Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 21, 2007

Weak Congress

According to a new Gallup Poll, Congress’s approval rating has matched its lowest rating ever. Just 18 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, while 76 percent disapprove. This is a staggering decline for the Democratic-controlled Congress, and it has occurred in only a matter of months. President Bush’s approval rating, at 32 percent, is considerably higher. It turns out that come this fall, he may well have the stronger hand to play.

The collapse in support for Congress tells us several things. First, the American people are in a deeply anti-political mood, and public officials who plausibly can tap into that sentiment and channel it in a constructive way will benefit enormously. The public is looking for a change-agent.

Second, the Democratic Congress has passed almost nothing of consequence; in the current environment, this is ruinous.

Third, Democrats are paying a high price for their hyper-partisanship. They appear angry, zealous, and vengeful, far more interested in investigations than legislation.

Fourth, Democrats are reinforcing the worst stereotypes of the party: weak on national security, in favor of higher taxes and larger government, and beholden to fringe groups.

Fifth, Democratic Party leaders, especially Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are quite weak, both in their abilities to run the institution and as the public faces of the modern Democratic Party.

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According to a new Gallup Poll, Congress’s approval rating has matched its lowest rating ever. Just 18 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, while 76 percent disapprove. This is a staggering decline for the Democratic-controlled Congress, and it has occurred in only a matter of months. President Bush’s approval rating, at 32 percent, is considerably higher. It turns out that come this fall, he may well have the stronger hand to play.

The collapse in support for Congress tells us several things. First, the American people are in a deeply anti-political mood, and public officials who plausibly can tap into that sentiment and channel it in a constructive way will benefit enormously. The public is looking for a change-agent.

Second, the Democratic Congress has passed almost nothing of consequence; in the current environment, this is ruinous.

Third, Democrats are paying a high price for their hyper-partisanship. They appear angry, zealous, and vengeful, far more interested in investigations than legislation.

Fourth, Democrats are reinforcing the worst stereotypes of the party: weak on national security, in favor of higher taxes and larger government, and beholden to fringe groups.

Fifth, Democratic Party leaders, especially Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are quite weak, both in their abilities to run the institution and as the public faces of the modern Democratic Party.

The 2006 mid-term election was viewed by many commentators as an enormous set-back for the GOP. While the results were about typical for a second mid-term election for the presidential party in power, they did not usher in days of wine and roses for Republicans, who trail Democrats on the generic ballot and in fund-raising. But Republicans have an opportunity. The anger that was directed toward the GOP is now being re-directed toward Democrats, who are finding that governing is more difficult than merely opposing. This may allow President Bush and Republicans to define themselves against the failures of the 110th Congress, just as Bill Clinton was able to define himself against the mistakes of Newt Gingrich (recall the government shut-down).

The congressional GOP is in desperate need of re-branding after years in power, when the fires of reform dimmed and died. The party now has an opening, one growing larger by the month. Once-cocky Democrats must wonder how things have come undone quite so fast.

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Another Battle in Gaza

Hamas and Fatah recently accused Israel of preventing fuel supplies from reaching the Gaza Strip—a move that has deprived nearly 600,000 Palestinians of electricity for the past five days. Israel, the two parties claimed, is responsible for the power stoppage because of its “ongoing siege” of the Gaza Strip.

Sadly, many in the international media were quick to endorse the Hamas-Fatah version. Headlines in major newspapers and reports on television networks quoted Hamas and Fatah spokesmen as saying that the IDF had banned fuel supplies to the power plant in the Gaza Strip as part of its policy to “punish” the innocent Palestinian population.

But now the real story behind the electricity fiasco has surfaced. The same Hamas and Fatah spokesmen who had blamed Israel now were accusing each other. The EU, it emerged, had stopped funding the fuel supplies, after being told by Fatah leaders in Ramallah that Hamas had taken control of the electricity company in the Gaza Strip, and was planning to extort money from customers through electricity bills.

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Hamas and Fatah recently accused Israel of preventing fuel supplies from reaching the Gaza Strip—a move that has deprived nearly 600,000 Palestinians of electricity for the past five days. Israel, the two parties claimed, is responsible for the power stoppage because of its “ongoing siege” of the Gaza Strip.

Sadly, many in the international media were quick to endorse the Hamas-Fatah version. Headlines in major newspapers and reports on television networks quoted Hamas and Fatah spokesmen as saying that the IDF had banned fuel supplies to the power plant in the Gaza Strip as part of its policy to “punish” the innocent Palestinian population.

But now the real story behind the electricity fiasco has surfaced. The same Hamas and Fatah spokesmen who had blamed Israel now were accusing each other. The EU, it emerged, had stopped funding the fuel supplies, after being told by Fatah leaders in Ramallah that Hamas had taken control of the electricity company in the Gaza Strip, and was planning to extort money from customers through electricity bills.

For the first time, I found myself this week agreeing with both Hamas and Fatah when I heard them trade allegations. How can one disagree when Hamas calls Fatah’s leaders a bunch of corrupt opportunists bilking the international community of millions of dollars under the pretext that the alternative would be the rise of Muslim fundamentalism ? And how can one disagree with Fatah’s accusations that Hamas is a bloodthirsty terrorist organization that is driving the Palestinians towards the abyss?

As the electricity crisis shows, Hamas and Fatah are prepared to use all methods in their power struggle, even if hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have to spend days and nights without electricity.

Fortunately, the Palestinians have not made the mistake that many foreign journalists did when they rushed to blame Israel for the latest crisis.

The majority of the Palestinians have already paid a heavy price for the continued power struggle between Hamas and Fatah. That’s why the Palestinians react to statements made by the two sides’ leaders with skepticism and extreme caution. Perhaps it’s time that foreign journalists sitting in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, who these days rarely visit the West Bank and Gaza Strip, follow suit, and display a degree of caution when it comes to reporting on the Hamas-Fatah fight.

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Against the Boycott

The presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Brown, conspicuously absent from the original list of signatories, have since posted assurances that they join the almost 300 American college and university presidents who signed a statement earlier this month protesting the vote of Britain’s University and College Union to impose a boycott against Israeli academic institutions. “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!” read the American counter-declaration, composed by Columbia University’s President Lee Bollinger. “[We] do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish.”

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The presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Brown, conspicuously absent from the original list of signatories, have since posted assurances that they join the almost 300 American college and university presidents who signed a statement earlier this month protesting the vote of Britain’s University and College Union to impose a boycott against Israeli academic institutions. “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!” read the American counter-declaration, composed by Columbia University’s President Lee Bollinger. “[We] do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish.”

It is heartening to see such unanimity among academic leaders who normally shun group protests or statements; still, it is less heartening when one considers that these leaders may have found it easier to denounce an outrage overseas than to tackle prejudice in their own institutions. President Bollinger and his colleagues know that anti-Israel venom is widespread on American campuses. The real test of their resolve to preserve academic integrity will occur here, at home.

Anti-Israel sentiment penetrates American campuses at both the student and professorial levels. Every year the average campus welcomes Arab and Muslim students for whom Israel’s illegitimacy is a matter of faith, conjoined in most instances with plain anti-Semitism. The Pew Research Center finds that Muslims hold unfavorable views of Jews at astonishing levels: Jordan, 100 percent; Lebanon, 99 percent; Morocco, 88 percent. Arab and Muslim students inculcated with these prejudices from birth see no harm in promoting them. To the contrary, since they regard Israel as the root of evil, agitation against it is for them often a matter of cultural self-expression. Dissenters from this norm are often afraid of being ostracized—or, worse, of not being able to return to their native communities should they stray from an ideology that unites the Arab world.

The campus ethos of all-embracing multiculturalism aggravates the problem by refraining from distinguishing between a culture of aggression and a culture of accommodation—two opposites trapped in a philosophy of equivalence. Ignored are the radically divergent histories of Arabs and Jews that produced today’s preposterous global imbalance between 1 billion-plus Muslims on the one hand, and 13 million Jews (4 million fewer than in 1939) on the other. Historically, Jews have been the no-fail target of innumerable aggressors; since the 1870′s they have been the ideological butt of anti-liberal movements everywhere.

Indeed, Middle East-style anti-Semitism plays a larger role in the international arena today than its European-style equivalent did a century ago. But our universities provide almost no academic or extra-curricular opportunities to discuss the issue. If anything, as the scholar Martin Kramer has shown, the hate-ridden attitudes within the Arab world find a natural reflection in the highly prejudicial bias of the academic discipline known as Middle East Studies. The current director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard, as well as a number of others who teach in the field, were among the signatories of a Harvard-MIT petition urging divestment from Israel—a petition meant to echo and give a highbrow patina to the currently fashionable calumny of the Jewish state as an “apartheid” regime. Sami al-Arian may be the only U.S. professor convicted of conspiracy to help Islamic Jihad, but others support Arab antagonism in their own ways.

The protest against the British academic boycott published in the New York Times was framed strictly as a defense of academic freedom and solidarity with Israeli colleagues. It avoided any mention of the ideology of hate that fuels this boycott. One might as well condemn cancer without investigating its cause or doing what one can to prevent its spread. Having once joined in symbolic action, these presidents of American colleges and universities would do well to appoint a committee from within their midst to investigate the spread of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel prejudices on their own campuses and within their own curricula, where it does the most damage. As in medicine, prevention is the best cure.

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Knowing What You Sing

In opera, as in life, discretion can be the better part of valor. Last month the Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli announced that she was canceling her debut as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, scheduled for next year. The reason? Her command of Russian isn’t good enough, as she candidly admitted: “After studying for more than a year, the language, alphabet, and pronunciation continue to elude my grasp. To hope for a ‘miracle’ can only put the production at risk.” Chicago’s Lyric Opera duly hired a native Russian singer to replace her, but will be hard-pressed to match Frittoli’s combination of warm tone, musicality, and striking good looks. These attributes can be seen on DVD’s of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater from EMI; of Puccini’s Turandot on TDK; and of Verdi’s Falstaff on Euroarts. Frittoli is not allergic to foreign languages per se. At a La Scala song recital this February, she sang some French music, but showed a clear preference for her native tongue by choosing vocal works in Italian, even rare ones written by Beethoven and Schubert.

Music fans have long grown resigned to hearing linguistic massacres like the Spanish tenor José Carreras’s singing of the all-American role of Tony in Bernstein’s West Side Story or the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne’s mangling of the French spoken dialogue in Bizet’s Carmen. The Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, in a recently reissued set of Romantic French Arias from Deutsche Grammophon, displays stunning platinum pipes, but scant attention to linguistic niceties.

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In opera, as in life, discretion can be the better part of valor. Last month the Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli announced that she was canceling her debut as Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, scheduled for next year. The reason? Her command of Russian isn’t good enough, as she candidly admitted: “After studying for more than a year, the language, alphabet, and pronunciation continue to elude my grasp. To hope for a ‘miracle’ can only put the production at risk.” Chicago’s Lyric Opera duly hired a native Russian singer to replace her, but will be hard-pressed to match Frittoli’s combination of warm tone, musicality, and striking good looks. These attributes can be seen on DVD’s of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater from EMI; of Puccini’s Turandot on TDK; and of Verdi’s Falstaff on Euroarts. Frittoli is not allergic to foreign languages per se. At a La Scala song recital this February, she sang some French music, but showed a clear preference for her native tongue by choosing vocal works in Italian, even rare ones written by Beethoven and Schubert.

Music fans have long grown resigned to hearing linguistic massacres like the Spanish tenor José Carreras’s singing of the all-American role of Tony in Bernstein’s West Side Story or the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne’s mangling of the French spoken dialogue in Bizet’s Carmen. The Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, in a recently reissued set of Romantic French Arias from Deutsche Grammophon, displays stunning platinum pipes, but scant attention to linguistic niceties.

Should listeners care about poor pronunciation? Mastering a language, being able to express emotion in a foreign idiom, is a challenge equal to singing the mere notes of any musical work. Some non-native speakers of French have become superb singers of the language, like the Texas-born mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in an unexpectedly idiomatic CD of music by Reynaldo Hahn on Sony. Or the British soprano Felicity Lott on an EMI Classics DVD of the Offenbach operetta La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein. The Japanese-born mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Shirai has mastered the German language completely, and her CD’s of lieder by Brahms, Schumann, etc., are widely considered among the most authoritative and exemplary recorded anywhere.

Singing with a distinct accent does not obviate real understanding of a language, as the British tenor Peter Pears’s performances as the Evangelist in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion and in Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, for instance, prove. Classical singers who downplay respect for a foreign idiom are sending out the wrong message to “crossover” pop superstars. Grating recent examples in the pop realm include the British soprano Sarah Brightman and tenor Michael Bolton, both of whom perform the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” with scant attention to the words they sing. All the more reason to cheer Barbara Frittoli’s resolve not to display her lack of expertise in Russian; would that more classical singers shared her high standards and capacity for self-criticism.

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Attention Must be Paid

Arthur Miller is widely reputed to be the greatest American playwright of the 20th century. And it’s true that his most famous work, Death of a Salesman, is a literary, as well as dramatic, masterpiece. But the same cannot be said of much else he wrote, certainly not The Crucible, considered Miller’s second greatest theatrical achievement (it is still widely produced by schools and professional companies across the nation). The play—which proposes an analogy between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy hearings of the 1950′s—is fatally flawed. As Peter Mullen once wrote in the London Times, “There were no witches in Salem, Mr. Miller.”

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Arthur Miller is widely reputed to be the greatest American playwright of the 20th century. And it’s true that his most famous work, Death of a Salesman, is a literary, as well as dramatic, masterpiece. But the same cannot be said of much else he wrote, certainly not The Crucible, considered Miller’s second greatest theatrical achievement (it is still widely produced by schools and professional companies across the nation). The play—which proposes an analogy between the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy hearings of the 1950′s—is fatally flawed. As Peter Mullen once wrote in the London Times, “There were no witches in Salem, Mr. Miller.”

Miller was very much a man of the Left, and his reputation was burnished with the attributes attached to that exalted position: partiality to the great humanitarian causes of the day; a strong conscience; sympathy for the dispossessed and downtrodden. So it must have come as a great surprise to his many admirers to read Suzanna Andrews’s story about Miller in the current Vanity Fair, in which we learn of Miller’s abandonment of his son Daniel, born with Down’s syndrome. As Stephen Schwartz wrote for the Weekly Standard upon Miller’s death, “Arthur Miller’s life is the great American morality play of the 20th century.” Schwartz was more prescient than he knew; he was writing about Miller’s vindictive attitude towards his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe. But it is this new revelation that ought to damage permanently Miller’s reputation, if not as a writer, than as a humanitarian.

Miller put Daniel in an institution days after his birth, a not-uncommon practice at the time. Miller rarely, if ever, visited his son (Miller’s wife Inge Morath visited every Sunday). Nor did the playwright deign to mention Daniel in his 1987 memoir, or in any of the “scores of speeches and press interviews he gave over the years.” Daniel was shuttered away and anonymous: when Miller died in 2005, the Los Angeles Times’s obituary said that “Miller had another son, Daniel, who was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome shortly after his birth in 1962. It is not known whether he survives his father.” Daniel not only survived, he succeeded. He triumphed over the adversities of his condition and his early institutionalization, and now lives, for the most part, independently. He has competed in the Special Olympics, and is widely loved and admired by the many people who have come to know him.

“How could a man who, in the words of one close friend of Miller’s, ‘had such a great world reputation for morality and pursuing justice, do something like this?’” Andrews asks. A good question. Miller left a quarter of his estate for Daniel, but a very rich man’s leaving a quarter of his estate to one of his four children is hardly an act of moral courage.

“Attention must be paid.” This line, spoken by Linda Loman, wife of Willy Loman, the protagonist of Death of a Salesman, is one of the most famous lines in American drama. Through Linda, Miller pointed out the intrinsic value of a human life, no matter how problematic its condition. How tragic that he ignored his own admonition.

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