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Posts For: September 27, 2007

Fascism Old and New

As the jury and contestants entered the second round of Stuttgart’s triennial classical song competition last week, organized by the Internationale Hugo Wolf Akademie, idealistic young singers and pianists performed lieder by Robert Schumann and Wolf, often alluding optimistically to a better world. A brief break offered time for a stroll through one of Stuttgart’s parks, where high school girls jogged dispiritedly, sidestepping piles of horse dung. I walked to the Hegel-Haus, the birthplace of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. On display in the charmingly spare little house were letters from Hegel’s friends, stressing the importance of freedom: “Vive la liberté” writes one, while another quotes Klopstock, an 18th century German poet who cheered the American Revolution.

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As the jury and contestants entered the second round of Stuttgart’s triennial classical song competition last week, organized by the Internationale Hugo Wolf Akademie, idealistic young singers and pianists performed lieder by Robert Schumann and Wolf, often alluding optimistically to a better world. A brief break offered time for a stroll through one of Stuttgart’s parks, where high school girls jogged dispiritedly, sidestepping piles of horse dung. I walked to the Hegel-Haus, the birthplace of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. On display in the charmingly spare little house were letters from Hegel’s friends, stressing the importance of freedom: “Vive la liberté” writes one, while another quotes Klopstock, an 18th century German poet who cheered the American Revolution.

Such echoes of the so-called German Idealism movement are all the more timely as the current talk of the town is about Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, who on September 14th made a speech at the opening of a new art museum in which he stated: “Wherever culture is separated from the worship of God, cult atrophies into ritualism and art becomes degenerate.” The word “degenerate” inevitably hearkens back to Nazi-era jargon, as local newspapers were quick to point out; the Nazi’s notorious 1937 Munich “Degenerate Art” exhibit was intended to ridicule modernist paintings. Meisner’s statement was followed by a backlash of articles defending the Cardinal from “Meisner-Bashing” by the so-called “word-police” This vehement support was to be expected, since Meisner controls a vast empire of real estate and church-owned media, stoked by the highest annual donation rate in Germany, estimated at around 680 million euros per annum. In 2005, Meisner asserted that women who have an abortion are comparable to mass killers like Hitler and Stalin. Stephan Kramer, General Secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, noted that Meisner repeatedly “misuses language as a taboo-breaker. If that sets an example, we should not be surprised if Nazi beliefs become respectable again.”

Meanwhile, in between sessions of idealistic song, equal concern is devoted to the Swiss national elections scheduled for October 21, where the front-runner is a billionaire named Christoph Blocher, Switzerland’s current Justice Minister. Blocher’s campaign, featuring a poster of a black sheep kicked off the Swiss flag by three white sheep under the caption: “For More Security,” has been called fascist, racist, and perhaps worst of all, “un-Swiss.” Blocher’s wealth has also bought him a TV program during which servile interviewers, likened to East German broadcasters in the old Communist days, ask him adoring questions. While Europe ponders these reminders of oppression old and new, it is particularly useful to focus on the optimistic message of an international gathering like the Wolf Akademie’s lieder contest, where the sheep are dismissed only if they hit wrong notes, not if the color of their wool offends.

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The Poet and the Nazi

Today, the New York Times reports that five members of the board of the Poetry Society of America, including its president, have resigned. Their resignations stem from “accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.”

The blood went bad when, earlier this year, John Hollander, the poet, critic, and retired Yale professor, was awarded the Society’s Frost Medal, a kind of lifetime achievement award.

A rough time-line: Professor Hollander, in the past, made some remarks that were insensitive. For instance, according to the New York Times, Hollander noted on NPR that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.” Poetry Society board members balked when, a few years ago, Hollander was put up as a contender for the Frost Medal. When, earlier this year, Hollander was announced as the recipient of the medal, novelist Walter Mosley, a board member, resigned in protest. In response, PSA board president William Louis-Dreyfus, a commodities trader, accused Mosley of McCarthyism in using Hollander’s politics against him. Angered at Louis-Dreyfus’s reaction, three other board members, including well-regarded poets Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter, tendered their own resignations.

Mr. Mosley deemed Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s invocation of Senator Joe McCarthy “ridiculous hyperbole.” Unfortunately, in describing the events at the PSA, Motoko Rich, the reporter for the New York Times, has committed her own act of egregious exaggeration. In discussing whether one can praise an artist’s work while criticizing the artist as a human, Ms. Rich compares John Hollander to Günter Grass. The former is a Jewish professor who has displayed ignorance and tactlessness. Günter Grass is a German who was a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS.

If emotions on the PSA’s board run high, it seems that even reporting on the matter severely impairs one’s sense of proportion.

Today, the New York Times reports that five members of the board of the Poetry Society of America, including its president, have resigned. Their resignations stem from “accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.”

The blood went bad when, earlier this year, John Hollander, the poet, critic, and retired Yale professor, was awarded the Society’s Frost Medal, a kind of lifetime achievement award.

A rough time-line: Professor Hollander, in the past, made some remarks that were insensitive. For instance, according to the New York Times, Hollander noted on NPR that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.” Poetry Society board members balked when, a few years ago, Hollander was put up as a contender for the Frost Medal. When, earlier this year, Hollander was announced as the recipient of the medal, novelist Walter Mosley, a board member, resigned in protest. In response, PSA board president William Louis-Dreyfus, a commodities trader, accused Mosley of McCarthyism in using Hollander’s politics against him. Angered at Louis-Dreyfus’s reaction, three other board members, including well-regarded poets Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter, tendered their own resignations.

Mr. Mosley deemed Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s invocation of Senator Joe McCarthy “ridiculous hyperbole.” Unfortunately, in describing the events at the PSA, Motoko Rich, the reporter for the New York Times, has committed her own act of egregious exaggeration. In discussing whether one can praise an artist’s work while criticizing the artist as a human, Ms. Rich compares John Hollander to Günter Grass. The former is a Jewish professor who has displayed ignorance and tactlessness. Günter Grass is a German who was a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS.

If emotions on the PSA’s board run high, it seems that even reporting on the matter severely impairs one’s sense of proportion.

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What the Airstrikes Mean

There has been a good deal of informed speculation in the press regarding the Israeli Air Force’s Sept. 6 raid on a suspected nuclear development site in Syria. (See, for instance, Bret Stephens’s excellent column in the Wall Street Journal.) Two aspects of the raid haven’t received enough attention, however.

First, the fact that the Israeli Air Force was able to catch the Syrians by surprise. There is no indication that any Israeli aircraft were shot down or even damaged. This is pretty significant: Syria has been making an effort to upgrade its air defenses in recent years by buying Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. Yet Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers were still able to strike deep into Syria unscathed.

Second, Syria has not (so far at least) mounted any kind of retaliation that we know of. Perhaps some counter-blow—possibly in the form of a terrorist attack against Israelis or even non-Israeli Jews—is coming. But so far the Syrian response can only be described as very muted. Perhaps the Syrians realize that, if they escalate the conflict, Israel can do far worse to Syria than Syria can do to Israel.

What do these two facts combined mean? They suggest that both Syria and its Iranian patrons (who have also been upgrading their air defenses with Russian help) remain very vulnerable to air attack by a sophisticated state like Israel or the United States. That increases the pressure on these “axis of evil” members to rethink their continuing efforts to facilitate attacks on Western forces in Iraq and to develop nuclear-weapons. They must know that whatever the Israeli Air Force can do, the U.S. Air Force can do on much bigger scale. If anything will lead them to negotiate seriously, that is it.

Even so, I can’t say I have much hope they will mend their ways until they see that the U.S. has not only the capability to hurt them but also the willingness to do so. As the Journal’s editorial board argues today, Tehran has been told it will pay a price for killing Americans, but it never has.”

There has been a good deal of informed speculation in the press regarding the Israeli Air Force’s Sept. 6 raid on a suspected nuclear development site in Syria. (See, for instance, Bret Stephens’s excellent column in the Wall Street Journal.) Two aspects of the raid haven’t received enough attention, however.

First, the fact that the Israeli Air Force was able to catch the Syrians by surprise. There is no indication that any Israeli aircraft were shot down or even damaged. This is pretty significant: Syria has been making an effort to upgrade its air defenses in recent years by buying Russian-made surface-to-air missiles. Yet Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers were still able to strike deep into Syria unscathed.

Second, Syria has not (so far at least) mounted any kind of retaliation that we know of. Perhaps some counter-blow—possibly in the form of a terrorist attack against Israelis or even non-Israeli Jews—is coming. But so far the Syrian response can only be described as very muted. Perhaps the Syrians realize that, if they escalate the conflict, Israel can do far worse to Syria than Syria can do to Israel.

What do these two facts combined mean? They suggest that both Syria and its Iranian patrons (who have also been upgrading their air defenses with Russian help) remain very vulnerable to air attack by a sophisticated state like Israel or the United States. That increases the pressure on these “axis of evil” members to rethink their continuing efforts to facilitate attacks on Western forces in Iraq and to develop nuclear-weapons. They must know that whatever the Israeli Air Force can do, the U.S. Air Force can do on much bigger scale. If anything will lead them to negotiate seriously, that is it.

Even so, I can’t say I have much hope they will mend their ways until they see that the U.S. has not only the capability to hurt them but also the willingness to do so. As the Journal’s editorial board argues today, Tehran has been told it will pay a price for killing Americans, but it never has.”

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The Matthews Thesis

On last night’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, Matthews said:

[D]o you think it was odd of the president of the United States, who’s basically against multilateralism, period . . . to be quoting the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights. I mean, where did he-who is he, Eleanor Roosevelt all of a sudden? I mean, where’d he come from with this? And talking about the American outrage against Burma – the American people are outraged about New Orleans. They’re not focused on Burma. Nobody that I know of has even thought about it. . . . Why did he say the American people are outraged at Burma, when you [David Gergen] and I, who do read the papers—I don’t even think you and I are outraged, and we read the paper every day. Ninety percent of the American people are not outraged at hardly anything right now, but the idea that they’re outraged about Burma is ludicrous.

These are the type of insights we’ve come to expect from Mr. Matthews over the years—and they are worth unpacking.

First, Matthews’s charge that the President is “basically against multilateralism, period” is comically uninformed. Matthews seems not to understand the difference between multilateral efforts and having the backing of the United Nations. One often has the former without the latter. For example, the United States has gained unprecedented cooperation in the war against jihadists from countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Traditional allies in Europe have helped in tracking and arresting terrorists and blocking their financing. We’re witnessing unprecedented cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence, military actions, and diplomacy. And more than 70 countries have joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a comprehensive enforcement mechanism aimed at restricting trafficking of WMD.

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On last night’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, Matthews said:

[D]o you think it was odd of the president of the United States, who’s basically against multilateralism, period . . . to be quoting the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights. I mean, where did he-who is he, Eleanor Roosevelt all of a sudden? I mean, where’d he come from with this? And talking about the American outrage against Burma – the American people are outraged about New Orleans. They’re not focused on Burma. Nobody that I know of has even thought about it. . . . Why did he say the American people are outraged at Burma, when you [David Gergen] and I, who do read the papers—I don’t even think you and I are outraged, and we read the paper every day. Ninety percent of the American people are not outraged at hardly anything right now, but the idea that they’re outraged about Burma is ludicrous.

These are the type of insights we’ve come to expect from Mr. Matthews over the years—and they are worth unpacking.

First, Matthews’s charge that the President is “basically against multilateralism, period” is comically uninformed. Matthews seems not to understand the difference between multilateral efforts and having the backing of the United Nations. One often has the former without the latter. For example, the United States has gained unprecedented cooperation in the war against jihadists from countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Traditional allies in Europe have helped in tracking and arresting terrorists and blocking their financing. We’re witnessing unprecedented cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence, military actions, and diplomacy. And more than 70 countries have joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a comprehensive enforcement mechanism aimed at restricting trafficking of WMD.

For the Matthews Thesis to have merit, he would have to erase virtually all of the day-to-day activity of the war against radical Islam, which consists of unprecedented levels of cooperation and integrated planning across scores of countries. He would have to ignore our trade and development policy. And he would have to ignore the fact that the United States went to war with Iraq with a coalition of more than two dozen countries.

Second, President Bush is not against the United Nations as a matter of principle. After all, the United States helped shepherd through a unanimous U.N. Security Council vote (1441) finding Iraq in material breach of its previous ceasefire agreements and offering Iraq a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations. But a willingness to work through the U.N. is different than ceding authority to conduct American foreign policy to it. Mr. Matthews may be in favor of that; the President is not.

A third point: it makes great sense for the President to quote the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which is fully consistent with the President’s freedom agenda (and, in fact, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights echoes the principles found in our own Declaration of Independence). It is perfectly reasonable to insist that the United Nations live up to its founding charter.

As for Burma: what we are seeing unfold there is a stirring and courageous stand by Buddhist monks and democratic activists against a brutal military junta, which is now using violence to put an end to the uprising. This moment—like the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the Martyr’s Square protest in Lebanon in 2005—is important and it ought to command our attention and support. It is exactly the type of issue that should be raised at the U.N.

Chris Matthews, ever voluble and confused on the facts, is critical of the President for not being sufficiently multilateral and (presumably) not solicitous enough of regimes like Syria and China—yet he appears to be morally indifferent to a great struggle for liberty that is unfolding before our eyes. All of which is a reminder why Chris Matthews is a perfect choice to host a program on MSNBC.

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“The Smartest People on Earth”

Are Mainland Chinese becoming anti-Semitic?

The question arises because one of the hottest books in China is Song Hongbing’s Currency Wars. According to Song, the owners of international capital create financial crises, start wars, degrade the environment, and control the world. These financiers are responsible for the defeat of Napoleon, the deaths of half a dozen American presidents, the rise of Hitler, and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. All of this, Song contends, is ultimately tied back to the Rothschilds. Worrying theory, no?

“The Chinese people think that the Jews are smart and rich, so we should learn from them,” says the American-educated Song. “Even me, I think they are really smart, maybe the smartest people on earth.” That perception helps explain why there are an estimated 200,000 copies of the book, published by a commercial arm of the Chinese government, and another 400,000 pirated versions floating around the Mainland today. Worse, senior leaders in Beijing are lapping up Song’s theories.

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Are Mainland Chinese becoming anti-Semitic?

The question arises because one of the hottest books in China is Song Hongbing’s Currency Wars. According to Song, the owners of international capital create financial crises, start wars, degrade the environment, and control the world. These financiers are responsible for the defeat of Napoleon, the deaths of half a dozen American presidents, the rise of Hitler, and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. All of this, Song contends, is ultimately tied back to the Rothschilds. Worrying theory, no?

“The Chinese people think that the Jews are smart and rich, so we should learn from them,” says the American-educated Song. “Even me, I think they are really smart, maybe the smartest people on earth.” That perception helps explain why there are an estimated 200,000 copies of the book, published by a commercial arm of the Chinese government, and another 400,000 pirated versions floating around the Mainland today. Worse, senior leaders in Beijing are lapping up Song’s theories.

China’s Communist Party has long persecuted the few Jews in the Mainland, but that was part of a broader effort to eradicate religion. Today, Christians and the Buddhist-inspired Falun Gong bear the brunt of Beijing’s wrath. Most analysts note the lack of an anti-Semitic tradition in Chinese history and a strong admiration for Jewish culture and accomplishment, as Song’s own words reveal. Shalom Salomon Wald, author of China and the Jewish People, believes that the Chinese find common cause with the Jews, as both of them were the subject of persecution. Moreover, most sons and daughters of the Yellow Emperor admire other peoples with old cultures, and many Chinese perceive that the two oldest belong to them and the descendants of Abraham.

Even with these mitigating factors taken into account, Song’s book (which manages to be zany and offensive at the same time) is a manifestation of a worrying trend. Many Chinese at this moment perceive that others are conspiring to contain their nation’s rise. Song, after all, has written a self-help manual to deal with American efforts to force a revaluation of the renminbi, the Chinese currency. Chinese nationalism has turned especially ugly in recent years, and any conspiracy theory—even ones not grounded in malice—could be used to justify the most reprehensible conduct.

“The Chinese believe the Jews are a big people. It makes no sense to tell them we’re not,” says Wald. “It also doesn’t help to tell them this is anti-Semitic.” He may be correct, but it is perfectly logical to tell the Chinese that they shouldn’t adopt crank theories of history—and they should stop blaming other peoples, including ones they may otherwise admire.

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The Freedom Fetishists Strike Back

My article “Freedom Fetishists” in last month’s COMMENTARY (reprinted in OpinionJournal.com with the subtitle “The Cultural Contradictions of Libertarianism”) has provoked quite a bit of discussion in the libertarian blogosphere, and while some of it is cranky (in many senses of the word), much of it is thoughtful. But even those thoughtful responses expose a few misunderstandings that tend to prove my point about the limitations of libertarianism in dealing with the breakdown of the family.

Misunderstanding one: I equate libertarianism and libertinism.

Not at all. I do observe that the libertarian movement has attracted more than its share of crazies—an observation supported by Reason editor Brian Doherty in his Radicals for Capitalism. I also point out that some libertarians were silent in the face of post-60’s attacks on marriage. This is not the same as saying that libertarianism programmatically supports what Brink Lindsey calls the Aquarian lifestyle. (And for what it’s worth, my libertarian friends and acquaintances are a rather buttoned-up group.)

Interesting, isn’t it? Of those who view family breakdown as a major social problem, I don’t know any who argue that we should ban divorce and lock up single mothers. I actually agree with libertarians that many government policies have greatly harmed the family, and while I would probably go further than they would in supporting some government attempts to stem the tide—say, state laws that provide longer waiting periods before divorce—I believe that the state is pretty hamstrung in this regard.

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My article “Freedom Fetishists” in last month’s COMMENTARY (reprinted in OpinionJournal.com with the subtitle “The Cultural Contradictions of Libertarianism”) has provoked quite a bit of discussion in the libertarian blogosphere, and while some of it is cranky (in many senses of the word), much of it is thoughtful. But even those thoughtful responses expose a few misunderstandings that tend to prove my point about the limitations of libertarianism in dealing with the breakdown of the family.

Misunderstanding one: I equate libertarianism and libertinism.

Not at all. I do observe that the libertarian movement has attracted more than its share of crazies—an observation supported by Reason editor Brian Doherty in his Radicals for Capitalism. I also point out that some libertarians were silent in the face of post-60’s attacks on marriage. This is not the same as saying that libertarianism programmatically supports what Brink Lindsey calls the Aquarian lifestyle. (And for what it’s worth, my libertarian friends and acquaintances are a rather buttoned-up group.)

Interesting, isn’t it? Of those who view family breakdown as a major social problem, I don’t know any who argue that we should ban divorce and lock up single mothers. I actually agree with libertarians that many government policies have greatly harmed the family, and while I would probably go further than they would in supporting some government attempts to stem the tide—say, state laws that provide longer waiting periods before divorce—I believe that the state is pretty hamstrung in this regard.

But unlike many libertarians, I don’t think that’s all there is to say. Family breakdown is largely a consequence of changing cultural norms. And when it comes to culture, libertarians are of two impossibly contradictory minds. In their Hayek mode, they argue, like the Volokh Conspiracy’s Ilya Somin, that the “harmful effects of private choices . . . are best dealt with through the private sector,” a sentiment with which I strongly agree.

Unfortunately, in practice libertarians tend to see all criticism of personal behavior as a threat to liberty. Brian Doherty snarks about my “tut-tutting” over America’s (his wording) “parlous moral state.” Glenn Reynolds taunts that libertarians “can even think that traditional childrearing and marriage are generally a good thing without insisting on social mores that punish those who live differently.” Libertarians believe government shouldn’t say anything about the family problem. And neither should anyone else.

Forty years ago, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised the alarm about the rising number of nonmarital black births, critics charging racism and sexism hounded him into silence. (For a fuller description, see my Marriage and Caste in America.) Today, you’re extremely unlikely to find a married couple in the inner city. It’s entirely possible that this would have happened if the subject of the black family had not been off limits for over two decades after Moynihan’s warning. But if I am correct in thinking that the way we go about marriage and childbearing is determined by cultural norms, then it’s possible that a vigorous assertion of the value of the two-parent family from elite opinion-makers might have done some good.

No, libertarians are not libertines. Nor, pace Doherty in his rebuttal to my article, are they the cause of family breakdown. But their tendency to view individual personal liberty as The Good that should swallow up all others (a view admittedly shared by more Americans than I would wish) sure makes it hard to deal with this major social problem—one that harms their own cause above all.

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