• 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.