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Posts For: March 27, 2007

Brzezinski’s Paranoia

Writing in the Sunday, March 25 Outlook section of the Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski claims that “The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.” Moreover, he says, “the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors [to] stimulate . . . the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions, and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.” The “fear-mongering” of President Bush has been reinforced, says Brzezinski, “by security entrepreneurs, the mass media, and the entertainment industry.” As a result, the American people have been subjected to “five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror.”

This, Brzezinski continues, has “stimulate[d] Islamophobia.” In particular, the “Arab facial stereotypes, particularly in [American] newspaper cartoons,” remind Brzezinski of the “Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns.” The people who do such things are “apparently oblivious to the menacing connection between the stimulation of racial and religious hatreds and the unleashing of the unprecedented crimes of the Holocaust.”

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Writing in the Sunday, March 25 Outlook section of the Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski claims that “The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.” Moreover, he says, “the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors [to] stimulate . . . the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions, and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.” The “fear-mongering” of President Bush has been reinforced, says Brzezinski, “by security entrepreneurs, the mass media, and the entertainment industry.” As a result, the American people have been subjected to “five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror.”

This, Brzezinski continues, has “stimulate[d] Islamophobia.” In particular, the “Arab facial stereotypes, particularly in [American] newspaper cartoons,” remind Brzezinski of the “Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns.” The people who do such things are “apparently oblivious to the menacing connection between the stimulation of racial and religious hatreds and the unleashing of the unprecedented crimes of the Holocaust.”

Brzezinski’s goal, he says, is an end to “this hysteria . . . this paranoia.”

How to react to this? Would that one could say simply that it is sad to see a former high official go off the rails, and leave it at that. But the very fact that the Post chose to give the man such prime space shows that he will be taken seriously, although he no longer deserves to be. So here are a few comments.

It is rather rich to decry hysteria and paranoia in the same breath that one likens the slights to Arabs in the American news media to the depiction of Jews by the Nazis, and to imply that these slights may be the prelude to another Holocaust.

It is also rich to hear Brzezinski sneer at “security entrepreneurs.” How, exactly, would Brzezinski describe his own career? The Encyclopedia of World Biography’s entry on him reminds us that “Brzezinski was openly eager to be appointed assistant to the President for nation security affairs and delighted when President-elect Carter offered him the position in December 1976.”

It is amusing to be lectured that “America today is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor” by the national security adviser of the President who delivered the infamous “malaise” speech, telling Americans that our problems arose from “a crisis of the American spirit” and a “los[s of] confidence in the future.” Aside from being rich, Brzezinski’s claim is false. Fear of the enemy is not the opposite of determination and confidence in ultimate victory. There was much fear of the enemy in 1941, including some that was quite hysterical. The main difference in regard to self-confidence between World War II and the war on terror is that after Pearl Harbor, one no longer heard voices like Brzezinski’s claiming that the real enemy was ourselves.

In a further sneer, Brzezinski writes: “President Bush even claims absurdly that he has to continue waging [the war on terror] lest al Qaeda cross the Atlantic to launch a war of terror here in the United States.” Quite a fool, that Bush. Terror here in the United States? Absurd, indeed! How could al Qaeda cross the Atlantic? In airplanes? Ha, ha.

Between sneers, Brzezinski waxes professorial. “Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique,” he explains. Quite so. The enemy might more precisely be described as jihadism, a political ideology that claims that the Christian and Jewish worlds are at war with Islam and that the Islamic world must make war on them. This ideology traces its roots to the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the 1920′s. But it only took wing after a jihadist government seized power in Iran in 1979, much as Communism only emerged as a major force after a Communist government was established in Russia. And where was Brzezinski when this enemy was taking shape? At the very pinnacle of the American government, flapping about pathetically, pursuing policies that enabled this strategic disaster to happen. His qualification for instructing us about how to deal with jihadism is therefore clear: there are few Americans who did us much as he to create the problem.

* Editor’s Note: You can read Gabriel Schoenfeld’s response to one of Muravchik’s critics here.

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Bookshelf

• Thornton Wilder has become a man of two books. Our Town continues to be revived and The Bridge of San Luis Rey read, but I’ve yet to see a professional production of The Skin of Our Teeth or The Matchmaker (which is now known mainly as the source of Hello, Dolly!) or heard anyone mention any of his other novels in conversation (though I read Heaven’s My Destination many years ago). Hence it is with no small interest that I’ve spent the past week reading Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (Library of America, 871 pp., $40). I haven’t always been impressed with the Library of America’s editorial decisions, but Wilder was an obvious call, and J.D. McClatchy, who recently turned Our Town into an opera libretto for Ned Rorem, was exactly the right man to edit this extremely well-chosen collection of Wilder’s theater-related output. McClatchy’s annotations are copious and exemplary—I’d like to see him write a Wilder biography—and it was shrewd of him to include the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder, it appears, was mainly responsible.

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• Thornton Wilder has become a man of two books. Our Town continues to be revived and The Bridge of San Luis Rey read, but I’ve yet to see a professional production of The Skin of Our Teeth or The Matchmaker (which is now known mainly as the source of Hello, Dolly!) or heard anyone mention any of his other novels in conversation (though I read Heaven’s My Destination many years ago). Hence it is with no small interest that I’ve spent the past week reading Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (Library of America, 871 pp., $40). I haven’t always been impressed with the Library of America’s editorial decisions, but Wilder was an obvious call, and J.D. McClatchy, who recently turned Our Town into an opera libretto for Ned Rorem, was exactly the right man to edit this extremely well-chosen collection of Wilder’s theater-related output. McClatchy’s annotations are copious and exemplary—I’d like to see him write a Wilder biography—and it was shrewd of him to include the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder, it appears, was mainly responsible.

Should Wilder’s other plays be staged more frequently? The question, I fear, is irrelevant, for The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker both require too many actors to be easily produced outside of a festival setting, which is one of the reasons why Our Town is the only one of his full-length plays that continues to be revived regularly. The other reason is that it’s by far the best thing he ever wrote, though reading The Skin of Our Teeth for the first time in a quarter-century has made me curious to see how it would look on stage (it comes across on the page as more than a little bit twee). For all its obvious weaknesses, Our Town is still a great play and a quintessentially American work of art. It reads surprisingly well, too, though the best way to experience it at home is to watch Sam Wood’s mostly straightforward 1940 film version, which preserves the performances of Frank Craven and Martha Scott, who played the stage manager and Emily in the original 1938 Broadway production, and was scored with exquisite and indelible appropriateness by none other than Aaron Copland.

This collection includes the lengthy and fascinating series of letters between Wilder and Sol Lesser, the producer of the film version of Our Town, along with the bulk of Wilder’s writings on theater, all of which are very much worth reading. I was especially struck by this passage from his preface to Our Town: “The theater longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves. All the lies it tells—the lie that that young lady is Caesar’s wife; the lie that people can go through life talking in blank verse; the lie that that man just killed that man—all those lies enhance the one truth that is there—the truth that dictated the story, the myth. The theater asks for as many conventions as possible. A convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, an accepted untruth. When the theater pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal, it loses something of the realer thing which is its true business.” I couldn’t have put it better—nor could anyone else.

As for Wilder’s novels . . . well, I’ll get back to you on that. Presumably the Library of America plans to reissue them at some point, which would give me a good excuse to reread The Bridge of San Luis Rey (which I recall with fondness) and Heaven’s My Destination (about which I had my doubts when I read it in college). But Our Town will always be with us, as well it should be. If I were to choose a half-dozen works of art that collectively sum up the American experience, it would be one of them.

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Cleaning Up Israel

The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.

Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.

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The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.

Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.

In this sense, Israel is in the third and murkiest of the three categories that you can divide the world’s countries into. There are countries in which corruption hardly exists and no one would dream of trying to solve his problems by resorting to it. There are countries in which it is omnipresent and everyone understands that it is the only way to get things done. And there are countries, like Israel, in which the rules are simply not clear, and you never know if a bribe will pay off, be dismissed by whoever it is offered to with an indignant glare or weary smile but no worse, or land you in jail. Most people would never run the risk, but most people have also heard rumors or stories of others who have run it successfully. This makes corruption a phenomenon that everyone is aware of but of whose true dimensions no one has a clear idea.

The fact of the matter is that, even in cleaner times, Israel was always a country in which the rules were never quite clear. I’ve heard it said that there are countries, like Japan, in which “yes” never means “yes.” But in Israel, “no” has never meant “no.” It has always meant, “Let’s argue and negotiate.” And in Israel, you negotiate with everyone: the phone company about its bills, the storekeeper about his prices, the teacher about his marks. You don’t generally do this by offering bribes. You do it by reasoning, wheedling, shouting, crying, pleading, threatening, joking. Only suckers take “no” for an answer.

It took me a while to learn this when I immigrated to Israel in 1970. One of my first lessons came when filling out my first Israeli income-tax return. When it came to house expenses such as electricity and water bills—on which, as a self-employed writer living at home, I had a right to a partial deduction—the accountant scratched his head and said, “You know what? Let’s try deducting 50 percent.”

“What do you mean, let’s try?” I said. “What are the rules?”

“There are no rules,” said the accountant. “And even if there are, they’re too complicated to figure out.”

“Then why don’t you call the tax authorities and ask?” I suggested.

My accountant looked at me with astonishment. Clearly I had been born, not yesterday, but sometime in the previous hour. “If I ask, they’ll tell me it’s 10 percent,” he said. “Let’s put in for 50.”

We put in for 50, and it worked. Since then, I’ve deducted 50 percent of my house expenses from my tax returns every year. Is that what the law permits me to do? Don’t ask me, I just do it.

All this has a certain charm. It can be frustrating and unnerving, of course—there’s something to be said for knowing where you stand, instead of having to find out ad hoc each time—but it has made Israel in many ways a much more flexible place to operate in than other countries. Although people complain about Israeli bureaucracy, Israeli bureaucrats are models of human kindness compared to bureaucrats I’ve encountered in other places. You can actually get them to change their minds or make an exception for you if you’re skillful enough in presenting your case.

Such a modus operandi becomes deadly, however, the minute corruption enters into it. It’s one thing for an official behind a desk to give you the permit he really shouldn’t have given you because you’ve burst into tears or turned out to be his third cousin once-removed. It’s another thing for him to give it to you because a wad of cash has fallen unnoticed from your wallet while you were leaving. And this, once rare, is becoming a more and more accepted practice.

If Israel is not going to end up in corruption category 1, it is going to have to change its ways of doing things and learn to go by the rules—everywhere. In some ways this will be too bad. Just last week my wife phoned the cable TV company and got it to lower the rates it charges us by threatening to move to a rival. An Israel you can no longer do this in will be a less simpatico place. But it will also be a cleaner one.

Indeed, if one wants to be optimistic, this is what is happening in Israel right now. Case after case that might have gone unprosecuted before is now ending up in the courts, the cases of ranking politicians not excepted. It looks bad, and it is bad. But eventually, the lesson may sink in. There may be a golden mean between Denmark and Nigeria, but if you have to choose, it’s a lot better to be Denmark.

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