Commentary Magazine


Posts For: July 18, 2007

Irrational Exuberance on NK

The shutdown of North Korea’s only working reactor and associated facilities on Saturday has reinvigorated multilateral negotiations in Beijing. Chun Yung-woo, Seoul’s chief delegate to the six-party talks, called the atmosphere at the nuclear disarmament discussions “as bright as Beijing’s skies.” The South Korean intended to convey optimism. But his figure of speech suggests the opposite—the skies above the Chinese capital being mostly gray with pollution—and is all the more apt for it.

How do we account for the sudden progress of the last several days? There have been many moments of rapid advance since the end of the 1980’s, when the world began to take notice of the North Korean nuclear program. The international community rejoiced when Jimmy Carter, defying Seoul and Washington, visited Pyongyang in 1994 and set the terms for the Agreed Framework. Yet during the ensuing years, the ruling Kim family—first Kim Il Sung and now Kim Jong Il—managed consistently to throw the process into reverse at critical moments. Particularly, Kim Jong Il has stalled the six-party talks since 2003, when they convened. It is now especially unlikely that he, a master at creating crisis on cue, has made a good-faith commitment to disarm. His health is in doubt and the military—the most powerful faction in Pyongyang—is dead-set against surrendering its most destructive weapons.

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The shutdown of North Korea’s only working reactor and associated facilities on Saturday has reinvigorated multilateral negotiations in Beijing. Chun Yung-woo, Seoul’s chief delegate to the six-party talks, called the atmosphere at the nuclear disarmament discussions “as bright as Beijing’s skies.” The South Korean intended to convey optimism. But his figure of speech suggests the opposite—the skies above the Chinese capital being mostly gray with pollution—and is all the more apt for it.

How do we account for the sudden progress of the last several days? There have been many moments of rapid advance since the end of the 1980’s, when the world began to take notice of the North Korean nuclear program. The international community rejoiced when Jimmy Carter, defying Seoul and Washington, visited Pyongyang in 1994 and set the terms for the Agreed Framework. Yet during the ensuing years, the ruling Kim family—first Kim Il Sung and now Kim Jong Il—managed consistently to throw the process into reverse at critical moments. Particularly, Kim Jong Il has stalled the six-party talks since 2003, when they convened. It is now especially unlikely that he, a master at creating crisis on cue, has made a good-faith commitment to disarm. His health is in doubt and the military—the most powerful faction in Pyongyang—is dead-set against surrendering its most destructive weapons.

This appearance of progress, however, has everything to do with South Korea’s next presidential election, to be held in December. North Korea’s propaganda machine is already working overtime to elect a “progressive” in the mold of Roh Moo-hyun, the current NK-friendly leader in Seoul. Unfortunately for Kim, the conservative Grand National Party—which maintains a policy more in line with Washington’s—already holds a commanding lead in the polls. But the GNP’s advantage will vanish overnight if Kim and Roh can stage some good news—like, say, an agreement on denuclearization. So look for more stunning headlines in the days and weeks ahead. But I’d bet my bottom dollar—or my last won, as the case may be—that when the December elections are over, Kim Jong Il will find some pretext to fail to turn over his weapons, plutonium, and uranium.

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Gone, But Not Forgotten

Baseball fans who recall Jackie Robinson’s heroic role in integrating baseball in 1947 tend to forget other pioneering African-American players in the major leagues like Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, and Sam Jethroe. Likewise, music fans often pay tribute to African-American singers like the contralto Marian Anderson (1897 –1993), and soprano Leontyne Price (b. 1927) for their triumphant Met Opera debuts, in 1955 and 1961 respectively. Yet other mightily talented singers who also battled early opposition have often been overlooked, which makes a new CD reissue from Bridge Records of a live 1940 concert at the Library of Congress by soprano Dorothy Maynor especially welcome.

Virginia-born Maynor (1910-1996) is accompanied in 1940 by the expert Hungarian pianist Arpád Sándor (1896-1972), a student of Bartók and frequent recital partner of Jascha Heifetz, who knew when to be reticent and when to make passionate keyboard points. Maynor’s flexible lyric soprano has a rapid beat, akin to the voice of the endearing Brazilian diva Bidu Sayão. Maynor’s singing of French in works by Bizet and Charpentier is particularly impressive. She fully deserves this commemoration from Bridge, a doughty, small label run by two New Yorkers, Becky and David Starobin.

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Baseball fans who recall Jackie Robinson’s heroic role in integrating baseball in 1947 tend to forget other pioneering African-American players in the major leagues like Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, and Sam Jethroe. Likewise, music fans often pay tribute to African-American singers like the contralto Marian Anderson (1897 –1993), and soprano Leontyne Price (b. 1927) for their triumphant Met Opera debuts, in 1955 and 1961 respectively. Yet other mightily talented singers who also battled early opposition have often been overlooked, which makes a new CD reissue from Bridge Records of a live 1940 concert at the Library of Congress by soprano Dorothy Maynor especially welcome.

Virginia-born Maynor (1910-1996) is accompanied in 1940 by the expert Hungarian pianist Arpád Sándor (1896-1972), a student of Bartók and frequent recital partner of Jascha Heifetz, who knew when to be reticent and when to make passionate keyboard points. Maynor’s flexible lyric soprano has a rapid beat, akin to the voice of the endearing Brazilian diva Bidu Sayão. Maynor’s singing of French in works by Bizet and Charpentier is particularly impressive. She fully deserves this commemoration from Bridge, a doughty, small label run by two New Yorkers, Becky and David Starobin.

The same is true of another neglected African-American singer, Georgia-born Mattiwilda Dobbs (b. 1925). A silvery lyric soprano capable of emotional warmth in Schubert lieder and coloratura flash in arias by Rimsky-Korsakov, Dobbs made precious few recordings, one of which is happily available from Testament. Her Met Opera debut was as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1956, and she sang 29 performances there of six roles during eight seasons. Yet Dobbs’s career mostly flourished in Europe, where her recordings were made, including a scintillating 1950’s performance of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, reprinted on Preiser Records.

By contrast, there are apparently no CD’s available of early recordings by the tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), who was an international celebrity starting in the 1920’s. Perhaps because Hayes was a concert artist rather than an opera performer, with a sometimes eerie (although compelling) vocal tone, he has been relatively neglected. The same is true of soprano Camilla Williams (b. 1919), who sang the title role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in 1946, yet can only be heard today on a 1950’s Sony recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and as one of a multitude of soloists in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 conducted in 1950 by Leopold Stokowski.

Still, fans of the resonant, characterful contralto Carol Brice (1918-1985) can delight in the recent reissue of two of her long-unavailable recordings from 1946: of Falla’s El Amor brujo and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, both conducted by Fritz Reiner. Before these reissues, Brice was only represented in the catalogue by brief performances in Broadway musicals for which she was clearly overqualified, like 1959’s Saratoga and 1960’s Finian’s Rainbow. Kudos to the CD companies helping us remember these vocal pioneers.

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The Big Disconnect

Yesterday, Iran continued work on its first nuclear weapon, Moscow and Beijing conspired to undermine the Western democracies, and fanatics prepared their next attack on the United States. Oh, there was one other thing that happened—the Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed 14,000 for the first time. Although the index eventually ended up below that magic mark (at 13,971.55), yesterday’s was the fourth successive record close.

I think this is a form of irrational exuberance. Investors, traders, and speculators needed just 57 trading days to push the Dow from 13,000 to 14,000, and they required only 129 days to make the journey from 12,000 to 13,000. By way of contrast, it took about seven-and-a-half years for the market to climb from 11,000 to 12,000. Markets are efficient, but they still dive on the outbreak of wars, assassinations, and miscellaneous disasters. That said, today there is a huge disconnect between current events and market performance. What kind of a risk premium would accurately reflect the perilous state of geopolitics today? One restrictively high, I’d say. And the markets continue to soar. It isn’t pessimism to see a bad ending in this.

Yesterday, Iran continued work on its first nuclear weapon, Moscow and Beijing conspired to undermine the Western democracies, and fanatics prepared their next attack on the United States. Oh, there was one other thing that happened—the Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed 14,000 for the first time. Although the index eventually ended up below that magic mark (at 13,971.55), yesterday’s was the fourth successive record close.

I think this is a form of irrational exuberance. Investors, traders, and speculators needed just 57 trading days to push the Dow from 13,000 to 14,000, and they required only 129 days to make the journey from 12,000 to 13,000. By way of contrast, it took about seven-and-a-half years for the market to climb from 11,000 to 12,000. Markets are efficient, but they still dive on the outbreak of wars, assassinations, and miscellaneous disasters. That said, today there is a huge disconnect between current events and market performance. What kind of a risk premium would accurately reflect the perilous state of geopolitics today? One restrictively high, I’d say. And the markets continue to soar. It isn’t pessimism to see a bad ending in this.

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A Frighteningly Irrefutable NIE

How should we assess the new National Intelligence Estimate on “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland”?

This document was produced by the National Intelligence Council, now under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the new body that sits astride the CIA and the fifteen other agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community. The CIA, both as an intelligence collector and as analytic machine, played a central role in its preparation.

Reaction to the document so far has largely revolved around whether it helps or hurts the tottering Bush administration. But while such speculation is inevitable—and also necessary given the possibility that the CIA might be continuing to wage guerrilla warfare against the White House—it is in some respects beside the point.

The key thing to bear in mind in thinking about this NIE is that it was produced by an organization that is still bleeding from a series of self-inflicted wounds. Having missed the 9/11 attacks, and then botched its assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the second Gulf War, the CIA is locked in perpetual defensive motion.

A document of this nature, and of such importance, therefore has to be written defensively; in other words, given all the missteps taken and falsehoods purveyed by the intelligence community in the past, everything this NIE says now about the terrorist menace has to be irrefutable.

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How should we assess the new National Intelligence Estimate on “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland”?

This document was produced by the National Intelligence Council, now under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the new body that sits astride the CIA and the fifteen other agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community. The CIA, both as an intelligence collector and as analytic machine, played a central role in its preparation.

Reaction to the document so far has largely revolved around whether it helps or hurts the tottering Bush administration. But while such speculation is inevitable—and also necessary given the possibility that the CIA might be continuing to wage guerrilla warfare against the White House—it is in some respects beside the point.

The key thing to bear in mind in thinking about this NIE is that it was produced by an organization that is still bleeding from a series of self-inflicted wounds. Having missed the 9/11 attacks, and then botched its assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the second Gulf War, the CIA is locked in perpetual defensive motion.

A document of this nature, and of such importance, therefore has to be written defensively; in other words, given all the missteps taken and falsehoods purveyed by the intelligence community in the past, everything this NIE says now about the terrorist menace has to be irrefutable.

That’s a tall order, especially since terrorists remain a hard target; they cannot be counted by satellites like Soviet ICBM’s. To meet the challenge, the NIE, to judge by the declassified summary, has gone in a perfectly comprehensible direction; while warning against looming dangers, it is telling us absolutely nothing we did not already know.

Here are some of its “key judgments”:

We judge the US Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years. The main threat comes from Islamic terrorist groups and cells, especially al Qaeda, driven by their undiminished intent to attack the Homeland and a continued effort by these terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities.

Is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by reading a leading newspaper, like the New York Times?

We assess that greatly increased worldwide counterterrorism efforts over the past five years have constrained the ability of al Qaeda to attack the U.S. Homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the Homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11. These measures have helped disrupt known plots against the United States since 9/11.

Once again, is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by reading a leading newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal?

We assess that al Qaeda’s Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the US population.

Is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by watching television news, local channels included?

We assess that al Qaeda will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.

Is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by reading the footnotes of the wikipedia entry on al Qaeda?

To be sure, there are some interesting nuggets in the NIE summary that suggest that the intelligence community might know one or two details that are not already known by the rest of us.

It is conceivable that its discussion of two subjects—the emerging importance of al Qaeda in Iraq, and developments in Pakistan’s tribal areas—might be backed by some highly specific intelligence, based upon interrogations, communications intercepts, and other forms of spycraft.

But on the whole, the NIE appears, at least in its unclassified form, to be a shining example of bureaucratic self-protection. The CIA and affiliated agencies do not want to be wrong again; and they have found a way never to be wrong: by stating the obvious and calling it a National Intelligence Estimate.

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What Ivory Tower?

The public image of the college professor has certainly changed since 1941. That year, Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire featured Gary Cooper as an academic so completely insulated from life that the slangy patter of a gangster’s moll, played by Barbara Stanwyck, baffled him. Since then, the cinematic professor has become more worldly. He is likely to be a womanizing alcoholic (One True Thing), a suicidal Proust scholar* (Little Miss Sunshine), or a womanizing failed writer (both Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale). William Deresiewicz dissects these and other examples in a provocative essay in the American Scholar, which looks at the public image of the contemporary college professor—and its underlying reality.

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The public image of the college professor has certainly changed since 1941. That year, Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire featured Gary Cooper as an academic so completely insulated from life that the slangy patter of a gangster’s moll, played by Barbara Stanwyck, baffled him. Since then, the cinematic professor has become more worldly. He is likely to be a womanizing alcoholic (One True Thing), a suicidal Proust scholar* (Little Miss Sunshine), or a womanizing failed writer (both Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale). William Deresiewicz dissects these and other examples in a provocative essay in the American Scholar, which looks at the public image of the contemporary college professor—and its underlying reality.

Deresiewicz, himself a professor at Yale, concedes that the modern professor is often a “careerist parvenu.” But if so, it is because he has no other choice; the old-boy network that once allocated teaching jobs among a small elite no longer exists. “[T]he old gentility rested on exclusion,” he explains, “and the new rat race is meritocracy in motion.” And he concedes that today’s professor is far more likely to sleep with his students than his pre-1960’s predecessors, but not with the freewheeling abandon that Hollywood imagines.

Deresiewicz is more interesting when he moves from the sociology of the professor to the sociology of the American public—and why Americans seem so hostile to academics. His proposed explanation is fascinating:

Americans’ traditional resentment of hierarchy and hostility toward intellect have intensified since World War II and particularly since the 1960s. Elites have been discredited, the notion of high culture dethroned, the means of communication decentralized. Public discourse has become more demotic; families, churches, and other institutions more democratic. The existence of academia, an institution predicated on intellectual hierarchy, irritates Americans’ insistence on equality, their feeling that intellect constitutes a contemptible kind of advantage. At the same time, as American society has become more meritocratic, its economy more technocratic, people want that advantage for themselves or their children. With the U.S. News rankings and the annual admissions frenzy, universities are playing an ever-more conspicuous role in creating the larger social hierarchy that no one acknowledges but everyone wants to climb. It’s no wonder that people resent the gatekeepers and enjoy seeing them symbolically humiliated.

Deresiewicz may well be right about this, but one element is missing from his spacious essay: the extent to which college professors have been complicit in their own loss of public prestige, particularly in the humanities, where Hollywood’s academic rogues are invariably found. Two generations ago they were respected for subordinating their lives to scholarship, and much of the prestige of their academic subjects—whether Shakespeare or Descartes or George Washington—accrued to them. Today, Shakespeare, Descartes, and Washington don’t seem to count as much as they once did. Now whose fault might that be?

*This character was originally misidentified as “womanizing;” the character is, in fact, gay.

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D’Alema, Double-Tongued

The day after President Bush delivered a speech on the Middle East calling for the total isolation of Hamas, Italy’s Foreign Minister, Massimo D’Alema, delivered a scathing reproach to this strategy. D’Alema called instead for dialogue with Hamas, “a real force,” in his words, “representing a large section of the Palestinian people.” D’Alema, a true democrat, is concerned that the West is shunning a legitimately elected organization.

This is the same D’Alema who, in 1999, while Prime Minister of Italy, ordered his country’s military to join the air campaign against the democratically elected leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic. Had Milosevic been Palestinian and a Hamas leader, would D’Alema have advocated dialogue instead?

The day after President Bush delivered a speech on the Middle East calling for the total isolation of Hamas, Italy’s Foreign Minister, Massimo D’Alema, delivered a scathing reproach to this strategy. D’Alema called instead for dialogue with Hamas, “a real force,” in his words, “representing a large section of the Palestinian people.” D’Alema, a true democrat, is concerned that the West is shunning a legitimately elected organization.

This is the same D’Alema who, in 1999, while Prime Minister of Italy, ordered his country’s military to join the air campaign against the democratically elected leader of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic. Had Milosevic been Palestinian and a Hamas leader, would D’Alema have advocated dialogue instead?

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