Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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Of Noteworthy Items in the Press

Trunk Lines: Can the American left find its way back to a healthy pride in America? Probably not until it learns a healthy respect for the Jewish roots of America’s political culture, author Jim Sleeper argues in the winter issue of Dissent magazine.

“[T]ry to explain the power of abolitionism, Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric, or the social gospel, populist, Progressive, suffragist, civil rights and other social movements without acknowledging that the Hebraic covenantal and prophetic nationalist strains in Puritanism have driven American reform through Protestant inflections and Enlightenment crosscurrents,” Sleeper writes in his essay, “Whose Elephant? Civic Nationalism and the Left.”

To be sure, the left has pretty deep Jewish roots of its own, Sleeper writes: “more leftist thought than we acknowledge is a secularized variant of an original Jewish idea of history-making through covenantal and messianic redemption — a thundering of God in the world, through human agency.” But, he says, “a disproportionate number of the left’s thinkers and leaders, starting with Karl Marx, fled their ancestral Jewish burden of chosenness in history by secularizing it.”

The “elephant” in Sleeper’s title is the one in the old joke about “a European émigré who, discovering the Bronx Zoo, wrote an essay on ‘The Elephant and the Jewish Question.’” The left, he says, is just that clueless when confronted with American patriotism.

It wasn’t always so. The left, Sleeper says, “has forgotten how to keep American pride on the sound footing set by Eugene V. Debs, A. Philip Randolph, and others who were anything but conservatives.”

What to do? For starters, Sleeper says, the left must learn to embrace nationalism and religion as positive values. Others have argued the same thing for tactical reasons, as a way to regain electoral credibility. But Sleeper, a founding father of the 1960s-era Jewish student counterculture, sees the two as values in themselves.

So far, Sleeper might sound like any other neoconservative who’s lost patience with liberalism. But Sleeper, author of the controversial 1990 book “The Closest of Strangers: Liberals and the Politics of Race in New York,” thinks the left still has an essential message. Global capitalism and American market culture are “out of control,” running roughshod over decency, individuality and “civility in public places,” turning everything into a commodity. Conservatives claim to defend those homely values, he says, but they serve the system that degrades them. What’s needed is a new ethic of civic responsibility and “communal belonging.” “Neither left nor right can do it credibly now, not least because leftists in flight from their own true origins can’t understand the American elephant any better than did that émigré at the Bronx Zoo.”

* * *

Foreign Aid and Abet: While Yasser Arafat was busy this week picking from a short list for the newly created post of Palestinian prime minister, Forbes magazine was picking the Palestinian leader for the No. 6 spot on its list of the richest men and women who “don’t exactly represent success stories of entrepreneurial capitalism.”

The list of “Kings, Queens & Despots,” which ran along with Forbes’s 17th annual list of the world’s richest people in the magazine’s March 17 issue, estimates Arafat’s fortune to be at least $300 million. That money, writes Nathan Vardi, is what has kept Arafat in power. “With a tight grip on much of the $5.5 billion in international aid that has flowed into the P.A. since 1994,” Vardi writes, “he appears to have overseen virtually all disbursements, from $600 payments to alleged terrorists and $1,500 in ‘tuition’ for security officers, to $10 million, reportedly paid by a company controlled by friends of Arafat, for a 50-ton shipment of weapons from Iran.”

Vardi reports that the reforms being spearheaded by the man Arafat appointed to be P.A. finance minister, Salam Fayyad, might even end up toppling the Palestinian leader himself. “Take the money out of his hands, reform a corrupt financial system and you could reduce the violence,” Vardi writes. “That’s the thinking of U.S. and European officials who insisted on the appointment of a new finance minister for the P.A.”

Arafat, though, is not the only man on the list who might face the fate of deposal. Saddam Hussein, with a fortune estimated to be at least $2 billion, landed at No. 4 on the list — just ahead of England’s Queen Elizabeth II.

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