Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 5, 2007

The Bad Good Shepherd

Why did the CIA’s 1961 Bay of Pigs operation Cuba fail? In The Good Shepherd, the recent Robert DeNiro film starring Matt Damon, we are led to think that the plan collapsed because the landing site of the invasion was leaked.

But in actuality, the problems with the invasion were far more profound. What really happened and in what other ways does Hollywood twist history? The CIA, surprisingly unshy these days about airing its dirty laundry, has now posted a transcript on the agency website of its in-house discussions of the film.

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Why did the CIA’s 1961 Bay of Pigs operation Cuba fail? In The Good Shepherd, the recent Robert DeNiro film starring Matt Damon, we are led to think that the plan collapsed because the landing site of the invasion was leaked.

But in actuality, the problems with the invasion were far more profound. What really happened and in what other ways does Hollywood twist history? The CIA, surprisingly unshy these days about airing its dirty laundry, has now posted a transcript on the agency website of its in-house discussions of the film.

It turns out that, contrary to what we see on the silver screen, no CIA figure of that era belonged to Skull and Bones, Yale’s secret society. There are other far more serious distortions of the past, says one in-house CIA historian. Among other things, “[b]y depicting service in the agency as a life of lies, secrets, and the dirty business of operations and counterintelligence, it suggests that people who work in CIA turn into monsters.”

According to the CIA’s chief historian, the movie “gets all the little details right: the eyeglasses, the desk sets, the street signs, the newspaper boxes—much like those quality historical dramas that the British are so good at producing. But as a rendering of history writ large, the film seems to me more like the “propagandamentaries” of Costa Gavras, such as Z and State of Siege, which use familiar, but not necessarily true-to-life, episodes and personalities to make political points.”

Still, as one CIA historian sums it up, for intelligence professionals, Good Shepherd is “probably worth seeing, at least to be able to discuss it intelligently in social and professional settings” with other spies.

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The Veterans of Classical Music

Getting older can be a delightful experience for performers of classical music. At Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, June 6, the Senior Concert Orchestra will perform a program of works by Mozart and Elgar, among others, conducted by David Gilbert. The orchestra, composed of retired professional musicians from the New York area, has been performing since 1966 as an offshoot of the Senior Musicians’ Association, part of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. The Carnegie Hall audience will experience the pleasure of hearing orchestral musicians playing solely for the joy of it, a rare phenomenon.

Decades ago, Frank Jankovitz—one of the Senior Concert Orchestra’s founders—identified longevity with creative wisdom. And last year, in a study from the British Psychological Society’s Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, orchestral musicians explained that playing in an orchestra was the “essential means by which they could socialize with like-minded people, and experience camaraderie, teamwork, solidarity, and friendship.” Hence they felt a “lifelong passion for music and music performance.”

This kind of passion can be heard for free on Wednesday (tickets are available at the box office before the concert). If you like what you hear, and have the means, you might think of making a voluntary donation to Local 802’s Fund for Disabled Musicians or its Emergency Relief Fund.

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Getting older can be a delightful experience for performers of classical music. At Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, June 6, the Senior Concert Orchestra will perform a program of works by Mozart and Elgar, among others, conducted by David Gilbert. The orchestra, composed of retired professional musicians from the New York area, has been performing since 1966 as an offshoot of the Senior Musicians’ Association, part of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. The Carnegie Hall audience will experience the pleasure of hearing orchestral musicians playing solely for the joy of it, a rare phenomenon.

Decades ago, Frank Jankovitz—one of the Senior Concert Orchestra’s founders—identified longevity with creative wisdom. And last year, in a study from the British Psychological Society’s Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, orchestral musicians explained that playing in an orchestra was the “essential means by which they could socialize with like-minded people, and experience camaraderie, teamwork, solidarity, and friendship.” Hence they felt a “lifelong passion for music and music performance.”

This kind of passion can be heard for free on Wednesday (tickets are available at the box office before the concert). If you like what you hear, and have the means, you might think of making a voluntary donation to Local 802’s Fund for Disabled Musicians or its Emergency Relief Fund.

Alas, such joy and continuity are scarcely available for music writers who are retired—sometimes forcibly—after years of service. Peter G. Davis’s summary dismissal, after decades of writing music criticism for New York, is a loss to our local culture. Davis wrote informative, cogent, and tasteful articles, making him a rare commodity among critics. Undaunted by the often-stagnant classical music scene in New York, where the same podium-hogging conductors repeatedly perform the same works with the same ensembles, Davis invariably lent a fresh ear to each performance. He could be demanding and acerbic with performers, but always held the highest artistic ideals in view.

Davis is reportedly planning to retire to his country home and work on a (very welcome) revised edition of his still-unrivalled The American Opera Singer: The Lives & Adventures of America’s Great Singers in Opera & Concert from 1825 to the Present. But this is cold comfort to faithful readers of his magazine work. Worse still, Davis’s dismissal echoes the way other veteran music critics are currently being treated. In 2005, the stellar Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer accepted, as he reports, a “blanket early-retirement incentive offer made to every employee who had been [at the Globe] seven years or more,” after long years of devotion to the cause of classical music in New England.*

These oustings are rarely, if ever, commented on in print—either because salaried music critics are an envious bunch, or because they fear a similar fate. It is thus left to classical-music lovers themselves to take a moment to defend the veteran critics whom they appreciate (by writing letters to the editor, for instance) before they go the way of Dyer and Davis.

*This sentence originally misstated the terms under which Dyer left the Globe.

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China’s Population Crisis

Last Tuesday, in ten towns across Rongxian county in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, several thousand peasants stormed government offices, torched patrol cars, and fought armed police over fines imposed to enforce Beijing’s one-child policy.

The Rongxian disturbances occurred less than two weeks after approximately 10,000 peasants rioted over the same policy in nearby Bobai county. In Bobai, protesters also set fires, smashed cars, and damaged and looted a government office. As many as five people—including three population-control officials—may have died. Protests occurred in 28 Bobai townships over a three-day period. The central government’s one-child rules vary, depending on location and other factors: Bobai regulations permit families one child if the first was a boy and two if the first was a girl.

Heavy fines helped cause the Bobai disturbances. Some of the penalties were as high as $1,300—in an area where annual incomes average about one-tenth of that amount. Failure to pay such a fine within three days of its assessment can result in the destruction of a family’s home and the seizure of its personal property. There have also been more than 250 instances of the application of “population-control measures”—forced sterilizations and forced abortions—in Guangxi in the last three months. The Guangxi demonstrations appear to have been triggered by this sudden two-pronged crackdown.

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Last Tuesday, in ten towns across Rongxian county in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, several thousand peasants stormed government offices, torched patrol cars, and fought armed police over fines imposed to enforce Beijing’s one-child policy.

The Rongxian disturbances occurred less than two weeks after approximately 10,000 peasants rioted over the same policy in nearby Bobai county. In Bobai, protesters also set fires, smashed cars, and damaged and looted a government office. As many as five people—including three population-control officials—may have died. Protests occurred in 28 Bobai townships over a three-day period. The central government’s one-child rules vary, depending on location and other factors: Bobai regulations permit families one child if the first was a boy and two if the first was a girl.

Heavy fines helped cause the Bobai disturbances. Some of the penalties were as high as $1,300—in an area where annual incomes average about one-tenth of that amount. Failure to pay such a fine within three days of its assessment can result in the destruction of a family’s home and the seizure of its personal property. There have also been more than 250 instances of the application of “population-control measures”—forced sterilizations and forced abortions—in Guangxi in the last three months. The Guangxi demonstrations appear to have been triggered by this sudden two-pronged crackdown.

As these spontaneous demonstrations in Rongxian and Bobai show, China’s one-child policy is deeply unpopular. In Bobai, officials enforcing the rule are, in the words of one villager, “just like the Japanese invaders during the war.” Defiance of the policy is widespread—only about 35 percent of all Chinese families have complied with official limits, according to one estimate. Family-planning outlaws come from all geographic areas and every economic and social group. In urban China, the wealthy pay the fines for noncompliance or hide their children in big homes. In rural China, the poor continue to procreate and (as the past two weeks have shown) take to the streets to defend their right to reproduce.

Despite such defiance, the Chinese government believes it has managed to control population growth. Official estimates credit the one-child policy, which has been in place since the 1970’s, for preventing up to 300 million births. Beijing views that statistic as evidence of success. The government has, in fact, decided to keep the policy in place until at least 2010 in order to meet the country’s announced population target of 1.36 billion people. That goal may be merely a fantasy, however. By some estimates, China already has a population of more than 1.5 billion.

This massive experiment in social engineering has caused a rapidly aging China—it is often said that the country will grow old before it becomes rich—and has skewed demographics: there are now about 118 boys for every 100 girls, and in a decade there will be about 30 million excess males. Many have speculated about the social consequences of such a demographic imbalance. Some believe that the overabundance of young men—“bare branches,” in popular terminology—will lead the country to war, while others merely see increased prostitution, trafficking in females, and assorted other criminal activity. Whatever happens, it’s clear that none of the policy’s byproducts is socially desirable.

If demography is destiny, then China is in for a disturbing future. And it is clear that the one-child policy is destabilizing the present. Population control through repression, as the Rongxian and Bobai disturbances suggest, is completely unsustainable.

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The Closing of the British Mind

Last week’s vote by the British Universities and Colleges Union admonishing its members to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions” marks a new stage in the concerted campaign to put Israel into a kind of cultural quarantine. This boycott and others like it are not merely aimed at forcing a change of that country’s policy towards the Palestinians—they are explicitly intended to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state. By branding Israel an apartheid state, these academics are denying its right to exist in anything like its present form.

But what are the “moral implications” of aligning the British academic community with those, such as the Palestinian government, who are dedicated to the destruction of Israel? Is it plausible that the universities now under censure would survive a Hamas-led regime? The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it is true, long preceded the founding of the state of Israel, but the survival of this and other academic institutions in Mandatory Palestine was only possible because they were protected by the British authorities and supported by academics around the world. Had the Hebrew University been left to the mercies of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, its faculty members would have suffered the same fate as the Jewish academics in Germany did at the hands of the Mufti’s ally, Adolf Hitler.

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Last week’s vote by the British Universities and Colleges Union admonishing its members to “consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions” marks a new stage in the concerted campaign to put Israel into a kind of cultural quarantine. This boycott and others like it are not merely aimed at forcing a change of that country’s policy towards the Palestinians—they are explicitly intended to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state. By branding Israel an apartheid state, these academics are denying its right to exist in anything like its present form.

But what are the “moral implications” of aligning the British academic community with those, such as the Palestinian government, who are dedicated to the destruction of Israel? Is it plausible that the universities now under censure would survive a Hamas-led regime? The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it is true, long preceded the founding of the state of Israel, but the survival of this and other academic institutions in Mandatory Palestine was only possible because they were protected by the British authorities and supported by academics around the world. Had the Hebrew University been left to the mercies of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, its faculty members would have suffered the same fate as the Jewish academics in Germany did at the hands of the Mufti’s ally, Adolf Hitler.

Academic boycotts were a favorite method of the Nazis in the early days of the Third Reich, before all Jews had been excluded from German universities. Viktor Klemperer was one of those Jewish professors who, as veterans of the First World War, were permitted to teach under the Nazi Civil Service code introduced shortly after Hitler seized power. In his diaries, Klemperer describes how his lectures were initially well attended. Clinging to the hope that the regime would not last, he noted with satisfaction, “My most eager student is the Nazi cell leader Eva Theissig.”

Two years later, however, Klemperer was down to one student for his lectures on French and two for those on Italian literature—and in May 1935 he was abruptly dismissed. Then he was banned from using the university library—“the absolute end.” For Klemperer, the academic boycott was an intellectual death sentence, foreshadowing the physical one.

We have seen what happened when the Israeli settlers were evicted from Gaza: the first thing the Palestinians did was to burn the homes and desecrate the synagogues the Jews left behind. The universities of Israel, among the best in the world, would be among the first priorities for destruction if Hamas and Hizbollah were ever to achieve their “right of return,” as the British academics advocate.

It is vital to grasp what is at stake here. Western civilization in general—and the idea of the university in particular—has always depended upon the love of knowledge and the cultivation of the intellect for their own sakes. When science and scholarship are subordinated to political ends, it is not only universities that suffer. The British academics who condemn their Israeli counterparts are in reality perpetrating an act of vandalism against their own institutions—and, indirectly, against the society that supports these institutions and is, in turn, shaped and supported by them.

It is Britain, not Israel, that is most harmed by this vandalism. These academics are cutting themselves off from the mainstream of Jewish intellectual life—from one of the sources of their own civilization. When Alan Bloom conjured the image of the closing of the American mind, he meant just such self-inflicted amnesia. Only this time, it is the British mind that is closing.

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Jerusalem: The Scandal of Particularity

On May 24th, COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz received the Guardian of Zion Award from the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University. The Guardian of Zion Award is one of the most prestigious in its field; past recipients include Charles Krauthammer, Cynthia Ozick, Daniel Pipes, Elie Wiesel, and Ruth Wisse. The full text of Podhoretz’s lecture—Jerusalem: The Scandal of Particularity—is now available at COMMENTARY’s website. (And make sure to read Rick Richman’s take on the lecture at Jewish Current Issues.)

On May 24th, COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz received the Guardian of Zion Award from the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University. The Guardian of Zion Award is one of the most prestigious in its field; past recipients include Charles Krauthammer, Cynthia Ozick, Daniel Pipes, Elie Wiesel, and Ruth Wisse. The full text of Podhoretz’s lecture—Jerusalem: The Scandal of Particularity—is now available at COMMENTARY’s website. (And make sure to read Rick Richman’s take on the lecture at Jewish Current Issues.)

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