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Bret Stephens2By BERNIE BELLAN
Pulitzer prize-winning NY Times columnist Bret Stephens was the 14th speaker in what has become an annual tradition in Winnipeg:  the 14th Sol and Florence Kanee Distinguished Lecture Series, held once again at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue –this year on Monday, May 13.

 

 

 

 


Over 650 people were in attendance to hear Stephens, who is also a former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post.  For anyone who had attended last year’s Kanee lecture, at which noted historian Margaret MacMillan was the guest speaker, Stephens’ subject matter would have sounded quite familiar. Both MacMillan and Stephens focused on the turbulent period following the end of World War I and the dramatic changes to the established world order that ensued as a result.


Whereas MacMillan largely confined herself to assessing the immediate results of the upheaval that engulfed so much of the world in the post-war period, Stephens’ talk took on a longer-range perspective as he attempted to analyze the parallels between what was happening in the world following World War I and what has been happening more recently.
In doing so, Stephens warned the audience that the talk he was about to give was going to be “heavy” and that he wasn’t going to attempt to inject much in the way of humour into it – given the seriousness of his subject matter.
What Stephens did do is present a coherent analysis of the present-day world situation – with one very surprising observation about what, he argued, is the most important date in recent world history.


Stephens began his talk by quoting from Mark Twain, saying that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.”
Following the end of World War I, Stephens explained, there were five great “isms” that took hold,, predominantly in Europe, but also to lesser extents in every corner of the globe: nationalism, populism, fascism, communism, and totalitarianism.
The horrors of the First World War led to “a loss of faith in liberal democracy,” Stephens noted. As a result, movements everywhere sprang up advocating for one or more of the “isms” Stephens listed.


Turning to the present day, however, while there seem to be so many similarities to the post–World War I period, especially with the rise of nationalism and anti-democratic norms in so many countries that had previously been liberal democracies – at least for a short time (referring to Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland, which have taken a sharp turn to the right), Stephens laid the blame for the erosion of trust in liberal democracy at the feet of Barack Obama.
When I mentioned earlier that Stephens cited one particular date in history as the key moment for this erosion of trust in liberal democracy, the date he referred to was Sept. 10, 2013.
It was on that date, Stephens declared, that then-President Obama announced that he would not enforce the “red line in the sand” he had drawn for Bashir Assad of Syria if Assad were to dare use chemical weapons against his own people.
“Six months later Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea,” Stephens observed. “Nine months later, ISIS took over Mosul, and Iran extended its sphere of influence in the Middle East. The secret was out: The world policeman” was not going to be taking action against any of those bullies.
That decision not to back up an explicit threat not to stand by and watch a dictator commit atrocities against his own people set in motion a series of events whose consequences are now reverberating, Stephens argued.
Assad’s brutal campaign against his fellow countrymen led to the mass “exodus of refugees from Syria.” In turn, it led to an upsurge of nationalist sentiment in European countries where those refugees sought asylum, culminating in the disastrous decision of Britain’s Conservative government to call for a referendum on Britain leaving the European Union, resulting in the chaos of “Brexit”.
As a result, “leaders in the West were making it up as they went along – a rudderless ship at the mercy of storms and pirates.”


With the eventual loss of faith in liberal democratic norms in so many Western countries, it should not have been that much of a surprise, Stephens suggested, that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
“There is a tendency among intelligent people in the United States to read Trump as a stupid trickster who stumbled his way into the White House,” Stephens said.
But, in dismissing Trump as unintelligent, those critics underestimate (or, as Stephens said, quoting George W. Bush, “misunderstimate”) Trump’s actual intelligence.
“There are many kinds of intelligence,” Stephens argued. Trump possesses both “feral and artistic” intelligence.


Trump’s “feral” intelligence leads him to “put people down like a rattlesnake who knows how to sink its fangs” into its victim. When Trump tweets his vicious put-downs of just about anyone to whom he takes a dislike at the moment, he is brilliant in leaving a lasting characterization of that person. For instance, during the Republican primary season in 2016, Trump labeled Florida Governor Jeb Bush who, at the time, was thought of as the front-runner, for the Republican nomination as “low energy”. That epithet stuck – as did Trump’s dismissal of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocohantas” (when she claimed to have some Native blood).


As for Trump’s penchant for constant lying, “truth is whatever he can get away with at the moment,” Stephens observed.
When it comes to Trump’s “artistic intelligence”, Trump is a “world class brander,” Stephens said. “His tweets should be studied for their all-round brilliance….he communicates directly with his 51 million Twitter followers…Trump has said what matters in politics aren’t the polls, it’s the ratings…Trump is constantly picking fights and people watch.”


Continuing to expand upon the notion that Trump has been intelligent in how he has picked fights, Stephens listed three fights in particular in which Trump has held the upper hand:
1. His crusade against immigrants – not just illegal ones. (Remember that early after his election Trump sought to ban immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.)
2. His fight against what is popularly referred to as “the deep state”, “including the CIA, FBI, and other parts of the Washington establishment.
 3. The war he has waged on the press. Anyone in the media who takes issue with anything Tump says or does is dismissed as part of the “fake news”.
By resorting to the tactics that he has, Trump “is perfectly replicating the demagogues of the 1920 and 30s,” Stephens suggested – an “us versus them mentality”.
His style is “intended to provoke one of two emotions,” Stephens said: “love or hate, with nothing in between.”


Nonetheless, despite the extreme reactions Trump elicits, Stephens did say that, “still I applaud Trump when he’s done something right”. In saying that, Stephens referred to three policies Trump has moved forward: Moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; withdrawing from the deal with Iran; and getting tough on trade with China.
Yet, despite those accomplishments, Stephens said that Trump’s presidency is notable for the fact that “we are now in an age when America is defined by the politics of hate.”


But, it’s not just the right that is guilty of bigotry and hate; so is the left, according to Stephens. “The war on free speech is at least as strong among the progressive left as it is among the right,” he declared.
Looking back at historical parallels, Stephens suggested that “nobody knows where the politics of the 1920s and 30s led better than the Jewish people…but to be alarmed is not to despair.”
“The ultimate reason” that liberal democracies nearly gave way to right wing-led governments following World War I is that people lost faith in liberal democracies. But, writers like George Orwell did not lose faith, Stephens pointed out. Men such as Orwell “reinvigorated the old politics” by championing the basic tenets of liberalism: “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


Following Stephens’ speech, he fielded questions from the audience.
The first was “Is there excessive statism?”
Stephens responded: “Populism has been successful because it traffics in half truths.”
He pointed to the example of immigration , which has become a hugely successful wedge issue for right wing parties across the West. Right wing parties that were considered moribund in countries such as Germany have shown great popularity in recent elections when they have railed against governments’ forcing native residents to accept large numbers of refugees into their midst, Stephens asserted.
When right wing parties claim that immigration is the reason for their countries’ economic and social decline, they are partly right, Stephens suggested. By welcoming immigrants into their fold without forcing them to adopt the norms of their host countries, many Western countries have been responsible for the resultant crises of confidence in their governments.
“Immigration without assimilation is bad,” is how Stephens succinctly put it.
“The other half truth (that right wing parties espouse) is that the state is the source of all evil.” As an example, he pointed to the deep distrust so many people living within the European Union harbour toward the bureaucratic machinery that pervades the European Union administration.
That bureaucracy is “too meddlesome,” Stephens suggested, “but do you throw out the baby with the bath water?”


Turning to the Trump presidency and Trump’s antipathy for the so-called “Washington establishment”, Stephens lamented the fact that “the fundamental problem with this presidency is there’s been a corrosion in the sense of respect for institutional norms.”
He cited the instance when Richard Nixon lost the 1960 presidential election to John Kennedy – almost certainly as a result of fraudulent votes cast in Illinois when Richard Daley was governor. Nixon would have had “a good case that the election had been stolen from him,” Stephens observed, “but he had enough respect for institutions that he didn’t contest the election.”
“I don’t know if you are allowed to say this”, Stephens wondered, “but Donald Trump is no Richard Nixon.”


Again, in the year 2000, when Al Gore lost the presidential election to George W. Bush as the result of some “hanging chads” in Florida, Gore, too, “respected institutions” and did not contest that election once the Supreme Court had ruled in favour of Bush. That respect for institutions has been lost under Trump, Stephens insisted.


Someone asked Stephens to elaborate on why he was so critical of Obama’s failure  to enforce his “red line” with Bashir Assad?
Stephens answered that Obama’s decision and the U.S.’s subsequent retreat from its role as the “world’s policeman” paved the way for Trump’s foreign policy. Obama advocated “nation building at home,” Stephens said. “It sounds better than ‘America first’, but it’s much the same... Yet, we show our leadership by standing up for ideals”, he argued.


Still, another audience member challenged Stephens’ assertion that Obama’s failure to enforce his red line has been the key turning point in the recent course of history.
“Do you not think that the invasion of Iraq was the key turning point?” the audience member asked.
Stephens answered: “As someone who supported the war then,” he was still of the view that it was not wrong for America to invade Iraq; however, “the war that we thought was going to be fast and easy was long and messy…It produced a spirit of neo-isolationism, leading to us saying we would never want to intervene in Syria – but there could have been a middle way (for Obama to respond to Assad’s gassing his own people), Stephens argued. “We could have stopped Bashir Assad. We could have sent in the 101st Airborne.”


Pausing to reflect on the overall impact of the speech he had given, Stephens did admit that his speech was not exactly inspiring. “The reason,” he said (only half in jest) “is that when you give a speech to a Jewish audience, you should be as depressing as possible.”
Stephens then quoted Woody Allen: “It’s always darkest before it goes totally black.”


He also added one more observation about the rise of populism in recent years, again quoting from someone else – in this case, Thomas Mann: “The fundamental desire of man is not to be free, but to obey.”
In yet one more observation that could hardly be interpreted as offering much hope, Stephens said that “Twitter can create a digital mob very quickly…Things corrode quickly and then they crack quickly.”


Throughout this article I have tried to avoid injecting my own opinions of Stephens’ speech. I suppose what I might have said to him though is that Canada’s political culture is markedly different from America’s. Certainly we have a right and a left wing here, but I think it’s fair to say that the divisions among our political parties are not nearly so great as they are in the U.S. or most European countries. I’m not necessarily saying that Canada is safe from the extremes that pervade so many other countries in the West, but on the whole, I would submit, liberal democratic norms are on much more solid ground in this country than they are either in the U.S. or Europe.

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