Occupy Wall Street: Preoccupied with PC Posturing

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-8-11

Last week, I occupied Wall Street. Okay, I only jogged around Zuccotti Park, and talked to some people. I figure, though, that if tent encampments housing hundreds of people popping up here and there can be exaggerated into a mass movement that reporters claim has changed the American conversation, I can turn my short visit into an “occupation.”

The true story about “Occupy Wall Street” is how preoccupied the media is with a marginal movement. In 1962, the historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to describe made-for-the-cameras events, which barely stand alone without the klieg-light-induced boost. Similarly, this movement is more of a con than a conquest of capitalism, more of a charade than a parade of reforming game-changers. Their slogan, “we are the 99 percent,” is inaccurate – more like .0000000009 percent.

When I visited, at 8:30 AM one morning, and saw masters-of-the-universe in their powersuits photographing the squatters, I wanted to shout, “Turn around! You, the supposed bystanders, the passers-by, are the real story.” Wandering around Wall Street on a weekday morning thousands of people stream by, going to work. Their energy, their diverse styles, their different tasks, their props – wired into their iPods, armed with their Starbucks – tell the real story of modern America. Passing the cops and the drivers, the security guards and the security analysts, the secretaries and the stock brokers, the real people who make the city work, I felt they would save America. Amid the many worker-bees paying their bills, digging out of debt, sending their kids to college, are the few queen bees, the future Steve Jobses working maniacally to innovate, rather than “chilling” in a park.

There’s an awkward sociological reality to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The “occupy” tent encampments’ free food, available tents and the cool buzz of the mostly young slacker-protestors have attracted street people. Homeless people have rights, too, of course. But many are mentally ill. They enhance the impression of marginality, injecting an air of randomness as well. At “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy DC” at McPherson Square in Washington, DC, which I also visited, the real victims of this troubling, lingering recession seemed missing – the single moms trying to feed two or three kids on Walmartized jobs, meaning minimal wages with artificially limited hours to ensure no benefits; the middle-aged, once-middle-class dads who lost their jobs and are not even being considered for others because they are too experienced, too expensive, and at the age of forty plus, too old, no matter how fit; the retirees who could live off interest rates of four and five percent but suffer when they hover between zero and two percent.

“Occupy Wall Street’s” lack of focus also weakens it. We know what the movements for feminism, environmentalism, pro-life, pro-choice, free Palestine, or Zionism are about. These protestors barely know what they are against and have no idea what they stand for. Their answer to this FAQ – frequently asked question — is to affirm 1. “We must be accountable to ourselves” and 2. “Our government must be accountable to us and corporations must be accountable to the government.” I agree. Now what?

So far, the handbills distributed offer a smorgasbord of lefty concerns. It’s green. It’s queer. It’s very, very PC – politically correct. It’s a politics of postures and gestures more than one of policies and ideas. Occupy DC lists 16 “guidelines” starting with: “Respect each other, each other’s stuff and space.” It makes the important, poignant point, rule number 5, that “we consider working class police officers part of the 99%,” so they are not instinctively seen as the enemy. Rule number 10 is “Don’t assume anyone’s gender. When possible go with gender-neutral pronouns and nouns such as friend/comrade instead of brother/sister.” The movement often seems like those free-associating, earnest, PC political message boards, that sprout like weeds on campuses, brought to life – only garbed in layers of ill-fitting clothing and reeking of body odor.

Alas, Jews, and especially Zionists, do not make it onto the lengthy list of protected groups – insulated from any criticism — by the prevailing PC sensibility. It’s unfair to accuse OWS of anti-Semitism. The movement is too diffuse to turn a few errant signs or some offensive loudmouths into a statement. But at Occupy DC, the African-American guy who was ranting about the 9/11 conspiracy, inevitably, predictably, denounced Zionists, their power, their “apartheid” state, and the “Uncle Tom in the White House” who supports Israel. I am quite sure, that in this same special space which encourages gender-neutral pronouns, the friends/comrades would not tolerate pejorative language about any other group, or a racist slurring of President Barack Obama’s name in any other context. Yet this has emerged as the great leftist blind spot — insensitivity about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism too often gets a free pass.

In DC, when I spoke to an organizer, he asked me where I was from. “Jerusalem” I answered – curious to see his response. He smiled. “You guys had those great protests,” he said, “sorry to hear how expensive housing is.” “Yes,” I responded, “those protests had a huge middle class base” –he insisted ODC did too.

This interaction made me doubly proud. After years of scarring from the delegitimization battles, it was nice to see Israel inspiring leftists again. And, yes, Israel’s protest movement also has to figure out Act 2, to solve that difficult post-Cold War conundrum of how we develop a thriving capitalist economy with some seichel, some social justice, some soul without socialism. But Israel’s protests are not pseudo-events. They are broad, middle-class, open, inviting, mainstream, real – and politically formidable – something Occupy Wall Street, despite all the media hype, has yet to become.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book, is “The History of American Presidential Elections.”giltroy@gmail.com

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Social protests – a Zionist success, failure

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-16-11

Just as protesters have been wise to wave the Israeli flag, they should brandish tracts from the Zionist library, demonstrating their wisdom.

Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg

Israel’s social protests reflect two great failures for modern Zionism – and one extraordinary success. The success was demonstrated Sunday night when the Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu chose to respond to the protests, and Professor Manuel Trajtenberg of Tel Aviv University visited a Tel Aviv tent city. As a regular reader of the western media, I know what should have happened. I have been reading for years about how violent, sick and racist Israeli society is. Reading how the New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen, among others, eagerly linked the “Israeli summer” with “the Arab Spring” and the European riots, I expected the belligerent Israelis to pummel the professor, mobbing him, maybe robbing him too, British style, if they did not kill him.

Instead, the professor and the protesters exchanged views peacefully. “I can only help you do it,” Trajentberg said, acknowledging the protesters’ power.

The journalistic rush to globalize all these protests overlooked the Israeli exception. Israeli crowds, while passionate, have been peaceful. This civility is a Zionist achievement.

Israel remains an intimate and connected collective. People know one another, engage with one another, feel accountable to one another. Even Tel Aviv often has a small-town-feel. The protests – and the government response – feel familial, with the family of protesters including Beduin, Palestinians and Druse, not just Jews.

Israel’s Zionist founders were utopian; they dreamed of social perfection. Nevertheless, Israel’s creation resulted from pragmatism balancing out utopianism.

The society of Ein Breira, we have no choice, brought to fruition the movement of Im Tirzu Ein Zo Aggadah, Theodor Herzl’s saying that if you will it, it is not a dream.

The bad news for modern Zionism is that these protests took place at all. The Zionist founders, be they capitalists like Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or socialists like A.D. Gordon and Ber Borochov, shared a commitment to the dignity of all individuals. Today’s widening gap between rich and poor would have dismayed them. Today’s social pathologies would have shocked them. And today’s political paralysis, material excess and cultural passivity would have appalled them.

The early Zionists were can-do idealists, committed to building a better world, not just retreating into consumption cocoons or wallowing in self-pity.

This, therefore, is the devastating news for Zionism – that so few of the social protesters or media commentators see either the Zionist movement or Zionist ideology as helpful in achieving the social change the protesters demand. Just as Diaspora Zionists must learn that Zionism is about more than defending Israel when it’s attacked, Israeli Zionists must learn that Zionism is about perfecting the state, not just establishing it. Alas now, Zionism risks irrelevance in Israel, its great achievement.

Of course, in many ways this is a twenty-first century socioeconomic conundrum, far beyond nineteenthcentury Zionist theorizing. All western democracies struggle with what Americans call the work force’s Walmartization.

Since the 1830s, the American democratic miracle, which culminated in the post-World War II creation of the first mass middle-class civilization, relied on thriving factories and corporations paying respectable wages. This social pyramid brought cultural and political stability too. Modern hi-tech economies use part-time workers and cheap labor, resulting in economic and political instability. At the same time, consumerism and libertine selfishness have undermined cultural values and collective commitment.

In the twentieth century, socialism and communism failed even more spectacularly than did untrammeled capitalism, usually yielding flaccid economies and burdensome bureaucracies. Sometimes, totalitarian dictatorships resulted.

The cautionary tales must be remembered as we seek a more equitable distribution, a more humane capitalism.

Zionism can help by offering a collectivist counterweight rooted in nationalism and individual dignity rather than socialism or welfare statism. Israel can lead the world in pioneering new social solutions rooted in an enduring love of freedom, appreciation of markets and a sense of collective responsibility.

Thanks to Zionism, Israel already has its share of humane capitalists. Reading author Saul Singer’s latest writings, it becomes clear that the co-author of Start-Up Nation wants Israel to be a Values Nation, believing that the same ingenuity that made Israel a hi-tech center can make it a model society. Listening to developer David Azrieli, it emerges that this master builder invested in Israel when others would not because he believed in Israelis’ potential, and his entrepreneurial Zionism is about normalizing the country economically without sacrificing core values.

Watching the hi-tech guru Yossi Vardi pour resources and love into the Bialik- Rogozin School in Tel Aviv for children of migrant workers, it appears that there are many ways for those who have succeeded to reinvest in the community.

Traditional Zionism may not have the recipe for the twenty-first century that capitalist democracies need, but a Zionist sensibility can shape the Third-Way approach Professor Trajtenberg wants to help the protesters find. Zionism is about a sense of responsibility for one another. Zionism is about seeking social justice. Zionism is about instilling meaning, idealism and ethics into individual lives and the collective national enterprise. Zionism is about trying to perfect the Jewish state, not just establish it. Zionism is about bringing the best of Jewish values and the best of Western ideas into the altneuland, the old new land. And Zionism is about pioneering creative, cutting-edge solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Just as the protesters have been wise to wave the Israeli flag, demonstrating their patriotism, they should brandish some tracts from the Zionist library, demonstrating their wisdom.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman research fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

Education cuts are hasty and shortsighted

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-10-09


In July, 2007, amid much fanfare, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education became the Centre for Enhancement of Jewish Education, widely called the Mercaz – Hebrew for “centre.”“The name says what the priorities are,” the Mercaz chair Lou Greenbaum exulted. This spring, less than two years later and amid much less fanfare, the Mercaz was abruptly downsized and thus marginalized, shedding at least 10 full-time jobs.

What happened in Toronto is happening throughout the Jewish world. The last two decades’ gains in Jewish education and identity-building are disappearing as quickly as people’s net worths have plummeted. The legendary Boston Board of Jewish Education recently lost 80 per cent of its funding and will likely close. Birthright Israel, perhaps the most successful Jewish program of the 21st century, has turned away thousands of applicants this year because of limited funds.

These cutbacks are dangerous. Capitalism is cyclical – economic busts are usually followed by economic booms – but education and identity-building are more linear. Opportunities missed are rarely recovered. Children uneducated frequently remain ignorant. Young people turned off are rarely turned back on. Jewish leaders in Toronto and elsewhere can’t afford to be shortsighted. We must continue investing in education and outreach programs that foster Jewish pride and knowledge.

During the last two decades, Jewish education and identity-building boomed. Philanthropic visionaries such as Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman made funding Israel trips, initiating teen programs, and even building Jewish day schools sexy.

They understood – as did many other generous donors and passionate professionals – that anti-Semitism doesn’t pose the greatest threat to this generation of thoroughly North Americanized Jews that it did to the immigrant generation. In fact, Jews today risked being loved to death by intermarriage, especially after having been bored to tears by so many initial encounters in synagogues, Jewish schools, and youth groups. The writer Leon Wieseltier adds that this generation’s great crime is not intermarriage but ignorance – most are extremely educated in secular subjects and appallingly uninformed Jewishly.

These insights – backed by sobering demographic studies – galvanized the community. Birthright Israel, which has brought more than 120,000 18-to-26-year-olds on free 10-day trips to Israel, has been the flagship program, generating the most buzz. But Birthright’s success reflected a broader reorientation toward education and identity building, accompanied by massive investments in teachers, teacher training, curricula, programs, infrastructure and central educational agencies such as the Mercaz.

I recall that in Montreal, as we planned our own massive, ambitious “Gen J” program to invest in our kids’ future, Toronto’s 2007 launch of the Mercaz inspired us – and made us feel a tad inadequate. We wondered whether our community could mobilize similar support for Jewish education. At the risk of feeding the Toronto-Montreal rivalry – although all of us should compete regarding who cares most about Jewish education and identity – so far Montreal has kept Jewish education front and centre, despite the economic downturn.

In fairness, Toronto continues to lead North America in providing tuition assistance, fostering quality Jewish day schools, and identity building. Still, shrinking the Mercaz is a big blow. Boards of Jewish education such as the Mercaz serve essential roles in professionalizing teachers, coaching administrators, providing quality control, nurturing reforms and upholding city-wide standards.

“I have always felt that the Mercaz did very important work and made significant contributions to Jewish education in Toronto,” Prof. Martin Lockshin of York University told me via e-mail. “They were, for example, indispensable for us at York in making our Jewish teacher education program work. They also provided indispensible services to many day schools and many teachers, particularly new teachers. I am very worried about how this gap will be filled. From conversations that I have had, I sense that my concerns are shared by many respected educators here in Toronto.”

The financial crisis is forcing Jewish communities worldwide to clarify their priorities, abandon unnecessary projects and focus on initiatives that work. Such retrenchment, while always painful and involuntary, can be constructive, resulting in more focused and effective communities. But hasty and thoughtless cutbacks can be particularly destructive, dooming this generation to ignorance and apathy.

Gil Troy: American Jewish anxiety:Why so wobbly?

Center Field: American Jewish anxiety:Why so wobbly?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-8-09

I felt no shame about Madoff or Israel’s actions in Gaza. But reports of my fellow Jews’ cravenness made me cringe. Many American Jews are reeling from a series of blows to their standing as America’s model minority. Following autumn’s economic meltdown, Bernard Madoff confessed to his $50 billion scam, the Gaza war triggered new waves of anti-Semitism and now Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu seems poised to lead a conservative Israeli government. The disappointment of America’s mostly liberal Jews in Bibi’s resurgence is compounded by worries about how the conservative Netanyahu will get along with the liberal US President Barack Obama, especially because each thinks he is the smartest man in the room. All this fretting suggests many American Jews are much less secure in their Promised Land than most admit.

Yes, it is logical to lament American Jews’ financial straits individually and collectively, to despair at Madoff’s evil in robbing charities along with individuals, to find the vicious backlash against Israel’s justified actions alarming and to worry about American-Israeli relations. But shame is the unfortunate emotion escalating these reasonable concerns into collective anxiety.

The New York Times has described Americans Jews’ embarrassment, suggesting Madoff’s crime reflected some communal moral failure. Moreover, the article explained, “Jews are also grappling with the implications of Mr. Madoff’s deeds for their public image.”

Novelist Nathan Englander told The Forward that Madoff’s crime “really raises up for me this primal thing of,  ‘This is the kind of thing that looks bad in a general Jewish way.’ It gave me that ‘circle the wagon’ mentality that I don’t have very often.” I confess I feel no shame about Madoff, Israel’s actions in Gaza or Bibi’s rise. Or at least I felt no shame until I read about American Jewish embarrassment. In the Times, one rabbi discussing Madoff mentioned the “shanda factor,” using the Yiddish term for “an embarrassing shame.? This disgrace, we learned, was stirring anti-Semitism.

The full expression the rabbi should have taught is a shanda fur die goyim, something which embarrasses Jews in front of non-Jews. The rabbi probably was nervous about using the word goyim with the Times’s reporter, given that the term is often perceived as setting Jews up as superior to non-Jews. Actually, the phrase reflects Jews’ historic insecurity. “Shanda fur die goyim” evokes the image of Jews perpetually on probation, with our people only tolerated as long as we are on our best behavior or perform some salutary social function.

Perhaps I have spent too much time in Israel, where, alas, there are plenty “shandas fur die yiddin”: Jews acting disgracefully in front of their fellow Jews. From cruel mobsters who strut around Netanya, occasionally mowing down civilians while rubbing out rivals, to settler hooligans menacing Palestinians and IDF soldiers, to the corrupt prime minister (for life?) who has overstayed his welcome, Israel has its share of scoundrels.

But brazen behavior triggers the correct reaction – outrage not embarrassment, condemnation not cowering.  The Zionist idea was that in our own country Jews would behave normally – sometimes heroically, sometimes despicably – without being on probation. True, as nationalists, we mourn our people’s losses, celebrate successes and regret any of our people’s sins. But the leap from condemning a fellow citizen’s crimes or excesses to worrying that a fellow Jew’s sins or unpopularity may lead to a backlash against me personally, descends from the realm of normal national solidarity to the wandering Jew’s pathological insecurity; never at home, never at peace.

The American Jewish community’s cravenness is particularly shocking considering that so many Jews star in the great American success story. In a twisted way, Madoff’s fraud demonstrates how accepted Jews are in America today. The extent of Madoff?s reach – and damage – from his Palm Beach country club to the secretive sanctums of Swiss banks, from the board of Yeshiva University to the shores of Abu Dhabi, shows that in today’s globalized economy, successful Jews can do business anywhere.

Fears that Madoff’s crimes or Israel’s actions cause anti-Semitism imputes to anti-Semites a logic they lack. Too many of us have spent too many centuries trying to figure out what we did wrong to encourage anti-Semitism. This search focuses on the wrong actors in the play. Anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jew, but of the anti-Semite, as Jean-Paul Sartre taught.

Anti-Semitism reflects the anti-Semites’ twisted cosmology, not the Jews’ sins; it is an irrational hatred, not a rational response belonging to the world of cause and effect.

When Nicholas Leeson’s trading losses broke Barings Bank in 1995, no English people worried that his sins would reflect on their own integrity. Allen Stanford?s recent $8 billion fraud triggered no discussion about his religion. A rational assessment of the Madoff scandal would note how much this criminal harmed Jews, and how quickly Jews condemned the man and the underlying materialism, undermining the notion that “the Jews” perpetuated some crime against humanity. (By contrast, consider how Islamist terrorists perpetuate crimes in Islam’s name, yet few Muslims denounce them.)

An honest appraisal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would identify this as a national conflict with religious overtones, but the ones making it a religious war are mostly the Islamic jihadists. And a fair assessment of Bibi Netanyahu’s record in dealing with Bill Clinton’s administration would note his pragmatic streak; many right-wingers thought he was too accommodating during the 1998 Wye River Summit.

Bernard Madoff’s sins are his sins, not the Jewish people’s. And even when Jews debate Israel’s actions or Bibi’s policies, Jews are far too settled in America, and America’s ties to Israel run too deep, to justify so much skittishness. Ultimately, the Madoff story is as much a quintessential American tale of the man on the make as it is a Jewish story. Madoff is a criminal, not a shanda, while Israel’s actions have been necessary and moral, not disproportionate or shameful.

The shanda is still feeling so wobbly in a land that has been so welcoming.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books.

Charity dollars are holy dollars

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 11-15-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities is meeting in Jerusalem with the world reeling from the economic meltdown. More than 2,500 powerhouse leaders gathered, planning to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. Instead, the participants are sobered, dreading the cutbacks they will have to impose on so many worthy recipients in Israel and abroad. Hopefully, before these generous trendsetters of the Jewish world limit gifts to the needy, they will discuss how they can make their organizations – and their own lifestyles – leaner.

A villa with a pool. An ethos...

A villa with a pool. An ethos of good work must replace the culture of perks.

As we emerge from this age of excess so many of us have enjoyed, we should acknowledge how we started treating luxuries as necessities. In the ever-escalating spending spiral that typified this era, the art of austerity succumbed to the lure of luxury.

Consider one minor but representative example: Many foundation executives, federation officials and university administrators regularly travel business class and stay at first-class hotels on their organization’s tab. Leaders of non-profits once traveled modestly and even lived relatively humbly to demonstrate their virtue and their fiscal prudence. Today, professionals join laypeople in consuming conspicuously, somehow trying to show the charitable leader’s ability to play in the big leagues. As a donor who flies economy class between Israel and North America, both when I pay my way and when a non-profit invites me to speak, I am appalled that charitable institutions pay the airlines’ absurd business-class markups.

An ethos of good works must replace this culture of perks. Charity dollars are holy dollars. Just as US government officials fly economy to demonstrate respect for the taxpayers’ dollars, charitable leaders in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds should show their reverence for donors’ dollars at home and abroad. And if laypeople traveling on the Jewish people’s business followed suit – maybe directing the money they otherwise would have frittered away back toward their favorite charities – they would generate the moral momentum we need.

Belt-tightening is never fun and is rarely sought. But if it is happening anyway, better to ride the wave than be walloped by it. In the 1970s, president Jimmy Carter preached a sourpuss, gloom-and-doom message, essentially saying, “Get used to it, the good times are over.” If he is wise, President-elect Barack Obama will preach an uplifting, redemptive message, essentially saying, “Let’s cut back until the good times return, but discover the good once we have to give up some goodies.”

THE JEWISH world is long overdue for a broader conversation about our spending priorities and what values they reflect. Most of us realize we have lost our moorings, although, typically, we see it more clearly in others or in our children, than in ourselves. Whenever I speak to North American audiences, criticizing our distorted me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, buy-buy-buy, now-now-now world, people nod their heads in agreement.

Most of us know that there has to be more to life than catching the latest sale in the mall, aping the latest popular culture trend, worshiping the latest hot celeb. Yet, somehow, we appear powerless against the mighty materialism of the modern mass media, as we succumb to its siren call. The humility even wealthy Jews were once famous – and a little distrusted – for has been replaced by the garishness enlivening so many modern caricatures of American Jews.

Many of our young people reflect both extremes. They luxuriate more intensely in modern excesses while denouncing the hypocrisy of organized Jewry more angrily. Many condemn the disconnect between the modesty of our tradition and the vulgarity of our lives – and our institutions. It is particularly painful to see so many Jewish high schools fall prey to this. Over the years I have had dozens of heartbreaking conversations with disillusioned graduates – or angry dropouts – from the Jewish day school system. Most reported how the cancer of careerism, the pathologies of peer pressure and the fascism of modern fashion mocked the Jewish values their teachers taught. In universities and birthright groups I repeatedly encounter the walking wounded, young idealists who were badly bruised by the snide, snippy judgments they endured in a Jewish school, camp or synagogue.

Of course, these afflictions are epidemic in modern capitalist consumer culture and reflect our people’s remarkable collective success. But in mastering modern society too many of us became seduced by it. And as Israel develops, the epidemic of excess afflicts Israelis too. The stoicism of the halutzic pioneering generation that built Israel and the immigrant generation that made it in America is equally passé – and sorely missed on both sides of the Atlantic.

OUR ZIONIST and Jewish traditions both offer out of our morass of materialism. The Zionist emphasis on collective responsibility balances the extravagances of the “I” with contributions to the “us.” Similarly, Jewish teachings about God and the people redirect human energies from getting to giving, from what is fleeting and superficial to what is eternal.

These messages are particularly welcome now, when many people are struggling with a diminished self-worth because of a shrunken net-worth. The markets delivered the devastating shock. Our mutually reinforcing Zionist and Jewish traditions can provide the therapy.

This summer, I spoke to UJC’s young leadership cabinet. It met, I admit, in a luxurious resort. But to save money – and to welcome future leaders from a wider ranger of income groups – it convened in Scottsdale, Arizona in July – the sweltering off-season. The deeply discounted hotel rates did not diminish the participants’ fun, and may have further fueled the impressive idealism and generosity they displayed. These are the kind of models we should follow in our communal lives and our personal lives – not only because we need to, but because we want to.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

The X factor in the American election

JPost, July 13, 2008

Throughout much of George W. Bush’s reign, the newspapers and blogosphere have been filled with dire warnings about the state of America. Much of it was so hysterical, it was easy to dismiss it as “Bushophobia,” a reflection of the irrational, intense hatred this president provokes, especially among elites.

In fact, for much of the Bush years, America’s economy did well. Quarter after quarter, experts would warn about sobering outcomes, and yet the numbers kept on illustrating a much rosier picture. As long as the economy was strong, Bush’s popularity ratings could plummet, New Orleans could sink, Iraq could become a quagmire, but the overall tone in the United States remained surprisingly upbeat.

All that has changed. The talk in the United States has turned, people frequently admit their economic distress, focusing on limited finances now or worries about limitations to come. The most visible symbol of this new economic reality is that gasoline is now consistently over $4 a gallon.

People are cutting back, redirecting resources they once piddled away on luxuries toward keeping up with their necessities. As a mark of this shift, Starbucks, one of the great symbols of early 21st century indulgence with its $4 cups of coffee, just closed 600 stores. It seems that the Bush daydream has become the Bush nightmare.

This energy and economic trauma on top of all the other traumas should make it a simple election for the Democrats. No matter who wins the White House, everyone is expecting a Democratic sweep of Congress. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are bracing for a bloodbath, Democrats are already squabbling over the spoils. With Barack Obama leading in the polls, with John McCain retooling his campaign team, this election should be a slam dunk win for the Democrats.

But the dynamics of the presidential campaign are not that easy. Remember President Michael kis? He was crowned the presumptive successor to Ronald Reagan in 1988 as he enjoyed a double digit lead in the polls over George H.W. Bush throughout the summer. But Bush was able to come back and defeat him.

The office of the president is so personal, the campaign is so long and grueling, that anything could happen. It really is too early to say Kaddish for McCain or pick out the new colors for Obama’s Oval Office re-design. And on top of all these personality and political factors in the mix, the economy is going to weigh ever more heavily – if current indicators continue to play out as they have been.

In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, who once enjoyed approval ratings close to 90 percent. Clinton’s slogan was “It’s The Economy, Stupid.”

This year, barring a major terrorist attack or international blow up – it seems clear that the election will hinge yet again on that stupid economy.

If McCain cannot figure out how to respond to Americans’ distress on this issue, he is finished. But if Americans lose confidence in Obama’s ability to be a steady steward of the economy, he, too, is doomed.