J.J. Goldberg

They Won’t Leave Lonesome Joe Alone

By J.J. Goldberg

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The stormy relationship between Joe Lieberman and the Democrats is proving to be a bottomless source of inspiration for political reporters and philosophers of our time. Occasionally somebody writes something that can make you smarter. But not always. In the smart category is this piece in Time magazine by Massimo Calabrese, titled “The Loneliest Senator: Can the Democrats Forgive Joe Lieberman?”

Calabrese isn’t very sanguine on whether the rancor will go away.

Most of the tension may never abate. While fellow Democrats in the Senate treat him much as they always have, he is a pariah to the fundraisers, liberal activists and netroots bloggers who have largely engineered the party’s comeback since 2006.

On the other hand, Calabrese is pretty clear that they should make the effort to patch things up. Lieberman is turning out to be one of the White House’s more important allies in the Senate, Calabrese writes. He’s served as a bridge to Republicans at moments when no one else on the Democratic side had the relationships. As a an example, he’s taken the lead role, at White House request, in the effort to draft and enact legislation ending the current Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on gays in the military.

It is the latest bit of cooperation between the President and the man the party nominated to be its Vice President a decade ago. Over the past year, Lieberman has rounded up votes and searched for compromise on issues ranging from the stimulus bill to energy legislation and has worked behind the scenes to grease the wheels for a few of the Administration’s most controversial nominees.

“There is a certain irony to this,” Lieberman tells Calabrese.

“I have been called in to help the Obama Administration for the very reason that has made some Democrats unhappy with me, which is that I have ongoing, trusting relationships with some of the Republicans.”

At the opposite extreme, here’s a piece from the year-old conservative webzine The New Ledger that is so dumb it achieves a certain sublime nobility. The author, Benjamin Kerstein, an assistant editor at the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center’s Azure magazine, wants to show that the recent wave of liberal attacks on Lieberman for his health-care obstructionism is somehow rooted in antisemitism — or, as he delicately puts it, “seemed to return again and again, as if by some gravitational force, to the issue of Lieberman’s Judaism.”

The bits of evidence he produces are so far-fetched that it’s fair to say he doesn’t have a shred of evidence. That’s not to say that there haven’t been expressions of rank antisemitism directed at Lieberman over the past few years. At the height of the Iraq War debate, there were fringe antiwar bloggers throwing around epithets like “Lieberman the Jew-traitor.” But Kerstein wants to pin this on mainstream liberals, so he takes a few harmless quotes, mostly lighthearted jibes by Jewish liberals, and misinterprets them.

Among the most hilarious is his citation of a fantasy riff by liberal blogger Matt Yglesias, a member of the mostly (and deeply) Jewish group of liberal bloggers known as the Juicebox Mafia. Yglesias jokes that reforming health care would be easier if it could be enacted at a “secret Christmas morning session” of the Senate’s Jewish members. “It’s a very progressive bunch and Lieberman could easily be outvoted,” Yglesias writes. Kerstein sees that not as an affectionate salute to the Jewish senators but as an ominous conspiracy image.

Even weirder is his claim that Jewish liberals like Yglesias use such antisemitic imagery n their writing as a “kind of liberal Jewish Uncle Tomism – a bizarre variation on the old shuck n’ jive routine in which liberal Jews bend over backwards and into knots in order to prove their loyalty to liberal gentiles.” Like American Jews might feel insecure among liberals. Really.

At times Kerstein is simply clueless. He found a quote on the snarky Wonkette site that describes Lieberman as “speaking from a bottomless pit of pain and sorrow, where he lives on the soul-vapors of crushed children.” The phrase throws together images from Revelations (“bottomless pit”), post-Star Wars sci-fi monsterology (“lives on the soul-vapors”) and the newly released, much-discussed findings of the Justice Department’s inquiry into the John Yoo torture memo (“crushed children”). As alert readers may recall, the most sensational moment in the whole Yoo inquiry was Yoo’s pronouncement at a Chicago debate in December 2005 that the president has the right to order a child’s testicles “crushed.” “Crushed children” has since entered the culture in some liberal circles as a metaphor for the Iraq-terrorism-torture debate. So the Wonkette post makes Lieberman out to be Satan in the bottomless pit, inhaling demon-like the vapors from burnt souls of children tortured by the CIA. It’s way over the top, but the imagery comes from Gen-Y, not Torquemada.

Poor Kerstein doesn’t get any of it, so he decides the allusion must be to the medieval blood-libel of Jews supposedly baking the blood of Christian children into matzo. He makes his connection clear by linking the words “historical forebears” in the following passage to the Wikipedia entry on blood libel.

While one must assume that the author in question is both too stupid to be aware of his historical forebears and too self-satisfied to care one way or the other, it is nonetheless noteworthy that liberalism has now achieved the remarkable distinction of becoming the only mainstream political movement in American history to accuse a Jew of murdering children for essentially cannibalistic purposes.

Talk about over the top. In fact, you might call Kerstein’s allegation about liberalism and the blood libel to be a sort of blood libel of its own. First of all, you have to stand on your head to connect the Wonkette piece with Jews and blood libel. Second, even if he were right, an overheated blog post hardly constitutes a “mainstream political movement.” Thirdly, even if he were right this wouldn’t have been the first such accusation in American history. It’s been raised by mainstream elements of the Christian right at least twice that I know of — once by mainstream Georgia politicians during the Leo Frank affair in Atlanta in 1915, and once by the local mayor and New York State Police in the nearly forgotten Massena blood libel case in upstate New York in 1928. Check your history before making sweeping historical statements, Ben.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Don't Ask-Don't Tell, Joe Lieberman, the Obama White House

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