Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 20, 2007

McCain in Dissent

Stumping in South Carolina on Monday, John McCain unloaded on Donald Rumsfeld, calling him “one of the worst Secretaries of Defense in history.” Funny: I seem to remember that when Rumsfeld stepped down after the fall elections, McCain saluted his years of service.

Alas, this is a familiar pattern with McCain. In some ways he is one of the most admirable men in America. He seems consistent, fiercely independent, and principled. But at other times, he seems eerily reminiscent of Bill Clinton, constantly playing to reporters or to whatever audience he happens to be addressing.

Read More

Stumping in South Carolina on Monday, John McCain unloaded on Donald Rumsfeld, calling him “one of the worst Secretaries of Defense in history.” Funny: I seem to remember that when Rumsfeld stepped down after the fall elections, McCain saluted his years of service.

Alas, this is a familiar pattern with McCain. In some ways he is one of the most admirable men in America. He seems consistent, fiercely independent, and principled. But at other times, he seems eerily reminiscent of Bill Clinton, constantly playing to reporters or to whatever audience he happens to be addressing.


It turns out that McCain is best when he is in dissent. That’s when all the indignation, the toughness, and the “straight talk” come through. His reputation, after all, has been made largely through breaking ranks with Republicans, a move that never fails to win applause from the press. On issues like campaign finance and the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror, McCain loves being at odds with the White House or Senate leaders. (Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, by the way, has studied McCain closely and does a plausible version of the GOP maverick, which is rapidly becoming a stock character on Sunday talk shows.)

Being a lonely voice of reason in a crowd is not a bad trait in politics. But it is an odd position for someone hoping to lead the GOP. Today the party is fractured and desperately in need of someone who will make the case for a post-Bush Republican vision. It is a task that demands a good deal more than merely distancing yourself from past party leaders.

Read Less

The Right Laugh Track

Don’t fret too much if you missed Sunday night’s debut of The 1/2 Hour News Hour. The program—Fox News Channel’s answer to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—was awful, not a real contender against its Comedy Central rival. It wasn’t just that the jokes on the Fox spoof often failed. That’s par for the course in satire, political or otherwise. It’s that the whole atmosphere of the show was grimly, thuddingly unfunny. The question is, why?

For Alessandra Stanley, the chief TV critic of the New York Times, the problem was the show’s conservative slant—that is, its single-minded focus on targets like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and global warming. The debut completely spares Dick Cheney and President Bush, the constant foils for Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart. As Stanley complained, “The Fox News comedy only leans on the Left.” For his part, the show’s creator, Joel Surnow, one of Hollywood’s few outspokenly right-wing big wigs, is happy to admit that The 1/2 Hour News Hour is “unabashedly coming from a certain point of view. . . . We’re not looking to be balanced.”

Read More

Don’t fret too much if you missed Sunday night’s debut of The 1/2 Hour News Hour. The program—Fox News Channel’s answer to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart—was awful, not a real contender against its Comedy Central rival. It wasn’t just that the jokes on the Fox spoof often failed. That’s par for the course in satire, political or otherwise. It’s that the whole atmosphere of the show was grimly, thuddingly unfunny. The question is, why?

For Alessandra Stanley, the chief TV critic of the New York Times, the problem was the show’s conservative slant—that is, its single-minded focus on targets like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and global warming. The debut completely spares Dick Cheney and President Bush, the constant foils for Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart. As Stanley complained, “The Fox News comedy only leans on the Left.” For his part, the show’s creator, Joel Surnow, one of Hollywood’s few outspokenly right-wing big wigs, is happy to admit that The 1/2 Hour News Hour is “unabashedly coming from a certain point of view. . . . We’re not looking to be balanced.”


But partisan bias isn’t what ruined the show’s debut. Some of the problem was simple execution. Surnow’s fame rests on the runaway success of his action show 24. But his infallible instinct for quick-cut, split-screen drama doesn’t translate into comic timing. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter make cameo appearances to open the show, pretending to be President and VP circa 2009, and the piece could not have been more leaden. As for the faux anchors behind the news desk, they do one awkwardly scripted set piece after another, interrupted only by a maniacally fake laugh track. Almost no footage of real politicians and activists is used to vary the tempo and lend some verisimilitude to the newscast.

In fact—and here, I think, lies the show’s deeper defect—The 1/2 Hour News Hour seems much less interested in politics per se than in scoring ideological points. The most effective bits on The Daily Show often consist of little more than cleverly juxtaposing quick clips of Bush, Cheney, John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi doing what politicians do—pontificating, evading, euphemizing. Very often, all the host has to add is a quizzical look or a sly remark.

The Fox show, by contrast, aims to advance arguments and knock down prejudices. It is just as earnest in mocking the ACLU, anti-smoking crusaders, and “angry lesbians” as those groups are in advancing their own agendas. And earnestness, Left or Right, simply isn’t funny.

Read Less

Lost In Space

On January 11, China employed a medium-range ballistic missile to destroy a communications satellite 537 miles above the earth. Hans Kristensen, a specialist on space warfare at the Federation of American Scientists, called the Chinese action a “major foreign-policy blunder.” China, he wrote, “has severely weakened its own status in the push for international limitations on military space activities.”

What could the Chinese have been thinking? The New York Times editorial page had an answer (link requires subscription). Citing unnamed experts, it suggested “that China’s latest test is intended to prod the United States to join serious negotiations” to limit anti-satellite warfare.

Read More

On January 11, China employed a medium-range ballistic missile to destroy a communications satellite 537 miles above the earth. Hans Kristensen, a specialist on space warfare at the Federation of American Scientists, called the Chinese action a “major foreign-policy blunder.” China, he wrote, “has severely weakened its own status in the push for international limitations on military space activities.”

What could the Chinese have been thinking? The New York Times editorial page had an answer (link requires subscription). Citing unnamed experts, it suggested “that China’s latest test is intended to prod the United States to join serious negotiations” to limit anti-satellite warfare.


Perhaps. But perhaps this view is nonsense. Perhaps the Chinese have very good reasons for developing an anti-satellite warfare capability, independently of whether the U.S. participates in arms-control talks or not.

The U.S. currently enjoys immense military superiority over China. Why would it be surprising for the Chinese military to seek a relatively low-cost way to offset American advantages? Investing in anti-satellite warfare–up until January 11, only Russia and the U.S. had workable systems in this arena–would be a quite logical direction in which to proceed.

Michael Pillsbury, a leading analyst of Chinese military affairs, has just produced a comprehensive study of what Chinese military thinkers–he cites some thirty different open-source studies–are saying about such matters.

Of the thirty Chinese proposals, one set would be particularly challenging to US military vulnerabilities in a crisis. In each of their books, Chinese Colonels Li, Jia, and Yuan all advocated covert deployment of a sophisticated anti-satellite weapon system to be used against United States in a surprise manner without warning. Even a small-scale anti-satellite attack in a crisis against 50 US satellites [assuming a mix of targeted military-reconnaissance satellites, navigation satellites, and communication satellites] could have a catastrophic effect not only on U.S. military forces, but on the US civilian economy.

A Chinese effort to acquire a “capacity to disable American intelligence, communications, and navigation satellites and to disrupt U.S. information systems, both in the region and beyond” is what Aaron Friedberg warned us about in a prescient and path-breaking article in Commentary seven years ago.

Monopoly is the American national game of strategy. It was invented in the early 1930’s and takes five minutes to master. Here are the rules.

Go is the Chinese national game of strategy. It was invented more than 2,500 years ago and takes a lifetime to master. Here are the rules.

Read Less

A 21st-Century Blood Libel

The 21st century’s first blood libel, it appears, was only skin-deep. Ariel Toaff of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, an Italian-born medieval historian and the son of the chief rabbi of Rome, now claims that his new book Pasque di Sangre (“Passover of Blood”) has been misinterpreted. In any case, he says, he never really meant it when he wrote that in at least one case, that of the trial and execution of sixteen Jews in the Italian town of Trento in 1475, there may have been some truth in the medieval charge that Jews killed Christian children before Passover in order to use their blood to bake matzos.

To judge by his quoted remarks, Toaff seems—understandably, perhaps, given the fierce attacks on him in academic circles—a bit discombobulated these days. One minute he is ready to defend his book even “if the world crucifies me” (an interesting association in the context), while the next minute he has withdrawn it from circulation and barred his publisher from coming out with a second printing. And throughout it all he keeps insisting that he never had any inkling of the furor it would touch off. Although it’s hard to imagine a professor at a reputable Israeli university being so foolishly naïve, all the evidence seems to point to his being exactly that.

Read More

The 21st century’s first blood libel, it appears, was only skin-deep. Ariel Toaff of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, an Italian-born medieval historian and the son of the chief rabbi of Rome, now claims that his new book Pasque di Sangre (“Passover of Blood”) has been misinterpreted. In any case, he says, he never really meant it when he wrote that in at least one case, that of the trial and execution of sixteen Jews in the Italian town of Trento in 1475, there may have been some truth in the medieval charge that Jews killed Christian children before Passover in order to use their blood to bake matzos.

To judge by his quoted remarks, Toaff seems—understandably, perhaps, given the fierce attacks on him in academic circles—a bit discombobulated these days. One minute he is ready to defend his book even “if the world crucifies me” (an interesting association in the context), while the next minute he has withdrawn it from circulation and barred his publisher from coming out with a second printing. And throughout it all he keeps insisting that he never had any inkling of the furor it would touch off. Although it’s hard to imagine a professor at a reputable Israeli university being so foolishly naïve, all the evidence seems to point to his being exactly that.

Is there a moral? Indeed there is. I agree with Alvin Rosenfeld’s point, in his controversial essay “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” that although any Jew has the right to say what he wants about Israel, every Jew would also be well-advised to exercise this right sensibly. The same holds true for what a Jew says about the Jewish people.

Even if (as he now denies) Ariel Toaff was convinced that Jews killed a Christian boy in Trento in 1475 in order to make ritual use of his blood, and thought it was his duty as a historian to go on record as saying so, there were wiser ways of doing this than publishing a book with a lurid title. Even in one printing, Sangre di Pasque will give the loonies, and unfortunately, some of the not-so-loonies as well, plenty of cause for believing in one of the most horrendous of all anti-Jewish canards. After all, didn’t no less than an Israeli professor, the son of Rome’s chief rabbi, say it was true—and wasn’t he then intimidated into a retraction by the international Jewish cabal? Had Toaff written a cautiously worded article, appearing in an obscure professional journal of medieval history and entitled “Notes on a 1475 blood-libel trial in Trento,” he could have staked his claim quite nicely to being a leading blood-libel revisionist while doing much less harm.

It is pretty clear that, even in Trento, Jews in the Middle Ages did not murder Christian children for their blood. It is also evident that Jews in Israel today are not “Nazis” or “colonial racists” practicing “apartheid” toward the Palestinians, as many Jewish intellectuals described by Rosenfeld are fond of saying. But even Jews deluded enough to believe otherwise would do well, unless they really do want to be ranked with the enemies of their own people, to think of the consequences that can follow from telling the anti-Semites what they’d most love to hear.

Read Less

Hobsbawm’s Spanish Civil War

Eric Hobsbawm was given three pages to write a cover piece about the Spanish Civil War for the review section of Saturday’s Guardian. He produced a paean to the Communist and fellow-traveling intellectuals of the 30’s, who lost the war but won, he claims, a posthumous victory by “creating the world’s memory.”

The passage in which he deals with the handful of pro-Republican intellectuals who criticized Stalin exhibits Hobsbawm’s own relativistic attitude to the truth. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he says, was turned down by his fellow-traveling publisher Victor Gollancz and given a “critical” review in the New Statesman (i.e., a hatchet job) because, as Orwell himself wrote, Gollancz and his ideological allies believed that “one must not tell the truth about what is happening in Spain and the part played by the Communist party because to do so would prejudice public opinion against the Spanish government and so aid Franco.”

Read More

Eric Hobsbawm was given three pages to write a cover piece about the Spanish Civil War for the review section of Saturday’s Guardian. He produced a paean to the Communist and fellow-traveling intellectuals of the 30’s, who lost the war but won, he claims, a posthumous victory by “creating the world’s memory.”

The passage in which he deals with the handful of pro-Republican intellectuals who criticized Stalin exhibits Hobsbawm’s own relativistic attitude to the truth. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he says, was turned down by his fellow-traveling publisher Victor Gollancz and given a “critical” review in the New Statesman (i.e., a hatchet job) because, as Orwell himself wrote, Gollancz and his ideological allies believed that “one must not tell the truth about what is happening in Spain and the part played by the Communist party because to do so would prejudice public opinion against the Spanish government and so aid Franco.”


Hobsbawm does not dissent from this craven toeing of the party line; indeed, even 70 years later he still supports it. Smugly, he recalls that Orwell’s book sold “so poorly that the stock was still not exhausted 13 years later” and concludes: “Only in the cold-war era did Orwell cease to be an awkward, marginal figure.” But who marginalized him? The Stalinist intellectuals, of whom Hobsbawm was one, tried to wreck his career and came close to succeeding.

Hobsbawm mentions that W.H. Auden “modified his great 1937 poem ‘Spain’ in 1939 and refused to allow it to be reprinted in 1950.” But he does not explain how and why. In fact, Auden rewrote two lines of the poem in response to Orwell’s criticism. What Orwell took exception to were the following lines, which he read as justifying Stalinist liquidation: “Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” Auden altered “deliberate” to “inevitable” and “necessary murder” became “the fact of murder.” Auden later claimed that Orwell had been “densely unjust” in his interpretation, but the fact that he excluded even the amended version of this poem from his Collected Poems suggests that he had a bad conscience about it. Indeed, the phrase “necessary murder” became notorious after Orwell attacked it, despite Auden’s attempt at self-censorship.

Yet Hobsbawm simply glosses over this and other examples of bad faith. For him, the dilemma for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War was about “Marx versus Bakunin.” He adds that “among those who fought for the republic as soldiers, most found Marx more relevant than Bakunin” and he concludes that the war “could not have been waged, let alone won, along Orwellian lines.” Well, the Republicans actually lost the war, not least due to the ruthless policies of the Soviet NKVD agents in their ranks. But Hobsbawm is peddling here the old Communist cliché that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The fact that the Left’s sanitized interpretation of the war, which did indeed come to dominate its historiography, was utterly mendacious does not trouble him at all, either as a scholar or as a human being.

He has harsh words for the “mythology and manipulation of the regime of the victors” and “cold-war propaganda,” but not a word of criticism for the lies of the Communists and their apologists. He patronizes Orwell and ignores completely the other great writer about the civil war who abandoned Stalinism: Franz Borkenau, who was actually tortured by the Spanish Communists and whose justly celebrated book The Spanish Cockpit exposed their machinations. Nor does Hobsbawm mention the leading Spanish thinkers who, while rejecting Franco, rejected Communism even more strongly, among them Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno.
In short: vintage Hobsbawm.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.