Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 26, 2007

The New York Times vs. Floyd Abrams

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a case involving the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, and touching on basic issues of freedom of speech and of the press.

I read about it in the New York Times in an article by Linda Greenhouse, whose credibility as an objective reporter of the Supreme Court’s doings was forever shredded, at least for me, by a speech she gave at Harvard last summer lamenting, among other things, the Right’s “sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”

Still, even if Greenhouse came out of the ideological closet in a way that makes a mockery of the Times’s posture of political neutrality, as best I can tell she did a creditable job in the basic task of laying out the facts of who said what in the case that was before the Court yesterday. The provision of McCain-Feingold in question, which prohibits certain kinds of advertisements just before an election, had been upheld by the Supremes by a margin of 5 to 4 in a December 2003 decision, which is now being revisited.

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The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in a case involving the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, and touching on basic issues of freedom of speech and of the press.

I read about it in the New York Times in an article by Linda Greenhouse, whose credibility as an objective reporter of the Supreme Court’s doings was forever shredded, at least for me, by a speech she gave at Harvard last summer lamenting, among other things, the Right’s “sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”

Still, even if Greenhouse came out of the ideological closet in a way that makes a mockery of the Times’s posture of political neutrality, as best I can tell she did a creditable job in the basic task of laying out the facts of who said what in the case that was before the Court yesterday. The provision of McCain-Feingold in question, which prohibits certain kinds of advertisements just before an election, had been upheld by the Supremes by a margin of 5 to 4 in a December 2003 decision, which is now being revisited.

The New York Times has a stake in this case. Although the newspaper positions itself as a champion of the First Amendment—and has even intrepidly broken federal laws that crimp its freedom to print whatever it pleases—its editorial page nevertheless avidly supports the restrictions on issue ads contained in McCain-Feingold, insouciantly declaring that the “Constitution permits reasonable limits designed to prevent what the Court has called ‘corruption and the appearance of corruption.’” The law, it says flatly, “does not prohibit any speech.”

But liberals are deeply riven over McCain-Feingold. And the Times is itself sharply at odds with the leading First Amendment lawyer of our era, Floyd Abrams—who also happens to be the attorney to whom the paper has turned for defense in cases ranging from the Judith Miller affair back to the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970’s.

In his exceptionally compelling memoir, Speaking Freely, Abrams recounts a 2003 conversation with Alex Gigante, general counsel of Penguin Group USA, which was poised to publish a new book about Senator John Kerry, then in the midst of a campaign for the presidency:

“Is there anything in the new campaign finance law that could be problematic?” Gigante asked me. “Yes,” I said. “There is one thing: you can’t advertise the book on radio or television at all for the entire month of July leading up to the Democratic convention, for almost all of September, and for every day of October.” That antidemocratic achievement, I said, was directly attributable to McCain-Feingold.

Gigante listened to me in disbelief and then asked the unavoidable question: “Is that law constitutional?”

“Not under my First Amendment,” I told him. “Not under mine.”

Abrams calls the provisions of McCain-Feingold governing political advertising “nothing less than outright suppression of speech of the most odious nature.” Could he have been any clearer?

Next time the Times cites the First Amendment when it publishes a vital national-security secret in violation of the law, let us not forget the hypocrisy of its position on McCain-Feingold. And a health warning: do not hold your breath waiting to read about this internecine dispute in the news columns of Linda Greenhouse. It could cause asphyxia.

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Lessons of Lepanto

In his excellent new book about the Battle of Lepanto of 1571, Victory of the West, Niccoló Capponi describes the reaction of the Ottoman Sultan, Selim II, when his courtiers finally dared to tell him the news of the Turkish defeat. Everyone else in Edirne had known about the disaster for two days, and the sultan had repeatedly inquired about the cause of the cries and lamentations to be heard outside the palace. Capponi quotes an account given by Don Cesare Carafa to the Duke of Urbino, based on information from Venetian spies:

The third night, with the whole city wailing and screaming because no one could hide any more the grief for such a loss, the Great Turk, concerned and irked by all the moans and tears, demanded to hear the truth. It was answered that it was impossible now to hide the news that his fleet had been all burnt, sunk and taken by the Christians, with the death of all his great soldiers, captains and his General. Hearing this he gave a deep sigh and said, “So, these treacherous Jews have deceived me!” And having the Lord’s utterance spread through the palace and the streets, everyone started shouting, “Death to the Jews; death to the Jews!” and there was much fear that this would degenerate into a general massacre.

Christians defeat Muslims; Muslims blame the Jews. Haven’t we heard this somewhere before? The creation of Israel by the United Nations was followed by the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Muslim world. In the first Gulf war, an American-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, so Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel. The destruction of al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan was followed by attacks on Jewish targets. In the second Gulf war, Iraq was liberated by an American-led coalition, so Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

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In his excellent new book about the Battle of Lepanto of 1571, Victory of the West, Niccoló Capponi describes the reaction of the Ottoman Sultan, Selim II, when his courtiers finally dared to tell him the news of the Turkish defeat. Everyone else in Edirne had known about the disaster for two days, and the sultan had repeatedly inquired about the cause of the cries and lamentations to be heard outside the palace. Capponi quotes an account given by Don Cesare Carafa to the Duke of Urbino, based on information from Venetian spies:

The third night, with the whole city wailing and screaming because no one could hide any more the grief for such a loss, the Great Turk, concerned and irked by all the moans and tears, demanded to hear the truth. It was answered that it was impossible now to hide the news that his fleet had been all burnt, sunk and taken by the Christians, with the death of all his great soldiers, captains and his General. Hearing this he gave a deep sigh and said, “So, these treacherous Jews have deceived me!” And having the Lord’s utterance spread through the palace and the streets, everyone started shouting, “Death to the Jews; death to the Jews!” and there was much fear that this would degenerate into a general massacre.

Christians defeat Muslims; Muslims blame the Jews. Haven’t we heard this somewhere before? The creation of Israel by the United Nations was followed by the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Muslim world. In the first Gulf war, an American-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, so Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel. The destruction of al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan was followed by attacks on Jewish targets. In the second Gulf war, Iraq was liberated by an American-led coalition, so Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

Anti-Semites usually react to defeat in this way. Hitler came to power partly because he was able to persuade Germans that their defeat in the Great War was the fault of the Jews. Hitler himself exhibited the same pathology. Though it is difficult to prove a causal connection, the Wannsee conference, at which the orders for the “Final Solution” were given to Nazi officials, came within weeks of Hitler’s defeat at Moscow and his declaration of war on the United States. Realizing that the war was ultimately lost, Hitler blamed the Jews and tried to annihilate them.

What is even more insidious, however, has been the way in which many people who do not consider themselves anti-Semites have adopted this mindset. Every al-Qaeda attack is blamed on Israel, directly or indirectly. The misfortunes of the United States in Iraq are blamed on the “Israel lobby,” while many Europeans blame Israel for everything they resent about America.

The re-emergence of this syndrome in Europe bodes ill for the Jews of that continent, but it also implies that the transatlantic community of values and interests is in danger of breaking down. What else is meant by the unity of “the West” if not a common rejection of the old reflexes that made scapegoats of the Jews on the slightest pretext?

Sultan Selim “the Sallow” had not been systematically anti-Semitic: his chief adviser was a Jew, Joseph Nassi, whom he made Duke of Naxos. Capponi describes Nassi as “something of a proto-Zionist,” for he tried to persuade the King of France to establish a Jewish settlement on Lake Tiberias. This improbable project failed. But Nassi, too, was made a scapegoat: when he died in 1579, Selim’s successor Murad III seized all his possessions. Behind the paranoid accusations against the “treacherous Jews,” greed and avarice lurked, as so often before and since. The Venetians, to whom we owe much of the traditional narrative of Lepanto, depicted Nassi as the “evil genius” who had egged on Selim II to conquer the Mediterranean—another anti-Semitic stereotype commonly encountered today.

Lepanto was indeed a decisive victory for the West—but that does not exhaust its most pertinent lessons for our time. I have reviewed Victory of the West (Da Capo Press, $27.50) at greater length in a forthcoming issue of the New Criterion. Capponi’s book should be required reading for those who lack historical perspective on the present jihad—which means most of us.

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Collaboration and Creativity

A recent article in the New York Times looked at the phenomenon of architectural firms run by husbands and wives. It was a novelty when Robert Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown formed an architectural partnership in 1967. But since then it has become commonplace. Some of today’s most active young firms, including Diller-Scofidio and Tsien-Williams, comprise married couples.

For Robin Pogrebin, the article’s author, such merging of personal and professional lives is a boon for the practice of architecture, “allowing for an unsparing candor that takes the work to a higher level.” (What it might mean for the marriage is not examined.)

But the article glosses over the issue of collaboration itself, a fascinating but generally neglected category of creativity. Historically, many of the great figures of American architecture have worked in partnership, from McKim, Mead & White (founded in 1879) to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (founded in 1936 and still active today).

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A recent article in the New York Times looked at the phenomenon of architectural firms run by husbands and wives. It was a novelty when Robert Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown formed an architectural partnership in 1967. But since then it has become commonplace. Some of today’s most active young firms, including Diller-Scofidio and Tsien-Williams, comprise married couples.

For Robin Pogrebin, the article’s author, such merging of personal and professional lives is a boon for the practice of architecture, “allowing for an unsparing candor that takes the work to a higher level.” (What it might mean for the marriage is not examined.)

But the article glosses over the issue of collaboration itself, a fascinating but generally neglected category of creativity. Historically, many of the great figures of American architecture have worked in partnership, from McKim, Mead & White (founded in 1879) to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (founded in 1936 and still active today).

Yet when we discuss the achievements of these firms, we tend to think of one member of the firm as the “creative” partner, while treating the others as non-entities. Stanford White, an erratic and volatile genius, is made in our minds into the “artist” of the partnership, while William Rutherford Mead is relegated to the role of a business partner who presumably spent his days answering White’s fan mail. Louis Sullivan is celebrated for his doctrine of “form follows function,” while his senior partner Dankmar Adler is written off as the engineer who calculated the stresses on bolts and beams. That Adler was the principal planner of the firm’s buildings, and that Sullivan’s role was more that of decorative draftsman, is invariably left out of the story.

The process of collaboration is notoriously difficult to talk about. The Times offers only the vague platitude quoted above. We still tend to think of creativity in Romantic terms, in images of solitary genius and lightning flashes of inspiration. We are in need of an expanded vocabulary to address the subject properly, one complex enough to describe the complicated interactions between individuals involved in the same artistic endeavor.

These interactions, when successful, produce an outcome of a different order than anything White, Sullivan, or anyone else might have achieved on their own. Anyone who has listened to the music of John Lennon and Paul McCartney—singly and jointly—knows this to be true. Perhaps collaboration is a process akin to the operation of our own two-sided brain; perhaps every great collaboration itself becomes a kind of unruly, asymmetrically functioning brain. At any rate, the Times has found a fascinating story, of which the tale of marital bed and drafting table is perhaps the least interesting part.

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