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Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens speaks on “Populism, Nationalism, and Hate” at the 2019 Sol & Florence Kanee Distinguished Lecture series, hosted by the Jewish Heritage Centre, May 13, 2019

by Penny Jones Square

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
—T. S.  Eliot, The Waste Land
Close to 650 people attended the 2019 Sol & Florence Kanee Distinguished Lecture hosted by the Jewish Heritage Centre on May 13 with special guest speaker Bret Stephens—American journalist, editor, and political commentator. Stephens is currently an op-ed columnist for the New York Times and a senior political analyst for NBC News and NMSBC. He has also worked as an op-ed columnist (1998 – 2002) and as foreign affairs columnist and deputy editor of the editorial page (1998 – 2002) for the Wall Street Journal, and as editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post (2002 – 2004), receiving numerous awards and distinctions. Clearly, Stephens’ distinguished reputation and equally remarkable career attracted the large and receptive audience, who honoured him with a standing ovation for his brilliant, thorough, and thoughtful analysis of this challenging time.

Stephens likened our contemporary moment, fraught with populist demagoguery and hate, to the 1920s, opening with a quotation from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (written in 1922)—a poem about “what happens after a civilizational catastrophe,” when “the ideas, aspirations, and conceits that sustained that civilization collapse.” He identified the “roots that clutch” and “branches” that grew out of “the stony rubbish” of post-war politics as populism, fascism, communism, and totalitarianism—the same forces that are now re-emerging in the present day. Quoting Mark Twain—“History does not repeat itself, but it sure rhymes itself”—Stephens compared Eliot’s despairing vision to what we are witnessing now: right-wing populists being democratically elected in Poland and Hungary; the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party, with “a strong streak of historical and Holocaust revisionism,” being the third largest party in Germany; a French neo-fascist party coming in second place; the British Tory Party leading the disastrous Brexit campaign and being unable to carry it out; the British Labour party being “institutionally antisemitic”; Mexico electing a left-wing populist president; Brazil electing a right-wing populist president; and Italy “splitting the difference,” having a coalition of right-wing and left-wing populist demagogues. Stephens claimed—in answer to his own pressing question, “What is going on?”—that what we are witnessing is “the rhyming of history.”

Quoting from British-Polish historian Norman Davies, Stephens described politics in the interwar era of the 1920s and 30s as being “dominated by the recurring spectacle of democracies falling prey to dictatorships,” all of which shared a “rejection of democracy.” The new and varied autocracies that emerged from the collapse of colonial empires—whether of the left or right, radical or reactionary—had other commonalities. According to Stephens, all were “beneficiaries of Wilson’s call for self-determination”; all experienced the political consequences of economic decline and dislocation of people; and all were “beneficiaries of the discrediting of the old order” and of Western “doubt and self-loathing,” driven by “the treason of the intellectuals,” including Oswald Spengler (who wrote The Decline of the West) and Lincoln Steffens (who declared “the notion of liberty . . . is false, a hangover from our Western tyranny”). The decay of liberal democratic values was abetted by the refusal of leading Western powers to defend the old order they represented and the regimes they had created, thereby allowing the subsequent political and philosophical vacuum to be filled by demagogues.

Stephens went on to comment: “It’s remarkable how much rhyming there is” between this interwar era and what we are seeing now with the rise in populism, nationalism, and hate. He identified the key event—“moment zero”—when the “rhyming” became dominant as September 10, 2013—the day President Obama announced he would not enforce his own red line against the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Assad against his own people. Once Obama crossed the red line, once it was apparent the U.S. declaration was meaningless, Russia invaded the Ukraine, ISIS took over Mosul, China stepped up its expansionist and illegal activities in the South China Sea, and Iran doubled down on its efforts to extend its sphere of influence throughout the Middle East down into Yemen. “The secret was out.” “It was an open season for geo-political revisionism.” Stephens described Obama’s failure as “fecklessness at the highest level.”

Indeed, it began the massive human exodus from Syria, followed by the migration wave of 2015, which activated profound anxiety about immigrants and inspired the rise in populist politics. “All the political and philosophical assumptions that had governed our thinking since the collapse of communism no longer applied to the world in which we lived.” The West, its ideals, methods, and freedoms, were no longer guiding forces; they fell prey to the forces of religious fanaticism, ethnic chauvinism, and “the sewage pipes of social media.”  With democracy now fractured and divided by mistrust, Western leaders are no longer drivers of global governance—they are “making it up and messing it up as they go.”

Stephens then turned his attention to President Donald Trump, who he warned must not be dismissed as “an indescribably stupid trickster,” whose election was a fluke. This vast “mis-underestimation” is “wrong-headed and dangerous”; it ignores the fact that Trump possesses other kinds of intelligence—feral and artistic—which he uses masterfully to provoke his opponents. His tactic of “picking fights,” in particular, his “three great fights”—immigration, the deep state, and the press—arouse a hate or love response, allowing for no in-between. In this, his tactics replicate those of the demagogues of the 1920s and 30s, inciting an “us” vs “them” politics. He is succeeding because the democrats never fail to rise to Trump’s bait, and in doing so they are similarly debased.

Stephens admitted he condones Trump’s support of the opposition in Venezuela, the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and his withdrawal from the “misbegotten nuclear deal” with Iran. As well, he pointed out the left is not immune to bigotry and hate, as is especially evident in the comeback of antisemitism on the left in the guise of anti-Zionism.

 Stephens concluded by declaring that we should be alarmed by the politics we see today but added this does not mean we should despair. The world knows now where the politics of the 1920s and 30s led, and “none knows better than the Jews.” “We know now, as our predecessors did not, where it might end again, if we do not get off this path,” and in order to do so, “we must move.” “The ultimate reason the West nearly collapsed (Stephens stressed “nearly” here) was that it nearly lost faith in itself.”  "It nearly lost faith in the power of democracy to heal and renew itself (but Franklin Roosevelt did not lose faith); it nearly lost faith in the capacity of democracy to stand up and defeat dictators (but Winston Churchill did not lose faith). And “when the intelligentsia nearly succumbed to the blandishments of utopianism, populism, and totalitarianism, George Orwell did not succumb, he did not lose faith.” These men drew from “a deeper well,” encompassing a “commitment to liberal democratic values, ordinary decency, and a belief in our shared humanity,” as well as “the courage to stand up to blowhards and bullies.” They did so “not by reinventing politics but by re-invigorating the politics of life, liberty, equal dignity, and equal justice—the rights of man and woman.”

His parting words were inspiring and hopeful: “It’s within our imaginations, our tradition, our capacity, and our grasp to ensure history won’t rhyme again.”
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