Saturday, February 28, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Netanyahu-Obama Controversy

This is a difficult post for me to write.  The Middle East is a complicated place, and people with far better credentials than mine have not been able to create a diplomatic solution to the region's longstanding problems.  That said, I think my views are typical of many American Jews when I say that I love Israel and want it to have peace and security, but I also want to see a two-state solution, where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side and get along with each other.  Although many of us support such a goal, it has seemed like an impossible dream for far too long.  The mistrust between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims runs deep:  each side has its own narratives, accusations, and grievances, and each side can offer many examples of trying to reach out to the other side only to be rebuffed. 

And speaking of longstanding mistrust, that brings me to American politics.  In several days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu will come to the US to address Congress; he will be making a speech in opposition to the Obama administration's efforts to negotiate a deal with Iran, to prevent that country from developing its nuclear program:  But the circumstances surrounding the speech are controversial;  by all accounts, it was Speaker of the House John Boehner and congressional Republicans who invited the prime minister, without notifying President Obama or congressional Democrats.  Such a lack of protocol is highly unusual.  Whether you like the president or hate him, having the opposition political party go behind his back and invite a foreign leader to address congress certainly seems disrespectful.  Further, the speech comes right before Israel's elections, and Mr. Netanyahu's critics are accusing him of using this speech to fear-monger about Iran in order to win voter support at home.

The controversy is compounded by the well-known contentious relationship between Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama.  Mr. Netanyahu has made his dislike of the president quite public, and even seemed to overtly support Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.  In fact, every time there is a disagreement between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, I think it's safe to say that the majority of Republicans believe that Bibi the good guy in this fight, and Barack is the bad guy.  I've received countless "forward this to everyone you know!" e-mails claiming Barack Obama hates Israel, or hates the Jews, or both.  This discourse can also be heard frequently on conservative talk shows, for example this one from Fox News: .

Of course, there are several problems with this claim: for one, President Obama's policies towards Israel are no different from those of President Bush or other recent presidents.  For another, disagreeing with Mr. Netanyahu is NOT the same as "hating Israel."  As I have pointed out in previous conversations, I was not a fan of President Bush's policies, but does the fact that I disliked him mean I "hate America"?  I think not.  And yet, repeatedly, I hear that President Obama is "hostile" to Israel; this is usually accompanied by some taken-out-of-context quote that allegedly "proves" the president's bad intentions.  (Fortunately, fact-checking websites like Politifact,, and Snopes have refuted most of this.  But so have Jewish sources like, the Jerusalem Report, and The Forward, none of which have found evidence that Mr. Obama is anti-Israel or anti-Jewish.  And yet these beliefs, along with the scary e-mail screeds, persist.)

So, now what?  A number of newspapers, the Boston Globe among them, have come to the conclusion that Mr. Netanyahu's up-coming speech is a very bad idea:  Support for Israel has historically been non-partisan, but now, suddenly, the prime minister seems to have cast his lot with only the Republicans.  I wish he would reconsider.  President Obama is certainly not as hawkish as Bibi seems to wish he were, but it's unrealistic to expect world leaders to agree on every issue.  Meanwhile, it's a proven fact that many Democrats, the president among them, have a long history of caring about and defending Israel.  I cannot fathom why Mr. Netanyahu believes putting that friendship in jeopardy is the right thing to do.  Some in the media are being very unhelpful by stirring up partisanship and spreading misinformation.  But Mr. Netanyahu is also being unhelpful by putting his own political needs ahead of common sense:  while trying to torpedo the president's effort to negotiate with Iran may play well at home and help him get another term in office, I don't think most Americans are eager for another war to break out.  Granted, Iran may not be negotiating in good faith, and there are many reasons to be skeptical of their intentions; but why not give diplomacy a chance?   Alas, that doesn't seem to be something the prime minister is willing to permit.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Another Week in our "Argument Culture"

I wasn't raised in an era where politicians went on TV or radio and insulted the President.  I'm not saying that it was a kinder, gentler time-- after all, I was raised during the era of McCarthyism, and the rhetoric could be brutal at times.  But I truly do not recall any major candidates in the 1952 or 1956 presidential campaigns publicly directing ugly or snide remarks towards their opponent.  I don't know what they said in private, and it probably wasn't very flattering. But in public, the president-- whether you liked him or not-- was treated with a certain respect.

These days, however, we are far more polarized as a nation than we were when I was growing up. Back then, we had a greater faith in the media (surveys really did show that CBS-TV news anchor Walter Cronkite was considered "the most trusted man in America").  Politicians from both parties actually worked together sometimes and got things done; they even socialized with each other. But today's congress is far more adversarial, and far less willing to compromise. As a result, less gets accomplished:  according to a Pew Research Center report (, the recently concluded 113th congress was one of the least productive in modern history.   

Some historians believe the slide towards polarization and cynicism began during the Vietnam era, while some attribute it to President Nixon and Watergate or even Bill Clinton and Monica.  But wherever it started, it has led to a time when politicians can pander to their party's base by saying the most outrageous things and rather than having to slink away in shame, they then get praised for doing so when they go on "friendly media."  And so it was, several days ago, when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided it was a good time to accuse President Obama of being insufficiently patriotic.  At a fundraiser for likely Republican candidate Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Giuliani opined that "I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America."  He then went on Fox News and doubled down on the remark, defending his view that somehow, the president does not express a love of America the way other presidents have. (

As a partisan, Giuliani has every right to attack the president's policies and try to position the Republican party as far better suited to lead the country. I would expect that. When President Bush was in the White House, Democrats did the same thing, asserting that Democratic candidates could do a better job than George W. Bush and the Republicans.  But while criticism of the Bush presidency was often strident, especially during his second term, I do not recall any Democratic leaders, nor any Democratic presidential candidates saying Mr. Bush did not love America.  This sort of attack on President Obama's patriotism (rather than sticking to a critique of his policies) strikes me as one more reason many Americans dislike politics.  If political discourse is nothing but name-calling and bluster, it's no wonder nothing gets done.  Insult-driven conversations make great fodder for talk shows, but they don't do much for democracy.  

I'm sure some of you who are reading this are thinking, "Donna is probably some liberal shill who defends President Obama no matter what."  You would be wrong in thinking that. I've always voted for the candidates I thought were problem-solvers, whether they were Republicans, Democrats, or Independents.   But what I am asking for is a return to basic courtesy:  a return to respecting the office of the presidency, even if you don't like the person currently in power.  I know that "politics ain't beanbag," as the mythical Mr. Dooley said way back in 1895, and I know that in the heat of a campaign (or in the process of getting ready for a campaign), partisans will try to stir up their base.  But I can't get accustomed to a world where it's okay to impugn the patriotism of those with whom we disagree. 

A number of contemporary media theorists, such as Walter Ong and Deborah Tannen, have suggested we live in an "argument culture," in which we seem to argue at the drop of a hat.  The internet and social media have enhanced our ability to do that, even allowing us a certain anonymity when we write hateful things we might never say in person.  I don't miss much about the 50s, but I do miss the respect we had for certain institutions, including the presidency. I doubt that Rudy Giuliani will apologize for what he said-- he's already gotten a lot of free publicity and attention he might not have otherwise gotten.  But he also diminished our political discourse a little more.  Perhaps he's okay with that, but I am not.  Change has to start somewhere, so why not with you, Rudy? How about it? Continue to be a partisan, support your chosen candidate passionately. But how about making a promise not to question the other person's love of country? That would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Yes, My First Blog Post

I am, by my own admission, a late-adopter: I am rarely the first to embrace a new technology, and I sincerely don't understand every little nuance of every new device.  Don't get me wrong:  I have a smartphone, I have an e-reader, I'm on Skype and Facebook and Twitter... but I wasn't among the first to embrace any of them.  I can certainly enjoy new technologies,  but usually in moderation.  I find it puzzling when I encounter people who cannot be away from one of their devices for even five minutes, or who sit at lunch busily texting as if the person they are sitting with isn't even there.  And I must admit I still like some of the old-school ways of communicating--  I miss hand-written thank you notes, I prefer reading an actual book that I can hold in my hands rather than reading it on my Kindle, and I admit it, I still have my land-line.  Usually, I adopt something new when it becomes necessary for me professionally:  I was never on Facebook until some of my students back in 2008 asked me where my page was; ditto for Twitter-- a radio colleague asked for my address, and I knew I needed to get one, so I did.  This blog is also the product of necessity:  I am taking an online course via New York University, and one of the course requirements is to set up a blog.  So, here I am, much later than everyone else, but at least I got here.

Today, Valentine's Day, is my birthday.  I am 68.  I grew up in the 1950s in Roslindale, MA (just outside of Boston).  It was an era that was still very conservative about male and female roles, where my dream of being in radio was considered inappropriate.  Yes, there were women on the air, but they did "women's shows," talking about food or fashion or how to improve one's homemaking skills.  None of that interested me.  I loved baseball, I loved pop culture, and I knew I wanted to be a disc jockey.  Radio d.j.'s and rock music had helped me to get through my childhood, cheering me up when I felt discouraged, and I wanted to provide the same encouragement and entertainment for some other lonely kid out there.  When I got to college in the late 1960s, radio and TV still ruled.  The internet, smart phones, and social media were a long time in the future.  In fact, the only people who knew about the internet (or ARPANET, as it was then called) were in the military.  I was always interested in current events and politics, but back then, I could only get my information from daily newspapers and weekly news-magazines.  The idea that one day, I would be able to read Le Monde within minutes of a news story being posted, or listen to the BBC in real time, or watch a YouTube video of a song I loved was like something from a science fiction movie.

But now, it's 2015, and we all live in a world of instant communication; in fact, many of us take it for granted that websites will download quickly, or that our favorite news publication (most of which are now online) will update the moment a news story breaks.  As I write this, people from about 10 countries and nearly ever state in the United States are simultaneously wishing me a happy birthday on my Facebook page.  (During my radio career, I discovered a Canadian rock group called Rush, and we became friends. They went on to be very famous, and out of that relationship, I've inherited a large number of Rush fans who like to keep in touch because of my ties to their favorite band.)  But my point is that if you had told me any of this would happen when I was growing up, I doubt I would have believed it.  Yes, it's a different world, and not just technologically.  As I get more accustomed to blogging, I'll talk about what has changed and what hasn't over the past few decades, especially as those changes pertain to the media-- after all, I'm a media historian.  But now, I guess I am also a blogger.  I don't know if I'll be good at it, nor do I know if anyone (other than the professor in the course I am taking) will read what I write.  Only time will tell.