Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 14, 2007

Free, First-Rate Manhattan Music

The cost of high culture in music has long troubled audiences. High ticket prices can discourage a much-needed spirit of adventure in concert programming by inducing managers to restrict performers to familiar, crowd-pleasing work. Music lovers sometimes feel themselves doomed to hear the same Beethoven cycles by the same arthritic pianists and string quartets, or the same Dvořák concerto by a cellist who played it better a quarter-century ago.

Happily, there is a splendid alternative awaiting anyone with a bit of time and an appetite for the unexpected: the free recitals and performances offered by students at conservatories like Juilliard, Mannes, and the Manhattan School of Music, as well as the CUNY Graduate Center. Many of these performers are top-level talents who, because of the vagaries of the classical music business, may disappear into a regional or foreign orchestra and rarely be heard again in solo recitals here; very few will have major recording careers. Failing to hear them now, at the peak of their training and youthful ambition, means possibly never hearing them again. So here are a choice few of these upcoming events, all free:

• On May 17 at Juilliard’s Morse Hall a concert will be given by the Manitoba-born cellist Victoria Bass, who specializes in music by modern masters such as György Ligeti and Witold Lutosławski, but also performs her own arrangements of Handel and Bach. She is a member of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, whose website announces that as a girl in Manitoba, Bass would “go out into the fields and tip over sleeping cows.” (Thanks to Juilliard, Bass’s concert is as free as her spirit.)

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The cost of high culture in music has long troubled audiences. High ticket prices can discourage a much-needed spirit of adventure in concert programming by inducing managers to restrict performers to familiar, crowd-pleasing work. Music lovers sometimes feel themselves doomed to hear the same Beethoven cycles by the same arthritic pianists and string quartets, or the same Dvořák concerto by a cellist who played it better a quarter-century ago.

Happily, there is a splendid alternative awaiting anyone with a bit of time and an appetite for the unexpected: the free recitals and performances offered by students at conservatories like Juilliard, Mannes, and the Manhattan School of Music, as well as the CUNY Graduate Center. Many of these performers are top-level talents who, because of the vagaries of the classical music business, may disappear into a regional or foreign orchestra and rarely be heard again in solo recitals here; very few will have major recording careers. Failing to hear them now, at the peak of their training and youthful ambition, means possibly never hearing them again. So here are a choice few of these upcoming events, all free:

• On May 17 at Juilliard’s Morse Hall a concert will be given by the Manitoba-born cellist Victoria Bass, who specializes in music by modern masters such as György Ligeti and Witold Lutosławski, but also performs her own arrangements of Handel and Bach. She is a member of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, whose website announces that as a girl in Manitoba, Bass would “go out into the fields and tip over sleeping cows.” (Thanks to Juilliard, Bass’s concert is as free as her spirit.)

• Juilliard also offers two programs, one from its pre-college orchestra and one from its pre-college symphony, played by high-school students and a smattering of gifted pre-teens. Among the Juilliard pre-college division’s wonders is the pianist and composer Conrad Tao, born in 1994, whose works and pianism, available on CD on his own website, are expressive and preternaturally accomplished.

• Juilliard is not the only place to experience music at a high level for free. The New School’s Mannes School of Music is presenting on May 19 a concert by the Mannes Philharmonic and Senior Chorus of music by Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

• The Manhattan School of Music is especially generous to its audience, presenting from May 17 to 19 free performances of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into The Woods by the school’s musical theatre ensemble, while on May 31, the CUNY Graduate Center will offer the soprano Brooke Bryant—a student of early music—in recital of the music of Baroque women composers.

If you like what you hear at these and other free concerts, and have the means, why not make a voluntary contribution to the particular school’s scholarship fund? That would be the best way to give thanks for these student performers and their generosity, which has become all-too-unexpected in the heavily commercialized climate of classical music.

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Do Most Muslims Support al Qaeda?

Do supporters of al Qaeda make up only a tiny fraction of the Muslim world? This is what we want to believe and what American leaders, from President Bush on down, have insisted since 9/11. So we have strained to ignore the Osama bin Laden T-shirts and other anecdotal evidence suggesting that the story might not be so simple. Now there are disquieting data from a survey released last month by the respected Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

The survey covered four Muslim countries—Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia—that are closely allied with the U.S. and that are, on average, slightly more liberal politically than the mean of Muslim countries. Many aspects of the poll’s findings are fascinating, starting with what it reveals about support for al Qaeda. (Please note, all numbers below are rounded.)

Respondents were given three choices by which to describe their feelings about al Qaeda. At one end they could say that they “oppose its attacks on Americans and do not share its attitudes toward the U.S.” At the opposite end they could say that they “support its attacks on Americans and share its attitudes toward the U.S.” Or they could chose a middle option, namely to say that they “oppose its attacks on Americans but share many of its attitudes toward the U.S.”

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Do supporters of al Qaeda make up only a tiny fraction of the Muslim world? This is what we want to believe and what American leaders, from President Bush on down, have insisted since 9/11. So we have strained to ignore the Osama bin Laden T-shirts and other anecdotal evidence suggesting that the story might not be so simple. Now there are disquieting data from a survey released last month by the respected Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

The survey covered four Muslim countries—Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia—that are closely allied with the U.S. and that are, on average, slightly more liberal politically than the mean of Muslim countries. Many aspects of the poll’s findings are fascinating, starting with what it reveals about support for al Qaeda. (Please note, all numbers below are rounded.)

Respondents were given three choices by which to describe their feelings about al Qaeda. At one end they could say that they “oppose its attacks on Americans and do not share its attitudes toward the U.S.” At the opposite end they could say that they “support its attacks on Americans and share its attitudes toward the U.S.” Or they could chose a middle option, namely to say that they “oppose its attacks on Americans but share many of its attitudes toward the U.S.”

How did they respond? Twenty-six percent said they opposed al Qaeda’s attacks and its attitudes. Fifteen percent said they supported both the attacks and the attitudes behind them. Twenty-three percent said they opposed the attacks but tended to share the attitudes.

That 15 percent of the population of these U.S.-aligned countries supports al Qaeda’s deeds is disturbing, to say the least. Moreover, adding together those who support al Qaeda’s attacks and those who oppose the attacks but support its attitudes shows that, by a ratio of three to two, most respondents said they shared al Qaeda’s attitudes toward the U.S.

The arithmetically alert will have noticed that 26 plus 23 plus 15 does not add up to 100 percent. The explanation for this is that fully 37 percent of the polling sample did not respond to this question or said that they did not know what their opinion was. If we set aside this group entirely, then among the rest (that is, those who did respond one way or another) the proportion saying they supported al Qaeda’s deeds rises to 24 percent. And the combined proportion that supports al Qaeda’s attitudes toward the U.S. rises to 60 percent.

But other questions in the survey yielded contradictory information. When respondents were asked if they approve of attacks on civilians in the U.S., 78 percent disapproved, while only 5 percent approved and 8 percent said they had mixed feelings. As if this picture weren’t muddy enough, the highest rate of disapproval of such attacks—91 percent—was among Egyptians. But it was also Egyptians who registered the highest rates of sympathy for al Qaeda. Excluding those who didn’t answer, about 30 percent of Egyptians approved of al Qaeda’s “attacks on Americans” and about two-thirds said they shared many of its attitudes.

Steven Kull, the chief of the polling team, told me that he is striving to interpret these contradictory data through sophisticated statistical techniques and the observation of focus groups. Whatever the interpretation, it seems that attitudes in the Muslim world toward al Qaeda are more complicated than we would wish.

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Striking Iran: Cakewalk or Slam-Dunk?

In 1981, Israel hit Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak. Eight F-16 fighter-bombers and eight F-15 fighters swooped in to carry out a precision strike that set back Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions by more than a decade.

As the whole world knows, Israel now faces a similar challenge from Iran, which has an ambitious nuclear program of its own, and whose president has threatened to wipe Israel from the map. Unlike Osirak, however, the Iranian program is housed in multiple sites, with the most critical ones hardened against attack from the air, and all of them situated much further away from Israel than Osirak was.

A key question therefore is whether Israel possesses the military means to attack the Iranian facility on its own, or whether it would depend upon the far mightier United States to help it or do the job in its entirety. This question is being analyzed in defense ministries and intelligence agencies around the world. But the central issues have been laid out for the public in great detail by two MIT military analysts, Whitney Raas and Austin Long, in a paper that appears in the spring issue of International Security.

One of the problems entailed in such a raid would be dealing with the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, which Raas and Long call “one of the most difficult and important targets.” It is 23 meters underground and covered by multiple layers of concrete, such that “only a very robust strike could hope to destroy or at least render unusable” the centrifuges that it houses. Read More

In 1981, Israel hit Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak. Eight F-16 fighter-bombers and eight F-15 fighters swooped in to carry out a precision strike that set back Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions by more than a decade.

As the whole world knows, Israel now faces a similar challenge from Iran, which has an ambitious nuclear program of its own, and whose president has threatened to wipe Israel from the map. Unlike Osirak, however, the Iranian program is housed in multiple sites, with the most critical ones hardened against attack from the air, and all of them situated much further away from Israel than Osirak was.

A key question therefore is whether Israel possesses the military means to attack the Iranian facility on its own, or whether it would depend upon the far mightier United States to help it or do the job in its entirety. This question is being analyzed in defense ministries and intelligence agencies around the world. But the central issues have been laid out for the public in great detail by two MIT military analysts, Whitney Raas and Austin Long, in a paper that appears in the spring issue of International Security.

One of the problems entailed in such a raid would be dealing with the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, which Raas and Long call “one of the most difficult and important targets.” It is 23 meters underground and covered by multiple layers of concrete, such that “only a very robust strike could hope to destroy or at least render unusable” the centrifuges that it houses.

To attack such a target, Israel would need to use penetrating warheads that are either “delay-fused bombs that have been modified to have a more ‘pointed’ shape and extensively structurally reinforced,” or even more advanced  warheads that “detonate in stages to increase penetration.” To destroy Natanz effectively, one technique, write Raas and Long, would be to use such weapons

targeted on the same aimpoint but separated slightly in release time to “burrow” into the target. Essentially one bomb hits the crater made by the previous weapon, a technique contemplated by the U.S. Air Force in the first Gulf war. This takes advantage of the extremely high accuracy of LGB’s [laser-guided bombs] in combination with a penetrating warhead. The IAF [Israeli Air Force] appears to have purchased penetrating LGB’s with this technique in mind. General Eitan Ben-Elyahu, former commander of the IAF and a participant in the Osirak strike, commented on this method of attacking hardened facilities in Jane’s Defense Weekly: “Even if one bomb would not suffice to penetrate, we could guide other bombs directly to the hole created by the previous ones and eventually destroy any target.”

Is Israel going to strike Iran? We do not yet know the answer, and there are many imponderables, including its calculation of whether the U.S. will strike first and its additional calculation of Tehran’s likely response.

Not only does Iran have long-range missiles but it also has Hizballah cells all over the world poised to carry out terror missions in the event of an attack. We ourselves are not exempt; according to the State Department’s 2006 annual report on terrorism, Hizballah has “established cells in Europe, Africa, South America, North America, and Asia.” If that were not enough, FBI Director Robert Mueller has confirmed that Hizballah “retains the capability to strike in the U.S.”

In response to Israeli attacks on its leaders in the early 1990’s, Hizballah, in separate incidents, bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29, and the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, killing 85. Of course, once Iran has nuclear weapons, we would not be worrying about the lives of hundreds but the lives of hundreds of thousands and even millions. The dangers posed to Israel and to the rest of the world would thus seem to be intolerable, except of course to some of the writers at Vanity Fair—see my Learning to Love the Islamic Bomb.

However one judges Israeli intentions vis-a-vis Iran, the Raas-Long paper is of the view that the Jewish state has the capability to go it alone. Their conviction is that despite all the complexities of the Iranian target set, the advent of precision-guided munitions means that such an assault today would appear “to be no more risky than the earlier attack on Osirak.”

Of course, it should be obvious, at the same time, that such a military operation would be neither a slam-dunk nor a cakewalk. Thus, one does not have to be a Vanity Fair writer, or to love the Islamic bomb, to see that Israel’s decision, whatever it is, will be one of the biggest rolls of the dice in the sixty-year history of the Jewish state.

 

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Eugenics, Old and New

Two stories in the past two weeks have raised the specter of the re-emergence of eugenics. In Britain, the government has authorized fertility clinics to destroy embryos produced by IVF if they are found to carry a genetic condition called congenital fibrosis of the extramacular muscles. The condition is in no way life-threatening; in most respects, it hardly limits those living with it. The issue arose because two parents who suffer from the condition asked a fertility clinician to help them weed out embryos that share it.

The doctor who agreed to this—and received government permission to proceed—told the Daily Telegraph that he thinks the selective elimination of embryos for minor genetic conditions is perfectly appropriate:

When asked if he would screen embryos for factors like hair color, he said: “If there is a cosmetic aspect to an individual case, I would assess it on its merits. [Hair color] can be a cause of bullying, which can lead to suicide. With the agreement of the HFEA, I would do it. If a parent suffered from asthma, and it was possible to detect the genetic factor for this, I would do it. It all depends on the family’s distress.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the New York Times reported last week that in recent years roughly “90 percent of pregnant women who are given a Down syndrome diagnosis have chosen to have an abortion.”

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Two stories in the past two weeks have raised the specter of the re-emergence of eugenics. In Britain, the government has authorized fertility clinics to destroy embryos produced by IVF if they are found to carry a genetic condition called congenital fibrosis of the extramacular muscles. The condition is in no way life-threatening; in most respects, it hardly limits those living with it. The issue arose because two parents who suffer from the condition asked a fertility clinician to help them weed out embryos that share it.

The doctor who agreed to this—and received government permission to proceed—told the Daily Telegraph that he thinks the selective elimination of embryos for minor genetic conditions is perfectly appropriate:

When asked if he would screen embryos for factors like hair color, he said: “If there is a cosmetic aspect to an individual case, I would assess it on its merits. [Hair color] can be a cause of bullying, which can lead to suicide. With the agreement of the HFEA, I would do it. If a parent suffered from asthma, and it was possible to detect the genetic factor for this, I would do it. It all depends on the family’s distress.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the New York Times reported last week that in recent years roughly “90 percent of pregnant women who are given a Down syndrome diagnosis have chosen to have an abortion.”

Defenders of practices like these argue that they differ in a crucial respect from the eugenics of the early 20th century—a movement held in high repute among American progressives until the 1940’s, and which resulted in the passage of involuntary sterilization laws in more than 20 states. The difference, their argument runs, is that now such decisions are the voluntary choices of parents, not the dictates of law.

That certainly does make a difference. But the great danger of the old eugenics movement was not that it empowered government. Far more dangerous was its undermining of our belief in human equality and our regard for the weakest members of our society. Any number of American thinkers, writers, and jurists, including H.L. Mencken and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., took the insights of Darwinism to mean that, in Mencken’s words, “there must be a complete surrender to the law of natural selection,” and that society was morally obligated to rid itself of the congenitally ill and the disabled.

Such gross misuse of Darwin’s ideas does not take away from the incalculable value and importance to science of evolutionary theory. But attitudes like those of Holmes and Mencken, as the above news items suggest, are not a thing of the past. As the great British IVF pioneer Robert Edwards said in 1999:

Soon it will be a sin of parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children.

It increasingly looks like we are indeed entering such a world. But it is not for the first time.

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The Turkish Trojan Horse

In an interview with Manfred Gerstenfeld for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Ayaan Hirsi Ali warned that

almost nobody in the West wants to understand that Islam’s problems are structural. Contemporary Islam hardly exists. Islam stopped thinking in the year 900 and has stood still for more than a thousand years. Western Muslims, however, live in an environment where you can think independently without your head being chopped off by somebody.

Hirsi Ali knows better than anyone else, of course, how precarious that freedom of thought can be—even in her former Dutch homeland, whence she was eventually forced to flee to the United States. Things may be bad in the Netherlands, but the threat there comes from a militant Muslim minority. How much more precarious must free speech be in Turkey, where the secular consensus instituted nearly a century ago by Kemal Atatürk is now being eroded by an Islamist government that enjoys majority support?

In a recent article in Die Welt, Hirsi Ali analyzes the efforts of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül to Islamicize Turkey. Rather than mount a direct attack on Atatürk’s secular legacy, which the Turkish military has defended by repeated military coups, they and other leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) work in subtler ways, presenting themselves as “moderate” Islamists while appealing to the need for direct democracy in Turkey. (Michel Gurfinkiel, writing in the March 2007 issue of COMMENTARY, looks at the AKP more optimistically.)

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In an interview with Manfred Gerstenfeld for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Ayaan Hirsi Ali warned that

almost nobody in the West wants to understand that Islam’s problems are structural. Contemporary Islam hardly exists. Islam stopped thinking in the year 900 and has stood still for more than a thousand years. Western Muslims, however, live in an environment where you can think independently without your head being chopped off by somebody.

Hirsi Ali knows better than anyone else, of course, how precarious that freedom of thought can be—even in her former Dutch homeland, whence she was eventually forced to flee to the United States. Things may be bad in the Netherlands, but the threat there comes from a militant Muslim minority. How much more precarious must free speech be in Turkey, where the secular consensus instituted nearly a century ago by Kemal Atatürk is now being eroded by an Islamist government that enjoys majority support?

In a recent article in Die Welt, Hirsi Ali analyzes the efforts of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül to Islamicize Turkey. Rather than mount a direct attack on Atatürk’s secular legacy, which the Turkish military has defended by repeated military coups, they and other leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) work in subtler ways, presenting themselves as “moderate” Islamists while appealing to the need for direct democracy in Turkey. (Michel Gurfinkiel, writing in the March 2007 issue of COMMENTARY, looks at the AKP more optimistically.)

This dissonance notwithstanding, these means are working. The AKP is undeniably popular: some 70 percent of the electorate say they would vote for Gül if the constitution were amended to allow direct elections for the influential post of president, as Prime Minister Erdogan demands. This popularity may well be the result of Turkey’s economic stabilization under Erdogan, as well as creeping Islamicization in state education and in the media. Recent mass demonstrations by Turkish secularists aside, it was only the warning of the military that persuaded Turkey’s constitutional court to rule against Gül’s nomination for the presidency.

While such direct military interference in the political and constitutional process runs counter to the letter and the spirit of the European Union (membership in which Erdogan has made the central plank of his foreign policy), Hirsi Ali condemns as “naïve” the demands of EU leaders for civilian control over the Turkish military as a condition of entry. The Europeans are, in her opinion, thereby unwittingly advancing the cause of transforming Turkey into an Islamic republic. She calls on Western liberals to recognize the unique role of the army in protecting Turkish democracy from Islam.

There is no doubt that Hirsi Ali is correct to identify this Turkish paradox—that liberty and democracy are only guaranteed by the threat of martial law. But she is also right that the liberal mindset finds such a paradox not only uncongenial, but intolerable. Most Europeans do not want Turkey to join the EU, where it would soon constitute by far the largest and youngest population. Even those who do favor Turkish entry—including the United States and Britain—insist on stripping away the political role of the army.

Seen from this perspective, the medium-term outlook for Turkey is grim. For Europe, however, the long-term outlook is even worse. As demographic trends in Europe cause Muslims to make up an ever larger proportion of the continental population, it will become impossible to resist pressure to accept an Islamist Turkey on its own terms.

Ancient Troy was sited on what is today Turkish soil. It is hard not to see Erdogan’s “moderate” Islamism as a potential Trojan horse in the heart of Western civilization.

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