Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 1, 2007

On Arthur Schlesinger

There are three things to say about the work of Arthur Schlesinger, who has just died at the age of eighty-nine: (1) He was an exceptionally good writer, commanding a lucid, vivid, and often elegant prose style. (2) He was an exceptionally bad historian: incapable of doing justice to any idea with which he disagreed, and so tendentious that he invariably denigrated and/or vilified anyone who had ever espoused any such idea. Like the so-called “Whig interpretation of history” in England, Schlesinger’s voluminous work as a historian amounts to the proposition that the story of freedom in America is the story of the Democratic party, and specifically of its never-ending struggle against the sinister bastions of privilege, oppression, and ignorance represented by the Republicans of the modern era and their forebears. (3) This unshakable conviction not only made his wonderfully readable accounts of the past unreliable and in many cases even worthless; it also warped his political judgment in the present, leading him in the last forty years of his life to support the forces that were pushing the Democratic party to the Left. In becoming an apologist for these forces, he betrayed the liberalism that he himself, in The Vital Center, had earlier espoused and whose banishment from the Democratic party has been, and will continue to be, a calamity for this country.

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There are three things to say about the work of Arthur Schlesinger, who has just died at the age of eighty-nine: (1) He was an exceptionally good writer, commanding a lucid, vivid, and often elegant prose style. (2) He was an exceptionally bad historian: incapable of doing justice to any idea with which he disagreed, and so tendentious that he invariably denigrated and/or vilified anyone who had ever espoused any such idea. Like the so-called “Whig interpretation of history” in England, Schlesinger’s voluminous work as a historian amounts to the proposition that the story of freedom in America is the story of the Democratic party, and specifically of its never-ending struggle against the sinister bastions of privilege, oppression, and ignorance represented by the Republicans of the modern era and their forebears. (3) This unshakable conviction not only made his wonderfully readable accounts of the past unreliable and in many cases even worthless; it also warped his political judgment in the present, leading him in the last forty years of his life to support the forces that were pushing the Democratic party to the Left. In becoming an apologist for these forces, he betrayed the liberalism that he himself, in The Vital Center, had earlier espoused and whose banishment from the Democratic party has been, and will continue to be, a calamity for this country.

Editor’s Note: The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. died yesterday. COMMENTARY is now hosting a slate of articles—all available free of charge—on him and on his books.

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The Uses of the ICC

Conservatives love to hate the International Criminal Court. Elaborate scenarios have been conjured up about how it could be politicized and turned into an instrument of anti-American animus. Fears have been raised that Henry Kissinger or Donald Rumsfeld could soon find himself in the dock. John Bolton spent an inordinate amount of time and energy when he was Undersecretary of State trying to coerce American allies into signing treaties pledging they would never send Americans for prosecution to the Hague.

So far such alarmism has proven groundless. The ICC seems to be doing exactly what it ought to be doing—trying to hold real war criminals accountable for their actions in places where the local legal system does not function effectively. On Tuesday, the chief ICC prosecutor presented evidence against two suspects in the Darfur genocide—a janjaweed militia leader, Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman (a.k.a. Ali Kushayb), and a Sudanese government official, Ahmad Harun, who allegedly helped him carry out atrocities. (In a grim irony, Harun is now Sudan’s minister for humanitarian affairs.)

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Conservatives love to hate the International Criminal Court. Elaborate scenarios have been conjured up about how it could be politicized and turned into an instrument of anti-American animus. Fears have been raised that Henry Kissinger or Donald Rumsfeld could soon find himself in the dock. John Bolton spent an inordinate amount of time and energy when he was Undersecretary of State trying to coerce American allies into signing treaties pledging they would never send Americans for prosecution to the Hague.

So far such alarmism has proven groundless. The ICC seems to be doing exactly what it ought to be doing—trying to hold real war criminals accountable for their actions in places where the local legal system does not function effectively. On Tuesday, the chief ICC prosecutor presented evidence against two suspects in the Darfur genocide—a janjaweed militia leader, Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman (a.k.a. Ali Kushayb), and a Sudanese government official, Ahmad Harun, who allegedly helped him carry out atrocities. (In a grim irony, Harun is now Sudan’s minister for humanitarian affairs.)

Of course indicting suspects is one thing; apprehending them and bringing them to the Hague for trial is more difficult. But this is a good first step in bringing to justice the perpetrators of genocide, and makes it harder for the Sudanese authorities to dodge responsibility, which is very much in the interest of the entire civilized world.

In retrospect, it would have been a good idea to send Saddam Hussein for trial in the Hague even though this would have required either convening a special court or an extension of the ICC’s jurisdiction, because his crimes took place before the ICC was formed. This was a missed opportunity. But in the future, American officials, whether Republican or Democrat, should put aside their qualms and make use of the ICC wherever possible to promote the international rule of law, a longstanding American cause.

The problems that now face America in the international legal arena stem from the actions not of the ICC but of national courts, which many conservatives see as a bulwark against the supposed evils of trans-national institutions. Courts in Italy and Germany are now pursuing criminal action against CIA operatives who worked in cooperation with local intelligence agencies to snatch suspected terrorists for “rendition.” Those cases really are a travesty, as David Rivkin and Lee Casey argue eloquently in the Washington Post, but you can’t blame the ICC or the UN.

 

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Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.: 1917-2007

The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. died yesterday. COMMENTARY is now hosting a slate of articles—all available free of charge—on him and on his books.

The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. died yesterday. COMMENTARY is now hosting a slate of articles—all available free of charge—on him and on his books.

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Talking with Tehran

Suddenly, the Bush administration is prepared to sit around a table with Iran and Syria to discuss Iraq. “Better late than never,” crowed Leon Panetta, one of the Democrats who served on the Iraq Study Group chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. So, were Baker and Hamilton right when they proposed talks with Syria and Iran as a way out of our Iraq imbroglio?

The answer is no. The question is not whether to talk to Iran or Syria, but in what context. What else are we doing while talking? The ISG proposed to couple such talks with beginning to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. This would make us the petitioner, looking to Tehran and Damascus to cover our back while we flee.

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Suddenly, the Bush administration is prepared to sit around a table with Iran and Syria to discuss Iraq. “Better late than never,” crowed Leon Panetta, one of the Democrats who served on the Iraq Study Group chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. So, were Baker and Hamilton right when they proposed talks with Syria and Iran as a way out of our Iraq imbroglio?

The answer is no. The question is not whether to talk to Iran or Syria, but in what context. What else are we doing while talking? The ISG proposed to couple such talks with beginning to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. This would make us the petitioner, looking to Tehran and Damascus to cover our back while we flee.

Given that Iran’s official slogan is “death to America,” and its president speaks of his dream of a “world without America,” why do sophisticated men like Baker and Hamilton need to be told the obvious: Iran does not want to help us. They might reply that they do not expect beneficence but rather a diplomatic deal. What, then, would Iran and Syria want in exchange for their help? The price is obvious: acquiescence in the former’s quest for nuclear weapons and the latter’s renewed domination of Lebanon. Is this a price we can afford?

In contrast to the ISG proposal, the Bush administration is, as the Democrats say, “escalating” the U.S. presence in Iraq (albeit not as much as I would like) in pursuit of victory. Along with that, why not talk to whomever?

The position of refusing to talk to some other party is always awkward and hard to defend. Regarding Iran’s nuclear drive, we have said that we will talk to Tehran if it freezes its enrichment activities lest we get drawn into a long, fruitless negotiation that serves only as a cover for the completion of Iran’s bomb. Sensible though this is, we still are chided, most recently by IAEA chief Mohamed el-Baradei, for refusing to talk.

Here is the solution. We should announce that we will talk to Tehran unconditionally, but not as a substitute for stopping Iran from getting the bomb. For its part, Iran can continue enrichment while we talk. For our part, we will continue to plan a military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, and we will promise to carry it out soon—say, before the 2008 presidential primaries begin—absent some other solution. There is never harm in talking, as long as it doesn’t keep us from acting.

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March Issue of COMMENTARY

COMMENTARY’s March issue is now out, featuring contributions from Hillel Halkin, Lisa Schiffren, Terry Teachout, and a whole host of other terrific writers. Read it at our newly redesigned online home!

COMMENTARY’s March issue is now out, featuring contributions from Hillel Halkin, Lisa Schiffren, Terry Teachout, and a whole host of other terrific writers. Read it at our newly redesigned online home!

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The Anarchy of Wikipedia

Michael J. Lewis makes a fair point about Wikipedia: we have all used it as a short-cut from time to time, and, provided that information from it is checked and cross-referenced, it has its legitimate uses. But he does not go far enough in commenting on its accuracy.

The site is the repository not merely of inaccuracy but of disinformation on a vast scale. It is a minefield for those whom Nietzsche called “die Halbgebildeten,” the half-educated. According to Tom Gross, Wikipedia recently deleted an entry that claimed “the bones of Palestinian children” were one of five ingredients used by Jews to make unleavened bread for Passover. Though the editors promised to be more vigilant in the future, it is troubling that an Islamist version of this ancient anti-Semitic blood libel could be posted on this most popular of online resources for any length of time at all.

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Michael J. Lewis makes a fair point about Wikipedia: we have all used it as a short-cut from time to time, and, provided that information from it is checked and cross-referenced, it has its legitimate uses. But he does not go far enough in commenting on its accuracy.

The site is the repository not merely of inaccuracy but of disinformation on a vast scale. It is a minefield for those whom Nietzsche called “die Halbgebildeten,” the half-educated. According to Tom Gross, Wikipedia recently deleted an entry that claimed “the bones of Palestinian children” were one of five ingredients used by Jews to make unleavened bread for Passover. Though the editors promised to be more vigilant in the future, it is troubling that an Islamist version of this ancient anti-Semitic blood libel could be posted on this most popular of online resources for any length of time at all.

By chance, I discovered that the entry about me also included hostile, anonymously authored material. At my request, it was removed without question by the editors of Wikipedia. But what if I had not noticed it, or had been dead or otherwise unable to lodge a protest?

I am alarmed by the notion that authoritative reference works such as Britannica have been replaced by a “people’s encyclopedia” based on a primitive form of epistemological and moral relativism. Some people know more than others, and works of reference are there to disseminate the knowledge of the few to the many. In the realm of truth, Wikipedia has replaced democracy with anarchy.

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