2020-01-29 19:03:05 UTC
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The Boston Globe
Arguable - with Jeff Jacoby
Monday, January 27, 2020
Notes from a survivor's son
“Children of Holocaust survivors,” a friend once said to me, “always know
where their passport is.”
I don’t know whether that statement is categorically true, but I took it to
be shorthand for a broader point: Jews raised by parents who lived through
the Nazi genocide never take their safety entirely for granted. If they are
blessed to live in a free and tolerant country like the United States, they
might be confident that “it can never happen here” — but that confidence
doesn’t amount to absolute certainty. At some level, their parents’
experience in Nazi Europe will have shaped their deepest beliefs about their
own society and their place in it.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death
camp, and the occasion has spurred a great deal of coverage about that place
of pure evil, and the larger Holocaust of which it was just a fraction. I
have a column on the subject in today’s Boston Globe , which I hope you will
read, but I wanted to write here on a theme I have never directly addressed
before: How has my perspective been formed by my identity as a survivor’s
I can barely remember a time when I didn’t know that my father’s family was
wiped out by the Nazis. How I first came to learn what had befallen them, I
don’t know. I’m sure it wasn’t from my father, since it wasn’t something he
spoke about when I was very young. Yet I clearly recall looking at books
with photographs from the Nazi era and understanding that they were
connected to my own family history. I have a vivid memory of writing
“Hitler” on the bottom of my shoe in school when I was 7 or 8 years old, in
order to scuff out his name as I walked.
So awareness of the Holocaust has been a constant in my life. On a number of
occasions over the years I have written and spoken about my father’s
experience. It would be strange indeed if it hadn’t influenced my worldview
and political opinions. But until now I’ve never tried to summarize that
influence in words. Here is a first attempt.
Growing up with a father who was a Holocaust survivor — and living in a
community that was home to many other survivors — taught me to be deeply
wary of a too-powerful government. My strong libertarian, small-government
streak is rooted in the knowledge that the immense horror and evil of the
Holocaust were engineered by a totalitarian government with unchecked power.
I couldn’t disagree more strongly with the serene view that “government is
simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” The
stronger the government, the more likely it is to disregard what citizens
“choose to do,” and to force them instead to bow to the will of the rulers.
Power tends to corrupt, Lord Acton wrote. The Holocaust shows how black and
pitiless the corruption of a powerful state can become. Some government is
necessary. Too much is lethal.
Also lethal, in my view, is the glorification of politicians . The newsreel
footage of Adolf Hitler addressing those massive, adoring, “Sieg Heil”-ing
rallies left me with an indelible revulsion for mass rallies generally, and
the adoration of political figures in particular. Before the Nazis came to
power, most people would have thought it inconceivable that sober,
civilized, educated Germans could turn en masse to a hate-spewing demagogue,
but turn they did and in staggering numbers. There is an intoxicating
derangement in crowds that creeps me out. I have never been able to see
images of mass rallies — even rallies for causes I admire, like the
anti-China resistance in Hong Kong, or for causes of no real importance,
like the vast Duck Boat throngs when a sports team wins a championship —
without a sense of foreboding. I shudder when I see citizens flock together
by the tens of thousands, screaming themselves hoarse in support of a
Closely related to that sentiment is my conviction that decency is the most
important criterion in a political leader. Of course I want public officials
who have sound views on the economy and foreign policy, on national defense
and criminal justice. But above and beyond that, I want public officials who
are reasonably honest and moral. The Third Reich stands as the ultimate
example of what can happen when individuals of evil character come to power.
Nothing in America’s experience, thank God, has ever approached Hitler’s
degree of malignance. But politics in this country is increasingly marked by
a blithe disregard, even disdain, for good character. During Bill Clinton’s
presidency, liberals and Democrats were willing to excuse odious and
shameless behavior because the president supported policies they liked. The
depravity of the Clinton years is now being exceeded under Donald Trump:
Countless conservatives and Republicans have decided that character is
irrelevant as long as the economy stays strong and judges they like are
appointed to the bench.
There is an intoxicating derangement in massive crowds that always creeps me
My father’s family was annihilated by a regime that was obsessed with race.
Nazi Germany regarded “Aryans” as the highest and purest race and Jews as
the lowest and dirtiest. From that mindset came racial purity laws and
concentration camps and the extermination of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews. As
the child of a Holocaust survivor, I believe that racial categories are
fundamentally illegitimate . I hate the labeling and sorting of Americans by
race. I’ve always thought the only right approach to racial issues is the
one put into words by Justice John Harlan, the lone dissenter in Plessy v.
Ferguson : “Our Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates
classes among citizens.” As a matter of biology, racial distinctions are
irrelevant — indeed, nonexistent. They’re a social construct, not a genetic
reality. They contribute no more to “diversity” than right- and
left-handedness do. I find it heartbreaking that, 50 years after the civil
rights movement, America’s most powerful institutions — media, academia,
business — are becoming more race-obsessed than ever.
My lifelong hatred for what the Nazis did to Germany and Europe helps
explain my instinctive resistance to political movements that seek to compel
radical social transformations . There may be good arguments in favor of
coercing society to abandon fossil fuels, or to eliminate religion from the
public square, or to accept the existence of more than two genders. But it
alarms me when those with power force such sweeping changes on the public,
using intimidation, sanctions, and government power — not persuasion — to
get their way. I tend to think that most social change should come gradually
and organically. Cultural or political ideologues who resort instead to
bullying make me flash back to the ideologues who caused such devastation in
the 1930s and '40s.
Finally, growing up as the son of a Holocaust survivor has made it
impossible for me not to know that human goodness is fragile . It takes
training and practice. The temptation to do evil to others, or to look the
other way when evil is being done, can be powerful. Civility and
civilization are only thin veneers, stretched like a bandage over a bleeding
wound. It is scary how easily that bandage can be pulled off, exposing the
gore underneath. It happened in the middle of Europe in the middle of the
20th century, and the consequences were diabolical. Those consequences, for
better or for worse, have haunted and molded me all my life.
Don’t want a criminal for a tenant? Too bad
Oakland, Calif., last week became the first city in California to make it
illegal for landlords to run criminal background checks on prospective
tenants. On Tuesday, city councilors voted to bar property owners from
turning away would-be renters because they have a criminal offense — or
multiple criminal offenses — on their record.
The vote was unanimous. The measure was reportedly backed by Representative
Barbara Lee, the congresswoman from Oakland. “It’s past time we put an end
to the open discrimination against people with criminal records,” she was
quoted as saying. Come again? Even for the Bay Area, that seems a little
crazy. But there is now an active movement promoting the idea that just as
landlords cannot turn potential tenants down because of their race or
religion, they should not be allowed to do so because they were in prison.
The Oakland ordinance is more extreme than a “guidance ” issued by the
Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration.
In April 2016, HUD let it be known that any landlord with a blanket policy
of not renting to people with criminal convictions on their record would be
deemed discrimination on the basis of race or national origin. The theory
was that because blacks and Hispanics commit crimes and go to prison at much
higher rates than whites, a policy of automatically rejecting applicants
with a criminal past would have a “disparate impact” on different racial
groups. Since not all convictions are alike, HUD argued, not everyone with a
criminal record would be a risky tenant.
Certainly it is true that not all ex-cons are alike. As I wrote at the time,
“it isn’t hard to find examples of former convicts who long ago learned
their lesson and went straight, yet find it difficult to secure housing
because background checks always flag their old offenses.” There is no
reason officials shouldn’t remind landlords of that fact, cautioning them
not to paint with too broad a brush, and to remember that many former
prisoners are now law-abiding and peaceable.
But like HUD under Obama, Oakland isn’t content to counsel prudence. Instead
it condemns any landlord that chooses not to rent to ex-cons as, in essence,
a bigot. That’s an outrageous accusation. And it’s outrageously unfair to
the people with the most to lose: landlords whose livelihood and savings are
bound up in the apartments they rent out. Often those apartments are in
buildings bought after years of hard work and frugal living — buildings the
landlords take pride in maintaining and in keeping clean, comfortable, and
attractive. Property owners have a far greater stake than Oakland city
councilors do in screening tenants wisely and approving only residents who
won’t jeopardize their buildings' safety or appeal. Indeed, one councilor
conceded that he supports the measure because his own son is in prison, and
will benefit from the new ordinance upon his release.
Oakland has a high incarceration rate, and former prisoners, shunned by
landlords, have sometimes struggled to find a place to live. That’s a
legitimate concern. But surely it is unjust to ride roughshod over the
rights of people who have done nothing wrong in order to advance the
interests of people who have.
Freedom of association is a fundamental human right. The vitality of our
economic life depends on it. A landlord who rejects tenants with a criminal
past may not always end up making the wisest choice. But why should anyone
but the landlord be entitled to make that choice? Granted, a property owner
with a standing rule against renting to former prisoners may miss out on
some potentially wonderful tenants — tenants that another property owner,
less inflexible or more savvy, is free to snap up. But that’s none of the
government’s business. Absent evidence of illegal racial discrimination, the
government has no excuse to interfere.
Besides, a no-criminal-record rule is not unreasonable. A potential tenant’s
criminal record often is a cause for concern. Recidivism rates in the United
States are sky-high . Former lawbreakers are often future lawbreakers: More
than 40% of offenders return to prison within three years of their release.
Which suggest that a property owner with a no-convicts rule is not being
irrational, only cautious. And caution shouldn’t be illegal, even in the Bay
‘The spirit which is not too sure that it is right’
Satirist P.J. O'Rourke (left) and Judge Learned Hand
In a video conference Thursday with Boston Globe writers and editors,
Senator Elizabeth Warren was as confident, adamant, and vocal as she always
is. Whatever she was asked about — from the deportation of an Iranian
student to the “corruption” of campaign finance to the economic condition of
working-class Americans to the deployment of US troops in Europe — she
answered with her usual polished and forceful certainty. Her demeanor was
exactly what it has been on the campaign trail and in the TV debates:
assured, tenacious, unbending.
Which, for the most part, is true of the other candidates in the Democratic
race as well (and of the incumbent president they hope to unseat). Not all
of them have released quite as many written plans as Warren has — 70 at last
count — but all of them are absolutely sure they know what America needs,
and are quite convinced that they are the ones to deliver it.
On the same day Warren met with the Globe, the journalist and wit P.J. O’Rourke
had a column in the Washington Post that I wish every candidate — and for
that matter, every voter — would read. Like all of O’Rourke’s writing, it
delivered a critical message in a sardonic manner.
“What this country needs is fewer people who know what this country needs,”
he began. “Our nation faces a multitude of puzzling, complex and abstruse
problems. Most Americans aren’t sure what to do about them. But we lack
politicians with the courage to say, ‘I’m not sure what to do about them
America is being rocked, he said, by social changes “so swift and profound
that they’d send even the best cultural anthropologist fleeing.” No one can
possibly have all, or even most, of the answers to this country’s thorny
questions. Yet none of the candidates is willing to say so.
It’s time for the rise of the Extreme Moderate. Power to the far middle! Let’s
bring the Wishy and the Washy back together, along with the Namby and the
Pamby, and the Milque and the Toast. . . .
We may be on different sides of the fence, but let’s make that fence top
wider and better padded and go sit on it. Then, no matter if I’m of
conservative ilk and you’re of liberal stripe, we can have a neighborly
Should the government be Laissez? Should the government be Faire?
We’re all in favor of peace, but when the wolf dwells with the lamb and the
leopard lies down with the kid, how often do we replace those sheep and
O’Rourke plays it for laughs, but the point he makes in 2020 — “We need a
political system that isn’t so darn sure of itself” — echoes a famous speech
delivered a lifetime ago by Judge Learned Hand, one of the most renowned and
respected jurists in US history. In 1944, just two weeks before D-Day, Judge
Hand addressed a giant crowd assembled at New York’s Central Park for “I Am
an American” Day. To a vast audience that included tens of thousands of
newly naturalized citizens, he spoke about “ The Spirit of Liberty,”
explaining that the essence of liberty was not to be found in constitutions,
laws, or courts, but “in the hearts of men and women.”
That spirit does not consist, he said, in unwavering certitude:
What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you
my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that
it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand
the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which
weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.
“The spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” Does any of that spirit
remain in America? Is there any candidate for president — or any other
office — who will channel Learned Hand? I think I could happily vote for a
candidate who had the honesty and humility to say “I’m not sure.” But it’s
been a long time since anyone ran for president who was humble enough to
deserve the job.
What Clayton Christensen believed
Out of the blue one day in 2009, I received a call from Clayton Christensen,
the legendary Harvard Business School professor and author of The Innovator’s
Dilemma , one of the most important, paradigm-shifting books on management
ever written. He had been reading my columns, he said, and wanted to meet.
Could I come over to Harvard to pay him a visit? I accepted with alacrity. I
wasn’t going to pass up the chance to sit and schmooze with someone
described as not only “the most influential business thinker on Earth,” but
also “ the nicest man ever to lecture at Harvard.”
It was splendid to meet him, and our conversation was stimulating and
illuminating. We talked about Harvard and about his famous theory on
“disruptive innovation” — he gave me an impromptu tutorial, which he
illustrated with sketches on a notepad as he spoke. He explained to me what
he had discovered about the “job” of a McDonald’s milkshake . He asked me
about the Boston Globe and my experience of the changing newspaper business.
But more than we talked shop, we talked about family and values, about his
Mormon faith and my commitment to Judaism. Before I left, he told me not to
hesitate to get in touch if I ever thought he could be helpful. A few weeks
later, I was asked to be the master of ceremonies for a dinner at which he
was to receive a “Distinguished Citizen Award.”
“The brand that the Christensens are known for is kindness.”
Last week, Clay Christensen died of leukemia. He was just 67, and it came as
a shock to read of his death. I had known he was ill; I hadn’t known it was
fatal. The obituaries focused not just on his glittering resume, but on his
integrity and passion for helping others. The Wall Street Journal recounted
one occasion on which he convened a family meeting when one of his children
was accused of shoving another child in school. That kind of behavior couldn’t
be tolerated, he told his child, not just because it was wrong, but because
it went against the family’s brand: “The brand that the Christensens are
known for is kindness.”
To prepare for that long-ago dinner at which I was the MC, I spent time
reading some of Clay Christensen’s writing. One was his essay “Why I Belong,
and Why I Believe .” It is an intensely religious piece of writing by a man
whose faith — a faith profoundly different from my own — was at the core of
his brilliant and accomplished life. It was one of the most inspiring and
wonderful things I had ever read, and I said so at the dinner. I’ve just
re-read the essay and found it, if anything, even more uplifting and
affecting than I remembered. Click the link and take 10 minutes to read it
for yourself. You won’t regret doing so.
What an extraordinary man. What a life well lived. RIP.
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My column on Wednesday expressed my grudging respect for the clarity and
authority with which Queen Elizabeth has handled the crisis triggered when
Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, declared their intention to “step
back” from the royal family. I noted that I’m a staunch, small-r republican
who generally thinks that in the 21st century monarchies are an outlandish
anachronism. Yet I couldn’t deny that the 93-year-old Queen rose to the
occasion with impressive — dare I say regal? — decisiveness, defusing a
bombshell whose fallout could have been ugly and painful. I believe this was
the first column I ever wrote to praise a royal.
Last Sunday I wrote about Joe Biden’s persistent claim that he stopped
supporting the war in Iraq “from the very moment” it started. Not true:
Biden, like most Democrats — and most Americans — in 2002 and 2003, was
firmly in favor of going to war to topple Saddam Hussein. As an influential
senator (Biden chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), he continued
to express his support publicly for months after the war began. He ought to
have the integrity to say so now — not only because it is true, but because
the war against Saddam was entirely justified.