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This post originally appeared on the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
You’ve probably heard the news that the celebrated post-WW II beating heart of America known as the middle class has gone from “burdened,” to “squeezed” to “dying.” But you might have heard less about what exactly is emerging in its place.
In a new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Peter Temin, professor emeritus of economics at MIT, draws a portrait of the new reality in a way that is frighteningly, indelibly clear: America is not one country anymore. It is becoming two, each with vastly different resources, expectations and fates.
Two roads diverged
In one of these countries live members of what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology and electronics, the industries that largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies and count themselves lucky to be Americans.
The FTE citizens rarely visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live: the low-wage sector. Here, the world of possibility is shrinking, often dramatically. People are burdened with debt and anxious about their insecure jobs if they have a job at all. Many of them are getting sicker and dying younger than they used to. They get around by crumbling public transport and cars they have trouble paying for. Family life is uncertain here; people often don’t partner for the long-term even when they have children. If they go to college, they finance it by going heavily into debt. They are not thinking about the future; they are focused on surviving the present. The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.
The two sectors, notes Temin, have entirely distinct financial systems, residential situations and educational opportunities. Quite different things happen when they get sick or when they interact with the law. They move independently of each other. Only one path exists by which the citizens of the low-wage country can enter the affluent one, and that path is fraught with obstacles. Most have no way out.
The richest large economy in the world, says Temin, is coming to have an economic and political structure more like a developing nation. We have entered a phase of regression and one of the easiest ways to see it is in our infrastructure: our roads and bridges look more like those in Thailand or Venezuela than the Netherlands or Japan. But it goes far deeper than that, which is why Temin uses a famous economic model created to understand developing nations to describe how far inequality has progressed in the United States. The model is the work of West Indian economist W. Arthur Lewis, the only person of African descent to win a Nobel Prize in economics. For the first time, this model is applied with systematic precision to the U.S.
The result is profoundly disturbing.
In the Lewis model of a dual economy, much of the low-wage sector has little influence over public policy. Check. The high-income sector will keep wages down in the other sector to provide cheap labor for its businesses. Check. Social control is used to keep the low-wage sector from challenging the policies favored by the high-income sector. Mass incarceration: check. The primary goal of the richest members of the high-income sector is to lower taxes. Check. Social and economic mobility is low. Check.
In the developing countries Lewis studied, people try to move from the low-wage sector to the affluent sector by transplanting from rural areas to the city to get a job. Occasionally it works; often it doesn’t. Temin says that today in the U.S., the ticket out is education, which is difficult for two reasons: you have to spend money over a long period of time, and the FTE sector is making those expenditures more and more costly by defunding public schools and making policies that increase student debt burdens.
Getting a good education, Temin observes, isn’t just about a college degree. It has to begin in early childhood, and you need parents who can afford to spend time and resources all along the long journey. If you aspire to college and your family can’t make transfers of money to you on the way, well, good luck to you. Even with a diploma, you will likely find that high-paying jobs come from networks of peers and relatives. Social capital, as well as economic capital, is critical, but because of America’s long history of racism and the obstacles it has created for accumulating both kinds of capital, black graduates often can only find jobs in education, social work, and government instead of higher-paying professional jobs like technology or finance— something most white people are not really aware of. Women are also held back by a long history of sexism and the burdens — made increasingly heavy — of making greater contributions to the unpaid care economy and lack of access to crucial healthcare.
How did we get this way?
What happened to America’s middle class, which rose triumphantly in the post-World War II years, buoyed by the GI bill, the victories of labor unions and programs that gave the great mass of workers and their families health and pension benefits that provided security?
The dual economy didn’t happen overnight, says Temin. The story started just a couple of years after the ’67 Summer of Love. Around 1970, the productivity of workers began to get divided from their wages. Corporate attorney and later Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell galvanized the business community to lobby vigorously for its interests. Johnson’s war on poverty was replaced by Nixon’s war on drugs, which sectioned off many members of the low-wage sector, disproportionately black, into prisons. Politicians increasingly influenced by the FTE sector turned from public-spirited universalism to free-market individualism. As money-driven politics accelerated (a phenomenon explained by the Investment Theory of Politics), leaders of the FTE sector became increasingly emboldened to ignore the needs of members of the low-wage sector, or even to actively work against them.
America’s underlying racism has a continuing distorting impact. A majority of the low-wage sector is white, with blacks and Latinos making up the other part, but politicians learned to talk as if the low-wage sector is mostly black because it allowed them to appeal to racial prejudice, which is useful in maintaining support for the structure of the dual economy — and hurting everyone in the low-wage sector. Temin notes that “the desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks has motivated policies against all members of the low-wage sector.”
Temin points out that the presidential race of 2016 both revealed and amplified the anger of the low-wage sector at this increasing imbalance. Low-wage whites who had been largely invisible in public policy until recently came out of their quiet despair to be heard. Unfortunately, present trends are not only continuing, but also accelerating their problems, freezing the dual economy into place.
What can we do?
We’ve been digging ourselves into a hole for over 40 years, but Temin says we know how to stop digging. If we spent more on domestic rather than military activities, then the middle class would not vanish as quickly. The effects of technological change and globalization could be altered by political actions. We could restore and expand education, shifting resources from policies like mass incarceration to improving the human and social capital of all Americans. We could upgrade infrastructure, forgive mortgage and educational debt in the low-wage sector, reject the notion that private entities should replace democratic government in directing society, and focus on embracing an integrated American population. We could tax not only the income of the rich, but also their capital.
The cost of not doing these things, Temin warns, is incalculably high, and even the rich will end up paying for it.
“Look at the movie Hidden Figures,” he says. “It recounts a very dramatic story about three African-American women condemned to have a life of not being paid very well teaching in black colleges, and yet their fates changed when they were tapped by NASA to contribute to space exploration. Today we are losing the ability to find people like that. We have a structure that predetermines winners and losers. We are not getting the benefits of all the people who could contribute to the growth of the economy, to advances in medicine or science which could improve the quality of life for everyone — including some of the rich people.”
Along with Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the Twenty-First Century examines historical and modern inequality, Temin’s book has provided a giant red flag, illustrating a trajectory that will continue to accelerate as long as the 20 percent in the FTE sector are permitted to operate a country within America’s borders solely for themselves at the expense of the majority. Without a robust middle class, America is not only reverting to developing-country status, it is increasingly ripe for serious social turmoil that has not been seen in generations.
A dual economy has separated America from the idea of what most of us thought the country was meant to be.
By Bryan Dyne
22 April 2017
Hundreds of thousands of scientists, researchers, workers and youth are poised to participate in today’s “March for Science.” The main rally will take place in Washington, DC, with sister demonstrations and marches taking place in more than 600 locations across the world, involving people in at least 130 countries and encompassing six continents. It is slated to be the world’s largest pro-science demonstration to date.
The initial impulse for the march arose when the Trump administration deleted all references to climate change from the official White House web site minutes after Trump’s inauguration. Scientists across the United States saw this as the opening salvo in a much broader attack on science generally, leading to the creation of the March for Science Facebook group calling for a demonstration in Washington, DC, mirroring the protests against the Trump administration before, during and in the weeks following Trump’s first days as president.
More broadly, the March for Science reflects the general anti-Trump sentiment in the majority of the US and world’s population. The fact that the Facebook group has attracted more than 830,000 members shows just how many people, both scientists and non-scientists from all corners of the globe, are seeking an avenue to oppose the Trump administration and its reactionary policies.
One measure of this is the fact that the march has been endorsed by virtually every US organization with an orientation towards science and several international scientific institutions, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The Planetary Society, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The notable exceptions are endorsements from the official scientific agencies of various governments, such as ESA or NASA, though no doubt individuals from these organizations support and will be participating in the marches.
The event is being led by three honorary co-chairs, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” and Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, all of whom have been involved on some level as advocates for science in the political arena. Dr. Hanna-Attisha fought to expose lead poisoning in Flint, Bill Nye has repeatedly spoken out against climate change deniers and Dr. Villa-Komaroff pioneered the field of biotechnology.
Despite this, however, and despite the anti-Trump origins of the March for Science, the organizers have taken great pains to avoid any discussions of the anti-science policies of various Trump administration officials, from EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry to Trump himself. No mention has been made of the policies that allow for the destruction of the environment, attacks on public education or various forms of censorship that scientists in the US and internationally often face, much less the increasing danger of nuclear war and the existential threat that this poses to all life on Earth.
These limitations are summed up in the declaration that attacks on science “are not a partisan issue.” While the mission statement for the March for Science correctly notes that science has been attacked by both Republicans and Democrats, it does not fully explain the inherently political nature of this question.
This is particularly striking when one considers that one of the three honorary co-chairs for the event is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Flint Hurley Medical Center’s pediatric residency program, and the person who first revealed the doubling and tripling of lead in the blood of Flint children since April 2014. The science behind lead poisoning has been understood for decades, particularly the potentially deadly effect it has, especially on children.
This has become an intensely political issue for the residents of Flint, who are outraged over the fact that this problem was known to city and state officials but ignored by state appointed Emergency Manager Darnell Earley to slash city operating costs in order to pay city debts to Wall Street banks. Dr. Hanna-Attisha herself was attacked by city and state officials for tampering with the data even as residents were becoming ill and dying.
The forces that suppressed the lead poisoning data in Flint can trace their political heritage to those that have denied the dangers of nuclear winter for nearly four decades, those that attacked the theory of evolution during the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, and even as far back as the reactionary methods used to suppress Copernicus’ idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun. In every one of these cases, the scientists threatened material and political interests and were forcefully attacked.
The challenge for those participating in today’s march is not merely the “celebration of science,” but of connecting the attacks on science to the broader attacks on all progressive aspects of modern society by capitalism, a social and economic system in which all human activity is subordinated to the profit motive. As such, scientists and their supporters must connect the defense of science to the struggle of the most progressive social force in society, the working class, against the corporate elite.
There is a critical scene in Shattered, the new behind-the-scenes campaign diary by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, in which staffers in the Hillary Clinton campaign begin to bicker with one another. At the end of Chapter One, which is entirely about that campaign’s exhausting and fruitless search for a plausible explanation for why Hillary was running, writers Allen and Parnes talk about the infighting problem.
“All of the jockeying might have been all right, but for a root problem that confounded everyone on the campaign and outside it,” they wrote. “Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.”
Allen and Parnes here quoted a Clinton aide who jokingly summed up Clinton’s real motivation:
“I would have had a reason for running,” one of her top aides said, “or I wouldn’t have run.”
The beleaguered Clinton staff spent the better part of two years trying to roll this insane tautology – “I have a reason for running because no one runs without a reason” – into the White House. It was a Beltway take on the classic Descartes formulation: “I seek re-election, therefore I am… seeking re-election.”
Shattered is sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign who were and are deeply loyal to Clinton. Yet those sources tell of a campaign that spent nearly two years paralyzed by simple existential questions: Why are we running? What do we stand for?
If you’re wondering what might be the point of rehashing this now, the responsibility for opposing Donald Trump going forward still rests with the (mostly anonymous) voices described in this book.
What Allen and Parnes captured in Shattered was a far more revealing portrait of the Democratic Party intelligentsia than, say, the WikiLeaks dumps. And while the book is profoundly unflattering to Hillary Clinton, the problem it describes really has nothing to do with Secretary Clinton.
The real protagonist of this book is a Washington political establishment that has lost the ability to explain itself or its motives to people outside the Beltway.
In fact, it shines through in the book that the voters’ need to understand why this or that person is running for office is viewed in Washington as little more than an annoying problem.
In the Clinton run, that problem became such a millstone around the neck of the campaign that staffers began to flirt with the idea of sharing the uninspiring truth with voters. Stumped for months by how to explain why their candidate wanted to be president, Clinton staffers began toying with the idea of seeing how “Because it’s her turn” might fly as a public rallying cry.
This passage describes the mood inside the campaign early in the Iowa race (emphasis mine):
“There wasn’t a real clear sense of why she was in it. Minus that, people want to assign their own motivations – at the very best, a politician who thinks it’s her turn,” one campaign staffer said. “It was true and earnest, but also received well. We were talking to Democrats, who largely didn’t think she was evil.”
Our own voters “largely” don’t think your real reason for running for president is evil qualified as good news in this book. The book is filled with similar scenes of brutal unintentional comedy.
In May of 2015, as Hillary was planning her first major TV interview – an address the campaign hoped would put to rest criticism Hillary was avoiding the press over the burgeoning email scandal – communications chief Jennifer Palmieri asked Huma Abedin to ask Hillary who she wanted to conduct the interview. (There are a lot of these games of “telephone” in the book, as only a tiny group of people had access to the increasingly secretive candidate.)
The answer that came back was that Hillary wanted to do the interview with “Brianna.” Palmieri took this to mean CNN’s Brianna Keilar, and worked to set up the interview, which aired on July 7th of that year.
Unfortunately, Keilar was not particularly gentle in her conduct of the interview. Among other things, she asked Hillary questions like, “Would you vote for someone you didn’t trust?” An aide describes Hillary as “staring daggers” at Keilar. Internally, the interview was viewed as a disaster.
It turns out now it was all a mistake. Hillary had not wanted Brianna Keilar as an interviewer, but Bianna Golodryga of Yahoo! News, an excellent interviewer in her own right, but also one who happens to be the spouse of longtime Clinton administration aide Peter Orszag.
This “I said lunch, not launch!” slapstick mishap underscored for the Clinton campaign the hazards of venturing one millimeter outside the circle of trust. In one early conference call with speechwriters, Clinton sounded reserved:
“Though she was speaking with a small group made up mostly of intimates, she sounded like she was addressing a roomful of supporters – inhibited by the concern that whatever she said might be leaked to the press.”
This traced back to 2008, a failed run that the Clintons had concluded was due to the disloyalty and treachery of staff and other Democrats. After that race, Hillary had aides create “loyalty scores” (from one for most loyal, to seven for most treacherous) for members of Congress. Bill Clinton since 2008 had “campaigned against some of the sevens” to “help knock them out of office,” apparently to purify the Dem ranks heading into 2016.
Beyond that, Hillary after 2008 conducted a unique autopsy of her failed campaign. This reportedly included personally going back and reading through the email messages of her staffers:
“She instructed a trusted aide to access the campaign’s server and download the messages sent and received by top staffers. … She believed her campaign had failed her – not the other way around – and she wanted ‘to see who was talking to who, who was leaking to who,’ said a source familiar with the operation.”
Some will say this Nixonesque prying into her staff’s communications will make complaints about leaked emails ring a little hollow.
Who knows about that. Reading your employees’ emails isn’t nearly the same as having an outsider leak them all over the world. Still, such a criticism would miss the point, which is that Hillary was looking in the wrong place for a reason for her 2008 loss. That she was convinced her staff was at fault makes sense, as Washington politicians tend to view everything through an insider lens.
Most don’t see elections as organic movements within populations of millions, but as dueling contests of “whip-smart” organizers who know how to get the cattle to vote the right way. If someone wins an election, the inevitable Beltway conclusion is that the winner had better puppeteers.
The Clinton campaign in 2016, for instance, never saw the Bernie Sanders campaign as being driven by millions of people who over the course of decades had become dissatisfied with the party. They instead saw one cheap stunt pulled by an illegitimate back-bencher, foolishness that would be ended if Sanders himself could somehow be removed.
“Bill and Hillary had wanted to put [Sanders] down like a junkyard dog early on,” Allen and Parnes wrote. The only reason they didn’t, they explained, was an irritating chance problem: Sanders “was liked,” which meant going negative would backfire.
Hillary had had the same problem with Barack Obama, with whom she and her husband had elected to go heavily negative in 2008, only to see that strategy go very wrong. “It boomeranged,” as it’s put in Shattered.
The Clinton campaign was convinced that Obama won in 2008 not because he was a better candidate, or buoyed by an electorate that was disgusted with the Iraq War. Obama won, they believed, because he had a better campaign operation – i.e., better Washingtonian puppeteers. In The Right Stuff terms, Obama’s Germans were better than Hillary’s Germans.
They were determined not to make the same mistake in 2016. Here, the thought process of campaign chief Robby Mook is described:
“Mook knew that Hillary viewed almost every early decision through a 2008 lens: she thought almost everything her own campaign had done was flawed and everything Obama’s had done was pristine.”
Since Obama had spent efficiently and Hillary in 2008 had not, this led to spending cutbacks in the 2016 race in crucial areas, including the hiring of outreach staff in states like Michigan. This led to a string of similarly insane self-defeating decisions. As the book puts it, the “obsession with efficiency had come at the cost of broad voter contact in states that would become important battlegrounds.”
If the ending to this story were anything other than Donald Trump being elected president, Shattered would be an awesome comedy, like a Kafka novel – a lunatic bureaucracy devouring itself. But since the ending is the opposite of funny, it will likely be consumed as a cautionary tale.
Shattered is what happens when political parties become too disconnected from their voters. Even if you think the election was stolen, any Democrat who reads this book will come away believing he or she belongs to a party stuck in a profound identity crisis. Trump or no Trump, the Democrats need therapy – and soon.
Our modern political climate has helped bolster the oldest conspiracy theory of all.
Photo Credit: PHB.cz (Richard Semik) / Shutterstock
Earlier this month, white nationalists found cause to rejoice. The culprit behind many of the bomb threats plaguing JCCs and Jewish schools around the country — a young American-Israeli man living in Ashkelon, in the south of Israel — was arrested. The teenager, apparently utilizing sophisticated identity-masking methods, was responsible for a yet-unknown but apparently large proportion of the bomb threats terrorizing toddlers, schoolchildren, and Jews at prayer, according to Israeli police.
For white nationalists like David Duke, the suspect’s religion was proof of a theory they had championed: that Jews, in a coordinated plot, had created the attacks to “get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda.” A popular meme, “Hey rabbi…watcha doin’?,” resurfaced: It depicts a hook-nosed Jewish stereotype spray-painting a swastika onto the wall of a synagogue. Reactions to the unlikely arrest further proved the durability, in a conspiratorial age, of the oldest conspiracy theory of all: anti-Semitism.
Defenders of Donald Trump viewed the arrest as a vindication of the president, whose few months in office have coincided with a striking rise in hate crimes. In a press briefing last week, Sean Spicer used the JCC bomb threat arrest to dismiss a question about an unrelated offense, urging the public not to “jump to conclusions” about the perpetrators of hate crimes — and stating that “the president was right.”
When asked in February about the steadily climbing number of anti-Semitic incidents during his time in office, including the bomb threats, President Trump had reportedly suggested that the Jewish community at large was behind the incidents.
“Sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad,” Trump said, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who was present at a meeting between Trump and state attorneys general.
It was this insinuation that Spicer claimed the arrest of a 19-year-old in Ashkelon had vindicated. But in his conversation with the attorneys general, Trump did not cite evidence from a months-long joint investigation between the F.B.I. and Israeli authorities that led to Ashkelon’s arrest. Nor would it be right to draw conclusions about the political motivations of a single, warped individual whose lawyer has stated that a brain tumor may have contributed to his alarming behavior. Moreover, most of the 330 incidents of anti-Semitic hate crime ProPublica has documented since January have been impossible to conduct remotely, such as the swastikas daubed on sidewalks and synagogues. The NYPD cites a 94% increase in anti-Semitic hate crime compared to this time last year; meanwhile, several high-profile incidents of cemetery vandalism — resulting in the toppling of hundreds of Jewish gravestones in Philadelphia and St. Louis — as yet have no confirmed culprits.
What is certain, however, is that Trump’s answer on anti-Semitism — positing, without citing evidence, a political plot — encapsulates his tendency to think conspiratorially. It’s a tendency he’s shown for years, before and throughout his presidential campaign and ascent to power, from birtherism to phantom wiretaps. But it manifests most clearly in the way he clings to falsehood, no matter how many times he is presented with fact. Trump has been a guest on InfoWars, Alex Jones’ notorious conspiracy-peddling radio show; he prefers the expostulations of 9/11 truther and ousted Fox News contributor Andrew Napolitano to those of his own Department of Justice. In the President’s mind, Ted Cruz’s dad helped kill JFK, Barack Obama literally founded ISIS, and the Jews, as a whole, are threatening their own kindergartens. (The tenacity of these beliefs was put on astonishing display in a recent interview with Time magazine.)
The mainstreaming of conspiratorial thinking and the rise in overt hostility towards Jews are intimately connected. As Alana Newhouse put it in Tablet Magazine, anti-Semitism is not a social prejudice against Jews. It has very little to do, Newhouse writes, with any individual’s distaste for perceived Jewish traits, or even antipathy towards specific Jews. Anti-Semitism in its classic sense is the belief that there is a malevolent entity behind the curtain, pulling the strings, and that that entity is a Jew.
“Racism is a prejudice, but it’s not rooted in conspiracy theory, as anti-Semitism is,” Deborah Lipstadt, a prominent scholar of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, told me in an interview last September. Anti-Semitism is present, too, in nearly every conspiracy-theory community; Lipstadt noted, for example, the outsize presence of the Mossad in “alternate” theories of 9/11. Even people from deeply marginal movements, like those who embrace Flat Earth Theory — the belief, as the name suggests, that the earth is really flat and NASA is a sinister fraud — frequently blame the Jews for their role in the “cover-up” of earth’s flatness. As one poster on the Flat Earth Society message board put it, space missions are “all lies…as you’d expect from a media/government/academia totally controlled by jews[sic].”
Trump’s campaign — and presidency — have played repeatedly into the hands of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. One infamous tweet juxtaposed Hillary Clinton, a Jewish star, and piles of cash. And a late-stage campaign ad depicted American Jews like Janet Yellen and George Soros as a narrator solemnly intoned about “trillions of dollars” in the hands of “global special interests.” Behind the anti-Semitic dog whistles lurked a braying pack of alt-right hounds who did not hesitate to savage Jewish critics and their supporters alike.
The notion that some malevolence lurks in Jewish singularity, that a refusal to assimilate is a cover for darker impulses, is an ancient one. In the Medieval era, Jews were said to have poisoned wells, to bake the blood of Christian children into matzahs. With the advent of industrialization, theories of Jewish malevolence grew broader and darker: 19th-century nationalists depicted Jews as inherently disloyal to their countries, their purported loyalty to the nebulous entity of “world Jewry” supplanting their loyalty to their own homelands. In the last century, Nazi cartoons depicted the Jew as an octopus encircling the globe, slimy tentacles smothering every continent. A 1940 Nazi film sought to cast this characterization as a timeless truth: It was called “The Eternal Jew.”
Last year, the term “fake news” came into prominence to describe a rash of false accounts, of dubious and possibly Russian origin, promulgated in the lead-up to the Presidential election. Since then, the term has boomeranged against its makers — and is frequently to be heard from a President openly hostile to the media. For Jews, however, the original “fake news” (also, incidentally, of Russian origin), dates back more than a century, to the 1903 publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the principal modern text of anti-Semitic conspiracy — and an object lesson in how difficult it is to debunk appealing falsehoods.
Top: Cover page from “Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. Bottom: poster from ‘The Eternal Jew.’ (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Protocols purported to be a record of a meeting between Jewish leaders, and was initially presented as the minutes of the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, in 1897. The text listed arenas of the modern world over which Jews sought to establish control — from banks to the press to modern states themselves, and their wars; the Elders’ plan would culminate in a totalistic Jewish domination of the world. After its original appearance in the Russian newspaper Znamya in 1903, it was translated into German and widely disseminated in 1920; it was presented to American audiences as The International Jew the same year. What is remarkable — and sadly illustrative — about the text was that its debunking was nearly simultaneous with its promulgation. In 1920 the Protocols were revealed to be a clumsy fake, largely plagiarized from a 19th-century French work of political satire, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. The Times of London ran a 1921 exposé; in 1924, a German-language debunking was published by journalist Benjamin Segel.
And yet Hitler used it extensively in his campaign to illustrate Jewish malevolence; so, too, did Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, in the United States. Forty-three years after the New York Herald first published its takedown of the Protocols, “The History of a Lie,” the Senate Judiciary Committee felt compelled to publish its own report, calling the work “A Fabricated ‘Historic’ Document” in 1964. But the work continues to be published all over the world, and is readily available online, to astound first-time readers who may feel as if the curtain is finally being lifted — the dark plot undergirding their unhappiness at last unveiled. The continual success of the Protocols is a stark illustration of the swift spread of alluring untruths, and the ways in which debunking fake news cannot curb its continual appeal.
Fake news — like conspiracy theories — can be immune to fact-based reproach. They resonate with devotees precisely because they contradict the consensus view of reality with which they are unhappy, and purport to vanquish defenders of the status quo.
Anti-Semitism is non-partisan. It exists both on the right and on the left (though leftist anti-Semites often sub in “Zionists” for “Jews”) lurking on the fringes, wherever counter-narratives to established truth are offered to eager listeners. (I am not conflating anti-Zionism, or harsh criticism of the Israeli government, with anti-Semitism; rather, I refer to those on the far left who are eager to explain how Zionists rig elections worldwide, and how global capitalism is shaped by Jewish greed and Rothschild gold.) In times that feel profoundly unstable, and in which the nature of reality is drawn into question by the executive branch of the American government itself, alternative explanations, with their sinister Soroses, are more appealing than ever.
For American Jews, many of whom have felt profound comfort and inclusion in the past half-century — and who have, in turn, shaped American culture in profound ways — the events of the past few months have been deeply unsettling. Warning knells sounded throughout a conspiracy-laced campaign, as Jewish journalists covering Trump faced unprecedented volumes of anti-Semitic abuse. But the two-fronted attack on preschools and cemeteries, children and the dead, coupled with swastika graffiti cropping up on street corners and synagogues, have left a sense of profound unease in their wake. (“Are Jews White?” asked a December headline in the Atlantic, a potent summation of these fears.)
A popular European story in the 15th century told the tale of the “Wandering Jew,” an immortal Jerusalem shoemaker cursed to wander from place to place for eternity. The term became a metonym for the Jewish people themselves— illustrative of both their immortality and the impermanence of their residence in any one country. While this was — and continues to be — cast as a malevolent Jewish trait, the central irony is that that impermanence is caused by the rise of prejudice against a minority that has retained its separateness, and its traditions, for millennia. The postwar embrace of Jews in America felt giddy, complete, perhaps eternal. And yet thousands of Jews facing hate crimes across the country have been driven to question that permanence this year.
In an era in which reality itself is in dispute, can America’s Jews dodge the rise of the most enduring conspiracy theory of all?