escobar’s home yesterday to warn her not to go near the Plaza of the Revolution today, where the artist Tania Bruguera has scheduled a performance titled “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” for 3:00 in the afternoon, to demand freedom of expression for Cuban’s citizens.

The dissidents referred to the effort of a performance artist, Tania Bruguera, to assemble Cuban citizens in Revolution Square, the area in which the government holds its official rallies, and where for decades Fidel Castro harangued the crowds in the blazing sun during speeches that went on for hours. What Bruguera argued was that having average Cuban citizens come and express their hopes for the future was itself an artistic endeavor. As many people came to the site to participate, the dissidents reported that the police “also arrested …photographer Claudio Fuentes and his companion Eva Baquero. Social networks also inform us of the arrests of Antonio Rodiles, José Díaz Silva, Raúl Borges, Lady in White Lourdes Esquivel, and of the  14ymedio reporter Víctor Ariel González.”

With the foreign press present, including American TV networks, they let the famous Ladies in White demonstrate as they do every Sunday for the freedom of their families’ political prisoners held in Cuban jails. But the police immediately arrested Bruguera, for the audacity of her attempt to embarrass the regime with a public anti-government demonstration. Reinaldo Escobar confirmed that he saw Bruguera  in prison “wearing the gray uniform of a convict.”  The New York Times reported that the arrests were “the biggest move against the opposition in two weeks since the United States and Cuba announced they would renew diplomatic relations.”

Bruguera said the arrests “would test the climate for change in Cuba under the diplomatic thaw.” Bruguera herself will most probably be released, since she now lives in the United States in Corona, Queens, and regularly goes back to Havana, where she is running a workshop program for immigrants.

Clearly, two things are evident, as we’ll explore on the next page.

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The U.S.-Cuba Normalization: Who Won?

December 24th, 2014 - 4:15 pm

President Barack Obama’s sudden and drastic change in U.S. policy towards Cuba has produced approval and disapproval from leaders in both political parties. The divide between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — both possible competitors for the Republican presidential nomination — is one example. On the Democratic side, the fiercest critic is Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and a key defender is the current front-runner for the nomination of her party, Hillary Clinton.

Among conservative pundits, the most eloquent defense of the new policy was written by Peggy Noonan, who, in her Wall Street Journal column, argues that Obama’s steps towards normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba were done in the belief that “breaking the status quo” might yield rewards.” She disagrees with Rubio that Obama’s actions give the Castro regime “legitimacy.”  As Noonan sees it, everyone knows Cuba’s system is bankrupt and that the small island is a totalitarian state. But, her argument goes, Castro is already a “defeated foe,” and the Castro brothers’ desire for normalization is an admission on their part that “they’ve run out their string.” Acknowledging that they have in no way given up their stodgy ideology, she, like others, believe that once American tourists flood the country, American businesses set up shop, and our technology, business acumen and our money play their part, it “will likely in time have a freeing effect.”

The case she presents is essentially made by all other supporters of the Obama action. The Cold War is over, they proclaim, the Soviet Union no longer exists and therefore Cuba is no longer a threat. Besides, it has been decades since they have used their armed forces and security apparatus to try to foment revolution elsewhere in our hemisphere as well as in Africa. A lot of these arguments are fallacious. Cuba has aligned itself with Iran, North Korea,  and China, as well as with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. They have recently agreed with Vladimir Putin to allow the Russians to reopen the old Soviet spy base on the island, and they were caught only a few weeks ago trying to smuggle weapons into North Korea by ship.

Noonan writes that increased engagement will make the Cuban government be on its best behavior, not wanting to be embarrassed  by oppressing its people as they are now. Moreover, once Cuban army officers find out what salaries people make at the Hilton and other new hotels, they will quickly run from the service and seek jobs in the tourist sector. All very nice, but Noonan seems not to realize that the salaries paid by foreign hotels are paid to the state, and the Cuban regime gives the tourist industry workers a small amount of the salary. Nor does she realize that most of the new hotels and businesses to come to Cuba are also owned by the state, and no foreign chain currently there, like the Spanish Melia Hotels, is allowed to have a majority interest in the properties they built.

Walter Russell Mead points out that what the Castros want now is simply  “more Yanqui tourist dollars and a carefully hedged and limited uptick in trade [that] will help stave off the worst” for at least a few years. They seek to buy some time, and not to allow any thorough or meaningful democratization.

They certainly do not want any reform, or to permit democracy advocates to organize, speak, and write freely. That is why the regime’s state security murdered Oswaldo Paya – the organizer of the Varela Project, a petition of thousands demanding free elections — because they obviously feared he was making too much headway.

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Michael Walzer, the distinguished political philosopher who writes on topics as varied as the theory of just war and Judaism, is now one of the leading lights of a group of academics called The Third Narrative, which recently issued a statement calling for “personal sanctions” against right-wing Israeli political figures whose views are allegedly so beyond the pale of acceptable discourse about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that they should be turned into non persons.

For starters, Walzer and his fellow “liberal Zionists” are demanding that the United States and the EU impose visa restrictions and freeze bank accounts for such dangerous Israeli politicians as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, Likud MK Moshe Feiglin and Ze’ev Hever, head of a group called Amana, which oversees Israeli settlements. These four right-wing activists were chosen, a scholar told The Forward, “because they stand out by working to make the occupation permanent and irreversible.”

The group’s members include sociology and journalism professor Todd Gitlin, historian Michael Kazin, sociologist Alan Wolfe and other self-proclaimed center-left academics, some of whom are social-democrats affiliated with the journal Dissent. Most of them are proud members of the “democratic Left.” They also proclaim themselves liberal Zionists who oppose academic boycotts such as those advocated by the BDS movement.

Some years ago, Michael Walzer wrote a penetrating essay titled “Can There Be a Decent Left?” But by signing on to these destructive and hypocritical demands, Walzer himself has provided strong evidence that the left (including even the social-democratic left) has become indecent about Israel. Having taken on those he called the “Blame America First” leftists, Walzer has himself joined the “Blame Israel First” crowd.  His group says it distinguishes itself from the BDS extremists who hate Israel. Rather than ostracize all Israeli academics, they stress that they are only targeting individuals whom they see as most responsible for the “occupation.” As they say in their Dec.8th statement, these individuals pursue “unjust, unlawful, and destructive policies in their most extreme and dangerous form.”

Walzer and his colleagues believe that these perfidious individuals do not have the same rights of free speech as the “good Israelis” who favor a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian state. Bennett should be virtually criminalized because he favors “creeping annexation, Ariel for advocating a one-state solution, and Feiglin for his “undisguised extremism” and for his advocacy of annexationist policies, such as building homes in outposts considered illegal by the Israeli government.

The new liberal Jewish censors have an entirely different standard for Palestinian leaders. They know that Mahmoud Abbas’ government on the West Bank has demonstrated again and again that it will not acknowledge Israel’s permanent right to exist as a Jewish state, has done nothing to stop the rampant anti-Semitism throughout the school system and the PA itself, and that Abbas has never agreed to give up the “right to return,” which if implemented means the end of the Jewish state.

Since Abbas and his comrades support extreme positions that prevent a peaceful solution of the conflict, Walzer and company should logically be in favor of personal sanctions against these anti-peace extremists in the Palestinian Authority. Unfortunately the liberal, pro-peace Zionists  have never protested the destructive, anti-Jewish statements emanating regularly from PA headquarters in Ramallah. Like the BDS movement whom they claim to oppose, their proposals are aimed only at Israeli political leaders they disagree with.

Consider, for example, the logic Todd Gitlin uses in urging academics to follow their lead rather than the BDS movement.  Writing in Tablet Magazine and published on The Third Narrative’s website, Gitlin inadvertently reveals that his disagreements with BDS are essentially only tactical. He calls BDS advocates guilty of issuing “apolitical tantrums in cases of right versus right.” But a close reading shows Gitlin guilty himself of very similar tantrums.

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The Long, Slow Death of The New Republic

December 5th, 2014 - 11:26 am

Late yesterday, the owner and publisher of TNR, Facebook magnate Chris Hughes, ended the publication as we know it.

Just weeks after their gala 100th birthday bash held in Washington, D.C., at a cost of over $150,000 — attended by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, chaired by Bill Clinton, and with a performance by Wynton Marsalis — Hughes immediately announced an extensive executive change that spelled the magazine’s quick demise.

He fired the prominent literary editor Leon Wieseltier and the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Frank Foer. You can read the details in today’s New York Times, as well as in articles by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine, Dylan Byers in Politico, and in Lloyd Grove’s revealing column at The Daily Beast. The one place you will not read anything about it is on TNR’s website.

To replace the old guard, who had some continuity with the magazine’s traditions and who had managed to sneak into its increasingly vacuous stories some serious content (such as Robert Kagan’s cover story on the importance of exercising American power in the world), Hughes brought in new management. He announced that the new CEO will be Guy Vidra, who previously worked at Yahoo, and he appointed as editor-in-chief Gabriel Snyder, who was an editor at The Atlantic Wire. Then, he announced that he was cutting TNR’s bi-weekly publication schedule in half, making its print magazine a monthly, and was moving its offices to New York.

When Hughes bought the publication, as the Times story notes, he said he was motivated to purchase it because he had a great interest in “the future of high quality long-form journalism.”

I knew at the time that the result of his takeover would be the magazine’s demise. In a PJ Media column, I wrote: “I am not too optimistic about its future.” At that time, Richard Just was running it; he had just met with Hughes and convinced him to purchase TNR, hoping that he would save the magazine. Shortly thereafter, Hughes fired Just and convinced TNR’s old editor Frank Foer to return as editor-in-chief.

I believed that TNR would become a shill for the Obama administration. This was made clear quite soon. I also believed that the magazine would never publish serious articles that critiqued the ideology and politics of liberalism itself:

So, I am not optimistic about the fate of the new TNR. The last thing we need is a magazine slightly — very slightly — to the right of The Nation. … this is a swan song and sad goodbye to the old TNR. I wish the magazine well, and perhaps I will turn out to be very wrong. But as a natural pessimist, and for good reason, I only expect the worst.

Now, the worst has come to pass. As the Washington Post reported, and was tweeted earlier by Michael Calderone: “More than a dozen senior editors and a longer list of contributing editors quit on Friday following the resignation of editor Franklin Foer and literary editor, Leon Wieseltier.”

The list included its most prominent and serious writers, including its long-time legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen; contributing editors Anne Applebaum and Paul Berman; historians Sean Wilentz and Robert Kagan; and senior editors Noam Scheiber, Judith Shulevitz, and Jason Zengerle, among others. The list includes almost every single writer or editor who made TNR what it was.

Why should we care? Despite my own disagreements with TNR’s old-style liberalism, in its heyday — under the editorship of Marty Peretz (whom the editors who stayed on wrote out of the magazine’s history and completely ignored) — TNR had moved back to the fierce Cold War liberalism that became its mainstay. It was anti-Communist, tough on foreign policy, and pro-Israel. It also featured major intellectual articles of a serious nature, often probing ones that cut against the grain. Even under Hughes, some of those working at TNR tried to hold true to its old stance.

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The response of the African-American “civil rights” establishment and the American Left to the verdict in Ferguson came quickly and predictably.  Al Sharpton and other racial demagogues urged their followers to take to the streets if anything but a first degree murder indictment was handed down for Officer Darren Wilson. The protestors and rioters were prepared, but Missouri’s governor wasn’t. He failed to call out the National Guard on the day the verdict was released.

What is particularly galling is the argument that the events in Ferguson, and the no bill for Wilson, are a throwback to the segregationist era of the 1950s and 1960s, when the modern civil rights movement engaged in non-violent civil disobedience.  “The Movement,” as they called it then, showed the nation and the world the immoral actions of police chief Bull Connor of Birmingham, Alabama, and others of similar ilk, thereby exposing the injustice of the system of segregation — a system based on power and violence, preventing black Americans from enjoying the rights and liberties guaranteed to them by the U.S. Constitution.

One of the true heroes of that era was John Lewis, now a member of Congress from Atlanta, Georgia. A former chairman of SNCC  (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) from  1963 to 1966, Lewis was beaten to a bloody pulp for peacefully participating in a “Freedom Ride,” in which black and white Americans broke the law by refusing to accept segregation on the buses. What prompted Lewis and the Freedom Riders was the belief that their actions would force the federal government to enforce a law ignored by some Southern states that made segregation unconstitutional in interstate bus travel throughout the South.

Lewis’s struggle, and that of the movement of which he was a part, helped change America and made our country live up to its promise. The once segregated South now has more African-American officeholders than there are in the North. Transportation and accommodations are no longer segregated, and the local authorities are not beholden to the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizens’ Councils of yesteryear.

A few days before the verdict was handed down, Lewis  proclaimed that unless Officer Wilson was indicted, a “miscarriage of justice” would occur that would demand nothing less than nation-wide “massive, non-violent” protests. This time, Lewis was arguing to ignore the law, and that only one pre-ordained verdict would be acceptable.  Where is the justice in that?

Lewis then compared Ferguson to Selma, Alabama, where, in 1965, marchers led by Lewis and others were turned back as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the state capitol. Lewis said that in Ferguson “the same feeling and climate and environment” exists as existed  in segregationist Alabama. In Selma, state troopers turned them back and, when they stopped to pray, beat them with nightsticks; Lewis suffered a fractured skull. Now he says that  “we’re going to have the same reaction as people had towards Selma,” which is simply a preposterous analogy. In one case, protestors were demanding their rights as Americans.  Today, a jury which included African-Americans examined the evidence and came to the conclusion that there was no reason to indict an innocent cop.

There were more protests throughout the country.  At the White House, scores of people gathered outside, where they sang the civil rights movement’s anthem, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” sung in Selma and elsewhere. These protesters, too, were accepting the myth that Selma and Ferguson are one and the same.

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