Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 23, 2007

Weekend Reading

In the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, George Soros, the billionaire investor, philanthropist, amateur political scientist, and self-styled “stateless statesman,” has an essay detailing the allegedly malign influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on American policy and political discourse. According to Soros, the influence wielded by AIPAC has succeeded in silencing any real criticism of the Bush administration’s stance toward Israel, or of Israel’s toward the Palestinians, to the real detriment of the national interest. Anyone who dares to speak out publicly against this insidious state of affairs is tarred with the epithet “anti-Semite” and summarily drummed out of polite society.

Soros is, of course, hardly the first public figure to bring such charges in recent years—without, incidentally, suffering any visible negative effects. Quite the contrary. In March 2006, the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, of the University of Chicago and Harvard respectively, leaped to fame with a lengthy paper on much the same theme in the London Review of Books. (Mearsheimer and Walt criticized not AIPAC alone but a far more nebulous group, the “Israel Lobby,” of which AIPAC constituted one element.) The ranks of such “questioners” have also been swollen lately by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and others, again to a chorus of approbation.

In COMMENTARY, both George Soros and the question of the “Israel Lobby” have received attention of another kind. In “The Mind of George Soros” (March 2004) Joshua Muravchik examined the life, the ideas, and the political megalomania of the financier. More recently, in “Dual Loyalty and the ‘Israel Lobby,’” our senior editor Gabriel Schoenfeld deconstructed the claims made by Mearsheimer and Walt and located them within a historical tradition of similarly suspect exercises. We offer these two indispensable articles for your weekend reading.

In the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, George Soros, the billionaire investor, philanthropist, amateur political scientist, and self-styled “stateless statesman,” has an essay detailing the allegedly malign influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on American policy and political discourse. According to Soros, the influence wielded by AIPAC has succeeded in silencing any real criticism of the Bush administration’s stance toward Israel, or of Israel’s toward the Palestinians, to the real detriment of the national interest. Anyone who dares to speak out publicly against this insidious state of affairs is tarred with the epithet “anti-Semite” and summarily drummed out of polite society.

Soros is, of course, hardly the first public figure to bring such charges in recent years—without, incidentally, suffering any visible negative effects. Quite the contrary. In March 2006, the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, of the University of Chicago and Harvard respectively, leaped to fame with a lengthy paper on much the same theme in the London Review of Books. (Mearsheimer and Walt criticized not AIPAC alone but a far more nebulous group, the “Israel Lobby,” of which AIPAC constituted one element.) The ranks of such “questioners” have also been swollen lately by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and others, again to a chorus of approbation.

In COMMENTARY, both George Soros and the question of the “Israel Lobby” have received attention of another kind. In “The Mind of George Soros” (March 2004) Joshua Muravchik examined the life, the ideas, and the political megalomania of the financier. More recently, in “Dual Loyalty and the ‘Israel Lobby,’” our senior editor Gabriel Schoenfeld deconstructed the claims made by Mearsheimer and Walt and located them within a historical tradition of similarly suspect exercises. We offer these two indispensable articles for your weekend reading.

Read Less

“Hurt Into Poetry”

Last week I attended a reading of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s poems at the New School in downtown Manhattan. At the podium were the poets Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski, Herbert’s translator Alissa Valles, the journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, and New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn. This event marked a long-awaited occasion: the publication of Herbert’s collected works in English. Collected Poems, 1956-1998, in Valles’s sensitive translation, makes an important addition to our understanding of post-war literary modernism, and of post-war poetry in general.

On the occasion of Herbert’s death in 1998, his compatriot, translator, and friend Czesław Miłosz wrote a short, understated poem about their shared art form and how the deceased unfailingly attended it:

He, who served [poetry],
is changed into a thing,
delivered to decomposition
into salts and phosphates,
sinks
into the home of chaos.

Changed into a thing: a line Herbert himself would have seen as no small compliment. A battered son of Eastern Europe who saw his country repeatedly swapped by Hitler and Stalin, Herbert was understandably preoccupied with the permanent and stable. His poetry is a lasting monument to the safety of objects, to what he once called “a predatory love of the concrete.” Flowers, diamonds, armchairs, stools–these rarely let one down in the flux of life, and through them mankind can fashion a saner metaphysics than through appeals to History and the inevitable forces of “progress.”

Read More

Last week I attended a reading of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s poems at the New School in downtown Manhattan. At the podium were the poets Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski, Herbert’s translator Alissa Valles, the journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, and New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn. This event marked a long-awaited occasion: the publication of Herbert’s collected works in English. Collected Poems, 1956-1998, in Valles’s sensitive translation, makes an important addition to our understanding of post-war literary modernism, and of post-war poetry in general.

On the occasion of Herbert’s death in 1998, his compatriot, translator, and friend Czesław Miłosz wrote a short, understated poem about their shared art form and how the deceased unfailingly attended it:

He, who served [poetry],
is changed into a thing,
delivered to decomposition
into salts and phosphates,
sinks
into the home of chaos.

Changed into a thing: a line Herbert himself would have seen as no small compliment. A battered son of Eastern Europe who saw his country repeatedly swapped by Hitler and Stalin, Herbert was understandably preoccupied with the permanent and stable. His poetry is a lasting monument to the safety of objects, to what he once called “a predatory love of the concrete.” Flowers, diamonds, armchairs, stools–these rarely let one down in the flux of life, and through them mankind can fashion a saner metaphysics than through appeals to History and the inevitable forces of “progress.”

That is not to say, however, that Herbert was unconcerned with politics and ideas. Born in 1924 in Lwow, he seemed destined for a quiet life of the mind until the noise of invasion and occupation roused him from that idyllic might-have-been. He joined the resistance, continued his studies while underground, and performed odd jobs throughout Poland until his gifts as a poet were recognized with the publication of his book Chord of Light in 1956

Herbert’s career as a poet only became possible after the Communist “thaw” of that year, the slight liberalization following Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech.” It is sobering to consider how great the loss would have been had this modest liberalization tempted him to compromise his talents for the sake of political expedience. (He once wrote a wry and haunting poem, A Life, that imagined what doing exactly that would be like: it ends with the poet-stooge and his friends asking rhetorically if “the dictatorship of the proletariat / may exclude art in the true sense,” before erupting into grim laughter.)

Yet a figure far more expressive of Herbert’s actual biography was his alter ego Mr. Cogito, a supremely ironic and polymorphous being, inhabiting every mode of thought and experience, through which the poet voiced his deepest insecurities, longings and fears: becoming a has-been, returning to his native town, confronting the abyss of “fathomless days,” his own eventual decay.

It’s well worth recalling that after the Berlin Wall came down, Herbert returned to his homeland with harsh words for the agreements struck between Solidarity and the Communist government. A staunch cold warrior, he went so far as blame the softer politics of Milosz and Michnik for the national malaise then gripping Poland. But not even this slight minimized Herbert’s artistic achievement and his indomitable humanity in the eyes of his anti-totalitarian compatriots. Michnik is all forgiveness today. When, during the question and answer period after the reading, Edward Hirsch drew a comparison between Herbert and the Latin American poets, specifically Pablo Neruda, the great Polish dissident shot back: “Neruda wrote about Stalin, Herbert wrote about Marcus Aurelius. I’d like to have the value of the difference between them in dollars.” (So would I.)

Auden wrote of Yeats that “mad Ireland hurt [him] into poetry.” Without World War II, there’s a good chance Zbigniew Herbert would now be remembered, if at all, as a professor of philosophy or art history: he, too, was hurt into poetry. He loved antiquity and used myths and other classical imagery to evoke the grim conditions of the ravaged world outside his window, but could also be arrestingly direct about those conditions: “Metaphors mock you as you flee/into a spray of righteous bullets.” Hard to surpass, as a comment on the fragile and tragicomic position of the artist in history. But we should be grateful, in Herbert’s case: if not for the bullets, then for the metaphors.

 

Read Less

Beleaguered “Civil Servants”?

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius offers up a profoundly confused column this morning about the U.S. Attorneys scandal.

He begins by noting the extraordinary public service that many career federal workers perform for the country, and he’s absolutely right. But then he turns to accusing the Bush administration of ignoring, abusing, and demeaning such people, using as his example the e-mails sent by Justice Department political appointees regarding the eight U.S. Attorneys dismissed by the administration. Those e-mails, he argues, offer an example of political appointees disparaging civil servants.

The only problem is that the U.S. Attorneys who were the subjects of the e-mails he quotes were themselves political appointees, not career civil servants. U.S. Attorneys are appointed by the President, generally at the urging of other elected officials from the President’s party. They stay in office only as long as the President wants them to. A number of Presidents have started their terms by firing all of the nation’s U.S. Attorneys and hiring their own people in their place. (Bill Clinton did that, for instance, firing among others a U.S. Attorney investigating Clinton himself in Arkansas, as Rep. Lamar Smith points out in today’s USA Today.) So the e-mails Ignatius quotes are actually examples of politicals talking about politicals, and do nothing to make the case he wants to push. On the contrary, they show that political appointees, too, do difficult and important work for the country.

Read More

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius offers up a profoundly confused column this morning about the U.S. Attorneys scandal.

He begins by noting the extraordinary public service that many career federal workers perform for the country, and he’s absolutely right. But then he turns to accusing the Bush administration of ignoring, abusing, and demeaning such people, using as his example the e-mails sent by Justice Department political appointees regarding the eight U.S. Attorneys dismissed by the administration. Those e-mails, he argues, offer an example of political appointees disparaging civil servants.

The only problem is that the U.S. Attorneys who were the subjects of the e-mails he quotes were themselves political appointees, not career civil servants. U.S. Attorneys are appointed by the President, generally at the urging of other elected officials from the President’s party. They stay in office only as long as the President wants them to. A number of Presidents have started their terms by firing all of the nation’s U.S. Attorneys and hiring their own people in their place. (Bill Clinton did that, for instance, firing among others a U.S. Attorney investigating Clinton himself in Arkansas, as Rep. Lamar Smith points out in today’s USA Today.) So the e-mails Ignatius quotes are actually examples of politicals talking about politicals, and do nothing to make the case he wants to push. On the contrary, they show that political appointees, too, do difficult and important work for the country.

His more general point that the Bush administration is uniquely dismissive of the contributions of career civil servants is no less careless and unsupported. All you have to do is talk to a civil servant who worked, say, in the Office of Management and Budget or the Drug Enforcement Agency in the Clinton years, and you will be quickly relieved of any such notion.

There is always bound to be some friction between political appointees who work to advance the agenda of the elected President and the career civil servants who see one President or another as a temporary problem. The friction is especially great when the bureaucracy is actively opposed to the President’s agenda, as often happens for instance in the State Department during Republican administrations or the Pentagon in Democratic ones. The Bush administration has faced a particularly hostile bureaucracy in a few key agencies, including several (like the CIA) that play crucial roles in the war against Islamic radicals. The administration has, on the whole, handled it well, and has actually treated civil servants with more respect than they’re accustomed to throughout the government, appointing career staff to unusually senior positions and including them in very sensitive discussions.

Whether or not that’s the case at the Justice Department, a dispute between two groups of political appointees, as in the U.S. Attorneys scandal, is beside the point.

Read Less




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

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

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

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

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