At first, it seems hard to disagree with Peggy Noonan’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which argues that in politics, ideas should outweigh loyalty to particular politicians. “It is better to see activists driven by philosophy than by personalities,” she writes. “Better to be faithful to the cause than to individuals with whom you merely have a history.” A long-time Reagan loyalist, Noonan argues that she was simply true to his conservative principles, never really knowing the man.
Yet it’s hard to deny that personality has played a very important—and positive—role in Republican politics. Democratic primary politics have always been about institutions and traditional alliances: unions, teachers, Hollywood, blacks, Jews, women, gays. Even today, Democratic jostling is not really over philosophy, but rather over who is a better voice for the reliable Democratic interest groups.
Last week I gave a lecture at the London School of Economics titled “What’s Wrong with the United Nations?” I was honored by the presence of Lord David Hannay, who served in the early 1990’s as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN. Lord Hannay is a smart and sophisticated man, and a friendly conversationalist. He also personifies the mindset of the UN.
In 2004, Kofi Annan, in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal and the Iraq war debate, undertook one of the UN’s most far-reaching reform initiatives by appointing a High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change. Lord Hannay was one of the panel’s few Western members. He and I had met once before, at a conference to evaluate the panel’s report. Where I was critical of the UN, Lord Hannay voiced the argument that the UN is nothing more than the sum of its member states and is used as a whipping boy by thoughtless critics.
This time, at a dinner following my talk, Lord Hannay took issue with an attack (similar to what I wrote in this recent post) I had made on the UN’s Human Rights Council. Hannay said that the Council’s singular chastisement of Israel was understandable in light of Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon last summer.
According to Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times last Sunday, American politicians, whether Republicans or Democrats, always bite their tongues when it comes to discussions about Israel. Both sides have “learned to muzzle themselves” and to acquiesce in President Bush’s “crushing embrace” of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. “That silence,” he argues, “harms America, Middle East peace prospects, and Israel itself.” Kristof’s piece is part of a growing genre: criticism of Israel whose starting point is to bemoan how such criticism cannot be made in public.
In Israel, Kristof informs us, there are no such constraints. Debates there “about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories” are healthily “vitriolic.” “Why can’t [our] candidates be as candid as Israelis?”
Among the examples of sabra candor he admires is a 2004 remark made by Tommy Lapid, then Israel’s justice minister, comparing the Israeli army’s razing of a house in Gaza to the Nazis’ dispossession of his grandmother during World War II. “Can you imagine an American cabinet secretary ever saying such a thing?,” asks Kristof. He omits the fact that the house in question was an entry point for a network of tunnels running across the adjacent border with Egypt, tunnels used for smuggling terrorist weapons. Nor does he attempt to explain how our political conversation might be improved by importing Nazi analogies as irresponsible as Lapid’s. Is this the sort of “discussion” that Kristof wants to see? Read More
(Cross-posted at About Last Night)
Last night I went to a memorial service for Jesse Simons, one of the most delightful and fascinating men I’ve had the good luck to meet. Jesse, who died last year at the age of 88, was a Trotskyist turned labor arbitrator. He became sufficiently distinguished in the latter capacity to earn both a Wikipedia entry and a New York Times obituary, neither of which mentioned that he was also a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, and an unswervingly devoted balletomane.
Even in Manhattan, there aren’t all that many people interested in both George Balanchine and Leon Trotsky, so it was probably inevitable that Jesse and I should have gotten to know one another sooner or later. He reminded me of Eric Hoffer, another blue-collar man who turned himself into a intellectual by sheer force of will, though Jesse’s aesthetic streak was at least as pronounced as his interest in ideas. One of the speakers at his service mentioned his love of Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, and his passion for Freud was a byword among all who knew him. Yet there was nothing pretentious about Jesse, who wore his learning lightly and was modest to a fault, though he had no earthly reason to be.