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.
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,
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.”
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.
In the long chain of provocative essays on Europe and Islam hosted at Sign and Sight, perhaps the most contrarian to date has appeared. Bassam Tibi, a political scientist at the University of Göttingen and visiting professor at Cornell—and a man who rejects Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Timothy Garton Ash, Ian Buruma, and Tariq Ramadan as self-seeking sensationalists—proposes a third way. He advocates neither the total victory of the values of the Enlightenment nor the gradual appropriation of Western Europe by dar al-Islam, but the development of an explicitly political “Euro-Islam”:
We are left with the following imperative: those who seek to come to Europe must also strive to become part of its community, adopting the democratic consensus expressed in its value system. They must want to become European and to participate in the European identity, rather than seeking to alter it. In a word: Europeanization, not Islamization. If this idea becomes a political concept of the EU, together with the political will to push it through, the Islamic enclaves of the parallel societies in city districts where the Turkish or other clearly non-European flags are brandished will no longer be tolerated. The alternative to this cultural segregation is inclusive Europeanization, not exclusion. This also goes for Islamic Turkey, which aspires to join the EU. . . .
In closing, I would like to refer to a concept developed by the last major Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun, who died 600 years ago. He coined the term asabiyya (esprit de corps, or collective comradeship), to measure the strengths and weaknesses of a civilization. How strong is European asabiyya? Only when Europeanization succeeds as a democratic answer to the Islamic challenge can one speak of a strong European asabiyya in Ibn Khaldun’s sense. The crucial thing is to integrate Europe as a civilizational entity in a pluralistic world. This entity must have its own asabiyya and a clear idea of its make-up, while remaining open to others and incorporating them through Europeanization. Europe is more than an economic or business community, and it is well worth preserving it as a “beautiful idea.” This can be achieved with Islamic participation, provided the vision of Euro-Islam becomes a political concept. The task of preserving Europe with Islamic participation is a peace project for the 21st century.
It’s not as implausible an idea as it may sound. The Muslim world once possessed more sophisticated and stable political structures than Europe; “Islamized” Iberia long served as a model of religious toleration and pluralism. A “Europeanized” Muslim community (which in Tibi’s mind seems to mean one that is habituated to Western political mores more than to Western cultural mores) seems not so far-fetched in light of this history. Tibi’s essay deserves attention; read the whole thing here.
An analysis of government demographic data published this week reveals an astonishing spike in the number of Americans stricken with Alzheimer’s disease—an increase of 10 percent in just five years. The chief reason is one we could hardly regret: the great success of modern medicine.
The incidence of Alzheimer’s increases sharply with age, and many more Americans are living into their seventies, eighties, and nineties than ever have before. Among those fortunate enough to make it past age eighty-five, a whopping 50 percent are afflicted with Alzheimer’s or a similar form of dementia. The baby boomers are the first American generation to have lived their entire lives truly in the age of modern medicine (which we might roughly define as beginning with the introduction of penicillin into general use). That has made them the healthiest generation to date, and will surely make them the longest lived. It will also mean that for an enormous number of American families, the coming decades will be shaped by the contours of the slow mental (and eventually physical) decline brought on by dementia.
In announcing that he would not seek a third term as France’s president, Jacques Chirac averred that he had devoted himself to “justice, progress, peace, and the grandeur of France.” The last of these desiderata sounds to foreign ears like a confession, but it was intended as a boast, and so apparently was it taken by his countrymen. The foreign policy of no other Western state is driven by such narcissism. Others might pursue their security or prosperity or their values, but only the French still feel their heart quicken at the thought of their own grandeur.
Many other national goals can be achieved at no one’s expense. The peace, prosperity, or liberty of one nation is ordinarily a boon to the peace, prosperity, or liberty of others. But grandeur is inherently comparative or invidious. It is a zero-sum game. And the quest for it tends to make French foreign policy mischievous and unprincipled.
Chirac’s model, Charles De Gaulle, withdrew France partially from NATO and declared that France’s nuclear weapons would be directed at “all azimuths.” This “third camp” stance served the French notion of grandeur, but it put a heavier burden on the other members of the Atlantic alliance to provide for collective security without France’s full cooperation (even though France continued to benefit fully from NATO’s protection).
Tarek Heggy is an Egyptian businessman and intellectual, perhaps the most prolific liberal writer in the Arab world. He is a no-holds-barred advocate of political and economic freedom, delivering, as Brookings Institution senior fellow Shibley Telhami has put it, a “refreshing message of self-reliance that challenges the prevailing sense that regional ills are largely made abroad.”
But currently Heggy, for a change, is broadcasting a message of dire alarm at an impending regional catastrophe that, if not made abroad, would be catalyzed from abroad. His worry? The likely consequences of an American flight from Iraq.
• “For God’s sake, don’t fill the paper with Bach in B minor,” one of George Bernard Shaw’s editors warned him back in the days when he was writing music criticism. I sympathize, but sometimes you can’t get around it, which may explain why I’ve never read a good book about Bach that was fully accessible to non-musicians. The problem is that we know a fair amount about the details of Bach’s life but very little about his personality, since he left behind no diary and next to no correspondence. Like Shakespeare, we can only “know” him through his art, which is hard to talk about intelligibly (much less intelligently) without at least some resort to the kind of technical language against which Shaw’s editor warned him.
Martin Geck’s Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work (Harcourt, 738 pp., $40) is unapologetically written for musicians, but laymen will be able to make sense of most of it, and I commend it to anyone in search of a deeper understanding of Bach and his world. Geck does an admirable job of summarizing what is known about Bach’s life without overstating the extent to which it sheds light on his music: “Whichever way we turn in hopes of discovering more intimate, ‘personal’ information about Bach, we encounter obstacles, because few opportunities existed for expressing the private life of a kapellmeister and cantor in the first half of the eighteenth century . . . Bach no more composed for us than he lived for us. His music comes from far away; it speaks a language that we understand yet in which we hear echoes of another language, outside our expressive range.” That’s well said, as is the rest of this fine book. Don’t let the musical examples throw you—Johann Sebastian Bach is full of good things from start to finish.
How, if at all, should we govern new developments in human biotechnology? In many cases, decisions will be made best by the individuals involved. In others, legislation and government action will be required to prevent genuinely serious abuses. Telling one type of case from the other is not always simple, and requires a lot of argument and give and take.
We have already seen the early skirmishes surrounding issues like human cloning, “fetal farming,” embryo-destructive research, and some forms of assisted reproduction. In some instances, laws have been passed. In others, the advocates of unrestricted choice have carried the day. That’s how we make decisions in a democracy.
But to some, this seems like no way to approach such momentous and difficult issues. Surely, they argue, a detached body of experts would do a better job, case by case. This, at any rate, is the argument for a new structure of regulation for biotechnology, an argument that has carried the day in Britain (and to some extent in Canada) and whose most prominent American exponent is Francis Fukuyama.
As Ron Bailey reports in Reason Magazine, Fukuyama has just produced a 400-page report calling for the creation of a new regulatory agency to make decisions about the appropriate uses of human biotechnology. The report emerged from the work of a study group convened by Fukuyama at Johns Hopkins University. Though I was a member of the group, I did not sign on to the report, since I disagreed with its conclusions.
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.
There has been much talk about the improvement in American-German relations since Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, took over as chancellor and Gerhard Schroeder, her oleaginous predecessor, who used anti-Americanism as one of his central campaign issues, left office to take a job as a shill for a Kremlin-owned oil company. There is no doubt a great deal of truth to this talk. But, as I discovered during a week as a guest of the American Academy in Berlin, the two countries’ perceptions remain as far apart as ever on a variety of foreign-policy issues.
In the U.S., the biggest issue at the moment is the Iraq war. In Germany it is missile defense—specifically an American plan to deploy a limited missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic to provide protection against Iranian missiles. Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though he knows the planned shield is far too small to interfere with Russia’s massive ICBM force, has vehemently decried this as an act of aggression against his country. (How can a defensive system be aggressive? To answer that question would require a long foray back into the arms-control theology of the 1970′s and 80′s.)
The Germans are in a tizzy because they don’t want to offend Russia. Many still see the country’s role as being a “bridge” between East and West, much as in the cold-war days of Willy Brandt’s ostpolitik. A cynic might note other German interests, such as keeping natural gas from Russia flowing. But whatever the cause, various German officials I spoke with anxiously inquired if there was some way to compromise on the missile-defense plan so as dampen growing tensions with Russia.
America’s twenty-second Secretary of Defense came to prominence in the world of intelligence, having risen up through the ranks of the analytical division of the CIA. To anyone familiar with the intractable problems besetting that side of that agency, this was a background that at the very minimum raised questions about whether Gates would be a yes-man, a timid bureaucrat, or an empty suit.
But back in mid-February, Max Boot gave Gates a favorable review here, citing his handling of himself at a gathering of defense officials in Munich. We’ve now had another month of our new SecDef. It is time to ask again: how is he shaping up?
The war is issue number one. Prior to getting his job, Gates served on the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker, which counseled begging Iran and Syria for assistance—“dialogue” was the code word for this used in the report—in extricating ourselves from the conflict and abandoning Iraq to the wolves: the U.S. “must adjust its role in Iraq to encourage the Iraqi people to take control of their own destiny.”
Groucho Marx once observed: “I find television very educational. Whenever somebody turns it on, I go into the other room and read a book.” You may not be surprised to learn that the late Susan Sontag felt the same way, although she lacked Marx’s sense of humor. In “Pay Attention to the World,” an essay extracted from her posthumous 2007 volume At the Same Time and published in Saturday’s Guardian, Sontag writes that television, the Internet, and other mass media threaten to “render obsolete the novelist’s prophetic and critical, even subversive, task.”
Sontag charges mass media not only with having “dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading,” but also with offering “a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.” She concedes that mass media may give some pleasure and enlightenment. But “the mindset they foster and the appetites they feed,” she argues, “are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature.”
Lucie Aubrac has died at the age of 94. She certainly lived an adventure in World War II, but what sort of an adventure even now nobody can say with certainty. Perhaps she was a heroine who took part in armed struggle against the occupying Germans. That was her view of herself, as expressed in her 1993 autobiography Outwitting the Gestapo, and as shown in Claude Berri’s film Lucie Aubrac in 1997. President Jacques Chirac uttered what might be called the official eulogy for her, saying, “A light of the French resistance has been put out tonight. Lucie Aubrac embodied the commitment of women in the resistance.” The obituary in the Times of London took the story of her heroism at face value, with no mention at all that an alternative version ever existed.
Lucie and her husband Raymond Aubrac, both Communists, joined the resistance group known as Libération-sud in Lyons after the fall of France in 1940. In June 1943, leaders of the resistance met in a house in Caluire, a suburb of Lyons, in order to receive orders from Jean Moulin, parachuted in from London as the representative of General de Gaulle.
The Lyons Gestapo was headed at the time by Klaus Barbie, a hardline Nazi and a sadist who personally tortured his victims. He and a Gestapo detachment burst into the house at Caluire, arresting Jean Moulin and eight others, among them Raymond Aubrac. According to Lucie’s story, she then visited Barbie in his headquarters and persuaded him to let her see her husband. During a visit, she and Raymond planned his escape, which took place that October when Lucie led an ambush on the prison van escorting her husband and others to a different prison. Moulin died under Barbie’s torture without giving away any secrets.
Readers may recall the debate over the creation of Independent Jewish Voices, a new network of “independent” Jews in the UK. IJV’s manifesto is first and foremost a political document, lacking any real connection to the religious sensibilities and needs of Jews. A testament to this is the fact that the group’s second public outing took place Friday at the City Circle, a new Muslim organization whose aims are:
to promote the development of a distinct British Muslim identity; to assist the process of community cohesion and integration by building bilateral strategic alliances between Muslim and non-Muslim communities; and to harness and channel the skills and resources of Muslim professionals into practical projects thereby facilitating and empowering young Muslim women and men to “put back in” to the wider British community.
All commendable purposes, certainly. But why did IJV choose this venue? There is nothing distinctly Jewish about interfaith dialogue and cultural pluralism: they belong much more to the political order of secular modernity. An organization that claims to represent a part of the Jewish world marginalized by the Jewish establishment should strive to show more awareness of—to say nothing of identification with—specifically Jewish values.