Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 2007

The Indispensable Man

Scott Johnson at Powerline has a great post commemorating George Washington’s actual birthday—today, February 22nd. Johnson mentions especially the famous correspondence between Washington and Moses Seixas, then-president of America’s oldest Jewish congregation, Newport’s* Touro Synagogue, on the occasion of Washington’s visit there after Rhode Island’s ratification of the Constitution. Read the whole post here.

* The post originally mislabeled the location of the Touro synagogue as Providence.

Scott Johnson at Powerline has a great post commemorating George Washington’s actual birthday—today, February 22nd. Johnson mentions especially the famous correspondence between Washington and Moses Seixas, then-president of America’s oldest Jewish congregation, Newport’s* Touro Synagogue, on the occasion of Washington’s visit there after Rhode Island’s ratification of the Constitution. Read the whole post here.

* The post originally mislabeled the location of the Touro synagogue as Providence.

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Political Damnation

Robert Knight of the Media Research Center, a conservative watch-dog group, is unhappy with me. In a piece I wrote for this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I criticized Concerned Women for America (CWA), a group whose Culture & Family Institute Knight once directed, for the way it uses religion in the service of social conservatism. As I wrote:

For a taste of [intolerant fundamentalist] views, visit the Web site of Concerned Women for America, which bills itself as the “nation’s largest public-policy women’s organization.” Its mission is “to protect and promote biblical values among all citizens,” the Bible being “the inerrant Word of God and the final authority on faith and practice.” As for dissenters from CWA’s stand on issues like the “sanctity of human life,” a handy link to Bible passages explains “why you are a sinner and deserve punishment in hell.”

Knight calls this a “vicious mischaracterization,” so gross a distortion “as to constitute a lie.” My “out of context” quotes, he writes, have nothing to do with CWA’s position on “spiritual outreach.” Indeed, “nowhere does CWA state or imply that people will be sent to hell because of their views on public policy.”

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Robert Knight of the Media Research Center, a conservative watch-dog group, is unhappy with me. In a piece I wrote for this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, I criticized Concerned Women for America (CWA), a group whose Culture & Family Institute Knight once directed, for the way it uses religion in the service of social conservatism. As I wrote:

For a taste of [intolerant fundamentalist] views, visit the Web site of Concerned Women for America, which bills itself as the “nation’s largest public-policy women’s organization.” Its mission is “to protect and promote biblical values among all citizens,” the Bible being “the inerrant Word of God and the final authority on faith and practice.” As for dissenters from CWA’s stand on issues like the “sanctity of human life,” a handy link to Bible passages explains “why you are a sinner and deserve punishment in hell.”

Knight calls this a “vicious mischaracterization,” so gross a distortion “as to constitute a lie.” My “out of context” quotes, he writes, have nothing to do with CWA’s position on “spiritual outreach.” Indeed, “nowhere does CWA state or imply that people will be sent to hell because of their views on public policy.”

Well, here is what leads CWA’s Web page titled “About CWA” (the links below are live on the page as well) :

CWA is built on prayer and action.
We are the nation’s largest public policy women’s organization with a rich 28-year history of helping our members across the country bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy.

What We Do
We help people focus on six core issues, which we have determined need Biblical principles most and where we can have the greatest impact. At its root, each of these issues is a battle over worldviews.

Clicking on these links, you quickly discover that CWA’s “Biblical principles” are exclusively concerned with winning salvation through trust in Jesus, with hellfire held out as the consequence of refusal. As for the “core issues” where these very same principles are needed “most,” they include “family,” “pornography,” and, of course, the “sanctity of human life.”

Maybe I’m missing some subtle, inclusive context here, but the clear point of these passages and links seems to be, as I argued, that those who disagree with CWA’s social agenda will have a hot time of it in the afterlife.

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The News You Don’t Read

It made big headlines in Israel on Wednesday, February 21, but I don’t imagine it got more than scant attention, if that much, anywhere else.

Police thwart major suicide attack.” That’s not front-page news in America or England—unless, that is, it happened in New York or London. If it happened in Tel Aviv, you need at least a bomb going off, and preferably a death or two, for anyone elsewhere to sit up and take notice. And this explains a certain paradox: the more successful Israel’s army and security services are in preventing deadly acts of Palestinian terror against Israelis, the more the world looks upon the means of prevention as vindictive and unnecessary harassment of Palestinians on Israel’s part.

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It made big headlines in Israel on Wednesday, February 21, but I don’t imagine it got more than scant attention, if that much, anywhere else.

Police thwart major suicide attack.” That’s not front-page news in America or England—unless, that is, it happened in New York or London. If it happened in Tel Aviv, you need at least a bomb going off, and preferably a death or two, for anyone elsewhere to sit up and take notice. And this explains a certain paradox: the more successful Israel’s army and security services are in preventing deadly acts of Palestinian terror against Israelis, the more the world looks upon the means of prevention as vindictive and unnecessary harassment of Palestinians on Israel’s part.

Take this Wednesday’s thwarted bombing. An Islamic Jihad operative from the West Bank city of Jenin was arrested in a Palestinian “safe house” in a southern suburb of Tel Aviv after planting a bomb, which he may have intended to retrieve and blow himself up with, in a trash can in the center of the nearby city of Rishon Letzion. He told his interrogators where the bomb was, a team of sappers was sent to defuse it, and no damage was done. This kind of thing happens all the time in Israel. The main reason it was treated as such a big story this time was that, warned by intelligence sources that the bomber was on his way, the police threw up roadblocks, causing major traffic jams in the Tel Aviv area.

You read such a story in the newspaper and turn the page and go on. Only in the act of turning it, perhaps, do you suddenly stop to wonder: Just a minute—how did Israel’s intelligence services know that someone from Jenin was on his way with a bomb? And how did they know where he was hiding so that they were able to get to him in time?

You won’t find the answers in the newspaper. For obvious reasons, their details are a secret. And yet in a general sort of way, there’s no great mystery. Israeli intelligence must have known about the bomb because it had a Palestinian agent who tipped it off. It may have known about the safe house from another agent. And where did it recruit these agents from? Most probably from the hundreds of Islamic Jihad operatives who have been arrested in recent years at roadblocks, in raids on houses, in dragnets, and in sweeps—in short, in all those operations that have given Israel a reputation for being an unconscionable oppressor. And how did it persuade them to work for it? Possibly with money, possibly with other incentives, possibly with threats against them and their families—that is, by doing the kinds of nasty things that nice people don’t do to one another.

The world hears mostly about the nasty things. “Dozens of Israeli lives saved yesterday” doesn’t play well with the editors of the New York Times or the Guardian in London. We in Israel, who know those lives could have been our own, our friends’, or our family’s, have a different take on it.

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Welcome, David Pryce-Jones

We’d like to welcome to contentions as a guest blogger David Pryce-Jones, senior editor at National Review. David has written about systems of belief from Nazism and Communism to Islam. Among his books are The Closed Circle and The Strange Death of the Soviety Empire. His latest book is Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter Books). He is also the author of several novels. David brings his trademark erudition and assured voice to contentions, and we’re delighted to have him. Enjoy!

We’d like to welcome to contentions as a guest blogger David Pryce-Jones, senior editor at National Review. David has written about systems of belief from Nazism and Communism to Islam. Among his books are The Closed Circle and The Strange Death of the Soviety Empire. His latest book is Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter Books). He is also the author of several novels. David brings his trademark erudition and assured voice to contentions, and we’re delighted to have him. Enjoy!

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Among the Collaborationists

Maurice Papon has just died at the age of ninety-six, but his name will always stand for France’s moral collapse in 1940, and that country’s inability—or reluctance—to redress matters afterwards. In his capacity as a ranking Vichy official, the documentation proves, he signed the deportation orders to Auschwitz for 1,690 Jews, 223 of whom were children, organizing sixteen trains for them, the last in June 1944 when German defeat was certain. It was also his idea to send the bill for the expense of the requisite cattle-trucks to the Jewish representative council, thus obliging the victims to pay for their journey to be murdered. One of his German superiors described him as a sincere collaborator, “co-operating correctly with the Feldkommandatur.”

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Maurice Papon has just died at the age of ninety-six, but his name will always stand for France’s moral collapse in 1940, and that country’s inability—or reluctance—to redress matters afterwards. In his capacity as a ranking Vichy official, the documentation proves, he signed the deportation orders to Auschwitz for 1,690 Jews, 223 of whom were children, organizing sixteen trains for them, the last in June 1944 when German defeat was certain. It was also his idea to send the bill for the expense of the requisite cattle-trucks to the Jewish representative council, thus obliging the victims to pay for their journey to be murdered. One of his German superiors described him as a sincere collaborator, “co-operating correctly with the Feldkommandatur.”

Collaboration with Nazism was the political choice taken by Marshal Pétain after the fall of France; it was pre-war appeasement in the new context of military defeat. Pétain and his Vichy regime imagined that they were sparing France the sort of horrors inflicted on Poland, but in reality they were facilitating them. In the absence of enough German personnel trained in mass murder, the Nazi authorities had to rely on the French to do their work. The turning point was the accord signed in May 1942 between General Karl Oberg of the SS, and René Bousquet, general secretary of the French police. That accord placed the French gendarmerie at the service of the Nazi machinery of murder. One among many who could now obey orders zealously was Papon, and another was Jean Leguay, Bousquet’s representative.

At the end of the war, Bousquet was condemned to five years of “national indignity,” a somewhat unspecific term, then immediately granted reprieve and decorated for “resistance,” in this case an even less specific term. Bousquet then enjoyed a spectacular career as an industrialist, protected by President Mitterand for no very evident reason except that he too had a compromising Vichy past. Leguay also had a successful business career. Papon fared best of all. General de Gaulle, no less, protected him, appointing him prefect of police in Paris. In that capacity, he supervised a crack-down on Algerians with thousands of arrests, and the massacre of perhaps a hundred of them, their corpses simply thrown into the Seine. Papon showed himself as adept at murdering Muslims as Jews. Under President Giscard d’Estaing, he entered the cabinet as budget minister.

Researching in the archives, Michel Slitinsky came across his own death warrant with Papon’s signature on it. Slitinsky’s father had been killed in Auschwitz, while he himself only just managed to escape arrest. In 1986, more than twenty years after the event, he brought Papon to justice. At his trial, Papon denounced the proceedings as “fake,” claimed to have helped the resistance, and dismissed the evidence as lies, speaking of “plots,” the usual fascist code for supposed Jewish world domination. Sentenced to ten years in prison for crimes against humanity, he fled defiantly to Switzerland, but was sent back and imprisoned. After he had served three years, the Chirac government had him released. The protection of such people by so many French presidents speaks volumes.

Like Papon, Leguay was indicted for crimes against humanity (though he died before going to prison). When I was writing my book Paris in the Third Reich, in which I describe his role in deporting Jews, he used to seek me out in order to plead that he had not really done anything wrong, and in any case had no choice, and would I please understand his predicament. Like Papon again, but in his more oily way, he showed no trace of remorse. Nor did Bousquet, who became more and more arrogant with the passing of time even though he too was facing a trial for crimes against humanity. One day, someone named Christian Didier—always labelled as “unbalanced”—turned up at his house and shot him dead.

The wish to hide complicity in mass murder may be humanly understandable, but it has rotted France’s national conscience and self-respect. Unwillingness to acknowledge complicity in Nazi crime explains the lack of conscience—the sheer bad faith—of the French stance in so many post-war issues.

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Bookshelf

I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.

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I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.


• Crist is also the co-editor of The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (Yale, 288 pp., $45), the first volume of Copland’s letters to be published. It should have been much longer—he wrote 111 letters to Leonard Bernstein alone, for instance, and received as many in return—but Crist and Wayne Shirley have made a good start with this well-chosen, extensively annotated selection of letters written between 1909 and 1979, after which Alzheimer’s disease made it increasingly difficult for Copland to continue corresponding with his friends and colleagues. No doubt the rest of his surviving letters and diary entries will see print sooner or later, but my guess is that The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland contains a goodly share of the cream of the crop.

• The 2005 Bard Music Festival was devoted to Copland, and one of its fruits was Aaron Copland and His World (Princeton, 503 pp., $55), a superior collection of newly commissioned essays by such noted scholars as Crist, Pollack, Morris Dickstein, Lynn Garafola, Gail Levin, and Vivian Perlis, the last of whom collaborated with Copland on his two-volume autobiography. H.L. Mencken pithily described one of Henry James’s books as “early essays by Henry James—some in the English language.” Though the contributors to Aaron Copland and His World are card-carrying academics, nearly all of them write in English, so to speak, and most of their essays are insightful, informative, and fully accessible to non-specialists.

• I should also mention Aaron Copland: A Reader (Routledge, 368 pp., $30), edited by Richard Kostelanetz, of which I made brief mention in “Composers for Communism,” my 2004 COMMENTARY essay about Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich. As countless readers of What to Listen for in Music know, Copland was a wonderfully lucid and straightforward writer, and this wide-ranging collection of his essays and articles, which failed to receive the close critical attention it deserved, is a essential addition to the fast-growing literature on America’s greatest composer.

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Mailer’s Grotesquerie

Almost a month after Lee Siegel’s expansive, unfocused paean to Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, has published her own astute (and devastating) review of the novel. (It’s worth noting that Siegel, in praising Mailer as a novelist, focused for the most part on Mailer’s works of “literary non-fiction.”) Franklin’s review skirts but does not point out explicitly the novel’s Manichean theology–a vision of the positive nature of evil that has consumed Mailer from the outset of his literary career. But both pieces are worth reading, especially for the sharp relief into which Franklin’s perspicacity casts Siegel’s confused tribute. And make sure to read John Gross’s review of The Castle in the Forest in the March issue of COMMENTARY.

Almost a month after Lee Siegel’s expansive, unfocused paean to Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, has published her own astute (and devastating) review of the novel. (It’s worth noting that Siegel, in praising Mailer as a novelist, focused for the most part on Mailer’s works of “literary non-fiction.”) Franklin’s review skirts but does not point out explicitly the novel’s Manichean theology–a vision of the positive nature of evil that has consumed Mailer from the outset of his literary career. But both pieces are worth reading, especially for the sharp relief into which Franklin’s perspicacity casts Siegel’s confused tribute. And make sure to read John Gross’s review of The Castle in the Forest in the March issue of COMMENTARY.

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Conflicted Libertarians

Last week at the Cato Institute, I debated Michael Tanner and former Congressman Dick Armey, two stalwart libertarians. The occasion was the release of Tanner’s book Leviathan on the Right, one of the better distillations of the argument that George W. Bush has frittered away Reagan’s legacy, increased the size and scope of government, and betrayed conservative principles.

But Tanner’s argument is not persuasive. For one, the often-shrill complaints of a few years ago about runaway federal spending now seem overwrought. To everyone’s surprise, the size of the deficit has fallen dramatically over the past two years. This year the deficit will be 1.6 percent of the economy–a level lower than in 18 of the past 25 years. The federal budget is projected to be in surplus by 2012.

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Last week at the Cato Institute, I debated Michael Tanner and former Congressman Dick Armey, two stalwart libertarians. The occasion was the release of Tanner’s book Leviathan on the Right, one of the better distillations of the argument that George W. Bush has frittered away Reagan’s legacy, increased the size and scope of government, and betrayed conservative principles.

But Tanner’s argument is not persuasive. For one, the often-shrill complaints of a few years ago about runaway federal spending now seem overwrought. To everyone’s surprise, the size of the deficit has fallen dramatically over the past two years. This year the deficit will be 1.6 percent of the economy–a level lower than in 18 of the past 25 years. The federal budget is projected to be in surplus by 2012.


But the real flaw of the anti-“big-government conservative” argument is that the adherence to libertarian orthodoxy often stands in the way of long-sought conservative and free-market goals. A recent development in New Orleans’s public school system makes the case vividly. Many conservatives castigated President Bush when he approved billions in post-Katrina relief for New Orleans. No doubt they were right when they predicted that much of it would be wasted, if not pilfered, by dishonest bureaucrats.

Yet the funds have also made possible one of the most interesting experiments in American education. Prior to Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board was among the worst in the country. Barely any of its 8th-graders were performing at an adequate level. Post-Katrina, with federal money to spread around, the school board has been disbanded. In its place is a new organization that has been approving a wide range of competitive charter schools run by entrepreneurs and dedicated education leaders. A recent article in The Atlantic described it as “the most market-driven system in the United States.”

So the long list of conservatives and libertarians who have assaulted the Bush Administration over reckless spending on New Orleans have to make up their minds. Either they are intractably against big-government spending, or they are in favor of the most successful effort to undo the teachers’ unions and create a competitive system of public schools. But they can’t be on both sides.

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The Wrong Enemy

Dinesh D’Souza’s execrable new book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, has gotten the trashing it deserves in various articles and reviews—though perhaps not as many as the author would like, since controversy is essential to sell a book this meretricious.

Most of the reviews have focused, understandably, on D’Souza’s risible claim that Islamists attack us because of our popular culture, and that if only we would adopt the buttoned-down lifestyle of the “Greatest Generation,” the jihadists would leave us alone. As several reviewers have noted, Sayyid Qutb, the godfather of Islamist ideology, actually visited the U.S. in the late 1940′s and was thoroughly repulsed by our culture even in those “Ozzie and Harriet” days.

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Dinesh D’Souza’s execrable new book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, has gotten the trashing it deserves in various articles and reviews—though perhaps not as many as the author would like, since controversy is essential to sell a book this meretricious.

Most of the reviews have focused, understandably, on D’Souza’s risible claim that Islamists attack us because of our popular culture, and that if only we would adopt the buttoned-down lifestyle of the “Greatest Generation,” the jihadists would leave us alone. As several reviewers have noted, Sayyid Qutb, the godfather of Islamist ideology, actually visited the U.S. in the late 1940′s and was thoroughly repulsed by our culture even in those “Ozzie and Harriet” days.


I have little to add to the many well-deserved criticisms except to focus on one point that, to my mind, hasn’t gotten enough attention: D’Souza’s contention that, as he puts it in his introduction, “The Left has produced a moral shift in American society that has resulted in a deluge of gross depravity and immorality.” Personally, I don’t think “gross depravity and immorality” are the defining characteristics of America today. I’m not unduly bothered by most of the examples D’Souza cites—everything from “reality shows where contestants eat maggots” to “talk shows where guests reveal the humiliating details of their sex lives” to The Vagina Monologues.

But let’s say you are bothered by them, or by the more serious issues of abortion and divorce that D’Souza also raises. Is it really tenable to blame all these trends on “the Left?” Are Andrea Dworkin, Noam Chomsky, and Tom Hayden responsible for the prevalence of pornography, trash TV, violent videogames, and raunchy music? Are they corrupting upstanding citizens who would otherwise never think of aborting a fetus or divorcing a spouse?

Hardly. In fact, leftist ideologues tend to be pretty prudish. (D’Souza should admire the efficiency with which Soviet censors kept sex out of the public domain.) The reason we have so many “degenerate” movies, books, TV shows, and songs is that the public wants them. The purveyors of these products are seldom motivated by ideology. They are pure profit-maximizers.

Perhaps liberals did help open the door by, for example, overturning obscenity laws. But just as important has been the great increase in leisure time and disposable income available to the average American since World War II. Ordinary people now devote far more energy and resources to being entertained—and, not surprisingly, the stuff they want does not meet favor with the guardians of high culture and morality.

Another important trend that has changed America is the entry of women into the workforce. This too had an ideological component, but it was driven primarily by the desire for greater income and a more comfortable lifestyle. As women have acquired independent means of support, they have been more willing to delay marriage, leave a spouse, or have an abortion in their pursuit of happiness.

It’s simply untenable to blame a handful of “sixties radicals” for the tectonic shifts in American society over the past several decades. But it’s hard for many conservatives to acknowledge that the villains responsible for the trends they deplore might also be the heroes they celebrate as “entrepreneurs.” For a more sophisticated view of this question, readers should take a pass on D’Souza’s tome and pick up David Frum’s How We Got Here: The ‘70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—for Better or Worse.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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News from the Continent: False Prophets

The new anti-Semitism described by Alvin H. Rosenfeld in a controversial essay published by the American Jewish Committee is not a myth, as his critics would have us believe. It is, sadly, all too real a phenomenon. If one criticism can be levelled at Rosenfeld’s essay on the succor that anti-Semitism receives from the anti-Israel rhetoric of liberal Jewish intellectuals, it is that his pool of examples, with the single exception of the British academic Jacqueline Rose, is drawn exclusively from the U.S. In fact, the emergence of Jewish voices demonizing Israel (and making condemnation of Israel, in some cases, their only expression of Jewish identity) is not unique to America.

This phenomenon is well known in Europe. If Rosenfeld ever publishes a second version of his essay, he will not have any difficulty bringing in literally dozens of additional examples. The continental landscape is littered with Jewish intellectuals engaged in exactly the kind of rhetoric he criticizes.

One of their newest outlets is Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), an organization now bidding to be the voice of Anglo-Jewry, as evidenced by its role in a debate hosted last week by the ultraliberal Guardian blog, Comment Is Free. Having taken part in this debate, I will not repeat what I said there. But a few more considerations are in order, as they apply to the debate triggered in America by Rosenfeld’s essay.

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The new anti-Semitism described by Alvin H. Rosenfeld in a controversial essay published by the American Jewish Committee is not a myth, as his critics would have us believe. It is, sadly, all too real a phenomenon. If one criticism can be levelled at Rosenfeld’s essay on the succor that anti-Semitism receives from the anti-Israel rhetoric of liberal Jewish intellectuals, it is that his pool of examples, with the single exception of the British academic Jacqueline Rose, is drawn exclusively from the U.S. In fact, the emergence of Jewish voices demonizing Israel (and making condemnation of Israel, in some cases, their only expression of Jewish identity) is not unique to America.

This phenomenon is well known in Europe. If Rosenfeld ever publishes a second version of his essay, he will not have any difficulty bringing in literally dozens of additional examples. The continental landscape is littered with Jewish intellectuals engaged in exactly the kind of rhetoric he criticizes.

One of their newest outlets is Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), an organization now bidding to be the voice of Anglo-Jewry, as evidenced by its role in a debate hosted last week by the ultraliberal Guardian blog, Comment Is Free. Having taken part in this debate, I will not repeat what I said there. But a few more considerations are in order, as they apply to the debate triggered in America by Rosenfeld’s essay.


First, the oft-repeated claim (framed in identical terms by both IJV and New York University professor and leading anti-Zionist Tony Judt) that the views of anti-Zionists are being censored is risible. Jaqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion was published by Princeton University Press, not by the Jewish underground in Warsaw circa 1943. Judt’s tirades against Israel feature in the New York Review of Books (and Haaretz, no less). The price that Jimmy Carter has paid for his book is, aside from exactly the robust debate he wished to trigger, a hefty financial gain from over a half million copies sold. Not exactly, in other words, the fate of beleaguered dissenters.

As for IJV, the percentage of professors in its membership suggests that establishment figures with access to mainstream publishing options predominate over the disenfranchised and voiceless. Antony Lerman, for example, is the director of the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, a once-serious Jewish think tank based in London, and a frequent guest at the court of London’s radical mayor, Ken Livingstone. IJV’s initiator, Brian Klug, and his colleague Avi Shlaim are both Oxford dons. Shlaim routinely publishes in the Guardian, the International Herald Tribune, and the London Review of Books (the same journal that published John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby”). It is hard to pretend, with such credentials, that IJV does not enjoy all the privileges of membership in Britain’s intellectual establishment. How can these people claim that their views are suppressed? What they really object to, it seems, is the fact that their views are challenged.

The claim that these anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals are dissidents whose daring words against Israel are an act of courage is absurd. By posing as victims, these quintessential establishment figures wish to hide their intolerance for opponents. Demonizing their opponents as the enemies of free speech and human rights serves, as University of London professor David Hirsh remarked in the IJV debate, one purpose only: to create a self-mythologizing narrative of resistance, through which liberals can reclaim their role as the enlightened but stifled vanguard.

Through their self-nomination as the true heirs of the biblical prophets, Lerman, Klug, and company demonstrate a complete ignorance of what the prophets actually stood for. They claim that the essence of Judaism lies in fighting for social justice, human rights, and pacifism. Yet the prophets they invoke—as even a cursory reading of scripture will demonstrate—were neither pacifists nor champions of human rights, but rather advocates of absolute rule by the divine, a system hardly palatable to the modern Left.

Such a clumsy effort at biblical interpretation reveals more than ignorance of Jewish thought. It shows that, for this class of liberal Jewish intellectuals, being Jewish is equivalent to being progressive. And if this is the case, then the converse must also be true: to be a progressive is to be Jewish. These days, most self-respecting progressive thinkers view Israel, the nation-state of the Jews, as nothing other than an embarrassment and “an anachronism,” as Judt wrote. Small wonder, then, that Jewish intellectuals avid of membership in the liberal elite must denounce Israel.

But surely the real question is not whether pro-Israel views are mainstream in the Jewish world; nor is it fruitful to debate who censors whom in the Jewish battle of ideas over Jewish identity and the place Israel occupies in that battle. The real question is whether liberal Jewish intellectuals, by speaking against Israel, merely exercise their freedom of speech, or whether by doing so they offer succor to Israel’s enemies.

The answer to this question is, sadly, the latter. The most extreme views of Israel, including distortions, fabrications, and double standards aimed at demonizing the Jewish state and providing a mandate for its destruction, become legitimate once Jews endorse them. This alibi—i.e., that Jews themselves level these criticisms—becomes a vital tool for those who harbor the oldest hatred but cannot freely express it. The cover offered by liberal Jews enables the anti-Semites, under the pretext of anti-Zionism, to attack all other Jews who fail to comply with the political orthodoxy of the age.

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Jules Olitski, R.I.P.

There is perhaps nothing more likely to give you a healthy skepticism about utopian politics than to know that your father was executed by the Soviet secret police. In the case of the abstract painter Jules Olitski, who died February 4, the result was a lifelong distaste for art that prostituted itself to a political agenda. Today such fastidiousness seems peculiar, the quaint relic of a vanished era, which might account for the note of polite ambivalence in his obituary notices.

Olitski was born in the Ukraine in 1922, a few months after his father’s death. His mother fled to New York, where Olitski grew up and studied painting. His father’s murder seems to have haunted him, and he perpetrated a hoax about a Soviet painter hiding from Stalin’s assassins in a Brooklyn basement, a strange alter ego whom he named Jevel Demekov—a variant of Jevel Demikovsky, his birth name.

Olitski came of age during the heyday of the New York School, but he had little use for the agitated canvases and violent gestures of Jackson Pollock and his ilk. Instead, Olitski looked to purge his canvases of all violence, or even the visible evidence of labor. He dyed his canvases with delicate stains, or sprayed them with fine mists of color; the shimmering pools of color that emerged looked as if they had formed spontaneously, the way that a veil of frost might appear on a window.

Olitski was not alone in his quest for diaphanous color. Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and others pursued similar artistic goals; collectively, they formed the movement known as color-field painting (or “post-painterly abstraction,” the rather ponderous term that Clement Greenberg assigned it). But Olitski’s star was short-lived. With the rise of Pop Art and the increasing politicization of art during the Vietnam war, his sensuous and apolitical art became deeply unfashionable. Nonetheless, he made ravishing chromatic essays to the end. At the same time, he remained a keen and outspoken critic of the art world. In a lecture a few years ago, he suggested that a kind of aesthetic Gresham’s Law was at work, in which low art drove high art out of circulation.

Reputations rise and fall, of course, and it may well be that Olitski will one day be rehabilitated. I rather doubt it. Such rehabilitations require publicity campaigns and the dissemination of images, and Olitski’s fragile essays are impossible to photograph with anything near the chromatic subtlety they require. One would as soon ask a short-order cook to make a copy of a gourmet dinner. This is to be regretted, for at a time when the entanglement of art with politics has been good for neither, Olitski’s principled stand has much to teach us.

There is perhaps nothing more likely to give you a healthy skepticism about utopian politics than to know that your father was executed by the Soviet secret police. In the case of the abstract painter Jules Olitski, who died February 4, the result was a lifelong distaste for art that prostituted itself to a political agenda. Today such fastidiousness seems peculiar, the quaint relic of a vanished era, which might account for the note of polite ambivalence in his obituary notices.

Olitski was born in the Ukraine in 1922, a few months after his father’s death. His mother fled to New York, where Olitski grew up and studied painting. His father’s murder seems to have haunted him, and he perpetrated a hoax about a Soviet painter hiding from Stalin’s assassins in a Brooklyn basement, a strange alter ego whom he named Jevel Demekov—a variant of Jevel Demikovsky, his birth name.

Olitski came of age during the heyday of the New York School, but he had little use for the agitated canvases and violent gestures of Jackson Pollock and his ilk. Instead, Olitski looked to purge his canvases of all violence, or even the visible evidence of labor. He dyed his canvases with delicate stains, or sprayed them with fine mists of color; the shimmering pools of color that emerged looked as if they had formed spontaneously, the way that a veil of frost might appear on a window.

Olitski was not alone in his quest for diaphanous color. Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and others pursued similar artistic goals; collectively, they formed the movement known as color-field painting (or “post-painterly abstraction,” the rather ponderous term that Clement Greenberg assigned it). But Olitski’s star was short-lived. With the rise of Pop Art and the increasing politicization of art during the Vietnam war, his sensuous and apolitical art became deeply unfashionable. Nonetheless, he made ravishing chromatic essays to the end. At the same time, he remained a keen and outspoken critic of the art world. In a lecture a few years ago, he suggested that a kind of aesthetic Gresham’s Law was at work, in which low art drove high art out of circulation.

Reputations rise and fall, of course, and it may well be that Olitski will one day be rehabilitated. I rather doubt it. Such rehabilitations require publicity campaigns and the dissemination of images, and Olitski’s fragile essays are impossible to photograph with anything near the chromatic subtlety they require. One would as soon ask a short-order cook to make a copy of a gourmet dinner. This is to be regretted, for at a time when the entanglement of art with politics has been good for neither, Olitski’s principled stand has much to teach us.

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Weekend Reading

Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century “false messiah,” remains one of the most enigmatic and seductive figures in the whole of Jewish tradition. He has had no better contemporary exegete than the great philologist and historian Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), a towering figure in in his own right. Scholem, who emigrated from Germany to pre-Israel Palestine in the early 1920′s and taught thereafter at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, more or less singlehandedly created the academic study of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah), an area of Jewish religious thought and experience long overlooked or repressed by Jewish historians.

The Holiness of Sin,” Scholem’s landmark essay on the later followers of Sabbatai Zevi and the implications of their catastrophic turn toward antinomianism, appeared in English for the first time in COMMENTARY in 1971. To mark the 25th anniversary of Scholem’s death in February 1982, we offer this monumental work of modern intellectual history, along with Robert Alter’s sensitive and incisive introduction to Scholem’s life and works, “The Achievement of Gershom Scholem.” Enjoy.

Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century “false messiah,” remains one of the most enigmatic and seductive figures in the whole of Jewish tradition. He has had no better contemporary exegete than the great philologist and historian Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), a towering figure in in his own right. Scholem, who emigrated from Germany to pre-Israel Palestine in the early 1920′s and taught thereafter at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, more or less singlehandedly created the academic study of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah), an area of Jewish religious thought and experience long overlooked or repressed by Jewish historians.

The Holiness of Sin,” Scholem’s landmark essay on the later followers of Sabbatai Zevi and the implications of their catastrophic turn toward antinomianism, appeared in English for the first time in COMMENTARY in 1971. To mark the 25th anniversary of Scholem’s death in February 1982, we offer this monumental work of modern intellectual history, along with Robert Alter’s sensitive and incisive introduction to Scholem’s life and works, “The Achievement of Gershom Scholem.” Enjoy.

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Tough Diplomacy

I agree with Max Boot that the administration’s deal with North Korea sounds like a sell-out. The giveaway was Condi Rice’s pledge of “tough diplomacy.” What in the world is that? And what kind of diplomacy do we usually practice, soft diplomacy? How does that work? “Welcome to the store, Mr. Kim. Help yourself to whatever tickles your fancy. It’s on the house.” Well, if that’s soft diplomacy, how is our recent exercise in “tough diplomacy” any different?

To give the administration its due, the North Korean knot is plenty vexing. Since Pyongyang now has a nuclear bomb, military action becomes dicier than it already was with Seoul in range of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces. We have no economic leverage to speak of, and while no country on earth is a worthier candidate for regime change than North Korea, we have almost no ability to influence its internal politics.

This is one more reason why we must bomb Iran before it completes its nuclear weapon. An internal EU report, leaked to the Financial Times on Tuesday, acknowledges that “the problems with Iran will not be resolved through economic sanctions alone.” The “tough sanctions” that the administration talks about are just as spurious as “tough diplomacy.”

“The EU has agreed to pursue sanctions through the United Nations if the Iranians continues [sic] to reject the decisions of the IAEA Board and the UN Security Council,” says the report. The trick to this formulation is that it means the Europeans are prepared only for sanctions adopted by the Security Council, i.e., only sanctions that Russia and China will agree to. But as Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear last week, and Beijing has made clear often, they regard the U.S. as a bigger threat to their ambitions than Iran. They will not cooperate in tightening the vise on Tehran. And even if they did, it is extremely doubtful that Ahmadinejad, Khameini, et. al., will give up their birthright to dominate the Islamic world (or perhaps rule the whole world) for a mess of economic inducements.

I have explained elsewhere why the emptiness of other measures to stop Iran’s bomb and the terrible consequences that would ensue from a nuclear-armed Iran lead to only one conclusion: military action. But here is one more reason. Bombing Iran to destroy its nuclear weapons facilities is one way—perhaps the only way—to turn Pyongyang around. Kim Jong Il would no longer sleep easily worrying about whether his turn was next and might finally agree to trade in his nukes. Now that is what I call tough diplomacy.

I agree with Max Boot that the administration’s deal with North Korea sounds like a sell-out. The giveaway was Condi Rice’s pledge of “tough diplomacy.” What in the world is that? And what kind of diplomacy do we usually practice, soft diplomacy? How does that work? “Welcome to the store, Mr. Kim. Help yourself to whatever tickles your fancy. It’s on the house.” Well, if that’s soft diplomacy, how is our recent exercise in “tough diplomacy” any different?

To give the administration its due, the North Korean knot is plenty vexing. Since Pyongyang now has a nuclear bomb, military action becomes dicier than it already was with Seoul in range of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces. We have no economic leverage to speak of, and while no country on earth is a worthier candidate for regime change than North Korea, we have almost no ability to influence its internal politics.

This is one more reason why we must bomb Iran before it completes its nuclear weapon. An internal EU report, leaked to the Financial Times on Tuesday, acknowledges that “the problems with Iran will not be resolved through economic sanctions alone.” The “tough sanctions” that the administration talks about are just as spurious as “tough diplomacy.”

“The EU has agreed to pursue sanctions through the United Nations if the Iranians continues [sic] to reject the decisions of the IAEA Board and the UN Security Council,” says the report. The trick to this formulation is that it means the Europeans are prepared only for sanctions adopted by the Security Council, i.e., only sanctions that Russia and China will agree to. But as Russian President Vladimir Putin made clear last week, and Beijing has made clear often, they regard the U.S. as a bigger threat to their ambitions than Iran. They will not cooperate in tightening the vise on Tehran. And even if they did, it is extremely doubtful that Ahmadinejad, Khameini, et. al., will give up their birthright to dominate the Islamic world (or perhaps rule the whole world) for a mess of economic inducements.

I have explained elsewhere why the emptiness of other measures to stop Iran’s bomb and the terrible consequences that would ensue from a nuclear-armed Iran lead to only one conclusion: military action. But here is one more reason. Bombing Iran to destroy its nuclear weapons facilities is one way—perhaps the only way—to turn Pyongyang around. Kim Jong Il would no longer sleep easily worrying about whether his turn was next and might finally agree to trade in his nukes. Now that is what I call tough diplomacy.

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At Home in Auschwitz

Tadeusz Borowski, short-story writer, poet, and kapo in Auschwitz, took his own life at the age of 29. He left behind him one of the most important bodies of literary work about the Holocaust, a corpus doubly important for its proximity to the abyssal horrors of the camps and for its author’s tremendous literary talent—a confluence at times missing in the larger sphere of such literature. (One of Borowski’s most famous stories, “This Way for the Gas,” appeared in English for the first time in the pages of COMMENTARY.) Arno Lustiger, the German historian and author, yesterday reviewed Borowski’s new, posthumous collection Bei Uns in Auschwitz (“At Home in Auschwitz”), which has just been translated and published in Germany, for the indispensable Sign and Sight:

Borowski is among the important but little known writers to have bestowed an almost metaphysical dimension on Auschwitz. Although his oeuvre offers no contribution to the debate on “theology after Auschwitz”, it does help the reader to comprehend the unbelievable and the monstrous in the lives and deaths of Homo auschwitziensis, even if only to a limited extent. Borowski’s stories are characterized by great precision. He refrains entirely from moral value judgements, and there is not the slightest hint of empathy, making the book’s brutal, horrific passages a torture to read. Is this nihilistic indifference, this lack of empathy feigned? Was it the author’s provocative literary means of awakening empathy in the reader?

The whole piece (translated by Nicholas Grindell) deserves your attention.

Tadeusz Borowski, short-story writer, poet, and kapo in Auschwitz, took his own life at the age of 29. He left behind him one of the most important bodies of literary work about the Holocaust, a corpus doubly important for its proximity to the abyssal horrors of the camps and for its author’s tremendous literary talent—a confluence at times missing in the larger sphere of such literature. (One of Borowski’s most famous stories, “This Way for the Gas,” appeared in English for the first time in the pages of COMMENTARY.) Arno Lustiger, the German historian and author, yesterday reviewed Borowski’s new, posthumous collection Bei Uns in Auschwitz (“At Home in Auschwitz”), which has just been translated and published in Germany, for the indispensable Sign and Sight:

Borowski is among the important but little known writers to have bestowed an almost metaphysical dimension on Auschwitz. Although his oeuvre offers no contribution to the debate on “theology after Auschwitz”, it does help the reader to comprehend the unbelievable and the monstrous in the lives and deaths of Homo auschwitziensis, even if only to a limited extent. Borowski’s stories are characterized by great precision. He refrains entirely from moral value judgements, and there is not the slightest hint of empathy, making the book’s brutal, horrific passages a torture to read. Is this nihilistic indifference, this lack of empathy feigned? Was it the author’s provocative literary means of awakening empathy in the reader?

The whole piece (translated by Nicholas Grindell) deserves your attention.

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The Muslim Lobby

Europe’s democracies have changed dramatically in recent years in response to Islamic population growth, growth fueled by immigration and birth rates substantially higher than local norms. Great Britain, France, Italy, and other nations have been forced to accommodate the needs and preferences of their Islamic citizens, often at the expense of the global conflict with radical Islam.

Can it happen here? Suppose that the writer Mark Steyn is right to argue that “demographics are destiny.” What number of Muslims, agitating for their self-defined interests and agendas, would constitute a critical mass in the U.S.? At what point would American politicians feel compelled to take up their cause?

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) all worked overtime this past election cycle to create the impression that, in American politics, Muslims are now a force to be reckoned with. They were especially emphatic about the country’s growing Muslim population—some 8 million souls, in their oft-repeated estimates.

So it comes as a useful corrective to read Patrick Poole’s “Numbers Don’t Lie” in this week’s Front Page Magazine. Poole cites two recent pieces (in IBD and the New York Sun) criticizing the methodology of the survey that produced the 8 million figure and citing new estimates drawn from survey work done at CUNY and the University of Chicago—estimates suggesting that there are, in fact, not 8 million Muslims in the U.S. but well under 3 million. Moreover, of these, only a minuscule 4,761 are dues-paying members of CAIR, which presents itself as the community’s authoritative voice.

Whether CAIR or any of the others truly represents the sentiments of American Muslims is a question that political strategists might consider before pandering to their radical demands or overlooking their questionable (or worse) political associations, all amply documented over the years by observers like Daniel Pipes and Steven Emerson. But why be fooled by numbers? The readiness to inflate the size of their alleged constituency is only another tactic in a campaign of intimidation to which too many have already succumbed.

Europe’s democracies have changed dramatically in recent years in response to Islamic population growth, growth fueled by immigration and birth rates substantially higher than local norms. Great Britain, France, Italy, and other nations have been forced to accommodate the needs and preferences of their Islamic citizens, often at the expense of the global conflict with radical Islam.

Can it happen here? Suppose that the writer Mark Steyn is right to argue that “demographics are destiny.” What number of Muslims, agitating for their self-defined interests and agendas, would constitute a critical mass in the U.S.? At what point would American politicians feel compelled to take up their cause?

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Muslim American Society (MAS), and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) all worked overtime this past election cycle to create the impression that, in American politics, Muslims are now a force to be reckoned with. They were especially emphatic about the country’s growing Muslim population—some 8 million souls, in their oft-repeated estimates.

So it comes as a useful corrective to read Patrick Poole’s “Numbers Don’t Lie” in this week’s Front Page Magazine. Poole cites two recent pieces (in IBD and the New York Sun) criticizing the methodology of the survey that produced the 8 million figure and citing new estimates drawn from survey work done at CUNY and the University of Chicago—estimates suggesting that there are, in fact, not 8 million Muslims in the U.S. but well under 3 million. Moreover, of these, only a minuscule 4,761 are dues-paying members of CAIR, which presents itself as the community’s authoritative voice.

Whether CAIR or any of the others truly represents the sentiments of American Muslims is a question that political strategists might consider before pandering to their radical demands or overlooking their questionable (or worse) political associations, all amply documented over the years by observers like Daniel Pipes and Steven Emerson. But why be fooled by numbers? The readiness to inflate the size of their alleged constituency is only another tactic in a campaign of intimidation to which too many have already succumbed.

Read Less




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