Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 6, 2007

Weekend Reading

Reflections on the high promise and assorted problems of American nationhood have always been a regular feature of COMMENTARY. Since the magazine’s inception in 1945, we have published many of the country’s leading thinkers on the great questions of American purpose and practice, whether in our own culture and politics or in our relations with the rest of the world. This weekend we offer a few prime selections.

America the Beautiful
Mary McCarthy – September 1947

The Continuing American Ideal
Robert Gorham Davis – May 1958

A Fever of Ethnicity
Robert Alter – June 1972

The United States in Opposition
Daniel Patrick Moynihan – March 1975

American Values & American Foreign Policy
Nathan Glazer – July 1976

American Politics, Then & Now
James Q. Wilson – February 1979

Two Nations or Two Cultures?
Gertrude Himmelfarb – January 2001

Our Creed and Our Culture
Terry Teachout – July/August 2007

Reflections on the high promise and assorted problems of American nationhood have always been a regular feature of COMMENTARY. Since the magazine’s inception in 1945, we have published many of the country’s leading thinkers on the great questions of American purpose and practice, whether in our own culture and politics or in our relations with the rest of the world. This weekend we offer a few prime selections.

America the Beautiful
Mary McCarthy – September 1947

The Continuing American Ideal
Robert Gorham Davis – May 1958

A Fever of Ethnicity
Robert Alter – June 1972

The United States in Opposition
Daniel Patrick Moynihan – March 1975

American Values & American Foreign Policy
Nathan Glazer – July 1976

American Politics, Then & Now
James Q. Wilson – February 1979

Two Nations or Two Cultures?
Gertrude Himmelfarb – January 2001

Our Creed and Our Culture
Terry Teachout – July/August 2007

Read Less

The Clearstream Affair

Dominique de Villepin, the former French prime minister, had some unusual visitors this week. Judges and police searched his Parisian apartment as part of their investigation into what is proving to be the biggest of the many political scandals of the Chirac era: the Clearstream affair.

According to Charles Bremner, writing today in the London Times, the investigating magistrates are close to bringing criminal charges against de Villepin. He is accused of conspiring with former President Jacques Chirac to smear Nicolas Sarkozy (then minister of the interior), thereby dashing the latter’s presidential hopes and clearing the way for de Villepin to succeed his patron, Jacques Chirac. Evidence has come to light of forged bank records purporting to prove that Sarkozy had accepted bribes in order to facilitate the sale of warships to Taiwan.

Read More

Dominique de Villepin, the former French prime minister, had some unusual visitors this week. Judges and police searched his Parisian apartment as part of their investigation into what is proving to be the biggest of the many political scandals of the Chirac era: the Clearstream affair.

According to Charles Bremner, writing today in the London Times, the investigating magistrates are close to bringing criminal charges against de Villepin. He is accused of conspiring with former President Jacques Chirac to smear Nicolas Sarkozy (then minister of the interior), thereby dashing the latter’s presidential hopes and clearing the way for de Villepin to succeed his patron, Jacques Chirac. Evidence has come to light of forged bank records purporting to prove that Sarkozy had accepted bribes in order to facilitate the sale of warships to Taiwan.

The trail leads back via the computer files of a senior intelligence officer, General Philippe Rondot, to two conversations in May 2004 between de Villepin and a defense contractor, Jean-Louis Gregorin, who has already been charged with conspiracy. Apparently Gregorin told the general that he had “received instructions from Dominique de Villepin.” On another occasion, de Villepin “was apparently jubilant but also concerned not to have his name appear in the affair.” These notes look very much like the smoking gun that police were looking for.

They may yet catch an even bigger fish. Two weeks ago Chirac rejected a judicial summons to be interrogated about the Clearstream affair, on the grounds that he enjoys presidential immunity. But that defense may not be enough to protect him if it becomes clear that he, too, knew of and approved the plot to destroy Sarkozy’s reputation. There is no recent example of a French head of state being involved in such a serious criminal conspiracy—we have to go back to Marshal Pétain.

The leader of the Vichy regime was tried and convicted for his collaboration with the Nazis, though his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by his successor, Charles de Gaulle. It is a piquant thought that President Sarkozy, the intended victim of the Clearstream affair, might one day find himself in a similar position of having to decide whether to show mercy toward his disgraced predecessor and rival. “Sarko” is unlikely to do anything to impede the inquiry, though: he simply needs to let justice take its course.

Besides the justice dispensed by the courts, there is also poetic justice in this belated comeuppance. The Chirac-Villepin duo did more damage to France’s standing in the world than even François Mitterrand and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, by offering political and financial aid to dictators and terrorists. So it is only right that the wheels of justice (having ground exceedingly slowly while they were in power) should now have overtaken them: it looks very much as if the nemesis of Chirac and de Villepin, who did so much to undermine the rule of law, will take a legal form. They truly have been hoist by their own petard.

Read Less

Kim Jong Ill

Yesterday, Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most widely read daily, reported that Kim Jong Il was not looking well. The sixty-six year-old North Korean leader, who was photographed on Tuesday shaking hands with China’s foreign minister, appeared thinner in his dark tunic. He had apparently suffered significant hair loss in the last two months, and, in what can only be good news to Western cosmetics companies, his skin appeared dry. Kim also looked haggard when he was not smiling. (The video of this event was the first taken of the reclusive autocrat since last April.)

Kim’s deteriorating appearance has given credence to reports that a team of German doctors performed heart bypass surgery on him in May. His diabetes is also getting worse, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. He is believed to have taken steps to improve his health in recent years, although he still suffers from a lifetime of hard partying.

Read More

Yesterday, Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most widely read daily, reported that Kim Jong Il was not looking well. The sixty-six year-old North Korean leader, who was photographed on Tuesday shaking hands with China’s foreign minister, appeared thinner in his dark tunic. He had apparently suffered significant hair loss in the last two months, and, in what can only be good news to Western cosmetics companies, his skin appeared dry. Kim also looked haggard when he was not smiling. (The video of this event was the first taken of the reclusive autocrat since last April.)

Kim’s deteriorating appearance has given credence to reports that a team of German doctors performed heart bypass surgery on him in May. His diabetes is also getting worse, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. He is believed to have taken steps to improve his health in recent years, although he still suffers from a lifetime of hard partying.

The South Koreans follow Kim Jong Il’s health with great interest. A sudden turn for the worse in his condition could throw the Kimist state—and the entire Korean peninsula—into turmoil. Rival factions in Pyongyang could struggle for power, making almost no scenario implausible.

What will happen the next time Kim’s health falters? North Korea survived the 1994 death of Kim Il Sung, its founder, because the Great Leader devoted decades to ensuring a peaceful transfer of power to his son, the current leader. Kim Jong Il was formally designated his father’s heir in October 1980, but the transition had been in the works since the early 1960’s.

Kim at one time entertained the notion of transferring power to his eldest son, Jong Nam, but apparently he changed his mind in 2001, when the younger Kim was nabbed at the Tokyo airport, traveling under a false Dominican passport with two women and one child. Jong Chol, one of his two younger sons, is reportedly cruel enough to be a North Korean leader, but suffers from afflictions that could make him unfit—including a potentially incurable disease and an obsession with Eric Clapton. In any event, Kim Jong Il has not devoted sufficient time to grooming a successor. (There have already been reports of palace shootings between rival supporters of the two potential heirs.)

Many say that the Chinese want to see a Beijing-style collective leadership replace the erratic Kim. China seems to have been working hard to build ties with different factions in the North Korean capital. As much as we may dislike Kim today—and there are certainly good reasons for doing so—the next leader in North Korea may be even more of a strategic nightmare.

Read Less

Are There Any Lessons From Eastern Europe For Iraq?

For some years now, the U.S. has been attempting to establish a democracy in Iraq. Obviously, the effort is going very badly and public support for the war is evanescing before our eyes. Yesterday, another Republican Senator, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, joined Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, in calling for a radical change of course, i.e., a draw-down of American forces followed by withdrawal.

At this point, even many supporters of the democratization effort might be satisfied by the emergence of any sort of government that could impose a semblance of order and keep the forces of Islamism at bay. We may not even get that. An abrupt U.S. pull-out might prompt a horrifically bloody war of all against all. It is difficult to see a silver lining in any of this. But as we stare into the abyss, we should also remember that history can be full of unexpected twists and turns.

In the early 1980’s, the USSR and the countries it dominated—all of them brutal, Communist police states—were trapped in what seemed like an immutable stasis. Two decades later, most of the countries of Eastern Europe are burgeoning democracies, and Russia itself, whatever backsliding is taking place under Vladimir Putin, is not the soul-numbing totalitarian edifice it once was.

Read More

For some years now, the U.S. has been attempting to establish a democracy in Iraq. Obviously, the effort is going very badly and public support for the war is evanescing before our eyes. Yesterday, another Republican Senator, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, joined Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, in calling for a radical change of course, i.e., a draw-down of American forces followed by withdrawal.

At this point, even many supporters of the democratization effort might be satisfied by the emergence of any sort of government that could impose a semblance of order and keep the forces of Islamism at bay. We may not even get that. An abrupt U.S. pull-out might prompt a horrifically bloody war of all against all. It is difficult to see a silver lining in any of this. But as we stare into the abyss, we should also remember that history can be full of unexpected twists and turns.

In the early 1980’s, the USSR and the countries it dominated—all of them brutal, Communist police states—were trapped in what seemed like an immutable stasis. Two decades later, most of the countries of Eastern Europe are burgeoning democracies, and Russia itself, whatever backsliding is taking place under Vladimir Putin, is not the soul-numbing totalitarian edifice it once was.

How did such profound change come about? Aleksa Djilas, among the most brilliant and lucid intellectuals in Eastern Europe (and an occasional COMMENTARY contributor who writes from Belgrade), calls it “one of the most massive shifts in the balance of power that has ever occurred in peacetime,” which he traces to “change in standards of legitimacy,” as Communist authority was discredited, almost by domino effect, across the region.

This profound change had many sources, and one of them was the role played by heroic dissidents, who risked their freedom and their lives to bring liberty to their imprisoned countries. Is there an equivalent force within Iraq or within the broader Arab world? Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are attempting to build a new life under a new government in the face of murderous attacks by terrorist extremists of various stripes. Should we give up on our efforts to help them, or should we find another path? Is there another path? Or should we just call it quits?

In his recent lecture, “What We Can Learn From Dissidents Under Communism,” worth reading in its entirety, Djilas notes that [i]n spite of all its serious flaws, liberal democracy is the great masterpiece of Western political culture and it is a great blessing that it has spread into many other parts of the world. The West has a right and a duty to do its best to make it encompass the whole of mankind.”

Ringing words, but the question still remains: does any aspect of the East European experience apply to the Middle East? The problem of Eastern Europe, it turns out, was primarily one of regimes and not the society underneath. Is that true of the Middle East, or is the problem of the Arab world not only with the regimes but with the people?

Read Less

Process or Symbol?

What exactly is a memorial? If you are someone who thrives on the sneers of the cognoscenti, try saying that it is the physical manifestation of an abstract idea (such as grief, triumph, or resolution), presented in symbolic terms. You will be told in no uncertain terms that a memorial is not an object but “a process,” an open-ended and indeterminate series of negotiations that can never be brought to resolution. So I learned last year when participating in a panel discussion hosted by WNYC-FM on monuments and memorials in the wake of 9/11 (which you can hear here).

The champion of the “process” concept of memorial was James Young, whose views enjoy great prestige in academic circles. (He was a juror on the panels that chose the designs for both the World Trade Center Memorial and Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial.) His views might be paraphrased thus: In our postmodern age, we no longer possess the collective certainty to make bombastic civic monuments like the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials; we should recognize that there are multiple constituencies and multiple claims on the truth, and that each of these should be given voice in a memorial. The notion that a memorial can effectively symbolize a single abstract concept is the discredited vestige of a simplistic age.

Read More

What exactly is a memorial? If you are someone who thrives on the sneers of the cognoscenti, try saying that it is the physical manifestation of an abstract idea (such as grief, triumph, or resolution), presented in symbolic terms. You will be told in no uncertain terms that a memorial is not an object but “a process,” an open-ended and indeterminate series of negotiations that can never be brought to resolution. So I learned last year when participating in a panel discussion hosted by WNYC-FM on monuments and memorials in the wake of 9/11 (which you can hear here).

The champion of the “process” concept of memorial was James Young, whose views enjoy great prestige in academic circles. (He was a juror on the panels that chose the designs for both the World Trade Center Memorial and Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial.) His views might be paraphrased thus: In our postmodern age, we no longer possess the collective certainty to make bombastic civic monuments like the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials; we should recognize that there are multiple constituencies and multiple claims on the truth, and that each of these should be given voice in a memorial. The notion that a memorial can effectively symbolize a single abstract concept is the discredited vestige of a simplistic age.

Rather inconveniently for Young, some of these simplistic objects still have the power to speak eloquently and intelligibly. One is the Statue of Liberty, an effigy of which was famously created in 1989 by the Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square. Now that destroyed effigy has itself been re-created in Washington, D.C., to serve as the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, and it is impossible to imagine a more fitting or urgent symbol. It was dedicated last month by President Bush in a ceremony that most media, shamefully but not surprisingly, chose to ignore.

In the end, all that an open-ended memorial “process” can hope to do is to inspire a private reverie within each viewer. To inspire collective action—like the self-sacrifice at Tiananmen Square—one needs a collective symbol. Those enthusiastic about the memorial “process” would do well to visit this moving memorial, two blocks from Union Station, at the intersection of Massachusetts and New Jersey avenues.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.