February 2, 2010
February 2, 2010
February 2, 2010
OPPONENTS of Hugo Chávez have often bewailed his knack of cloaking authoritarianism in outwardly democratic forms. So perhaps they should be grateful that the Venezuelan president is increasingly abandoning the pretence. On January 23rd—a date on which the country commemorates the 1958 uprising that ousted its last military dictator—cable-television operators were told to stop carrying RCTV, a pro-opposition channel. It was the latest in a series of recent moves that have placed Mr Chávez’s elected regime within a hair’s breadth of dictatorship.
Three years ago RCTV’s broadcasting licence was not renewed, confining it to cable. Now the government has ruled that, despite being a cable channel, it (and many other channels) must obey a broadcasting law that requires it, among other things, to transmit the president’s lengthy speeches live, whenever he feels like it. The urge came over him almost immediately, at a political rally. When RCTV declined to oblige him, its fate was sealed.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (part of the Organisation of American States) complained that RCTV and the other channels had been punished without due process, and called for their rights to be restored. The response of the regime, which has repeatedly snubbed the regional body, was to blow a raspberry.
Venezuelans are due to vote for a new parliament in September. Last year Mr Chávez won a referendum he had called to abolish term limits for presidents and other senior elected officials. Now, opinion polls are showing unprecedented levels of discontent over crime, inflation, and power and water shortages. There were big anti-government protests in Caracas, the capital, after RCTV was shut off, which were countered by the government’s more modest rally.
These problems, and the resulting discontent, may well intensify in coming months. Even the president’s undoubted charisma has not rendered him immune. In one recent poll 66% said they did not want him to continue in office when his present term ends in three years…
February 2, 2010
Goldman Sachs, the huge and hugely profitable investment bank, has become a symbol of the financial excesses that helped to bring on the current recession. Because Goldman is thought of as a “Jewish” firm, and because it dominates the financial industry, criticism of Goldman, or of bankers generally, is often accused of being anti-Semitic. Commentators including Rush Limbaugh and Maureen Dowd have been so accused. When, if ever, are such accusations fair?
If you believe that Goldman has done nothing wrong, then any criticisms of Goldman or use of the firm as a symbol of the crisis are obviously unfair to Goldman. Furthermore, they would raise the legitimate question of “Why pick on Goldman?” and the possibility that anti-Semitism is part of the explanation. Similarly, if you believe that anything Goldman did wrong was done wrong by lots of others, the question of “Why pick on Goldman” arises, as does the same obvious answer.
Unfortunately for Goldman, it is not obviously blameless in the crisis. It was never so reckless that it risked going under. It borrowed only [sic] ten billion dollars from the Federal government, even that under duress, and paid it back as soon as possible, with interest. But the firm engaged in complex transactions that amounted to betting against its clients. Throughout the crisis, it enjoyed an implicit government guarantee on the grounds of being “too big to fail.” The government bailed out one of Goldman’s biggest borrowers–the insurance company AIG–saving Goldman billions in losses. And its profits and executive bonuses revealed, at the least, a lack of sensitivity at a time when millions are losing their jobs.
Even if Goldman did nothing in particular wrong, its status as one of only two remaining huge investment banks on Wall Street (the other is Morgan Stanley) might make it a legitimate focus, especially given its reputation, even before the crisis, for ruthlessness.
Is it legitimate to think of Goldman as a Jewish firm? Messrs. Goldman and Sachs, who founded the firm in the nineteenth century, were Jewish, as have been most of its partners since then, almost all of its leaders, and its current CEO (Lloyd Blankfein). It was founded because Jews were excluded from other firms. At this point Goldman is a publicly traded stock that anybody may own, and probably most of its employees are not Jewish. (Just as Jews are more than welcome at “gentile” firms like Morgan Stanley).
Is it legitimate to talk about Goldman as a Jewish firm? That’s a different question. Many American Jews think “Jewish” when they hear the words “Goldman” and “Sachs,” but still cringe whenever they hear the connection made in public, especially by non-Jews. Certainly any explicit suggestion that Goldman’s alleged misbehavior and its Jewishness are related in any way is anti-Semitic.
But what about comments about Goldman Sachs that draw on the classic stereotype about Jews and money, without making any explicit connection to it being a Jewish firm? That depends on which stereotype you mean. There is the stereotype that Jews thrive and tend to predominate on Wall Street and in the financial professions generally. This is true, but so what? There is no mystery or conspiracy involved. Jews in Europe were excluded from many occupations for centuries. They couldn’t own land and be farmers. Here in the United States they couldn’t climb the executive ladder at big corporations. They were not welcome at investment banks run by Protestants. So they founded their own.
The stereotype that Jews gravitate toward, and often do well in, finance is so innocent that, ironically, bringing it up is suspicious. What does it have to do with anything?
…Limbaugh’s supporters make too much of the fact that, read literally, his remarks took the form of defending Jews against unfair maligning. There can be something creepy about “philo-semitism,” or a professed special fondness for Jews. Even when it is sincere (as it may well be in Limbaugh’s case), it rests on an acute feeling of “otherness” about Jews that makes many Jewish Americans rightly uncomfortable.
Sometimes the stereotype about Jews and money takes a harsher form: Jews are greedy, they lie, cheat and steal for money, they have undue influence with the government, which they cultivate and exploit ruthlessly, and so on. In recent weeks, many have said this sort of thing about Goldman Sachs, but with no reference to Jews. Are they all anti-Semites? No. It ought to be possible to criticize Goldman in the harshest possible terms–if you think that’s warranted–without being tarred as an anti-Semite. (Many of Goldman’s harshest critics, unsurprisingly, are Jewish. Jews can be anti-Semites, too.)