Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 21, 2007

Did I Say That?

James D. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for uncovering the double-helix structure of DNA, is being pilloried from post to post for comments he made to the Times (of London) last Sunday explaining why he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.” His pessimism rested, he said, on the fact that “[a]ll our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”

Watson’s remarks caused a hailstorm of criticism to descend on him. “Genius and malign idiocy often inhabit the psychology of a great man,” read one typical comment in today’s Independent. In short order, Watson “unreservedly” apologized, saying: “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

Watson’s initial remarks were off-hand, and also clumsy. But there is a large scientific literature about intelligence, as measured by IQ, and how it varies by race. The very meaning of intelligence, and the significance of the variation, are subjects that continue to be fiercely debated in the scientific world. Wherever one stands in those debates—and I myself am just a curious observer—the findings of one’s opponents cannot be refuted with the mere wave of a hand.

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James D. Watson, who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for uncovering the double-helix structure of DNA, is being pilloried from post to post for comments he made to the Times (of London) last Sunday explaining why he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.” His pessimism rested, he said, on the fact that “[a]ll our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”

Watson’s remarks caused a hailstorm of criticism to descend on him. “Genius and malign idiocy often inhabit the psychology of a great man,” read one typical comment in today’s Independent. In short order, Watson “unreservedly” apologized, saying: “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

Watson’s initial remarks were off-hand, and also clumsy. But there is a large scientific literature about intelligence, as measured by IQ, and how it varies by race. The very meaning of intelligence, and the significance of the variation, are subjects that continue to be fiercely debated in the scientific world. Wherever one stands in those debates—and I myself am just a curious observer—the findings of one’s opponents cannot be refuted with the mere wave of a hand.

But when it comes to public discussion, hand-waving, unfortunately, remains the typical pattern. The reception granted to Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve in 1994 shows how the topic remains shrouded in taboo.

A decade ago, Chris Chabris, today a professor at Union College in Schenectady and an expert on human cognition, wrote some prescient words in COMMENTARY about flaps like the one Watson has now stumbled into:

Since The Bell Curve, intelligence is stronger than ever as a scientific concept, but as unwelcome as ever as an issue in polite society. It would be reassuring to think that the next twenty years, which promise to be the heyday of behavioral genetics, will change this state of affairs. But if the past is any guide, many more phony controversies lie ahead.

Unsurprisingly, Chabris’s “IQ Since ‘the Bell Curve’” provoked numerous letters to the editor in which many of the tendencies he had criticized in the way discussion of this issue is conducted instantly reappeared. In the Watson controversy, they have reappeared again.

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Another Fundamental Mistake Involving Russia

Yesterday, Russia’s finance minister said that U.S. officials wanted to conclude discussions on the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization as quickly as possible. “I got the feeling that they are ready to push these negotiations forward,” noted Alexei Kudrin. Russia is the largest economy that is not a member of the global trading body.

And it should stay that way because the Russian Federation is not ready to trade fairly within the context of a rules-based system. For instance, last Wednesday, European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson again went public with complaints of Moscow’s violation of trade agreements with Brussels. Russia’s previous responses to European complaints have been to continue and even expand aggressive trade practices. For example, Moscow has indicated that it may extend its meat-and-plant ban, which it imposed on Poland almost two years ago.

There seems to be a general feeling in Washington and Brussels that Russia will somehow reform its bad practices once it becomes a WTO member. That sentiment mirrors American and European hopes and expectations regarding China at the end of last decade. Yet, as we have seen since Beijing’s accession in 2001, the Chinese have continued non-compliant trade practices. The United States has had to file five WTO cases against China; even with these complaints we have yet to scratch the surface of Chinese trade violations.

If the experience with China is any guide, Russia will change the WTO more than the WTO changes Russia. We will not be able to say that we were not warned. In June, President Vladimir Putin called for “the creation of a new architecture of international economic relations.” The question is why should we help him wreck pillar multilateral institutions, like the World Trade Organization, from the inside?

Yesterday, Russia’s finance minister said that U.S. officials wanted to conclude discussions on the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization as quickly as possible. “I got the feeling that they are ready to push these negotiations forward,” noted Alexei Kudrin. Russia is the largest economy that is not a member of the global trading body.

And it should stay that way because the Russian Federation is not ready to trade fairly within the context of a rules-based system. For instance, last Wednesday, European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson again went public with complaints of Moscow’s violation of trade agreements with Brussels. Russia’s previous responses to European complaints have been to continue and even expand aggressive trade practices. For example, Moscow has indicated that it may extend its meat-and-plant ban, which it imposed on Poland almost two years ago.

There seems to be a general feeling in Washington and Brussels that Russia will somehow reform its bad practices once it becomes a WTO member. That sentiment mirrors American and European hopes and expectations regarding China at the end of last decade. Yet, as we have seen since Beijing’s accession in 2001, the Chinese have continued non-compliant trade practices. The United States has had to file five WTO cases against China; even with these complaints we have yet to scratch the surface of Chinese trade violations.

If the experience with China is any guide, Russia will change the WTO more than the WTO changes Russia. We will not be able to say that we were not warned. In June, President Vladimir Putin called for “the creation of a new architecture of international economic relations.” The question is why should we help him wreck pillar multilateral institutions, like the World Trade Organization, from the inside?

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An American Defense Policy

Everyone in Washington claims to favor bipartisanship. The difficulty occurs when someone actually tries to practice it. This instantly and inevitably triggers sniping from partisans.

For a small but telling example, see this Washington Times article (previously linked to on contentions) about the selection of John Hamre to chair the Defense Policy Board, a prestigious but powerless group of senior statesmen who advise the Secretary of Defense on various issues. The board used to be headed by Richard Perle, who became a lightning rod for the administration’s detractors. Now Robert M. Gates has selected Hamre, a quintessential technocrat who is currently president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and who, during the Clinton administration, served as comptroller of the Pentagon and Deputy Secretary of Defense.

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Everyone in Washington claims to favor bipartisanship. The difficulty occurs when someone actually tries to practice it. This instantly and inevitably triggers sniping from partisans.

For a small but telling example, see this Washington Times article (previously linked to on contentions) about the selection of John Hamre to chair the Defense Policy Board, a prestigious but powerless group of senior statesmen who advise the Secretary of Defense on various issues. The board used to be headed by Richard Perle, who became a lightning rod for the administration’s detractors. Now Robert M. Gates has selected Hamre, a quintessential technocrat who is currently president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and who, during the Clinton administration, served as comptroller of the Pentagon and Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Hamre is a well-respected figure known for his solidly centrist views and not someone, you would think, who would excite much partisan passion—especially when appointed to nothing more than an advisory position. Yet Bill Gertz of the Washington Times manages to dredge up toxic quotations from anonymous detractors:

“With or without his approval, President Bush’s team has apparently begun the transition to the third Clinton administration,” said one official, in reference to the possible election of Hillary Rodham Clinton next year. “We can see now that with the possible exception of the President himself, their hearts and minds just never were into governing as Republicans.”

“This begs the question of whether the Secretary agrees with the Hamre-Clinton policies, like gays in the military, Draconian defense cuts, women in combat, and environmental friendliness,” said a defense official.

The Hamre-Clinton policies? Give me break. What are these dreaded policies anyway? Are conservatives supposed to be opposed to “environmental friendliness”? Women are already in combat, and it hasn’t been an issue. Gays are also becoming more accepted within the military. As for “Draconian defense cuts,” they were instigated by the administration of Bush Senior following the end of the Cold War.

Whatever you make think of these policies, they are not determined by second- or third-level Pentagon officials; they come right from the top. To blame or credit Hamre for these initiatives is akin to blaming or crediting former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and former Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith for launching the Iraq War—a canard spread only by crackpots.

Give it a rest, guys.

Hamre is exactly the kind of centrist Democrat to whom the Bush administration should have been reaching out from the start. I realize it’s a myth that “politics stops at the water’s edge”—but it’s a nice myth and one that policymakers on both sides would do well to cultivate. And that means cultivating figures from the other side of the aisle.

We shouldn’t have a Republican or Democratic defense policy. We need an American policy.

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Primo Levi’s Unknown Text

Local media outlets have been curiously silent about a story reported by Haaretz involving last month’s discovery in a Yad Vashem archive of a previously unknown 1960 text by Primo Levi (1919–1987), the Turin-born chemist and author of Holocaust memoirs. This article-length deposition of around 850 words, printed in L’espresso in September, apparently was solicited when the Israeli government was gathering testimonies for the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann. Only weeks before Levi’s testimony was taken on June 14, 1960, Israeli security agents nabbed Eichmann in a Buenos Aires suburb.

The Haaretz article points out that “it is known that Primo Levi was not called to the witness stand facing Eichmann’s glass booth,” a fact that stirs the imagination. Marco Belpoliti, who edited a definitive two-volume edition of Levi’s works, calls the newly discovered essay “tranquil, precise and elegant.”

Punctuated with repeated exclamation points for dramatic emphasis, the text echoes the author’s greatest works, like The Periodic Table, whose pellucid style answers the much-debated question of whether art can exist after Auschwitz. Perhaps even more impressively, Levi’s books testify that rational thought can survive the concentration camp experience. In the newly found testimony, Levi describes how he and his friends were denounced as partisans and arrested in 1943, and later transferred to a fascist militia camp. There, Levi notes, a guard treated them decently “after learning that we were Jews and not ‘true partisans.’” Levi adds: “He was later killed by partisans in 1945.” In 1944 the friends were transferred to another camp, where they worked as kitchen servants: “We also put together a cafeteria, in truth a rather poor one!!” Arriving at Auschwitz after further deportation, such productive labors were exchanged for daily agonies.

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Local media outlets have been curiously silent about a story reported by Haaretz involving last month’s discovery in a Yad Vashem archive of a previously unknown 1960 text by Primo Levi (1919–1987), the Turin-born chemist and author of Holocaust memoirs. This article-length deposition of around 850 words, printed in L’espresso in September, apparently was solicited when the Israeli government was gathering testimonies for the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann. Only weeks before Levi’s testimony was taken on June 14, 1960, Israeli security agents nabbed Eichmann in a Buenos Aires suburb.

The Haaretz article points out that “it is known that Primo Levi was not called to the witness stand facing Eichmann’s glass booth,” a fact that stirs the imagination. Marco Belpoliti, who edited a definitive two-volume edition of Levi’s works, calls the newly discovered essay “tranquil, precise and elegant.”

Punctuated with repeated exclamation points for dramatic emphasis, the text echoes the author’s greatest works, like The Periodic Table, whose pellucid style answers the much-debated question of whether art can exist after Auschwitz. Perhaps even more impressively, Levi’s books testify that rational thought can survive the concentration camp experience. In the newly found testimony, Levi describes how he and his friends were denounced as partisans and arrested in 1943, and later transferred to a fascist militia camp. There, Levi notes, a guard treated them decently “after learning that we were Jews and not ‘true partisans.’” Levi adds: “He was later killed by partisans in 1945.” In 1944 the friends were transferred to another camp, where they worked as kitchen servants: “We also put together a cafeteria, in truth a rather poor one!!” Arriving at Auschwitz after further deportation, such productive labors were exchanged for daily agonies.

In the deposition Levi describes the barracks kapo, a “Dutch Jew, Josef Lessing, an orchestral musician by trade, who oversaw between twenty and 60 men, and as the 98th barrack’s supervisor, proved to be not only unyielding, but also evil.” Levi also mentions the camp’s Jewish doctors, some admirable and some not: “I recall Dr. Coenka of Athens, Dr. Weiss of Strasbourg, and Dr. Orensztejn, a Pole who behaved fairly correctly; I cannot say the same of Dr. Samuelidis of Thessaloniki, who did not listen to patients who consulted him and denounced the diseased ones to the German SS!!!”

Why the New York media silence about this real find? The account is only 850 words long, but every word matters in Levi’s chiseled prose. Could it be a question of the “Holocaust glut” that has affected the media and publishing industries ever since 1945? Levi himself was unable to find a publisher for his works in Israel until 1979 because, as he recounted, when he presented his books earlier to Israeli publishers, their response was: “Holocaust? We are up to our ears in it. No one will buy it.” Holocaust fatigue or not, this newly revealed text by a great writer demands attention.

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