Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 22, 2007

The GOP’s Immigration Meltdown

The debate over immigration reform has once more shown its capacity to fracture the Republican coalition. John McCain, a co-author of last week’s reform bill, recently engaged in a nasty exchange on the Senate floor with fellow Republican John Cornyn of Texas, who opposed the bill. And bill supporters Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina were roundly booed at their respective state conventions.

So far, the response by the Republican faithful to the Bush-Kennedy-McCain immigration reform proposal is redolent of both the 1976 uproar surrounding the Panama Canal treaty (which would help make Reagan president in 1980) and the current administration’s Dubai ports fiasco. As with the Panama Canal treaty, which roused patriotic sentiment, immigration in general touches on American’s sense of national identity. But the phenomenon of illegal immigration, which this bill was designed to address, strikes closer to the heart of citizens: working and middle-class voters feel that they have been made foreigners in their own localities by the influx of cheap labor. As with the Dubai ports deal, the Bush administration seems to be undermining its own core principles by failing to put security first.

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The debate over immigration reform has once more shown its capacity to fracture the Republican coalition. John McCain, a co-author of last week’s reform bill, recently engaged in a nasty exchange on the Senate floor with fellow Republican John Cornyn of Texas, who opposed the bill. And bill supporters Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina were roundly booed at their respective state conventions.

So far, the response by the Republican faithful to the Bush-Kennedy-McCain immigration reform proposal is redolent of both the 1976 uproar surrounding the Panama Canal treaty (which would help make Reagan president in 1980) and the current administration’s Dubai ports fiasco. As with the Panama Canal treaty, which roused patriotic sentiment, immigration in general touches on American’s sense of national identity. But the phenomenon of illegal immigration, which this bill was designed to address, strikes closer to the heart of citizens: working and middle-class voters feel that they have been made foreigners in their own localities by the influx of cheap labor. As with the Dubai ports deal, the Bush administration seems to be undermining its own core principles by failing to put security first.

The Washington Post noted in a front-page story that there is little reason to believe that the (deservedly maligned) Department of Homeland Security will be up to the enormous administrative task of implementing the legislation. Similarly, many voters will remember the 1986 immigration reform bill, which provided amnesty for illegal immigrants in exchange for enforcement provisions that never took hold.

McCain will no doubt be hurt by the fallout from the deal and his show of temper in defending it; Mitt Romney, in yet another flip-flop, now claims to oppose the bill. Rudy Giuliani has done little other than question the bill’s security implications. Though immigration is unlikely to boost a second-tier candidate into the top rank, it might provide the opportunity for an outsider like Tom Tancredo (who has already murmured about running) to put together a breakaway campaign based on his opposition to both abortion and illegal immigration. Whatever happens, it is obvious that for the Republican party, the political costs of this deal are going to be high.

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Will China Collapse?

My May 16 post, “Trade Showdown with China,” attracted a comment from one “Tongluren,” who asked, “Is this the same Gordon Chang that insisted that China will collapse in 2007?” It’s a fair question.

My first book, The Coming Collapse of China (2001), predicted that the Chinese Communist party would fall from power by the end of this decade, that is, by 2011 (not 2007). One of my principal arguments was that international commerce would remake Chinese society in ways that the country’s collective leadership—now composed of nine aging engineers who all favor blue suits and red ties—would not be able to handle.

Most people, like my new friend Tongluren, believe the Chinese one-party state is durable. If there is any consensus about China’s trajectory at this moment, it is that the Communist party will lead that nation to geopolitical and economic dominance in a few decades, perhaps sooner. “Resilient authoritarianism,” championed by Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, is the latest intellectual flavor.

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My May 16 post, “Trade Showdown with China,” attracted a comment from one “Tongluren,” who asked, “Is this the same Gordon Chang that insisted that China will collapse in 2007?” It’s a fair question.

My first book, The Coming Collapse of China (2001), predicted that the Chinese Communist party would fall from power by the end of this decade, that is, by 2011 (not 2007). One of my principal arguments was that international commerce would remake Chinese society in ways that the country’s collective leadership—now composed of nine aging engineers who all favor blue suits and red ties—would not be able to handle.

Most people, like my new friend Tongluren, believe the Chinese one-party state is durable. If there is any consensus about China’s trajectory at this moment, it is that the Communist party will lead that nation to geopolitical and economic dominance in a few decades, perhaps sooner. “Resilient authoritarianism,” championed by Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, is the latest intellectual flavor.

So it is no great surprise that people often ask me, in light of the spectacular performance of the Chinese economy in the last half decade, whether I have changed my opinions on the stability of the modern Chinese state. I have, in one important respect: I am surprised that China’s trading partners have been so tolerant of its failure to meet its World Trade Organization obligations. China’s economic success is based not only on structural factors like cheap labor and extreme environmental degradation, but also on widespread violations of trade promises. WTO membership limits the Communist party’s ability to continue those violations—and therefore to rack up enormous trade surpluses—but only if other nations enforce their rights.

At first, other nations were tolerant. America waited until March 2004 to file the first WTO complaint against China. Then Washington gave Beijing a private warning in February 2006 that its informal grace period was over. After more Chinese intransigence, Washington and Brussels took the unprecedented step of joining in a complaint the following month. Finally, Americans lost patience and filed three cases this year. In one of them—concerning intellectual property violations—we have been joined by Canada, Japan, Mexico, and the European Union.

China’s trading partners have just begun to scratch the surface with cases like these. Undoubtedly, additional complaints are on the way, as even more nations lose their patience with Beijing’s predatory trade practices. So WTO membership can eventually lead to major dislocations in the Chinese economy. Before joining the global trading organization, Beijing set the rules and administered the game. Now, however, it has submitted itself to external requirements and foreign tribunals.

Sensing American frustration, Beijing is approaching next week’s trade talks with the Bush administration with a hint of desperation. It is making pugnacious pronouncements, purchasing large quantities of American technology and soybeans, and pleading for more patience. It is, in fact, doing everything but complying with its trade obligations. Chinese leaders know that their economy cannot compete according to the rules. And that is one reason why the Chinese one-party state, which is overly dependent on exports to deliver prosperity, might just yet collapse.

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Farewell Fatah al-Islam

“A crime of especial notoriety,” is what the Guardian called it in 2002 when Israel entered a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin to root out terrorists who had organized a suicide bombing that killed 29 at their seder tables in a hotel in Netanya on the first night of Passover. In all, 52 Palestinians, almost all of them terrorists, died in this supposed genocide, while Israel, in a costly effort to to conduct itself in the most humane fashion possible, lost 23 soldiers of its own.

In Tripoli right now, the Lebanese army is pounding a Palestinian refugee camp with tank shells and other heavy weapons far less discriminating in their lethal effects than anything fired by Israeli ground troops in Jenin—and many Lebanese are cheering them on. The choir of Europeans and American leftists who routinely champion the Palestinian cause is strangely silent—or maybe not so strangely silent. Perhaps their real interest lies not in defending Palestinian rights but in bashing Israel—and Israel, of course, is not engaged in this particular fray.

Whatever explains the silence, we should welcome it as an opportunity and join the Lebanese civilians who are cheering the Lebanese army on. On September 20, 2001, George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress and laid out a strategy for protecting our country from another disaster like September 11: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda,” he said, “but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

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“A crime of especial notoriety,” is what the Guardian called it in 2002 when Israel entered a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin to root out terrorists who had organized a suicide bombing that killed 29 at their seder tables in a hotel in Netanya on the first night of Passover. In all, 52 Palestinians, almost all of them terrorists, died in this supposed genocide, while Israel, in a costly effort to to conduct itself in the most humane fashion possible, lost 23 soldiers of its own.

In Tripoli right now, the Lebanese army is pounding a Palestinian refugee camp with tank shells and other heavy weapons far less discriminating in their lethal effects than anything fired by Israeli ground troops in Jenin—and many Lebanese are cheering them on. The choir of Europeans and American leftists who routinely champion the Palestinian cause is strangely silent—or maybe not so strangely silent. Perhaps their real interest lies not in defending Palestinian rights but in bashing Israel—and Israel, of course, is not engaged in this particular fray.

Whatever explains the silence, we should welcome it as an opportunity and join the Lebanese civilians who are cheering the Lebanese army on. On September 20, 2001, George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress and laid out a strategy for protecting our country from another disaster like September 11: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda,” he said, “but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

Although the U.S. is not involved, the fighting in northern Lebanon between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, a Palestinian group affiliate of al Qaeda, is nonetheless a potentially important testing ground for the Bush doctrine of denying “safe haven to terrorism.”

Parts of Lebanon, like Afghanistan under the Taliban, have become lawless sanctuaries for terrorist groups of global reach. The Iranian-backed Hizballah is the most significant of these. Not only does this Shiite movement retain powerful influence throughout Lebanon, but it is organized to strike abroad and is widely believed to have sleeper cells in Europe, Latin America, and the United States.

Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, however, the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has never welcomed the terrorists in Lebanon’s midst. Rather, the terrorist presence is a consequence of his country’s chronic weakness, which flows from deep ethnic and religious divisions and continuing Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs.

Unwilling and unable to confront Hizballah directly, Siniora has deployed some 15,000 troops in Lebanon’s south, where the Shiite militia had enjoyed unlimited freedom of action until it provoked last summer’s war with Israel.

If Siniora successfully manages to extinguish Fatah al-Islam and the threat it represents to Lebanon, perhaps he will be emboldened to check more resolutely and ultimately disarm the Iranian-backed Hizballah. Movement in that direction could certainly be counted as a critical interest of the United States. We should be bending every diplomatic and military effort to help him accomplish it.

“We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest,” said President Bush on September 20, 2001. Time is running out on his administration. Let’s hope he keeps his word.

 

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Bookshelf

• Mid-century modernism has become so retro-chic that it’s easy to forget how many Americans still find it offputting. I never cease to be amazed, for instance, by the number of people I know who loathe modern domestic architecture. Me, I love it, though I freely admit that any number of well-known modern houses are far better looked at than lived in. I recently returned from Chicago, where I visited Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Muirhead Farmhouse (1953). Mies’ “glass house,” one of the most famous and frequently written-about homes of the 20th century, is the subject of an exceedingly intelligent illustrated monograph by Franz Schulze, author of the standard biography of Mies. The Farnsworth House is out of print, alas, but Schulze’s Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography is still to be had and very much worth reading, not least for its detailed account of the making of this icon of architectural modernism, which is a good deal more candid about the house’s self-evident defects as a “machine for living” (in Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted phrase) than one might expect from an admiring biographer: “Certainly the house is more nearly a temple than a dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity.”

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• Mid-century modernism has become so retro-chic that it’s easy to forget how many Americans still find it offputting. I never cease to be amazed, for instance, by the number of people I know who loathe modern domestic architecture. Me, I love it, though I freely admit that any number of well-known modern houses are far better looked at than lived in. I recently returned from Chicago, where I visited Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1951) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Muirhead Farmhouse (1953). Mies’ “glass house,” one of the most famous and frequently written-about homes of the 20th century, is the subject of an exceedingly intelligent illustrated monograph by Franz Schulze, author of the standard biography of Mies. The Farnsworth House is out of print, alas, but Schulze’s Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography is still to be had and very much worth reading, not least for its detailed account of the making of this icon of architectural modernism, which is a good deal more candid about the house’s self-evident defects as a “machine for living” (in Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted phrase) than one might expect from an admiring biographer: “Certainly the house is more nearly a temple than a dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity.”

The Muirhead Farmhouse, by contrast, is one of Wright’s lesser-known projects and has yet to be written about in detail. Fortunately, several good books have been published about the ranch-style “Usonian houses” of Wright’s later years, the most accessible of which is Carla Lind’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses, one of twelve titles in a series of miniature monographs called “Wright at a Glance.” In addition, Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic of The Wall Street Journal, has written a superb brief life of Wright that is among the strongest entries in the Penguin Lives series. Frank Lloyd Wright is a masterpiece of thoughtful compression, never more so than in this passage about the Usonian houses:

Usonian houses were, and are, inviting and livable . . . . Wright’s houses never insisted that their occupants reshape themselves to conform to an abstract architectural ideal. Although he was relentlessly dictatorial about building in furniture of his own design and including his own accessories—he was known to go into his houses during the owners’ absence and rearrange everything to his taste—and some of that furniture was notoriously uncomfortable, he never adopted the functional minimalism promoted for low-cost dwellings by the International style. His houses are positively gemütlich compared with the enforced antisepsis that has reached a challenging astringency as the architectural avant-garde strives for a reductive perfection.

Well said.

• I only just got around to reading the extensively revised second edition of Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. I wrote about the first edition in “The Problem of Shostakovich,” my 1995 COMMENTARY essay about the greatest Russian composer of the 20th century:

Wilson’s book, initially planned as a short volume in Faber & Faber’s “Composers Remembered” series, soon grew beyond its intended scope to become a full-scale documentary biography based not only on pre- and post-glasnost reminiscences of Shostakovich, some already published and some newly commissioned, but on interviews with about two dozen of the composer’s friends, colleagues, and family members. The result is without question the most important English-language book about Dmitri Shostakovich to date.

This new edition is 80 pages longer than its predecessor, and the additional material, all drawn from primary sources not available to Wilson in the 90’s, will be of great interest to anyone more than casually interested in Shostakovich. If you have the original edition, you should replace it with this one. If not, what I said in 1995 still goes. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered is every bit as readable as a well-written biography, and since no such book exists, it remains the indispensable starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about Dmitri Shostakovich’s life, times, and troubles.

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