I have some good news for anyone who could use some this week: The Wehrmacht isn’t marching on Brooklyn Heights.
True, a playground in the neighborhood was defaced by graffiti of swastikas and the words “Go Trump,” a vile act that left many of us already shaken by the election’s results feeling even more insecure. But because hysteria is only slightly less malignant than despair, it’s crucial, now more than ever, to observe reality as it actually is—and what it is in no way suggests that a Fourth Reich is imminent.
We may never know who sprayed the hateful symbol on that Brooklyn jungle gym. But judging by his or her facility with detail—the droopy swastikas look less like the menacing icons that adorned Hitler’s Berlin and more like an aborted game of Snake on a first-generation cellphone—the vandal is more likely to have been a prickly teen with a bad case of boredom than an Obersturmfuhrer in training. More important, precisely nothing else suggests that Brooklyn—or Spokane, or Chicago, or any of the other cities reporting a spike in hate crimes in the aftermath of Trump’s election—is in any way in danger of being stomped over by jack-booted thugs.
The election of Donald Trump, as I’ve argued before and will argue again and again and again, is a full-blown moral crisis we must neither accept nor normalize. But as we wonder how to become the citizens we want to and should be—joyful, vigilant, inspired, and effective—let us remember these three important things.
First, facts matter. So does context. It’ll take us a while to figure out exactly how and why this electoral catastrophe befell us, but one reason is already evident: We had bad information. In part, this is because polling, our best tool for taking the national pulse, is an imperfect science still very much in its infancy. It’s also because we, being human, choose to tell ourselves stories that confirm what we want to believe. Right now, many of us are despondent, depressed, and outraged, and so a story about a playground defiled by Nazi imagery is a perfect fit for how we feel. Resist the urge. What we’re seeing in the wake of Trump’s rise isn’t always pretty, and there’s no doubt that whole slimy swaths of society—see under: right, alt—are feeling emboldened right now to say and do some truly heinous things. But not all jerks were created equal, and if we can’t tell a furtive fascist contemplating genocide from a high school kid in Iowa stupidly shouting insults at a Latino friend, we’re in trouble.
We’re in even deeper trouble if we allow fear to steer the ship. I understand, of course, why some of us feel anxious, and the feeling, like any feeling, is perfectly valid. But when we overreact—as we did, arguably, when we assembled hundreds of our finest at the defaced park in Brooklyn to deliver defiant addresses like it was the editor in chief of the Volkischer Beobachter, not Breitbart News, who’d just been appointed chief White House strategist—we send not one wrong message but two: We tell our kids that there’s reason to be afraid when there’s not, and we tell the haters that simply by spraying some slogans on a playground they can goad us into action. It doesn’t take a political scientist to realize that giving these noxious incidents any real attention only encourages the haters to strike again; why wouldn’t they, when all it takes to get Ben Stiller to show up is a can of spray paint? The second principle, then, is this: Instead of quivering with anger and trepidation any time an empowered lowlife somewhere scribbles something sickening, we should first decide if the incident merits our attention. Nine out of 10 times, it will not. And when it does, it’s time to apply principle No.3.
It goes like this: Fight the fights that need fighting. Taking a symbolic stand against the universally appalling crime of spraying swastikas where children play is easy, if for no other reason than the perpetrator would likely never be caught. Standing up to real hate—organized, principled, dedicated—is much harder. And the haters abound, on the left and on the right, disparaging opponents as “renegade Jews” or dismissing the Holocaust as “white on white crime.” Resisting them involves losing friends, alienating people, and risking the ire of institutions including but not limited to academia, the media, and several branches of government. Never mind: Resist we must.
If this Great Awakening so many of us feel these days is to be anything more than a spasmodic convulsion or a fleeting affectation, it must move us to combat hate where it matters most. And that’s hard to do. Left-leaning Jews may begin by admitting that many on their side of the divide have, for years now, been unduly focused on Israel’s transgressions for no other reason than their disdain for the Jewish state. And conservative Jews must now admit that some of their most enthusiastic allies in the pro-Israel camp are otherwise irreparably affiliated with movements or ideas that are antithetical to every good and decent virtue American Jews have ever held dear. Bigots who advocate placing some Americans on a special registry simply because of their religious affiliation cannot be our partners, no matter how eagerly they support moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, just as bigots who advocate placing Israelis under special scrutiny just for being Israelis cannot be our partners, no matter how vigorously they campaign for some other civil right back home. This much should be clear.
Let’s take a moment, then, take a deep breath, calm down, gear up, and fight. The best response to overblown rhetoric is never a different kind of overblown rhetoric; it’s calm, and compassion, and grace. We have many reasons to lament and many things to worry about, but blackshirts in Brooklyn, praise the Lord, ain’t one of them.
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