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Dershowitz and Paglia: When Good Liberals Go Wrong

It never ceases to amaze how people who should know better, erudite intellectuals who write with precision, flair, and lucidity and are capable of acute reflectiveness, can nevertheless lend their support to Barack Obama. Alan Dershowitz comes immediately to mind. In such important books as The Case for Israel, The Case for Peace, and The Case Against Israel’s Enemies, Dershowitz has done yeoman service on behalf of the beleaguered and universally misprized Jewish state. And yet, when it comes to the international figure who may well represent the most serious threat to Israel’s well-being and perhaps even to its survival — by whom I mean not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but Barack Obama — Dershowitz assembles his, shall we say, The Case for Obama.

Thus, in a much-publicized and mudslinging debate with British author Melanie Phillips, a staunch defender of the Jewish state who is highly suspicious of Obama’s intentions toward Israel, Dershowitz resolutely backstops the American president. Accusing Phillips of not understanding the structure of American politics, Dershowitz, a loyal Democrat, is all for giving Obama time to develop his presumably benign and far-seeing aspirations toward recalibrating the Israeli-Palestinian and Middle East imbroglio.

It would be a mistake, Dershowitz argues, to create a starkly unproductive rupture between Democrats and Republicans over this issue. Obama’s reneging on the settlement consensus worked out between Israel and the former American administration, his patently skewed Cairo address that equated the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering and tellingly ignored the historical and continued presence of the Jewish people in the Holy Land, his appointing manifestly anti-Israeli figures like Susan Rice and Samantha Power to positions of official eminence, his well-attested friendships with the virulently anti-Semitic pastor Jeremiah Wright and former PLO spokesman Rashid Khalidi, the phatic waffle of his speech to the residents of rocket-battered Sderot, and his studious avoidance of Israel during his presidential junkets — all this and more does not seem to have had the slightest premonitory effect on Dershowitz’s mindset.

Dershowitz insists that Israel should not be allowed to become a “wedge issue,” that the question should not be partisanized. Identification with the “liberal” wing of the political spectrum is necessary, it would appear, in order not to cede the anti-Zionist field to the hard left and to show that affiliation with what is known as liberal “progressivism” is by no means inconsistent with support for Israel. His fear is that Israel may become “a cause of the right wing alone” and thus “anathema to liberals.”

Dershowitz is unwilling to see the strength of Phillips’ essential point, namely, that support for Israel does not divide along the right-left axis but is primarily a moral issue, not merely a political one. This is why Obama’s swiveling on Israel is profoundly disturbing. What is needed is not a skein of subtle argumentation and intricate nuances to justify the president’s strategy for resolving the Middle East conundrum or a sagacious caution not to polarize the debate. Tactical prudence, as Jews above all people might have learned by now, tends inevitably to boomerang. What is needed is an attitude of remorseless clarity with respect to the president’s words and actions, which should not be painted over from fear of alienating the electorate, further splitting the parties, or reinforcing media-inflated opinion. We must curb the temptation of being too finespun and ingenious for our own good.

For the evidence is in: Obama’s choice of advisors and consular appointments, his sly choreographing of meetings with Jewish organizations to exclude critics of his policies, his awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Israel-hater and secretary-general of the infamous Durban I conference on racism Mary Robinson, his backing of the Saudi peace plan (which envisages Israel’s retreat to indefensible borders, the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens from their homes, and the “return” of millions of manufactured Arab “refugees” to Israeli territory, thus putting paid to the Jewish state), and his clearly anti-liberal (in the classical sense) maneuvers which deprivilege democratic allies (Honduras, Israel) while propitiating avowed enemies (Syria, Iran, Venezuela, Russia). If this is not enough to uncloak Obama, then nothing is.

Anyone who cannot see this has capitulated to his infatuations. Such people are incapable of recognizing that Obama is no Cantabrian president. They cannot resist the caramelized eloquence of a shifty wordmonger. They cannot detect, as political author George Jonas puts it, “the malodorous miasma of gall, social engineering zeal, anti-Semitism, and Arabist agenda that emanates from the Obama administration.”

And so, the apostolic charade continues. As they say in NASCAR country, “no rubbin’ allowed.” Against the mass of incontrovertible evidence, Obama must still be given the benefit of the doubt as he pursues diplomatic relations with adversarial Islamic and autocratic enemy-states and moves toward the gradual but inexorable destabilization of Israel. To suppress such salient facts is the sort of shuffling that eventually comes back to haunt one, like lying to one’s doctor in the illusory hope that the symptoms will disappear on their own.

The leverets of the liberal-left have rolled over for the sonic boom of a teleprompter cyborg and the pixelled surface of a presidential image, behind which lurks a very different sort of beast — the Wizard of Oz in reverse. Prior political commitments and who knows what deeply nurtured personal aims can be extremely effective blinders to the corrugations of the real. How else to account for the unctuous immunities we are often willing to accord people who advance agendas that conflict with our professed beliefs and congenial principles? Alan Dershowitz, I’m afraid, for all his bona fides, makes one of this too-clever-by-half and self-deluded lot. Of course, Obama is a special “case,” charismatic, persuasive, superficially likable, energetic, seductive, and, as Camille Paglia says of Obama’s senior advisor David Axelrod, a “wily fox” who could “charm gold threads out of moonbeams.”

Which brings me to Paglia’s article in Salon.com for August 12, 2009. Camille Paglia is, in my estimation, a brilliant writer and one can glean much from such books as Vamps & Tramps, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickenson, and Break, Blow, Burn — books which I’ve profited from as much as Dershowitz’s, though for palpably different reasons. Whatever Paglia has to say in her major writings, she develops her ideas with impressive élan and generally stays on message.

One can then imagine my astonishment when I came across her Salon article in which she slaps Obama across the cheek with one hand and lovingly caresses him with the other. The article is a tissue of contradictions in which she seems to be writing against her proper grain, tramming her tapestry with ill-concealed unease. And this naturally provokes the reader to interrogate her subliminal motives, for there must be something to explain how she can so deftly anatomize the president’s faults and blunders and yet proclaim about the man she voted for: “Buyers remorse? Not me.”

Obama, we are told, represents the U.S. “with dignity and authority.” Following “the feckless, buffoonish George W. Bush … Obama has barely begun the crucial mission that he was elected to do.” Nonetheless, after so ringing an endorsement, Paglia confesses her “dismay bordering on horror at the amateurism of the White House apparatus for domestic policy.” She condemns “the administration’s grotesque mishandling of the health care reform” and deplores the fact that “the sober, deliberative Barack Obama [has] nothing to propose but vague and slippery promises.”

Next, she lights into Obama for facilitating the “massive boondoggle of the stimulus package” and for “foolishly let[ting] Congress turn into a pork rut.” Paglia does not mince words. The “airheads of Congress” have cut the electorate out of the loop while constructing “a tangled labyrinth for others but not for themselves.” And what, she wonders, “do Democrats stand for, if they are so ready to defame concerned citizens as the ‘mob’ … ?” Further, the “Obama administration’s outrageous solicitation to private citizens to report unacceptable ‘casual conversations’ to the White House” is a moral fiasco of the first magnitude “which the president should immediately denounce. His failure to do so implicates him in it.”

Paglia has compiled a veritable not-to-do list, providing convincing reasons to cashier this president ASAP. And yet, as we have seen, she does not suffer “buyer’s remorse,” and indeed claims at the outset that she “will continue to support him.” How to make even a modicum of sense of this species of cognitive dissonance?

Like Dershowitz, Paglia cannot give up on her man, who has clearly charmed the gold threads from her moonbeamish access of adoration. Even though she states that Obama is implicated in the moral collapse of the Democratic Party, the drift of her article adroitly suggests that he is really not to blame for the debacle. It is the “White House apparatus” that she craftily targets. Obama is “surrounded by juvenile tinhorns, bungling mediocrities, and crass bully boys,” who are obviously responsible for the ethical morass in which he finds himself.

The fact that Obama himself chose this gang of mountebanks — Timothy Geithner, Van Jones, David Axelrod, John Holdren, Hillary Clinton, Eric Holder, Janet Napolitano, George Mitchell, John Brennan, James Messina, Linda Douglass, Robert Gibbs, Cass Sunstein, Kenneth Feinberg, Steven Chu, the Emanuelim (Rahm and Ezekiel), and the rest of, to use a phrase from Thomas Pynchon, “the whole sick crew” — does not for a moment impinge upon her waking consciousness. They are one and all either professional incompetents, ambitious parvenus, or moral defectives, yet Paglia cannot admit that each of these impostors has been vetted, approved, and anointed by The One.

Moreover, it is the Obama administration and not Obama himself that solicited the American people to report on fishy, casual conversations, as if Barack Obama was too busy soberly and deliberatively carrying out his foreign policy initiatives to pay attention. Similarly, it is Congress that is doing the dirty work, throwing the American people “to the wolves.” Obama’s error is one of omission rather than commission, residing in his leniency, presumably, for permitting Congress to sabotage the public welfare when he should have been more hands-on, better at managing the congressional process. Has Paglia not listened to the president’s speeches on radio and television or twigged to his town hall marching orders? Has she not picked up on the spirit of aggression that exudes from many of his pronouncements? But she stubbornly refuses to be disabused.

I recall coming across a wonderful New Yorker cartoon some years ago, depicting a buxom young princess in the afterglow of satisfaction lying against the bolster of an elegant, richly ornamented bed. Beside her reclines a frog, his little hands clasped snugly behind his head, his legs crossed at the knee, an expression of roguish triumph on his face. “I lied,” he says. But people like Camille Paglia will persist in seeing a prince when they are presented with nothing more than a canny amphibian. There was never a transformation, only a deception.

And so, once again, Obama is excused for his troubling or destructive actions — which are either aspects of a gradually unfolding hidden wisdom (Dershowitz) or a series of unfortunate peccadilloes and misdemeanors (Paglia) — and consequently let off the moral hook. And this is quite extraordinary for it violates everything that we can see and hear, makes an abject mockery of the bluntly obvious, and is nothing less than a gross affront to common sense and intellectual honesty.

Barack Obama, the most important political figure in the world today, is the decisive test of our times for all faithful liberals. Will they one day succeed in de-enchanting themselves and emerge from the political rhapsody to which they have surrendered both their will and their perceptiveness? “I suppose it’s conceivable,” writes Mark Steyn in a typically nitric article for National Review, “that there are a few remaining suckers out there who still believe Barack Obama is the great post-partisan, fiscally responsible, pragmatic centrist he played so beguilingly just a year ago.”

Well, maybe not just a few.