Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 9, 2007

Weekend Reading

One of COMMENTARY’s signature forms is the written symposium: a convocation of intellectuals drawn from all realms of human knowledge—critics, scholars, artists, philosophers, political scientists—and asked to comment on questions of great public import. The magazine has played host to a number of these throughout its history; today we want to offer you one of the most valuable—and one of those lying closest to COMMENTARY’s philosophical purpose. What Is a Liberal, Who Is a Conservative? was published in September 1976. Today, it remains one of the most intensive and illuminating examinations of a question that has beset American politics for the better part of a century—a question that has only regained significance in recent months. The list of participants includes Robert L. Bartley, Midge Decter, Eugene Genovese, Sidney Hook, Alfred Kazin, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Richard John Neuhaus, Edward Shils, Thomas Sowell, James Q. Wilson, Tom Wolfe, and many, many more. Enjoy.

One of COMMENTARY’s signature forms is the written symposium: a convocation of intellectuals drawn from all realms of human knowledge—critics, scholars, artists, philosophers, political scientists—and asked to comment on questions of great public import. The magazine has played host to a number of these throughout its history; today we want to offer you one of the most valuable—and one of those lying closest to COMMENTARY’s philosophical purpose. What Is a Liberal, Who Is a Conservative? was published in September 1976. Today, it remains one of the most intensive and illuminating examinations of a question that has beset American politics for the better part of a century—a question that has only regained significance in recent months. The list of participants includes Robert L. Bartley, Midge Decter, Eugene Genovese, Sidney Hook, Alfred Kazin, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Richard John Neuhaus, Edward Shils, Thomas Sowell, James Q. Wilson, Tom Wolfe, and many, many more. Enjoy.

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Hellman, Hammett, and Stalin

On February 6th, Human Rights Watch announced the winners of this year’s Hellman-Hammett grants, awarded to “writers all around the world who have been victims of political persecution.” The grants honor playwright Lillian Hellman and novelist Dashiell Hammett and are funded from Hellman’s estate. This year’s recipients were mostly from China, Vietnam, and Iran, and were presumably worthy and needy.

But what is a “human rights” organization doing honoring the memory of these two literary thugs? HRW says that “Hellman and Hammett were both interrogated in the 1950′s about their political beliefs and affiliations” in an era when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Communist paranoia helped fuel nearly a decade of anti-Communist ‘witch hunts.’. . . Hellman suffered professionally. . . . Hammett spent time in jail.”

Whatever paranoia and witch hunts there may have been in the 1950′s, Hellman and Hammett could not have been among the objects, for they were Communists, true-believing, loyally-serving devotées of Stalin.

When the Soviet dictator purged his rivals, he staged grotesque “show trials” at which first the prosecutors denounced the defendants, then the defense attorneys denounced the defendants, and then the defendants—having been tortured and threatened with the murder of their families—denounced themselves. Leftist intellectuals around the world raised their voices to protest this travesty.

Hellman and Hammett, by contrast, raised their voices to denounce the protesters. They signed a petition that appeared in the Communist party journal New Masses, with the heading “Leading Artists, Educators Support Soviet Trial Verdict.” They and their comrades declared that the Moscow defendants had

resorted to duplicity and conspiracy and allied themselves with long-standing enemies of the Soviet Union—nationalists who had ties with capitalist, fascist, and White Guard Allies, and even with former czarist agents provocateurs. Degeneration may therefore be charged to the defendants, and not the Soviet Union, which gains strength internally and externally by the prevention of treason and the eradication of spies and wreckers.

A far more fitting tribute to the memories of Hellman and Hammett would be an award honoring the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of political persecution.

On February 6th, Human Rights Watch announced the winners of this year’s Hellman-Hammett grants, awarded to “writers all around the world who have been victims of political persecution.” The grants honor playwright Lillian Hellman and novelist Dashiell Hammett and are funded from Hellman’s estate. This year’s recipients were mostly from China, Vietnam, and Iran, and were presumably worthy and needy.

But what is a “human rights” organization doing honoring the memory of these two literary thugs? HRW says that “Hellman and Hammett were both interrogated in the 1950′s about their political beliefs and affiliations” in an era when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Communist paranoia helped fuel nearly a decade of anti-Communist ‘witch hunts.’. . . Hellman suffered professionally. . . . Hammett spent time in jail.”

Whatever paranoia and witch hunts there may have been in the 1950′s, Hellman and Hammett could not have been among the objects, for they were Communists, true-believing, loyally-serving devotées of Stalin.

When the Soviet dictator purged his rivals, he staged grotesque “show trials” at which first the prosecutors denounced the defendants, then the defense attorneys denounced the defendants, and then the defendants—having been tortured and threatened with the murder of their families—denounced themselves. Leftist intellectuals around the world raised their voices to protest this travesty.

Hellman and Hammett, by contrast, raised their voices to denounce the protesters. They signed a petition that appeared in the Communist party journal New Masses, with the heading “Leading Artists, Educators Support Soviet Trial Verdict.” They and their comrades declared that the Moscow defendants had

resorted to duplicity and conspiracy and allied themselves with long-standing enemies of the Soviet Union—nationalists who had ties with capitalist, fascist, and White Guard Allies, and even with former czarist agents provocateurs. Degeneration may therefore be charged to the defendants, and not the Soviet Union, which gains strength internally and externally by the prevention of treason and the eradication of spies and wreckers.

A far more fitting tribute to the memories of Hellman and Hammett would be an award honoring the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of political persecution.

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Don’t Trust the Experts

Max Boot’s insistence that only climatologists should be allowed to comment on global warming is bizarre, and actually anti-scientific, if you think about it. As I’ve pointed out before, science is not some kind of cabal, or a secret society open only to initiates; the beauty of science is that the evidence is there for everyone to look at and interpret. (This is why Al Gore, an ex-politician who earned a D in a college course called “Man’s Place in Nature,” feels qualified to disagree with Richard Lindzen, the Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT.) The “consensus” offered in the IPCC Summary for Policymakers is not evidence, but the interpretation of evidence that’s been sanctioned by a particular body of scientists. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right one—especially if that body has been engineered to exclude or put pressure on scientists with other views.

The cancer analogy Mr. Boot offers doesn’t make much sense. When an oncologist tells you that you have cancer, you’re dealing with something that can be proven beyond a doubt—usually by looking at a biopsy sample. By contrast, the worry about global warming involves changes that are merely predicted to occur with more or less likelihood. In most cases, the predictions are based on trends whose existence can’t even be established with certainty. There’s no gold standard here; there’s only a set of assumptions and the statistical models built around them. You don’t have to be a climatologist to understand the potential pitfalls of making predictions this way.

A better analogy would be asking twenty oncologists about the odds that you’ll develop cancer at some point in the near future. It’s almost impossible to imagine that you’d get the same answer from all of them, and some of their guesses might be no better than a meteorologist’s—especially if the meteorologist has read the literature on cancer risk factors, as anyone with a basic understanding of statistics and experimental design can easily do. In fact, such a meteorologist might be able to tell you that the “consensus” of medical professionals on cancer detection and prevention often has no basis in fact. Of course, it’s cheap and easy to eat more fiber, or to do a breast self-exam (neither has been proven to reduce cancer mortality), so one might as well do these things. Cutting carbon dioxide emissions in half, by contrast, is neither cheap nor easy.

One might ask, moreover, why Mr. Boot feels that the “policy implications” of global warming are something that can be discussed without any scientific literacy. Consider his recommendation that we end sugar subsidies to make sugar-derived ethanol cheaper. What makes Mr. Boot think that burning ethanol would contribute less to climate change than burning fossil fuels? Isn’t this also a scientific question?

I certainly agree with Mr. Boot that it would be desirable for us to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but the argument for this doesn’t have to invoke the bogeyman of climate change.

Max Boot’s insistence that only climatologists should be allowed to comment on global warming is bizarre, and actually anti-scientific, if you think about it. As I’ve pointed out before, science is not some kind of cabal, or a secret society open only to initiates; the beauty of science is that the evidence is there for everyone to look at and interpret. (This is why Al Gore, an ex-politician who earned a D in a college course called “Man’s Place in Nature,” feels qualified to disagree with Richard Lindzen, the Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT.) The “consensus” offered in the IPCC Summary for Policymakers is not evidence, but the interpretation of evidence that’s been sanctioned by a particular body of scientists. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right one—especially if that body has been engineered to exclude or put pressure on scientists with other views.

The cancer analogy Mr. Boot offers doesn’t make much sense. When an oncologist tells you that you have cancer, you’re dealing with something that can be proven beyond a doubt—usually by looking at a biopsy sample. By contrast, the worry about global warming involves changes that are merely predicted to occur with more or less likelihood. In most cases, the predictions are based on trends whose existence can’t even be established with certainty. There’s no gold standard here; there’s only a set of assumptions and the statistical models built around them. You don’t have to be a climatologist to understand the potential pitfalls of making predictions this way.

A better analogy would be asking twenty oncologists about the odds that you’ll develop cancer at some point in the near future. It’s almost impossible to imagine that you’d get the same answer from all of them, and some of their guesses might be no better than a meteorologist’s—especially if the meteorologist has read the literature on cancer risk factors, as anyone with a basic understanding of statistics and experimental design can easily do. In fact, such a meteorologist might be able to tell you that the “consensus” of medical professionals on cancer detection and prevention often has no basis in fact. Of course, it’s cheap and easy to eat more fiber, or to do a breast self-exam (neither has been proven to reduce cancer mortality), so one might as well do these things. Cutting carbon dioxide emissions in half, by contrast, is neither cheap nor easy.

One might ask, moreover, why Mr. Boot feels that the “policy implications” of global warming are something that can be discussed without any scientific literacy. Consider his recommendation that we end sugar subsidies to make sugar-derived ethanol cheaper. What makes Mr. Boot think that burning ethanol would contribute less to climate change than burning fossil fuels? Isn’t this also a scientific question?

I certainly agree with Mr. Boot that it would be desirable for us to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but the argument for this doesn’t have to invoke the bogeyman of climate change.

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Academy of Hatred

Less than a mile from my house in West London is a prestigious, Saudi-funded Muslim private school, the King Fahd Academy, which has been much in the news recently. Colin Cook, a former teacher there who is suing the school for wrongful dismissal, claims that Arabic textbooks used there contain passages in which Jews are described as “apes” and Christians as “pigs.” Religions other than Islam are described as “repugnant” or “worthless.”

Some of the students at King Fahd are the children of Saudi diplomats, but most are British Muslims, among them the children of the jailed, hook-handed Islamist preacher Abu Hamza. On Tuesday the principal of the school, Dr. Sumaya Alyusuf, confirmed that these books are indeed used. She told the BBC that “these books have good chapters . . . that will serve our objectives.”

This raises two questions: What “objectives” might those be? And did Dr. Alyusuf mean to speak so frankly?

Less than a mile from my house in West London is a prestigious, Saudi-funded Muslim private school, the King Fahd Academy, which has been much in the news recently. Colin Cook, a former teacher there who is suing the school for wrongful dismissal, claims that Arabic textbooks used there contain passages in which Jews are described as “apes” and Christians as “pigs.” Religions other than Islam are described as “repugnant” or “worthless.”

Some of the students at King Fahd are the children of Saudi diplomats, but most are British Muslims, among them the children of the jailed, hook-handed Islamist preacher Abu Hamza. On Tuesday the principal of the school, Dr. Sumaya Alyusuf, confirmed that these books are indeed used. She told the BBC that “these books have good chapters . . . that will serve our objectives.”

This raises two questions: What “objectives” might those be? And did Dr. Alyusuf mean to speak so frankly?

Read Less




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