What they say behind your back

We live in a world where people often don’t say what they really think, at least in public.  But sometimes the truth comes out, and when it does, it reveals attitudes we may not have suspected.  There can be several reasons for the secrecy and I give examples of the following.

One reason not to say what you think is politeness, or the disapproval of the wider society.  This applies to various forms of racism.
A second reason is a desire to win an ideological war.
A third reason motivates the politician who thinks he knows the public interest, but does not trust the public.

FDR (painting)

As for the first reason, take the private thoughts of one politician that Jews swooned over: President Franklin D Roosevelt.  In 1923, as a member of the Harvard board of directors, Roosevelt decided there were too many Jewish students at the college and helped institute a quota to limit the number admitted.

There is evidence of other troubling private remarks by FDR too, including dismissing pleas for Jewish refugees as “Jewish wailing” and “sob stuff”; expressing (to a senator) his pride that “there is no Jewish blood in our veins”; and characterizing a tax maneuver by a Jewish newspaper publisher as “a dirty Jewish trick.” But the most common theme in Roosevelt’s private statements about Jews has to do with his perception that they were “overcrowding” many professions and exercising undue influence.
BillyGrahamThe Watergate tapes had this 1972 exchange about Jews. This time it was between Republicans.  The complaint was about Jews in the media.  President Nixon and the Rev. Billy Graham were recorded saying:
Graham: This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.
Nixon: You believe that?
Graham: Yes, sir.
Nixon: Oh, boy. So do I. I can’t ever say that, but I believe it.
As the Chicago Tribune noted, Nixon, Graham, and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman also cracked anti-Semitic jokes.  And  according to Haldeman’s then-just-published diaries, Graham spoke to Nixon of “Satanic” Jews.  Nixon was more explicit (calling supporter Robert Vesco, who later fled the country to escape criminal charges, “a cheap kike”).
So what are we to make of this? In the case of FDR, his beliefs may explain why the U.S. was so reluctant to take in Jewish refugees, while there was time to save them.
In the case of Nixon, he did help save the Jewish state in the Yom Kippur war (by expediting arms shipments) and actions speak louder than words.
In 2009, John Mann, a Labour parliamentarian and former trade-union official from Yorkshire invoked his experience as an MP in the Palace of Westminster and said:
As a non-Jew I hear things that people would not say if they perceived I was Jewish. I have witnessed shocking disgraceful and outrageous anti-Semitism in Parliament… completely cross-party.
In other words, if you are Jewish and a loyal labour voter, or a loyal conservative party voter, then your affection is unrequited, at least by some.  As President Truman was misquoted as saying: “If you want a friend, get a dog.”
Daniel Bernard
Daniel Bernard

Also in Britain the French Ambassador to London, Daniel Bernard, told his close friend Lord Black of Crossharbour, proprietor of The Daily Telegraph, that Israel was a “shitty little country” and also “Why should we be in danger of World War Three because of these people?”.
Unfortunately for M Bernard the conversation was conveyed by Lord Black to his journalist wife, Barbara Amiel, who referred to the remark in her Daily Telegraph column without identifying Bernard by name.  But within 24 hours, he was identified.
Bernard was of course unhappy about this – he said that the publicity was a breach of trust at a party where he thought he was among friends.

Personally, I believe people have a right to vent.  I would include the French ambassador in that category.  If he believes that the policies of the state of Israel will lead to World War III, he can say it, even with a colorful four letter word.   A reader of this post who disagreed with the above told me that my logic means that I would excuse genocidal speech as well.   My reply is this: there are demonstrators in the streets of Europe who say Hitler’s policy of killing millions of Jews was correct.  These demonstrators are violent and intimidating and so they get away with it.  They don’t say it behind anyone’s back, and they don’t care who hears them.  So why should I get excited that some ambassador uses the ‘s’ word in private when referring to Israel?  And of course suppressing his speech raises serious issues.  One of those issues is: Who decides what to suppress?
I have a Jewish relative who was keen on interfaith discussions with Muslims.  Everyone says nice things to each other’s faces. But are interfaith discussions sincere?
Stephen Steinlight, a Jew with Muslim friends, says that they

have told me in agonizing personal confessions — friends that attended madrassah and then Islamic institutions of higher learning in countries ranging from Morocco to Egypt, Bosnia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — that it is virtually impossible to be reared in classical Islam and not be educated to hate Jews — based on a literalist reading the Koran, where many of the verses concerning Jews (and Christians) are hateful incitements to murder.

The second reason – ideological dishonesty — is illustrated by this story:
In 2010,  in a secretive liberal journalist online discussion forum called JournoList, Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent proposed attacking Mr. Obama’s critics as racists. He wrote:
“If the right forces us all to either defend (radical black minister Jeremiah) Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead, take one of them — Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists. . . . This makes them ‘sputter’ with rage, which in turn leads to overreaction and self-destruction.”
I would think this was more serious than Bernard’s remarks.  Ackerman’s job description as a journalist is to tell us the truth, not to describe people as racists who are not racists.

A second example of ideological dishonesty being exposed was when hackers penetrated the computer network of University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit (CRU) and leaked a collection of email messages, data files and data processing programs. This trove of private correspondence revealed scientific fraud and data manipulation by scientists concerning the man-made Global Warming Theory.
To give an idea of the flavor: One email said:
“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

A complaint by a peer about paleo-climatologist Hans von Storch said he was responsible for “the publication of crap science ‘in order to stimulate debate’” and that they “must get rid of von Storch” as an editor of the journal Climate Research. Indeed Storch resigned soon after. When the news of ‘Climategate’ broke, Storch must have been interested in seeing these remarks about him.

Then there is the third motive for talking behind your back. This is the idea that you can’t be trusted with the truth.

One example of this was when another microphone that was not turned off: in September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook at a UN development summit in New York. As they sat down, Chancellor Merkel’s microphone, still on, recorded Merkel asking Zuckerberg what could be done to stop anti-immigration postings being written on Facebook. She asked if it was something he was working on, and he assured her it was.
Douglas Murray tells the above story, and then says this:
Remove the right to speak about your frustrations, and only violence is left. Weimar Germany — to give just one example — was replete with hate-speech laws intended to limit speech the state did not like. These laws did nothing whatsoever to limit the rise of extremism; it only made martyrs out of those it pursued, and persuaded an even larger number of people that the time for talking was over.
Andrew Neather
A second example happened in the U.K. Andrew Neather was a speech writer for the Labour Prime Minister of England, Tony Blair, and also worked for Home Secretary Jack Straw. He found out that they and other Laborites ‘dishonestly’ concealed a plan to allow in more immigrants and make Britain more multi-cultural because they feared a public backlash if it was made public.

Neather went on to say that “the policy was intended—even if this wasn’t its main purpose — to rub the right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date.” He referred to a secret government report, and his allegations were later proven after a request through the ‘freedom of information act’ secured access to that report. After the response to his remarks got heated, Neather hastened to say that the main purpose was to fill shortages in the work force and that “excitable” right wingers are seeing a plot where there wasn’t any.

Nonetheless, I would, as a voter, want to know if a politician seeking my vote has plans to change my society.  I could agree with it, or disagree with it, but I would want to know.

A third example happened in the U.S.
A microphone that was supposed to be off but was left on picked up this conversation between U.S. President Obama and Russian President Medvedev.
Obama said “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important for him (Vladimir Putin) to give me space…This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”
Medvedev replied “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Even if you are a progressive, I would think you would prefer an honest debate about missile defense, not be treated a child whose betters have to make the decision.

If the people you identify with don’t like you, then you should consider the possibilities:

  1. They are right.  There is something wrong with you, or your beliefs, or your behavior.
  2. They are wrong.  There is something wrong with your identifying with them.
  3. They are right about everything else, and just mysteriously wrong about you.

Two progressive Jewish students went to a conference of peers who they believed were fighting the righteous battle against racist speech and hate crimes.  At that conference, Arielle Mokhtarzadeh and Ben Rosenberg heard anti-Semitic statements that were met with applause and approval—statements like “the state of Israel pays Jews to move to Israel to join the army and kill Palestinians” and even “you shouldn’t buy Ben and Jerry’s because they’re Jewish and have a shop in Israel.” A painful moment was when “The whole room—representing a diverse cross-section of progressive activists and students of color—was holding hands, embraced in each other’s support and calling out “Free, free Palestine!”
They walked out, Mokhtarzadeh on the verge of tears.”
In this case, my unasked for advice to Mokhtarzadeh and Rosenberg would be option #2 – don’t identify with leftist causes. I think they chose option #3.

Progressive students at UCLA
Snide remarks made in private don’t always mean all that much. When they do, they can imply an iceberg below the surface – a set of resentments, deserved or not, that you need to know about and understand, or an incipient movement or trend that will affect your future for the worse.



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