America’s Elite Class

Daniel Drezner does not wince when talking about elitism in the United States. His inspiration was the David Brooks column on Italian sandwiches, about which Drezner writes:

Brooks argued that “The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.”

I agree with my Post colleague Tim Carman that outside The Anecdote That Shall Not Be Named, the column was “an otherwise temperate take on the restrictions and social codes that keep the middle class in its place.” As a fully paid-up member of this class, there clearly are expected modes of behavior, and not knowing the unspoken rules of the game acts as a barrier to those trying to enter the meritocratic class. It can still be done, but it’s like learning an additional language.

Then Drezner worries that some of the Trump clan may actually stumble their way into the elite class by being able to order the right Italian sandwich meats:

Based on my own conversations, it would seem that most traditional D.C. wonks look at most of the Trump family and see a bunch of wealthy, not-very-bright boors who do déclassé things like eat their steaks well-done and with ketchup. Indeed, there is a whole conservative genre defending the Trumps for some of their gauche tendencies. Most of the Trumps gleefully ignore the cultural codes that Brooks describes, because they are rich enough to not care.

Then we get to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and the narrative switches.

The rest of the Trumps might scream bridge and tunnel, but Jared and Ivanka have undeniably mastered the cultural codes of the educated class. It is hard to read a profile of either of them without words like “polished” or “poised” appearing.

Take the opening sentences to Jill Filipovic’s Politico essay from May: “Ivanka Trump is the poised, polished face of a chaotic White House, a bright young mother who many suspect is a voice of reason and moderation among the Steve Bannon acolytes in the West Wing, whispering socially liberal values in her daddy’s ear.” Look at the Post’s Style Section profile of Ivanka from this month: “Ivanka Trump’s office: clean, white, quiet. A zone of punctual start times and promptly offered water bottles, and a conference table at which she conducts meetings. A short, winding walk away from her father’s Oval Office downstairs.” Or as T.A. Frank noted in Vanity Fair, “let’s agree that one of the finest qualities of Jared Kushner is his tailoring. The fit is so good. Even with bespoke work, that’s hard to achieve.”

Let me posit that in mastering the cultural codes of the educated class, Kushner and Ivanka somehow fooled even veteran D.C. observers into presuming that they might actually be qualified and competent as well. Which all evidence suggests is not true.

Drezner believes that expertise on policy is what qualifies someone to rule in America, not expertise in self-promotion, food, or fashion.

As someone who values education, I am hard pressed to knock learning. But my education also tells me that in the United States, you don’t need to be educated to hold public office. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not have college educations. Never mind going to the Kennedy School of Government. By the same token, George W. Bush went to Yale and see what good that did him when it came to America’s educated elite.

And don’t forget about those brain surgeons that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations leaned on to devise a policy for the Vietnam War. Sometimes education doesn’t make you a good administrator — just ask any egg-head professor to chair his or her department. See what snafus ensue.

The reality is that with all of Drezner’s brain power, and it is considerable, he could not be POTUS. Well, he could. But he’d have to run for office and somehow portray himself as an ordinary ‘merican because despite the number of college graduates in this fair republic we don’t very often elect Ph.D.’s as POTUS (this is why Senator Sasse where’s not Harvard but Nebraska swag). Last time we did we had Woodrow Wilson and what did he do — used all of his intellectual fire power to fight a war to make THE WORLD, not just the United States, but THE WORLD, safe for democracy (which by the way means that we fought the war not to have educated elites running things)?

Which leads to the real point of this post: the story that the press and scholars are missing is what a novel state of affairs it is to have a POTUS who has no experience with government. Why no feature stories on what it’s like to have to do so many things that you’ve never done before? Or what is it like to be trailed by Secret Service agents? Or what’s it like to live in the White House? Many Americans could possibly imagine being in Donald Trump’s shoes (though what it’s like to be a billionaire is beyond me). We would not have the first clue about running a government as massive as the federal one. And that could be an exciting set of stories. But what we seem to get is reporting about how Trump is subhuman and stupid. Imagine if Bill Gates were POTUS. Would he be prone to the same mistakes? But he’s not the kind of jerk that Trump is so the press goes Jerry Falwell, Sr.

I still wonder, though, whether any of the people criticizing Trump, even Drezner, claim to know what to do as POTUS? Do the journalists or professors of foreign policy have white papers on Iran and how to deploy the CIA or State Department? (And if education is a pre-requisite for governing in the U.S., what is our foreign policy supposed to be with poorly educated rulers of other countries? Doesn’t this way of thinking involve a kind of hierarchy that is supposed to be antithetical to social justice?)

The reality is that nothing in American government prepares you for what you might face in the White House along the lines of war and diplomacy, not to mention the vast scale of administering the federal agencies. Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia has a degree from Lasalle University? Does that mean he’s not fit to hold a higher office? The governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has a degree from Harvard and an MBA from Northeastern. But can he stand on that great hill of U.S. foreign policy?

What I was hoping would happen with the Trump presidency was a chance to see the federal government through the eyes of a real outsider. The Trump administration might be an occasion for a POTUS self-study. What is necessary for the executive branch of the federal government? What is so complicated as to create barriers to other citizens serving in public office short of getting the right set of degrees and making the right connections? But alas all we are getting is how Trump fails to reassure many Americans that Washington is the capital of the greatest nation on God’s green earth (well, at least a few steps up from Russia).

Talk Radio Matters Now More than Eh-vuh

Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot, so says one of the U.S. Senators (has Ben Sasse got a book for him). Rush is also sometimes funny, but mainly annoying, grating, predictable, and verbose. Whenever the missus hears Rush (and she’s a captive audience on road trips), she cannot believe how long he takes to say something basically simple.

Rush also over exegetes the stuffings out of most statements, votes, or policy proposals. If it’s from the left, he will find the tell-tale signs of liberal excess. If from the right, he’ll detect all the virtues of liberty and the American way.

The reason for bringing up Rush is that Donald Trump has turned the non-talk radio media into Rush. The latest example comes from reactions to the President’s speech in Poland where he defended the West and its civilization. The speech and its responses are well in the rear view mirror thanks to Donald Jr., but the hyperventilated reaction from the normally mild and decent James Fallows should not be missed.

Robert Merry picked up on the Nazi slur that Fallows attached to Trump’s use of the word, “will”:

…he truly reveals himself in savaging Trump’s suggestion that the West must muster “the will to survive.” Aha! Fallows clearly thinks he has nailed it here. This, he informs us, was a not-too-subtle reference to Leni Reifenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. Fallows speculates that Trump’s speechwriters (including Bannon) certainly knew of Riefenstahl and probably understood “how it would sound, in a Europe that also remembers connotations of national ‘will,’ to have an American president say this.”

Is it really still necessary, some 80 years later, to forswear any use of the word “will” in discussing politics or geopolitics because of this German film? And, if someone uses the term, is that prima facie evidence of fascistic tendencies?

Fallows not only sneered over “will” but also over Trump’s using “blood”:

Trump gave grace-note nods to goals of liberty and free expression. Mainly, though, he spoke not about an expanded us but instead about us and them. He spoke repeatedly about our “heritage,” our “blood,” our “civilization,” our “ancestors” and “families,” our “will” and “way of life.” Every one of these of course has perfectly noble connotations. But combined and in practice, they amount to the way the Japanese nationalists of the early 20th century onward spoke, about the purity of “we Japanese” and the need to stick together as a tribe. They were the way Mussolini spoke, glorifying the Roman heritage—but again in a tribal sense, to elevate 20th century Italians as a group, rather than in John F. Kennedy’s allusion to a system of rules that could include outsiders as civis romanus as well. They are the way French nationalists supporting Marine LePen speak now, and Nigel Farage’s pro-Brexit forces in the U.K., and “alt-right” activists in the United States, and of course the Breitbart empire under presidential counselor Steve Bannon. They rest on basic distinctions between us and them as peoples—that is, as tribes—rather than as the contending ideas and systems that presidents from our first to our 44th had emphasized.

Blood is code for the European right where bloodlines, acreage, throne, and altar are supposed to matter. (This paragraph with its isolation of quoted words from the context of sentences and paragraphs actually reminded me of the specifications of charges against a minister in the OPC we heard at GA, but I digress.) But here is how the president actually used the word blood (and only 4 times):

In the summer of 1944, the Nazi and Soviet armies were preparing for a terrible and bloody battle right here in Warsaw. . . .

They ran across that street, they ran through that street, they ran under that street — all to defend this city. “The far side was several yards away,” recalled one young Polish woman named Greta. That mortality and that life was so important to her. In fact, she said, “The mortally dangerous sector of the street was soaked in the blood. It was the blood of messengers, liaison girls, and couriers.” . . .

Those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense — (applause) — and that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.

So in all, President Trump said “bloody” in reference to a battle, quoted a Polish woman who used “blood” to describe a scene, and spoke of the “blood” shed by soldiers who died in combat. That last reference had no explicit link to white people since Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and Hispanics lost their lives fighting in U.S. Armed forces.

Talk about overreach. Talk about the mainstream press sounding like Rush and Sean.

And oh by the way, what was the point of doing away with Western Civ courses back in the 1980s when Jesse Jackson chanted, “Hey Hey Ho Ho (Don Imus anyone?) Western Civ has got to go”? The rationale was all about blood. The old canon had all white men whose blood had stopped circulating. The curriculum needed new blood — women, blacks, Asians. That’s a lot of genetic material going on in the selection of reading assignments. But don’t let that get in the way of likening Donald Trump to a eugenics promoting nativist.

At least, like H. L. Mencken said, what a show.

If Only Princeton Seminary had Read Sarah Posner on Tim Keller

They would have spared themselves a lot of grief (though one has to raise questions about Posner’s reasons for opining the way she does). Way back in 2009, the liberal journalist saw through the public relations success of New Calvinism’s favorite urban pastor/apologist:

Counterfeit Gods is an attractive, compact volume that a busy urbanite might tuck in his murse alongside his iPhone. It’s got a “there’s-an-app-for-that” sort of answer for the anxiety of contemporary city living. It’s a handy Jiminy Cricket to set you straight when you might be thinking of having sex with someone you’re not married to, contemplating a risky investment opportunity in the hopes of hitting the jackpot, or staying late at the office instead of having dinner with the family. While you’re at it, you might remind your spouse not to over-schedule the kids, because Jesus doesn’t like that, either.

Imagine: Wall Street casts its eyes upon Saint Timothy instead of Timothy Geithner! Dalton minus the uptight parents! A Manhattan nightlife free from casual sex! Coffee shops and bars purged of political ideology and discourse!

Such “counterfeit gods” ail the suburbs, too, but they are already saturated by big box mega-churches to counteract the false idols of Sam Walton-inspired strip malls and hyper-competitive Saturday morning soccer tournaments for six year-olds. Keller doesn’t bother with them. His schtick is to break into the untapped urban market for potential believers.

It’s hard to see, though, how New York’s wide swaths of spiritual diversity would take to Keller’s air of Christian superiority. For him, the Bible “comprises a single story, telling us how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right.” See? It’s that simple.

The focus isn’t eternal salvation, but rather remaking the cultural and political world. He offers a way of making sense of what Jerry Falwell-style fundamentalists might call the scourge of secular humanism. Instead of spiritual warfare against these satanic enemies, Keller asks his readers to confront them as biblical figures might have rejected false idols.

Thus, the hovering, over-protective mother might take lessons from Abraham: let God test your love for the children by letting them be free. The man who lusts for someone other than his wife might learn from Jacob’s misguided quest for the more beautiful Rachel. Jacob’s wife, Leah, provides cues for anyone looking for love and sex and transcendence in their romantic lives, rather than through God. The inevitable result of looking for everything in romantic love, Keller maintains, is “bitter disillusionment.”

One would think the Jacob-Leah story might yield some feminist deconstructions. But feminism, apparently, is also idolatry. Every such political ideology, Keller maintains, creates a sort of idolatry of its own. “An ideology,” he writes, “like an idol, is a limited, partial account of reality that is raised to the level of the final word on things.” Keller can’t see, somehow, that our body politic was designed to be secular, and that a religious prescription for its ills—itself portrayed as a final word—is one of the scourges that has, over the last four decades or so, led to the single-minded extremism he decries.

Keller is a favorite of flagship evangelical magazines like Christianity Today and World, but he receives glowing coverage in mainstream outlets as well. “While he hardly shrinks from difficult Christian truths,” observed a 2006 profile in the New York Times, “he sounds different from many of the shrill evangelical voices in the public sphere.” Keller, the piece went on, “shies away from the label evangelical, which is often used to describe theologically conservative Protestant Christians like him, because of the political and fundamentalist connotations that now come with it. He prefers the term orthodox instead, because he believes in the importance of personal conversion or being ‘born again,’ and the full authority of the Bible.”

This assertion—that biblical orthodoxy is somehow apolitical—was put to the test recently when Keller became one of over 100 original signatories to the Manhattan Declaration unveiled on November 20th. Billed as a statement of “religious conscience,” the Manhattan Declaration is something more, something unmistakably fundamentalist and quintessentially political, a regurgitation of the religious right’s assertion that sexual and gender rights are somehow a threat to good Christians’ religious liberty.

The Virtue of Being Vindictive

Morning reading left me stunned with this observation about the way Americans understand recent terrorist acts:

When Muslim Americans commit acts of terrorism, we hold ISIS and Hezbollah and “radical Islam” accountable for their actions, even if they are mentally unstable, and even if there is no direct connection between them and the groups that inspired them. We call these terrorists “self-radicalized.” It is how we see Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013; and Omar Mateen, who went on a murderous rampage at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando last June; and Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who killed 86 people and injured 434 at a celebration in Nice on Bastille Day. They did not go to a terrorist training camp, or join an organized cell, or attend an anti-Western madrassa. They learned to hate from a network of web sites and magazines and videotapes. Their madrassa was the media….

[Robert] Dear became radicalized in precisely the same way. But because the media he listened to advocated war in the name of a Christian god, and argued for an ideology considered “conservative,” he is portrayed as no one’s responsibility. In fact, as I learned from hours of speaking with Dear, the narratives he learned from Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and Bill O’Reilly and countless far-right web sites meshed perfectly with his paranoid delusions, misogynist beliefs, and violent fantasies. The right-wing media didn’t just tell him what he wanted to hear. They brought authority and detail to a world he was convinced was tormenting him. They were his shelter and his inspiration, his only real community.

The point of Amanda Robb’s piece, coincidental that it comes in New Republic’s issue on President Obama’s legacy, seems to be that right-wing media is evil (just like the party they support). The Planned Parenthood shooter received lots of ideas from radio preachers even more obscure than Jen Hatmaker:

In those days, thanks to the Fairness Doctrine, major broadcast outlets were forbidden from running partisan content without providing equal time to opposing views. But on shortwave channels, right-wing broadcasts were proliferating. Dear tuned in as often as possible. “That’s what turned me on to the conspiracies and the Bible prophecies,” he recalled. His favorites included Brother Stair, a Pentecostal minister who has predicted the end of the world; William Cooper, who preached that aids was a man-made disease; Pete Peters, whom the Anti-Defamation League has called a “leading anti-Jewish, anti-minority, and anti-gay propagandist”; and Texe Marrs, leader of the Power of Prophecy Ministries, who claimed that the federal government committed the Oklahoma City bombing and framed Timothy McVeigh.

Dear also became fixated on small magazines devoted to right-wing conspiracies. He spent hours at Barnes & Noble poring over magazines like The Prophecy Club, The Spotlight, and Paranoia, obsessing over their brand of crackpot theorizing: how the Robert Bork confirmation battle was connected to the JFK assassination, how the World Trade Organization ran a secret “Codex Alimentarius,” how the government operated a series of Deep Underground Military Bases, how it was planning an “American Hiroshima.”

But you know, the Fairness Doctrine paved the way for Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly’s John the Bapist:

Those in the right-wing media who traffic in hate and conspiracy theories are quick to deny that they should be held responsible for the consequences of their words. After Waco, Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves to predict that “the second violent American revolution” was imminent. Yet two weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing, he published an op-ed in Newsweek entitled “Why I’m Not to Blame.” After running 29 shows attacking George Tiller as “Tiller the Baby Killer” and saying there was “a special place in hell” for him, Bill O’Reilly dismissed any accountability for inciting the doctor’s murder: “I reported extensively on Tiller and after he was assassinated by a man named Scott Roeder, some far-left loons blamed me.”

So, if we blame ISIS for random acts of mass murder, why not the right-wing media? Possibly because POTUS and the Department of Justice and mainstream media have warned us from jumping to conclusions about Islam or Islamic organizations.

Here’s how the New York Times handled the Boston bombers’ religion:

While Dzhokhar’s adjustment seemed to be going smoothly as he reached his teens, Tamerlan’s disillusionment with their adopted country grew as he got older, as did his influence on his younger brother.

Baudy Mazaev, a Chechen friend of the Tsarnaevs, said that Tamerlan and his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, “had a deep religious epiphany” involving Islam a few years before the bombing.

Initially, according to friends, Tamerlan’s new religious devotion seemed to only irritate Dzhokhar: Mr. Mazaev said that on one of his visits to the Tsarnaev house during that period, Tamerlan ordered him and Dzhokhar to read a book about the fundamentals of Islam and prayer. After that, Mr. Mazaev said, they began avoiding the apartment.

But the family’s relationship to Islam, and one another, evolved. In February 2011, roughly when the boys’ mother embraced Islam, she separated from her husband, Anzor, a tough man trained in the law in Russia who in Cambridge was reduced to fixing cars in a parking lot. The two divorced that September, and Anzor returned to Russia; his ex-wife followed later.

Tamerlan filled the void as head of the family’s American branch. On Twitter, Dzhokhar wrote that he missed his father. Days before his citizenship ceremony — on Sept. 11, 2012 — he expressed wonder at why more people did not realize that the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center “was an inside job.”

Not exactly a slam dunk link to ISIS or Hezbollah.

What about this treatment of Omar Mateen?

Other hints of a disturbed mind continued to emerge. In 2013, G4S removed Mr. Mateen from his security post at the St. Lucie County Courthouse after he had made “inflammatory comments” about being involved somehow in terrorism. Though far-fetched and even contradictory — he claimed connections to Al Qaeda, the Sunni extremist group, and ties to its near opposite, the Shiite Hezbollah — his comments were troubling enough for the county sheriff’s office to notify the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The bureau’s subsequent inquiry was inconclusive.

The next year, Mr. Mateen again attracted federal scrutiny, after an acquaintance from his mosque, the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, carried out a suicide bombing in Syria. According to F.B.I. Director James B. Comey, federal investigators concluded that Mr. Mateen knew the bomber only casually.

The mosque’s imam, Syed Shafeeq Rahman, insisted that Mr. Mateen had never heard teachings at the mosque that would have radicalized him. “There is nothing that he is hearing from me to do killing, to do bloodshed, to do anything, because we never talk like that,” the imam said.

But if you can link an attack on Planned Parenthood to the media that opposed President Obama, well, why not?

And this was an issue of New Republic that celebrated the President’s decency, centrism, and dignity. According to Andrew Sullivan:

People will see the sheer caliber of this man [President Obama]. The grace and poise with which he conducted himself in unbelievably difficult circumstances; the way he withstood abuse and disrespect with extraordinary calm and goodwill. He will in his post-presidency become a symbol, maybe somebody we need more than when he was president, to remind us of what it is to be dignified in public life. Especially if this hideous monster who’s succeeding him continues to despoil the public culture.

So why exactly did the editors include a piece so out of sync with the President’s virtues? Maybe because they only want the other side to be virtuous?

How the Mind Works

Consider two different takes on Russia’s involvement in the recent presidential election. The first from my friend and evangelical historian colleague, John Fea:

At the 2:45 mark in the video Smerconish wonders why Americans of all parties are not upset with the fact that Putin and Russia has influenced a presidential election. If Smerconish is correct, and I tend to think that he is, then “identity politics” (or, as Little puts it, just good old fashioned political partisanship) has now gotten in the way of the national security interests of all Americans, regardless of political party.

Yes, the Cold War is over. The Soviet Union has been gone for over 25 years. But if Putin represents some kind of revival of the Russian threat (as Mitt Romney correctly implied during his 2012 presidential run) then it looks are response to this threat will not follow the Cold War model of unified resistance. Whatever collective outrage we have had in the past about Russians trying to influence American life seems to have now been subordinated to party politics.

Then this from James Kunstler:

The New York Times especially worked the “Russia Hacks Election” story to a fare-the-well, saying in its Sunday edition:

The Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that Moscow put its thumb on the scale for Mr. Trump through the release of hacked Democratic emails, which provided fodder for many of the most pernicious false attacks on Mrs. Clinton on social media.

False attacks? What, that Hillary’s cronies put the DNC’s “thumb on the scale” against Bernie Sanders? That Donna Brazille gave Hillary debate questions beforehand? That as Secretary of State Hillary gave more face-time to foreign supplicants based on their contributions to the Clinton Foundation, and expedited arms deals for especially big givers? That she collected millions in speaking fees for sucking up to Too-Big-To-Fail bankers? That The Times and The WashPo and CNN reporters were taking direction from Hillary’s PR operatives?

Consider, too, how the Deep State “Russia Hacks Election” meme was ramped up to top volume coincidentally the week before the electoral college vote, as a last-ditch effort was launched by the old-line media, the diehard Hillary partisans, and a bunch of Hollywood celebrities, to persuade electoral college delegates to switch their votes to deprive Trump of his election victory.

President Obama did his bit to amplify the message by coloring Russian President Vladimir Putin as being behind the so-called hacking because “not much happens in Russia without, you know, Vladimir Putin,” just like not much happened in old Puritan New England without the involvement of Old Scratch. So now we have an up-to-date Devil figure to stir the paranoid imaginations of an already divided and perturbed public.

In John’s and my world, lots of exchanges go round about w-w, what difference faith makes for scholarship, and (John more than I) whether historians add value to discussions of contemporary events. Perhaps the question too often left out is what accounts for the trust that people put in large scale institutions — from the New York Times to the Central Intelligence Agency. I bet that Kunstler isn’t much impressed by powerful institutions. In fact, he seems to know as watchers of The Wire do that institutions and the individuals who work in them are prone to self-interest and corruption. I don’t want to put words in John’s mouth, but he does seem to share with many other academics a trust in the mainstream media.

Is that what history teaches us?

Christianity?

W-w thinking?

Maybe the world is divided between those who put their hopes in princes (depending on the party occupying the White House), and those who think that Progressives were wrong, that there is no “right side of history,” that it’s all “vanity under the sun.”

Not to be missed, though, in Kunstler’s post was this:

Hillary and her supporters have vehemently asserted that “seventeen intelligence agencies” agree with the assessment that Russia hacked the election. It might be greater news to the American people to hear that there actually are seventeen such agencies out there. Perhaps Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama might explain exactly what they are beyond the CIA, the FBI, the DIA, the NSA, and DHS. Personally, I feel less secure knowing that there are so many additional surveillance services sifting through everybody’s digital debris trail.

Exactly. Well, not exactly since I’m not sure what U.S. spies would actually do with my ordinary digital footprint. But 17 intelligence agencies. Where’s the academic left’s outrage over President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s compromise with the Bush Administration’s draconian surveillance state? Can we get an “amen” for original sin and power’s corruption?

Fake News and Phantom Legs

Lots of folks are talking about fake news and how to discern the difference between real and not-so-true reports. Amid all the discussion I can’t stop thinking about Bill Genevose. He is the brother of the deceased Kitty Genovese, the woman whose murder in 1964 turned into a parable of urban life and crime:

Before we had the Internet to blame for everything, news of the brutal murder of 28-year-old bar manager Kitty Genovese went wide as a parable of urban indifference. Genovese was far from the only New Yorker to die on the street in 1964. Nor was she the only woman Winston Moseley, a married father of two, admitted killing. By his own chilling account, Moseley drew no distinction between murder and the routine burglary by which he supplemented his income. The other victims languished in obscurity, while 50 years on, the meaning of Genovese’s murder still fuels a gallery of books, movies and television shows, up to and including a recent episode of Girls. All this — according to a new documentary by Kitty’s younger brother Bill Genovese with filmmaker James Solomon — because of an influential article in the New York Times that attributed her late-night death on a quiet street in Queens to the inaction of 38 witnesses who heard her screams twice (Moseley returned to stab her a second time) and allegedly failed to call the police or rush to her rescue.

The NPR story about Genovese’s death goes on to make the astute point that all news comes with spin that takes truth in the direction of fake:

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote. Genovese likens his sister’s death to a Rorschach test, and at its sharpest, The Witness is a careful inquiry into the tricks memory plays, and into how ambiguous events get reshaped into narratives that fit individual and collective needs. Almost everyone Genovese interviewed — from surviving witnesses and their children, the prosecutor and judge in the case, police, journalists, and A.M. Rosenthal, the Times editor who handled the story in 1964 and wrote the book Thirty-Eight Witnesses about the case — has, however unconsciously, polished their own version of the truth. Some of the testimonies are sober and corrective, some defensive, others wacky or poignant or both. One witness’ son argues that most of the neighbors were Holocaust survivors and “therefore” would be reluctant to contact authorities. Moseley himself, who died in prison in March of this year, would not allow Genovese to visit him in prison, but wrote him a rambling, outlandish account. The film shows commendable compassion for Moseley’s anguished son, the Rev. Steven Moseley, whose pitifully bizarre contextualization of the murder shows that the damage it did went far beyond Kitty and her family.

The documentary that Bill Genovese made about his sister complicates the legend that this murder created. The mainstream media had a narrative and they kept telling it. It became so convincing about the indifference of Americans to crime that Bill Genovese himself volunteered to serve in Vietnam. He wasn’t going to be guilty of the sort of social character than abandoned his sister. And what happened? On a patrol Bill stepped on a mine and lost both his legs.

Which brings us to Bill Genovese, who as executive producer and narrator is both the film’s subject and its chief interpreter. Having lost both his legs in Vietnam, the handsome Italian-American is a visually dramatic figure, a sleuth in a wheelchair as he follows leads. Kitty’s death moved him, he says, to enlist in the Marines, and his continuing obsession with her murder (his siblings appear briefly, cooperative but baffled by a mystery they no longer seek to solve) stems from a desire to know that he “didn’t lose [his] legs for nothing.” There’s little reason to doubt their brother’s sincerity, yet his declared motives and his quest for “closure” — a glib buzzword that’s overdue for retirement — seem at once too tidy and a causal stretch.

Fake news or not, you should always take even the real news with a grain or two of salt.

Thankful for Trump

I rarely see eye-to-eye with Michael Novak, but m(mmmmeeeeEEE)y reaction to the election was similar to his in the sense that I dreaded four more years of progressivism at that center of American life and felt a sense of relief when news came that Hillary Clinton did not win.

But a better expression of my thoughts comes from Damon Linker who recognizes, as few do inside the bubble of progressivism, that the United States includes more than elite institutions and their unofficial establishment:

The urge toward exclusion is a perennial possibility of politics. That’s because politics takes place on two levels. On one level is the back and forth of partisan conflict, involving persuasion, argument, electoral battles, triumphs, and defeats. On this level, pretty much anything goes as long as it abides by the rules of the political game. But there’s also a second, more fundamental level of politics that involves a competition over who gets to set the rules, the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable, in the first place — and precisely where those boundaries will be positioned.

The most obvious example of second-order politics in the American system is the judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court. Until the Obergefell decision in 2015, for example, the American people were engaging in a free-flowing debate about same-sex marriage, with some people in favor of allowing it and others opposed, and public opinion shifting rapidly in the “pro” direction. That was politics conducted on the first level. But then the Supreme Court stepped in to declare gay marriage a constitutional right. That was second-order politics in action: Suddenly the rules were changed, with the “pro” side summarily declared the winner throughout the nation and the “anti” side driven — and permanently excluded — from the political battlefield going forward.

But second-order politics isn’t only found in the formal strictures of a Supreme Court ruling. It comes into play when prominent institutions in civil society (such as mainstream media outlets, universities, corporations, movie studios, and other arms of the entertainment industry) informally unite in deciding that an issue, or a specific position on an issue, is simply unacceptable because it crosses a moral line that leading members of these institutions consider inviolable. Over the past several decades, a range of positions on immigration, crime, gender, and the costs and benefits of some forms of diversity have been relegated to the categories of “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” “white supremacy,” or “white nationalism,” and therefore excluded from first-order political debate.

I’m not going to cry for progressives. They still have elite journalism, Hollywood, the most exclusive colleges and universities, and lots of agencies related directly and indirectly to the federal government. They just don’t have the White House for the next four years. Let’s see Aaron Sorkin make a television show about that.