Americans have always been nice. But is it just a sham?

The paradox of Trump’s insisting on his own niceness even while engaging in distinctly nasty conduct (political and otherwise) has a long history in the United States.

Trump epitomizes the conventional version of American niceness, which assumes that Americans are fundamentally decent and benevolent people with the best of intentions, whose acts of aggression are reluctant and defensive necessities designed to protect us.

.. This is the kind of amiability that obscures the shadowy side of American life.

.. Americans have also historically attempted to transform our niceness into a national attitude rooted in justice and mutual respect by acknowledging American cruelty and using it as an impetus to live up to an ideal of moral integrity based on the courage to tell the truth.

.. Since the 19th century, Americans’ belief in our own niceness has never wavered. Yet even then, American niceness obscured a tendency to refuse accountability for aggression and offense — and even unspeakable cruelty.

.. In 1814, Gen. Andrew Jackson supervised the mutilation of the corpses of more than 800 Creek Native Americans killed at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama during the Creek War. The desecration of the bodies involved cutting off the tip of each Indian’s nose to count the number of victims, and taking long strips of skin from the dead to use as bridle reins.

.. Thus the mistreatment of Indians wasn’t only a political problem but a profound failure on white Americans’ part to live up to their Christian reputation for courtesy, respect and kindness.

.. This same conflict could be seen in the issue of slavery.

.. If kindness were the rule in the master-slave relationship, Douglass argued, then Southern newspapers would not be filled with runaway-slave notices describing branding with irons and scarring from whips.

..  One is based on historical forgetting, on empty gestures and cliches, on refusing to own up to American errors; the other connects niceness with ethics and justice by recognizing Americans’ failures to be the kind people we imagine ourselves to be

In China, It’s the Party That Keeps the Boy Band Going

So what explains their appeal?

“I like them because they express such positive values,” said Jia Su, a 24-year-old advertising worker in Beijing. She has followed the group since she was a university student and now manages the Weibo account of a fan club for TFBoys. “They are nice, kind, hardworking. That’s what the Japanese and Korean boy bands don’t have.”

Unlike many teenage pop stars in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere, the members of TFBoys display no signs of youthful rebellion. They decidedly do not walk on the wild side. They sing of studying hard and serving the nation. The group’s music is cheerful with upbeat lyrics, and the boys’ appearance tends toward neat outfits and sweet smiles.

.. That wholesome schoolboy image has won TFBoys love not only from Chinese fans, but also from the government. They have twice been featured on the Chinese Lunar New Year television gala staged by CCTV, the state broadcaster.

.. “One way the Chinese government controls the entertainment industry,” said Zhu Dake, a cultural critic at Tongji University in Shanghai, “is by honoring and financially rewarding those who, from the government’s perspective, are conveying positive values.”

In this case, “positive values” means not just traditional values such as filial piety, social harmony and hard work, but also deference to the party line.

.. Since South Korea agreed last year to allow the United States to install a missile defense system — called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad — South Korean shows have been blocked from the Chinese internet, and South Korean singers and actors have been barred from Chinese television.

.. “No company can risk sponsoring a ‘bad boy’ band that might end up on the government’s blacklist,”

.. “Before the early 2000s, the mainland Chinese entertainment industry was dominated by Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Celebrities from those places were regarded as true stars,” Mr. Zou said. “But it’s different now. We have the money, and the market. What’s more, entertainment companies have learned the key to producing successful idols.”

.. “There’s a Chinese saying: At the age of 3 you can already see what a man will be like when he is old.”

SCOTUS Hearing Revealed The Character Of Neil Gorsuch AND Senate Democrats

he was so consistent and respectful, that opinion pieces have taken to denying him support, but not blaming him for it. To do otherwise would seem monstrous in the face of the kind of character on display by the Colorado Judge who some say may have learned at the knee of Kennedy, but will likely rule in the vein of Scalia.

.. Gorsuch’s immediate, and obviously habitual, graciousness to someone who sneezed was a moment worth noting.

.. Opposition to Gorsuch is absurd given his bi-partisan support, his qualifications, and his qualities as a man, and yet come it will.

.. a kind man

Rabbi David Wolpe on leadership, religion, and identity

But the idea is that, the way the Talmud puts it is that somebody who is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind.

 

.. There’s one place I think in Survival in Auschwitz where Primo Levi talks about a bricklayer, that the Nazis asked him to build a wall, and he couldn’t persuade himself to build it badly. He just couldn’t because that was his pride. And it reminded me that there’s this great — that I haven’t read for years and I’m sure I could find it — but there’s a [Guy de] Maupassant story about a guy who’s a circus performer, and what he does is he fires arrows into an apple on his wife’s head, and that’s their circus act, and he starts to hate his wife and he wants to kill her, but he can’t bring himself to do it wrong.

.. Look, there is going back to Yehudah ha-Levi and going through the Tanya, and woven through Hasidism, is the question of whether Jews have different souls from non-Jews in some essential way. That I don’t think you’d be particularly comfortable with, nor am I. It’s what a great American rabbi who passed away not so long away, Harold Schulweis, used to call metaphysical racism.

.. “Well, I wrote an article that ended up on Facebook in a very different setting than how I intended it to be read.” And you can say all you want — all the hyperlinks are there, but people don’t click through.

What do you think is the intellectual future of a belief system based on commentary on commentary on commentary, now injected into a world with this technology that so strips away context and just gives you some bald statement of something?

WOLPE: I think that Judaism has the same problem that any thick civilization has in a world in which, as you say, context is stripped away. And not only is context stripped away, but attention to any one thing is scanter and less than it used to be.

So, for example, a lot of Jewish commentary is based on your recognizing the reference that I make. Who recognizes references anymore? Because people don’t spend years studying books.

.. So what I would say, the quick answer to the very end of it is, not all anti-Israel sentiment is anti-Semitism, but anti-Israel sentiment is now the respectable guise for anti-Semitism. Very few people, only the most fringy fringers, will stand up and say “I’m an anti-Semite.” But you can say “I’m anti-Israel” and be an anti-Semite and that’s respectable. . . . And I think there are lots of tests that you can apply to the way people criticize Israel and the way they criticize other places that will let you know what’s behind it.

.. The Koran is — and this you should excuse me, for the home team, I like Judaism much better — the Koran is very unwilling to allow any sinfulness in its heroes.

COWEN: He’s much more heroic, David; as is Moses.

WOLPE: Much more, as is Moses, as is everyone in the story.

COWEN: Never so hesitant.

WOLPE: Right, exactly. I like the idea of flawed heroes. I like the notion that there isn’t this whitewashing. And I feel the Quran does that. But obviously, I’m not a Muslim.

.. I would say, if I had to pick one thing that is at the heart of Islam that is antidemocratic, it is the concept that’s very deep — that is, in the very name of the religion — of submission. Because a population that is trained essentially to submit is a population that will create authoritarians.

.. “Jews don’t listen. They wait.”

.. What I would say is that the problem with the case is it doesn’t take into account two parts of the calculus that are important pieces of this. One is that it is an element of security to allow your neighbors to feel a certain way about their neighbors. And therefore, if you build in total disregard of the people in the neighborhood, that’s not going to encourage goodwill. That’s the first part of the case that I would urge. And, by the way, this works in extending circles around the world that Israel is not an island, and the opinion of the world also matters in this.

And the second part of the case is that the idea that ultimately the population around you will be reconciled to this in one way or another — in other words the endgame — doesn’t work for me. I don’t think that eventually the Palestinians will be absorbed into Israel and will feel OK about it if their standard of living is high enough

.. what did we lose with Maimonides’s aggregation of Jewish law with the Mishneh Torah? What Maimonides wanted to do was take all of this messy giant Talmudic and other tradition and make it simple. And one of the things that he did that he later said he regretted but didn’t have the chance to fix was, he didn’t add footnotes. So we don’t know.

.. Hermann Cohen said very beautifully, “In the idea of the stranger, Judaism was born.”

.. Given how many literally billions of people have been elevated from poverty by, what is mostly in my account, capitalism, not only capitalism, Milton Friedman saw this, but still the weight of Jewish intellectual opinion in the United States has mostly been on the Left. I think that’s a well-established regularity. What’s the intellectual or sociological reason for that underlying . . . ?

WOLPE: Well, I’ll say why that is and then one thing about capitalism that I think is profoundly Jewish that most people don’t realize, seriously.

I think the reason is because they came from Eastern Europe, and that tradition, like the FDR tradition in America, is very . . . the only way that you could see out of the morass of the civilizations they were in, the only thing that gave them hope other than Zionism, was a kind of Bundist, Marxist, socialist . . . there wasn’t really a living capitalist alternative. To the very first glance, it looked like the humanistic face of economics as opposed to . . . what is capitalism — competition. Well, that doesn’t look like a humanistic face.

.. “A real capitalist has to have empathy.” Because if you’re building a business or a product and you don’t know what other people want, you’ll fail. The only way you can succeed is if you actually understand what it is that other people want and/or need. And both that combined with what you said, which is that it is the great engine of wealth that lifts people out of poverty, I think that a Jewish thinker today, and certainly many in Israel would argue this too, that you would have to be a capitalist of some stripe.

.. So Conservative Judaism, the dilemma that Conservative Judaism had was that it tried to hold on to a serious Jewish observance with modern scholarship that didn’t consistently say, “God told you, you have to do this.” And modern Jewish observance is a very hard thing to hold on to. And so people who had grown up with the traditional observance lived that out, but as the motivational piece of it weakened, so did that lifestyle that would maintain them as Conservative Jews.

Unless and until — not only Conservative Judaism by the way, but liberal religion in general — unless and until . . .

But the problem is worse in Judaism because it makes greater demands than other religions. Christianity doesn’t make such lifestyle demands on Christians as Judaism does on Jews. Unless and until there is a compelling nonfundamentalist rationale for why I should eat a certain way and why I shouldn’t go out on Saturday, in other words, the ritual behaviors that maintain the cohesion of the tradition. Until that is created — and many philosophers have tried to and many rabbis have tried — till that’s created, Conservative Judaism is going to face a huge uphill battle. That’s the short answer.

.. AUDIENCE MEMBER: The United States Supreme Court is currently comprised only of Catholics and Jews. Do you think that these groups naturally produce better jurists?

[laughter]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: If so why, and if not, why is that the composition of the court?

WOLPE: I defer here to an answer that I heard given by my sociologist brother at a session we did together in South Africa last summer. Which is probably a sentence you’ve never heard uttered before, right? I defer to my sociologist brother in a session we did together in South Africa. [laughs]

Because Catholicism has a natural law tradition, Judaism has a strong legal tradition, and Protestantism is antinomian: it’s anti-law. That’s the essence of Protestantism, right? So who around here is trained in law? Oh, the Catholics and the Jews. Now, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be individual Protestants, but if you’re looking for a deep tradition, well, we got one.