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Sunday, January 09, 2022

Presidential communication

On January 6 in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, President Joe Biden gave the  most remarkable speech of his career, commemorating the insurrection of a year ago and condemning Donald Trump's continuing claims of a stolen election.   Like Lincoln's first inaugural and his Gettysburg Address, and like any number of FDR's speeches just before and during the Second World War, the speech dealt above all with a great threat to democracy and the need to preserve it.  Here was Lincoln on March 4, 1861:

"Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left."

Nearly three years later at Gettysburg, Lincoln restated the aim of the war: to ensure that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Throughout his first two terms Franklin Roosevelt boasted that the United States was proving that democracy could deal effectively with the Depression, and in his third inaugural in January 1941 he insisted that democracy was still the wave of the future worldwide:

"No, democracy is not dying.

"We know it because we have seen it revive—and grow.

"We know it cannot die—because it is built on the unhampered initiative of individual men and women joined together in a common enterprise—an enterprise undertaken and carried through by the free expression of a free majority.

"We know it because democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men's enlightened will.

"We know it because democracy alone has constructed an unlimited civilization capable of infinite progress in the improvement of human life.

"We know it because, if we look below the surface, we sense it still spreading on every continent—for it is the most humane, the most advanced, and in the end the most unconquerable of all forms of human society."

President Biden struck a similar note:

"Make no mistake about it: We’re living at an inflection point in history.

"Both at home and abroad, we’re engaged anew in a struggle between democracy and autocracy, between the aspirations of the many and the greed of the few, between the people’s right of self-determination and self- — the self-seeking autocrat. 

"From China to Russia and beyond, they’re betting that democracy’s days are numbered.  They’ve actually told me democracy is too slow, too bogged down by division to succeed in today’s rapidly changing, complicated world.

"And they’re betting — they’re betting America will become more like them and less like us.  They’re betting that America is a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman.

"I do not believe that.  That is not who we are.  That is not who we have ever been.  And that is not who we should ever, ever be."

The rest of Biden's speech, which I urge you all to read in full, fully recognized the extent of the threat to democracy posed by the continuing popularity of Donald Trump--whose name he never mentioned--and the steps Republicans are taking to allow them to alter the results of fair and free elections.  And like the speeches of FDR and Lincoln, it seemed to proclaim a readiness to take whatever steps might be necessary during the next three years to meet that threat. 

Biden, however, labors under an enormous handicap compared to these two great predecessors.  For reasons having very little to do with his personality or ability, his speech did not have 1/10 the impact of theirs, because of changes in the media and the nature of public opinion in the nation that he is trying to hold together.

Virtually every newspaper in the nation in 1861 and most of them in 1863, it is safe to say, printed the full text of Lincoln's inaugural and of the Gettysburg address, and their readers read them because they had little else to do with their free time, and because they, too, were focused on the secession of the South and the war the nation was fighting to try to end it.  Roosevelt's 1941 inaugural was also printed in the nation's leading newspapers in full and broadcast on the radio as well.   In the administration of Harry Truman the president added television to his arsenal of communication weapons, and the televised evening address became the primary means of presidential communication under Nixon.  The extraordinary events of the twentieth century, both abroad and at home, gave the average citizen an sense of investment in the doings of the government, led by the chief executive, and George W. Bush took advantage of that legacy after 9/11--but he used it to set the United States on a disastrous course.  Now the tradition of a generally high level of interest in the president's thoughts and actions seems to be nearly dead.

I did not see President Biden deliver his address. Major networks carried it in full, but he delivered it during the day, when most of us--even writers like myself--were working.  The New York Times, to its great credit, carried it in full, and when I decided to post it on my one social media outlet I found the text on the White House web site, where I linked it above.  I feel confident that a much smaller portion of the population heard or read it than in past eras of crisis.  The White House has already removed the link from its main page, and our attention is now back on the COVID epidemic.  

President Trump, alas, did find a way to command the nation's attention effectively: by tweeting.  His outrageous tweets repeatedly became front page news and the focus of television news stories--just as social media in general have eclipsed newspapers, either in print or online, as the focus of the attention of so many millions of Americans.  Information has become a commodity in the 21st century, and some kinds of information draw more viewers or listeners than others.  We saw a preview of this half a century ago in the first era of television advertising, which featured sound bites and images chosen to arouse emotion, rather than encourage thought.  The tweet  has now replaced the speech or the monthly newsletter as the means by which Senators and Congressmen try to communicate with their constituents.  For the second year in a row, and the second time since 1934, there will be no State of the Union address in January during the week after Congress reconvenes for its second full session.  

Because so many millions of us spend more time with our favorite cable news network, podcasts, or social media platform than we do listening to or reading the words of any elected official, around 40% of the population really does not care what President Biden says--they are Republicans who have written him off.  Nor does he command the kind of loyalty that popular Republican or Democratic presidents have among their own troops--and he has not found a way to secure it.  Regular readers know that I trace the collapse of our politics to the failure of the government to unite us behind some successful foreign or domestic enterprise over the last two decades.  Yet I also wonder whether effective democracy depended on an educated population which, for whatever reason, took the workings of its institutions seriously and took the time necessary to understand what they were doing--as well as a press that took the time to let them know in some detail.  Those ingredients are also lacking, and democracy might not survive without them.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

A thorough critique of the 1619 project

 Exactly a month ago, I did a post critiquing the defense of the 1619 Project that Jake Silverstein of the Times published to commemorate its new book version.  An historian of slavery and the Civil War period named James Oakes has now published this extremely telling critique of the whole project on a fairly obscure, traditional leftist web site called Catalyst.  Oakes brings to bear a lifetime of study of the issues involved and a real command of the literature on the politics and economics of slavery that has been written over the last century.  I recommend to all interested readers that they read the long piece in detail, but I will summarize what he had to say quickly.

1. The centerpiece of the project--the idea that the it presents a new view of slavery that has only emerged since black scholars got their seat at the academic table in the last few decades--is ridiculous, and an insult to earlier generations of white and black scholars who in fact had investigated the same issues very thoroughly.  Some of the project's arguments have already been raised and rejected based upon evidence.

2.  The project is political, not historical or even journalistic, presenting a very slanted view of history designed explicitly and admittedly to bolster a case for reparations for black Americans.

3.   The project's assertions about the importance of slavery to the pre-1861 American economy are badly overblown, and the sources that the authors cite often do not bear them out.

In a similar but much less wide-ranging criticism of the 1619 Project, the historian Sean Wilentz recently detailed how difficult it had turned out to be for him and other skeptical historians to register their concerns in a mainstream historical journal.   This piece was published on a web site in the Czech Republic.  Oakes's piece should be coming out in the New York Times Magazine as a full-scale rejoinder, or in the New York Review of Books or the American Historical Review or the Journal of American History--but it isn't.  The critics, who include some of our most eminent and accomplished historians, are being marginalized, while the book version of the 1619 project has shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.  That is another reason that I am linking this article and asking readers to circulate it further.  We need to make clear that this new imperial regime has no clothes.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

The Crisis over Ukraine

 The crisis over Ukraine, which threatens to escalate into a confrontation between the United States and Russia, and the even more perilous potential crisis over Taiwan, stem from conflicting goals and world views among the three leading powers in the world, the US, Russia, and China.  It is in fact somewhat similar to the crises that set off the 27-year Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in 431 B. C., as so ably recorded by Thucydides the Athenian, one of the founders of modern history.  That crisis grew out of a general war between the Greeks and the Persians, which left the Athenians in a dominant position over much of Greece and the surrounding islands.  This crisis goes back to the end of the Cold War, which left the United States in such an apparently dominant position that our foreign policy elite decided that we were now destined to rule the world. It was the George W. Bush administration that first put that policy into print in its national security strategy and attempted to implement it, with disastrous results, in the Middle East, but that view dominated the Obama administration as well and seems to rule the Biden team--which is really a third Obama administration--as well.  We  have never really had a national debate over this policy, although Donald Trump made very half-hearted attempts to start one, and very few Americans, I suspect, really understand our relationship to the rest of the world and where it might lead.

Some elements of the new policy have been written down--notably in the Bush II administration's national security strategy of 2002--but I don't think any official document or presidential speech has ever laid the whole thing out, the way Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman did on the occasions of the two world wars and the Cold War.  We all remember how we decided in 1989 that the fall of the Soviet Union meant the triumph of capitalist democracy and the final defeat of the alternative ideologies of the twentieth century, but despite Paul Wolfowitz's famous leaked memorandum of 1992, I believe, on the future supremacy of the United States, we do not fully understand what these events meant for our foreign policy elite.  The first Gulf War, authorized by a UN Security Council resolution and carried out with almost the unanimous support the world community, seemed to validate the original hope that the UN would keep the world's peace, but in 1999, when the Security Council would not support war against what was left of Yugoslavia, the United States turned NATO into an offensive alliance.  The question of NATO expansion illustrates what has happened.  NATO was originally an alliance against expansion by the USSR.  When the USSR collapsed and broke apart President George H. W. Bush and James Baker apparently promised not to expand it into the former Soviet empire, but Bill Clinton--a Democrat, of course--decided to do it anyway.  NATO now includes, I believe, the entire former Soviet bloc with the exceptions of Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the former Soviet states of Latvia,. Lithuania, and Estonia.  Defended on the basis of defending democracy, the expansion has been in fact a means of expanding the US sphere of influence to the borders of Belarus and Ukraine.  Meanwhile, several of its members, such as Turkey and Hungary, have cast what democratic traditions they had aside.  In another important development, the US beginning in 2001 has called on NATO members to support military initiatives in other parts of the world, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have done so, turning themselves into adjuncts of US policy.  

The Iraq and Afghanistan interventions were part of the  the Bush II administration's crusade to wipe out unfriendly regimes and spread democracy--the natural form of government everywhere, it claimed--in the Muslim world. These initiatives have been disastrous failures, capped by the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan last year.  The Obama administration nonetheless continued these polices in Libya, where it toppled Qaddafi's regime and created long-term chaos, and in Syria, where it decreed that Assad must go but could not secure that result despite a bloody civil war.   The United States has also continued to punish hostile nations with sanctions, a tradition that goes back to the days of the Cold War.  Saddam Hussein's Iraq suffered from US sanctions for 12 years before the US finally overthrew him.  Iran has faced sanctions for decades--and after the Obama administration promised to lift them as part of the nuclear agreement in 2015, Donald Trump backed out of the agreement and reimposed them. Obama also decided finally to lift sanctions against Cuba that had been in place for more than half a century, but Trump reversed policy there as well. North Korea is also under sanctions because of its nuclear program, and Venezuela also faces them because it has a leftist government.  Russia has also faced sanctions since it annexed Crimea in 2014. 

The Ukraine crisis grows out of the same American policies.  In 2008, in its waning months, the  Bush II administration offered NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet Republics on Russia's borders. Russia promptly started a brief war against Georgia, and neither government actually tried to join NATO.  The United States has continued to promote democracy and an independent regime in Ukraine, however, and it has provided weaponry to Ukraine to resist the war the Russians started in 2014.  Russia has now massed about 150,000 troops on the Ukraine border, and Putin has demanded that the US give up the idea of NATO expansion.  This we are refusing to do. President Biden has said that American troops will not fight for Ukrainian independence, but he has threatened far more severe sanctions on  Russia if war does break out.  This is quite similar to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, in which Corcyra (Ukraine) asked Athens (the US) for its help in a dispute with Corinth, a Spartan ally (Russia.)  Athens initially limited its help but then joined the battle, and Sparta decided to go to war with Athens at Corinth's side. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meanwhile in the western Pacific, Taiwan--then called Formosa--passed from Japanese occupation to the sovereignty of the Chinese Nationalist government in 1945.  Then in 1949 the Nationalist leadership fled to Taiwan after they lost the civil war to the Communists.  The United States continued to treat them as the legitimate government of all China until 1972, and in 1955 Congress passed a joint resolution pledging the United States to defend Taiwan against a Communist attack.  That, we now know, led us perilously close to war with China, fought by us with atomic weapons, in 1958.  In 1972 President Nixon in the Shanghai Communique affirmed that there was only one China, and in 1979 President Carter abandoned the US defense obligation to Taiwan in order to open diplomatic relations with Communist China.  The US has not recognized Taiwan as an independent state, and indeed the new elected Taiwanese government has not claimed to be so--but it continues to plan the defense of Taiwan against an attack from the mainland.  That in fact has been the main combat mission of the US Navy since the end of the Cold War in Europe.  Many naval officers doubt however that the US would be able to prevent an invasion if the Chinese mounted one. China, meanwhile, is becoming more and more assertive about its rights over Taiwan, and its takeover of Hong Kong over the last year or two represents a new level of aggressiveness.

The United States made its entrance on the world stage in 1917 and became the world's leading power in 1945 calling for an international institution that would defend against aggression and maintain peace.  When in the early stages of the Cold War the USSR prevented the UN from playing that role, the US essentially decided to assume it itself, with the help of any allies it could secure.  When Communism fell the US government assumed new pretentions--ones which neither Russia nor China has ever accepted.  Despite all the setbacks of the last 20 years, Washington has not accepted a world in which our values do not prevail everywhere, and in which powerful nations reject our pre-eminence.  Something, I think, has to give. 

Since 1789 the US has stood for democracy in the world.  For over a century it sought to lead by example, and in 1917 and 1941 it went to war in part of defend other democracies.  It helped spread democracy after that war and did protect it in key areas during the  Cold War.  Now, however, democracy is in retreat, and the US itself is not providing a very inspiring example of it.  Not for the first time, we face the need somehow to scale back our pretensions to fit our actual capabilities.  I see no evidence that any such re-evaluation is taking place right now.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Lying and Liars

 I have just finished a short, provocative book by a very good friend of mine, the law professor Catherine Ross.  Entitled A Right to Lie? Presidents, Other Liars, and the First Amendment, it surveys the law of lying in the United States with particular attention to several interesting court cases, and then asks what might have been done to deal effectively with our once and possibly future liar-in-chief, Donald J. Trump.  It is a very readable work of detailed legal scholarship and lay person will learn a lot from it.  While I would not have been able to accept a formal reviewing assignment because of our friendship, I see no reason not to explore the issues that it raises here.

The first part of the book explains carefully, first, that lying is generally protected by the First Amendment, and second, that as a result, recent states' attempts to ban lying during campaigns have generally been thrown out by federal courts.  Lying is of course illegal in certain contexts:  in legal proceedings, in filling out government forms, and if it is undertaken to secure monetary gain via fraud.  We also still have state laws against defamation--that is, slander or libel--but under New York Times vs. Sullivan (1964), which Ross discusses relatively briefly, it has become almost impossible for public figures to win defamation cases, since they must show willful, reckless disregard of the truth, motivated by "actual malice," on the part of the offender.  In 2005, the federal government tried to ban one form of lying in the Stolen Valor Act, which criminalized false claims of having been awarded certain military decorations.  When the case of Xavier Alvarez, a local elected official and compulsive liar, reached the Supreme Court, however, the court decided, in a split opinion, that the law was unconstitutional because it banned falsehood for its own sake, whether the speaker uttered it for a separate nefarious motive or not.  While banning falsehoods to serve a compelling interest might be legal were it done narrowly enough, any blanket prohibition against lies would violate the speech clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court held, in short, that the government cannot restrict speech under the First Amendment without some clearly compelling interest to do so that would not, in turn, lead to further indefensible prohibitions  Ross clearly agrees with that holding, and so do I.  The courts have also protected satirical falsehoods, creating a potentially dangerous doctrine that one is not liable for falsehoods that listeners could not be expected to believe--a sound doctrine, perhaps, in quieter times, but a slippery one in the climate of the 2020s. 

Political campaigns in the United States have featured outrageous lies both by candidates and their supporters since the first truly contested presidential election of 1796, and our greatest presidents, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, probably faced more of them than anyone.  Ross cites the infamous Willie Horton ad of 1988, in which the George H. W. Bush campaign falsely claimed that Michael Dukakis was personally responsible for the furlough policy that had enabled a convicted murderer to commit a rape, as a particularly influential case.  However, in a long, controversial case involving a Wisconsin campaign for a seat on the state supreme court, Judge Michael Gableman eventually got away with a very similar and even more misleading claim against his opponent, even though he was bound by a judicial code of ethics that specifically banned campaign misstatements of fact. The case eventually reached the state supreme court--he recused himself--and Republican justices found ways to claim that the ad was not a lie, because its individual statements, while arranged in an utterly misleading sequence, were each true.  The court split 3-3 and dismissed the complaint against Gableman.  More generally, Ross tells us, federal courts have thrown out every state statute that has come before them since 2012 that tried to regulate campaign speech, except some relating to judicial elections where different rules often apply.  Various federal Courts of Appeals have agreed that such laws have to pass a strict scrutiny test, meaning that they would have to serve a "compelling interest," that they would truly solve the problem, and that they would not unnecessarily restrict other speech.  Opposing speech, in short, remains the only legal remedy against false campaign speech--but any serious historians knows that that has been the effective rule for the whole of our history, and we have so far survived.  Ross also makes clear that she believes this is how things should be.

In its last section, the book turns to the falsehoods of Donald Trump, who appears to have been a compulsive liar for the whole of his adult life.  She focuses on two sets of lies.  First, starting in early 2020, Trump's false statements about COVID, masking, and potential treatments obviously hampered a proper response to the pandemic and cost the nation an untold number of lives--in  my personal opinion, tens of thousands at least.  Second, of course, his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election before, during and after it took place undermined faith in democracy and led to the January 6 insurrection.  In order to propose a remedy for these and similar lies, Ross begins with another provision of federal law.  The President is undeniably a government employee, and the political speech of government employees is in fact severely restricted.  Ross mentions that under the law, government employees' speech is only protected if they are speaking as private citizens on a matter of public interest.  I might add that federal employees in recent decades have been severely disciplined for circulating articles endorsing or criticizing candidates via email at work.  Such laws open the door, she argues, to legislation or other Congressional action--including warnings, censure, or impeachment--in response to presidential lies.   While she recognizes how unlikely such legislation is in the current climate, she wants us all to start thinking about it.

It is here that I personally have a different view.  I share the concern about the impact of presidential lies, but I think the remedy is already in the Constitution in the impeachment clause, which provides for the removal of the president upon conviction of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."  While lying in itself does not fall under those words, Trump's lies about COVID--and many other things as well--formed part of a pattern, for me, that would have fully justified his impeachment and conviction.  Here I am relying on my reading of another work of legal scholarship, Impeachment, the Constitutional Problems, by Raoul Berger, which appeared (fortuitously) in 1973.  The phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors," he showed, came from British precedents having to do with the impeachment and conviction of high officials (the monarch, unlike the president, being legally invulnerable in Britain.) It clearly did not refer to ordinary violations of laws, and an eminent 18th-century commentator, Richard Wooddeson, listed among precedents various kinds of malfeasance in office: "a lord admiral to have neglected the safeguard of the sea," "a privy councilor to have propounded or supported pernicious or dishonorable measures," and "an ambassador to have betrayed his trust," among other measures.  It is true, as Ross mentions, that in the debates in the constitutional convention, James Madison rejected "maladministration" as one specific grounds for impeachment because the word was too broad.  Yet in my opinion, those precedents show that truly disastrous performance of one's duties in office is indeed grounds for impeachment.  If a failure to "safeguard the sea" is sufficient grounds, then surely a failure to safeguard the whole people of the United States against an epidemic and instead repeatedly make statements that put that people risk must surely be grounds as well, in my opinion.

Although President Nixon resigned before he could even be impeached, he would not only have been impeached but convicted--as no other president has been--had he tried to remain in office. Lying, as Ross points out, was one of the reason--but his lies were a critical part of an attempt to cover up a serious crime, the Watergate burglary.   We agree that subverting our laws is proper grounds for impeachment.  I think that the nation now fails to recognize that disastrous performance in office should--indeed, in my opinion, must--be grounds as well because we take our government's functions for granted and tend to regard the presidency as something we bestow upon people we like.  Thus the Republican Party was willing to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about an extramarital sexual encounter, but turned a blind eye to Trump's four years of disastrous government.  Indeed, most of that party has now chosen to embrace his lies about COVID implicitly (by opposing various kinds of mandates) or explicitly (by endorsing the idea that the election was stolen.)

And on this point Ross and I agree: the current state of the Republican Party makes any remedy for these very serious ills impossible.  On the one hand, the Republic has ever been entirely healthy in this respect--we have heard many campaign lies and some presidential lies for the whole or our history.  It is only in the 21st century, however, that a major party nominated and the country elected a hopelessly compulsive liar to office, whose party subsequently became entirely loyal to him and reluctant to disagree with anything that he said. Meanwhile, I would add, distrust in government has grown so far that another large segment of the population no longer has any real expectations of it. The founders understood that our republican experiment depended upon an informed electorate and a responsible leadership class, and both of those, now, are lacking.   There may be no legal remedy for such ills.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

What makes a nation?

 A few weeks ago, browsing through the left wing Israeli daily Ha'aretz--whose opinion pages I prefer to those of any US newspaper--I came across an interview with a very iconoclastic Israeli academic named Shlomo Sand.  Sand, now 75, has been a leftist all his life and was once a Communist, and the interview dealt with his latest book, A Brief History of the Left, which is not yet available in English.  I did not agree with everything he said in a wide-ranging metahistorical discussion, but I liked his frankness about the collapse of the traditional left in the west, owing to the new disconnect between the old working class and the intellectual elite.   Sand understands "the left" to be focused on greater equality, whether obtained through democracy or by force.  He actually argues that capitalism is decreasing inequality in the poorer parts of the world today--a point which I would question, even though I agree that the standard of living in the lower classes in Asia and Africa has been rising--but he recognizes how much inequality has been increasing in the developed world in the last half century or so.  He has lived through the almost complete disappearance of a social democratic ideal in Israel and he sees it vanishing in countries like France and Germany as well.

The interview also mentioned that Sand had published a controversial book in 2008 entitled The Invention of the Jewish People (he is not a man to mince words), and I was moved to get it out of my local library system and read it.  It's a remarkable study of about three millennia of Jewish history, based on a very wide reading of secondary sources about the history of the Jews, the Mediterranean and the Near East in general, and Central Asia--including a great many archeological finds in various places.  It's a highly political document, among other things, aiming to undermine the central myth (I'm using that word in its broadest sense, without reference to truth or falsehood) of the Zionist state of Israel.  That myth holds that the Jewish people are a homogenous ethnic group descended originally from Abraham and Isaac that was scattered twice, first by the Babylonians and then in the first century A. D. by the Romans.  Exiles, it holds founded all the large Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and in Central Asia, some of whom eventually migrated to Eastern Europe, where the vast majority of Jews lived by around 1900 or so. The late-19th century Zionist movement in Eastern Europe began their return to the Holy Land, and the creation of Israel in 1948 consummated that process. Meanwhile, in an effort to lay an historical foundation for their new state, Sand argues, a number of Zionist historians began to accept the Old Testament as a reliable historical document detailing the rise and fall of the original Kingdom of Israel.  

Step by step, Sand uses other histories and sources to explode these myths.  He draws on the much-neglected Bible criticism of 19th-century Germany, which used linguistic analysis, among other things, to conclude that the first five books of the Bible were not in fact written by Moses, but were written many centuries after his death--somewhere between the 6th and 3rd century B. C.E.--if indeed Moses ever existed at all.  (I was quite surprised that Sand never mentioned another favorite book of mine, Freud's Moses and Monotheism, which used the same sources to make a similar argument, concluding that Moses was in fact a rebel member of the Egyptian royal family.)  It turns out, Sand shows, that the Egyptians left behind considerable written records of their early history, and they say nothing about Jews or the events surrounding the exodus at all.  More importantly, he argues convincingly that there was no mass expulsion of Jews from Israel under the Roman Empire, and that the "exile" Jewish writers made so much of was metaphorical, referring to their evident loss of God's favor.  Judaism, he argues based on other scholarly works, was a proselytizing religion in the first centuries of the Christian era, creating large new Jewish communities in what is now Yemen, all along the North African Coast (from which they later moved into Spain), and a bit later, in Central Asia, where the Khazar tribe adopted Judaism.  The rise of Islam beginning in the 8th century converted many (but never all) of these new Jews to Islam, and the Mongol invasions centuries later destroyed the Khazar kingdom.  Following Arthur Koestler's book The Thirteenth Tribe, which I read when it appeared in 1976, Sand argues that the great Jewish communities of Russia and Poland began as Khazar refugees from the Mongols.  This remains a very strong argument, since there really has never been another convincing explanation of how those very large groups could have come from Germany (where the Jewish population was very small) or the Mediterranean.  These communities did eventually adopt Yiddish, mainly a German dialect, as their language, but that, he thinks, was because of the large Christian German immigration into the same regions during the Middle Ages. 

Sand argues, in short, that there is no genetically homogeneous  Jewish people with a common ancestry and more than there is a Catholic one, and that proselytizing created both.  (The  Catholic analogy is mine, not his, but I don't think he would object to it.)  Since the discovery of DNA there have been attempts in Israel to prove common ancestry, but Sand argues based on various studies that their claims to do so have not been validated. The real basis for Israeli citizenship, he says, is not race but religion, and a quite orthodox brand of Judaism at that, one that emphasizes the need to maintain the exclusivity of the Jewish community--the reason that there has never been a legal way for a Jew in Israel to marry a non-Jew, since there is no such thing there as civil marriage. Sand, like me, has obviously never been religious--his parents were left wing as well as himself--and he obviously bitterly resents that particular restriction upon Israeli citizens' personal freedom very much.  It offends me at least as much because I happen to be a child of the kind of marriage that can't take place in Israel, and I obviously can't accept any belief system that argues that I should never have been born.  The last part of his book is an extended argument--delivered as much in sorrow than in anger--that Israel should adopt a new definition of citizenship based simply on residence, not religion, and that it abandon the idea that it can proclaim itself a "Jewish state" and provide equal justice to its 20 percent non-Jewish minority (I am referring their to the population of pre-1967 Israel, not to the occupied territories, which present even more serious problems.)  From what I can see, Israel has in fact moved further in the opposite direction since the publication of his book.  He predicted that current policies might eventually lead to violent uprisings among the Arab population of Israel proper, and such uprisings indeed took place during the last year.  On the other hand, the current Israeli government includes some Arab representation.

I should certainly add, by the way, that Sand notes that the trend towards tribalism and away from universal values is a worldwide one, and he is right about that.  

Since I am not and could not be an Israeli, it is not my place to take sides in the arguments about the ruling ideology and the future of Israel.  Sand did set me thinking, however, about what has traditionally held the United States together.  Clearly that has never been either a common religion or a belief in descent from a common gene pool--even if some of the original immigrants from Britain have felt some superiority to the rest of the citizenry during various periods.  Justice Taney in the Dred Scott decision argued that only white people could be citizens, but the two dissents from his decision, as I showed years ago, left no doubt that he was wrong as a matter of law and of history.    The Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments put an end to that controversy for all time.  What occurred to me as I read Sand was this: what really makes a nation is adherence to a common set of laws.  That is why law is, or should be, so important to history.  And in the United States this principle has another dimension.  We do commit merely to obey the law for its own sake, but because our laws are founded on a novel set of principles embodied in the Constitution--one based upon the legal equality of all persons residing within the country, and upon the use of democratic procedures--voting--to select our leaders.  The founding generation purposely created the nation based upon those principles and millions of immigrants came to this country because they wanted to live under them.

Of course, we did not initially apply those principles universally.  They did not apply in some respects to women, whom the law treated unequally, to slaves, or in some instances to free black people.  Yet as I have pointed out so many times, those exceptions were not demanded, or even specifically recognized, by the Constitution, which used the universal term "persons" throughout.  The question of who could vote--including women--was left entirely to the individual states, some of whom indeed did begin to grant women the vote well before the passage of the 19th amendment.  The common law did not protect slavery--it could exist only in states that specifically sanctioned it, and before Taney's decision in Dred Scott, dozens of slaves had in fact won their freedom in court after their masters had taken them into a free state.  That is why Frederick Douglass in 1860 could argue at length, and very effectively, that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.  It is also why women and their allies could argue effectively that the restriction of the suffrage to men contradicted the spirit of the founding document.

We now face a serious threat to our nation and its principles--not as serious as in the late 1850s, in my opinion, at least not yet, but serious enough.  That threat comes in the first instance from the Republican Party which is threatening to use a gap in the Constitution to overturn the will of the electorate in the next election.  In creating the electoral college the founders left the manner of the choice of electors to the states.   Nearly all of them  rapidly gave the choice to all qualified voters, but even today, nothing requires that they do so.  Several presidents, led by Andrew Jackson, called for the abolition of the electoral college and a system of direct presidential election, but this has never been adopted.  Republicans in various states are trying to undermine popular election by giving their legislatures the power to certify the vote.  I still do not believe that voting rights are seriously threatened, as they were for much of our history.  The new laws Republicans are passing are taking away relatively new ways to vote conveniently, such as by mail or in drop boxes, but they have done nothing, in my opinion, that would keep a determined voter from casting a ballot.  Democrats should use them to mobilize and organize, not to claim that the election has already been lost.  They should also use them as issues in the next round of state legislative elections to try to change the balance of power in some states and perhaps get the laws repealed.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the political fence, critical race theory and its offshoots argue that the principles and guarantees of the Constitution have never really been worth anything, and one prominent academic argues that we need a new institution, an unelected Department of Antiracism with virtually totalitarian powers, to restructure our society.  

Both these attacks on our traditions and principles threaten to destroy the American experiment--the most thoroughgoing attempt to implement the principles of the Enlightenment for the benefit of all. Both Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt recognized that those principles had to succeed here to have any chance of success in the rest of the world.  We still bear that responsibility.  We can restore those principles both for ourselves and the rest of the world by returning to our best traditions.  If we do abandon them, the whole world will suffer in ways we cannot foresee.