Twilight of the Lobbies

Among the most powerful lobbies in Washington that have nothing directly to do with the pecuniary interests of the fraction of the one percent who keep the rest of us down are the National Rifle Association (NRA) and, of course, the Israel lobby.  The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is its largest and best-known component, but there are many other organizations associated with it.

Lately, both lobbies have wielded unprecedented power, despite widespread but tepid popular disapproval.

By now, neither lobby has to say much or throw large sums of money around; they get their way, and then some, through intimidation.  Mainstream politicians are so used to it that they do their bidding as if out of habit.

So far along has this process gone that neither lobby seems able to overplay its hand.  In any reasonable world, the outrage du jour – there are always plenty to choose from — would be their undoing.  But it never is.

After the most recent gun massacre – the one in Aurora, Colorado – the first words out of the Obama administration, even as the president went to Colorado (a swing state) to emote Bill Clinton style with the families of the victims, was that he had no intention of taking on “second amendment rights.”  His apologists in the media were disarmingly honest: in an election year, there’s no percentage in it.

A few Democrats in Congress, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn do support milquetoast restrictions on assault rifles and other military weapons and there is some interest in regulating on-line sales of massive quantities of ammunition.   But, Quinn’s case apart, calls for edging closer to sanity emanate out of locales where being reasonable about guns comes cheap, and therefore where NRA intimidation doesn’t work.

Then there was the nauseating spectacle of Romney in Jerusalem – sending mixed signals about how eager he is to implement what most American and Israeli military professionals and the intelligence communities of both countries agree, along with nearly everyone else, is one of the worst and most dangerous ideas out there – waging a war of aggression against Iran.   For Romney, the options seemed to be, as Stephen Colbert might put it – “eager” or “extremely eager.”

But a war is what the Israel lobby wants and, with an election pending (where words count for more than deeds), that trumps the near certain prospect of disaster for the United States (and Israel too) should America or Israel or both actually go to war.  It also renders irrelevant the fact that wars of aggression are war crimes.  With Mormon-hating Christian Zionists to win over, and the money of obscenely rich Jewish Zionists to tap, Romney’s lame venture in Middle Eastern diplomacy almost makes sense.

And so, for the time being these lobbies flourish.  But nothing last forever, and there is reason to think that both may finally have reached their apogee.  The conditions for their possibility, the Israel lobby’s especially, are fading fast.

* * *

In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama got into trouble when he told donors in California that in an era of social dislocation “folks [always “folks”!] in rural areas cling to their guns and their religion.”  When this was leaked to the press, he was accused of “elitism.”

The real crime, though, was that his indiscretion abetted political entrepreneurs in their (largely successful) efforts to concoct yet another incarnation of that perennial oxymoronic confection, right-wing populism.

It must be conceded, though, that the charge was not without merit; Obama can be condescending towards  “folks” whose views are retrograde — provided they are not also pillars of the corporate system or “savvy businessmen,” Obama’s term of praise for Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.

In any case, it is a mistake to think that the social base of the gun lobby is exclusively rural or that its constituents are economically insecure.  There are plenty of capitalists of the Dick Cheney type on board, and not all of them are from Texas.

Still, what Obama said and what he implied does explain a great deal about the gun lobby’s power.   There was a time when the NRA was comparatively harmless.  In addition to lobbying in Washington and state capitols, it did good work promoting gun safety and conserving animal populations (for hunters to kill).   Though it still presents itself much as it always has, education and conservation are hardly its main concerns now.

In line with its current political complexion, the NRA has become an ally of the armaments industry, and therefore arguably an adjunct to the military-industrial complex.  But the organization really isn’t about military boosterism.  For the most part, it’s not even about hunting or guns either, except symbolically or in passing.  It’s about identity.

In a period like ours, when class-conscious politics has gone missing outside ruling class circles, political passions have come to center on imputed or contrived identities, not interests.   In the United States, this has long been the pivot of the Democratic-Republican divide.  On issues of class power and the distribution of the economic surplus, the themes of traditional political conflict, there is hardly a sliver of light between the two, semi-established parties.

Because concerns about identity loom so large, culture wars flare up from time to time, and never really subside.  That’s what the NRA has been fighting in recent years – not with guns exactly, but over their place in American life.  In the gun lobby’s view, that place is or should be everywhere – or, more exactly, everywhere as far as government regulation is concerned.

The lobby’s official view is not that the good life is a gun filled life (though that is doubtless what many NRA leaders believe), but that, thanks to God or the Constitution or both, individuals have rights to
own and bear arms and to do with them what they want, so long as they don’t use them to harm others in ways that the law does not allow.  “Guns don’t kill people,” the saying goes, “people kill people”; but even if it were otherwise, it wouldn’t matter because gun rights are fundamental and infrangible.

The right to bear arms, virtually without regulation, is supposedly proclaimed in the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  A careful and honest reader would be hard put to find it in the language of that text, but there it is, the NRA contends; and with a majority of the Supreme Court in agreement, clearer minds are powerless to gainsay them.

The rationalizations right-wing jurists proffer are of little interest in their own right, except as examples of specious reasoning.  What matters more is what they reveal about our political life.  They show that we are citizens only in theory; in practice, we are whatever we see ourselves as, and the more central some issue is to our self-conceptions, the more steadfastly we cling to our view.

In contrast to the situation the Israel lobby confronts, the self-conceptions to which the gun lobby appeal have little to do with in-group solidarities based on real or imagined commonalities.  However, they have a great deal to do with out-group hostility – directed at the kinds of people who think that only benighted losers stick to their religion and their guns.

It is to stick it back to them that the “folks” Obama had in mind do in fact cling to their religion and their guns, even though most of them understand, at some level, that it is foolish to flood communities, especially the ones they inhabit, with assault rifles and endless rounds of ammunition.

It is the same with polling data on views about, say, evolution or the existence of angels.  It is not that people are imbeciles or even that they are ignorant.  It is that they project imbecility and ignorance to gain the recognition they seek.   To that end, they must think of themselves as different from, and opposed to, people who know better.

This operation works, to the extent it does, because we human beings are capable of massive self-deception and because we have a high level of tolerance for inconsistency and outright incoherence.

And so people who are able to negotiate their way through life competently and who take advantage of technological advances based on the science they implicitly reject are able, at the same time, to believe that, in six glorious days some four thousand years ago, God created the world and all that dwells therein pretty much as it now is.

It is very unlikely that the conditions that make this level of disingenuousness possible will soon change.  But there is no reason why the gun lobby should be able to capitalize on it indefinitely.

Ironically, the NRA’s success could be its undoing.  By seeing to it that serious gun control is off the political agenda, they have done their share to neutralize the usefulness of the issue for mobilizing “populist” support.  And by helping to make gun violence rampant and spectacular, they have done more than their share to prepare the way for the inevitable backlash.

To the extent that the NRA is perceived to be too far out of line with public opinion and too militant in its opposition to an enemy that has already effectively surrendered, and insofar as its role in promoting murder and mayhem is increasingly well understood, its days of ruling the roost may be numbered.

* * *

The Israel lobby is about identity politics too, but the issues are not the same.

In Israel itself, saner Zionists warn against the so-called demographic bomb.  With Arab birthrates high and Jewish birthrates low, especially among secular Jews of European origin, and with many Israelis emigrating, time is not on the side of the status quo.

The Israel lobby, or rather its Jewish component, faces a demographic bomb too.  The problem, now widely acknowledged, is that many, perhaps most, American Jews, especially younger ones, don’t care all that much about Israel and are, in fact, for the best of reasons, embarrassed by its bellicosity and racism.

The self-appointed leaders who comprise the Israel lobby are therefore increasingly out of line with the people they claim to represent.  AIPAC is bad enough.  The amply funded newcomer to its right, the Republican Jewish Coalition, is even worse.

At the time of the 1967 Six Day War, it was still possible to conjure up fears of impending annihilation among Jews suffering from survivors’ guilt in the wake of the Nazi Judeocide.  It is mainly from the ranks of those who took a sharp Zionist turn at that time that today’s “leaders” come.

With the passage of time, the bases for their fears have become even more transparently unrealistic than they were in 1967.  But success has spurred those self-styled leaders on and hardened their views.  This at the same time that assimilation, social acceptance, intermarriage and the virtual disappearance of anti-Semitism have proceeded apace.

Zionism’s raison d’être was that Jews could never really assimilate into “gentile” society, an idea that Nazis and other European anti-Semites shared.  Zionism’s founders were Jewish nationalists, of course, but their conviction that “the Jewish nation” must have a state of its own came in reaction to forebodings about the fate of European Jews.

The attachment to Palestine came later, and the connection to Judaism came later still.  Indeed, the first Zionists were militantly secular.  However, once they settled upon the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, they had to forge a national identity for the peoples who would settle there, and there was no way to do that without helping themselves to whatever they could retrieve from the Jewish religion and its traditions.

Still, before 1948 – arguably even before 1967 – Judaism and Zionism were, at best, joined together in an unhappy marriage.  Zionists needed Judaism because they had no other basis for forging a Jewish identity.  Judaism needed Zionism too.

This is because outside benighted, and largely self-segregated, orthodox (or “ultra-orthodox”) Jewish communities, Judaism has long been a dead letter.  Were it not for the potlatch-like social rituals of Bar (and, in recent decades, Bat) Mitzvahs and a lingering deference to the “High Holy Days,” American temples and synagogues – like those in other “diaspora” countries — would be empty year round.

Of course, the pendulum is always in motion, and so there has lately been a slight uptick in religious observance.  But, even though most religious Jews nowadays are at peace with Zionism, there are not, and never will be, enough practicing Jews who live outside self-imposed ghettoes and who engage with the modern world to replenish the lobby’s base.  It is burdensome to follow Halakhic (Jewish legal) prescriptions, especially when one must also deal with the exigencies of modern life.

And so, while Zionists need Judaism, Judaism really cannot be there for them.  Zionists can highjack the religion, as they largely have, and use its institutions to draw Jews into the Zionist fold.  But Zionism itself must look elsewhere for sustenance.

This is what explains their obsession with the Nazi Judeocide of seven decades ago.  Zionists call it a “Holocaust” – everyone now does — suggesting that it somehow falls outside the scope of ordinary historical understanding, that it is a moment in sacred history that is unique unto itself and inexplicable in naturalistic terms.

In league with “gentile” co-thinkers, they construct monuments and museums to drive the point home. But here too there are diminishing returns and, even more than is the case with the gun lobby, time is not on their side.

Ironically, post-9/11 “homeland security” has expedited the declining utility of the Holocaust as a substitute for the Jewish religion in the quest for Jewish identity.  Not long ago, evocations of Germany’s Nazi past and allusions to the authoritarian streak in German culture were part of the political vernacular in the United States and other countries.

But now that (contemporary) Germany has become a paragon of decency and lawfulness in comparison with Bush’s and Obama’s America, that is largely done.  This is why, for scaring people into line, the Holocaust doesn’t work as well as it used to.  It is far from useless still.  But the edge is gone.

Holocaust mongering was, and still is, useful for both the Israeli and American states.  It helps give Israel moral capital that Israeli governments then use to make life in the occupied territories so miserable that Palestinians will finally “self-deport” (the word Mitt Romney used in discussing undocumented workers in the United States).   And depicting the Holocaust as an evil greater than which none can be conceived makes America’s many dark moments seem pale in comparison.

But the Holocaust is already seventy years old, and the clock never stops running.

* * *

Still, for the foreseeable future, Israel itself is, for all practical purposes, immune from charges of overreaching; our media see to that.  But the Israel lobby is another story. Much like the gun lobby, it is in danger of going too far.

That all is not right with it began to dawn on public opinion when it became widely known, during the primary season last spring, that a Las Vegas financier of the Israeli far right and of the settler movement, Sheldon Adelson, almost bought the Republican nomination for Newt Gingrich.

Adelson especially liked how willing Gingrich was to say that there really is no Palestinian people (shades of Golda Meir), that “Judea and Samaria” rightfully belong to the Jewish people, that Iran is a clear and present danger that ought to be dealt with militarily and, of course, that the United States should move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Had he had a better candidate to work with or at least a less compromised one, Adelson might well have had his way.  Instead, all he succeeded in doing was making a spectacle of himself.

Now he is at it again, this time for Mitt Romney.  And so, with great fanfare, he brought a gaggle of right-wing plutocrats – among them, NY Jets owner Woody Johnson and hedge fund manager Paul Singer – to the Promised Land to meet up with egregiously rich expatriate Jewish Americans who, like Adelson, worry that President Obama is not subservient enough to AIPAC’s dictates or friendly enough with Benjamin Netanyahu.  The idea was to raise millions of dollars for the Romney campaign.

Even mainstream media pundits were taken aback by this display.  It was like when Charlton Heston promoted “second amendment rights” in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine massacre.

But at least Heston was (or had been) Moses.  Adelson is not even a pale imitation of Bugsy Segal, much less of Ze’ev Jabotinsky or Yitzhak Shamir.  The man is filthy rich and that makes up for a lot.  But, in the final analysis, he is a nebbish, a walking caricature really, who doesn’t even have enough sense to stay as far out of the spotlight as he can.

Which raises a question that before this electoral cycle would have seemed quaintly archaic and that, in view of the extent of Jewish integration into American society, should never need to be asked anymore: is Sheldon Adelson – and more generally the kind of Jewish “leadership” he exemplifies — good for the Jews?

The question answers itself.

* * *

And so it is that two of our most nefarious lobbies might soon be undone by their own success.  No one can say how many more massacres it will take before the gun lobby gets its just deserts, though it is hard to see how public opinion can take much more of the insanity it promotes.  And, thanks to its Christian-evangelical component, it may take a while too for the Israel lobby to implode.  But time is on the side of those who would be done with them both.

One would think that Zionists would have enough self-respect not to make common cause with “folks” who see in Israel a means for hastening the End Time and, along with it, the conversion or eternal damnation of recalcitrant Jews.  But then Zionists seldom object when it comes to sacrificing personal integrity for the greater cause.

The only sure thing is that if Adelson and his co-thinkers get their war with Iran, AIPAC’s grip on American politics will dissipate faster than a lucky streak in a misbegotten casino in Macao.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).