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Posts For: September 26, 2007

Katie’s World

At her National Press Club event yesterday, we heard this from CBS News anchor Katie Couric:

The whole culture of wearing flags on our lapel and saying “we” when referring to the United States and, even the “shock and awe” of the initial stages, it was just too jubilant and just a little uncomfortable. And I remember feeling, when I was anchoring the “Today” show, this inevitable march towards war and kind of feeling like, “Will anybody put the brakes on this?” And is this really being properly challenged by the right people? And I think, at the time, anyone who questioned the administration was considered unpatriotic and it was a very difficult position to be in.

There is a lot to unpack in these few sentences. For one thing, Couric’s aversion to using the word “we” when referring to her own country is both weird and revealing. After all, she is part of the United States, a citizen of America, and so she is part of “we.” Hers is an example of a certain journalistic sensibility that feels as if members of the media are compromising their objectivity by referring to their country as if they were a part of it. And I suppose in The World According To Katie, it would be a gross violation of journalistic ethics to hope for America to prevail in a war to depose Saddam Hussein and bring liberty to his broken land. Hence, I suppose, her discomfort with how well the initial stages of the Iraq war went.

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At her National Press Club event yesterday, we heard this from CBS News anchor Katie Couric:

The whole culture of wearing flags on our lapel and saying “we” when referring to the United States and, even the “shock and awe” of the initial stages, it was just too jubilant and just a little uncomfortable. And I remember feeling, when I was anchoring the “Today” show, this inevitable march towards war and kind of feeling like, “Will anybody put the brakes on this?” And is this really being properly challenged by the right people? And I think, at the time, anyone who questioned the administration was considered unpatriotic and it was a very difficult position to be in.

There is a lot to unpack in these few sentences. For one thing, Couric’s aversion to using the word “we” when referring to her own country is both weird and revealing. After all, she is part of the United States, a citizen of America, and so she is part of “we.” Hers is an example of a certain journalistic sensibility that feels as if members of the media are compromising their objectivity by referring to their country as if they were a part of it. And I suppose in The World According To Katie, it would be a gross violation of journalistic ethics to hope for America to prevail in a war to depose Saddam Hussein and bring liberty to his broken land. Hence, I suppose, her discomfort with how well the initial stages of the Iraq war went.

This point is worth pausing over. After all, during his reign, Saddam Hussein routinely executed political opponents and political prisoners. Children and young people were tortured to force their parents and relatives to confess to alleged political offenses. Schoolchildren were summarily shot in public—and families of executed children were made to pay for the bullets and coffins used. Human Rights Watch concluded that the Iraqi regime committed the crime of genocide against Iraqi Kurds—and estimates are that more than 300,000 Iraqis were executed during Saddam Hussein’s reign. He was also responsible for invading two nations at a cost of more than a million lives. Imagine hoping that the United States would defeat such a regime quickly, easily, and with a minimum loss of life and damage. The audacity!

As for the “inevitable” march toward war and her “kind of feeling like, ‘Will anybody put the brakes on this?’”: First, the “march” to war was not inevitable—one person on this planet could easily have put the brakes on it. His name was Saddam Hussein. He could have stopped the war at any time, if only he had met the commitments to which he had agreed. It was Saddam Hussein who was in material breach of Security Council Resolution 1441. It was he who had amassed a record of defiance for more than a decade. But for Katie Couric, the responsibility for war rests not with the former dictator of Iraq, but with the President of the United States.

And then there is tossing out the standard talking points that those who questioned the administration were “considered unpatriotic” and “it was a very difficult position to be in.” By whom, in Couric’s imaginary history, were critics of the administration considered “unpatriotic”? This notion is a flimsy urban legend—and yet Katie claims to have been put in a “very difficult position” based on a scenario that never even occurred. What a tower of strength she is.

The virtue of such statements, I suppose, is that it rips away the pretense of objectivity—as if that was even necessary at this stage. It appears as if Katie Couric is a worthy successor to Dan Rather—and her comments, in some ways so utterly typical, also remind us why CBS’s ratings are in the toilet, and deserve to be.

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A Verbal Beating

Nothing that happened during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia in any way changes the moral calculus involved in the question of whether the Iranian president should have been invited to speak at an American university: he should not have been, and the university’s decision to do so, and the reasons it gave for that decision, were dubious and hypocritical.

But the event itself defied expectations. We—those of us who are appalled at the thought of someone such as Ahmadinejad being given any respectful treatment in America—thought that Bollinger would put in a timid and even obsequious performance, while Ahmadinejad, who has rightfully earned a reputation as a master manipulator of his useful-idiot western interlocutors, was expected to deliver a rousing condemnation of the Bush administration, American foreign policy, and Israel.

But instead, Bollinger administered a verbal beating to Ahmadinejad the likes of which I cannot recall a head of state ever receiving—and Ahmadinejad, instead of hewing to his usual repertoire of propaganda, meandered through an almost totally incoherent pop-theology sermon that culminated in an awkward and ineffective attempt at dodging the audience’s questions. It was a dud, a performance of total sophomoric windbaggery. The exact opposite of what everyone expected to happen ended up taking place.

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Nothing that happened during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia in any way changes the moral calculus involved in the question of whether the Iranian president should have been invited to speak at an American university: he should not have been, and the university’s decision to do so, and the reasons it gave for that decision, were dubious and hypocritical.

But the event itself defied expectations. We—those of us who are appalled at the thought of someone such as Ahmadinejad being given any respectful treatment in America—thought that Bollinger would put in a timid and even obsequious performance, while Ahmadinejad, who has rightfully earned a reputation as a master manipulator of his useful-idiot western interlocutors, was expected to deliver a rousing condemnation of the Bush administration, American foreign policy, and Israel.

But instead, Bollinger administered a verbal beating to Ahmadinejad the likes of which I cannot recall a head of state ever receiving—and Ahmadinejad, instead of hewing to his usual repertoire of propaganda, meandered through an almost totally incoherent pop-theology sermon that culminated in an awkward and ineffective attempt at dodging the audience’s questions. It was a dud, a performance of total sophomoric windbaggery. The exact opposite of what everyone expected to happen ended up taking place.

Bollinger’s performance was particularly satisfying precisely because the person on the receiving end of his condemnation was the Iranian president, a political leader who represents a revolutionary Islamic government that has enshrined as a fundamental premise the conviction that America, along with being the great source of evil in the world, is a brittle facade of a superpower, and is thus worthy only of derision. The ideology of the Iranian Revolution holds America in contempt—an intense contempt that systematically has been vindicated, in the eyes of the Iranian leadership, by America’s three-decades-long refusal to punish Iran for its many killings and provocations (in the words of Martin Kramer, “The contempt arises from the fact that the United States has radiated irresolution and weakness in the face of challenges put up by Middle Eastern assailants”).

Ahmadinejad, more than any other jihadist leader (including Osama bin Laden himself), has come to exemplify this swaggering contemptuousness. This is why, I think, it was so spectacular and unexpected to see an American academic—a person who by all estimates is a standard-bearer of the modern academy’s worst tendencies toward relativism, appeasement, and dialogue-worship—stun Ahmadinejad with such vigorously disrespectful words. Bollinger did something inadvertently brilliant by doing this: he turned the tables on Ahmadinejad; suddenly it was an American spokesman expressing blunt contempt for Iran, and directly to the president’s face no less. Ahmadinejad surely was taken aback by this treatment, and he perhaps even emerged from the auditorium at Columbia with a tinge of doubt as to the barrenness of America’s wellsprings of self-confidence.

Will Bollinger’s words have any lasting effect on the confrontation between America and Iran? I doubt it. But perhaps he deserves applause for salvaging the Ahmadinejad invitation from the shameful farce that it seemed destined to be. And if video of Bollinger’s words ends up circulating widely inside Iran, providing much-needed succor to the Iranian people and undermining the regime’s credibility, then so much the better.

 


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Bush’s “Nothingburger”

Yesterday, just moments after President Bush finished his address to the U.N. General Assembly, Bill Kristol called the speech a “nothingburger.” The Weekly Standard editor, appearing on the Fox News Channel, was complaining that the Commander-in-Chief had said virtually nothing about Iran at a time when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was lounging in the audience and Iranians were helping to kill Americans in Iraq.

The President’s silence on Iran was indeed troubling. But he nonetheless delivered an important message. “Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma,” the President declared. He announced that the United States would tighten economic sanctions, expand a visa ban, and continue to support humanitarian groups. He called on the U.N. and its member nations to help the Burmese people “reclaim their freedom” and put an end to a “nineteen-year reign of fear.”

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Yesterday, just moments after President Bush finished his address to the U.N. General Assembly, Bill Kristol called the speech a “nothingburger.” The Weekly Standard editor, appearing on the Fox News Channel, was complaining that the Commander-in-Chief had said virtually nothing about Iran at a time when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was lounging in the audience and Iranians were helping to kill Americans in Iraq.

The President’s silence on Iran was indeed troubling. But he nonetheless delivered an important message. “Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma,” the President declared. He announced that the United States would tighten economic sanctions, expand a visa ban, and continue to support humanitarian groups. He called on the U.N. and its member nations to help the Burmese people “reclaim their freedom” and put an end to a “nineteen-year reign of fear.”

Bush’s words came at a critical moment. Hours after he left the podium in New York, government security forces in the capital of Rangoon, now known as Yangon, fired on protesters. At least five of them died. The generals ordered the crackdown after Beijing, apparently, gave them the green light to use force. They had been unable to quell more than a month of street demonstrations across the country. This week there have been protests numbering 100,000 in the capital. (In 1988, the junta killed an estimated 3,000 citizens participating in similar protests.)

The Rangoon generals, who have caused a long-term economic downturn, could not maintain themselves without material and diplomatic support from their neighbors. China has been their primary backer. This January, for instance, Beijing vetoed a U.S.-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution on Burma, and in May the Chinese regime refused to join ASEAN in urging the generals to release Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy advocate who was imprisoned immediately after her party won national elections in 1990.

The U.N. and Asian regional organizations have been hamstrung by Beijing—and to a lesser extent by Moscow and New Delhi. As a result, the generals in Rangoon have been able to maintain their repressive regime in the face of dissent at home and withering criticism abroad. Now it is up to the United States, the power of last resort in the international system, to provide the support for democratic change in Burma. So did President Bush serve up a nothingburger yesterday? Nothing could be further from the truth.

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Ruth R. Wisse on Jews and Power

Ruth R. Wisse is a longtime COMMENTARY contributor (and a contentions blogger) and the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard. Her newest book, Jews and Power, was reviewed in the September issue of COMMENTARY by the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens. He wrote:

Jews and Power can . . . serve as a basis for pondering the broader self-doubt, often cloaked in pretensions of superior morality, that today infects much of the liberal democratic West. For providing that lesson, and for doing so with passion, eloquence, and peerless intellectual verve, Ruth Wisse deserves all honor and gratitude.

Last week, Wisse sat with contentions to discuss her new book. She then appeared before a standing-room only audience at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side for a reading and book signing. You can watch the interview below.

Ruth R. Wisse is a longtime COMMENTARY contributor (and a contentions blogger) and the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard. Her newest book, Jews and Power, was reviewed in the September issue of COMMENTARY by the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens. He wrote:

Jews and Power can . . . serve as a basis for pondering the broader self-doubt, often cloaked in pretensions of superior morality, that today infects much of the liberal democratic West. For providing that lesson, and for doing so with passion, eloquence, and peerless intellectual verve, Ruth Wisse deserves all honor and gratitude.

Last week, Wisse sat with contentions to discuss her new book. She then appeared before a standing-room only audience at Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side for a reading and book signing. You can watch the interview below.

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Academic “Freedom”

Higher education deeply cherishes the notion of skeptical and unsparing critical inquiry—just not about itself. Last year, the Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) drew up a Student Bill of Rights, a carefully worded manifesto about the importance of intellectual freedom for teachers and students. Insisting that students not be subjected to political indoctrination in the guise of instruction, the document invoked the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, drawn up by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

According to it, “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” The AAUP is evidently unhappy at having its own words quoted back to it. It has just issued a lengthy committee report, suggesting that those words don’t exactly mean what they say:

Modern critics of the university seek to impose on university classrooms mandatory and ill-conceived standards of “balance,” “diversity, and “respect.” We ought to learn from history that the vitality of institutions of higher learning has been damaged far more by efforts to correct abuses of freedom than by those alleged abuses. We ought to learn from history that education cannot possibly thrive in an atmosphere of state-encouraged suspicion and surveillance.

The AAUP considers four specific charges leveled against the modern university: that many professors routinely practice political indoctrination, fail to present alternative points of view, are hostile to students’ political or religious views, and introduce irrelevant political digressions into class. In each instance, the charge is not so much as considered but explained away.

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Higher education deeply cherishes the notion of skeptical and unsparing critical inquiry—just not about itself. Last year, the Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) drew up a Student Bill of Rights, a carefully worded manifesto about the importance of intellectual freedom for teachers and students. Insisting that students not be subjected to political indoctrination in the guise of instruction, the document invoked the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, drawn up by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

According to it, “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” The AAUP is evidently unhappy at having its own words quoted back to it. It has just issued a lengthy committee report, suggesting that those words don’t exactly mean what they say:

Modern critics of the university seek to impose on university classrooms mandatory and ill-conceived standards of “balance,” “diversity, and “respect.” We ought to learn from history that the vitality of institutions of higher learning has been damaged far more by efforts to correct abuses of freedom than by those alleged abuses. We ought to learn from history that education cannot possibly thrive in an atmosphere of state-encouraged suspicion and surveillance.

The AAUP considers four specific charges leveled against the modern university: that many professors routinely practice political indoctrination, fail to present alternative points of view, are hostile to students’ political or religious views, and introduce irrelevant political digressions into class. In each instance, the charge is not so much as considered but explained away.

How can there be personal bias, it asks, when course descriptions are vetted by departments and administrations? The possibility that those departmental colleagues might themselves have an overwhelming ideological uniformity is not considered. Complaints about hostility? Students have no “right not to have their most cherished beliefs challenged.” Ideological one-sidedness? One must not restrict the legitimate prerogative of a teacher to present his material in his own way. And so on, in alternately blithe and testy tones, to the conclusion that the only chronic problem truly afflicting higher education is the fascistic disposition of its critics: “calls for the regulation of higher education are almost invariably appeals to the coercive power of the state.”

Anyone who follows education will recognize some of the serious controversies and scandals that go utterly unmentioned in the AAUP report. Just to name one, there is the matter of “disposition assessment.” The guidelines of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, formulated in 2002, explain that universities should not only evaluate such understandable criteria as punctuality and dress but the political views of its students: “if . . . a commitment to social justice is one disposition it expects of teachers who can become agents of change, then it is expect that unit assessments include some measure of a candidate’s commitment to social justice.”

This came to light in 2005, when Ed Swan, a student at Washington State University, was kicked out of its teachers program for his conservative views. The revelation that professors of education were entitled to act as grand inquisitors, drawing out the political orientation of their students by carefully formulated “unit assignments,” inspired a strongly worded protest by the National Association of Scholars to the U. S. Department of Education.

About all of this there is not one word in the report of the AAUP. Although it warns sternly of “the coercive power of the state,” it ignores how state power is already at play, massively and implacably, wherever its state-supported universities and public schools are enforcing the “disposition” control of the NCATE. The AAUP has issued a document that is deeply discreditable to all concerned, a sad performance of shooting the messenger from behind circled wagons. This time, however, there are far too many messengers to shoot.

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Is Michael Mukasey Really Spider-Man?

What is the difference between the Daily Bugle and the New York Times? In the Daily Bugle, the fictional newspaper in the Spider-Man franchise, the superhero is smeared as a danger to the public weal with headlines like “Spider-Man: Threat or Menace?”

The headline in Monday’s New York Times, “Post-9/11 Cases Fuel Criticism for Nominee,” was more subtle than that. But the contents that followed were not. As former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy demonstrates today in an exceptionally well-informed analysis, the Times was performing nothing less than a hatchet job on Michael B. Mukasey, President Bush’s choice for the position of Attorney General.

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What is the difference between the Daily Bugle and the New York Times? In the Daily Bugle, the fictional newspaper in the Spider-Man franchise, the superhero is smeared as a danger to the public weal with headlines like “Spider-Man: Threat or Menace?”

The headline in Monday’s New York Times, “Post-9/11 Cases Fuel Criticism for Nominee,” was more subtle than that. But the contents that followed were not. As former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy demonstrates today in an exceptionally well-informed analysis, the Times was performing nothing less than a hatchet job on Michael B. Mukasey, President Bush’s choice for the position of Attorney General.

Next to the MoveOn.org advertising flap, which has revealed how the paper’s managerial incompetence can mix with its biases, the Mukasey story exposes the partisanship of the paper’s supposedly non-partisan news section in a way that few stories ever quite so nakedly do. It will be interesting to see if Clark Hoyt, the Times’s Public Editor, takes up this scandal, as he has here with the MoveOn.org ad, in a forthcoming column.

Whether we hear from Hoyt or not, the lengthening of the line of soiled laundry on display at our country’s premier newspaper is spectacularly ill-timedat least from the point of view of the self-preening journalism lobby itself. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to take up a “shield law” that would carve out special privileges for journalists, exempting them from having to testify in legal proceedings about their confidential sources.

Although the Times’s Mukasey story does not bear in any direct way on the issues addressed in the bill, it demonstrates, as clearly as DanRathergate did, something else. Rank partisanship has infected American journalism to the point that a shield lawa bad idea under any circumstances, as I have argued herewould at this juncture be a formula for the kind of disaster that only a Spider-Man could save us from.

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Missing Moynihan

Over 30 years ago, the murderous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin came to New York City to speak at the United Nations General Assembly. Amin had, during his eight years in power, declared that Hitler was right to murder six million Jews and welcomed a plane full of Israeli passengers hijacked by Palestinian terrorists into his country. In his speech before the Assembly, Amin called for “the extinction of Israel as a state.” (This was the year that the Assembly passed its infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism, a resolution that was not repealed until 1991.)

The United States’s man at Turtle Bay at the time, former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was a giant among statesmen, of the sort we are unlikely to see again. While suits in the State Department squirmed, Moynihan did what America’s finest ambassadors do best: tell the simple truth. In language highly unusual for an American diplomat, he said of Amin: “[I]t’s no accident, I fear, that this ‘racist murderer’—as one of our leading newspapers called him this morning—is head of the Organization of African Unity.” (That newspaper, by the way, was the New York Times. Imagine them calling Robert Mugabe a “racist murderer” today). Moynihan was forced out after just eight months on the job.

Moynihan, like Jeane Kirkpatrick, got his job because of an article he wrote for COMMENTARY. “The United States in Opposition,” published March 1975, was a stirring petition to America’s diplomatic corps to realize that the so-called “Non-Aligned Movement” was anything but neutral in the Cold War, and that the United Nations had descended into a den of anti-American vitriol. America could use a man of Moynihan’s caliber this week, in the face of another dictator’s visit.

We miss you, Pat.

Over 30 years ago, the murderous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin came to New York City to speak at the United Nations General Assembly. Amin had, during his eight years in power, declared that Hitler was right to murder six million Jews and welcomed a plane full of Israeli passengers hijacked by Palestinian terrorists into his country. In his speech before the Assembly, Amin called for “the extinction of Israel as a state.” (This was the year that the Assembly passed its infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism, a resolution that was not repealed until 1991.)

The United States’s man at Turtle Bay at the time, former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was a giant among statesmen, of the sort we are unlikely to see again. While suits in the State Department squirmed, Moynihan did what America’s finest ambassadors do best: tell the simple truth. In language highly unusual for an American diplomat, he said of Amin: “[I]t’s no accident, I fear, that this ‘racist murderer’—as one of our leading newspapers called him this morning—is head of the Organization of African Unity.” (That newspaper, by the way, was the New York Times. Imagine them calling Robert Mugabe a “racist murderer” today). Moynihan was forced out after just eight months on the job.

Moynihan, like Jeane Kirkpatrick, got his job because of an article he wrote for COMMENTARY. “The United States in Opposition,” published March 1975, was a stirring petition to America’s diplomatic corps to realize that the so-called “Non-Aligned Movement” was anything but neutral in the Cold War, and that the United Nations had descended into a den of anti-American vitriol. America could use a man of Moynihan’s caliber this week, in the face of another dictator’s visit.

We miss you, Pat.

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