Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 17, 2007

Broadening the Definition

According to a story in the January 16th New York Times, “Democratic congressional leaders say they are committed to governing from the center.” This newfound centrism focuses on social issues. Democrats are alarmed by 2004 exit surveys that showed that religious voters favored Bush by an overwhelming margin. Part of the response has been the creation of a “faith working group,” led by Representative James Clyburn, the new House majority whip. This group, according to the story, aims to “broaden . . . the definition of values-related issues . . . to include economic issues like raising the minimum wage, assisting low-income children with health insurance, and shoring up Social Security.” “That’s Old Testament Bible, taking care of widows and orphans,” says Clyburn.

This is the social-issues version of Michael Dukakis’s memorable ride atop a tank during his 1988 presidential campaign. He was trying to show voters that he was strong on defense, but the photo op backfired because many voters understood that if the Democrats, inveterate critics of defense spending, had had their way, there would have been no tank.

Back then, aside from riding on tanks, the Democrats tried to persuade voters that they were not weak on national security by seeking to “broaden the definition” of national security to include these very same social insurance policies that today they are claiming are “values” issues.

Whatever the merits of the minimum wage, Medicare, and social security, they are of little avail against foreign enemies or terrorists. And whatever they may do for your body, they do little for your soul. They make poor substitutes for ethics, self-discipline, and other traditional virtues that churchgoing voters presumably prize.

The Democrats’ problem for the past thirty-odd years has been that they are much more liberal than the electorate. Senator Lieberman was their one leader who was conspicuously devout. He also happened to be deeply serious about national security, so they hastened to chuck him out. In thinking they can solve their problem through semantic games, the Democrats are showing their contempt for the voters. Notwithstanding the anomalous results in 2006, the voters will continue to return the compliment.

According to a story in the January 16th New York Times, “Democratic congressional leaders say they are committed to governing from the center.” This newfound centrism focuses on social issues. Democrats are alarmed by 2004 exit surveys that showed that religious voters favored Bush by an overwhelming margin. Part of the response has been the creation of a “faith working group,” led by Representative James Clyburn, the new House majority whip. This group, according to the story, aims to “broaden . . . the definition of values-related issues . . . to include economic issues like raising the minimum wage, assisting low-income children with health insurance, and shoring up Social Security.” “That’s Old Testament Bible, taking care of widows and orphans,” says Clyburn.

This is the social-issues version of Michael Dukakis’s memorable ride atop a tank during his 1988 presidential campaign. He was trying to show voters that he was strong on defense, but the photo op backfired because many voters understood that if the Democrats, inveterate critics of defense spending, had had their way, there would have been no tank.

Back then, aside from riding on tanks, the Democrats tried to persuade voters that they were not weak on national security by seeking to “broaden the definition” of national security to include these very same social insurance policies that today they are claiming are “values” issues.

Whatever the merits of the minimum wage, Medicare, and social security, they are of little avail against foreign enemies or terrorists. And whatever they may do for your body, they do little for your soul. They make poor substitutes for ethics, self-discipline, and other traditional virtues that churchgoing voters presumably prize.

The Democrats’ problem for the past thirty-odd years has been that they are much more liberal than the electorate. Senator Lieberman was their one leader who was conspicuously devout. He also happened to be deeply serious about national security, so they hastened to chuck him out. In thinking they can solve their problem through semantic games, the Democrats are showing their contempt for the voters. Notwithstanding the anomalous results in 2006, the voters will continue to return the compliment.

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Bookshelf

• Sometimes I wish I had a rubber stamp made especially for use when reviewing biographies: TOO MANY FACTS, NOT ENOUGH STYLE. Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin: His Life and Work (University of California, 884 pp., $39.95) fits that dreary bill perfectly. I read the galleys of Pollack’s book at the same time that I was working on the essay about Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney biography that ran in the January issue of COMMENTARY, and at times I found it hard to tell the two books apart. Pollack wrote a big fat biography of Aaron Copland in 2001, and this book, like that one, is too long, too earnest, and pedestrian in the extreme. It’s also organized thematically rather than chronologically, making it even less pleasing to read.

Alas, Pollack has done his homework with a vengeance, and George Gershwin contains everything you could possibly want to know about the composer of Porgy and Bess, much of it newly discovered. As a result, it’s unlikely that anyone will write another Gershwin biography for at least another decade, so if you’re interested in Gershwin—and you should be—you’ll have to slog through this one, grumbling all the way.

Incidentally, Pollack is a professor of music at the University of Houston. No surprise there, needless to say. Does writing well threaten your chances of getting tenure? I’m starting to wonder…

• I rarely write blurbs, but I made an exception for Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins (Broadway Books, 675 pp., $40) because I know the author and read the book in manuscript, meaning that I can’t review it. I can, however, tell you what the blurb said: “I can’t think of a better full-length portrait of an American choreographer or director, and I can’t imagine a better book about Robbins ever being written.” I know whereof I speak. I wrote a lot about Robbins while he was alive (including two essays for COMMENTARY, one of which is reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader) and at one time gave serious thought to writing a biography of my own, but I decided to pick another subject when I heard that Vaill was working on this book, because I knew she’d do a first-rate job, which she did.

Stylistically speaking, Somewhere is everything that George Gershwin isn’t, and it’s thorough and intelligent to boot. Yes, it’s long, but not absurdly so, and it’s so well written that you don’t care. Gabriel Fauré was once asked about the correct tempo for “Aprés un rêve,” his most popular song. He’s supposed to have replied, “If the singer is bad—very fast!” That’s how I feel about Somewhere. Me, I would have written it shorter, but when a book is as good as this one, I’m happy to keep on reading.

• Sometimes I wish I had a rubber stamp made especially for use when reviewing biographies: TOO MANY FACTS, NOT ENOUGH STYLE. Howard Pollack’s George Gershwin: His Life and Work (University of California, 884 pp., $39.95) fits that dreary bill perfectly. I read the galleys of Pollack’s book at the same time that I was working on the essay about Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney biography that ran in the January issue of COMMENTARY, and at times I found it hard to tell the two books apart. Pollack wrote a big fat biography of Aaron Copland in 2001, and this book, like that one, is too long, too earnest, and pedestrian in the extreme. It’s also organized thematically rather than chronologically, making it even less pleasing to read.

Alas, Pollack has done his homework with a vengeance, and George Gershwin contains everything you could possibly want to know about the composer of Porgy and Bess, much of it newly discovered. As a result, it’s unlikely that anyone will write another Gershwin biography for at least another decade, so if you’re interested in Gershwin—and you should be—you’ll have to slog through this one, grumbling all the way.

Incidentally, Pollack is a professor of music at the University of Houston. No surprise there, needless to say. Does writing well threaten your chances of getting tenure? I’m starting to wonder…

• I rarely write blurbs, but I made an exception for Amanda Vaill’s Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins (Broadway Books, 675 pp., $40) because I know the author and read the book in manuscript, meaning that I can’t review it. I can, however, tell you what the blurb said: “I can’t think of a better full-length portrait of an American choreographer or director, and I can’t imagine a better book about Robbins ever being written.” I know whereof I speak. I wrote a lot about Robbins while he was alive (including two essays for COMMENTARY, one of which is reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader) and at one time gave serious thought to writing a biography of my own, but I decided to pick another subject when I heard that Vaill was working on this book, because I knew she’d do a first-rate job, which she did.

Stylistically speaking, Somewhere is everything that George Gershwin isn’t, and it’s thorough and intelligent to boot. Yes, it’s long, but not absurdly so, and it’s so well written that you don’t care. Gabriel Fauré was once asked about the correct tempo for “Aprés un rêve,” his most popular song. He’s supposed to have replied, “If the singer is bad—very fast!” That’s how I feel about Somewhere. Me, I would have written it shorter, but when a book is as good as this one, I’m happy to keep on reading.

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Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison, one of Israel’s most respected legal intellectuals, is said to owe her failure to be appointed to Israel’s supreme court to two main things: her opposition to the judicial activism of the 1995-2006 Barak court and her strong affirmation of Zionist values in an increasingly post-Zionist age.

And so when someone like Gavison, in a newly published position paper entitled “The Necessity of Strategic Thinking: A Constitutive Vision for Israel and Its Implications,” suggests fundamental changes in Israel’s Law of Return, which guarantees Israeli citizenship to any Jew wishing to live in the Jewish state, you have to sit up and take note.

Until now, amending this law has been the agenda of post- and anti-Zionists, who claim—quite correctly—that it discriminates in favor of Jews. Now along comes Gavison and says in effect that it doesn’t discriminate enough, because it has been taken advantage of by too many people who—although they are Jews according to Jewish religious or Israeli secular law, such as Russians with a single Jewish grandparent or Ethiopians whose ancestors converted to Christianity—have “no interest in Jewish life.” Such immigrants, says Gavison, have often ended up being a cultural and/or economic burden on Israel, which has had great difficulty integrating them successfully.

One can’t deny that this difficulty has been real. And yet Gavison’s proposal could only result in a legal, political, and bureaucratic nightmare. Who, exactly, would decide what an “interest in Jewish life” is? Who would decide who does or doesn’t have it? Would screening committees be set up for tens of thousands of potential immigrants with the power to decide in each case whether such an “interest” exists?

Although the Law of Return has indeed become more and more problematic with time, sweeping changes in it are only likely to cause greater problems. One would think that a conservative jurist like Ruth Gavison would be the first to understand this.

Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison, one of Israel’s most respected legal intellectuals, is said to owe her failure to be appointed to Israel’s supreme court to two main things: her opposition to the judicial activism of the 1995-2006 Barak court and her strong affirmation of Zionist values in an increasingly post-Zionist age.

And so when someone like Gavison, in a newly published position paper entitled “The Necessity of Strategic Thinking: A Constitutive Vision for Israel and Its Implications,” suggests fundamental changes in Israel’s Law of Return, which guarantees Israeli citizenship to any Jew wishing to live in the Jewish state, you have to sit up and take note.

Until now, amending this law has been the agenda of post- and anti-Zionists, who claim—quite correctly—that it discriminates in favor of Jews. Now along comes Gavison and says in effect that it doesn’t discriminate enough, because it has been taken advantage of by too many people who—although they are Jews according to Jewish religious or Israeli secular law, such as Russians with a single Jewish grandparent or Ethiopians whose ancestors converted to Christianity—have “no interest in Jewish life.” Such immigrants, says Gavison, have often ended up being a cultural and/or economic burden on Israel, which has had great difficulty integrating them successfully.

One can’t deny that this difficulty has been real. And yet Gavison’s proposal could only result in a legal, political, and bureaucratic nightmare. Who, exactly, would decide what an “interest in Jewish life” is? Who would decide who does or doesn’t have it? Would screening committees be set up for tens of thousands of potential immigrants with the power to decide in each case whether such an “interest” exists?

Although the Law of Return has indeed become more and more problematic with time, sweeping changes in it are only likely to cause greater problems. One would think that a conservative jurist like Ruth Gavison would be the first to understand this.

Read Less