Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 9, 2007

Stem Cells in New Jersey

On Tuesday, New Jersey voters defeated a state ballot referendum that would have put $450 million of taxpayer funds into stem cell research. It was a rare electoral victory for opponents of embryo-destructive research—made all the more surprising by its Garden State venue. New Jersey, after all, has some of the most extreme pro-cloning and embryo research laws in the country, explicitly permitting, for instance, the creation of cloned embryos and their development in the womb until the moment of birth.

In search of an explanation, the New York Times offers up the absence of a massive media campaign with deep pockets, of the sort employed in similar referenda in California in 2004 and in Missouri in 2006. In both cases, tens of millions of dollars were spent on ads attempting to persuade voters of the promise of embryonic stem cells—often using starkly dishonest and distorted arguments.

In Missouri, for instance, the advertising campaign coined the clever term “early stem cell research” (as in this ad) to avoid using the word “embryo,” and asserted that embryonic stem cells would cure Alzheimer’s (despite a near consensus to the contrary among researchers). In California, where a similar effort resulted in the creation of a $3 billion stem cell institute in 2004, pre-election deceptions about how the project would work continue to plague the new institute, which has now gone through several difficult leadership changes. Most recently, the institute hired as its director an Australian scientist who was caught lying to the Australian parliament in 2002 in order to obtain support for stem cell research.

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On Tuesday, New Jersey voters defeated a state ballot referendum that would have put $450 million of taxpayer funds into stem cell research. It was a rare electoral victory for opponents of embryo-destructive research—made all the more surprising by its Garden State venue. New Jersey, after all, has some of the most extreme pro-cloning and embryo research laws in the country, explicitly permitting, for instance, the creation of cloned embryos and their development in the womb until the moment of birth.

In search of an explanation, the New York Times offers up the absence of a massive media campaign with deep pockets, of the sort employed in similar referenda in California in 2004 and in Missouri in 2006. In both cases, tens of millions of dollars were spent on ads attempting to persuade voters of the promise of embryonic stem cells—often using starkly dishonest and distorted arguments.

In Missouri, for instance, the advertising campaign coined the clever term “early stem cell research” (as in this ad) to avoid using the word “embryo,” and asserted that embryonic stem cells would cure Alzheimer’s (despite a near consensus to the contrary among researchers). In California, where a similar effort resulted in the creation of a $3 billion stem cell institute in 2004, pre-election deceptions about how the project would work continue to plague the new institute, which has now gone through several difficult leadership changes. Most recently, the institute hired as its director an Australian scientist who was caught lying to the Australian parliament in 2002 in order to obtain support for stem cell research.

These are just a few of the countless examples of exaggeration and outright deception in the political fight for embryonic stem cell funding. Recall, for instance, John Edwards’s promise in the 2004 presidential campaign that “when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

Such tactics have lent something of the stench of the snake oil salesman to stem cell advocacy, and this has clearly had an effect. Opponents of the 2006 Missouri initiative found in the closing days of the race that pointing out the dishonesty of the initiative’s supporters was the most effective arrow in their quiver, and when they began to focus their energies on that case they very nearly defeated the effort.

Opponents of the New Jersey referendum learned that lesson. Referring to New Jersey governor Jon Corzine (who invested $150,000 of his own money in the ballot initiative campaign), one commercial run by opponents showed a slick salesman enticing viewers with “Governor Feelgood’s Embryonic Stem Cell Elixir; just $450 million—why, that’s practically free!”

Another ad put the matter bluntly. The referendum, it said, “is about taking your tax dollars for something that Wall Street and the drug companies will not invest in.”

Clearly this combination of the whiff of fraud and the specter of waste—rather than ethical objections to the destruction of embryos—brought down the referendum. Garden State voters have not suddenly become pro-lifers. But the tricks and deceptions of stem cell advocates in recent years might just have become all too apparent in New Jersey.

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A Step Back in Pakistan

Today, Pakistani police placed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto under house arrest and surrounded her Islamabad residence with barbed wire. The former prime minister had planned to defy a government ban and speak to a rally in the nearby city of Rawalpindi, but security forces twice refused to let her leave her home. Police sealed off both Islamabad and Rawalpindi as the week-long political crisis, triggered by strongman Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency, deepened.

Bhutto’s confinement followed on the heels of yesterday’s promise by the Pakistani leader to hold parliamentary elections before February 15. The White House quickly praised the announcement: “We think it is a good thing that President Musharraf has clarified the election date for the Pakistani people.”

Pakistan, of course, needs elections. Yet Musharraf’s allies can win any contest he stages, especially if Bhutto is cooling her heels inside her home and her allies remain jailed. What democracy requires, in addition to Bhutto’s release, is the release of jurists from jail, a restoration of the Supreme Court, and a decision as to whether Musharraf, constitutionally speaking, could have run for President in the October election. Observers argue that he could not have run, because he retained his post as army chief. In fact, some believe the general locked down the country last Saturday because he heard the Supreme Court was about to rule against him regarding his election this fall.

The Bush administration repeatedly has asked Musharraf to “take off his uniform.” That would be a step forward. But the most important thing would be for him to take a step back and allow judicial and electoral processes to work as they should.

Today, Pakistani police placed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto under house arrest and surrounded her Islamabad residence with barbed wire. The former prime minister had planned to defy a government ban and speak to a rally in the nearby city of Rawalpindi, but security forces twice refused to let her leave her home. Police sealed off both Islamabad and Rawalpindi as the week-long political crisis, triggered by strongman Pervez Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency, deepened.

Bhutto’s confinement followed on the heels of yesterday’s promise by the Pakistani leader to hold parliamentary elections before February 15. The White House quickly praised the announcement: “We think it is a good thing that President Musharraf has clarified the election date for the Pakistani people.”

Pakistan, of course, needs elections. Yet Musharraf’s allies can win any contest he stages, especially if Bhutto is cooling her heels inside her home and her allies remain jailed. What democracy requires, in addition to Bhutto’s release, is the release of jurists from jail, a restoration of the Supreme Court, and a decision as to whether Musharraf, constitutionally speaking, could have run for President in the October election. Observers argue that he could not have run, because he retained his post as army chief. In fact, some believe the general locked down the country last Saturday because he heard the Supreme Court was about to rule against him regarding his election this fall.

The Bush administration repeatedly has asked Musharraf to “take off his uniform.” That would be a step forward. But the most important thing would be for him to take a step back and allow judicial and electoral processes to work as they should.

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Bookshelf

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95), the latest entry in James Atlas’s “Eminent Lives” series, represents an attempt by the author to find out “how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record,” then cram the results into a 200-page book. The problem, of course, is that we don’t know much about Shakespeare, which is why most full-length biographies consist mainly of speculation and criticism. By taking the Joe Friday approach and including nothing but facts, Bryson manages to say quite a lot in not much space.

Time and again Shakespeare: The World as Stage told me things I didn’t know, or presented them in a new way that hadn’t occurred to me. Did you know, for instance, that no more than “a hundred documents relating to William Shakespeare and his immediate family” have survived? That Shakespeare’s London was “only two miles from north to south and three from east to west, and could be crossed on foot in not much more than an hour”? That he is the first writer known to have used 2,035 words, of which 800, including critical, dwindle, eventful, excellent, horrid, lonely, and vast, are still in use today? That the word also appears only 36 times in his plays, and the word “bible” not at all? Bill Bryson knows all these things, and why they matter. No less important, he also knows what we don’t know about Shakespeare:

It cannot be emphasized too strenuously that there is nothing—not a scrap, not a mote—that gives any certain insight into Shakespeare’s feelings or beliefs as a private person. We can know only what came out of his work, never what went into it…. More than for any other writer, Shakespeare’s words stand separate from his life. This was a man so good at disguising his feelings that we can’t ever be sure that he had any. We know that Shakespeare used words to powerful effect, and we may reasonably presume that he had feelings. What we don’t know, and can barely even guess at, is where the two intersected.

In other words, it’s what Shakespeare wrote that matters, not who he was—though one of the best chapters of Shakespeare: The World as Stage, as it happens, is the last one, in which Bryson sums up the claims of the some-other-guy-wrote-Hamlet crowd with devastating brevity: “One really must salute the ingenuity of the anti-Stratfordian enthusiasts who, if they are right, have managed to uncover the greatest literary fraud in history, without the benefit of anything that could reasonably be called evidence, 400 years after it was perpetrated.”

This is the best short book about Shakespeare ever to come to my attention. Even if you think you know the Bard cold, don’t pass it by.

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95), the latest entry in James Atlas’s “Eminent Lives” series, represents an attempt by the author to find out “how much of Shakespeare we can know, really know, from the record,” then cram the results into a 200-page book. The problem, of course, is that we don’t know much about Shakespeare, which is why most full-length biographies consist mainly of speculation and criticism. By taking the Joe Friday approach and including nothing but facts, Bryson manages to say quite a lot in not much space.

Time and again Shakespeare: The World as Stage told me things I didn’t know, or presented them in a new way that hadn’t occurred to me. Did you know, for instance, that no more than “a hundred documents relating to William Shakespeare and his immediate family” have survived? That Shakespeare’s London was “only two miles from north to south and three from east to west, and could be crossed on foot in not much more than an hour”? That he is the first writer known to have used 2,035 words, of which 800, including critical, dwindle, eventful, excellent, horrid, lonely, and vast, are still in use today? That the word also appears only 36 times in his plays, and the word “bible” not at all? Bill Bryson knows all these things, and why they matter. No less important, he also knows what we don’t know about Shakespeare:

It cannot be emphasized too strenuously that there is nothing—not a scrap, not a mote—that gives any certain insight into Shakespeare’s feelings or beliefs as a private person. We can know only what came out of his work, never what went into it…. More than for any other writer, Shakespeare’s words stand separate from his life. This was a man so good at disguising his feelings that we can’t ever be sure that he had any. We know that Shakespeare used words to powerful effect, and we may reasonably presume that he had feelings. What we don’t know, and can barely even guess at, is where the two intersected.

In other words, it’s what Shakespeare wrote that matters, not who he was—though one of the best chapters of Shakespeare: The World as Stage, as it happens, is the last one, in which Bryson sums up the claims of the some-other-guy-wrote-Hamlet crowd with devastating brevity: “One really must salute the ingenuity of the anti-Stratfordian enthusiasts who, if they are right, have managed to uncover the greatest literary fraud in history, without the benefit of anything that could reasonably be called evidence, 400 years after it was perpetrated.”

This is the best short book about Shakespeare ever to come to my attention. Even if you think you know the Bard cold, don’t pass it by.

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Klaus Kinski at Sunnyville Junior High

The late Klaus Kinski was an ominously googly-eyed film star of over-the-top intensity, most notably in movies directed by the overly intense Werner Herzog (who made a documentary about the notoriously difficult Kinski entitled My Best Fiend). Apropos of nothing, the extremely clever Alice Bradley has today turned over Finslippy, her oddly named “mommy blog,” to a hilarious partial script she wrote a decade ago imagining Kinski as one of the kids on a TV sitcom set at Sunnyville Junior High. Give it a read. (There is, I should warn you, inappropriate sexual content, but all in the name of making fun of self-serious Germans.)

The late Klaus Kinski was an ominously googly-eyed film star of over-the-top intensity, most notably in movies directed by the overly intense Werner Herzog (who made a documentary about the notoriously difficult Kinski entitled My Best Fiend). Apropos of nothing, the extremely clever Alice Bradley has today turned over Finslippy, her oddly named “mommy blog,” to a hilarious partial script she wrote a decade ago imagining Kinski as one of the kids on a TV sitcom set at Sunnyville Junior High. Give it a read. (There is, I should warn you, inappropriate sexual content, but all in the name of making fun of self-serious Germans.)

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The Closing of the American Ear

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, the New Criterion’s November issue contains a series of essays offering a reappraisal of Bloom’s (in)famous polemic. Among them: Mark Steyn’s “Twenty Years Ago Today,” a characteristically witty discussion of Bloom’s excoriation of rock music.

To Bloom, rock-n-roll symbolizes the vulgar hedonism of a youth culture that is averse to liberal arts education. For presenting this view, Bloom was naturally pilloried as an elitist. In fact, Steyn says that “for Bloom to write his chapter on ‘Music’ seems to many of us braver than attacking the 1960s or the race hucksters or his various other targets.”

Steyn doesn’t entirely agree with Bloom’s perspective on rock music. Even so, he gets to the core issue surrounding the contemporary genuflection to popular culture:

Most of us have prejudices: we may not like ballet or golf, but we don’t have to worry about going to the deli and ordering a ham on rye while some ninny in tights prances around us or a fellow in plus-fours tries to chip it out of the rough behind the salad bar. Yet, in the course of a day, any number of non-rock-related transactions are accompanied by rock music.

This calls to mind Joe Queenan’s crack about exercising at his local YMCA: “It was now apparent to me that if I was going to lose any weight, I was going to have to listen to an awful lot of Phil Collins records in the process.”

And here’s the point: The problem isn’t so much the popularity of rock music, which, with its rigorously undemanding aesthetic, can be fun at times. The problem is the way in which our surrender to pop-culture populism has wound up forcing classical, jazz, and other forms of music into almost complete obscurity.

The end result has been the virtual disappearance of non-rock music from American ears.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, the New Criterion’s November issue contains a series of essays offering a reappraisal of Bloom’s (in)famous polemic. Among them: Mark Steyn’s “Twenty Years Ago Today,” a characteristically witty discussion of Bloom’s excoriation of rock music.

To Bloom, rock-n-roll symbolizes the vulgar hedonism of a youth culture that is averse to liberal arts education. For presenting this view, Bloom was naturally pilloried as an elitist. In fact, Steyn says that “for Bloom to write his chapter on ‘Music’ seems to many of us braver than attacking the 1960s or the race hucksters or his various other targets.”

Steyn doesn’t entirely agree with Bloom’s perspective on rock music. Even so, he gets to the core issue surrounding the contemporary genuflection to popular culture:

Most of us have prejudices: we may not like ballet or golf, but we don’t have to worry about going to the deli and ordering a ham on rye while some ninny in tights prances around us or a fellow in plus-fours tries to chip it out of the rough behind the salad bar. Yet, in the course of a day, any number of non-rock-related transactions are accompanied by rock music.

This calls to mind Joe Queenan’s crack about exercising at his local YMCA: “It was now apparent to me that if I was going to lose any weight, I was going to have to listen to an awful lot of Phil Collins records in the process.”

And here’s the point: The problem isn’t so much the popularity of rock music, which, with its rigorously undemanding aesthetic, can be fun at times. The problem is the way in which our surrender to pop-culture populism has wound up forcing classical, jazz, and other forms of music into almost complete obscurity.

The end result has been the virtual disappearance of non-rock music from American ears.

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Annapolis — Will It Matter At All?

Pray for low expectations when it comes the Annapolis summit, because then it will not lead inexorably to disaster. That seems to be the consensus to emerge from a very interesting symposium at jpost.com featuring (among others) Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, his colleague Saul Singer, and Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum.

Horovitz: “The greater the expectations pinned on Annapolis, the more serious the dangers if it fails. And a stark failure, as Camp David 2000 proved, can unleash devastating terrorism, and deprive moderate forces of hope….For it to stand as a positive event, Annapolis has to be seen as a beginning — a beginning of a return to sanity first and foremost on the Palestinian side.”

Singer: “Annapolis won’t ‘fail’ because by the time it happens the standards for success will be set so low that they are, almost by definition, met.”

Pipes: “The consequences of Annapolis failing depend on whom the US government blames. If it basically faults the Palestinian side, as happened in 2000, then nothing much changes….But should the Bush administration primarily fault the Israeli side, watch out.”

The strangest aspect of the walk-up to Annapolis is that the only person really talking up the epoch-altering nature of the Annapolis summit is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — the same fantasist over-promiser who vowed in the summer of 2006 that the war in Lebanon would lead to the destruction of Hezbollah.

“This is a good moment,” Olmert said on Sunday. “I am excited by the chance to contribute to our chances. I know all the excuses and arguments why not, but I believe – from the bottom of my heart – that the time has come. In this spirit, I will come to Annapolis; to extend my hand in friendship and good will to all those who come to the meeting, and I promise: the State of Israel will be there. Indeed, we will come with caution; we will examine every issue responsibly; we will consider every proposal sensitively; but we come in good will, happily and full of hope.”

A serious world leader does not offer dewy-eyed pronouncements like this just before he is to enter deadly serious negotations involving the most basic existential questions of his nation’s future. Managing expectations so that they do not come back to haunt your cause later is one of the most basic rules of diplomacy. Olmert, yet again, disappoints. Worse yet, he is behaving exactly as he behaved during the war last summer — as though he doesn’t know the first thing about what to do when the spotlight is shining on him and on Israel.

Pray for low expectations when it comes the Annapolis summit, because then it will not lead inexorably to disaster. That seems to be the consensus to emerge from a very interesting symposium at jpost.com featuring (among others) Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, his colleague Saul Singer, and Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum.

Horovitz: “The greater the expectations pinned on Annapolis, the more serious the dangers if it fails. And a stark failure, as Camp David 2000 proved, can unleash devastating terrorism, and deprive moderate forces of hope….For it to stand as a positive event, Annapolis has to be seen as a beginning — a beginning of a return to sanity first and foremost on the Palestinian side.”

Singer: “Annapolis won’t ‘fail’ because by the time it happens the standards for success will be set so low that they are, almost by definition, met.”

Pipes: “The consequences of Annapolis failing depend on whom the US government blames. If it basically faults the Palestinian side, as happened in 2000, then nothing much changes….But should the Bush administration primarily fault the Israeli side, watch out.”

The strangest aspect of the walk-up to Annapolis is that the only person really talking up the epoch-altering nature of the Annapolis summit is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — the same fantasist over-promiser who vowed in the summer of 2006 that the war in Lebanon would lead to the destruction of Hezbollah.

“This is a good moment,” Olmert said on Sunday. “I am excited by the chance to contribute to our chances. I know all the excuses and arguments why not, but I believe – from the bottom of my heart – that the time has come. In this spirit, I will come to Annapolis; to extend my hand in friendship and good will to all those who come to the meeting, and I promise: the State of Israel will be there. Indeed, we will come with caution; we will examine every issue responsibly; we will consider every proposal sensitively; but we come in good will, happily and full of hope.”

A serious world leader does not offer dewy-eyed pronouncements like this just before he is to enter deadly serious negotations involving the most basic existential questions of his nation’s future. Managing expectations so that they do not come back to haunt your cause later is one of the most basic rules of diplomacy. Olmert, yet again, disappoints. Worse yet, he is behaving exactly as he behaved during the war last summer — as though he doesn’t know the first thing about what to do when the spotlight is shining on him and on Israel.

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Michael Scheuer Watch #12: Expletive Deleted

I had predicted that as our hero’s ideas and associations became better known, he would be compelled to move from the mainstream media to the far-out margins. Yesterday, as evidence that this shift was under way, I linked to a Scheuer rant on a website called The Jingoist (now only available here), adjacent to all sorts of other rants like “Israel: Perpetual Criminal, Perpetual Liar” and one detailing French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s hidden ties to the Israel’s Mossad.

My imputation of Scheuer’s guilt by association –– and there is such a thing as such guilt, if not in a court of law than in the realm of public opinion –– has evidently struck a nerve. On his website anti-war.com, Justin Raimondo, a self-appointed flack for our hero, has offered a post in which he emphatically argues that Scheuer has not moved to the margins. Scheuer, he says, wrote his rant not for The Jingoist but for his own website, and The Jingoist simply purloined it without permission.

Connecting the Dots is interested in constructing an accurate picture of our hero. But uncertainties abound. I do not know where Scheuer’s work first appeared, and I am not ready to take his or his flack’s word for anything, or take sides in a fight between The Jingoist and anti-war.com. Members of the 9/11 Commission have called into question our hero’s integrity. And our hero has also yet to clear up allegations (leveled by me) that he has prevaricated about when and why he was awarded a medal by the CIA.

But putting aside all such questions, and putting aside the fact that The Jingoist bills itself as a “partner site” of anti-war.com, and assuming for the sake of discussion that Justin Raimondo is right and that anti-war.com was the original home of Scheuer’s ranting, would this daisy chain of assumptions lead us to conclude that Scheuer has not strayed to the fringes and remained in the mainstream?

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I had predicted that as our hero’s ideas and associations became better known, he would be compelled to move from the mainstream media to the far-out margins. Yesterday, as evidence that this shift was under way, I linked to a Scheuer rant on a website called The Jingoist (now only available here), adjacent to all sorts of other rants like “Israel: Perpetual Criminal, Perpetual Liar” and one detailing French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s hidden ties to the Israel’s Mossad.

My imputation of Scheuer’s guilt by association –– and there is such a thing as such guilt, if not in a court of law than in the realm of public opinion –– has evidently struck a nerve. On his website anti-war.com, Justin Raimondo, a self-appointed flack for our hero, has offered a post in which he emphatically argues that Scheuer has not moved to the margins. Scheuer, he says, wrote his rant not for The Jingoist but for his own website, and The Jingoist simply purloined it without permission.

Connecting the Dots is interested in constructing an accurate picture of our hero. But uncertainties abound. I do not know where Scheuer’s work first appeared, and I am not ready to take his or his flack’s word for anything, or take sides in a fight between The Jingoist and anti-war.com. Members of the 9/11 Commission have called into question our hero’s integrity. And our hero has also yet to clear up allegations (leveled by me) that he has prevaricated about when and why he was awarded a medal by the CIA.

But putting aside all such questions, and putting aside the fact that The Jingoist bills itself as a “partner site” of anti-war.com, and assuming for the sake of discussion that Justin Raimondo is right and that anti-war.com was the original home of Scheuer’s ranting, would this daisy chain of assumptions lead us to conclude that Scheuer has not strayed to the fringes and remained in the mainstream?

Readers can judge for themselves. For if The Jingoist is in Holocaust-denial territory, anti-war.com is not far behind. A good place to begin is the long series that anti-war.com has devoted to the many Israeli “art students” who in the run-up to September 11 came to our country ostensibly to sketch, draw, and paint, but were actually working deep under cover, spying on Americans.

Here is one entry by Justin Raimondo himself, entitled 9/11: What Did Israel Know –– And When Did They Tell Us?:

A secret government report (originating with the Drug Enforcement Agency) detailing the highly suspicious activities of these aspiring Israeli “artists” was . . . uncovered, and a series of stories appeared in the international media . . .

Those of us who identified the Israeli “art students” as part of a spy operation in the U.S. were absolutely correct, that the Israelis were not only conducting covert operations against U.S. government facilities but were also watching the hijackers very closely, and that some people will go to any lengths to avoid considering some very unpleasant and politically explosive possibilities . . .

Suffice to say here that the Israeli role in the events leading up to 9/11 is, at best, highly suspicious. Certainly the news that their agents were close neighbors of Mohammed Atta and an accomplice leads to some disturbing juxtapositions. Did the “art students” stand behind the terrorists in line at the local supermarket? Did they bump into each other in the street –– and what, pray tell, did these dedicated Al Qaeda cadre think of a group of Israelis living in such close proximity?

What happened to these art students? And how did they make their escape? Why did all the Jewish employees stay at home on the day that the Twin Towers were destroyed? Is anti-war.com fringe or mainstream? Connecting the Dots is eager to know.

Connecting the Dots also must briefly call attention to the language in which these would-be members of the mainstream media talk.

Yesterday, we saw Michael Scheuer write:

I forthrightly damn, and pray that God damns, any American –– Jew, Catholic, Evangelical, Irish, German, Hindu, hermaphrodite, thespian, or otherwise – who flogs the insane idea that American and Israeli interests are one and the same.

In Raimondo’s post today, he asks:  “How dumb is Gabriel Schoenfeld?” and answers “Pretty damned dumb.” As his argument unfolds, he speaks of my “dumb-ass peroration” and labels me “a vicious nut-bar.” All this appears in a post entitled Gabriel Schoenfeld is an Ass-hat.

A reader of Connecting the Dots, who happens to have a Ph.D. in child psychology, has already sent me a query and a comment: “What is an ‘ass hat’? My son’s favorite insult these days is ‘poop nose,’ which is far more evocative. The rhetorical level here seems to hover somewhere between second and third grade.”

A complete guide to other items in this Michael Scheuer Watch series can be found here

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A New Direction?

From the Politico today:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she would bring a new Iraq measure to the House floor shortly to provide $50 billion in funds for the war, while requiring U.S. troops to begin redeploying out of Iraq immediately and conclude by the end of next year. “In last year’s election, the American people called for a new direction; nowhere was that direction more called for than in the war in Iraq,” Pelosi told reporters. “And so in the next day or so, we [will] once again bring to the floor legislation that makes a distinction, a clear distinction: choose a new direction from the Bush foreign policy in Iraq.”

This is yet more evidence—as if we needed it—that the goal of leading Democrats is to withdraw American troops from Iraq, even if withdrawal destroys our chances of success.

How can one come to any other conclusion? After all, the surge has been more successful than anyone could have imagined. This year we have seen progress made in Iraq on almost every front.

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From the Politico today:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she would bring a new Iraq measure to the House floor shortly to provide $50 billion in funds for the war, while requiring U.S. troops to begin redeploying out of Iraq immediately and conclude by the end of next year. “In last year’s election, the American people called for a new direction; nowhere was that direction more called for than in the war in Iraq,” Pelosi told reporters. “And so in the next day or so, we [will] once again bring to the floor legislation that makes a distinction, a clear distinction: choose a new direction from the Bush foreign policy in Iraq.”

This is yet more evidence—as if we needed it—that the goal of leading Democrats is to withdraw American troops from Iraq, even if withdrawal destroys our chances of success.

How can one come to any other conclusion? After all, the surge has been more successful than anyone could have imagined. This year we have seen progress made in Iraq on almost every front.

Earlier this week, for example, we learned from Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil, Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, that American forces have routed al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) from every neighborhood of Baghdad and that violence had declined since a spike in June. Murder victims are down 80 percent from where they were at the peak, and attacks involving improvised bombs are down 70 percent, he said. General Fil attributed the decline to improvements in the Iraqi security forces, a cease-fire ordered by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the disruption of financing for insurgents, and, most significantly, Iraqis’ rejection of “the rule of the gun.”

We’re seeing early reports (it’s still far too early to call it a trend) of refugees and displaced persons returning to their homes, which, if it continues, will be among the most compelling indicators of progress. People vote with their feet.

We have also seen substantial progress in the “war of ideas,” with Sunnis forcefully rejecting bin Ladenism. Earlier this week Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, told Hugh Hewitt about this development that took place in September:

Sheik Salman al-Awdah is a very prominent cleric in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden himself lionized this man. But on two occasions, most recently at the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month that just concluded, Sheik Awdah condemned, personally condemned bin Laden. You know, my son, Osama, how long will this go on? You know, this stain on Islam. I mean, it was a direct repudiation of everything that bin Laden stood for.

Sheik Awdah’s “open letter to Osama bin Laden” asked:

Brother Osama, how much blood has been spilt? How many innocents among children, elderly, the weak, and women have been killed and made homeless in the name of al Qaeda? The ruin of an entire people, as is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq . . . cannot make Muslims happy. Who benefits from turning countries like Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia into places where fear spreads and no one can feel safe?

This is a stunning and important, if largely ignored, development.

In Iraq we’re also seeing some encouraging news on the economic front and very encouraging, even dramatic, progress on the local political front; “bottom-up” reconciliation is continuing apace. The main problem in Iraq lies with the central government and its unwillingness, still, to share power. Nevertheless, almost every important trend line in Iraq is positive. And yet to the likes of Speaker Pelosi, it matters not at all. She and her colleagues are ideologues in the truest sense—zealous and doctrinaire people committed to a path regardless of the evidence. And the fact that good news in Iraq seems to agitate her and other leading Democrats is astonishing, as well as unsettling.

Nancy Pelosi’s effort to subvert a manifestly successful (if belatedly implemented) strategy in Iraq is reckless and foolish—and it may succeed in driving down Congressional approval ratings, already at record lows, to single digits. Which is about where they belong.

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Fred Claus and My Insanity Clause

There have been at least 60 movies made about Santa Claus. One of them is a Hollywood classic, and if you don’t know its title off the bat, allow me to commend you for achieving an Amish-like purity when it comes to the corruptions of popular culture. Not much can be said in defense of the 59 other Santa Claus movies besides Miracle on 34th Street.

There is no Hollywood subgenre that has produced quite so much vapid, shallow, silly, embarrassing, treacly and bizarre fare. I can say this without qualification because, to my shame, in the course of a sadly misbegotten life, I’ve seen almost every one. Put the word “Claus” in the title, or in the TV Guide plot description, and I have found myself compelled to watch  it.

Perhaps this was always nothing more than an exercise in masochism, since, inevitably, teeth ache from the cavity-inducing  set design of cute Mittel-European huts at the North Pole, and the scene in which every Mrs. Claus complains that Santa works too hard and needs to lose some weight provokes nothing but nausea. And as for reindeer, red-nosed or otherwise, there can be no whisper of a defense.

Still, my admittedly myopic and astigmatic eyes have witnessed these horrors again and again, doubtless due to an atavistic childhood hunger to participate vicariously in Christmas even though my own non-Christian faith and tradition preclude it. For what, after all, is a Santa-centric  Christmas movie but a Yuletide tale that entirely omits the birth of Christ (save, of course, for the brilliant and incredibly foul-mouthed Jesus vs. Santa cartoon from which sprang the television series South Park, which is, it must be said, not safe for work)?

Now Hollywood has sprung another Yule trap on me and millions of other unsuspecting Americans in the form of a new, colossally budgeted movie called Fred Claus, which wants both to be a gentle parody of Santa movies and traffick unironically in every North Pole movie cliché. The movie is based in a mildly funny notion that Santa Claus’s older brother might be working as a repo man in Chicago with the ambition of opening an off-track betting parlor. This notion can, at best, support a three-minute sketch, however.  The same can be said of its satirical extension of a childhood sibling rivalry into an agonized immortal eternity.

Fred Claus is dreadful — and yet. At its climax, Santa’s ne’er-do-well brother pulls up to a Chicago foundling home in the family sleigh, drops down a chimney, and delivers a Jack Russell puppy to a cute orphan. And, to my great disay, I felt tears sting my eyes. It happened again, five minutes later, when a deeply emotional Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti) tells his ne’er-do-well older sibling (Vince Vaughan) that “you’re the best big brother in the whole world.”

“Funny how potent cheap music is,” says a character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Coward didn’t know the half of it.

There have been at least 60 movies made about Santa Claus. One of them is a Hollywood classic, and if you don’t know its title off the bat, allow me to commend you for achieving an Amish-like purity when it comes to the corruptions of popular culture. Not much can be said in defense of the 59 other Santa Claus movies besides Miracle on 34th Street.

There is no Hollywood subgenre that has produced quite so much vapid, shallow, silly, embarrassing, treacly and bizarre fare. I can say this without qualification because, to my shame, in the course of a sadly misbegotten life, I’ve seen almost every one. Put the word “Claus” in the title, or in the TV Guide plot description, and I have found myself compelled to watch  it.

Perhaps this was always nothing more than an exercise in masochism, since, inevitably, teeth ache from the cavity-inducing  set design of cute Mittel-European huts at the North Pole, and the scene in which every Mrs. Claus complains that Santa works too hard and needs to lose some weight provokes nothing but nausea. And as for reindeer, red-nosed or otherwise, there can be no whisper of a defense.

Still, my admittedly myopic and astigmatic eyes have witnessed these horrors again and again, doubtless due to an atavistic childhood hunger to participate vicariously in Christmas even though my own non-Christian faith and tradition preclude it. For what, after all, is a Santa-centric  Christmas movie but a Yuletide tale that entirely omits the birth of Christ (save, of course, for the brilliant and incredibly foul-mouthed Jesus vs. Santa cartoon from which sprang the television series South Park, which is, it must be said, not safe for work)?

Now Hollywood has sprung another Yule trap on me and millions of other unsuspecting Americans in the form of a new, colossally budgeted movie called Fred Claus, which wants both to be a gentle parody of Santa movies and traffick unironically in every North Pole movie cliché. The movie is based in a mildly funny notion that Santa Claus’s older brother might be working as a repo man in Chicago with the ambition of opening an off-track betting parlor. This notion can, at best, support a three-minute sketch, however.  The same can be said of its satirical extension of a childhood sibling rivalry into an agonized immortal eternity.

Fred Claus is dreadful — and yet. At its climax, Santa’s ne’er-do-well brother pulls up to a Chicago foundling home in the family sleigh, drops down a chimney, and delivers a Jack Russell puppy to a cute orphan. And, to my great disay, I felt tears sting my eyes. It happened again, five minutes later, when a deeply emotional Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti) tells his ne’er-do-well older sibling (Vince Vaughan) that “you’re the best big brother in the whole world.”

“Funny how potent cheap music is,” says a character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Coward didn’t know the half of it.

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Pseudo-reform in Egypt

Earlier this week, Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party held its annual conference, which closed with President Hosni Mubarak’s declaring that Egypt is “on the road to reform and development.” Naturally, not everyone agreed with his assessment. Given political conditions in Egypt, however, only a small group of protesters braved the ever-looming threat of violent crackdowns to protest the conference, where they were typically outnumbered four-to-one by armored riot police.

Restraints on freedoms of speech and association have been well-documented in Egypt, deplored by everyone from Condoleezza Rice to the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet there is one area in which speech in Egypt is remarkably free: vilification of Israel. In limiting the scope of free speech to this small area, Egypt has built a potent strategy for deterring Western efforts to promote greater liberty.

Consider the recent history of the Kifaya movement, which spearheaded the mass protests in 2005 that paved the way towards theoretically competitive—though ultimately rigged—elections that September. But after the elections, as a consequence of disappointing results and the absence of a unifying platform, Kifaya quickly fizzled.

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Earlier this week, Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party held its annual conference, which closed with President Hosni Mubarak’s declaring that Egypt is “on the road to reform and development.” Naturally, not everyone agreed with his assessment. Given political conditions in Egypt, however, only a small group of protesters braved the ever-looming threat of violent crackdowns to protest the conference, where they were typically outnumbered four-to-one by armored riot police.

Restraints on freedoms of speech and association have been well-documented in Egypt, deplored by everyone from Condoleezza Rice to the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet there is one area in which speech in Egypt is remarkably free: vilification of Israel. In limiting the scope of free speech to this small area, Egypt has built a potent strategy for deterring Western efforts to promote greater liberty.

Consider the recent history of the Kifaya movement, which spearheaded the mass protests in 2005 that paved the way towards theoretically competitive—though ultimately rigged—elections that September. But after the elections, as a consequence of disappointing results and the absence of a unifying platform, Kifaya quickly fizzled.

That is, until last autumn, when Kifaya returned to international headlines emboldened by its new campaign: to collect one million signatures in support of annulling Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. To many commentators, Kifaya’s actions—coupled with the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral successes—indicated that the United States faced a tradeoff between promoting democracy and maintaining stability in the region, and that U.S. interests might be served best by sticking with a reliable authoritarian regime. Indeed, this is exactly what the Bush administration ultimately did, virtually eliminating democracy-talk from its Egypt agenda earlier this year.

This rapid shift away from the democracy agenda, however, sent a troubling signal to the Egyptian regime: that it would take remarkably little to distract Washington from promoting liberalization. Mubarak had thus stumbled across a new strategy: conditioning Egyptian dissidents to organize for anti-Western causes rather than their own civil liberties. This strategy undermines domestic opposition while deterring American democratizing pressures.

The vocal student outcry against academic exchanges with Israel at American University in Cairo, which I reported on Wednesday, is a prime example of this strategy’s successful implementation. I happen to know one of the protest’s foremost organizers—for his security, I’ll call him Muhammad—who had previously been active in liberal anti-government protests. But, after a harrowing experience in March 2007, he swore off these protests. While distributing pamphlets opposing constitutional amendments that would restrict parties’ electoral participation, Muhammad was arrested, thrown in the back of an armored police vehicle, and driven out to the desert, where he was held with seven colleagues for twenty-four hours. During that period, he was given little water and fed one small container of macaroni; when he had to use the bathroom, he urinated in the empty container. He was later released in the desert and, after finding his way back to Cairo, learned that he had lost his teaching job.

Yet in the uproar against academic exchanges with Israelis, Muhammad has found a new outlet for organizing. In an e-mail sent to me earlier this week, he argued against these exchanges until Israel recognizes Palestinian rights. As I responded, it is saddening to compare the ease with which he protests for Palestinian rights to the difficulties he faces in advocating for his own.

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Music’s Golden Age

A new polemic from Oxford University Press, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton, a professor at the University of Birmingham, argues that the worst excesses of the 19th century Romantic age of performance were more lively and fun than what he sees as today’s tedious and stuffy concert scene.

Hamilton lauds the clownish old pianist Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), who was notorious for chatting with the audience during recitals, and occasionally exclaiming “Bravo, Pachmann!” when he had played a passage to his own satisfaction. Hamilton wants concert etiquette to hearken back to the 19th century’s so-called Golden Age. He feels that classical concerts would be improved if pianists today were more unfaithful to the printed notes, if they performed brief, isolated movements of sonatas instead of entire works, and if audiences felt free to applaud whenever they liked, including in the middle of works.

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A new polemic from Oxford University Press, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton, a professor at the University of Birmingham, argues that the worst excesses of the 19th century Romantic age of performance were more lively and fun than what he sees as today’s tedious and stuffy concert scene.

Hamilton lauds the clownish old pianist Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), who was notorious for chatting with the audience during recitals, and occasionally exclaiming “Bravo, Pachmann!” when he had played a passage to his own satisfaction. Hamilton wants concert etiquette to hearken back to the 19th century’s so-called Golden Age. He feels that classical concerts would be improved if pianists today were more unfaithful to the printed notes, if they performed brief, isolated movements of sonatas instead of entire works, and if audiences felt free to applaud whenever they liked, including in the middle of works.

Hamilton must attend some odd concerts to inspire such notions. As for me, on November 3 at Carnegie Hall, I heard the pianist Murray Perahia in a recital of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin. Perahia plays Bach as love music, with plush, seamless legato and a strong sense of polyphony. Beethoven’s “Pastoral” sonata (1801) was played with an ideal sense of rubato, capturing the agitation that bubbles beneath even Beethoven’s works with tranquil-sounding subtitles. The “Pastoral”’s second movement “Andante,” played in a forward-moving yet mysterious way, showed Perahia at 60 to still be a youthful musician (his left hand ardently conducted while he played a passage for right hand alone). Perahia is in his prime today, as indeed are other magisterial pianists like Richard Goode, András Schiff, Maurizio Pollini, and Peter Serkin. Who needs Pachmann? Could our own time be a golden age of performance?

For me, the question was answered definitively on November 7 at Rockefeller University, where the Peggy Rockefeller Concerts series presented the Claremont Trio. Consisting of twin sisters Emily (violin) and Julia Bruskin (cello) with Donna Kwong (piano), the Claremonts, all in their mid-20’s, play and record with exceptional maturity. At Rockefeller University, they performed Schumann’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 63, capturing the composer’s obsessive energy, yet with deep feeling, which allowed Schumann’s romantic fantasy world to materialize. Despite their sylph-like appearances, the Bruskin sisters play their respective instruments with hearty, plangently eloquent tones.

A splendid up-and-coming ensemble like the Claremont Trio is the perfect counter-argument to any critic who bemoans the present or future of classical music. Learning from past great musicians—not freaks like Pachmann—is a sine qua non for today’s musicians, yet desperate nostalgia born of boredom obscures all the evidence that we are in fact living in our own golden age of performance. After hearing such spectacular concerts by exemplary artists like Perahia and the Claremont Trio, only a thick-skulled ingrate would react by complaining that something is wrong with classical music performance in our time.

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