Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 2007

Bookshelf

• David Mamet is a playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) who also makes movies of his own (House of Games) and, from time to time, writes them for other people (The Verdict, The Untouchables). This unusual combination of inside knowledge and not-quite-amused detachment makes him the ideal person to write a how-it-really-works book about Hollywood, and Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business (Pantheon, 250 pp., $22) proves, not surprisingly, to be an irresistibly good read.

Mamet’s point of view is at once disillusioned and idealistic, for he is a passionate believer in the artistic potential of film who has nonetheless come to the unhappy conclusion that “films, which began as carnival entertainments merchandising novelty, seem to have come full circle. The day of the dramatic script is ending. In its place we find a premise, upon which the various gags may be hung.” In support of this grim thesis, he casts a chilly eye on the American film industry, salting his jeremiad with outrageous stories about the backstage behavior of the men and women who make the movies: “I have seen a man take a tape measure to his trailer, as he suspected that it was not quite perfectly equal (as per his contract) in length to that of his fellow player.”

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• David Mamet is a playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) who also makes movies of his own (House of Games) and, from time to time, writes them for other people (The Verdict, The Untouchables). This unusual combination of inside knowledge and not-quite-amused detachment makes him the ideal person to write a how-it-really-works book about Hollywood, and Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business (Pantheon, 250 pp., $22) proves, not surprisingly, to be an irresistibly good read.

Mamet’s point of view is at once disillusioned and idealistic, for he is a passionate believer in the artistic potential of film who has nonetheless come to the unhappy conclusion that “films, which began as carnival entertainments merchandising novelty, seem to have come full circle. The day of the dramatic script is ending. In its place we find a premise, upon which the various gags may be hung.” In support of this grim thesis, he casts a chilly eye on the American film industry, salting his jeremiad with outrageous stories about the backstage behavior of the men and women who make the movies: “I have seen a man take a tape measure to his trailer, as he suspected that it was not quite perfectly equal (as per his contract) in length to that of his fellow player.”

When not writing dialogue, Mamet’s prose style proves to be unexpectedly and unpleasingly coy, but once you get used to it, you’ll find Bambi vs. Godzilla to be as good a book as has ever been written about Hollywood, by which I mean that I rank it with William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and David Thomson’s The Whole Equation. The chapter on film noir is worth the price of admission all by itself.

• Joan Acocella, who replaced Arlene Croce as the dance critic of The New Yorker, actually spends a fair amount of time writing on other subjects. Her last book, for instance, was about Willa Cather, and Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints (Pantheon, 524 pp., $30), her first collection of New Yorker essays, is so wide-ranging that it barely makes space for dance at all. I can’t claim to regard it with perfect objectivity, since one of the pieces is a lengthy essay on H.L. Mencken occasioned by the publication of The Skeptic, my Mencken biography, so I’ll simply tell you that the other subjects of Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints include Mikhail Baryshnikov, Louise Bourgeois, M.F.K. Fisher, Bob Fosse, Primo Levi, Dorothy Parker, Philip Roth, Italo Svevo, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Stefan Zweig, and that Acocella has pithy and mostly unpredictable things to say about all of them. If you read these pieces when they first appeared in the New Yorker, you’ll find they hold up very well the second time around.

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The New New Left

One of the strangest features of the contemporary political landscape is the convergence everywhere of the Left with Muslim jihadis and extremists. Those who once protested against the installation of cruise missiles in Western Europe, say, now demonstrate against the war on terror. Those who praised the Soviet Union as peace-loving are now busy signing petitions and publishing articles to the effect that Iran’s nuclear program and nuclear weapons (if it comes to that) are a third-world success and nothing to worry about. Anti-Americanism has made bedfellows of people whose world views and values are ostensibly incompatible.

David Horowitz was early in pointing out what he called this “unholy alliance.” Now an English writer, Nick Cohen, has tackled this subject in a book with the title, What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way. His left-wing credentials are impeccable. His parents were Communists devotedly clinging to the party line, whatever it might be, and they brought him up with a “loathing” of conservatives. The Observer newspaper is the voice of the English Left, aimed at the intelligentsia, and he is its leading political commentator. He knew some Iraqi exiles, including Kanan Makiya, and from them he understood that Saddam Hussein was a fascist, pure and simple. For him, intellectuals—indeed all human beings—have to be against fascism everywhere and at all times, and that too is quite simple.

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One of the strangest features of the contemporary political landscape is the convergence everywhere of the Left with Muslim jihadis and extremists. Those who once protested against the installation of cruise missiles in Western Europe, say, now demonstrate against the war on terror. Those who praised the Soviet Union as peace-loving are now busy signing petitions and publishing articles to the effect that Iran’s nuclear program and nuclear weapons (if it comes to that) are a third-world success and nothing to worry about. Anti-Americanism has made bedfellows of people whose world views and values are ostensibly incompatible.

David Horowitz was early in pointing out what he called this “unholy alliance.” Now an English writer, Nick Cohen, has tackled this subject in a book with the title, What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way. His left-wing credentials are impeccable. His parents were Communists devotedly clinging to the party line, whatever it might be, and they brought him up with a “loathing” of conservatives. The Observer newspaper is the voice of the English Left, aimed at the intelligentsia, and he is its leading political commentator. He knew some Iraqi exiles, including Kanan Makiya, and from them he understood that Saddam Hussein was a fascist, pure and simple. For him, intellectuals—indeed all human beings—have to be against fascism everywhere and at all times, and that too is quite simple.

But what did Cohen find? Instead of reacting to Saddam and Osama bin Laden as the fascists they were, the Left devised justifications for them. Here was 1930′s appeasement all over again, compounded by hatred of self and of democracy. Millions marched in the capitals of Europe under banners proclaiming that war in Iraq was not to be fought in their name. They were thus denying to Iraqis the freedom they themselves enjoyed. Worse, they did not even recognize what they were doing, inventing conspiracy theories about grabbing other people’s oil or the long arm of Zionism. For publicly objecting to all this, Cohen has become, it is not too much to say, an unperson. He writes, “I learned it was one thing being called ‘Cohen’ if you went along with liberal orthodoxy, quite another when you pointed out liberal betrayals.”

Among other intellectuals who turned against Makiya and the liberation of Iraq he mentions Perry Anderson, a hardline Marxist and sometime editor of the influential New Left Review (which always had a soft spot for Stalinism). As it happens, I was at school with Perry Anderson, and well recall my amazement at hearing him as a teenager praising Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanisme et Terreur, a defense of Stalinism typical of a French philosopher in the cold war. Anderson is one of the few people I have met who I am sure would sign death warrants and go off to dinner afterwards without a qualm. In Cohen’s telling phrase, Anderson a few years ago let out in his journal “a piercing howl of regret for the lost world of his youth.” Like Karl Marx himself, history has left him “beached.” All the leftists whom Cohen is describing wrap hatred of self and of democracy into wider fantasies. Inability or unwillingness to recognize reality is what lines them up with fascists and makes them so inhuman.

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Marketing Mitt Romney

People already depressed about the low quality of debate in presidential primaries ought to avoid reading the terrific scoop in yesterday’s Boston Globe about the Mitt Romney campaign plan. The Globe has come across a 77-page PowerPoint presentation that outlines the former governor’s plan to “define himself” in the Republican primaries and, ideally, in the national election.

Like all such documents—and every candidate relies on them—it is filled with the grating jargon of modern marketing and the faux science of opinion polling. It addresses such synthetic issues as “Brand Romney” and how to “own the future.” The “blueprint,” as the Globe calls it, states that Romney needs to position himself as a “turnaround CEO governor and strong leader from outside Washington,” a phrase that was no doubt carefully focus-grouped among suburban, female outlet shoppers in Reading, Pennsylvania.

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People already depressed about the low quality of debate in presidential primaries ought to avoid reading the terrific scoop in yesterday’s Boston Globe about the Mitt Romney campaign plan. The Globe has come across a 77-page PowerPoint presentation that outlines the former governor’s plan to “define himself” in the Republican primaries and, ideally, in the national election.

Like all such documents—and every candidate relies on them—it is filled with the grating jargon of modern marketing and the faux science of opinion polling. It addresses such synthetic issues as “Brand Romney” and how to “own the future.” The “blueprint,” as the Globe calls it, states that Romney needs to position himself as a “turnaround CEO governor and strong leader from outside Washington,” a phrase that was no doubt carefully focus-grouped among suburban, female outlet shoppers in Reading, Pennsylvania.

It is easy to make fun of such strategy plans, but it is simply a fact that the selling of a presidential candidate necessarily shares many of the features of launching a new product or marketing a new movie. The truly depressing part is the absence of any set of ideas that Romney will advocate. Yes, there is much buzz about “America’s strength,” “global challenges,” and how the U.S. must not be like Europe. But in this campaign strategy document, like so many before it, what is conspicuous by its omission is a list of three or four ideas that the candidate will actually pursue as President. Instead, the pollsters and media advisors set out “themes,” framing the campaign and giving it only the faintest appearance of substance.

Curiously, the memo suggests that Newt Gingrich, should he enter the race, would become a serious challenge to Romney’s ability to attract the party’s conservative base. Could that be because Gingrich, for all his flaws, has built his career around rattling off specific, provocative policy ideas—which is exactly what this sort of strategy memo fails to do?

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“Progressive” Critics of Israel

Alvin Rosenfeld’s essay, “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” published in pamphlet form by the American Jewish Committee, continues to provoke discussion. Articles in the February 23 Forward by Chicago rabbi Ira Youdovin and New York media strategist Dan Fleshler represent responses to Rosenfeld’s essay by Jews who consider themselves politically “progressive” yet also “pro-Israel.” Both fear that Rosenfeld’s essay, even if such was not its purpose, will be used to silence voices like their own, voices that identify with Israel but are critical of many of its policies, especially in regard to the Palestinians.

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Alvin Rosenfeld’s essay, “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” published in pamphlet form by the American Jewish Committee, continues to provoke discussion. Articles in the February 23 Forward by Chicago rabbi Ira Youdovin and New York media strategist Dan Fleshler represent responses to Rosenfeld’s essay by Jews who consider themselves politically “progressive” yet also “pro-Israel.” Both fear that Rosenfeld’s essay, even if such was not its purpose, will be used to silence voices like their own, voices that identify with Israel but are critical of many of its policies, especially in regard to the Palestinians.

Now, criticism of Israel, as of anything else, is all a matter of context, and if the context, from a Jewish point of view, is acceptable—if, that is, the identification with Israel is clear in it—then the criticism itself, whether or not one agrees with it, is certainly permissible. The question really is then: when is “identification” clearly present and when isn’t it? Ira Youdovin, for example, wants to know what’s wrong with Rabbis for Human Rights, “an Israeli-based pluralistic organization that . . . advocates a two-state solution, even as it accuses Israel of violating human rights.” Dan Fleshler argues on behalf of Jewish activists who are “ideal candidates for addressing the [anti-Israel] claims of the far Left [because they] aren’t afraid to say publicly that the occupation is morally repugnant.”

This is curious language for someone who “identifies” with Israel. “Morally problematic?” I’d have no difficulty with that. “Morally injurious?” I’d sign to that, too. But “repugnant?” It’s obviously not the Palestinians who are being labelled “repugnant” here, but the Israelis—the same Israelis who (whether or not you think they should be) are living, at considerable danger to themselves, as settlers in the historic heartland of the Hebrew Bible and whose presence there alone can enable Israel to redraw the perilous 1967 borders to its advantage. How identified with Jewish history or Israel can you be if you find such people, or the army that is protecting them and preventing daily acts of terror aimed at Israel proper, nothing but “repugnant?” How “identified” are you if you see in all this only a “violation of [Palestinian] human rights” and not, at the same time, an upholding of Jewish rights?

Dan Fleshler argues that only “pro-Israel” Jews like himself who are on the Left can make themselves heard when debating with the anti-Israel Left. That may be, but it’s not much of a debate when you say, “Yes, you think the Israeli occupation is morally repugnant and I think so too—but don’t forget that I love Israel.” Love has to do better than that to demonstrate its existence. Context is everything—and if men like Youdovin and Fleshler refuse to provide it in making their criticisms of Israel, their “progressivism” indeed plays into the hands of Israel’s enemies.

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Baghdad First

It’s early days in the Battle of Baghdad. Fewer than 3,000 of a promised 18,000 or more reinforcements have arrived. It will take at least six to twelve months before we know whether the crackdown is working. But already various commentators are stepping forward to dismiss the Bush plan as the “wrong surge” and to propose alternative strategies.

Three of the foreign-policy analysts I respect most—Charles Krauthammer, Fareed Zakaria, and Lawrence Kaplan—argue that we should be consolidating our forces in Anbar province, not trying to retake Baghdad.

There is no doubt that this Sunni province needs to be pacified eventually, but an Anbar-centric approach would not accomplish the goals these writers set out. Krauthammer notes correctly that, “If we had zero American casualties a day, there would be as little need to withdraw from Iraq as there is to withdraw from the Balkans,” but he gives little suggestion of how his plan to “maintain a significant presence in Anbar province” could be squared with keeping down casualty numbers, considering that Anbar is one of the most dangerous areas for American troops—more dangerous, in fact, than Baghdad over the past four years.

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It’s early days in the Battle of Baghdad. Fewer than 3,000 of a promised 18,000 or more reinforcements have arrived. It will take at least six to twelve months before we know whether the crackdown is working. But already various commentators are stepping forward to dismiss the Bush plan as the “wrong surge” and to propose alternative strategies.

Three of the foreign-policy analysts I respect most—Charles Krauthammer, Fareed Zakaria, and Lawrence Kaplan—argue that we should be consolidating our forces in Anbar province, not trying to retake Baghdad.

There is no doubt that this Sunni province needs to be pacified eventually, but an Anbar-centric approach would not accomplish the goals these writers set out. Krauthammer notes correctly that, “If we had zero American casualties a day, there would be as little need to withdraw from Iraq as there is to withdraw from the Balkans,” but he gives little suggestion of how his plan to “maintain a significant presence in Anbar province” could be squared with keeping down casualty numbers, considering that Anbar is one of the most dangerous areas for American troops—more dangerous, in fact, than Baghdad over the past four years.

Zakaria frets that the Baghdad clampdown will be perceived as anti-Sunni since the most immediate target is Sunni militants (the Shia militants are lying low for the time being). He quotes an anonymous “senior U.S. military officer” who says, “If we continue down the path we’re on, the Sunnis in Iraq will throw their lot behind al Qaeda, and the Sunni majority in the Arab world will believe that we helped in the killing and cleansing of their brethren in Iraq. That’s not a good outcome for the security of the American people.” Yet Zakaria’s preferred solution—“drawing down our forces to around 60,000 troops and concentrating on al Qaeda in Anbar province,” while presumably leaving the Sunnis of Baghdad to the tender mercies of the Jaish al Mahdi—would, if anything, exacerbate the perception of American policy as anti-Sunni.

For his part, Kaplan postulates, without any proof, that the U.S. could have greater military success in Anbar than in Baghdad, even though conditions there have been worse than in the capital. He fears that “Washington’s decision to twin its fate to Baghdad’s means that, if the city careens away, the United States will walk away not only from the civil war it could not quell—but also from the insurgency [in Anbar] it could.” But what would be the point of winning Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, if we lose Baghdad, the capital of the country? Which city is more important to Iraq’s future—an isolated outpost in the western desert, or a metropolis with one-fourth of the country’s population and much of its news media, business, cultural, and political leadership?

Krauthammer, Zakaria, and Kaplan are right to worry that the Baghdad plan won’t work. The odds are definitely against us by this point. But no other strategy—certainly not an Anbar-first approach—offers greater hope of success. I am reminded of the reasoning of General Franz Halder, chief of the German general staff, about Case Yellow, the plan for the invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940. He put the odds of its working at ten-to-one against but concluded that all the other alternatives were worse. Of course Case Yellow did work. And the odds of success in Baghdad are much better than ten-to-one against.

The enemy (both Sunni and Shiite) has chosen to fight in Baghdad. We have no choice but meet the challenge, or else concede defeat. Let’s at least wait to see what happens before moving on to Plan B.

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War on Wikipedia

Any college student can tell you that the Encyclopedia Britannica has been replaced by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia whose entries are written and endlessly tweaked by the public. Wikipedia is so new that my spellchecker does not recognize the word. But the site already contains over 1,600,000 entries and is now the preferred point of departure for college research papers. Unfortunately, all too many of these papers fail to depart, which is why Middlebury College has now banned Wikipedia as a legitimate source of information for an academic paper.

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Any college student can tell you that the Encyclopedia Britannica has been replaced by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia whose entries are written and endlessly tweaked by the public. Wikipedia is so new that my spellchecker does not recognize the word. But the site already contains over 1,600,000 entries and is now the preferred point of departure for college research papers. Unfortunately, all too many of these papers fail to depart, which is why Middlebury College has now banned Wikipedia as a legitimate source of information for an academic paper.


Wikipedia does have its problems. But it’s generally quite accurate, factually. Through a process of relentless refinement and correction, a Wikipedia entry usually comes to embody the collective state of knowledge of a field, approaching a kind of consensus. Any error, misinformation, or invective that creeps in tends to be spotted in short order and corrected. (Of course, certain subjects lend themselves to sabotage and have been placed beyond the bounds of public editing; as one might expect, readers are no longer invited to tinker with the entries for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

And some students have, with reason, decried the ban as an act of censorship. But one can sympathize with the professors at Middlebury. The larger problem, which I think Middlebury’s ban might address, is that the college student of today tends not to read as much as his counterpart of a generation ago, academically and recreationally. The writing of a college paper today is increasingly less an affair of research (i.e., the gathering and evaluating of data to test a hypothesis) than it is one of information retrieval, in which downloaded material is wrestled into essay form. (The blankest look a professor can get today is in response to the question “Can you tell me about the data that contradict your hypothesis?”) It will be interesting to see if other schools follow up on Middlebury’s quixotic campaign against what is, after all, merely a symptom and not the disease.

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Hillary’s Critics

Someone had to do it—and we can all thank David Geffen for being the first. The Hollywood mogul, formerly a major Clinton donor, expounded at length to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd about his support for Barack Obama. Here’s Geffen on the Clintons: “Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease it’s troubling.” And on Hillary’s chances: “I don’t think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is—and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton?—can bring the country together.”

Hillary’s reaction to Geffen’s words opened the floodgates. By the weekend, a host of critics on the Left had moved into place. (As Daniel Casse noted yesterday, the Democrats have an institutional tendency to pile on early front-runners.)

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Someone had to do it—and we can all thank David Geffen for being the first. The Hollywood mogul, formerly a major Clinton donor, expounded at length to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd about his support for Barack Obama. Here’s Geffen on the Clintons: “Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease it’s troubling.” And on Hillary’s chances: “I don’t think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is—and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton?—can bring the country together.”

Hillary’s reaction to Geffen’s words opened the floodgates. By the weekend, a host of critics on the Left had moved into place. (As Daniel Casse noted yesterday, the Democrats have an institutional tendency to pile on early front-runners.)


The always sharp, center-Left Slate blogger Mickey Kaus points out that Hillary’s response—”this is the politics of personal destruction”—just confirms her critics’ fear that she is a dictator-in-waiting. “Does Hillary realize that this taboo-enforcing strategy plays into the worst aspect of her public image—the dogmatic PC enforcer?” He continues: “Note to Hillary: your husband cheated on you and was fined $90,000 for lying to a federal judge about it. Everyone thinks he’s still cheating. . . . That isn’t ‘the politics of personal destruction.’ It’s due diligence.”

Washington Post writer Anne Kornblut makes the interesting argument that “Last week’s Hillary response was an effort to establish silence about her husband’s impeachment.” Kornblut then quotes a Democratic operative who asks why having the opposition mention Bill’s foibles should be out of bounds, given that Hillary is happy to use him to enhance her support. Why indeed?

New Republic editor Martin Peretz claims to be closer to Geffen than to either Clinton, having experienced “Clinton fatigue” early. Peretz, who is sensitive to class issues, reminds us to follow the money. The Clintons, he notes, have only very rich friends—perhaps because of the high cost of such friendship in campaign donations and contributions to legal defense funds.

But the unkindest cut comes from New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. Calling the Clintons “the Connivers,” he details his disgust at Hillary for her willingness to do whatever ruthless thing it takes to tarnish Obama. “There would be no Obama phenomenon if an awful lot of people weren’t fed up with just the sort of mean-spirited, take-no-prisoners politics that the Clintons . . . represent.” Hillary, he claims, is “chasing yesterday’s dawn.” Herbert’s column is almost as tedious as his usual fare, but his vehement dislike of Clinton may count as actual news.

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Al Gore’s Hypothetical Candidacy

Al Gore’s Oscar was as predictable as the thunderous ovations he received at the Academy Awards last night. But it was also a reminder that there is nothing Democrats love more than a politician who isn’t actually running for President. Ever since liberals began mythologizing JFK, the party’s nominees invariably fail to measure up. It’s as if any politician who has the guts to enter the arena and dirty his hands immediately loses “purity,” and faces a cynical column from Joe Klein. As a result, come primary season, the Democratic chattering class always falls in love with a hypothetical candidate: Mario Cuomo, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Colin Powell, The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett.
This is the real meaning behind last week’s Hillary-Obama feud. Hillary is the most successful fundraiser in the party’s history. Her name is known to 100 percent of voters—something that no Democrat has ever achieved this early in a presidential campaign. Yet no one should be surprised, now that she is in reach of becoming the party’s nominee, that the same political and financial backers who cheered her during her White House days are racing to tear her down.

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Al Gore’s Oscar was as predictable as the thunderous ovations he received at the Academy Awards last night. But it was also a reminder that there is nothing Democrats love more than a politician who isn’t actually running for President. Ever since liberals began mythologizing JFK, the party’s nominees invariably fail to measure up. It’s as if any politician who has the guts to enter the arena and dirty his hands immediately loses “purity,” and faces a cynical column from Joe Klein. As a result, come primary season, the Democratic chattering class always falls in love with a hypothetical candidate: Mario Cuomo, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Colin Powell, The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett.
This is the real meaning behind last week’s Hillary-Obama feud. Hillary is the most successful fundraiser in the party’s history. Her name is known to 100 percent of voters—something that no Democrat has ever achieved this early in a presidential campaign. Yet no one should be surprised, now that she is in reach of becoming the party’s nominee, that the same political and financial backers who cheered her during her White House days are racing to tear her down.

But this will be a short-lived story. It is a safe bet that buyer’s remorse over Barack Obama will set in by this fall as E.J. Dionne, Arianna Huffington, and Jonathan Alter complain about his failings. (In fact, Joe Klein has already started.)

In the meantime, these early grenades tossed in Hillary’s direction are, I would argue, ultimately good for her candidacy. A fractious, heated primary, with Obama, Edwards, and possibly Gore lining up to her Left allows her to pursue a centrist triangulation strategy that makes her seem measured, reasonable, and non-ideological. Were Hillary to be the party’s runaway favorite this early on, we would be reading nothing but stories about her shady dealings with cattle futures and the Rose law firm. Instead, we will be reading more about how this really ought to be Al Gore’s time.

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The New Dissidents

Over the past few weeks the German media and culture portal Sign and Sight has played host to an impassioned argument (featuring Pascal Bruckner, Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash, and others) over the conflict between Islam and the West, the nature of Enlightenment political thought and religious tolerance, and the duty of European governments to protect the Muslim dissidents in their midst. Ulrike Ackermann enters the fray today with a fascinating essay, in which she makes a trenchant point:

Whereas the freedom-loving dissidents in Central Europe were considered “trouble-makers of detente” between East and West, today’s dissidents of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasrin, Irshad Manji, Necla Kelek (more) or Seyran Ates (more) fall into disgrace because their criticism purportedly disrupts the dialogue of cultures. Their passionate defence of self-determinism and freedom of the individual against a domesticating religious collective deserves vocal support, which Pascal Bruckner offers for the “rebels of the Islamic world.” For who else can initiate self-reflection and reform in Islam, if not these courageous dissidents?

The whole piece is eminently worth reading.

Over the past few weeks the German media and culture portal Sign and Sight has played host to an impassioned argument (featuring Pascal Bruckner, Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash, and others) over the conflict between Islam and the West, the nature of Enlightenment political thought and religious tolerance, and the duty of European governments to protect the Muslim dissidents in their midst. Ulrike Ackermann enters the fray today with a fascinating essay, in which she makes a trenchant point:

Whereas the freedom-loving dissidents in Central Europe were considered “trouble-makers of detente” between East and West, today’s dissidents of Islam like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasrin, Irshad Manji, Necla Kelek (more) or Seyran Ates (more) fall into disgrace because their criticism purportedly disrupts the dialogue of cultures. Their passionate defence of self-determinism and freedom of the individual against a domesticating religious collective deserves vocal support, which Pascal Bruckner offers for the “rebels of the Islamic world.” For who else can initiate self-reflection and reform in Islam, if not these courageous dissidents?

The whole piece is eminently worth reading.

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Riding Hurd

Last year we had to endure James Baker, one of the chief culprits for the genocide in Bosnia, lecturing the Bush administration about Iraq. Now Douglas Hurd, his British counterpart in the early 1990′s, calls for a British equivalent of the Baker-Hamilton report—an inquiry that would ask the question: “How did we [the British] follow the Americans in this gross miscalculation of what would happen after the fall of Saddam Hussein?” Hurd insists that “this would not be a ‘trial of Tony Blair,’” but his denial rings hollow. “Under our next prime minister we have to learn again what we have forgotten: the art of working with the United States as an effective junior partner capable of independent thought, and of ensuring that reasonable advice is listened to, and that eventual questions are answered.”

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Last year we had to endure James Baker, one of the chief culprits for the genocide in Bosnia, lecturing the Bush administration about Iraq. Now Douglas Hurd, his British counterpart in the early 1990′s, calls for a British equivalent of the Baker-Hamilton report—an inquiry that would ask the question: “How did we [the British] follow the Americans in this gross miscalculation of what would happen after the fall of Saddam Hussein?” Hurd insists that “this would not be a ‘trial of Tony Blair,’” but his denial rings hollow. “Under our next prime minister we have to learn again what we have forgotten: the art of working with the United States as an effective junior partner capable of independent thought, and of ensuring that reasonable advice is listened to, and that eventual questions are answered.”

Can this be the same Douglas Hurd who, as Conservative foreign secretary, was largely responsible for the European Union’s disastrous policy on Yugoslavia, including an arms embargo which prevented the Bosnians from defending themselves against Serbian genocide and ethnic cleansing? The same Douglas Hurd who warned against armed intervention to halt the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo? The same Douglas Hurd who was told at the time by his former boss Margaret Thatcher: “Douglas, Douglas, you would make Neville Chamberlain look like a warmonger”? The same Douglas Hurd who, within a year of retirement, returned to Belgrade in 1996 on behalf of the bank that now employed him, NatWest Markets, to negotiate with Milosevic about the privatization of Serbian utilities? Not only was Mr. (now Lord) Hurd eager to profit from the Serbianctator’s desire to sell state assets in order to generate cash to preserve his brutal tyranny—he even tried to justify it by claiming that his motive was the altruistic one of “liberalizing” Serbia, and that Milosevic “could have been rehabilitated.”

As the historian Brendan Simms points out in his brilliant Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia (London, 2001), there was never any likelihood of Milosevic changing. As for Hurd’s campaign to prevent Western intervention—“the calculated caution and gravitas, the sage warnings, and the weighty caveats: this was all bluff.” Once the Blair government adopted a policy diametrically opposed to that of John Major and Douglas Hurd, which resulted in the Kosovo War and the fall of Milosevic, the bluff was called. Hurd, Baker,and the whole gang of “realists” were discredited: “None of them had the faintest idea what they were talking about.”

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Clark the Peacemaker

No one ever described the post-Vietnam Democratic party better than the late Jeane Kirkpatrick when she said “they always blame American first.”

In the 1990′s, President Bill Clinton nudged the Democrats toward rediscovering their patriotism. But when Clinton left office, the blame-America-firsters came roaring back, reasserting their grip on the party by mobilizing in the 2006 primary to oust the Democratic hawk, Senator Joseph Lieberman. (Lieberman went on to win re-election as an independent.)

With the power of the party’s antiwar wing so vividly displayed, the aspirants for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination have all been running to the Left. Out of the pack a surprising dark horse has taken an early lead in the blaming-America sweepstakes: General Wesley Clark. In a message on the website of his PAC, Clark declares: “For three years, the Bush administration has hectored and threatened Iran and Syria, and unsurprisingly, they have both worked continuously to feed the fighting in Iraq.”

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No one ever described the post-Vietnam Democratic party better than the late Jeane Kirkpatrick when she said “they always blame American first.”

In the 1990′s, President Bill Clinton nudged the Democrats toward rediscovering their patriotism. But when Clinton left office, the blame-America-firsters came roaring back, reasserting their grip on the party by mobilizing in the 2006 primary to oust the Democratic hawk, Senator Joseph Lieberman. (Lieberman went on to win re-election as an independent.)

With the power of the party’s antiwar wing so vividly displayed, the aspirants for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination have all been running to the Left. Out of the pack a surprising dark horse has taken an early lead in the blaming-America sweepstakes: General Wesley Clark. In a message on the website of his PAC, Clark declares: “For three years, the Bush administration has hectored and threatened Iran and Syria, and unsurprisingly, they have both worked continuously to feed the fighting in Iraq.”

Then he adds, on the self-described “left/progressive/liberal” blog DailyKos, that “since 9/11 the Iranians have tried on several occasions to open a dialogue with the United States.” But “the Bush administration would have none of it, and branded Iran a member of the Axis of Evil.”

Complaining that Bush is “ratcheting up the pressure on Iran,” the soldier-turned-peacenik sermonizes: “The United States can do better than this.” He elaborates: “while the latest actions against Iran’s banking system show the sharp stick of U.S. power, the potential carrots are enormous, too,” because as “a proud nation,” Iran cannot “ignore a more hopeful vision of its future.” Contrary to Bush’s hectoring approach, the U.S. should “work to establish a sustained dialogue, and seek to benefit the people of Iran and the region.” He asks rhetorically: “Could not such a dialogue . . . begin a process that could, over time, help realign hardened attitudes and polarizing views within the region?”

Clark did not wait to become commander-in-chief to try out this approach. In 1994, the nemesis with which America was girding for conflict was the so-called Bosnian Serb Republic, which for two years had been raining war on Bosnia’s civilian Muslim population. Clark was an official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ignoring State Department objections, Clark traveled at his own initiative to “Republika Serpska” for a tête-à-tête with General Ratko Mladic, the commander of Bosnian Serb forces who, as early as 1992, had already been labeled a war criminal by then-Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Clark was not there to take Mladic’s measure but rather, as his actions made clear, to “realign hardened attitudes.” He yukked it up with Mladic: the pair mugged for news cameras wearing one another’s uniform caps. “Like cavorting with Hermann Goering,” said one disgusted U.S. official to the Washington Post. Clark accepted gifts from Mladic of a bottle of brandy and an inscribed pistol. Since the inscription was in Cyrillic, it might as well have said “ethnic cleanser,” for all Clark knew.

Less than one year later, Mladic personally planned and directed the massacre of some 7,000 to 10,000 bound Serbs at Srebrenica, for which he has been indicted. But what do you expect, considering that Eagleburger had already called Mladic names, just as Bush has called Iran names, and we had ratcheted up the military pressure on Republika Serpska rather than continuing the courtship that Clark had initiated? So who is really to blame for Srebrenica? Look in the mirror, America. Then vote for Wes Clark.

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Bookshelf

Inspired by my fellow blogger Terry Teachout, I thought I would post a few remarks about some books I have been reading lately. Unlike Terry’s selections, these aren’t newly released—but they are for the most part new to me.

• Field Marshal Viscount Slim, Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945 (1956): A British officer who rose from the ranks, Slim is practically unknown in the United States, but he was one of the Great Captains of World War II and a far more successful general than his American counterpart in the China-Burma-India theater, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. In fact he defeated more Japanese troops than any other ground commander of the war. His memoirs are generally considered, along with Ulysses Grant’s, to be among the best penned by any general since Caesar.

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Inspired by my fellow blogger Terry Teachout, I thought I would post a few remarks about some books I have been reading lately. Unlike Terry’s selections, these aren’t newly released—but they are for the most part new to me.

• Field Marshal Viscount Slim, Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945 (1956): A British officer who rose from the ranks, Slim is practically unknown in the United States, but he was one of the Great Captains of World War II and a far more successful general than his American counterpart in the China-Burma-India theater, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. In fact he defeated more Japanese troops than any other ground commander of the war. His memoirs are generally considered, along with Ulysses Grant’s, to be among the best penned by any general since Caesar.

Great though it is, Defeat Into Victory is not quite as scintillating as the accounts of lower-ranking soldiers who were closer to the action. For my money, the best evocation of the Burma campaign remains The Road Past Mandalay, by John Masters, who served in Slim’s 14th Army but never advanced past brigade commander. The runner-up prize goes to Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser, a novelist who never advanced past corporal.

That said, Slim’s account is infinitely better than the bombastic, unreflective, self-congratulatory, ghost-written memoirs we have come to expect from our own generals. Slim is not afraid to admit when he was scared under fire—he was not one of those commanders who ostentatiously exposed himself to bullets or insisted on rushing to the front of the advance. Nor is he afraid to admit mistakes. Writing about the British retreat from Burma in 1942, he has no excuses to offer. Instead he bluntly writes: “For myself, I had little to be proud of; I could not rate my generalship high. The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing I had attempted.”

There are also flashes of political incorrectness that, however offensive to a modern sensibilities, add spice to the account—for instance when Slim writes, “The individual Japanese soldier remained, as I had always called him, the most formidable fighting insect in history.”

• Joseph Wambaugh, The Choirboys (1975): Having recently read Wambaugh’s latest novel, Hollywood Station, I went back and reread this earlier work. It has a lot in common with all of his cop books, which aren’t “mystery novels” in the conventional sense, insofar as there is no mystery to be solved. The plot always meanders, but interest never flags because Wambaugh, a former Los Angeles Police Department sergeant, has a great talent for telling vivid anecdotes involving his fellow LAPD cops. These aren’t the plaster saints of Adam 12 and Dragnet; nor are they the monsters of L.A. Confidential. Wambaugh’s cops are deeply flawed human beings—often drunk and lecherous, incorrigibly sexist and hopelessly racist, seldom able to pass up freebies and discounts they more or less extort from local merchants—but they are also intent on doing good to the best of their limited ability. Like soldiers away from home too long, they feel alienated from civilian society but reserve their real scorn for their superior officers, who are inevitably depicted as back-stabbing office politicians.

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Nine Who Fled: Kati Marton’s The Great Escape

“God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarians within.” There’s something amusing about hearing Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, talk like this. He was referring to the construction of the hydrogen bomb, an effort he considered harmful and unnecessary, which the Hungarians in question–the physicist Edward Teller and the mathematician John von Neumann, both Jews–strongly advocated as a means of undercutting Stalinist expansion in Eastern Europe. Von Neumann had recently invented game theory, which would soon be applied to the lethal calculus known as “mutual assured destruction,” while Teller was the rumored archetype for Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove.

It’s strange, in light of this anecdote, to realize that only a few books examine the preternaturally powerful impact of Hungarian Jews on the 20th century, particularly in the arts and sciences. Kati Marton’s The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World comes as a welcome entry in the field. Under the rubric of scientists, Marton examines the lives of Teller, von Neumann, Eugene Wigner*, and Leo Szilard, all of whom ushered particle physics into its eschatological own.

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“God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarians within.” There’s something amusing about hearing Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, talk like this. He was referring to the construction of the hydrogen bomb, an effort he considered harmful and unnecessary, which the Hungarians in question–the physicist Edward Teller and the mathematician John von Neumann, both Jews–strongly advocated as a means of undercutting Stalinist expansion in Eastern Europe. Von Neumann had recently invented game theory, which would soon be applied to the lethal calculus known as “mutual assured destruction,” while Teller was the rumored archetype for Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove.

It’s strange, in light of this anecdote, to realize that only a few books examine the preternaturally powerful impact of Hungarian Jews on the 20th century, particularly in the arts and sciences. Kati Marton’s The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World comes as a welcome entry in the field. Under the rubric of scientists, Marton examines the lives of Teller, von Neumann, Eugene Wigner*, and Leo Szilard, all of whom ushered particle physics into its eschatological own.

She also devotes more than half of her book to studying Hungarian-Jewish talent in literature, film, and photography. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon stands as the most chilling and insightful anti-Communist novel ever written. Michael Curtiz directed Casablanca, the greatest anti-fascist film ever made (in the running for greatest tout court), while British movie mogul Sir Alexander Korda (né Sandor Kellner) takes the honor for having produced the best ravaged-Europe postwar story committed to celluloid, The Third Man, which he prompted his close friend Graham Greene to script. (Korda’s other notable yachting chum was Winston Churchill.) The photographers under consideration are Andre Kertesz, the leading lensman of World War I, who mastered playful reflections and light distortions well before the Surrealists, and Robert Capa, the legendary visual chronicler of the Spanish Civil War and D-Day, who went on to co-found the still-thriving photographic cooperative Magnum Photos.

Modern life owes a great deal to these thick-accented and beguiling émigrés. But what was it that made them so special? Geography and timing, according to Marton. Her collective biography is a historical and sentimental, not to say sentimentalized, monument to the “Golden Age” of Budapest, a ghetto-less medieval city that became the cosmopolitan ground zero for European Jewish assimilation. By 1900, Jews comprised approximately one-fifth of the city’s population, as a vibrant and influential minority.

“Six hundred cafes, and among the continent’s highest concentration of theaters and cabarets, changed the rhythms of the city,” writes Marton, whose parents came of age in this milieu. “There were streets as crowded at midnight as at nine in the morning. . . . Jews—whose goal was to be Hungarian citizens of the Jewish faith—and Hungarians seemed equally invested in the dream.” So well-established and confident were Budapest’s Jews in their “Zion on the Danube” between 1870 and 1910 that the Hungarian poet Endre Ady, a Gentile, was given to proclaiming his hometown “built by the Jews for the rest of us.” There’s no small irony in the fact that the most philo-Semitic city in Mitteleuropa was also the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, who would become the prophet of Jewish relocation to the Middle East.

Or perhaps no irony at all. Budapest’s scintillating period was short-lived, and the city soon found itself located on the miserable fault-line between twin despotisms, twice. Stalin and Hitler had grim dress rehearsals in the form of Bela Kun, architect of Hungary’s Soviet Republic, and Admiral Nicholas Horthy, the right-wing dictator who emerged out of the fractured Austro-Hungarian military class and revenged himself on the Jews, whom he thought of as synonymous, more or less, with Communists. Stalin’s post-World War II anti-Semitic purges in the Warsaw Pact nations had a grim precursor in Budapest: the “heroes” of 1919 became the Laszlo Rajks of 1949. Indeed, one senses that the seedbed for the 1956 revolution was actually laid almost four decades earlier.

Koestler once remarked that the Hungarian people were the loneliest on the continent because of their linguistic and ethnic solitude. To be Jewish and Hungarian meant living in a state of double exile no matter where you washed ashore (in Koestler’s case, Berlin, Mandatory Palestine, Turkmenistan, Catalonia, and London). But even great loneliness sometimes has its rewards. It seems rather likely that because Hungarian is a language virtually impenetrable to outsiders (Edmund Wilson once made a valiant effort to learn it), its brilliant Jewish speakers proved fluent in the ways of eccentric, clubbish secrecy, a characteristic that served bon vivant aristocrats like Sir Alexander Korda as well as it did the wartime scientists at Los Alamos.

* Eugene Wigner was originally misidentified.

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Blue on Valentine’s

The Valentine’s Day snowstorm that caused massive trouble for JetBlue—hundreds of canceled flights, ten-hour delays, finger pointing, and “voice cracking” pleas for forgiveness from JetBlue’s chairman—spurred Senator Barbara Boxer of California to propose a “Passengers’ Bill of Rights” to protect passengers, and especially “infants and the elderly,” because “no one should be held hostage.”

The Washington Post would seem to agree, editorializing that more regulation is “a fair approach.” The Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, believes that it is a terrible idea: “the market will fix the problem better than any legislator.”

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The Valentine’s Day snowstorm that caused massive trouble for JetBlue—hundreds of canceled flights, ten-hour delays, finger pointing, and “voice cracking” pleas for forgiveness from JetBlue’s chairman—spurred Senator Barbara Boxer of California to propose a “Passengers’ Bill of Rights” to protect passengers, and especially “infants and the elderly,” because “no one should be held hostage.”

The Washington Post would seem to agree, editorializing that more regulation is “a fair approach.” The Los Angeles Times, on the other hand, believes that it is a terrible idea: “the market will fix the problem better than any legislator.”


In fact, one might see Senator Boxer’s initiative as an example of the dangers of a Democratic Congress, and especially of the party’s core belief that government can fix problems better than markets can. “If there’s anything more dangerous than a blizzard at an airport,” warns the Los Angeles Times, “it’s legislators who react to it by proposing new laws.”

A law like Senator Boxer’s already exists elsewhere. The European Union has an “Air Passenger Rights” act that entitles delayed passengers to compensation of $350 to $800, depending on the length of the delay. The problem is that delays are often created by circumstances beyond an airline’s control, like a snowstorm. So instead of delaying flights and putting themselves at risk of violating the law, carriers in Europe are now simply canceling flights. Surely the majority of passengers would rather be delayed six hours than be nowhere at all.

And cancellation still causes havoc, as European airlines are not necessarily obliged to compensate passengers for delays caused by “extraordinary circumstances.” Who defines what those are? Judges, lawyers, and litigation. Boxer’s short statement does not mention financial penalties for airlines, but even if exact dollar figures are not incorporated into her law, litigation against the airline industry by its “hostages” would not be long in coming.

That’s when there’s trouble on the ground. When there’s trouble in the air, passengers would be truly at risk. For instance, two years ago, shortly after the European regulation became law, an engine of a British Airways Boeing 747 caught fire following takeoff from Los Angeles. After contacting BA’s control center, the pilots were told to continue the eleven-hour flight to London instead of landing the plane—which would have caused a delay of at least five hours and cost BA $200,000 in penalties.

The risk BA took was small: flying on three engines is considered safe. But it takes just one miscalculation to cause a tragedy. As compared with that prospect, being “held hostage” in a plane for six, or ten, or even eleven hours—especially in this age of mobile phones and in-seat entertainment—seems like a tolerable fate after all.

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Weekend Reading

The recent dust-up between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has reminded some observers of what Clinton-style politics can look like in action. If, as former U.S. Treasury Secretary John Sherman once observed, the past is the best prophet of the future, it’s distinctly probable that American political discourse will remain quite lively for some time now, and possibly even after George W. Bush’s second term ends. For your weekend reading, contentions would like to offer a selection of incisive articles from COMMENTARY taking a hard look at the Clinton administration and the years of ease at home and swiftly growing unease abroad over which Bill Clinton presided. Enjoy.

Bush, Clinton, and the Jews—A Debate
Daniel Pipes & Martin Peretz, October 1992

Lament of a Clinton Supporter
Joshua Muravchik, August 1993

Clintonism Abroad
Joshua Muravchik, February 1995

A Party of One: Clinton and the Democrats
Daniel Casse, July 1996

What Saddam Hussein Learned from Bill Clinton
Harvey Sicherman, December 1996

Clinton, the Country, and the Culture
January 1999

The recent dust-up between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has reminded some observers of what Clinton-style politics can look like in action. If, as former U.S. Treasury Secretary John Sherman once observed, the past is the best prophet of the future, it’s distinctly probable that American political discourse will remain quite lively for some time now, and possibly even after George W. Bush’s second term ends. For your weekend reading, contentions would like to offer a selection of incisive articles from COMMENTARY taking a hard look at the Clinton administration and the years of ease at home and swiftly growing unease abroad over which Bill Clinton presided. Enjoy.

Bush, Clinton, and the Jews—A Debate
Daniel Pipes & Martin Peretz, October 1992

Lament of a Clinton Supporter
Joshua Muravchik, August 1993

Clintonism Abroad
Joshua Muravchik, February 1995

A Party of One: Clinton and the Democrats
Daniel Casse, July 1996

What Saddam Hussein Learned from Bill Clinton
Harvey Sicherman, December 1996

Clinton, the Country, and the Culture
January 1999

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Loose Change

On Presidents’ Day this month, the United States Mint released a new dollar coin bearing an image of George Washington. It is the first of a series of forty presidential dollars to be released, four per year, in the order the presidents served. These coins are the result of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005, which seeks to “revitalize the design of United States coinage” in the spirit of the “Golden Age of Coinage,” when Theodore Roosevelt commissioned designs from the nation’s leading artists. Under his impetus, coinage achieved a kind of visual poetry, culminating in the great trio of the Buffalo nickel, the Lincoln penny, and the $20 gold eagle—Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s stirring image of a confident and athletic woman striding forward, an optimistic figure of progress.

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On Presidents’ Day this month, the United States Mint released a new dollar coin bearing an image of George Washington. It is the first of a series of forty presidential dollars to be released, four per year, in the order the presidents served. These coins are the result of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005, which seeks to “revitalize the design of United States coinage” in the spirit of the “Golden Age of Coinage,” when Theodore Roosevelt commissioned designs from the nation’s leading artists. Under his impetus, coinage achieved a kind of visual poetry, culminating in the great trio of the Buffalo nickel, the Lincoln penny, and the $20 gold eagle—Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s stirring image of a confident and athletic woman striding forward, an optimistic figure of progress.

The impulse to revive this period is noble; the results, alas, are not. The language of coins is preeminently linear—i.e., engraving with the line—and its strongest tool is the expressive silhouette. For this reason, the great coins of the past have invariably been based on profile. But profiles are evidently now deemed too severe. The new Washington dollar and the next three coins are three-quarter portraits, a pose that is lovelier on the canvas than on a piece of metal. These coins are likely to be collectors’ curios rather than the inspirational and instructive objects that were envisioned. There is something dispiriting about the industrial scale of the enterprise, which seems less suggestive of Saint-Gaudens than of the “commemorative” presidential plates and spoons one sees on home shopping channels.

A far more sweeping overhaul of our currency is inevitable, sooner or later, for no other reason than inflation. As David Margolick recently showed, the Lincoln penny—at the moment our finest item of currency—has become an object of contempt. There will need to be a reordering of the relative hierarchy of the principal coins in circulation. This will be traumatic; perhaps that trauma might be eased if some of the great designs of the Roosevelt era were imaginatively reintroduced—and perhaps assigned to different values and sizes of coins.

In any event, it is disconcerting to hold one of the new and unlovely Washington dollars and to look at the discarded pennies on the sidewalk. One usually thinks of Gresham’s Law as a metaphor, but in the case of American currency it is literally true: the bad coins are driving out the good.

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D’Souza’s Cynicism

Hard on the heels of Max Boot’s post on the subject, in the March issue of the New Criterion, Scott Johnson has an excellent review-essay on Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home. Johnson examines closely the book’s central idea: that, by allowing what D’Souza calls the “cultural left” to thrive, America brought the ire of Islamists down on its head. It’s a troubling and pernicious argument, and Johnson subjects it to well-deserved and damaging scrutiny. Enjoy.

Hard on the heels of Max Boot’s post on the subject, in the March issue of the New Criterion, Scott Johnson has an excellent review-essay on Dinesh D’Souza’s The Enemy at Home. Johnson examines closely the book’s central idea: that, by allowing what D’Souza calls the “cultural left” to thrive, America brought the ire of Islamists down on its head. It’s a troubling and pernicious argument, and Johnson subjects it to well-deserved and damaging scrutiny. Enjoy.

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Ramadan’s Exclusion

Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim celebrity academic and British government adviser who teaches at Oxford, is complaining again of his exclusion from the United States, where he was unable to take up a chair at Notre Dame. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he claims that he has been denied a visa “because of my criticism of [the Bush administration’s] Middle East policy and America’s unconditional support for Israel.” He lists an impressive-sounding array of U.S. organizations that “have understood that the real issue is my freedom of speech” and support his legal challenge.

In fact, Ramadan was denied a visa because of his donations to a Palestinian “charity” that supports Hamas. His claim that he was then unaware of this link is implausible, given his record as a hardline Islamist who has repeatedly refused to condemn Palestinian terrorism. In fact, Ramadan has a record of contacts with Islamist terrorists. The Algerian terrorist Djamal Beghal, who plotted to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris, claimed that he “took charge of preparing the lectures of Tariq Ramadan” while studying with him in Geneva. Ramadan was excluded from France for his contacts with Algerian terrorists, though this ban was later lifted.

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Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim celebrity academic and British government adviser who teaches at Oxford, is complaining again of his exclusion from the United States, where he was unable to take up a chair at Notre Dame. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he claims that he has been denied a visa “because of my criticism of [the Bush administration’s] Middle East policy and America’s unconditional support for Israel.” He lists an impressive-sounding array of U.S. organizations that “have understood that the real issue is my freedom of speech” and support his legal challenge.

In fact, Ramadan was denied a visa because of his donations to a Palestinian “charity” that supports Hamas. His claim that he was then unaware of this link is implausible, given his record as a hardline Islamist who has repeatedly refused to condemn Palestinian terrorism. In fact, Ramadan has a record of contacts with Islamist terrorists. The Algerian terrorist Djamal Beghal, who plotted to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris, claimed that he “took charge of preparing the lectures of Tariq Ramadan” while studying with him in Geneva. Ramadan was excluded from France for his contacts with Algerian terrorists, though this ban was later lifted.


Even leaving aside this and other contacts with leading terrorists such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy, and the “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman, who masterminded the first attack on the World Trade Center—all of which Ramadan denies—his claim to be a leading moderate who seeks to “westernize Islam” and believes in freedom of speech does not square with his public pronouncements. (For fuller documentation of these charges against Ramadan, please see this from the indispensible Daniel Pipes.) It is rank hypocrisy for Ramadan, who rarely condemns censorship in the Muslim world, to accuse the United States of “muffling critical opinion” and “requiring all its citizens to think the same way.”

Ramadan justified the protests against Danish cartoons of Mohammed, claiming that the Koran prohibits representations of Islamic prophets. (In fact, it does not.) He supported the Islamist campaign to ban Voltaire’s play about Mohammed, Fanaticism, at the French town of Saint-Genis-Pouilly. He refers to Islamist atrocities such as 9/11 and the bombings in Madrid and Bali as “interventions” and denies that bin Laden was behind 9/11. He has praised the genocidal Sudanese Islamist regime. He attacked the French intellectuals Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Levy for “betraying the French Republic” by their support for “sectarianism”, a euphemism for Zionism, and scandalized many by identifying them as Jews. According to Mike Whine, head of the British Community Security Trust, an organization which monitors anti-Semitism, Ramadan has made many anti-Jewish statements and “is at the soft end of the extreme Islamist spectrum.”

We do not know precisely why the U.S. Department for Homeland Security has repeatedly turned down his application for a visa, despite elements in the State Department who would like to revoke the ban. The evidence against him may well include classified information. What we do know is that Ramadan has never abandoned his project of Islamification, and that he wants to pursue it in the heart of the United States. As the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan sees his own destiny in exalted terms. In his Chronicle piece, he speaks of the “period of transition” on which the West has embarked since the emergence of large Muslim minorities, who will require the host societies to make “major adjustments” to accommodate them. “We must move forward from integration,” he declares, while Muslims “must no longer see themselves as a ‘minority.’”

What does all this mean? What is Western society supposed to be in transition to—an Islamic one? What are these “major adjustments” that the Western democracies must make? What is wrong with the model of integration, which has served the United States well in the past, and why is it no longer good enough for Muslims? And why must Muslims no longer see themselves as a minority, if that is what they are?

Ramadan’s manifesto, moderate as it may sound, in reality amounts to a program of Islamification by stealth. His family was exiled from Egypt, and Ramadan remains persona non grata there, because the Muslim Brotherhood was and is seen as dangerous. It was the first and is still the largest Islamist organization in the world. Ramadan has achieved respectability in Europe, where he is feted by academics at Oxford and Geneva—he was even invited by the British government to sit on an advisory committee after the 7/7 subway bombings in London.

But the United States has looked more carefully at his record and decided that he represents a threat. To allow Ramadan’s brand of Islamism a platform in the heart of the American academy would be the equivalent of allowing, say, Martin Heidegger or Carl Schmitt to lecture in the United States during the Third Reich. It was the judge who had prosecuted many Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, Robert H. Jackson, who warned that the Constitution is not a “suicide pact.” It is not incumbent on a democracy to allow its enemies the freedom to subvert its very existence. Tariq Ramadan is just such an enemy.

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Credit Where Credit Is Due?

Bank of America has inadvertently wandered into what might become the most interesting public policy debate of the next election cycle: illegal immigration. A week ago, the bank—the largest financial-services company in the country—began a pilot program to market its credit cards to people without asking for their Social Security numbers or other proof of citizenship. Without saying so outright, this seemed clearly a plan to turn undocumented, illegal aliens into Bank of America clients.

In a lawyerly way, Kenneth Lewis, Bank of America’s CEO, defends the policy in today’s Wall Street Journal. But the issue cuts much deeper than the policies of financial services companies. It really addresses the question of what we do with the millions of immigrants who have arrived here illegally and , in some cases, have been here for a generation or more.

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Bank of America has inadvertently wandered into what might become the most interesting public policy debate of the next election cycle: illegal immigration. A week ago, the bank—the largest financial-services company in the country—began a pilot program to market its credit cards to people without asking for their Social Security numbers or other proof of citizenship. Without saying so outright, this seemed clearly a plan to turn undocumented, illegal aliens into Bank of America clients.

In a lawyerly way, Kenneth Lewis, Bank of America’s CEO, defends the policy in today’s Wall Street Journal. But the issue cuts much deeper than the policies of financial services companies. It really addresses the question of what we do with the millions of immigrants who have arrived here illegally and , in some cases, have been here for a generation or more.

No one in the political sphere has taken on this issue directly. Border security and guest-worker programs don’t address the real issue of how to deal with people who, other than their undocumented status, are productive and law-abiding citizens. Tracking down all of them and deporting them is wildly unrealistic. Yet perhaps the Bank of America credit-card approach is the first in what will be a series of steps to mainstream this population.

There will be howls of protest, especially from the more nativist elements in the Republican and Democratic parties. There will also be all sorts of national-security arguments, as there were when Tennessee tried to give drivers’ licenses to undocumented aliens. But there is no escaping the question of how to bring aliens into the normal channels of American life. Bank of America’s decision to stick to its policy suggests that this question might ultimately be determined by gutsy and entrepreneurial businesses, not by poll-watching politicians.

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Legitimate Complaints

Polemicists being what they are, it’s no surprise that many have used the death of celebrity centerfold Anna Nicole Smith to suggest that our society is overly sexualized, that girls need better role models, that the relentless seeking of celebrity leads to pathetic endings.

Much stranger, and far more perverse, was the Sunday New York Times op-ed by Stephanie Coontz, a scholar of the family who has long argued that traditional family structure is a locus of evil, and that efforts to strengthen marriage or the family are exercises in unjustified nostalgia. She made the case that the five-month-old daughter Smith left behind was in better shape than she likely would have been if the U.S. had failed in the late 1970’s to do away with all legal demarcations between legitimacy and illegitimacy as conditions for inheritance.

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Polemicists being what they are, it’s no surprise that many have used the death of celebrity centerfold Anna Nicole Smith to suggest that our society is overly sexualized, that girls need better role models, that the relentless seeking of celebrity leads to pathetic endings.

Much stranger, and far more perverse, was the Sunday New York Times op-ed by Stephanie Coontz, a scholar of the family who has long argued that traditional family structure is a locus of evil, and that efforts to strengthen marriage or the family are exercises in unjustified nostalgia. She made the case that the five-month-old daughter Smith left behind was in better shape than she likely would have been if the U.S. had failed in the late 1970’s to do away with all legal demarcations between legitimacy and illegitimacy as conditions for inheritance.


For those who have not followed the case: the baby in question, Dannielynn, is the prize in a grotesque custody circus. Four or five men who have had sexual relations with Smith are lining up to take paternity tests. They want to claim fatherhood of Dannielynn, because she might—might—inherit roughly $400 million from the still-contested estate of Smith’s late husband, the Texas billionaire Howard Marshall.

Coontz tells us that “For thousands of years the future of a child born out of wedlock was of no interest to anyone, especially if she was an orphan. The only people likely to take her in were people who needed free labor on their farms. . . . Little Dannielynn would not have had a right to her mother’s inheritance, much less a legal claim to receive support from the family of either her deceased mother or her father.” Coontz then links Dannielynn’s good fortune to court decisions in the 1960’s and 70’s, which she does not cite by name.

As it happens, illegitimate children could inherit from their mothers for a century or more before that time—a fact that Coontz tries to fudge. As for the right to inherit from an unwed father–which has nothing to do with this case, since the potential inheritance comes from the mother—this was established in 1977, in Trimble v. Gordon. There the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision striking down an Illinois statute, enabled a young Deta Trimble to inherit the worldly goods of her father, who had been murdered. His estate amounted to an old Plymouth car, worth roughly $2,500.

Coontz regards that decision as a major step toward justice for children born out of wedlock. But if this selling-out of support for the institution of marriage for $2,500 isn’t the proverbial exchange of a birthright for a mess of pottage, what is? At the time, the affirming Justices conceded that legitimacy was a pillar of the institution of the family, and the dissenting ones warned that the consequences of the decision would be grave.

The United States now has an illegitimacy rate of 38 percent. Very few of these fatherless children, who will inherit nothing, and who are without famous mothers or gigolos vying to support them, are better off for being born into a society where, thanks to the decisions Coontz celebrates, women have fewer and fewer incentives to be married to the fathers of their babies.

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