Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 20, 2007

Weekend Reading

On the eve of the first round of balloting in what promises to be a momentous presidential election in France, we offer a handful of articles from the past fifteen years on European politics and political passions. And be sure to visit COMMENTARY for an advance look at Michel Gurfinkiel’s “Can France Be Saved?“—an important article from next month’s issue.

How to Wreck NATO
Joshua Muravchik—April 1999

Is Europe a Threat?
Irwin M. Stelzer—October 2001

Betrayed by Europe: An Expatriate’s Lament
Nidra Poller—March 2004

The Islamization of Europe?
David Pryce-Jones—December 2004

Europe’s No
Michel Gurfinkiel—July/August 2005

On the eve of the first round of balloting in what promises to be a momentous presidential election in France, we offer a handful of articles from the past fifteen years on European politics and political passions. And be sure to visit COMMENTARY for an advance look at Michel Gurfinkiel’s “Can France Be Saved?“—an important article from next month’s issue.

How to Wreck NATO
Joshua Muravchik—April 1999

Is Europe a Threat?
Irwin M. Stelzer—October 2001

Betrayed by Europe: An Expatriate’s Lament
Nidra Poller—March 2004

The Islamization of Europe?
David Pryce-Jones—December 2004

Europe’s No
Michel Gurfinkiel—July/August 2005

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Vonnegut’s Exit

The death of Kurt Vonnegut on April 11, caused by complications from a fall, reminded me of our brief but amiable exchange of letters, some ten years ago. Our correspondence concerned his family history and had nothing to do with his literary career—or so I thought at the time.

On a fellowship to Germany in the 1980′s, where I studied at the University of Hanover, I became curious about other Americans who had studied there. I found the records of the author’s grandfather, Bernard Vonnegut, who trained in Germany in the 1880′s and became an important architect in Indianapolis. I passed these records on to Vonnegut, and asked if he had any of his grandfather’s drawings or letters.

Of course, Vonnegut’s defining moment, as the New York Times called it, came in 1945 when he lived through the firebombing of Dresden. Captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, he was sent to the city to work in a factory, making vitamin supplements for pregnant women. When the air raids came, he survived by taking shelter in an underground meat cooler. This experience served as the basis of his best-known work, Slaughterhouse-Five, which used science fiction as a way of addressing the madness of war. Published in 1969, when the Vietnam war lent it particular poignancy, it made Vonnegut a literary celebrity.

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The death of Kurt Vonnegut on April 11, caused by complications from a fall, reminded me of our brief but amiable exchange of letters, some ten years ago. Our correspondence concerned his family history and had nothing to do with his literary career—or so I thought at the time.

On a fellowship to Germany in the 1980′s, where I studied at the University of Hanover, I became curious about other Americans who had studied there. I found the records of the author’s grandfather, Bernard Vonnegut, who trained in Germany in the 1880′s and became an important architect in Indianapolis. I passed these records on to Vonnegut, and asked if he had any of his grandfather’s drawings or letters.

Of course, Vonnegut’s defining moment, as the New York Times called it, came in 1945 when he lived through the firebombing of Dresden. Captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, he was sent to the city to work in a factory, making vitamin supplements for pregnant women. When the air raids came, he survived by taking shelter in an underground meat cooler. This experience served as the basis of his best-known work, Slaughterhouse-Five, which used science fiction as a way of addressing the madness of war. Published in 1969, when the Vietnam war lent it particular poignancy, it made Vonnegut a literary celebrity.

In his letters to me, Vonnegut downplayed the importance of his family’s architectural career (his father was also an architect). Instead, his “family’s most beneficial contribution” was the development of the modern emergency exit. This, he wrote, was the invention of his great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, a hardware store owner who was horrified by the tragedy of the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, America’s deadliest fire. A total of 602 victims were claimed in the mad stampede to the doors, and most bodies were found piled in heaps just inside the entrance.

Clemens Vonnegut realized that the theater doors could not be operated unless one stood away from them and operated the handle, something impossible to do when being crushed against it. He conceived the idea of a strip of metal on the door, which would open it automatically whenever someone pushed up against it—or was pushed.

So was born the “panic bar.” The late Vonnegut suggested that I look for some of these on my college campus: “Some old such fixtures may still be in use at Williams, bearing the trademark ‘VONDUPRIN.’ The ‘VON’ is for Vonnegut.” He was correct. Since then I have grown accustomed to finding Vonduprin doors throughout the country.

The Iroquois Theater fire happened two decades before Vonnegut’s birth, but accounts of it clearly dominated the family’s history and his childhood. In that mythic account, architecture, fire, and death converged—as they would again in his Slaughterhouse-Five. I might have asked him about this, had it not seemed presumptuous to proceed from a cordial exchange of information to the offering of speculative literary interpretation. Such was the odd architectural background to Vonnegut’s literary career. “I would have been an architect,” he wrote in his second and last letter, “but Father told me to be anything but that.”

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The Centrist and the Nationalist

On Sunday, France will hold its first round of balloting for a new president. This is the last in a series of three posts on the leading candidates by the French editor and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. His longer and more in-depth look at the condition of present-day France will be coming out in the May issue of COMMENTARY, and is now available on our website.

François Bayrou—a devout Catholic, a horsebreeder, and the holder of advanced degrees in historyis a centrist. Politically, he belongs to a Christian-Democratic sub-current that was very powerful in the 1950’s before being crushed by the polarized Right-Left system forced upon the country by Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. While many Christian Democrats joined the Gaullist Right, and others the socialists, a small group managed to survive under several successive names and acronyms. The UDF (Union for French Democracy), originally a conservative coalition supporting Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is now Bayrou’s base. Having served as minister of education from 1993 to 1997, he represented the UDF in the 2002 presidential election and surprisingly gathered almost 7 percent of the vote: not bad for the “non-candidate” of a “non-party.”

Bayrou was convinced he stood a real chance for the presidency—provided he could distance the UDF and himself entirely from the traditional Right. This he proceeded to do, at some cost in supporters—but he didn’t care. Once a declared presidential candidate, he stubbornly railed against the disproportionate (in his opinion) media coverage of Sarkozy and Royal, finally winning his point and (according to some reports) garnering more coverage on radio and TV than any other candidate.

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On Sunday, France will hold its first round of balloting for a new president. This is the last in a series of three posts on the leading candidates by the French editor and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. His longer and more in-depth look at the condition of present-day France will be coming out in the May issue of COMMENTARY, and is now available on our website.

François Bayrou—a devout Catholic, a horsebreeder, and the holder of advanced degrees in historyis a centrist. Politically, he belongs to a Christian-Democratic sub-current that was very powerful in the 1950’s before being crushed by the polarized Right-Left system forced upon the country by Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic. While many Christian Democrats joined the Gaullist Right, and others the socialists, a small group managed to survive under several successive names and acronyms. The UDF (Union for French Democracy), originally a conservative coalition supporting Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is now Bayrou’s base. Having served as minister of education from 1993 to 1997, he represented the UDF in the 2002 presidential election and surprisingly gathered almost 7 percent of the vote: not bad for the “non-candidate” of a “non-party.”

Bayrou was convinced he stood a real chance for the presidency—provided he could distance the UDF and himself entirely from the traditional Right. This he proceeded to do, at some cost in supporters—but he didn’t care. Once a declared presidential candidate, he stubbornly railed against the disproportionate (in his opinion) media coverage of Sarkozy and Royal, finally winning his point and (according to some reports) garnering more coverage on radio and TV than any other candidate.

But the decisive factor for Bayrou was that Royal’s candidacy began to fall apart. As some socialists came to see the UDF as a lesser-of-two-evils alternative to Sarkozy, parts of the electorate switched to Bayrou’s side. By the beginning of March, he was at over 20 percent in the polls, and it began to seem possible that he might outstrip Royal on the first ballot, and then, as the only challenger to Sarkozy, begin to attract the centrist, the left-wing, and even the far-Right vote to beat the UMP candidate.

What would Bayrou’s politics be as president? He has contended that only a national-unity government—“like de Gaulle’s in 1944, which included the democratic Right as well as socialists and Communists”—will be able to deal with the French domestic crisis. In his belief, this national government should be balanced by stronger regional and local powers, their configurations based on history and culture as well geography. A supporter of a federal Europe, Bayrou nevertheless opposes the accession of Turkey to the EU. He has also expressed adamant support for Chirac’s anti-Iraq-war line, as do most French citizens. Regarding Israel, he has stated that “in the wake of the Shoah, all of mankind is a partner in the Jewish people’s decision to recover a land,” while adding that “We must . . . find some balance between the state established by yesterday’s humiliated Jews and the one that today’s humiliated Palestinians must establish.”

In February, alarmed by the prospect of Bayrou’s rise, Royal and Sarkozy resolved to bring in a fourth man whom they had hitherto kept at bay: Jean-Marie Le Pen.

It had seemed up to this point that Le Pen might not muster enough endorsements to qualify for the first ballot, but Bayrou’s surge prompted both camps to hint publicly that to deny Le Pen a chance to run would be bad for democracy. The needed signatures were finally gathered, and the National Front rose in the polls from 12 percent of the putative votes to 14 percent by the end of March. Some suspected that Le Pen’s real level of support was even higher, between 16 and 20 percent. (At that point, Bayrou’s numbers had stalled at about 20 percent, and both Sarkozy and Royal stood at 26 percent.)

There was, however, more to Le Pen’s resurrection than mere political jockeying. The old man had embarked on a drastic makeover: from a reactionary nativist whose main concern was to stop immigration and clear the reputation of the wartime Vichy regime to a Hugo Chavez-style populist promoting a Europe-third-world alliance against America. As long ago as 1999, Samuel Maréchal, one of Le Pen’s sons-in-law, had stated that one had to admit that France was becoming “a multiethnic and multireligious society,” and that “Islam was now France’s second religion.” This was greeted with an outcry of protest among the Front’s rank and file.

Seven years later, Jean-Claude Martinez, a National Front member of the European Parliament and Le Pen’s “strategic adviser,” reiterated Maréchal’s challenge, arguing that the National Front must adjust to globalization, forget about some of its founding myths, and welcome immigrant blacks and Arabs into the national fold. He even expressed enthusiasm for hip-hop, a form dominated in France by Arab and black performers, as long as the lyrics were sung in French. This time, there was no outcry. In the wake of the extended European crisis over the Danish “Muhammad” cartoons, the National Front sided with the Muslims, demanding that “religious sensibilities must be respected.”

Le Pen’s shift has led to breakaways from the National Front but also to new arrivals in the form of young men and women nurtured in France’s anti-American and anti-Zionist pop culture, Muslims who relished Le Pen’s anti-Semitic innuendos and his support for Saddam Hussein, and black-power militants. At the outset of the 2007 presidential campaign, the National Front went a step further, putting up large billboards featuring a sexy young girl of North African descent and a sharp anti-elitist caption: “They’re all wrong!” Chavez could not have put it better.

And so to Sunday’s balloting, from which two front-runners will emerge to battle it out in the second round of voting on May 6.

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CIA vs. MPG

How good is the CIA these days? In a world with jihadists seeking nuclear weapons, and two hot wars under way, we all have a vital need to know if the intelligence agency is accomplishing its mission.

A clear picture is hard to come by, but the CIA has not been shy about releasing some indicators, and they are encouraging. The CIA has been making progress in an arena in which Congress has mandated dramatic improvements: environmental protection.

According to a series of unclassified CIA reports, the spy agency has managed to enhance significantly the fuel efficiency of the vehicles used by its operatives. It has been avidly working to decrease the amount of gasoline the agency’s LDV’s consume. An LDV is the CIA acronym for “light-duty vehicle,” or in non-spyspeak, a car.

Enhancing fuel efficiency has been a longstanding goal of the American intelligence community, dating back to the Clinton era, when “greening the government” was given high priority, with vice president Al Gore serving as point man. In 1996, just as Osama bin Laden was gearing up to attack American embassies in Africa, the CIA began experimenting with a variety of different fuels for its vehicles, focusing in particular on CNG, or “compressed natural gas.” But this program had debilitating problems from the outset and led ultimately to a disappointing agency failure.

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How good is the CIA these days? In a world with jihadists seeking nuclear weapons, and two hot wars under way, we all have a vital need to know if the intelligence agency is accomplishing its mission.

A clear picture is hard to come by, but the CIA has not been shy about releasing some indicators, and they are encouraging. The CIA has been making progress in an arena in which Congress has mandated dramatic improvements: environmental protection.

According to a series of unclassified CIA reports, the spy agency has managed to enhance significantly the fuel efficiency of the vehicles used by its operatives. It has been avidly working to decrease the amount of gasoline the agency’s LDV’s consume. An LDV is the CIA acronym for “light-duty vehicle,” or in non-spyspeak, a car.

Enhancing fuel efficiency has been a longstanding goal of the American intelligence community, dating back to the Clinton era, when “greening the government” was given high priority, with vice president Al Gore serving as point man. In 1996, just as Osama bin Laden was gearing up to attack American embassies in Africa, the CIA began experimenting with a variety of different fuels for its vehicles, focusing in particular on CNG, or “compressed natural gas.” But this program had debilitating problems from the outset and led ultimately to a disappointing agency failure.

A first step in the plan was to set up a natural-gas filling station. The location of this station has not been publicly disclosed, but there is reason to believe it is located on the CIA’s main campus in Langley, Virginia. But even with the presence of such a filling station in this central espionage hub, the operation did not get off the ground. In the CIA’s characteristically opaque language, “attempts to convert to CNG vehicles were complicated by a variety of issues.”

One such issue was that CIA agents were “reluctant to use the CNG station because of the range restrictions” of natural-gas powered vehicles. The problem evidently became particularly acute in summertime; CNG tends to expand “during warmer months,” a characteristic which “restricted the amount of fuel available for tank use” and thus further reduced vehicle range. In the end, the CIA’s CNG program collapsed in disarray when the supplier “removed the station because an insignificant amount of alternative fuel was being used.”

Today, however, as CIA reports make clear, progress in the quest for greater fuel efficiency is once again being made. In 2005, the “average mpg per vehicle” in the CIA’s automobile fleet was 18.3 mpg. This represents a significant increase from 16.8 mpg average in the period 1999-2004.

Thank goodness that the CIA (whose other significant accomplishments I’ve written about in the pages of COMMENTARY here and here) is on the road to energy-efficiency. Everyone can sleep safer tonight, including Osama bin Laden.

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Down the (North Korean) Rabbit Hole

A couple of months ago I blogged about a news report that North Korea had bought some giant rabbits from a German breeder as seed stock, apparently in the hope of alleviating its dire food shortage.

Although the starvation of Koreans is anything but funny, here in a capsule was the entire story of Communist economics. Despite its professed humanitarian motives, the Marxist model was entirely mechanistic, blind to the role of human invention and incentive in creating wealth. Planners could simply draw blueprints of abundance and—abracadabra—their word would become flesh.

Stalin, for example, decided that it would be more efficient if some of the rivers of the Soviet Union reversed direction, so he tasked his engineers to turn them around. Mao calculated that China could industrialize overnight if each citizen made his own steel, so millions of backyard furnaces were created. And this year the minions of Kim Jong Il figured out that national starvation could be solved by means of larger rabbits, each of which could feed many more humans than ordinary examples of that species.

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A couple of months ago I blogged about a news report that North Korea had bought some giant rabbits from a German breeder as seed stock, apparently in the hope of alleviating its dire food shortage.

Although the starvation of Koreans is anything but funny, here in a capsule was the entire story of Communist economics. Despite its professed humanitarian motives, the Marxist model was entirely mechanistic, blind to the role of human invention and incentive in creating wealth. Planners could simply draw blueprints of abundance and—abracadabra—their word would become flesh.

Stalin, for example, decided that it would be more efficient if some of the rivers of the Soviet Union reversed direction, so he tasked his engineers to turn them around. Mao calculated that China could industrialize overnight if each citizen made his own steel, so millions of backyard furnaces were created. And this year the minions of Kim Jong Il figured out that national starvation could be solved by means of larger rabbits, each of which could feed many more humans than ordinary examples of that species.

By Communist standards, the plan was good—easier than reversing rivers or smelting backyard steel. But alas, the timing was bad. Apparently, the rabbits arrived in North Korea just before the Dear Leader’s birthday, an occasion of jubilant feasting—at least by him. According to a new report, the German breeder of the giant bunnies has told reporters that the creatures disappeared before they could begin reproducing. Karl Szmolinksy, who had contracted to come to North Korea to help manage the rabbits’ propagation, has said that as far as he can discover they were requisitioned for the celebratory dinner table. “North Korea won’t be getting any more rabbits from me. They don’t even need to bother asking,” said the indignant man.

Considering the millions of human beings that perished in other Communist projects, the loss of a few rabbits is no cause for mourning—except that the North Korean people are still starving. Perhaps next, instead of larger rabbits, their Dear Leader et al. will try breeding smaller citizens.

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