The 2016 Election and the Threat to American Exceptionalism – It’s Not What You Think


Photo via Flickr by IoSonoUnaFotoCamera

The term, “American Exceptionalism” is one that has been notably fluid throughout its history. It has at times referred to the unique character of the settlement and founding of the United States as the “first new nation.” At other times it has served as a justification for a “benevolent” American hegemony in the post-World War II era to the present with Hillary Clinton embracing the meaning recently:

“When we say America is exceptional, it means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity.”

I’m not going to dwell on those meanings here because the danger I believe is not a threat to our founding values (since those values though perhaps exceptional also included slavery, limited franchise and ethnic cleansing) or a turning inward, away from a role in international conflicts (which is wishful thinking in a global economy). Though both those outcomes are to varying degrees possible, the concept of American Exceptionalism that I think is truly under siege in the current election is the original meaning.

This original definition, which in some places has been credited to Joseph Stalin, argues that the United States somehow stands outside the laws of Marxism that requires Capitalism inevitably result in violent class warfare. In The Language Log Mark Liberman has a great history of the development of the term and what captured me particularly was an explanation it cited from Ronald Reagan, The Movie and and Other Episodes in Political Demonology by Michael Rogin:

The doctrine of American exceptionalism developed within a wing of American Communism in the 1930s to explain the failure of Marxian socialism to take root in the United States. American exceptionalists contrasted the limited and superficial conflicts in America to the more tenacious social and political divisions that had generated revolution and dictatorship.

Whether or not Donald Trump wins the election (he won’t), we can be certain that the “tenacious social and political divisions” that this campaign has both revealed and encouraged will remain on November 9. For perhaps the first time since the American Civil War, the possibility exists that a significant portion of the country will not accept the legitimacy of the result. We’ve been moving toward this moment for a long time, with offenders from both ends of the political system chipping away at the foundations both from within and without. But it took a demagogue the size of Donald Trump to weaponize the social, economic, racial and political rifts in American society to place us at real risk of revolution or — and as absurd as I feel typing it — dictatorship.

The emergence of Trumpism (because there is no other single ideology that contains the man and his channeling of grievances, antipathies and retrograde masculinity) and its adherents has produced an environment not of competing ideas in the intellectual marketplace, but irreconcilable realities which can only be validated by the utter destruction of its opposite. It is a political movement which rejects compromise or moderation and regards with scorn the disapproval of institutional elites from politics and the media. It parades its anti-intellectual, xenophobic, misogynist bona fides with pride as badges of authenticity. It transforms white fragility into an anticipated and eagerly expected electoral martyrdom which itself will serve as validation of its psychotic critique of an admittedly flawed society. It has unleashed forces that may not be quietly contained or mainstreamed in a concession speech — indeed, concession itself will be seen by many as betrayal. Perhaps even more dire, the mechanisms of a budding surveillance state which many of us already fear, stands at the ready either to serve or put down an insurrection. Either scenario would undermine the constitutional rule of law in ways 9/11 didn’t even approach.

This could very well blow over. The fever could break and the American Exception might very well remain in-place (even if the exception in the end isn’t uniquely American). But it has not been so severely tested since the time of secession and for the first time in many of our lives, the concept can feel fragile. My fear is that while the arc of history does bend towards justice, the arc of empire tends towards entropy. Like the certain but abstract knowledge that some distant day the sun will swell and swallow the Earth whole, I can’t help but feel that the originators of American Exceptionalism were working on too small a historical scale for such a concept to prove endurable. Perhaps I am overly-afflicted by the triumph of dystopian fiction in popular culture and susceptible to such catastrophic imaginings. But equally possible is that American Exceptionalism is a mirage of remarkable but not permanent duration.

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Filed under Facts as we see them

I wrote this as a satirical monologue for a producer who was looking for pieces on money and the economy. As it turned out, it didn’t really fit his needs and works better as a prose piece than as theater. Without anyplace really to use it, I am posting it here.

(January 3 – New York) For Immediate Release. — the leader in user-sourced waste management services, today announced completion of a $50 million round of equity financing. Lead investors in this round included Triangle Banking, BFD Investure, and SexPistols Capital Venture Fund. CEO and Founder, Skipper Bright said, “We’re introducing new products and services that aim to disrupt the moribund Waste Management Industry — simultaneously empowering consumers and thousands of waste removal contractors to improve service, maximize repurposing of refuse and returning to the market millions of dollars worth of value.”

Using its proprietary application for iPhone and Android, matches refuse suppliers with independent refuse reclamation consultants for the collection, sorting and sanitary removal of home and commercial trash. Home users simply take a photo of their filled trash or recycling bins with their phones and their information including geo-location, types of trash available, potential salvageable materials, both organic and inorganic, is sent to an appropriate refuse reclamation consultant. Items of particular value are pre-identified in the photo the user has uploaded using our patented visual search algorithm. Payment is completed via credit card and the refuse reclamation consultants deliver their content to a processing center where they are compensated, including bonuses for high-value reclamations including rare-metals, convertible textiles and consumables appropriate for the secondary market. provides an efficient alternative to costly and burdensome municipal services where they remain, and outperforms legacy waste management companies in the private sector. For additional information contact Bethany Horowitz, Senior VP for Marketing,

(April 3 – New York) For Immediate Release, the makers of the leading user-sourced waste removal app, reported a quarterly revenue earnings increase of 120% over the previous quarter and 600% over prior year. Over the past three months it has become one of the most downloaded apps online and been the subject of major articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times Style and Business Sections, Wired, Mashable and Lifehacker. Founder and CEO Skipper Bright commented, “We’re proud to be generating revenue approaching IPO levels so early in our product rollout. We plan to enter 50 more markets in the next quarter and another 100 by year’s end. The only thing holding us back are those unfortunate cities and municipalities, where lawmakers in the pocket of established Waste Management Companies and labor unions are using health and safety regulations as an excuse to block consumers from our services and lock-out our owner/operators from earning a living. These government-sponsored monopolies are patently un-American, and stifle the innovation and free markets that have made this country great. Nevertheless, we look forward to resolving our differences and making available wherever people are creating garbage.” For more information, contact Senior VP for Marketing,

(July 7 – New York) For Immediate Release – the #1 free download on the iTunes app store – deeply regrets that one of its refuse reclamation consultants perished yesterday in an unfortunate accident that could be neither foreseen nor avoided. It was just one of those things. Heatstroke. All consultants are advised on proper hydration as part of their 20-minute online video orientation, particularly when scavenging on the scrap pile. While we of course are deeply saddened by this incident, we firmly reject accusations that we are in anyway responsible for the fact that the consultant in question was a minor — that he asserted the opposite in the online consultant registration form clears us from any culpability or liability. Furthermore, we categorically reject the claim being made by some muckraking publications, that we turn a blind-eye to child labor. To prove so, we will be donating $1 for every pickup in August to the UNICEF to combat child labor in developing countries, up to $100,000. For more information on this exciting initiative contact Bethany Horowitz, Senior VP for Marketing,

(October 3 – New York) For Immediate Release – now operating in 120 markets on three continents, surpassed $845 million in revenue last quarter. More than half-a-million customers have used our services and tens of thousands of refuse reclamation consultants have earned money to support their families, supplement their incomes or pay their tuitions. While the amount of money paid to our consultants is not publicly available information, we wish to dispel the misconception that it is below minimum wage – although technically, because the app allows for tipping, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be. Also, we want to emphasize that while there have been isolated incidents where contractors have used their duties as an opportunity to case residences for later home invasions, we rigorously background check each consultant prior to activation of their refuse removal consultant account. Finally we wish again, to rebut the inaccurate and misleading reports that claim is quote, “merely the cyber-jacking of child labor practices that have long been common on the trash heaps of Ghana, the Philippines and other developing nations.” We understood when we set-out to disrupt the Waste Management Industry that powerful forces would resist our attempt to provide market efficiencies to home-users by leveraging an under-utilized workforce for the customizable performance of a necessary service. But we didn’t think it would be so nasty.

For more information, contact Bethany Horowitz,

(January 3 – New York) For Immediate Release, the innovator in customizable waste-removal experiences, is happy to announce that it has been acquired for $8 billion by Industrial Waste Processing of North America, Inc. Says Founder and CEO, Skipper Bright, “This is truly the achievement of a lifetime, and I am grateful to everyone on the team, from our 78 full-time employees to the thousands and thousands of independent contractors who contributed to our success.” The acquisition provides Waste Processing of North America (symbol: WPN – NYSE) with a cutting-edge platform to grow its business, and allows the resources of a multinational operation to settle dozens of lawsuits filed by government health and safety agencies, former contractors who claim they were mistreated and several major lawsuits by users who claim the company contributed to the reckless endangerment of their lives and property. of course, denies all these allegations and looks forward to resolving all outstanding matters in the course of the merger. As part of the merger, Skipper Bright will hold a seat on the Waste Processing Board.

Senior VP of Marketing and Communications Bethany Horowitz announced that she would not be staying with the company during the transition, but will be leaving to start her own online company seeking to disrupt the nanny-sharing industry. For more information contact:

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I Won’t Be Watching Super Bowl XLIX

I’m coming to the end of my second football-less season. Since I made the decision to withhold my viewership at the beginning of the 2013 NFL season, I have not watched football in my home. I’ve not gone out of my way to avoid football necessarily. I’ve seen the odd quarter while at a friend’s house where watching the game was the main social activity and I’ve seen parts of games out of the corner of my eye at a restaurant or sports bar. The only game I saw multiple quarters of was on Thanksgiving when I was visiting family. It would be kind of jerky to demand that football broadcasts be extinguished whenever I’m around. I didn’t give up watching to make other people uncomfortable. I gave up watching because I was uncomfortable.

But I won’t be going to a Super Bowl party. Again.

And I have to be honest. I feel like maybe I’m spitting into the wind or screaming into the void or whatever metaphor appropriately illustrates the utter futility of my “protest.” Despite the long-standing coverup by the NFL of chronic traumatic brain injuries suffered by players and the evidence that players faced with the pressure to perform continue to return to action without being properly screened for concussion, millions continue to watch. Despite policies that until recently punished smoking marijuana more severely than domestic abuse, viewership rises. Despite the sturm und drang earlier in the year that had people calling for the commissioner of the league to be fired, all seems forgiven and forgotten as revenues reach ever higher into the billions of dollars. Football is our national Id and it will not be denied.

A life without football is weird. Especially when you still consider yourself a sports fan — it is simply unavoidable. I haven’t watched a game this year, but mainly thanks to heavy social media consumption, I can tell you about any number of story lines from the season: blown calls, amazing catches and dramatic comebacks. The narrative of the NFL season is so easy to absorb, seemingly by cultural osmosis, that I can pretty easily fake my end of a conversation about whatever game-of-the-week is on peoples’ minds. It’s like that character from Whit Stillman’s great movie Metropolitan, who doesn’t read books, only book reviews, “You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it. I haven’t read the Bible either.” But unlike that character, I know I’m being a complete phony when I do it. But it seems the lesser evil compared to thrusting my queasy righteousness into an innocent conversation about the failures of the Green Bay secondary. Imagine, “Yeah, the prevent defense is totally useless, but you know what was preventable? Junior Seau’s suicide.” No one likes that guy.

I was at a friend’s house, and he had a playoff game on his television. And I sat down with him and some other guys on the sofa and we were talking while watching the game, and I briefly thought about coming back. Because it was fun to sit there. A bunch of guys mixing talk about the game with talk about our lives. The strange dance of distance and intimacy, posturing and confessing that is the complex choreography of male friendship. And it has its natural soundtrack in the strategy and deception, violence and skill of an NFL game. It shouldn’t be impossible to achieve that without the prop of the game on in the background, but for whatever reason it too often is.

And then I saw a guy absolutely flattened on a kickoff return. The collision was brutal. The player was slow to rise and staggered off the field in their best imitation of a “I’m not hurt” trot to the sidelines. And I remembered. He did that for my entertainment. And I just couldn’t continue. I got up to get myself a drink and never wandered back to the sofa.

I miss the NFL. I miss watching the games with friends. I miss being in Fantasy Leagues. I miss throwing in $5 for an office pool. But I can’t come back. Not yet. Maybe not ever.


Filed under Facts as we see them, Man Stuff

Why is Paddington Bear Rated NC-17?

Is he a different kind of bear than I remember?

Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at December 20, 2014|12.48PM

Saw this on Fandango.


Filed under Uncategorized

We Need to Talk About the Mensch on a Bench™

I was not going to say anything.

I mean, there are plenty of products out there on the market that I’m not going to buy for my home, so why go out of my way to pick on the Mensch on a Bench™? If the topic were to come up on conversation, I’d just say, “Not for me,” and change the subject. I would let it go. I don’t disagree with the message to our kids: be a Mensch (a person of high moral character). I say it all the time to my kids because it was said all the time to me by my grandfather (of blessed memory). I think the world needs more menschlichkeit and if some hokey doll can help with that, then what’s the harm?

But I can’t….

mensch on a bench

Image: Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones via Flickr

I mean I could, but then I got a promotional email inviting me to “Welcome a Mensch into your family!” I could ignore the Mensch on the Bench™, but when he entered my inbox he crossed a line and I can keep silent no more.

I hate the Mensch on a Bench. I hate everything about him. I hate the concept. I hate the cheap imitation of a (creepy) Christmas tradition. I hate that he holds onto the shamash candle needed to light the other candles of the Menorah and that kids are told that if they misbehave he may not let it go, resulting in no lit Menorah and no presents. I hate the ultimate focus on gifts as a reward for good behavior (distinctly unmensch-like). I hate the slogan urging us to put more “Funukkah in Hanukkah.” I hate the Mensch’s “origin story” — he stayed up all night making sure the Menorah in the Temple didn’t go out so the Maccabees could get some sleep, AND HE WASN’T EVEN GRUMPY ABOUT IT THE NEXT DAY!

Most of all, I hate the picture of “normative” Judaism his white, bearded, talit-wearing, short-and-dumpy physique projects. In the companion book he anachronistically pals around with the Maccabees but still dresses like a 19th Century Polish Hasid. Because, as we’ve all come to be taught, the ultra-Orthodox Jew is the Jewiest Jew there is, imbued with all the moral authority of “authentic” Judaism (when he isn’t spitting on immodestly dressed 8-year-old girls, demanding sex-segregated busing, delaying the departure of Israel-bound flights or demolishing a town’s secular education system). This is the personification of a mensch.

ladies man

Image: The Wu’s Photo Land via Flickr

Hanukkah isn’t Christmas. If your kid wants an Elf-on-a-Shelf better you should give him or her one, than embrace this B-minus, novelty shop, moralizing troll. Move the Elf around the house. When the kids are asleep post your ironic “Elf in the Hot Tub with Barbie” photos to Instagram. Then when they wake up, teach your kids how to be mensches by your behavior: by how you treat them and how they see you treat others. Talk to them about the injustices in the world, big and small, that you and they can do something about. Hanukkah already has a mascot — the Maccabees, who overcame tremendous odds to defeat a much more powerful enemy in the cause of being able to worship freely.

I don’t bear the creator of the Mensch on a Bench™ any ill will. From the website, he seems to be a nice guy, with a background in the toy industry, who just didn’t want his kids to feel left out around Christmas. He’s singing the right song, just hitting the wrong notes in the process. While kids like their toys when they are young, once they get older the toys don’t matter so much as the lessons we teach them. And I contend that parents can teach their kids better than the Mensch can.


Filed under Jewish Stuff, Parenting

Why I Chose Not to Program The Death of Klinghoffer and Why I Still Support It

Over the past week or so I’ve had many difficult exchanges with friends and family over social media around posts I’ve shared about the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Death of Klinghoffer. I’ve shared articles defending the production, reviews of its artistic merit, social critiques of what the controversy represents and even parallel experiences of the production in other cities. Those who were convinced it was anti-Semitic remain firmly convinced. Those who believed the protests were just another example of right wing denial of any legitimate Palestinian narrative remain similarly unswayed. Depressingly, this episode has only reinforced the worst stereotypes each side had of the other in the ongoing shouting-match over Israel (can we really call it a conversation at this point?). The Jewish general manager of the Met Opera has been compared to a Nazi sympathizer and a supporter of Hamas. I’ve read comparisons of the actions of those who opposed the performance of the opera to a “book burning of Adams’ work.” By my rule of thumb, whoever calls his opponent a Nazi first loses — and it’s hard to find any winners in this encounter.

Achille LauroMy own feelings about the opera itself are mixed — I saw the film version created for Channel Four in the UK directed by Penny Woolcock in 2004. At the time, I was considering it for possible inclusion in the Washington Jewish Film Festival in my capacity as the Festival’s director. I remember being entranced by the music, disturbed by its portrayals of history and touched by certain images that have stayed with me over a decade later — such as that of Klinghoffer’s wheelchair sinking through the water after he has been murdered and thrown overboard. I chose not to include the film for a number of reasons, some practical (opera on film is a tough sell) and some artistic/thematic. While I appreciated the aesthetic strengths of the work, it felt far too removed from its subject to be included in a Festival in which other films dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict spoke with greater authenticity and authorial intimacy. The work overall, felt like the product of outsiders to the conflict, looking to illuminate the tragedies and universal lessons for both sides. Firsthand knowledge of course, isn’t a prerequisite for great art, but when the subject is one that brings such passion along with it, one runs the risk — as Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman have certainly be accused — of naivety. That is why the work itself turns the characters themselves into archetypes more than real people, the terrorists are an extension of the chorus of exiled Palestinians and the Klinghoffers are extensions of the chorus of exiled Jews. One cannot blame Klinghoffer’s daughters for objecting to the opera — that is not their father up there (but neither should they have the last word). We are all products of our history, but the opera isn’t really interested in why these people were affected in the ways they were. It is why the captain is in many ways the most interesting character, he is also a product of history, but its effects on his character are more subtle and his choices stem from a much more personal, interesting and humanely flawed place.

A friend I respect greatly wrote me, “folks flying planes into skyscrapers, dragging gay men to their deaths behind cars,etc? They get no inner lives.” I simply can’t agree. Their inner lives may leave them twisted and deranged, committing heinous acts because of the person they have become, but to deny that their inner lives are not worthy of some kind of artistic exploration is to go too far. Why? Because to have that attitude is easy when you’re talking about Hitler, Osama Bin-Laden or Pol Pot; but there are a lot of shades of grey between them and the historical rungs of the ladder that the Achille Lauro terrorists occupy. To elevate Klinghoffer’s murderers to the level of genocidal prime-movers is to engage in a false equivalency that blurs our understanding of evil. It runs the risk of a turning a tradition which takes the weighing of justice most carefully, into a shrill hyperbole.

So, my defense of the opera has to be couched in the acknowledgement that given my own opportunity to program it, I chose not to. I think it is probably fair to say that even if I had wanted to program it, given the controversy that already surrounded the work, I might have faced internal and external opposition that would have made including it unwise and impossible. And it is that last acknowledgement that leaves me so unsettled. Because what was at stake in this debate was not the production of this specific opera in this specific venue. It was the freedom of artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, Israelis and Palestinians, to engage with the most sensitive and provocative topics in their histories and create music, theater, dance and stories from them, and for arts presenters to provide audiences with the opportunity to see and judge for themselves the results.

That is not a priority for many of the opponents of The Death of Klinghoffer. While there were some true arts supporters among the opera’s opponents, for many others (among them, the organizing core), the opera was another front in the total war for Israel’s survival. And while I can share their goal — that Israel survive — I cannot share their belief that this opera constituted a threat to that survival, or even that it was antagonistic to it (or for that matter, that its survival depends on a “total war” footing). I believe this as a Jew, as a Zionist, as a writer, and as someone who has first-hand knowledge of terrorism. But by mounting such a large, public and compelling campaign against an opera that most people will never hear or see, a profoundly chilling wind has been blown across the landscape of Jewish culture specifically and American culture more broadly. In development offices and board meetings across the land, well-intentioned but misguided leaders will ask themselves when faced with the prospect of presenting potentially challenging and controversial material, “Do we want another Death of Klinghoffer on our hands?” Only the most committed (and masochistic) will conclude that they are willing to risk it.

As I was getting this post together, another deadly chapter in this ongoing conflict was written in Jerusalem. A terrorist plowed his car into a crowded Jerusalem train station and took the life of a three-month-old baby girl; an attack which was initially reported in the A.P. as, “Israeli police shoot man in East Jerusalem.” Up in Ontario, an attack with still unfolding causes and consequences reminds us that terror, like that of the Achille Lauro, remains a frequent feature of our landscape. Events like these and their coverage illuminate how pro-Israel activists can see malevolence lurking around every corner and why their suspicions are not without a basis in reality. The urge to circle the wagons and put-off critical examination of ourselves and the “other” for the distant future is strong.

Yet, I do not believe that attacking straw men in the arts serves the long-term interests of the pro-Israel community. It conflates real terrorists with those who wish to understand why terrorism still attracts thousands to its cause; those who are ideologically committed to our destruction with those who wish to understand the historic grievances that feed such fundamentalism. Our tradition demands better.

photo by D. R. Walker, via Wikimedia Commons


Filed under Arts, Facts as we see them, Jewish Stuff, Non-Profit

My Submission to the KCRW Independent Producer Project 24-Hour Radio Race: The Jewelry Box

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Filed under Arts, Facts as we see them