Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 2, 2007

Ignorance, Not Bliss

During the cold war, the American public often recoiled from the possibility that the Soviet Union might be behind some outrage too horrific to ignore. A lot of people understandably didn’t want to know if the KGB was responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attempted assassination of the Pope. (Note to conspiracy-mongers: I am not saying that the Soviet secret service was responsible for either dastardly deed, but there was certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing that way, at least in the latter case.) After all, if the Soviets were to blame, what were we prepared to do about it? If the answer was nothing, perhaps ignorance was a rational choice.

That seems to be the dominant American attitude these days toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ever since 1979, the radical mullahs who control Tehran have been waging covert war on the United States and our allies, and we have scarcely responded. Especially now, when we are mired deep in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans and especially most of our politicians would seemingly prefer not to focus on actions that might embroil us with war on another front.

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During the cold war, the American public often recoiled from the possibility that the Soviet Union might be behind some outrage too horrific to ignore. A lot of people understandably didn’t want to know if the KGB was responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attempted assassination of the Pope. (Note to conspiracy-mongers: I am not saying that the Soviet secret service was responsible for either dastardly deed, but there was certainly a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing that way, at least in the latter case.) After all, if the Soviets were to blame, what were we prepared to do about it? If the answer was nothing, perhaps ignorance was a rational choice.

That seems to be the dominant American attitude these days toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ever since 1979, the radical mullahs who control Tehran have been waging covert war on the United States and our allies, and we have scarcely responded. Especially now, when we are mired deep in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans and especially most of our politicians would seemingly prefer not to focus on actions that might embroil us with war on another front.

Yet that kind of ignorance becomes harder to preserve in light of fresh evidence of Iranian aggression. Just today, Brigadier General Kevin J. Bergner, the chief spokesman for U.S. military forces in Iraq, revealed new links between the Iranian government and the attack on an Iraqi government compound in the city of Karbala on January 20, an attack that resulted in the deaths of five American soldiers. As reported by Michael Gordon of the New York Times:

[Bergner] said that interrogations of Qais Khazali, a Shiite militant who oversaw Iranian-supported cells in Iraq and who was captured several months ago along with another militant, Laith Khazali, his brother, showed that Iran’s Quds force helped plan the operation.

Similar information was obtained following the capture of a senior Hezbollah operative, Ali Musa Daqduq, General Bergner said. The capture of Mr. Daqduq had remained secret until today.

Both Ali Musa Daqduq and Qais Khazali state that senior leadership within the Quds force knew of and supported planning for the eventual Karbala attack that killed five coalition soldiers, General Bergner said.

Documents seized from Qais Khazali, General Bergner said, showed that Iran’s Quds Force provided detailed information on the activities of American soldiers in Karbala, including shift changes and the defenses at the site.

More generally, General Bergner added, Iran’s Quds Force has been using Lebanese Hezbollah as a “proxy” or “surrogate” in training and equipping Shiite militants in Iraq.

When presented in the past with evidence of Iranian involvement in the Karbala raid—or in the far more frequent and deadly use of explosively-formed penetrators against American armored vehicles—apologists for the Iranian regime have questioned whether the mullahs were aware of what their own security forces were up to. This is a bit reminiscent of what Nazi apologists used to say—that surely Adolf Hitler could not have known what the SS and Gestapo were up to. That pretense becomes harder and harder to sustain in the case of Iran. The Times account concludes:

Our intelligence reveals that the senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity, [Bergner] said. When he was asked if Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be unaware of the activity, General Bergner said that would be hard to imagine.

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Sins of Commission

It was announced in May that Britain’s Prince Charles has commissioned a piano concerto in memory of his late grandmother, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002 at 101. Charles had previously commissioned (also in memory of his grandmother) Reflections on a Scottish Folksong, a work for cello and orchestra by Richard Rodney Bennett, which premiered in London last year. Bennett (born 1936), a student of Pierre Boulez, is an adept composer of classical works, as a bewitching CD of his choral works on Collegium Records proves. Bennett is also a noted composer of popular scores for hit films like Murder on the Orient Express and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Unfortunately, few composers share Bennett’s range of talents. Nigel Hess, the composer chosen by Prince Charles for the forthcoming concerto, is known mostly for his work in TV and films, as composer of the theme music for such BBC-TV series as Hetty Wainthropp Investigates and the score of the film Ladies in Lavender. Prince Charles, who briefly studied the cello in his youth, is a self-proclaimed fan of classical music and opera. But he expresses his appreciation with the kind of backward-looking stance he has notoriously applied to modern architecture. In 2000, Charles appointed a young Welsh harpist, Catrin Finch, to be official harpist to HRH The Prince of Wales—an honor last granted in 1871.

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It was announced in May that Britain’s Prince Charles has commissioned a piano concerto in memory of his late grandmother, the Queen Mother, who died in 2002 at 101. Charles had previously commissioned (also in memory of his grandmother) Reflections on a Scottish Folksong, a work for cello and orchestra by Richard Rodney Bennett, which premiered in London last year. Bennett (born 1936), a student of Pierre Boulez, is an adept composer of classical works, as a bewitching CD of his choral works on Collegium Records proves. Bennett is also a noted composer of popular scores for hit films like Murder on the Orient Express and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Unfortunately, few composers share Bennett’s range of talents. Nigel Hess, the composer chosen by Prince Charles for the forthcoming concerto, is known mostly for his work in TV and films, as composer of the theme music for such BBC-TV series as Hetty Wainthropp Investigates and the score of the film Ladies in Lavender. Prince Charles, who briefly studied the cello in his youth, is a self-proclaimed fan of classical music and opera. But he expresses his appreciation with the kind of backward-looking stance he has notoriously applied to modern architecture. In 2000, Charles appointed a young Welsh harpist, Catrin Finch, to be official harpist to HRH The Prince of Wales—an honor last granted in 1871.

Musical traditions dating back to 1871 may appeal to the prince, but those of only slightly later vintage apparently do not. The late UK arts administrator John Drummond revealed in his autobiography Tainted by Experience that, after a concert performance of Alban Berg’s String Quartet, written in 1910, Charles declared: “Well, you can’t call that music.” Dealing with living composers is necessarily a challenge to anyone who still finds 1910 too avant-garde.

If Charles ever does decide to devote any time to new music, he need not look far. Two of Europe’s most exciting younger composers, Thomas Adès (born 1971) and Mark-Anthony Turnage (born 1960) are flourishing in England today. Outside the UK, the venerable French maestro Henri Dutilleux (born 1916) is still thriving, while Germany’s Wilhelm Killmayer (born 1927), Russia’s Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931), Hungary’s György Kurtág (born 1926), Switzerland’s Heinz Holliger (born 1939), Norway’s Arne Nordheim (born 1931), Estonia’s Arvo Pärt (born 1935), and America’s Frederic Rzewski (born 1938) have all produced recent work of permanent value. To overlook composers of this stature when it is time to commission new works may be called a sin of omission. In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas states that such sins are generally less grave than sins of commission—but he was not referring to piano concertos.

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Bookshelf

• I know a not-inconsiderable number of people—most of them well on the far side of fifty—who sincerely believe that nothing good has happened to American popular music since Elvis Presley first swiveled his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show. Such frustrated folk will find much solace in The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage (Ivan R. Dee, 230 pp., $24.95), a collection of the essays about American popular song and its makers that Stefan Kanfer has been publishing in City Journal for the past few years.

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• I know a not-inconsiderable number of people—most of them well on the far side of fifty—who sincerely believe that nothing good has happened to American popular music since Elvis Presley first swiveled his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show. Such frustrated folk will find much solace in The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage (Ivan R. Dee, 230 pp., $24.95), a collection of the essays about American popular song and its makers that Stefan Kanfer has been publishing in City Journal for the past few years.

In addition to fervent appreciations of Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Stephen Sondheim, The Voodoo That They Did So Well contains a profile of Lorenzo da Ponte (about whom I recently wrote in this space) and a pair of affectionate essays about vaudeville and Yiddish theater. All eight pieces proceed from the dolorous assumptions that (1) things ain’t what they used to be and (2) we shall never be again as we were:

Professional mourners constantly bemoan the unintelligence of the young. As a guest professor at various universities in and around the city I have not found this lament valid: the current generation of college students is as bright as my own or any other. But I have found a surprising incuriosity about popular history—just the sort of subject youth ought to find compelling. The reasons are manifest. The internet, video games, DVD’s, iPods, and all the rest have pushed literature from center stage; the cacophony of rock, hip-hop, and grunge has obscured, and sometimes buried, some of the greatest popular melodies and lyrics ever written.

I yield to no one in my disdain for the spoiled fruits of modernity, but I’ve been listening to rock for 40 years without any obvious ill effects—and with no diminishment of my appreciation for what Alec Wilder referred to as “the professional tradition” in American songwriting. As I explained in COMMENTARY a couple of years ago, the fact that they no longer write ’em like they used to doesn’t necessarily mean that what they write now isn’t worth hearing.

Stefan Kanfer isn’t having any of it. So far as I can tell from the pages of The Voodoo That They Did So Well, rock is a closed book to him. Indeed, he doesn’t even seem to like most of Sondheim’s work, though he clearly respects it and has warm words for A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd:

Save for a handful of numbers, it is unlikely that fifty years from now popular entertainers will sing his songs and that the general public—those uncelebrated people who finally determine what Broadway and Tin Pan Alley figures enter the pantheon—will cherish them.

As for what Kanfer likes . . . well, the table of contents will tell you that, and I’m not so sure that there’s much point in reading further. If you already know and like the songs of Messrs. Berlin, Gershwin, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers, I doubt you’ll find that The Voodoo That They Did So Well sheds very much light on what makes them tick. Kanfer is an asserter, not an explainer, and unless you agree with him up front about the greatness of Messrs. Berlin, Gershwin, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers, you’re not likely to come away persuaded that they’re better than the music with which you grew up, or that you need to run right out and buy a stack of original-cast albums.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the great pre-rock songwriters with all my heart, and I’ve never had much use for hip-hop or grunge, either. But their work, wonderful though it was, is neither the beginning nor the end of American popular music, and to suppose otherwise is to sentence yourself to the same aesthetic prison that Evelyn Waugh inhabited. “His strongest tastes were negative,” Waugh wrote of himself (more or less) in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. “He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom.” To be disgusted and bored with the world as it is may be an appropriate response to things as they are, but it isn’t much fun, nor is it a good way to get anything done.

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Female Terrorism

The New York Times has another front-page story on the UK bombings today by Alan Cowell, who has a joint byline with Raymond Bonner. Is there a new spin today like there was in yesterday’s front-page story? Perhaps, but if so, its veers off in a strange direction.

The two Timesmen note that a woman has been arrested in the plot. They cite an unnamed Western official saying this is “not surprising,” as women have been previously arrested for failing to report suspects to the police. But the same anonymous official is then paraphrased saying that if the seized woman had been “directly involved in a terrorist attack on a Western country, it would be highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented.” The official is also quoted saying, “We’ve always worked on the assumption, given that many women share the same ideology as the men, that it was only a matter of time before women became involved.”

This official requested anonymity, reports the Times, “because he was not authorized to brief reporters.” But why was he not authorized? We are not told. But one reason might be that he is too ignorant to be a spokesman. If so, the Times reporters themselves did not catch on.

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The New York Times has another front-page story on the UK bombings today by Alan Cowell, who has a joint byline with Raymond Bonner. Is there a new spin today like there was in yesterday’s front-page story? Perhaps, but if so, its veers off in a strange direction.

The two Timesmen note that a woman has been arrested in the plot. They cite an unnamed Western official saying this is “not surprising,” as women have been previously arrested for failing to report suspects to the police. But the same anonymous official is then paraphrased saying that if the seized woman had been “directly involved in a terrorist attack on a Western country, it would be highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented.” The official is also quoted saying, “We’ve always worked on the assumption, given that many women share the same ideology as the men, that it was only a matter of time before women became involved.”

This official requested anonymity, reports the Times, “because he was not authorized to brief reporters.” But why was he not authorized? We are not told. But one reason might be that he is too ignorant to be a spokesman. If so, the Times reporters themselves did not catch on.

To begin with, if we define “Western countries” broadly to include Israel and Russia, there have been a wealth of attacks in which women have played central roles. Israel has faced a slew of female suicide bombers over the years, with the first such attack taking place against its forces in Lebanon in 1985, killing two soldiers.

In Russia, “black widows,” Chechen women whose husbands or other close relatives have been killed fighting Russian security forces, have played prominent roles in a whole series of brutal terrorist attacks. A large proportion of the 42 terrorists who seized a Moscow theater in 2002 were women; 129 of the 700 or so hostages they seized perished. Two Russian airliners that were downed by bombs simultaneously in 2004 are also thought to have been set off by Chechen women. Part of the evidence: their bodies were the only two that went unclaimed.

But if we speak of the West proper, there is West Germany, which was plagued in the 1970’s by the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhoff gang. Ulrike Marie Meinhof, who engaged in numerous acts of terrorism and also served as the group’s theoretician, was of course a woman. Irmgard Möller and Margrit Schiller were among her female accomplices in terrorist actions that took the lives of some 34 people.

But the most interesting case concerns England itself. In 1969, Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, took part in the simultaneous hijacking of four aircraft to Jordan known as Black September. In 1970, she attempted to hijack an El Al Flight heading from Amsterdam to New York. Israeli skymarshals killed one of her compatriots and overpowered her, and the flight made an emergency landing at Heathrow airport in London.

Khaled was delivered to the British police, who treated her practically like visiting royalty. Her first visitor in jail was an immigration officer who wanted to know why she had arrived in the country without a visa. Within the month, the British had released her. “When I left, they took me on a helicopter tour, saying: ‘You must see the sights of London before you go.’”

Khaled left for Jordan, but became a regular visitor to England where she made speaking engagements, and where she was lionized by left-wing British journalists. Several months before September 11, 2001 she was interviewed by the Guardian, declaring that airline hijackings were a thing of the past and recalling her fond memories of her month in police custody, “where she played badminton with her guards, while attempting to win them over to the Palestinian cause.”

What goes around evidently comes around, sometimes in a different form. But the Timesmen know nothing of this history. There is a reason why journalism is called history’s first draft—it is often in severe need of editing.

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