Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 18, 2007

Unrest in the Chinese Army

Western observers tend to assume that the Chinese Army and the Communist Party are as close as the proverbial “lips and teeth.” However, a number of troubling, but largely unremarked upon, reports in the Chinese media raises nagging doubts about just how close the two really are. This is an important question for the United States, as the People’s Liberation Army is the rock upon which the structure of Party dictatorship rests.

China Central Television (CCTV) recently reported that, according to a September 21 article in the authoritative newspaper People’s Liberation Army Daily, the military has been exhorted to:

“[A]dvance the Party’s construction in the army, persist in the Party’s absolute leadership of the army, uphold the Party’s flag as the army’s flag, and take the Party’s will as the army’s will.”

Hortatory articles like this one have appeared regularly for years in the Chinese media. Last summer, however, the tone of such standard articles began to change, becoming more insistent, even panicky.

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Western observers tend to assume that the Chinese Army and the Communist Party are as close as the proverbial “lips and teeth.” However, a number of troubling, but largely unremarked upon, reports in the Chinese media raises nagging doubts about just how close the two really are. This is an important question for the United States, as the People’s Liberation Army is the rock upon which the structure of Party dictatorship rests.

China Central Television (CCTV) recently reported that, according to a September 21 article in the authoritative newspaper People’s Liberation Army Daily, the military has been exhorted to:

“[A]dvance the Party’s construction in the army, persist in the Party’s absolute leadership of the army, uphold the Party’s flag as the army’s flag, and take the Party’s will as the army’s will.”

Hortatory articles like this one have appeared regularly for years in the Chinese media. Last summer, however, the tone of such standard articles began to change, becoming more insistent, even panicky.

I noticed the shift and began to puzzle over it. Others have noticed it, too; James Mulvenon, for instance, has written an important essay called “They Protest Too Much” about demonstrations by demobilized soldiers. The new tone was clear in a lecture by President Hu Jintao on June 25, during which he told an audience at the Central Party School that they must guard against “arrogance and rashness,” and remain “ideologically sober-headed.” What, I asked myself, could have prompted such strong language?

Then on July 15 and July 16, according to Hong Kong reports, Hu spelled out for more than 80 top commanders at the Central Military Commission in Beijing the eight problems that most concerned him. These were a daunting list:

1. Decreasing sense of military responsibility.
2. Disconnect and lag in building the political ideology, organization, and in the PLA’s self-development.
3. Weakened fundamental belief in the Party’s absolute leadership over the military.
4. Decreased ability to resist westernization, segregation, and corruption.
5. Changed organizational and disciplinary principles.
6. Worsening relationships among various military rankings and internal departments.
7. Questionable ability to win a war in the modern era.
8. Increasing and sometimes severe conflicts between the military and local government and residents in certain regions.

Reading this list, I finally grasped the point. The Chinese army has serious problems with morale, competence, and political loyalty. That is what Hu is telling the army, and us.

Some Chinese military officers are undoubtedly corrupt, but others likely despise the present political leadership. They probably discuss among themselves what is to be done to save their country from the looming disaster of corruption, pollution, and unrest. The West tends toward an optimistic view of China’s future, with reform and stability both assured, and no danger of breakdown in civil-military relations. President Hu seems not to share our optimism. Perhaps it is time for us to reconsider.

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Enjoyable Brit Moderns

Readers of this blog have repeatedly expressed distress at the way classical music is going. Indeed, in February, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it has commissioned two new works from the Argentinean composer of specious tourist kitsch, Osvaldo Golijov, as well as the trite, repetitive, and opportunistic headline-grabber John Adams, who notoriously found inspiration from terrorists in his deeply offensive opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1981).

The ballyhoo of journalistic support around Klinghoffer shows not merely that most of America’s salaried music critics are tone-deaf; they are also stunted as human beings. Still, even while such egregious composers are cosseted by the Met’s box office-obsessed director Peter Gelb, there are signs that neglected modern composers can offer genuine listening pleasure.

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Readers of this blog have repeatedly expressed distress at the way classical music is going. Indeed, in February, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it has commissioned two new works from the Argentinean composer of specious tourist kitsch, Osvaldo Golijov, as well as the trite, repetitive, and opportunistic headline-grabber John Adams, who notoriously found inspiration from terrorists in his deeply offensive opera The Death of Klinghoffer (1981).

The ballyhoo of journalistic support around Klinghoffer shows not merely that most of America’s salaried music critics are tone-deaf; they are also stunted as human beings. Still, even while such egregious composers are cosseted by the Met’s box office-obsessed director Peter Gelb, there are signs that neglected modern composers can offer genuine listening pleasure.

An affectionate new biography of Australian-born British composer Malcolm Williamson (1931–2003) by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris points out that by disdaining the desiccated modernist approach, Williamson was able to create accessible works like a wistful, moody “Organ Concerto,” a 1974 recording of which, conducted by Adrian Boult with the composer as soloist, has just been reissued on Lyrita. The same doughty small label (devoted to lost classics of modern British music) has transferred to CD a 1971 recording of a piano concerto by Williamson’s friend and colleague Richard Rodney Bennett (b. 1936), a wry, elusive talent of considerable braininess. Bennett, like Williamson, was successful in a wide variety of genres, including choral music, despite being generally remembered for his delightful film scores to hits like Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express. A mentor to Bennett and Williamson is Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989), whose spry, deft “Piano Concerto in B flat” and elegiac “Concerto for Two Pianos” are also reprinted by Lyrita. Likewise, the music of Gerald Finzi (1901–1956) inspired generations of British musicians, especially his vocal works like “Intimations of Immortality” and “Two Sonnets by John Milton.” Recordings of these works from the 1970’s, by the sublimely mellifluous British tenor Ian Partridge, are also reissued on Lyrita.

Why are such enjoyable composers so rarely performed on our shores, while a more recent, omnipresent name like Magnus Lindberg, who writes heartless music that sounds like an explosion in a glass factory, is everywhere? Then, as now, so-called classical music “experts” are suspicious if they find concert-going fun. In 1966, the Spectator pointed out that Williamson was despised “a) for writing tunes in Richard Strauss-Puccini idioms; b) for writing tunes that aren’t good enough; and c) for being so archaic as to write tunes at all.” Another composer in the Lyrita series, Constant Lambert (1905–1951), wrote Music Ho!, a 1931 study of “music in decline,” as well as the zesty, Poulenc-like ballet Romeo and Juliet. Most of these composers let their music do the talking. After years of heavily-promoted (although all-too-often sterile and soulless) contemporary music, many works reprinted by Lyrita sound better and better.

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The Price of UN Membership

As noted yesterday on contentions, Libya was elected on October 16, 2007 to the UN Security Council, a position it will assume in January. Last month Syria was elected Vice-Chair of the General Conference of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. These goings-on at the UN have been presented not only as perfectly normal but as laudable. While they have provoked strong reaction in some people, they should not come as a surprise.

The UN, we are told, is an essential institution because of its unique inclusivity. The argument goes that the goals and values of democracies on the world scene are dependent on their doing business with dictators as equals. One state, one vote. Regardless of the numbers of real people being subdued in various ways back home. Regardless of the financial contribution made by each member state to the world organization. Regardless of the extent to which the founding principles and purposes of the UN are flaunted by the member state every day of the week.

So Libya and Syria join a long list of dictatorships, despotisms, and human-rights violators in UN leadership positions—positions that entail responsibilities diametrically opposed to their incumbents’ qualifications.

Here are only a few of today’s UN authority figures:

• UN Security Council: Libya
• International Atomic Energy Agency General Committee, Vice-President: Syria
• UN Disarmament Commission, Vice-Chairman: Iran. Rapporteur: Syria
• Committee on Information: China, Kazakhstan
• UN Program of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination, and Wider Appreciation of International Law Advisory Committee: Iran, Lebanon, Sudan
• Commission for Social Development: North Korea
• Commission on the Status of Women: Qatar, Togo, United Arab Emirates
• Commission on Sustainable Development: Sudan
• Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice: Libya, Russia
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Vice-President: Myanmar
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Board: China
• UN Development Program Executive Board: Algeria, Kazakhstan
• General Assembly Vice-Presidents: Egypt, Turkmenistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo
• General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, Vice-Chairman: Syria
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention: Seyed Mohammad Hashemi of Iran
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Member: Saied Rajaie Khorasani of Iran
• UN Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) Governing Council: Zimbabwe
• UN High Commissioner for Refugees Executive Committee: Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan
• International Labor Organization Governing Body: Saudi Arabia
• World Food Program Executive Board: Sudan, Zimbabwe

In short, membership in the UN has no price tag, although, as this list suggests, Israel-bashing and anti-Americanism are its all-but universal currency.

As noted yesterday on contentions, Libya was elected on October 16, 2007 to the UN Security Council, a position it will assume in January. Last month Syria was elected Vice-Chair of the General Conference of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. These goings-on at the UN have been presented not only as perfectly normal but as laudable. While they have provoked strong reaction in some people, they should not come as a surprise.

The UN, we are told, is an essential institution because of its unique inclusivity. The argument goes that the goals and values of democracies on the world scene are dependent on their doing business with dictators as equals. One state, one vote. Regardless of the numbers of real people being subdued in various ways back home. Regardless of the financial contribution made by each member state to the world organization. Regardless of the extent to which the founding principles and purposes of the UN are flaunted by the member state every day of the week.

So Libya and Syria join a long list of dictatorships, despotisms, and human-rights violators in UN leadership positions—positions that entail responsibilities diametrically opposed to their incumbents’ qualifications.

Here are only a few of today’s UN authority figures:

• UN Security Council: Libya
• International Atomic Energy Agency General Committee, Vice-President: Syria
• UN Disarmament Commission, Vice-Chairman: Iran. Rapporteur: Syria
• Committee on Information: China, Kazakhstan
• UN Program of Assistance in the Teaching, Study, Dissemination, and Wider Appreciation of International Law Advisory Committee: Iran, Lebanon, Sudan
• Commission for Social Development: North Korea
• Commission on the Status of Women: Qatar, Togo, United Arab Emirates
• Commission on Sustainable Development: Sudan
• Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice: Libya, Russia
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Vice-President: Myanmar
• UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Board: China
• UN Development Program Executive Board: Algeria, Kazakhstan
• General Assembly Vice-Presidents: Egypt, Turkmenistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo
• General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, Vice-Chairman: Syria
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention: Seyed Mohammad Hashemi of Iran
• Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Member: Saied Rajaie Khorasani of Iran
• UN Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT) Governing Council: Zimbabwe
• UN High Commissioner for Refugees Executive Committee: Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan
• International Labor Organization Governing Body: Saudi Arabia
• World Food Program Executive Board: Sudan, Zimbabwe

In short, membership in the UN has no price tag, although, as this list suggests, Israel-bashing and anti-Americanism are its all-but universal currency.

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Conditions for War

“We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel,” said President Bush in response to a question during his press conference yesterday. “So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Can Iran spark global conflict? Yes, but so can other nations, some of them far less dangerous than the regime run by Tehran’s atomic ayatollahs. It’s not only Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about whom we should be worried. Unfortunately, the international system is so fragile that almost any autocrat can commit the act that brings about global conflagration. Today, we see the same conditions that existed before World Wars I and II.

Before the Great War, as it was once known, there was a confusingly complex international structure that was too difficult for national leaders to comprehend or control. Moreover, grand alliances pulled nations into war when they might otherwise have remained bystanders to conflict. Before World War II, feckless Western leaders let tyrants commit aggression against their less powerful neighbors.

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“We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel,” said President Bush in response to a question during his press conference yesterday. “So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Can Iran spark global conflict? Yes, but so can other nations, some of them far less dangerous than the regime run by Tehran’s atomic ayatollahs. It’s not only Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about whom we should be worried. Unfortunately, the international system is so fragile that almost any autocrat can commit the act that brings about global conflagration. Today, we see the same conditions that existed before World Wars I and II.

Before the Great War, as it was once known, there was a confusingly complex international structure that was too difficult for national leaders to comprehend or control. Moreover, grand alliances pulled nations into war when they might otherwise have remained bystanders to conflict. Before World War II, feckless Western leaders let tyrants commit aggression against their less powerful neighbors.

These same trends are now playing out while the American-led system fractures. The world can be stable in any type of system, yet it is rarely safe when transitioning from one type of structure to the next. The authoritarian nations, led by China and Russia, are drawing closer together, and the West’s leaders seem afraid to defend important principles.

Will we in fact enter a period of turbulence? There is one critical difference between this time and the periods before the two great conflicts of the last century. At least at this moment, Americans still have the power to preserve the peace. The real issue is whether we also have the will and imagination to do so.

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Strange Linkage

Hillary Clinton says the following in her contribution to the series of big-think essays from presidential candidates solicited by Foreign Affairs magazine:

Getting out of Iraq will enable us to play a constructive role in a renewed Middle East peace process that would mean security and normal relations for Israel and the Palestinians. The fundamental elements of a final agreement have been clear since 2000: a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank in return for a declaration that the conflict is over, recognition of Israel’s right to exist, guarantees of Israeli security, diplomatic recognition of Israel, and normalization of its relations with Arab states. U.S. diplomacy is critical in helping to resolve this conflict. In addition to facilitating negotiations, we must engage in regional diplomacy to gain Arab support for a Palestinian leadership that is committed to peace and willing to engage in a dialogue with the Israelis. Whether or not the United States makes progress in helping to broker a final agreement, consistent U.S. involvement can lower the level of violence and restore our credibility in the region.

This kind of message is not surprising, but it is nonetheless tedious to see a leading American politician—especially one who possesses what must be an intimate knowledge of the previous failure of exactly her own prescription—recite such a shopworn and cloying series of clichés about the Middle East. The new twist to her message is the strange linkage between withdrawal from Iraq and the enhanced ability of the U.S. to play “a constructive role” in a “renewed peace process.”

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Hillary Clinton says the following in her contribution to the series of big-think essays from presidential candidates solicited by Foreign Affairs magazine:

Getting out of Iraq will enable us to play a constructive role in a renewed Middle East peace process that would mean security and normal relations for Israel and the Palestinians. The fundamental elements of a final agreement have been clear since 2000: a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank in return for a declaration that the conflict is over, recognition of Israel’s right to exist, guarantees of Israeli security, diplomatic recognition of Israel, and normalization of its relations with Arab states. U.S. diplomacy is critical in helping to resolve this conflict. In addition to facilitating negotiations, we must engage in regional diplomacy to gain Arab support for a Palestinian leadership that is committed to peace and willing to engage in a dialogue with the Israelis. Whether or not the United States makes progress in helping to broker a final agreement, consistent U.S. involvement can lower the level of violence and restore our credibility in the region.

This kind of message is not surprising, but it is nonetheless tedious to see a leading American politician—especially one who possesses what must be an intimate knowledge of the previous failure of exactly her own prescription—recite such a shopworn and cloying series of clichés about the Middle East. The new twist to her message is the strange linkage between withdrawal from Iraq and the enhanced ability of the U.S. to play “a constructive role” in a “renewed peace process.”

Regardless of how one feels about the Iraq war or a U.S. withdrawal from it, such a withdrawal would be viewed in the region as a blow to American power and credibility—and it would also be viewed as a triumph for the regional powers who are working assiduously to make American involvement in the Middle East as costly as possible. Those powers are Iran and Syria and their proxies Hizballah and Hamas—the same powers, it goes without saying, that want to terrorize and destroy Israel.

Hillary asserts that a reduction in American influence in the Middle East will render more plausible a new American diplomatic initiative to create Arab-Israeli peace. This argument contradicts the premise that initiated the current era of American involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. That premise, which led the first Bush administration to push for the Madrid conference, was that the U.S., after its overwhelming victory in the Gulf War, would be able to capitalize on its newfound influence in the Middle East and broker an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Clinton’s Foreign Affairs piece turns that theory, never very sound to begin with, upside down.

And it does so for what I think is an obvious reason: the need to couch a withdrawal from Iraq in as beneficial terms as possible. This is of course to be expected, but in her Foreign Affairs piece, Hillary’s cynical optimism is too obvious.

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Hands Off My DNA

The Saintly Brigades of France have found their cause célèbre: DNA tests for immigrants who want to be reunited with their families. The Opposition—ranging from the Centrist François Bayrou to the Socialist Ségolène Royal to the hard leftist Olivier Besançenot—fumbled every opportunity to grasp a Big Issue during last year’s presidential campaign and the first six months of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential term. Now they have it! A moral issue of gigantic proportions: the UMP-dominated legislature is about to pass an immigration law that would allow immigrants lacking reliable documents to prove filiation by way of DNA tests and expedite reunification with their minor children.

Brushing aside practical considerations—eleven European countries are already using the tests as recommended in a 2003 EU directive—the Brigades are playing on the symbolic value of DNA to raise immigrants to the pinnacle of victimhood. The Brigades’ reasoning goes something like this: since the Nazis classified Jews by genetic quotients from 10 to 100 percent, touching an immigrant’s DNA is equivalent to sending him/her to Auschwitz.

Charlie Hebdo, the pornographic satirical weekly that earned hero’s stripes for publishing the Muhammad cartoons, is at the forefront of the anti-DNA campaign. Editorial director Philippe Val, who defended the freedom to insult the prophet of Islam, is now defending immigrants against the ill-concealed genocidal intentions of the Sarkozy government. (Sarkozy is, himself, a first generation immigrant on his father’s side, and second generation on his mother’s side.) A petition launched by Charlie Hebdo has garnered 200,000-plus signatories, including high profile figures from the Right alongside Sarkozy’s bitterly disappointed rival, Dominique de Villepin.

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The Saintly Brigades of France have found their cause célèbre: DNA tests for immigrants who want to be reunited with their families. The Opposition—ranging from the Centrist François Bayrou to the Socialist Ségolène Royal to the hard leftist Olivier Besançenot—fumbled every opportunity to grasp a Big Issue during last year’s presidential campaign and the first six months of Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential term. Now they have it! A moral issue of gigantic proportions: the UMP-dominated legislature is about to pass an immigration law that would allow immigrants lacking reliable documents to prove filiation by way of DNA tests and expedite reunification with their minor children.

Brushing aside practical considerations—eleven European countries are already using the tests as recommended in a 2003 EU directive—the Brigades are playing on the symbolic value of DNA to raise immigrants to the pinnacle of victimhood. The Brigades’ reasoning goes something like this: since the Nazis classified Jews by genetic quotients from 10 to 100 percent, touching an immigrant’s DNA is equivalent to sending him/her to Auschwitz.

Charlie Hebdo, the pornographic satirical weekly that earned hero’s stripes for publishing the Muhammad cartoons, is at the forefront of the anti-DNA campaign. Editorial director Philippe Val, who defended the freedom to insult the prophet of Islam, is now defending immigrants against the ill-concealed genocidal intentions of the Sarkozy government. (Sarkozy is, himself, a first generation immigrant on his father’s side, and second generation on his mother’s side.) A petition launched by Charlie Hebdo has garnered 200,000-plus signatories, including high profile figures from the Right alongside Sarkozy’s bitterly disappointed rival, Dominique de Villepin.

Since Sarkozy began to deliver on his promise to make French immigration policy more selective, pro-immigration forces have exploited the vocabulary of Vichy collaboration. Meanwhile, commando associations intervene to prevent deportation of illegals; instigate in your face operations like parachuting tents, filled with aggressive mal logés [ill-housed], into a side street at the stock exchange; and accuse the government of pushing illegals to acts of desperation. Drawing on the vocabulary of the 1930’s and 1940’s, pro-immigration forces accuse the government of organizing “rafles [sweeps],” the word used to describe mass roundups of French Jews. Citizens and policemen are urged to resist, and reminded in no uncertain terms that this time they will not be able to say they didn’t know.

French media, thrilled with this juicy bone of contention, have extended a friendly microphone to virulent critics of the bill, which is misleadingly identified as “DNA testing for immigrants.” The height of frenzy was reached when PM François Fillon publicly criticized the undue attention focused on one detail of a broad immigration bill. “Detail”? How dare he use the word “detail”?!? He knows perfectly well that Jean-Marie Le Pen (leader of the near-defunct Front National) said the concentration camps were a “detail” of World War II.

This trivial brouhaha is monopolizing public debate, while a French court raises serious doubts about the veracity of the al-Dura “news report,” produced and broadcast by state-owned French television in September 2000. The al-Dura blood libel doesn’t interest the Saintly Brigades and their cheerleading media, who have transferred the symbols of the Shoah to immigrants. Ironically, it is often immigrants to France who perpetuate the culture of violence against Jews. There is no DNA testing to screen for that!

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Another Mistake of the Day

This one is more serious. I am talking about the August 29 “Bent Spear” incident, in which the U.S. military lost control of some of its nuclear weapons for more than 36 hours. The Washington Post reports that the results of a six-week investigation will be released tomorrow. The episode raises a terrifying question that the investigation’s report is certain not to address: if the U.S. military has been so cavalier about its core function of keeping nuclear weapons secure, how is the hard-pressed Russian military faring at the same task?

This one is more serious. I am talking about the August 29 “Bent Spear” incident, in which the U.S. military lost control of some of its nuclear weapons for more than 36 hours. The Washington Post reports that the results of a six-week investigation will be released tomorrow. The episode raises a terrifying question that the investigation’s report is certain not to address: if the U.S. military has been so cavalier about its core function of keeping nuclear weapons secure, how is the hard-pressed Russian military faring at the same task?

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Mistake of the Day

As an avid chessplayer–along with my day job at COMMENTARY, I am a coauthor of the New York Sun’s weekly chess column–I have had a lifelong fascination with blunders, of which I have made more than a few.

This interest has extended to domains far afield from the 64 squares of the chessboard. Mistakes of all sorts, from the trivial to the serious, from typographical errors to the misdesigns that lead to collapses of bridges, from slips of the tongue to intelligence failures, have been a subject that has gripped my attention and is reflected in some of my writing (see, for example, How Inept is the FBI? and Could September 11 Have Been Averted?).

Why do mistakes occur, and what can we do to avert them? One good starting place for answers is the work of Charles Perrow, author of Normal Accidents, which explores mistakes in industrial settings. As the aviation industry, among others, has demonstrated, there are numerous ways to reduce the accident rate (i.e., the mistake rate), but it cannot be brought down to zero. As the clichéd maxim has it: to err is human. There are limits to the functioning of human cognition, and the impact of these limits is magnified inside organizations of all sorts.

Today’s Mistake of the Day is on the decidedly trivial side of the spectrum. It involves the Army, Navy, and Airforce. As reported by USA Today, despites its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the military has been unwittingly seeking recruits on glee.com, a website where you can connect with others who are “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or everyone else.”

“This is the first I heard about it,” said Maj. Michael Baptista, advertising branch chief for the Army National Guard, which will spend $6.5 million on Internet recruiting this year. “We didn’t knowingly advertise on that particular website,” which he said does not “meet the moral standards” of the military.

Subjects for further inquiry: how many “advertising branch chiefs” does the U.S. military have, how are they recruited, and what are the limits on their cognitive functioning?

As an avid chessplayer–along with my day job at COMMENTARY, I am a coauthor of the New York Sun’s weekly chess column–I have had a lifelong fascination with blunders, of which I have made more than a few.

This interest has extended to domains far afield from the 64 squares of the chessboard. Mistakes of all sorts, from the trivial to the serious, from typographical errors to the misdesigns that lead to collapses of bridges, from slips of the tongue to intelligence failures, have been a subject that has gripped my attention and is reflected in some of my writing (see, for example, How Inept is the FBI? and Could September 11 Have Been Averted?).

Why do mistakes occur, and what can we do to avert them? One good starting place for answers is the work of Charles Perrow, author of Normal Accidents, which explores mistakes in industrial settings. As the aviation industry, among others, has demonstrated, there are numerous ways to reduce the accident rate (i.e., the mistake rate), but it cannot be brought down to zero. As the clichéd maxim has it: to err is human. There are limits to the functioning of human cognition, and the impact of these limits is magnified inside organizations of all sorts.

Today’s Mistake of the Day is on the decidedly trivial side of the spectrum. It involves the Army, Navy, and Airforce. As reported by USA Today, despites its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the military has been unwittingly seeking recruits on glee.com, a website where you can connect with others who are “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or everyone else.”

“This is the first I heard about it,” said Maj. Michael Baptista, advertising branch chief for the Army National Guard, which will spend $6.5 million on Internet recruiting this year. “We didn’t knowingly advertise on that particular website,” which he said does not “meet the moral standards” of the military.

Subjects for further inquiry: how many “advertising branch chiefs” does the U.S. military have, how are they recruited, and what are the limits on their cognitive functioning?

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Muschamp the Maverick

It was only appropriate that the recent obituary for Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic of the New York Times from 1992 to 2004, was written by his successor, Nicolai Ouroussoff. This is one case, however, where the deceased ought to have written his own obituary—for Ouroussoff’s sober and respectful notice manages to present all the facts of Muschamp’s career but none of the truth. Missing is the sense of the outrageous, at times bordering on hysteria, which characterized Muschamp’s style, both literary and personal, and which ultimately cost him his perch at the Times.

Muschamp’s downfall goes unmentioned in Ouroussoff’s article, which only hints genteelly about his “quirky and, some argued, self-indulgent voice.” It has nothing to say about his disastrous attempt to insert himself into the rebuilding of New York’s Ground Zero as a kind of architectural impresario, as was shown in a 2004 essay in the New York Observer by Clay Risen. As long as Muschamp merely hobnobbed at night with the architects he praised by day, bemused readers could forgive his naughtiness. But once he started playing the roles of both critic and player, he committed the journalistic equivalent of a war crime: to act as a combatant while claiming the privileges of a neutral observer. In the end, as the Washington Post obituary recognized, he “had been corrupted by the power he wielded.”

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It was only appropriate that the recent obituary for Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic of the New York Times from 1992 to 2004, was written by his successor, Nicolai Ouroussoff. This is one case, however, where the deceased ought to have written his own obituary—for Ouroussoff’s sober and respectful notice manages to present all the facts of Muschamp’s career but none of the truth. Missing is the sense of the outrageous, at times bordering on hysteria, which characterized Muschamp’s style, both literary and personal, and which ultimately cost him his perch at the Times.

Muschamp’s downfall goes unmentioned in Ouroussoff’s article, which only hints genteelly about his “quirky and, some argued, self-indulgent voice.” It has nothing to say about his disastrous attempt to insert himself into the rebuilding of New York’s Ground Zero as a kind of architectural impresario, as was shown in a 2004 essay in the New York Observer by Clay Risen. As long as Muschamp merely hobnobbed at night with the architects he praised by day, bemused readers could forgive his naughtiness. But once he started playing the roles of both critic and player, he committed the journalistic equivalent of a war crime: to act as a combatant while claiming the privileges of a neutral observer. In the end, as the Washington Post obituary recognized, he “had been corrupted by the power he wielded.”

Writing in Commentary several years ago, I pondered what it was that distinguished Muschamp’s criticism from that of his peers. Unlike them, he had little patience for the technical or programmatic features of building, such as its

paths of circulation, nuances of siting, or the countless small details of profiles, joints, moldings, reveals, revetments, corners, and all the other members that form the living face of a building. Most of his reviews were devoted instead to putting into words how a building made him feel. And to this task he brought his own signature style, bombarding the reader with allusions to pop culture, especially movies. What Muschamp seems to have discovered was that, by drenching his reviews in pop references, he could attract the sort of audience that did not normally attend to architecture.

In retrospect, one can see that Muschamp’s fall has impoverished the state of architecture criticism. Most architecture critics are the voice of respectable establishment opinion: one thinks of Benjamin Forgey at the Washington Post, Paul Goldberger at the New Yorker, and Robert Campbell at the Boston Globe. Ouroussoff, it is now clear, falls into the same camp. It is not likely that their circle of readers is terribly large, outside of design professionals or those with civic curiosity. It is a pity that there seems to be no room for such an immensely entertaining, if sadly self-destructive, maverick like Muschamp.

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