Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Report from the AIPAC Policy Conference, 2016

My wife and I attended the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., over three days starting Sunday, March 20.   The purpose of AIPAC is to promote the American/Israeli alliance.  All the major presidential candidates spoke (except Bernie Sanders, who was invited but declined): Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, along with notables like Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

The first day was devoted to breakout sessions.  I went to one on the Syrian civil war and one on autistic people working for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

The panel of Middle-East experts in the Syrian discussion delivered thorough accounts of the current maze of allies and enemies, a fractured picture of all against all, that "all" including us.  Such chaos can be a useful cover for organized policy that is not as chaotic as it looks, so when the audience was invited to ask questions, I asked, "Three years ago, when President Obama first made moves to intervene in Syria, after Syrian leader Assad's use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians, the mail to the White House and Congress ran four-to-one against intervention, and the idea was dropped. With the subsequent ISIS attacks on the U.S. and Europe, that opposition has dissipated.  Would it be fair to say that ISIS has maneuvered the U.S. into involvement in the Syrian civil war?"

The panel deflected the question with unrelated facts and figures, but several nearby audience members said, "Good question!" which I like to think justified the enhanced carbon footprint of my L.A. flight.

We attended a session about the IDF's Roim Rachok ("Looking beyond the horizon") unitwhich employs autistic people to study military surveillance photos. With their enhanced abilities to discern patterns that "normal" people might miss, the autistic soldiers of Roim Rachok make significant contributions.  It was an especially interesting subject for my wife and me because my brother-in-law, Steven (featured in the recent documentary Autism in Love) is autistic.  His uneasy fit with the surrounding culture is striking, as it is with most autistic people, but his talents might be coveted by many: a photographic memory, a mind so quick that the concepts and perspectives behind conventional human language become a pointless burden.  Steven has worked for many years in a factory putting mechanical parts together, the model of a dependable employee, and has derived satisfaction and relief from the daily routine, but we wished he could have found something like Roim Rachok that treated his talents as intellectual human assets.  Autistic author Donna Williams describes autistics as "a people in search of a culture."  These days that might describe us all; why not work together and build a new culture?

Sunday night we heard Vice President Biden.  As with the other speakers, Biden's impact was much more forceful, at least to me, in person than the impact from his sound bites over the years.  He is a compelling and skilled speaker, which I hadn't known.  He projects a paternal image that's almost impossible to resist.  I have to admit a frustration over liking people in person that I have grumbled about after years of seeing them on TV.  After the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Biden gave a speech in which the jingoistic parts, where he shouted and crowed about the death, were widely reported.  It was aimed at an audience that might have believed the assassination would solve any problems, as if it would stop history from unfolding (like the assassination of Hitler might have done).  It's clear now that bin Laden was just another replaceable figurehead for the masses who hate America.  The new figureheads are now in place.  I was displeased by Joe Biden then, but watching him now I was seduced by his fatherly sincerity, by the bravery of his response to family tragedy, maybe by a need to think something positive about a leader.  It was a confusing sensation.

The first event Monday morning, and the payoff for waiting in the long security lines outside in the D.C. chill at the Verizon Center (inside of which was one open vendor, Dunkin' Donuts, with a twenty minute line for lukewarm coffee) was Hillary Clinton's speech.

She wore a red jacket, which, my wife pointed out, matched the red in the American flag graphics inserted around Clinton's face on immense jumbotrons suspended above the stage.  Speakers faced 360 degrees of audience.  The circular stage revolved slowly so no part of the audience saw only the speaker's back.  The screens gave the impression that the giant beaming face of a deity was gazing directly into your eyes.

The crowd of 18,700 filled the stadium up the steep sections, with most of the young people in the cheap seats on top.  From our seats about midway up, Clinton was a red and blond dot beneath her face on the giant screens.  Like all the speakers, she had mastered the talking points: the importance to the U.S. of Israel's security; the many trips the speaker has taken to Israel; the technological prowess of Israel (there was much emphasis on Israeli water technology); Israel's status as a democracy surrounded by dictatorships.  Her speech became interesting when she attacked Trump, which she did by implication when she talked about bullies and people who say they support something, like Israel, but impulsively change their minds later.  These lines received a rowdy and prolonged standing ovation.  Quite a bit of love and support was beamed at Clinton, and at the end it almost seemed that she was crying.  I would understand if she were.  How many people could withstand the ego-busting roller coaster she's on?  Once again, as with Biden, I was chagrined to find that in person, after years of fulminating at her sound bites, like a sucker, I liked her.  No wonder candidates speak in person.

I'm skipping ahead to Trump's speech that evening, because the contrast with Clinton's speech was illuminating.  Trump is not skilled, at least for me, at being likable.  His strategy is to target people with specific positions. He creates widespread support with a shotgun approach in which he addresses as many demographics in the electorate as he can, from left to right, saying at least one thing each group desperately wants to hear but is not hearing from the other candidates, who appear timid and beholden compared to him.  He targeted me when he talked about the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq, which killed five thousand American troops and up to 500,000 Iraqis without securing a single foreign policy objective- unless our objective has been chaos and danger.  No other Republican candidate than Trump will press Hillary Clinton on her vote for the Iraq War, in spite of the ocean of Democratic votes such criticism would garner, just as no other Democratic candidate than Sanders (a Democrat since 2015) will press a Republican on Bush's Iraq invasion.  It's what we used to call a "gentleman's agreement," Trump and Sanders being the two non-gentlemen. 

Trump had clearly studied Middle-East history for his AIPAC speech, as there were numerous references to dates and events (though, as Cruz mockingly pointed out later, Trump slipped when he stated that "Palestine was created in 1948").  All of the talking points were covered.  The interesting parts came when he attacked Clinton by name ("Hillary would be a disaster!") and then President Obama ("It's Obama's last term, yay!"), both of which received prolonged standing ovations which appeared to match in force the standing ovation Clinton had received that morning when she attacked Trump.  Many people, including us, felt severe cognitive dissonance.  Was the whole place cheering both sides?

Some of the explanation came from our nephew, who was up in the cheap seats, which were not well lit or visible from our area.  He said that everyone in the under-40 seats cheered when Clinton attacked Trump, but that when Trump attacked Clinton and Obama, no one stood or cheered; it was totally silent as people were stunned by the cheering below.  I talked later to a woman who said her 18-year-old son started crying at the cheers when Trump attacked Clinton.

AIPAC leadership was concerned by the situation, by the idea that AIPAC members (older ones) might alienate the powerful people that Jews believe they need to be on their side, and they made statements asking all attendees to avoid encouraging ad hominem and defaming attacks, but the problem goes beyond the AIPAC conference.  There is a generational fracture already at work to accompany the other fractures splitting humanity around the world: men vs. women; race vs. race; religion vs. religion; nation vs. nation, economic class vs. economic class, not to mention human beings vs. the rest of life on earth.  The crazy quilt of warring tribes in Syria matches the pattern.

Are humanity's divisions real?  Or are we manipulated into divisiveness by the One Percent so they can control us better?  Is it true, as I often hear, that secret forces have molded American society so that groups are isolated from each other and disenfranchised?  When I work with Millennials, of course there is a generation gap. There is a teenage world.  There is a different world for people who just turned 70.
You don't have to make up that gap- it's there, but for many people it's not that difficult to communicate across the realms, to find levels where young and old share the common, human perspective.  But then, of course, each side reads the trash on the other.  The young read that their teachers' retirement pensions and health benefits are sucking the lifeblood out of the system, so that when the young reach retirement age there will be nothing left for them.  The old read how lazy and stupid the young have become, that no one reads The Mayor of Casterbridge anymore or learns cursive, and all anyone can do is press buttons on video game controls.  Where do the slanders come from?  I read them all the time in mainstream media.  It's enough to push a guy into conspiracy theory.  

Ohio Governor Kasich, whose claim to moderation comes from his stodgy demeanor rather than policy, stood out poorly against the other candidates- polished speakers all, who barely looked at the teleprompter or their notes and gave the strong illusion (probably at times not an illusion) that they were speaking extemporaneously. Kasich read entirely from his notes, making eye contact with the audience less than a novice high school debater would.  The effect was disastrous, and commented upon by many.  

Ted Cruz said that, while Trump would "renegotiate" the Iran Deal (strongly opposed by AIPAC), he, Cruz, would "rip it to shreds," continuing the kind of useless semantic trop that characterizes this and all of our political campaigns.  But Cruz, to my shock, after I'd reviled his sound bites for months, did the same magic on my hostility as Biden and Clinton had. Maybe it was the prolonged cheer when he referred to "the whole megilla," three days before Purim. OMG, I even liked Ted Cruz!  Briefly.  These guys are good. 

Paul Ryan was poised and likable as well.  He is the most presentable public official associated with what was formerly called the Tea Party.  His trick has been to position himself as a budget expert and not say too many crazy things.  It's understandable that he did not want to be House Speaker.  His recent resistance to cuts in Planned Parenthood funding created his first serious division with the far right.  Now there's no one left but Trump.  GOP, look what you've done.

The Tuesday morning of our departure we and everyone else read about the attacks in Brussels.  One of the speakers we had listened to was from Belgium.  He told how his grandparents had run for their lives from Ukraine; his father had fled Germany, and he had thought that, in Belgium, he would be the first in his line to live his life in one place.  Now he was not sure.  We thought of him Tuesday morning.  AIPAC concentrates on what is called the "existential threat" to Israel (the definition of "existential" apparently having morphed to "relating to existence" from its former "relating to the meaning of existence"), which is presented as a subset of the existential threat to America.  I hope we don't forget that when existential threats approach, it's important to have a quality existence, so you have the will and energy to prolong it.

I also want to mention what a beautiful and wonderful city Washington, D.C. is (the central part, that is, where tourists visit), with gorgeous old structures everywhere, artfully integrated with the new (refreshing for people from L.A., where things aren't so much integrated as jumbled). We'd seen the unforgettable Smithsonians in the past; this time we saw the Newseum and the Spy Museum, both outstanding.  What an advantage to be the seat of empire!  Los Angeles, why can't we do that? With more than the movie industry, I mean.  Washington D.C., watch out!