Can Noise Give Way to Civility?

An exploration of the limits of free speech

Source: Democracy and Me

One my favorite legalistic maxims goes like this: my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins. The idea, of course, is that we all have a marvelous amount of freedom in the U.S. – much more than in many other countries — but we also must live amongst others. And that “living amongst” part means our individual freedoms go only so far; they are not unlimited.

In physical terms, the limits are easy to define. Along with not having the unfettered ability to toss our hands about, we can’t drive the wrong way down a one-way street. We can’t run naked through our neighborhood, no matter how entertaining that might be for some folks. No matter how much we like the Stones, we can’t blast loud music at all hours in most communities. And we can’t, of course, shout fire in a crowded theater.

But when the subject is intellectual freedom, what are the boundaries? When does one’s ability to argue, to question or to demonstrate cross a line into harassment or intimidation? And what ideas or values are simply beyond the pale, too extreme to tolerate even on a college campus dedicated to academic freedom? When do noxious notions become the equivalent of shouting fire?

Since the atrocities of October 7th in Israel, we have heard much shouting, particularly by pro-Palestinian groups at campuses nationwide. We have also seen efforts to suppress or to contain such outpourings, in part because administrators fear violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires schools to provide all students an environment free from discrimination based on race, color, national origin or shared ancestry.

The noise has grown since the federal Department of Education on Nov. 7 issued a letter reminding schools of their obligations under the law. The DOE has also launched a bevy of investigations, including into a slew of K-12 districts around the country and at least 44 universities and colleges for alleged violations of that law. The allegations include incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia, often as a result of demonstrations that make Jews or Arabs feel threatened.

Source: Harvard Gazette

Indeed, at Harvard dueling investigations have been spurred by students or alumni who feel aggrieved. The DOE on Feb. 6 announced an investigation into whether the university failed to protect Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students and their supporters from harassment, threats and intimidation. This came on the heels of probe announced in November alleging that the school failed to respond to antisemitism on campus.

The Muslim Legal Fund of America filed the complaint that generated the early February inquest on behalf of more than a dozen anonymous students. A lawyer for the group told The Harvard Crimson that the students complained of “negative treatment by both the administration and Harvard officials as well as fellow students on campus.” The most common complaint was that students were verbally abused for wearing a keffiyeh, a scarf that has become a symbol of advocacy for Palestinians.

“When they simply walk around campus wearing the keffiyeh, they have been verbally attacked, they have had things thrown at them,” the lawyer said. “They have had students and others accuse them of being terrorists for what they’re wearing.”

On the flip side, the department’s investigation begun in the fall followed a complaint by several alumni that Harvard failed to protect students from antisemitism. And separately, a group of students at the school sued on Jan. 30 in federal court, alleging that Harvard “has become a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.”

As the lawsuit describes it, Harvard seems like a hellish place.

“Mobs of pro-Hamas students and faculty have marched by the hundreds through Harvard’s campus, shouting vile antisemitic slogans and calling for death to Jews and Israel,” the suit says. “Those mobs have occupied buildings, classrooms, libraries, student lounges, plazas, and study halls, often for days or weeks at a time, promoting violence against Jews and harassing and assaulting them on campus. Jewish students have been attacked on social media, and Harvard faculty members have promulgated antisemitism in their courses and dismissed and intimidated students who object.”

While the lawsuit maintains that Harvard refused to “lift a finger to stop and deter this outrageous antisemitic conduct and penalize the students and faculty who perpetrate it,” in fact Harvard has created two presidential task forces to combat Islamophobia and antisemitism on campus. In a wrinkle curious because of its academic freedom overtones, one task force is co-chaired by Derek J. Penslar, who heads the school’s Center for Jewish Studies and who became a lightning rod for critics who damn him as too critical of Israel. Ironically, Penslar’s book “Zionism: An Emotional State,” was named a finalist for the 2023 National Jewish Book Award by the Jewish Book Council, and he was widely defended by scholars and rabbis.

Setting up task forces to develop policies to curb Islamophobia and antisemitism has become a common first step at several campuses. But some schools have also taken aggressive action — action that troubles free-speech advocates.

MIT, Source: The Times of Israel

As reported by Inside Higher Ed, MIT, Stanford and Brown, for instance, have all cracked down on pro-Palestinian actions that they said flouted university rules. MIT, along with several other schools, recently suspended student groups for failing to follow rules about protests and Stanford quashed a 120-day sit-in on a campus plaza by first threatening disciplinary action and then by agreeing to talk over the student concerns. At Brown, 19 students taking part in a weeklong hunger strike for Palestine claimed that university officials removed “memorial flags” and washed away chalk messages at recent gatherings as they urged the university to divest its endowment from arms manufacturers.

The question this raises is: just what is acceptable speech and action on campuses? Where does one draw the line?

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression takes a maximalist view: “The mere expression of an opinion — however repugnant — is always protected. The authority to regulate ‘hate speech’ — an inherently vague and subjective label — is a gift to those who want an excuse to stamp out views they personally detest. FIRE knows from its long history defending free speech on campus how often both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate face censorship under this rationale. The target simply depends on who holds power at a given time and place.”

But when does free expression slip into harassment and intimidation? Some cases seem clear. For instance, at the University of Denver, religious items affixed to student doorposts – mezuzahs – were recently torn down from couple dorm rooms and one was defaced. Those are incidents of vandalism, not matters of acceptable expression, and the school administration deplored them. At one dorm there, moreover, pork, which observant Jews shun, was left at a student’s door – a clear case of harassment, it would seem.

Is that the same, however, as people marching and carrying banners that decry the deaths of members of various groups, whether Jews or Palestinians? Should it be illegal to stand up for one’s group, even loudly? And if those marches make members of one group or another feel threatened, should such feelings be the test? Is the freedom to speak one’s mind in an academic setting a value to be protected, regardless of whether it discomfits some students?

Surely, some expression can go over the line. For instance, would any responsible university tolerate students marching with Nazi banners? Indeed, would any tolerate marches with explicitly pro-Hamas or pro-ISIS imagery? The advocates for Palestinians seem mostly to avoid such sentiments as they instead protest “genocide”  or call for ceasefires or an end to the killing in the Israel-Hamas war. Sadly, they often seem ignorant, though, about how phrases such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” are calls for the eradication of Israel.

As Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, contended in a recent U.S. News and World Report commentary, “Students can and should debate important matters like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ethics of war in civilian areas.” Disagreeing, protesting and robustly exchanging ideas are appropriate, he suggested.

Still, as Rabbi Dr. Berman also noted, it would be useful to have “moral clarity” about the war on the agenda at campuses all across the U.S. Making his point, he argued that those who protest for a “free Gaza” should also want it free of Hamas. “In fact, being clear about this distinction could actually help calm campus waters and enable more productive conversations,” he maintained.

Certainly, defenders of Israel will agree that the nation has the right to quash a terrorist group whose barbarism is on par with that of ISIS or other similar groups. Indeed, that may be where well-informed faculty need to step up and educate those who are doing much of the shouting.

Of course, such schooling won’t end disagreements. If education could “calm campus waters” such that civil discussion can replace shouting, we’d all be better off. Sadly, however, at a time when many are dying, emotions are understandably running hot. And that makes free speech difficult.

“People are unrealistic when they say, ‘We want free speech, we want debate, we want difficult conversations,’” legal scholar Randall Kennedy recently told The New York Times. “But then we want all smiles.”

Source: The Philadelphia Citizen

Indeed, the arguments over free speech are slipping into debates over academic freedom, which has come under threat from conservative politicians such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. As the Times noted, DeSantis “has led the passage of laws that restrict what can be taught and spearheaded efforts to reshape whole institutions.”

As the newspaper reported, the Israel-Hamas War has upended longstanding campus arguments over whether conservative voices and ideas were being suppressed. Now, it seems, liberal defenders of Palestinians are making the case that they are being muzzled.

“Some ask why, after years of restricting speech that makes some members of certain minority groups feel ‘unsafe,’ administrators are suddenly defending the right to speech that some Jewish students find threatening,” the paper wrote. “Others accuse longtime opponents of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of cynically weaponizing those principles to suppress pro-Palestinian views.”

Still, academic freedom, too, must have limits. Such freedom, some note, depends on expertise and judgment – and is not just the right to say whatever one wants. As legal scholar Robert C. Post put it, free academic inquiry depends on the notion that “there are true ideas and false ideas,” and that it is the job of scholars to distinguish them.

The protests and, perhaps, the counterprotests will continue. Arguments over Islamophobia and antisemitism will rage, too, perhaps to be clarified by lawsuits and policies that various task forces can develop. One hopes that amid all the noise, education about truth and falsity can emerge.

What Will It Take?

How can the murderous ideology of Hamas be extinguished to let peace reign?

Source: Arab Center, Washington, D.C.

As the Hamas-controlled health authorities count the Palestinian deaths in Gaza, the latest figures total 28,775, an appalling tally that includes an unknown number of terrorists as well as men, women and children who have gotten in the way of Israel’s missiles and bullets. For their part, the Israel Defense Forces say they have killed some 11,000 Hamas members, in addition to 1,000 within Israel on the day this round of death began in the atrocities of October 7th.

Even allowing for wartime exaggeration and laid against the total Gaza population of 2.1 million people, the number of non-combatants killed in the Israel-Hamas War is loathsome. Add in the 1,200 innocent Israelis murdered when Hamas began these horrors – in the largest single terrorist attack since the state was established in 1948 – and the hostages taken by the terrorists, and one gets a sense of the enormous cost of this fight.

Now, as Israel plans to move in a major way on Rafah and some 1.4 million Palestinians try to flee this last bastion of Hamas, the world waits to see how much more bloodshed will occur. While many condemn these plans, the Palestinians cannot turn for help from fellow-Arabs in Egypt, who instead have shunned their embattled brothers and who plan to pen them into a concrete enclosure, should some break through the border. Surely, the behavior of the Egyptians is repugnant.

Of course, all these deaths – along with countless numbers of those wounded – must be blamed on Hamas. Israeli guns are delivering the devastation, but it was Hamas that knowingly and deliberately pulled the trigger with its savagery of early October. The murderous and suicidal group, a spiritual bedfellow of ISIS and other Islamist death cults, seems to take sadomasochistic delight in making victims of its own people and then proclaiming how it’s all Israel’s doing. The hypocrisy of Hamas and it supporters is mind-boggling.

As Israel plans to move forward in what could be a crucial turning point in the war – perhaps one that will lead to Hamas’s extinction as a military force – it’s difficult to remain level-headed and emotionless about it all. Innocents have been killed and more will be, even as Israel permits civilians to move out of harm’s way. How can one not feel for them? How can one not sympathize with widespread calls for a cease-fire, even if that were nothing more than dangerous naivete?

Sadly, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out, the fight must go on. “There’s no defeating Hamas and freeing the hostages without turning to Rafah,” the paper’s editorialists write. “Hamas hasn’t been toppled if it still governs territory. Hamas hasn’t been destroyed if its four Rafah battalions remain intact. Hamas can’t be destroyed while it has access to the Egyptian border and control of the flow of aid at Rafah.” Israel must deliver final crushing blows if it is to render Hamas powerless, especially in the eyes of the Palestinians, who need to be liberated from it both as a source of vile ideas and as a governing force.

Mosab Hassan Yousef, source: National Post

I’m reminded of the words of Mosab Hassan Yousef, a son of a founder of Hamas, Hassan Yousef. After engaging in Hamas activities that landed him in an Israeli prison, the younger Yousef repudiated the movement and began to work with the Israelis. He was granted asylum in the United States in 2008, but recently sat down in Tel Aviv for a conversation with a journalist for The Free Press. His take on Hamas is revealing. The group, he says, has created a generation of “people willing to destroy themselves. . . to cause the most destruction possible.” 

His language is unsparing about the atrocities of early October. “I was surprised not by Hamas’s brutality, but by the scale of the event,” Yousef says. “There is no human language that can describe the evil that took place on October 7. And that’s not just a war crime. It’s not just killing. It’s a genocide.” 

What makes such evil possible, asks The Free Press? The answer lies in the hate-filled beliefs that Yousef’s father helped spread. “Jihadists think that they are the sword of God on Earth,” Yousef says. “That they are actually manifesting the punishment against the Jewish people for being disobedient.”

This perverse ideology is one I saw in would-be recruits to ISIS in Minneapolis. These young Somali Muslim men, whose tales I recount in the book “Divided Loyalties,” yearned for martyrdom in Syria. They saw themselves as noble warriors defending innocent Muslims against various enemies, including the United States, and in their misguided religious zeal and post-adolescent immaturity they saw themselves as earning Paradise for themselves and their families. Like Hamas, they seemed to value death more than life.

In the case of some of the Somalis, it took the deaths of some of their friends and relatives in Syria – deaths that made their post-adolescent fantasies all too real — as well as stiff prison terms of up to 35 years, to change their minds.

The troubling question is, what will it take to destroy the bankrupt ideas that animated Hamas? How can the intellectual toxin of Jew-hatred be eradicated among the Palestinians? How can it be replaced with a longing for peaceful coexistence between two peoples, each with legitimate claims to the land? How can it be succeeded by desires for the sort of tolerance and harmony that some 1.6 million Arabs living within Israel’s borders now have with Jews there?

Post-war Berlin, source: BBC

Some have argued that one should look to the model of World War II with the ways Nazis and the supporters of Japan’s aggression were dealt then. There, it took such monstrous efforts as the firebombing of Dresden and the leveling of Berlin and much of the rest of the country, as well as the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to convince aggressors that they had been vanquished. Further, it took the Marshall Plan and long occupations of both Germany and Japan to pacify the people, to bring them into places where they would become the valued citizens of the world they are today. De-Nazification and its equivalent in Japan brought Germans and Japanese into civilization again.

It’s monstrous to think that something akin to that sort of destruction would be needed now in Gaza and in other Arab areas near to Israel. As many as 8.8 million Germans and 3.1 million Japanese died in WWII, and no one could stomach such numbers again, even figures proportionate to the smaller Palestinian population. It’s estimated that some 3 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, with the couple million in Gaza. What will it take to change the minds of those among them who support Hamas and kindred groups? Will 30,000 deaths make a crucial difference? Will that turn Palestinians away from the group that has brought them such devastation, so much suffering?

Even with many thousands of Hamas fighters dead, the U.S. estimates that up to 80% of their ranks remain. Will the capture of Rafah shrink that number dramatically? Will the survivors come to the senses and will they turn on their leaders? Will the battle of Rafah convince those remaining to lay down their arms, as German and Japanese soldiers did after their defeat? Certainly, we cannot expect the self-destructive leaders of Hamas to quit and Israel will likely not settle for anything less than their deaths.

In time, though, installation in Gaza of a government that includes peace-minded Palestinians and other Arabs – along with the rebuilding to come with something like a modern Marshall Plan – will likely be more effective than more bloodshed. As New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman suggests, the participation of Saudi Arabia and the U.S. likely will be essential in this post-war effort. It will also take a change in the leadership in Israel, something that the failure of intelligence in the country on October 7th makes likely anyway.

It’s tough in the middle of a war to see a way out of it. When so many are dying and being maimed, it’s difficult to see through the ugliness. And yet, with the destruction of Hamas and the eradication of its un-Islamic and morally bankrupt ideology, progress will come. Much remains for Israeli and Palestinians alike to do first.

A Spoiler Alert

Could a real third-party candidate mean a Trump victory?

Source: Videos Index

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce – or so goes the saying attributed to Karl Marx. This year we may see a sorry mixture of both, if a credible third-party candidate arises to threaten to do what one arguably did 32 years ago, that is to unseat an unpopular incumbent president.

A friend, a committed Republican of the old-school sort, wrote me recently to say she has become an elected officer of the No Labels party in Maryland. “No Labels is likely to put forth a Unity presidential ticket that will work to deliver commonsense solutions to this country’s many problems,” she wrote. “It is my hope that we can all commit to working together for the greater good, while celebrating the differences that enrich us all.”

What is troubling is that if No Labels launches a serious contender and gains traction, he or she may do what H. Ross Perot did in 1992. The billionaire outsider’s third-party candidacy garnered just under 19% of the popular vote back then, the largest share of the vote for a third-party contender since an election in 1912. While Perot didn’t grab a single Electoral College vote, he served as the spoiler who helped to oust President George H.W. Bush and install William J. Clinton in the White House.

 “Dissatisfied voters of all stripes flocked to his call, creating one of the most powerful third-party movements in American history,” wrote Prof. Russell L. Riley of the UVA Miller Center. “Although Perot drew support from both Republicans and Democrats, he probably hurt Bush disproportionately more than Clinton, owing to his harsh attacks against the incumbent and the timing of both his departure and re-entry into the 1992 campaign.”

Joe Lieberman considers Haley, Source: AP

Could this happen again? Could President Biden be unhorsed by Donald J. Trump thanks to a third-party spoiler? Well, No Labels has gained access to the ballot in at least 13 states so far and is aiming for all 50. It doesn’t have a presidential candidate yet, but depending on how things go in the GOP primaries in coming months, it could land someone such as former South Carolina Gov. and presidential hopeful Nikki Haley to lead its ticket. Founding party chairman Joseph Lieberman said that she “would deserve serious consideration.”

While a campaign spokeswoman, responding to Lieberman’s mid-January comment, said Haley had no interest in No Labels, that was before her loss to Trump in New Hampshire. If she loses in her native South Carolina, as expected, on Feb. 24, her view could change, of course.

Haley has polled ahead of Biden in head-to-head matchups. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, for instance, the former governor tops the president by 47% to 42% in a two-person contest. By contrast, Biden tops Trump in a two-way race, 50% to 44%, making one wonder why a GOP in its right mind would stick with Trump instead of Haley. (Of course, the operative phrase in regard to the MAGA-dominated party is “in its right mind.”)

Source: The Hill

When one tosses in other independent candidates (Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West and Jill Stein), the results get murkier, according to Quinnipiac. Haley drops to 29%, but Biden also drops, to 36%. Of course, it’s not clear how many votes Haley might siphon off of Biden (or Trump) if she ran with No Labels in a three-way race, but Democrats fear she would do more damage to their man. As the Wall Street Journal reported in analyzing a couple polls last fall, “When voters are given options beyond Biden and Trump, the president tends to bleed the most support …”

Let’s look back to 1992 for some guidance, though. The erratic Perot quit the race in July 1992, but re-entered in October. That gave him just enough time to take part in three debates, where he impressed some voters with his phrase “giant sucking sound,” describing a feared loss of jobs to Mexico if the NAFTA treaty went into effect. At the end of the debates, his chances seemed so good that we at BusinessWeek had to prepare three cover stories in advance of election day, so we’d be ready for anything.

Source: Miller Center

In the end, Clinton won, of course. But he took office with the support of substantially less than half the electorate, collecting just 43% of the vote to Bush’s 37.4% and Perot’s 18.9%. Clinton prevailed because he won in the states where it mattered, swamping Bush in the Electoral College vote – with 370 to Bush’s 168. The president carried only 18 conservative states, including Texas and Florida, both rich in Electoral College votes, but Perot gave them both a run for their money in a couple states, finishing second in Maine (which Clinton won) and Utah (which was Bush country).

Ironically, my friend now helping the No Labels group served in the Bush Administration that Clinton tossed out. She saw first-hand the scorching effect a third-party candidacy can have. As I described in a biography of the late Clayton Yeutter, who was a top adviser to Bush, despondency was widespread in the Bush ranks in mid-1992 and things didn’t get much better as Election Day neared. The president’s approval rating, according to Gallup, dipped to 29% that July and rebounded, but only to 34% soon before he lost the election.

As things stand today, Biden is in better shape than Bush was, but not by much (the Quinnipiac poll, notwithstanding). One can only imagine the depression afflicting his camp. Biden’s approval rating now stands at a disappointing 41%, according to Gallup, though it dropped to 37% last April, October and November. The numbers are reminiscent of those logged by one-term Jimmy Carter, who averaged a 37.4% approval rating in his third presidential year (Biden’s third-year average approval rating is just 39.8%).

Many things can happen between now and November, of course. No Labels, in fact, may not find a credible candidate, especially if Haley demurs or (as seems unlikely) wins enough primaries to be a viable GOP contender. Would Sen. Joe Manchin be a potent contender for the group? Also, Trump may finally be nailed on any number of criminal charges, which likely would erode his support outside of the MAGA diehards (and could force the GOP to seek an alternative). Trump could even be ruled off the ballot in some states, though his appointees to the Supreme Court would shock the world with such a decision.

One thing seems pretty certain, though: a successful third-party candidacy would be a pipe dream. While many Americans don’t like the idea of a Biden-Trump rerun, history suggests that a real third alternative would likely not get very far – but, troublingly, perhaps far enough to make for a repeat of 1992.

Mass Media Takes a Big Hit

The Messenger lost millions and now a lot of journalists have lost work

Source: PRN

With the sudden death of The Messenger, an ambitious news site plagued by trouble from without and within, mass media has suffered another devastating blow. The outlet’s demise comes atop staff cuts at Time magazine, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Business Insider, layoffs that have cast hundreds of top-notch journalists onto unemployment lines.

There is plenty of reason to mourn this loss – not so much for the site, but rather for the people involved. As my former BusinessWeek colleague Tom Lowry wrote on LinkedIn, the shutdown made for “a tough day – brutal, really,” adding how “sad for all [his] The Messenger colleagues who find themselves suddenly without a job …” That group included some 300 people, half of whom were journalists, including many from A-list publications.

Along with Lowry, BW veterans working there included Ciro ScottiDawn Kopecki and Justin Bachman. These superb talents joined a similarly impressive group in the much-touted venture, which went live only last May. In that short time, the group on the site’s business news team did outstanding work, as Kopecki described in a sad LI post. Indeed, she was prepping the best efforts for journalism contests as the site’s owners shut it down.

But this latest collapse – along with the drip-by-drip bloodletting at other big pubs – raises the question of what kind of journalism we will have going forward. The Messenger was slammed by many critics for its lack of innovation, its attempts to duplicate the glories of a media environment long since gone. Even as storied outlets such as The New York Times still find a large audience, the journalistic innovators that are succeeding nowadays seem to be far more locally focused and to not rely on advertising of the sort The Messenger never quite got.

In short, most of today’s promising news operations reflect the decline of the mass approach and the rise of targeted efforts.

Take, for instance, a couple pioneering outlets from Nebraska, the Flatwater Free Press and the Nebraska Examiner. The Flatwater Free Press, supported by donors and subscribers, has broken some of the most important stories in its well-defined turf, including award-winning coverage of Nebraska’s prison and parole board. The Nebraska Examiner, a nonprofit that is part of the States Newsroom national network, broke news that cost a leading gubernatorial candidate his race.

In a neighboring state, The Colorado Sun, another subscriber-supported site, has won a slew of awards for its important journalistic work. The controversial introduction of wolves in the state, for instance, has made for a series of major pieces. Similarly, its tick-tock account of a devastating fire shed light on the vulnerability of residential areas to climate change.

Such local news operations – often manned by small staffs and backed by foundations, donors or subscribers – are doing what any business must; they are serving their markets. They offer local, tightly focused content that makes a difference in people’s lives, a bold contrast with the outsize – one might say inflated — ambitions of the founders of The Messenger.

Jimmy Finkelstein, source: the New York Post

Principal owner Jimmy Finkelstein, former owner of The Hill, had raised $50 million to launch The Messenger. He staffed bureaus in major cities with some of the best journalists from outlets such as POLITICO, the Los Angeles TimesNBC News and Reuters, wooing them with generous pay. As the Daily Beast reported, on The Messenger’s launch last spring, managers predicted that the company would bring in $100 million annually and average over 100 million hits a month by the end of this year. (In December, it drew 24 million visitors, the New York Times reported).

But the effort seemed doomed from the start. Months before its launch, critics derided its business plan as “delusional” and mocked its high-profile execs for trying to serve a media environment that no longer existed. Finkelstein, in his mid-70s, had said he hoped the site would appeal to audiences who had warmed to “60 Minutes” and “Vanity Fair.” As a critic quoted by the New York Post put it, “Whenever a new website references an old magazine and TV show, you know they are not looking towards tomorrow.”

Then, once it debuted, the site was troubled by internal friction, as well as criticism from outside. As The New York Times reported, staffers chafed at demands to rewrite competitor stories, as their editors pressed them to churn out work to build hits. Communication within the outfit was so poor that multiple teams of reporters worked on the same topics, unaware of each other’s efforts.

For me, much of this is reminiscent of the last days of BusinessWeek. Fifteen years ago, we were all scrambling to deal with the Net. And part of the answer was doing anything to generate traffic. We had a magazine staff and a separate online staff, but we all fed an online operation whose main metric, it seemed, was eyeballs. As Chicago bureau chief, I was routinely pressed to file anything and everything about Boeing, for instance, no matter how slight. Why? The big-name company drew traffic.

BusinessWeek ultimately was sold – for essentially nothing – to Bloomberg and rechristened as Bloomberg Businessweek. Just recently, Bloomberg announced that the weekly print edition will be taken monthly. Long before that, though — back in the 2007-09 period — there was a desperation about our efforts that seemed to be replicated so many years later at The Messenger.

Gregg Birnbaum, source: www.greggbirnbaum.com

Only days after The Messenger’s launch last May 15, politics editor Gregg Birnbaum quit, disgusted with the culture of the place. “Who doesn’t like traffic to their news site?” he said in an email shared by The New York Times. “But the rapacious and blind desperate chasing of traffic — by the nonstop gerbil wheel rewriting story after story that has first appeared in other media outlets in the hope that something, anything, will go viral — has been a shock to the system and a disappointment to many of the outstanding quality journalists at The Messenger who are trying to focus on meaningful original and distinctive reporting.”

With its biggest debut effort, an interview with former President (and Finkelstein friend) Donald J. Trump, the outlet bent over backwards to avoid seeming partisan, as it promised impartiality and objectivity. Instead, what it did was just to duck controversy, avoid hard issues. For giving Trump an uncritical platform, the admittedly partisan Mother Jones lambasted the Messenger as “just another media outlet that enables extreme politics and the inflaming of divisions.” MJ Washington bureau chief David Corn argued that when its “down-the-middle approach is applied to a political extremist, the result is not objective journalism but the amplification and legitimization of extremism—and that can threaten honest political discourse and even democracy itself.”

 On the left, publications such as Mother Jones and, perhaps, The Atlantic, seem to have carved out niches. On the right, outfits such as National Review have found an audience, as The New York Sun and The Free Press are attempting to do. Outlets such as POLITICO endure by zeroing on specific interest areas, much as trade journals like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed serve particular markets. And, across the nation, the small nonprofits seem to fill a vital need in down-the-middle general interest news, albeit local (nothing like the grandiose targets The Messenger leaders aimed for).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is surprising that the lessons of serving particular audiences were lost on Finkelstein. After all, he had been involved with such tightly focused publications as The Hollywood Reporter, AdweekBillboard and The Hill, which his father, Jerry, co-founded in the 1990s with New York Times journalist Martin Tolchin. The younger Finkelstein raised some of the money for The Messenger by selling The Hill. But he had long lusted after bigger stages, in 2015 bidding unsuccessfully for New York’s Daily News.

In the end, The Messenger was the product of the flawed vision of a man who appeared to have little touch with an audience and less with the best interests of his staffers. As he burned through tens of millions, it appears Finkelstein didn’t bother to set aside anything for severance or health insurance for his staffers. Not surprisingly, some, have filed suit, seeking damages, as reported by Variety.

Finkelstein even slighted his staff in announcing the end of the publication. The staffers read about the shutdown first from reports in The New York Timesthe Daily Beast and elsewhere before they got an email from the Florida-based failed mogul. For the journalists involved, this is a sad loss. Few, however, will shed a tear for the pied piper who led them down the rat hole.  

Where Will You Be On Super Bowl Sunday?

In spite of all of football’s woes, I expect to watch

Source: Wikipedia

A couple decades ago, a Swedish foreign exchange student of ours couldn’t understand why we Americans watched the Super Bowl. The game is violent; the TV production is too talky, noisy and overdone; the rules are silly and obscure; the militaristic overtones unsettling, and the whole thing takes far too long. Better, she thought, to read a book.

Of course, she was right.

Still, come Feb. 11, I expect we will be glued to our oversize screen, watching the racist-named Chiefs and the environment-wrecker-named 49ers pummel one another for all our enjoyment. We’ll hope for clever commercials and probably be disappointed. We’ll be happy when our team crushes the other.

Why will we watch? Well, I can answer only for myself, and my answer involves a lot of questions.

Brock Purdy on the run, source: USA Today

For me, the game is an amazing display of athleticism and physical and mental intelligence. How do quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes and Brock Purdy toss that odd-shaped ball so well, usually less than 3 seconds after taking the snap? How do they get it to where their receivers will be, threading the needle among defenders to put it exactly where it is needed? How do they do this while several hundred pounds of humanity converge on them, lusting to shove them into the turf?

For that matter, how do receivers such as Travis Kelce and Brandon Aiyuk know exactly where to go, anticipating the pass? How do they snag that moving bullet, on the run, while beating other talented men to pull it out of the air, often diving or leaping to do so? How do they then pivot to run, braving hundreds of pounds of flesh that try desperately to rip them to the ground, trip them up or shove them into the dirt?

Isiah Pacheco, source: Remezcla

Beyond those balletic folks, how can rushers such as Isiah Pacheco, a fellow Jersey boy and Rutgers grad, and Christian McCaffrey slip through the meaty grasps of so many human titans to advance on those crucial runs, sometimes breaking free to take it to the house? How do their bodies survive those crushing blows, only to bounce up and do it all again?

And for all the players, how can they keep the dizzying complexity and number of plays in their minds, summoned in the few seconds in the huddle and immediately afterward, knowing where they need to be and what they must do? The intellectual challenge that the coaches invent and pose for them is as extraordinary as any master game in chess.

Yes, the game is disturbingly violent. The injuries that these men suffer are unacceptable, hardly making up for the sometimes exorbitant pay they earn. Some seem even more cruel than the fictional fatalities of the Hunger Games because they last decades and burden everyone around them. For this reason, their careers can be astonishingly short, after lives dedicated solely to the sport. The NFL hasn’t helped with its often-shameful treatment of its veterans.

It’s unsettling, too, that so many of the players take their violence off the field. Criminality haunts the NFL.

And, yes, the hype around the game is absurd. The militaristic themes are ridiculous, especially when people are dying in real wars, when real American soldiers are at risk. Moreover, the announcers, backed up by arrays of statisticians, bludgeon us all with too much trivia.

Still, the real human stories behind many of these athletes are moving. Mahomes’s biracial background is heartening, a testament to America’s ability to bridge ethnic gulfs. Similarly, Aiyuk’s Cameroonian ancestry makes a statement about American inclusivity (some 125 players in the NFL hail from Africa or were born to African parents). Indeed, the multiracial camaraderie and teamwork on the field should be an example to us all.

Purdy’s status as the last pick in the 2022 NFL draft after his Iowa State career, moreover, smacks of Horatio Alger, a modern come-from-nowhere success story. Pacheco’s mixed Puerto Rican and Black background, coupled with his losses of two siblings to violence (one a stabbing, the other a shooting), make his life story poignant. Sad as his family story is, it’s a bit of unsettling real life in some parts of America.

Kelce’s telegenicity on programs such as Saturday Night Live and his romance with Taylor Swift give him an off-the-field cachet. And Coloradan McCaffrey’s athletic family legacy and the brainpower that got him into Stanford make him an extraordinary example of meritocracy. Indeed, all these men earned their spots in the NFL, one of the toughest proving grounds in American culture.

Mahomes, source: Sports Illustrated

So, our Swedish exchange student wasn’t wrong. But she saw only the dark half of the story. On Super Bowl Sunday, I will be aware of that half, but I will focus on the rest. I will take delight in the same passion that brings these players onto the field and has done so since their Pop Warner days. I will engage in a bit of harmless tribalism, a force that I recognize can be both a blessing as a curse. I will watch, vicariously experiencing the players’ intense emotions. Putting it simply, I will have a lot of fun.

Ugliness on Campus

A deeper look at the Israel-Hamas war protests

Source: Harvard Crimson

As we all know, many colleges erupted in protests and counterprotests following the October 7th atrocities in Israel. Some universities in areas with substantial populations of Jews and Arabs, particularly Palestinians, slipped into violence from scuffles, thankfully minor in most cases. Members of both groups raised alarms about fearing to walk on the campuses or even attend classes because of the tensions and some people even sued about it.

While most schools seem to have settled down, as the war goes on and the new term wears on, it’s reasonable to expect still more unrest. Pro-Palestinian student groups, including reorganized unofficial ones that replaced those banned at some schools, were disrupting classes at Harvard as recently as last month. At best, we can hope the tactics of such groups remain peaceful.

As I’ve prepared for a Jan. 24 presentation about the campus reactions for the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, I’ve been struck by a few key points about these protests. Let me share a few:

First, it is stunning that the pro-Palestine students refuse to condemn Hamas, both for the vile attacks of October and for the group’s heartless approach to the innocents of Gaza. Even women have turned a blind eye to the savagery targeting Jewish women. Hamas knew, of course, that it was inviting the retaliation it has gotten, seemingly unconcerned and willing to treat its own people as welcome cannon fodder.

Source: Spectre Journal

Instead of protesting against the terrorists, the demonstrators seem to either ignore their monstrous actions and their perversions of Islam or to celebrate them. It’s one thing to stand up for one’s people — the innocents in Gaza caught in the crossfire — but it’s another to misplace the blame. It’s as if the demonstrators’ moral calculations are upside down. And we see absurdities such as LGBTQ community members defending Hamas, a group that would toss them from the highest buildings if they lived among them.

Source: Nemo

The moral inversion of these protestors is just as perverse as South Africa’s claim that Israel is guilty of genocide and its backwards arguments before the International Court of Justice. To argue that a nation defending itself against terrorism is intending to wipe out a couple million people even as the terrorists continue to hold that nation’s citizens hostage is obscene — especially when that nation, Israel, has repeatedly warned Gazans to leave Hamas-infested areas. Why is Hamas not on trial instead for its barbarism?

Second, I’m struck by how widespread the ignorance about the complex history of Israel-Palestine relations is, particularly among young people. When they chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” many don’t seem to realize that is a call for the eradication of Israel, that it is the ultimate in antisemitism. As a recent column in The Wall Street Journal noted, many of the students chanting this nowadays don’t even know what river or sea are being referred to.

In addition, ignorance about the Holocaust is extraordinary only 80 years after that monstrosity. One-fifth of U.S. citizens between the ages of 18 and 29 believe that the Holocaust is a myth, according to a poll by Economist/YouGov.

And, as the Israeli military has grown into one of the most powerful forces in the region, there’s also a peculiar underdog sympathy taking hold – one that affects Jews worldwide, not just in Israel. A Harvard-Harris poll in December reported that 44 percent of Americans ages 25 to 34, and a whopping 67 percent of those ages 18 to 24, agreed with the statement that “Jews as a class are oppressors.” By contrast, only 9 percent of Americans over 65 felt that way. This is concomitant with a rise in antisemitic incidents, including over 500 on campuses since early October.

Derek Penslar teaching about the Middle East, Source: Penslar via Inside Higher Ed

On the positive side, some schools have seen a surge in interest in courses dealing with the Middle East. Among these are Bard College, the University of Washington, and the University of Maryland. Even at Harvard, Derek Penslar, a professor of Jewish History, has seen substantial demand for a course he teaches, for instance. “The students who walk in my door are not necessarily the same ones as those who are in Harvard Yard screaming,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “More often than not, my students are curious, intelligent, and they usually do have a political view at one point or another. But they’re open-minded or else they wouldn’t bother taking my class.”

Third and finally, the problems on campuses are both short-term and long-term. In the coming few months, the challenges will be to allow for free speech — an essential part of a university experience — but also to assure student safety. Both Arab and Jewish students need to be able to feel physically safe and comfortable enough to have civil conversations inside and outside class. The war is ugly enough without bringing its effects here.

Longer-term, the challenge is for universities to teach more students — especially those most in need of knowledge — about the complexities of the Middle East and about the ugliness of antisemitism. One approach is to improve diversity, equity and inclusion programs to include mandatory sessions about Jewish and Arab history, much as they do now about Blacks and whites. After all, what is higher education about, if not education?

We’ll have a chance to look in depth at these issues in the upcoming FJMC webinar. It’s likely that this will be a sobering look, but an informative one, I hope.

What Can Make Trump Fail

Can the media, doing its job, show voters the fatal flaws of their hero?

Source: Bloomberg via Getty Images/Axios

Despite scores of news stories about his astonishing legal woes, Donald J. Trump seems likely to coast in on a smooth glidepath to the Republican nomination for president. As the National Review noted, he is polling above 60 percent nationally and leads the field by 30 points in Iowa, where caucusing takes place Monday night.

In the face of his four indictments, 91 criminal charges and two impeachments, his supporters seem only to rally behind him. They seem persuaded by his claims that he is a victim of persecution, much as they feel victimized by the economic, racial, ethnic and social change he seems to stand against – he is their King Canute.

A short time ago, The Wall Street Journal ran “Trump’s Businesses Got Millions From Foreign Governments While He Was President,” a piece detailing how various governments enriched him with official stays in his hotels in Las Vegas and Washington and spending at his New York properties. When I posted a link to it on Facebook, a journalist friend sadly wrote: “Story after story, year after year, decade after decade, yet no legal team can put TFG away,” wrote BusinessWeek veteran Joan Warner. “From tax evasion to misuse of funds to election tampering to insurrection to rape, he gets away with is. The one truthful thing he ever said was that he could shoot a guy on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t make a difference. He was right.”

The disdain Trump’s supporters feel for the legal system is mind-boggling, of course, as is the system’s seeming inability to nail him (even as a clutch of his underlings, deserted by him, have been jailed or face criminal charges). Equally unsettling, though, is the disregard among the MAGA faithful for journalistic work that that has illuminated his perfidy – before, during and after his presidency.

Source: The Washington Post

Story after story seems to roll off their backs or, bizarrely, to deepen their enthusiasm for him. Are they simply not paying attention? Or, worse, do these pieces just entrench the idea that the elites – in the “fake news” media that Trump derides to great effect – are just unfairly coming after their hero again?

For journalists, the question arises: does any of that painstaking, diligent work make any difference? Indeed, might be it counterproductive?

Back when Trump was spreading lies about Barack Obama’s birthplace, researchers described the “backfire” effect. As NPR put it in a 2010 piece, this was the idea that “we base our opinions on beliefs and when presented with contradictory facts, we adhere to our original belief even more strongly.” University of Michigan researcher Brendan Nyhan, who did much of this work, said “it’s threatening to us to admit that things we believe are wrong.” And the way people – both liberals and conservatives – deal with the cognitive dissonance of facts versus beliefs is to “buttress that belief that they initial held.”

Of course, it helps if one can find media outlets that reinforce such beliefs. In the case of Trump, think Fox News, Newsmax, conservative talk radio and the like. They stand in counterpose to legitimate media, feeding their audiences a steady pro-Trump diet that flies in the fast of the steady anti-Trump coverage of the mainstream folks.

Source: YouTube

And then, of course, there are Trump’s own blasts on social media. One of his most recent jaw-droppers is a reposted video, “God Gave Us Trump,” made by a group of his supporters and featuring the AI-created voice of Paul Harvey, a voice that would resonate in MAGA world. While a bright person might think this a parody, it’s anything but. Trump followed that with a birther attack on Nikki Haley, reposting a piece that claims she’s not a citizen, even though she was born in South Carolina, because her parents were immigrants. With that, he attacks perhaps his most palatable rival – one who polls better against Biden than Trump does – and smears immigrants, all in one fell swoop.

But there is reason to believe that continuing revelations about Trump’s shortcomings, along with the legal actions, could undo him. He may sail into the GOP nomination because so much of the party has been highjacked by the far right, but his luck in a national race could run as dry as his bankrupt casinos of old if the media continue to highlight his canyon-deep flaws. The best evidence, of course, is President Biden’s election in 2020. While Trump drew an amazing 74.2 million votes in that race, Biden still bested him with nearly 81.3 million. And the Electoral College tally was an impressive 306 for Biden to just 232 for Trump.

Back then, the media had reported for years about the legion of missteps by Trump in the White House. And in the election coverage, journalists delivered a nonstop barrage of coverage of his dismayingly broad array of problems. The media there clearly made a difference, as they did in the midterm elections in which Trump-backed candidates fell hard.

So, will the media tip the scales again? Well, a sharp new focus on the perversions to our system Trump is likely to deliver if elected may help. Publications such as The Atlantic have drawn attention to how much damage he could do to institutions ranging from the military and regulatory agencies to law enforcement. The New York Times has opened a window on what he and his minions plan, from wielding the Justice Department to attack his enemies to upending trade policy.

More such coverage of life under Trump 2.0 may stir up more Biden support, even if it doesn’t peel away Trump backing, going forward (Trump’s fans don’t read such publications, it would seem). Indeed, it would seem unlikely that the Trump base will shrink (it had grown from 62.96 million votes in 2016), unless reports are true that many of his backers would flee him if he were convicted of crimes.

Seeing him hauled off to jail may rally his most diehard backers, perhaps dangerously so, a la Jan. 6. But that could strip away some of the less deluded among his crowds. Of course, he’s doing his best to delay trials that could lead to such convictions, betting that he could quash the federal efforts, at least, if elected.

But what remains puzzling is just why so many people continue to back him. His railings against immigrants and minorities, his barely concealed white supremacism, his disdain for globalism and his thumb-your-nose views of coastal elites all seem to find traction among his devotees, overriding his yawning gaps. His personal immorality continues to be a non-issue for evangelicals who see him as their deliverer.

No matter how much economic stability and restored global influence Biden brings, these other matters seem to make Trump unassailable among many of his supporters. Why is he their avatar, their flagbearer?

Source: Facebook

Part of his appeal seems to lay in the simple ignorance that seems widespread among his backers. He has long been cherished by the under-educated and our system of primaries seems to turn heavily on them. As The New York Times reported, college-educated people have long been deserting such important primary states as Iowa and other states in the Upper Midwest, leaving behind those Hillary Clinton memorably described as a “basket of deplorables.” Such folks may read little of anything, in fact.

More troubling, part of his success has to do with flaws in our version of democracy. Recall that Clinton actually beat him by a fair number of popular votes in 2016, garnering nearly 3 million more votes at 65.8 million nationwide. But she lost the Electoral College vote 306-232 because that probably outdated institution gives more power to voters in small states than they deserve. Indeed, there continues to be a sharp media focus on so-called swing states, as intelligent cries for abolition of the Electoral College continue to go unheeded.

Moreover, the two-party system puts the choice of our presidential contenders in the hands of an astonishingly small number of people. As a Brookings Institution commentator broke down the figures, some 10,000 people – split between 8,567 delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions and the members of the parties’ national committees – choose the two contenders, the only real prizefighters in these elections. Most of those folks are representative of primary voter choices, of course, but those primary voters are always a fraction of the general electorate.

There remains hope that enough people can be persuaded – either in the primaries or in the general election – that we will be denied the continued hauntings of this supremely vindictive racist narcissist in the fall. Democracy, at least our flawed form of it, could prevail. It’s possible that even the legal system will rise to the occasion, despite him playing it like a fiddle.

Source: Partisan Issues

What of the media’s role and effectiveness? More recent research about the “backfire effect” suggests that even deeply held beliefs may not be set in concrete. As researcher Nyhan put it, “corrective information is typically at least somewhat effective at increasing belief accuracy….” Misperceptions may persist for years, but he suggests that carefully targeting information and breaking what he calls the linkage between group identities and false claims can be effective.

In other words, if the Trumpists begin to see him as a failure, his hold on them may slip. We can only hope he fails in the courts, in time, and in some key primaries, and that the media can drive home word of such slipups. By shooting straight with honest decisions and reporting about a man who reviles them, judges, juries and journalists can make a difference, but all have their work cut out for them.

Non-resolution time

What promises are you making for 2024?

Source: Newsweek

I have always avoided New Year’s resolutions. Partly, that’s because the holiday always struck me as a hollow, made-up affair, with forced excitement and too much drinking. Unlike, say, Christmas or Rosh Hashanah, it really seemed like nothing more substantial than a turning of the calendar. No Times Square cavorting for me.

Moreover, such customary vows as losing weight and exercising would likely prove short-lived or temporary, at best. Old habits die hard and just screwing up one’s resolve only to disappoint oneself in time — often in a very short time — seemed self-defeating.

But now that the calendar seems to turn faster and the road ahead is shorter than the road behind, I wonder if it’s time for me to revisit my reluctance. In whatever time remains, perhaps some goals, and knowing I have the means or ability to reach them, might be useful.

Source: BuzzRx

A new friend, who recently retired as a professor of nursing, told me the other day that she now has one job in life – to keep herself healthy. For her, that has meant dropping weight, a lot of it, and committing to a personal trainer. She spoke of how she celebrates every small achievement nowadays, whether it’s maintaining her new slenderness or bragging about the new definition in her arm and leg muscles (that trainer has been invaluable).

For my part (and for many of you, I expect), one job is far too small an estimate. We likely have myriad obligations as spouses, parents or grandparents. We may have commitments to volunteer efforts or to projects (writing-oriented ones or others). And all those come atop a basic need to stay healthy, which is quite the challenge in these Covid-will-be-with-us-forever times.

So, this brings me back to resolutions – or, perhaps, they could better be called aims or goals. One can fail in pursuing a resolution, after all, but if one falls short in an aim or a goal, one can still claim partial success. And one should always aim high, of course (consider the adage that one’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp).

Here are a few aims for me:

— Treat family members, particularly my devoted and superb wife, better each day than the one before.

— Be kind to strangers in need. This would apply to people I help as a volunteer at a ski resort and to folks such as the homeless who, sadly, seem to be proliferating everywhere.

— Make time for healthy diversions, such as exercise and hobbies such as honing those guitar skills.

— Be available for friends. Set up those for-the-hell-of-it dinners or lunches.

— Be fair-minded and open to alternative viewpoints.

— Avoid dwelling on toxic influences (that includes Donald Trump). And this one doesn’t contradict the prior one, since some things remain beyond the pale.

— Be kind to oneself, including being forgiving when falling short of such targets as those above.

Source: Bhavana Learning Group

Okay, so a skeptic may say these aims are vague. Better to promise something such as “drop 10 lbs. by Feb. 15” or “compliment my wife at least three times a day” or “write that damn novel, already.” But, that sort of specificity invites failure. Such detailed commitments smack of resolutions, not aims (see above).

So, fresh from a delightful New Year’s Eve gathering last night with friends (which wasn’t at all made up, but was wonderfully warm and fun), I set down these aims. Let’s see how well they stand up over the coming 365 days.

I hope your resolutions, aims or whatever, go well. Happy New Year, all.

Why So Sour?

Americans seem more pessimistic than ever in recent memory — and it’s tough to see what will change that

Source: The Wall Street Journal

By most measures of national economic health, things look pretty bright. And yet, Americans have become a nation of Gloomy Gusses, it seems. Just why goes some way toward explaining our troubling politics and our likely futures.

A couple recent polls – a national one released by The Wall Street Journal and a narrower one from The New York Times – both point to a surprising degree of negativity abroad in the land. And a few experts – as well as laymen – have offered concerning explanations of the results.

The Journal recently released results of a survey in which only 36% of voters said the American dream still holds true. This is down from 48% in 2016 (that fateful election year) and from 53% in 2012 in similar surveys. And it’s down substantially from a Wall Street Journal poll just last year in which some 68% said people who worked hard were likely to get ahead in this country.

The Journal observes: “… Americans across the political spectrum are feeling economically fragile and uncertain that the ladder to higher living standards remains sturdy, even amid many signs of economic and social progress.”

Source: The Economist

The American dream, as the pollsters from the University of Chicago’s NORC program working with the WSJ described it, is the simple notion that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead. And their question, from interviews with 1,163 voters, was whether that still holds true (36% said yes), never held true (18%) or, quite disturbingly, once held true but doesn’t anymore (45%).

Furthermore, half of those polled said that life in America is worse than it was 50 years ago, compared with just 30% who said it had gotten better. Asked if they believed that the economic and political system is “stacked against people like me,” half agreed with the statement, while only 39% disagreed.

The big question, perhaps an existential one for the 2024 presidential election, is “why such pessimism?” Moreover, how can Americans feel so down when macroeconomic measures are so up?

The national unemployment rate, for instance, sits at 3.9%, remarkably low by historic standards. And median weekly earnings of the nation’s 122.1 million full-time wage and salary workers are now 4.5 percent higher than a year ago, outpacing inflation (up 3.5 percent over the same period).

The Journal article suggests a few explanations. It quotes a 30-year-old Missouri fellow as saying: “We have a nice house in the suburbs, and we have a two-car garage … But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that money was tight.” For him and most of his neighbors, “no matter how good it looks on the outside, I feel we are all a couple of paychecks away from being on the street.”

Despite the extraordinary material amenities that most Americans now enjoy, thanks to technological progress and global economic health, that fellow said life is “objectively worse” than it was a half-century ago. He pointed to the decline of unions and the disappearance of pensions, things that helped his railroad-worker grandfather.

Others quoted by the WSJ similarly pointed to inflation, even though the rate of price increases has declined in recent months. Suggesting a lag in perception, the newspaper noted that inflation outpaced the gains in worker pay in 2022 for the second year in a row, and mortgage rates are at their highest level in more than two decades.

The results of a New York Times/Siena College poll, focused on six electoral swing states, likewise reflect gloomy outlooks. Eight in 10 respondents said the economy is fair or poor, with just 2% calling it excellent. Majorities of every group of Americans — across gender, race, age, education, geography, income and party — have an unfavorable view.

A Times editorial board member, Binyamin Applebaum, and Peter Coy, a former colleague at BusinessWeek now writing for the newspaper, offered some wisdom on the grumpiness.

Source: Stanford News, Stanford University

Coy pointed to differing views of inflation between the average consumer and the number-crunchers. “To an economist, inflation is the change in prices,” he wrote. “So if prices go up sharply but then level off for a few months, the monthly inflation rate at that point is zero. There’s no more change in prices, right? But to most people, inflation is high prices. So they look at high prices in the supermarket or wherever and say, ‘That’s inflation!”

Furthermore, Coy pointed to home prices and mortgage rates, both up as affordability is way down. “Rents are also up. This is no problem if you already own, but it’s awful if you’re a young person trying to buy your first place,” Coy wrote. “That’s why you see TikTok talking about a Silent Depression; that might also explain why 93 percent of people 18 to 29 in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll said the economy was poor or only fair.”

For his part, Applebaum focused on the dark outlook for the future, a sense of dread.

He noted that an NBC News poll found that only 19% of respondents were confident that the next generation would have better lives than their own generation. “NBC said it was the smallest share of optimists dating back to the question’s introduction in 1990,” he said.

Applebaum’s conclusion: “For me, this is the great failure of the Biden administration and its economic policies: Americans simply aren’t convinced that the future is bright.”

This observation was supported by a crucial detail in the WSJ poll results. To 45% of the respondents in that survey, there once was an American dream but it has disappeared. And for 18%, it was all a lie, something never real.

Let’s add a few thoughts. First, widespread unaffordability of housing may be the single biggest tangible element contributing to the bad-feelings wave. After all, a key part of the American dream is owning one’s home, something that brings with it safety and promising educational prospects for a family.

According to the National Association of Realtors, the median price for an existing home — one that’s already standing, not new construction — came to $410,200 in June 2023, Bankrate reports. The news service reports that the figure is the second highest since the association started tracking the data. While down a bit from the all-time high of $413,800, at the peak of the housing boom in June 2022, it’s still in nosebleed territory for many.

Those of us who recall the postwar developments such as Levittown remember a time when GIs with little assets but with steady jobs in the fast-expanding economy could afford homes. A home in such a development would sell for $8,000 in the late 1940s (or about $102,000 in today’s dollars). As Edward Glaeser recounted in Triumph of the City: How Our Best Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, the G.I. Bill and federal housing subsidies, trimmed the upfront cost of a house for many buyers to around $400 (or $5,100 today).

Levittown, Pa., source: Wikipedia

Where are today’s Levittown equivalents? From coast to coast, developers are keen to build homes that start at $500,000 or so. Are many building on the lower end? No. Indeed, the median price of an existing home in Levittown, New York, today, is $606,000.

Moreover, developers are not even building enough apartments for low-income earners – which could otherwise be steppingstones for affordable homes.

The Urban Institute and the National Housing Conference report that for every 100 extremely low income households, there are only 29 adequate, affordable, and available rental units. That means two parents who both work minimum-wage jobs might wait years to find a safe, affordable place to live with their two kids. With such high demand, why aren’t developers racing to build affordable apartments?

The answer: “building affordable housing is not particularly affordable,” the groups say. They point to a huge gap between what such buildings cost to construct and maintain and the rents most people can pay. “Without the help of too-scarce government subsidies for creating, preserving, and operating affordable apartments, building these homes is often impossible,” the groups say.

A related issue that likely contributes to national pessimism — at least among city-dwellers — is widespread homelessness. Walk the streets of just about many medium-size or large city in America and you are likely to come across people living in tents. The Department of Housing and Urban Development counted about 582,000 such homeless people in 2022, or 18 for every 10,000 Americans.

And homelessness is a product of both unaffordable low-end housing and a panoply of intractable social ills, including drug addiction and mental illness. With such highly visible and apparently worsening problems, is it any wonder that many Americans find optimism difficult?

Source: College Board

In looking forward, too, education factors into the national mood. Higher education, after all, is perhaps the biggest driver of social mobility over generations. The average cost of a college degree now is $36,486 per student per year, with all costs included. Accordingly, the amount of debt most students must incur – something that can weigh them down for decades – is prohibitively high. The costs, of course, were far lower in past decades.

Finally, while crime rates in some respects have been dropping, gun violence has been rising. In 2020, gun violence became the leading cause of death for American childrenThe New York Times reported. In 2022 things grew worse: The number of children killed in shootings rose by almost 12 percent, and those wounded increased by almost 11 percent, the newspaper said.

Of course, mass shootings garner headlines, which hardly can only corrode the national mood. The national tally of such events now tops 600 and solutions that can curb them seem impossible to find. Tragically, the number of guns nationwide continues to climb.

Amid all this, we now face the prospect of a rematch between Joseph Biden and Donald Trump for the presidency in 2024. For all his policy successes – and measurable economic gains – Biden, now 81, is widely seen as just too old. Even though Trump is just four years younger, Biden often appears feeble in comparison to Trump. Neither is, say, a John F. Kennedy, whose youthful good looks mirrored the upbeat national mood of the early 1960s.

It’s hard to see what will lift the national outlook. A new generation of presidential politicians, those who project the optimism of a Kennedy or, on the other side, a Reagan? That would go some ways. But the tougher nuts to crack are the all-too- tangible ones of affordable housing and higher education, safety and better-paying and more secure jobs.

Truth and Lies

Misinformation abounds in the Israel-Hamas war

Al Shifa Hospital, source: Haaretz

As Israeli forces move in on the Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza, they and the world will soon learn whether their intelligence, corroborated by American information sources, is correct that the facility masks an elaborate underground Hamas command and control center. The denials by Hamas leaders about the site and their rejections of the charge that they use human shields – in this case, vulnerable patients – to protect their operations will either be validated or shown to be more disinformation.

But will the Arab world see or believe the reports? Or will it see what it chooses to see and is often fed, a nonstop parade of Palestinian victims in videos served up on CNN and other outlets? Will that world see mostly the propaganda shared by Qatari-owned Al Jazeera that, instead of displaying the savagery of October 7th in Israel, airs clips of Hamas terrorists nuzzling Jewish babies?

As The New Yorker so capably reported, much of the Arab audience is seeing heroic and compassionate fighters, as Al Jazeera displays them. In one oft-downloaded clip, the so-called “bismillah” video, a terrorist vigorously pats the back of a crying baby pressed against his shoulder—the same shoulder carrying his Kalashnikov.

“Another fighter, wearing a camouflage uniform, bandages the foot of an Israeli boy of toddler age, then puts the boy on his lap while jerking the crying baby back and forth in a stroller,” the magazine reported. “A camera zooms in on the confused face of the boy as an unseen fighter, speaking broken English, instructs him to repeat the Arabic word meaning ‘in the name of God.’ ‘Say bismillah,’ the fighter says. The boy complies, in a soft Hebrew accent.”

Experts quoted by The New Yorker derided such clips as ham-fisted propaganda. Michael Milshtein, a retired Israeli intelligence official, told the magazine that the bismillah video “demonstrates Hamas’s arrogance toward the West—that they think all Westerners are stupid, that, if they show images of these barbarian terrorists holding babies and hugging them, people in the West will say, ‘Oh, they are so sweet. We were wrong about them!’ It’s ridiculous.” 

But the cruel nonsense gains traction in much of the Arab world. Ghaith al-Omari—a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority and a longtime opponent of Hamas—told the magazine that such videos had convinced many Arabs that the group’s fighters, unlike ISIS, “are humane and respect Islamic laws of war.” He added, “It has resonated throughout the Arab world. This is now the line you see not only in Hamas media but in most Arab media, in Jordan, Egypt, and North Africa. The dominant narrative has become the narrative of Hamas.”

Indeed, to Palestinians and other Arabs, the crass video hit the target. “It was posted to Al Jazeera’s Facebook page for Egypt, and has been viewed more than 1.4 million times,” The New Yorker reported. “Nearly seventy-five thousand viewers have liked it, and nearly three thousand have left comments, many of them admiring. One commenter praised ‘the morals of the fighters of the Islamic resistance.’”

Much as American audiences can choose to view media that confirm their prejudices, the rest of the world can do so, as well. And a good part of that world isn’t seeing the truth – as best as honest journalists can discover it – but is getting propaganda, as best as Hamas and its supporters can craft it.

Misinformation abounds. The New York Times reported on how imagery from other wars is being widely circulated under headlines about the Israel-Hamas war, for example. “A heap of dead children swaddled in white, described as Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. (In fact, the children are Syrian and the photograph was taken in 2013.),” the Times recounted. “A young boy trembling in the dark, covered in a white residue and grasping a tree, cast as ‘another traumatized child in Gaza.’ (In fact, the video was taken after a recent flood in Tajikistan.)”

For the most part, major Western news outlets have been careful to check the imagery and information they get and they avoid publicizing it. However, some have been embarrassed by revelations that they employed photographers who were cheerleaders for Hamas. CNN and AP, for instance, used freelancer Hassan Eslaiah, who provided video from the October 7th attack, suggesting he went along for parts of the ghastly ride.

“He captured images of a burning Israeli tank and filmed the terrorist infiltrators entering Kibbutz Kfar Azza, as can be seen in a video,” according to National Review. In Arabic, Eslaiah said: “Everyone who were inside this tank were kidnapped, everyone who were inside the tank were kidnapped a short while ago by al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas’ armed wing], as we have seen with our own eyes.”

Hassan Eslaiah being kissed by a Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, source: TheWrap

After an image of Eslaiah being kissed by a Hamas leader was distributed by HonestReporting, a pro-Israel outlet, both CNN and AP cut ties to him. Earlier, The New York Times was outed for using the work of Soliman Hijjy, a photographer who had been fired by the outlet a while ago because he had praised Hitler on social media. It’s not clear if the paper still uses his work, as his last archived efforts came around the time his rehiring drew critical headlines. That work perpetuated the fiction that an Israeli missile had hit the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza.

Beyond such partisan efforts and misinformation, getting true representations is tougher in this war because of AI-generated imagery that goes beyond crude Photoshopped efforts. Reuters reported, for instance, about how a photo of Atletico Madrid fans purportedly displayed a giant Palestinian flag. It was a fake. Similarly, Reuters fact checkers turned up a false image of Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi holding such a flag.

Much of this is spread via social media, particularly on X, formerly known as Twitter. As RFA (Radio Free Asia) reported, a “verified user” on X falsely claimed that The Wall Street Journal had reported that U.S.-made bombs were dropped on Gaza’s AI-Ahli Hospital. This lie got nearly six times more views than the newspaper’s genuine tweet about the story earlier that day. (RFA is a U.S. government-funded news outlet whose Asia Fact Check Lab seeks to expose disinformation).

In Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, misinformation is rife. Voice of America, another U.S.-government information service, found that millions there watched a video on X entitled “Armed Hamas men infiltrate an Israeli music festival using a paraglider and launch a massive attack resulting in numerous casualties.” As VOA reported, the video was later revealed to depict Egyptian paratroopers flying over the Egyptian Military Academy in Cairo.

London Armistice Day March, source: Getty Images, via NPR

Given all the distortions, it’s no wonder tens of thousands came out on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, to march in London, calling for “Freedom for Palestine.” While police pegged the size of the crowd at 300,000, organizers claimed 800,000, likely another example of misinformation.

A day later, in Paris, a crowd estimated by police to total 105,000 marched with leading French politicians to decry the wave of antisemitism that has gripped France. The country has recorded more than a thousand incidents since October 7th, including the stabbing a Jewish woman in her home in Lyon. Antisemitic incidents have also occurred in Austria, Germany and Spain.

The raft of antisemitic incidents around the world gives the lie to the distinction some intellectuals make between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. How can slurs or physical attacks on Jewish institutions and on Jews be regarded as criticisms of Zionism, but not of Jews? They are one and the same.

As the Israel-Hamas war proceeds, sorting the real from the unreal will be an ongoing challenge. And, to defenders of terrorism, the facts may not matter much. They all too easily can rationalize away the existence of Hamas tunnels beneath apartment buildings and hospitals, perhaps seeing them as desperate measures by desperate people.

But it is sheer hypocrisy for the terrorists to prevent civilians from leaving areas when the Israel Defense Forces have told them to leave because of planned attacks. It seems the group values Palestinian deaths more than lives, seeing their own people as props in grisly propaganda.

Their lack of value for life in general is clear in documents found on the bodies of terrorists who attacked on October 7th. As The Washington Post reported, in one kibbutz town a dead terrorist carried a notebook with hand-scrawled Quranic verses and orders that read, “Kill as many people and take as many hostages as possible.”

Intelligence officials, piecing together tidbits such as that, have concluded that Hamas planned “not just to kill and capture Israelis, but to spark a conflagration that would sweep the region and lead to a wider conflict.” The group, apparently seeking just the sort of bloodshed now seen in Gaza, wanted “to strike a blow of historic proportions, in the expectation that the group’s actions would compel an overwhelming Israeli response.”

It is all rather sadly reminiscent of the title of a book about jihadists in Britain published a few years ago. The title: “We Love Death as you Love Life.” The quote hails from interviews given in 2014 by a pair of Hamas leaders: Muhammad Deif said: “Today you [Israelis] are fighting divine soldiers, who love death for Allah like you love life, and who compete among themselves for Martyrdom like you flee from death.” And Ismail Haniyeh said: “We love death like our enemies love life! We love Martyrdom, the way in which [Hamas] leaders died.”