Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 6, 2007

Addio, Pavarotti

When an international superstar like Italy’s champion tenor Luciano Pavarotti dies, a horse race ensues for posthumous tributes. As Milan’s Corriere della Sera marveled, the first governmental condolences about Pavarotti, who died of pancreatic cancer in Modena, Italy this week at 71, came from the peripatetic, hyper-energetic Nicolas Sarkozy of France, even before Italy’s movers and shakers could be stirred from their early-autumn lethargy. A calculating and astute Northern Italian from Modena, Pavarotti was anything but the cartoon of a carefree, sunny Southern Italian that he projected on CD’s and in public appearances.

Despite allegations of casual musicianship, Pavarotti had many enduring achievements, including a 1967 Deutsche Grammophon DVD of Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and a Decca CD, also with Karajan, of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Gianandrea Gavazzeni, a true connoisseur of the Italian repertory, conducted CD’s of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana on Decca and L’ amico Fritz on EMI, which are also among Pavarotti’s best.

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When an international superstar like Italy’s champion tenor Luciano Pavarotti dies, a horse race ensues for posthumous tributes. As Milan’s Corriere della Sera marveled, the first governmental condolences about Pavarotti, who died of pancreatic cancer in Modena, Italy this week at 71, came from the peripatetic, hyper-energetic Nicolas Sarkozy of France, even before Italy’s movers and shakers could be stirred from their early-autumn lethargy. A calculating and astute Northern Italian from Modena, Pavarotti was anything but the cartoon of a carefree, sunny Southern Italian that he projected on CD’s and in public appearances.

Despite allegations of casual musicianship, Pavarotti had many enduring achievements, including a 1967 Deutsche Grammophon DVD of Verdi’s Requiem conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and a Decca CD, also with Karajan, of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Gianandrea Gavazzeni, a true connoisseur of the Italian repertory, conducted CD’s of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana on Decca and L’ amico Fritz on EMI, which are also among Pavarotti’s best.

A characteristically ignorant critic like the always boorish and clueless Manuela Hoelterhoff, an employee of Michael Bloomberg, claims to “shudder with delight” at hearing Pavarotti bellow “Maria” from Bernstein’s West Side Story. Pav’s attempts at pop, like the best-selling Three Tenors Concert, are in fact best appreciated according to the criterion of a champion cyclist I once met, who said he played the Pavarotti CD on his earphones constantly during workouts because the lengthy explosions of applause kept his adrenaline going. The entire concept of “three tenors” is a surreal distortion of what opera is all about; arias written for a solo voice are shamelessly traduced when sung simultaneously by three voices. It should also be recalled that when the elegant Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus pointed out in 1992 that there were in fact more than three tenors in the world, he was banished—by none other than José Carreras, one of the mighty three—from participation in the musical events around the Barcelona Olympics.

Of Pavarotti’s efforts to share the stage with pop stars—many of which (it must be admitted, to lessen his personal culpability) were done for charity—probably the worst was Pavarotti with the Spice Girls in something called Viva Forever, with a close runner-up being the rock star Sting bleating out Franck’s Panis Angelicus. In other celebrity duets, Pavarotti simply stands or sits onstage with stars, singing in Italian against—rather than with—Barry White and James Brown. That said, Pavarotti’s duet with Meat Loaf on Come Back to Sorrento is not as bad as might be feared. Even when singing New York, New York with Liza Minnelli, Luciano sways anxiously like a grizzy bear on its hind legs, poised for attack.

Pop and schlock apart, Pavarotti’s burnished tone will long echo in our memory, regardless of the crass hype. It is our loss that Pavarotti was unable to imitate the longevity of his mother and father, who lived hale and hearty to the ages of 86 and 89 respectively. Lively and charming, Pavarotti conquered all.

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Shifting Democrats

Today’s Politico has a front page story, “Democrats Retreat on War End.” In the article we read this:

In a strategic shift designed to win over Republican critics of the Iraq war, congressional Democrats are backing off demands for a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops and instead are seeking a new bipartisan deal to end the military campaign. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are calculating that it is futile to continue their months-long campaign to force an immediate end to the war, particularly after Republicans and a few Democrats returned from the summer recess intent on opposing legislation mandating a strict timetable for pulling out U.S. troops.

And this:

Said another [Democratic Hill] aide involved in the process: “Despite the months of debate, and all the votes, and all the ads and everything, we have not been able to break the Republicans. They are still with Bush, and that’s the reality here.”

This article is more evidence that the political ground has shifted significantly, and maybe even massively, on Iraq. Democrats are now seeking a deal based on a position of weakness rather than strength. They made several runs at the President months ago, when he was in his most precarious position politically on Iraq, hoping they could break his will and then undo his strategy. But President Bush, in what may go down as one of his most impressive achievements, held firm—and so did most Republicans. And now their political courage may well bear political fruit.

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Today’s Politico has a front page story, “Democrats Retreat on War End.” In the article we read this:

In a strategic shift designed to win over Republican critics of the Iraq war, congressional Democrats are backing off demands for a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops and instead are seeking a new bipartisan deal to end the military campaign. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are calculating that it is futile to continue their months-long campaign to force an immediate end to the war, particularly after Republicans and a few Democrats returned from the summer recess intent on opposing legislation mandating a strict timetable for pulling out U.S. troops.

And this:

Said another [Democratic Hill] aide involved in the process: “Despite the months of debate, and all the votes, and all the ads and everything, we have not been able to break the Republicans. They are still with Bush, and that’s the reality here.”

This article is more evidence that the political ground has shifted significantly, and maybe even massively, on Iraq. Democrats are now seeking a deal based on a position of weakness rather than strength. They made several runs at the President months ago, when he was in his most precarious position politically on Iraq, hoping they could break his will and then undo his strategy. But President Bush, in what may go down as one of his most impressive achievements, held firm—and so did most Republicans. And now their political courage may well bear political fruit.

Iraq still remains an enormous challenge, and nothing is assured. Yet there’s no longer any doubt that the surge is working militarily; even critics of the war—the honest ones, at least—concede that fact. But to frame the Iraq debate as bifurcated—progress on the security side but failure on the political side—is also wrong. In fact, as Michael Gordon, the chief Pentagon correspondent of the New York Times, said to Charlie Rose earlier this week, the bottom-up reconciliation we’re seeing is the single most important thing happening in Iraq right now. We’re seeing both military progress and political progress—just not in the way many anticipated.

Leading Democrats and antiwar critics made a huge political wager: the Iraq war was an irredeemable failure, and they would force an American withdrawal, thereby expediting an American defeat. But it turns out that failure was not fated and, in fact, a decent outcome in Iraq is now possible and perhaps even within reach. It is now beginning to dawn on Democrats what they have done in their rush to undercut the surge; they are also starting to recognize the good that has followed in the wake of the surge.

It was only eight months ago that the President’s new strategy was unveiled. But when it comes to Iraq, January was a world away. The specter of McGovernism once again stalks the political landscape.

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Why Musharraf?

The alleged terrorist plot uncovered in Germany has an interesting connection to another country: two of the suspects, both German converts to Islam, were said to have gone to Pakistan for training. This merely confirms what we already know—that, as the National Intelligence Estimate released in July put it, al Qaeda has found “a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”

And that raises an interesting question: Why is the Bush administration so attached to Pervez Musharraf, the dictator of Pakistan who is supposed to be fighting terrorism, but is in fact allowing his country to become one of the top terrorist havens in the world?

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The alleged terrorist plot uncovered in Germany has an interesting connection to another country: two of the suspects, both German converts to Islam, were said to have gone to Pakistan for training. This merely confirms what we already know—that, as the National Intelligence Estimate released in July put it, al Qaeda has found “a safe haven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”

And that raises an interesting question: Why is the Bush administration so attached to Pervez Musharraf, the dictator of Pakistan who is supposed to be fighting terrorism, but is in fact allowing his country to become one of the top terrorist havens in the world?

Rajan Menon, a smart political scientist, has an interesting article on this topic in the Los Angeles Times. He writes:

The Bush administration’s problem in Pakistan is that it has had a Musharraf policy but not one that engages the interests and aspirations of Pakistan’s citizenry. Pakistanis may have welcomed Musharraf in 1999 when, as army chief, he overthrew the inept and corrupt government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but that enthusiasm has evaporated.

Menon goes on to suggest that it is a mistake for the Bush administration to try to keep Musharraf in power by helping to broker a power-sharing deal with opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. No government will be seen as legitimate, Menon argues, if it is viewed as having been installed at American instigation. “The administration’s best course of action in Pakistan is inaction,” Menon counsels. “Let Pakistanis find a solution to their crisis. Any made-in-America remedy will not only fail to make matters better, it will make them worse.”

There’s a lot to be said for that argument, though the U.S. can’t be totally hands-off about a country that has turned into a major terrorist refuge. But certainly we should take Menon’s advice to stop propping up Musharraf and to start supporting free and fair elections. Though most Pakistanis are suspicious of the United States, they are also hostile to Islamic extremists. As Menon rightly notes, “The vast majority do not support the agenda of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their local acolytes, and have never voted for the Islamist political parties in overwhelming numbers.”

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The “Israel Lobby” Strikes Again

It’s hardly a secret that Israel was always skeptical about the war in Iraq, as this commentary from the eminent scholar Martin Kramer shows.

Now, for those tempted to dismiss Kramer as a tool of the Zionist conspiracy, there’s this recent, widely circulated report. It repeats the points Kramer made: Israel warned the U.S. against an Iraq invasion in 2002, and Israelis were adamant in their objections to the war. This time, however, the news comes from an unimpeachable source: Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff. (I’d like to see people paint him as a lackey of the neocons.)

And all this time, I thought the war in Iraq was launched at the behest of the Lobby, to serve Israel’s interests.

It’s hardly a secret that Israel was always skeptical about the war in Iraq, as this commentary from the eminent scholar Martin Kramer shows.

Now, for those tempted to dismiss Kramer as a tool of the Zionist conspiracy, there’s this recent, widely circulated report. It repeats the points Kramer made: Israel warned the U.S. against an Iraq invasion in 2002, and Israelis were adamant in their objections to the war. This time, however, the news comes from an unimpeachable source: Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff. (I’d like to see people paint him as a lackey of the neocons.)

And all this time, I thought the war in Iraq was launched at the behest of the Lobby, to serve Israel’s interests.

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Correction

My post Correcting the GAO itself needs a correction. My source—an officer serving in Baghdad—has just told me that a couple of the figures he passed along from military statisticians were incorrect. Civilian casualties (killed and wounded) declined from December 2006 to the end of August 2007 by 17 percent, not 71 percent, and the number of civilian deaths in that period dropped by 48 percent, not 74 percent. That doesn’t change the overall trend, which is still positive, but it does scale back slightly the scope of the accomplishment. My source apologizes for the error, and so do I.

My post Correcting the GAO itself needs a correction. My source—an officer serving in Baghdad—has just told me that a couple of the figures he passed along from military statisticians were incorrect. Civilian casualties (killed and wounded) declined from December 2006 to the end of August 2007 by 17 percent, not 71 percent, and the number of civilian deaths in that period dropped by 48 percent, not 74 percent. That doesn’t change the overall trend, which is still positive, but it does scale back slightly the scope of the accomplishment. My source apologizes for the error, and so do I.

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A Road by Any Other Name. . .

When the African National Congress came to power in South Africa in 1994, it was right to see itself not just as a new political party that won an election, but as an historic change agent ushering in an era of democracy and freedom. Things—big things—would have to change.

But in addition to changing big things, the ANC has changed little things, indicative of its broader, and obsessive, self-perception as the party that deserves to rule in perpetuity. As R.W. Johnson explained in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the ANC has focused on the task of name changes: renaming roads, airports, even whole cities and provinces, wiping away any vestige of English and Afrikaner heritage. It would be understandable if the ANC’s name-change agenda was focused solely on reclaiming part of the country’s history for an historically neglected population. But there are ulterior political motives behind the name changes:

The main road to the airport becomes Yasir Arafat highway; Moore Road (after Sir John Moore, the hero of the Battle of Corunna) becomes Che Guevara Road; Kensington Drive, Fidel Castro Drive; and Chelmsford Road (after Lord Chelmsford, who defeated the Zulu King Cetshwayo) JB Marx Road, after the former black Communist leader who lies buried next to Khrushchev in Moscow. Naturally, Jan Smuts Highway will be Cetshwayo Highway and Victoria Road, Mandela Road. Most of the city-center streets are to be renamed after local Communists of whom not many have heard.

South Africa has many problems with which to contend: the world’s highest number of people suffering from AIDS, one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, and a failed state on its northern border. But rather than tackling the problems that keep their nation firmly in the second world, the ANC is renaming public institutions after Marxist guerillas, Communist academicians, and violent Arab nationalists, with a stunning level of vigor it hasn’t shown in its other efforts at reform. Is this really the best the ANC can do?

When the African National Congress came to power in South Africa in 1994, it was right to see itself not just as a new political party that won an election, but as an historic change agent ushering in an era of democracy and freedom. Things—big things—would have to change.

But in addition to changing big things, the ANC has changed little things, indicative of its broader, and obsessive, self-perception as the party that deserves to rule in perpetuity. As R.W. Johnson explained in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the ANC has focused on the task of name changes: renaming roads, airports, even whole cities and provinces, wiping away any vestige of English and Afrikaner heritage. It would be understandable if the ANC’s name-change agenda was focused solely on reclaiming part of the country’s history for an historically neglected population. But there are ulterior political motives behind the name changes:

The main road to the airport becomes Yasir Arafat highway; Moore Road (after Sir John Moore, the hero of the Battle of Corunna) becomes Che Guevara Road; Kensington Drive, Fidel Castro Drive; and Chelmsford Road (after Lord Chelmsford, who defeated the Zulu King Cetshwayo) JB Marx Road, after the former black Communist leader who lies buried next to Khrushchev in Moscow. Naturally, Jan Smuts Highway will be Cetshwayo Highway and Victoria Road, Mandela Road. Most of the city-center streets are to be renamed after local Communists of whom not many have heard.

South Africa has many problems with which to contend: the world’s highest number of people suffering from AIDS, one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, and a failed state on its northern border. But rather than tackling the problems that keep their nation firmly in the second world, the ANC is renaming public institutions after Marxist guerillas, Communist academicians, and violent Arab nationalists, with a stunning level of vigor it hasn’t shown in its other efforts at reform. Is this really the best the ANC can do?

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The “Peculiar Fantasies” of Mearsheimer and Walt

A decade or two from now, how will the scholarship of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt be remembered? Their new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy–an expanded version of their original notorious essay in the London Review of Books–is circulating and beginning to garner reviews. It is always perilous to speculate about the future of reputations, but some handwriting is becoming visible on the wall.

“Slowly, deliberately and dispassionately,” writes William Grimes in the New York Times today, the two authors “lay out the case for a ruthlessly realistic Middle East policy that would make Israel nothing more than one of many countries in the region.” Many of the arguments in support of this proposition, notes Grimes, “are familiar ones.” And it is therefore “a little odd” that Mearsheimer and Walt “generate such heat.”

But Grimes need not be puzzled–or perhaps he is only affecting to be puzzled. For in the conclusion of his own review one can find a compelling explanation for the “heat.” It is worth quoting in full:

[Their] general tone of hostility to Israel grates on the nerves . . . along with an unignorable impression that hardheaded political realism can be subject to its own peculiar fantasies. Israel is not simply one country among many, for example, just as Britain is not. Americans feel strong ties of history, religion, culture and, yes, sentiment, that the authors recognize, but only in an airy, abstract way.

They also seem to feel that, with Israel and its lobby pushed to the side, the desert will bloom with flowers. A peace deal with Syria would surely follow, with a resultant end to hostile activity by Hizballah and Hamas. Next would come a Palestinian state, depriving al Qaeda of its principal recruiting tool. (The authors wave away the idea that Islamic terrorism thrives for other reasons.) Well, yes, Iran does seem to be a problem, but the authors argue that no one should be particularly bothered by an Iran with nuclear weapons. And on and on.

Grimes lands a number of blows, then. Harder ones, that will explore the nature and origins of the “peculiar fantasies” that propel the Mearsheimer-Walt brand of realism, are no doubt in the works. In the end, my guess is that the duo will be remembered not as scholars at all but, I argued last fall in the pages of COMMENTARY, as the continuators of a tradition started by Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Father Coughlin, which they have wrapped in scholarly garb.

A decade or two from now, how will the scholarship of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt be remembered? Their new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy–an expanded version of their original notorious essay in the London Review of Books–is circulating and beginning to garner reviews. It is always perilous to speculate about the future of reputations, but some handwriting is becoming visible on the wall.

“Slowly, deliberately and dispassionately,” writes William Grimes in the New York Times today, the two authors “lay out the case for a ruthlessly realistic Middle East policy that would make Israel nothing more than one of many countries in the region.” Many of the arguments in support of this proposition, notes Grimes, “are familiar ones.” And it is therefore “a little odd” that Mearsheimer and Walt “generate such heat.”

But Grimes need not be puzzled–or perhaps he is only affecting to be puzzled. For in the conclusion of his own review one can find a compelling explanation for the “heat.” It is worth quoting in full:

[Their] general tone of hostility to Israel grates on the nerves . . . along with an unignorable impression that hardheaded political realism can be subject to its own peculiar fantasies. Israel is not simply one country among many, for example, just as Britain is not. Americans feel strong ties of history, religion, culture and, yes, sentiment, that the authors recognize, but only in an airy, abstract way.

They also seem to feel that, with Israel and its lobby pushed to the side, the desert will bloom with flowers. A peace deal with Syria would surely follow, with a resultant end to hostile activity by Hizballah and Hamas. Next would come a Palestinian state, depriving al Qaeda of its principal recruiting tool. (The authors wave away the idea that Islamic terrorism thrives for other reasons.) Well, yes, Iran does seem to be a problem, but the authors argue that no one should be particularly bothered by an Iran with nuclear weapons. And on and on.

Grimes lands a number of blows, then. Harder ones, that will explore the nature and origins of the “peculiar fantasies” that propel the Mearsheimer-Walt brand of realism, are no doubt in the works. In the end, my guess is that the duo will be remembered not as scholars at all but, I argued last fall in the pages of COMMENTARY, as the continuators of a tradition started by Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Father Coughlin, which they have wrapped in scholarly garb.

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“Bad Hijab”

On August 29 and 30, Germany’s Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra, led by the conductor Hermann Bäumer, performed much-publicized concerts in Tehran of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. Described by one Osnabrück cultural official as a “very small step in improving relations between the people in the two countries,” the concerts also represent some curious cultural compromises.

In December 2005, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially banned “indecent and Western music” on state radio and TV. The Associated Press reported that the Osnabrück Symphony’s female musicians were forced to “wear headscarves” in Tehran. An informed article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that the much-discussed hijab or chador can be seen as a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

Hundreds of Iranian women have been arrested for “bad hijab,” disobeying Islamic dress codes. In the “Islamic Republic of Fear” (as the Economist recently termed Iran), posters outside hospitals announce that women patients must wear the head-to-floor chador (not just the headscarf) in order to be examined by doctors. (Fortunately for the Osnabrück women musicians, the dress code for concerts is slightly less strict.)

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On August 29 and 30, Germany’s Osnabrück Symphony Orchestra, led by the conductor Hermann Bäumer, performed much-publicized concerts in Tehran of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. Described by one Osnabrück cultural official as a “very small step in improving relations between the people in the two countries,” the concerts also represent some curious cultural compromises.

In December 2005, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad officially banned “indecent and Western music” on state radio and TV. The Associated Press reported that the Osnabrück Symphony’s female musicians were forced to “wear headscarves” in Tehran. An informed article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that the much-discussed hijab or chador can be seen as a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

Hundreds of Iranian women have been arrested for “bad hijab,” disobeying Islamic dress codes. In the “Islamic Republic of Fear” (as the Economist recently termed Iran), posters outside hospitals announce that women patients must wear the head-to-floor chador (not just the headscarf) in order to be examined by doctors. (Fortunately for the Osnabrück women musicians, the dress code for concerts is slightly less strict.)

The Associated Press also tells us about the works being performed by the Osnabrück musicians: “the program was submitted to Iranian authorities ahead of time.” Given Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map” and his statement that the Holocaust is merely a “myth,” it’s no surprise that the Osnabrück cultural honchos made sure no Mendelssohn, Mahler, or Bernstein sullied the program. But they scored a few points, if perhaps unintentionally: Edward Elgar, a staunch believer in the British Empire, could hardly be termed an advocate of Islamic revolution. And Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) was unsually philo-Semitic for his time and place, according to his biographer Jan Swafford: “Toward the end of his life,” Swafford observes, “responding to the anti-Semitism that had become endemic in Austrian politics, Brahms was heard to growl, ‘Next week I’m going to have myself circumcised!’”

Making political compromises for the sake of music has some precedent. In 1937-1938, Mozart’s Magic Flute was recorded in Nazi Germany by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Thomas Beecham. Nazi cultural officials rejected some of Beecham’s chosen star singers, like the Ukrainian Jewish bass Alexander Kipnis in the role of Sarastro; Austrian Jewish tenor Richard Tauber as Tamino; and Hungarian Jewish baritone Friedrich Schorr as the Speaker. Beecham acquiesced, and an all-Aryan cast made the recording, which remains in print even today. Before acquiescing, Maestro Bäumer—who has recorded a number of praiseworthy CD’s for prominent labels like BIS, including a lively program of British music for brass—really should have given this tour further thought.

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