More than a century and a half ago, the American theologian and author James Freeman Clarke suggested that “a politician thinks of the next election – a statesman of the next generation.”
His sentiment was echoed decades later, by a somewhat kinder Winston Churchill who opined that “some men change their party for the sake of their principles; others their principles for the sake of their party.” But it was the comedian Eric Idle who trumped them both with, “A lot has been said about politics; some of it complimentary, but most of it accurate.”
It seems a truism of politics that the good always look for the good in the bad, and the bad always look for the bad in the good. Both usually find it. For the former, it seems a frequent and foolish exercise of self-deception, where they cannot come to terms with the reality that the bad might actually be that bad; and for the latter it is a necessary exercise that serves a political plan that allows them to deny the possibility of any such good. The result: an unbridgeable divide.
It is really much simpler than it sounds. And, there is ample evidence. The problem is, the good is too often gullible, and the bad, hardly at all.
Maybe Hitler really wants only the Sudetenland. And for Hitler, it is the Jews who are the cause of all the world’s ills. For the former, this exercise of self-delusion advances a false narrative, because it is easier than believing what one doesn’t want to believe. It is at best the suspension of common sense and at its worse a surrender to a policy of political suicide. For the latter, theirs is a contrived and calculated agenda capitalizing on the other’s utter naiveté, or its misbegotten good will.
Perhaps not ironically, the fools tend to be those who are the “good” – the very essence of the classically liberal Western democratic thinking – something which is not lost on the “bad.” Axiomatically, the one will be compromising, the other will not, a fact that most poker players might play to advantage.
The Israelis are good. Their enemies, bad. No need for footnotes. And yet…
Israel has so frequently suspended rational thinking and better judgement in the hope that it might find a suitable peace partner from among those who have long subscribed – often quite openly – to a genocidal solution to the conflict between Muslim and Jew.
Fully cognizant that the Muslim and Arab war against the Jewish State is religious and not territorial, the good nonetheless agrees to a discussion of territorial concessions to the bad. When concessions, however unwise and ill-considered, don’t work, Israel offers more.
Political partisanship or affiliation seems not to matter: Ben Gurion, Begin, Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak, Sharon, Olmert. They all offered irrational concessions. Some were accepted, others rejected. The Arabs, the bad actors who stood on their principles, never thought Israel’s conciliatory gestures were excessive enough. In Israel’s willingness to appease, its imprudence was matched by Arabs intransigence. Maybe there is a God after all, the same who hardened the heart of Pharaoh.
The confrontation between good and bad is found everywhere. And too often misunderstood.
This past week, as a prelude to the 2020 United States presidential election, we were witness to a campaign that was in full progress. Despite the fact that the Democratic field of candidates now numbers 18 (a figure that might change even while one reads this, and not necessarily fewer), President Donald Trump is the singular campaign issue. And it unites them all.
In an almost Orwellian inversion of reality, the coming American election is framed by the Democrats as good versus bad. Amusingly, or absurdly, the party of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, of Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and CAIR, presents itself as the good.
Understanding that language dictates the narrative, and the narrative defines the debate, the Democrats have launched an all-out, ever-evolving, assault on the president. Not his party, but against the man. It is somewhat noteworthy to remember that they haven’t targeted the Republicans as a party despite having done so in every previous election historically. Now, instead, it’s Trump. “Deranged” is one of the kinder comments.
Target Trump. Character. Campaign finance laws. Child detention “concentration camps”. Collusion with the Russians. Conspiracy. Cover-up. Quid pro quo. And now, a new catch-word that was the product of the recommendation of several focus groups put together by the anti-Trump hysteria: bribery.
One might argue that the anti-Trump campaign has actually ‘devolved’ in broadcasting its message over time. From porn stars, to Russians, to Ukrainians, and you can bet, soon to whatever the Democratic strategists and marketing specialists are cooking up next. After all, the election is still almost a year away. This much we know – it will be conveniently categorized under the familiar title of “abuse of power” and something or other employing that nomenclature of no one being “above the law.”
Little time nor effort is given to discuss and debate the strongest American economy in a generation. The best employment figures. Or the strongest stock market ever. On the same day that Wall Street announced that the Dow Jones broke the record for an all-time high for the 101st time during Trump’s presidency,
Congress and the media was instead focused on the transgressions of a president who made Marie Yovanovich sad when she was dismissed as American ambassador to Ukraine. As he was constitutionally and legally allowed to do. The way Barack Obama had asked his nascent State Department to request that every George Bush-appointed ambassador submit their resignation in 2008, effective in January 2009 when the new president was to be inaugurated.
In the US, the practice is commonplace – irrelevant to the fact that it might hurt someone’s feelings and make them sad. It is the president’s prerogative and privilege as he so chooses. Sorry Marie, but Trump could fire you simply because he thought you didn’t use enough conditioner after shampooing.
It didn’t matter. Target Trump. Make him look bad employing the most recent coup de jour. Long forgotten were Stormy Daniels, James Comey, Michael Cohen, Brett Kavanaugh, and Jamal Khashoggi. Imagine. Making a former ambassador who had been praised repeatedly as “tough as nails” for having served in two war fronts – Somalia and Ukraine – sad. That was the new news. The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and an army of political analysts and Internet pundits refocused the chief reason to impeach the president to the hurtful feelings that he callously ignored. You cannot make this up.
The Democrats are much smarter than the Republicans. Well, certainly more deceitful. Actually, both, because the two are here synonymous. While the Obama administration was not called upon to hold inquiries to investigate its nearly two-dozen scandals – many clearly within the Democrats’ present interpretation of “abuse of power” – nor held accountable for the misconduct of so many American foreign policy blunders, for eight years the Republicans surrendered to the belief that there must have existed some good in the bad.
One can readily recall several scandals that rose to the level of impeachment during Obama’s tenure – certainly abuses that were significantly more injurious to American interests than that of the testimony of another anti-Trumper who heard from someone who had in turn spoken to someone who knew someone who was pretty certain that Trump had done something wrong.
Sounds comical. It is not. That was the lead testimony of another former ambassador, William Taylor the first day of the anti-Trump impeachment hearings.
Bad actors don’t play fair. Someone must have said that before – maybe Moses, or Churchill, or maybe someone from the Game of Thrones. Whoever, it is true.
But it’s worse than simply not playing fair. They are dirty. They lie. They cheat. They manipulate. The end always justifies the means.
One of the great old curmudgeons of American history, journalist H.L. Menken stated that “under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to try to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right.”
The same might be said of both American and Israeli political affairs, where political adversaries root for the other party to fail, even at the cost of seeing the best interest of the nation compromised.
Politics in Israel, at a time where the two major political parties are at each other’s throats is very similar to what we now see being played out in America. The media in Israel and the US plays similar roles as well. At issue – whether or not the legal system should be fully exercised, and weaponized, to bring down the incumbent, because after all, the political process – the elections – cannot be fully trusted. The argument that this might bring to question the greater good of the nation is moot. Rather, it is being suggested by those who favor the political inquisitions – that these “show trials” actually serve for the greater good of the nation. Orwell called it doublespeak.
We live at a time when optics matter as much as facts, maybe more. Logically, we are offered political theater at every turn, with kangaroo courts as the vehicle. Stalin would offer a wink. Good has little chance against the bad, unless it learns, before the clock runs out, to pick up the same weapons. It is time to confront them. Expose them. And shame them. Truth be told, our adversaries are somewhat perplexed that we have not.
The former Russian poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky, who knew a thing or two about the injustices of Soviet political oppression, explained it well by offering us two relevant quotations:
“Life—the way it really is—is a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse.” Often, perhaps. And if that truly be the case, this as well:
"Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book, including the holy book. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose."
In Israel, and in America, it is time to level that playing field and to be those few – and say ‘no more’ to losing.
Meir Jolovitz is a past national executive director of the Zionist Organization of America, and formerly associated with the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies.