Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 15, 2007

Commentary Onscreen: Gordon G. Chang

Gordon G. Chang is a regular contributor to contentions and the author, most recently, of “How China and Russia Threaten the World,” from the June issue of COMMENTARY. Chang has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard, and has advised the National Intelligence Council, Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the Pentagon. He has also served two terms as a trustee of Cornell University, his alma mater. Contentions interviewed Chang at our offices in New York City. We discuss American policy towards Taiwan, Beijing’s Olympics, capital punishment in China, and more.

Chang’s newest book, Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World, is available from Random House.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9EWmKK_23A[/youtube]

Gordon G. Chang is a regular contributor to contentions and the author, most recently, of “How China and Russia Threaten the World,” from the June issue of COMMENTARY. Chang has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard, and has advised the National Intelligence Council, Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the Pentagon. He has also served two terms as a trustee of Cornell University, his alma mater. Contentions interviewed Chang at our offices in New York City. We discuss American policy towards Taiwan, Beijing’s Olympics, capital punishment in China, and more.

Chang’s newest book, Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World, is available from Random House.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9EWmKK_23A[/youtube]

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Ignatius in Israel

David Ignatius, the Washington Post columnist, is in Israel, and I think it’s fair to say that his time in the region is not doing a whole lot to imbue his opinions with much in the way of perspective or wisdom. His column on Sunday presented a fawning portrait of Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, who has of late been tarnishing his legacy by arguing to anyone who will listen that the real threat to Israel is not from the regimes who implacably seek the country’s destruction, but from Israeli leaders who do not sufficiently accommodate, rhetorically and strategically, the leaders of Hamas, Syria, and Iran. (A sample bit of his wisdom on Iran: “We have to find creative ways to help them escape from their rhetoric.”) The only place Halevy has been taken seriously in recent memory is in David Ignatius’s column—I wonder if Ignatius himself knows this?

Anyway, Ignatius has followed up Sunday’s column with a piece today that meditates on the need, in order to advance the peace process, for the development of Palestinian security forces capable of arresting terrorists and imposing law and order in the Palestinian territories—obviously, an altogether important matter. Ignatius writes that “The Palestinian Authority simply doesn’t have the people, the training, or the equipment to maintain order in the territories. Why is this so? The answer, in part, is that the Palestinians haven’t built up their security forces because the Israelis haven’t permitted them to do so.”

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David Ignatius, the Washington Post columnist, is in Israel, and I think it’s fair to say that his time in the region is not doing a whole lot to imbue his opinions with much in the way of perspective or wisdom. His column on Sunday presented a fawning portrait of Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, who has of late been tarnishing his legacy by arguing to anyone who will listen that the real threat to Israel is not from the regimes who implacably seek the country’s destruction, but from Israeli leaders who do not sufficiently accommodate, rhetorically and strategically, the leaders of Hamas, Syria, and Iran. (A sample bit of his wisdom on Iran: “We have to find creative ways to help them escape from their rhetoric.”) The only place Halevy has been taken seriously in recent memory is in David Ignatius’s column—I wonder if Ignatius himself knows this?

Anyway, Ignatius has followed up Sunday’s column with a piece today that meditates on the need, in order to advance the peace process, for the development of Palestinian security forces capable of arresting terrorists and imposing law and order in the Palestinian territories—obviously, an altogether important matter. Ignatius writes that “The Palestinian Authority simply doesn’t have the people, the training, or the equipment to maintain order in the territories. Why is this so? The answer, in part, is that the Palestinians haven’t built up their security forces because the Israelis haven’t permitted them to do so.”

This is absurd. For starters, the last time Israel gave the Palestinians a free hand in developing their security forces, Yasir Arafat flagrantly violated every restriction the Oslo rules had put on the Palestinian security services, and then used the services to launch a terror war against Israel. Even Ignatius must admit that the Israelis have a right to be a bit skeptical of going down that road again. Here is how my friend Daniel Polisar, president of the Shalem Center, described that state of affairs:

Arafat guaranteed the loyalty of his troops, and especially the highest-ranking officers, by establishing the kind of command and control structure that had characterized his previous 25 years of rule, and which for good reason is preferred by military dictators anxious to prevent the rise of competitors. Though the Gaza-Jericho agreement limited the Palestinian police to four branches, coordinated in each district by a single command, Arafat set up multiple forces that competed with one another: By the summer of 1995, there were nine intelligence services operating in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as additional units with various responsibilities. There was no authority coordinating these forces on a regional basis, nor was there a clear hierarchy within each branch: The only thing that was unambiguous was that all top officers reported directly to Arafat, who was commander in chief of the PA police—and who continued wearing his trademark uniform to symbolize his authority as a military ruler. The multiplicity of units created endless turf wars, leading the various organizations to keep tabs on one another and to pass this information on to Arafat. Moreover, this Byzantine system made it possible for Arafat to order attacks against political opponents while publicly denying any involvement.

Today, if there is one thing in which the PA is still awash, it is manpower (a massive percentage of Palestinian men are employed in various PA security sinecures), security expertise, and weaponry. Not to mention money, as more foreign aid is lavished per capita on the Palestinians than on any group of people anywhere in the world—and by a huge margin. But none of the problems that Ignatius cites have much relation to the real Palestinian internal security problem.

Arafat’s goons did not work toward establishing a Palestinian state. They didn’t serve the Palestinian people or attempt to impose law and order. These men worked for Yasir Arafat, and only for Arafat, in order that he could more thoroughly solidify his corrupt autocracy. The things Ignatius mentions—Israeli security concessions, or the latest package of aid money, or American support—have all been tweaked and modified and adjusted countless times. A competent security service, be it police or military, must be possessed of a unity of purpose and must show dedication to a mission. It is precisely these cultural components that have been so elusive when it has come to the role that Palestinian security services have played in the many abortive attempts at creating a Palestinian state. The only Arab security forces in recent history that have displayed any such qualities are those of Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizballah.

On this matter David Frum should have the last word:

Hey, here’s a wild suggestion: What if we tried the other way around? What if we said to the Palestinians—OK, you want the benefits of peace? A state, a well-paid civil service supported by lavish foreign aid, jobs at the United Nations for the nephews of your president for life? Great. Make peace. Your soldiers want to be trusted? Great. First let them show themselves trustworthy.

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What’s Up With Itzhak?

The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”

A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”

For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.

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The November 12 announcement that star violinist Itzhak Perlman will conduct the Westchester Philharmonic as its artistic director starting with the 2008-09 season should be an occasion for congratulations. The local Journal News likened the star’s move to “Alex Rodriguez’s coming to the New York Yankees or David Beckham’s playing soccer on this side of the Pond” (doubtlessly without any irony about those problematic sports superstars). Perlman told the Journal News: “I’m a bread-and-butter kind of musician. I like to do my Brahmses, my Mozarts, my Tchaikovskys. It’s fun. Here’s a term for you: Call it ‘comfort music.’”

A major star for over 40 years, Perlman deserves his fame, yet some of his recent appearances seem to confuse comfort with mere laxity. This past May, at a sonata recital presented by Lincoln Center’s Great Performances series, Perlman seemed only intermittently focused on the music of Schubert and Richard Strauss. His automatic, visibly bored delivery in solo appearances has been commented on for several years, usually with euphemistic terms like “disengaged.” Part of the problem may be that twenty years ago in recital, Perlman would program composers like Webern and Hindemith, not just “comfort music.”

For a decade, Perlman has also been conducting orchestras from Tel Aviv to Philadelphia to audience cheers, despite mixed artistic results. When he conducted the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on a high-profile 2002 Deutsche Grammophon release with the young violinist Ilya Gringolts, the orchestra sounded shapeless and unruly. In 2005, Perlman made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut, again to a mixed reception.

Instrumentalists who are “naturals” as conductors are few. One example is Peter Oundjian (born 1955), former first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet, now Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director of New York’s Caramoor Music Festival. Oundjian has proven a passionate maestro with a real sense of symphonic line, who motivates both orchestral musicians and soloists to surpass themselves artistically. A decade older than Oundjian, Perlman may have left playing for conducting a bit late in his career.

Music fans will always rejoice in the best of Perlman’s sweet-toned, dazzlingly effortless playing, which can be heard on a recently reissued 1965 New York recital with pianist David Garvey, and in the delightful camaraderie of Isaac Stern’s 60th Anniversary Celebration, starring the so-called “Kosher Nostra” of Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, et al. Perlman is joyously virtuosic in a 1976 Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, in delightful miniatures by Fritz Kreisler, and in a program of rare Romantic works usually only played by students, Concertos from my Childhood.

Itzhak Perlman has won the hearts of a vast music-going public with his emotional playing, indomitable spirit, and sometimes raucous sense of humor. Westchester audiences surely will give him the benefit of the doubt and cheer his on-the-job training as conductor. Yet by the evidence so far, his main achievement looks likely to remain, first and foremost, as a violinist.

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The 2007 National Humanities Medal

Today, President Bush has awarded the National Humanities Medal to a number of important contributors to American intellectual life. We’re delighted to say that five of the honorees have close ties with COMMENTARY: military historian Victor Davis Hanson, the novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick, Russia scholar Richard Pipes, Harvard professor of Yiddish literature Ruth R. Wisse, and Roger Hertog, a distinguished patron of the humanities and a longtime supporter of COMMENTARY. We’ve made available free of charge some of the major items written by the honorees.

Victor Davis Hanson
Iraq’s Future—and Ours (January 2004)
Goodbye to Europe (October 2002)

Cynthia Ozick
The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination (March 1999)
Envy; or, Yiddish in America (November 1969)

Richard Pipes
Life, Liberty, Property (March 1999)
Russia’s Chance (March 1992)

Ruth R. Wisse
At Home in Jerusalem (April 2003)
Yiddish: Past, Present, Imperfect (November 1997)

Today, President Bush has awarded the National Humanities Medal to a number of important contributors to American intellectual life. We’re delighted to say that five of the honorees have close ties with COMMENTARY: military historian Victor Davis Hanson, the novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick, Russia scholar Richard Pipes, Harvard professor of Yiddish literature Ruth R. Wisse, and Roger Hertog, a distinguished patron of the humanities and a longtime supporter of COMMENTARY. We’ve made available free of charge some of the major items written by the honorees.

Victor Davis Hanson
Iraq’s Future—and Ours (January 2004)
Goodbye to Europe (October 2002)

Cynthia Ozick
The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination (March 1999)
Envy; or, Yiddish in America (November 1969)

Richard Pipes
Life, Liberty, Property (March 1999)
Russia’s Chance (March 1992)

Ruth R. Wisse
At Home in Jerusalem (April 2003)
Yiddish: Past, Present, Imperfect (November 1997)

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Opening This Week: Southland Tales

It’s possible that Southland Tales, the apocalyptic satire from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, is not actually as stultifying and incomprehensible as it seems, that somewhere amidst its frantic mess of pop-culture allusions and political reference points, there is a coherent narrative, or at least a reasonably cogent idea or two. Of course, it’s also possible that Dennis Kucinich will be the next President of the United States. But I wouldn’t bet on either.

The film’s influences are easy enough to spot: the paranoiac science fiction of Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick, the surrealist menace of Terry Gilliam and David Lynch. But it musters neither the cohesion nor the sustained mood of any of their work. Attempting plot summary would likely prove a fruitless endeavor, though I think David Edelstein makes a valiant effort in his review:

World War III has erupted; Middle Easterners nuke Texas (Why Texas? Why not?); the government is run by totalitarians, among them Miranda Richardson as Cruella De Vil; mutant Iraq-war vets hover like lifeguards over Venice Beach; Wallace Shawn in transvestite makeup invents “fluid karma energy” to solve the energy crisis; and Nora Dunn masterminds a “neo-Marxist” rebel group with the aid of hard-core porn star Sarah Michelle Gellar. There’s time travel, too, as well as a paranoiac screenplay that begins to blur with reality—or is the screenplay the real reality?

I think it’s a safe bet that neither reality—nor, for that matter, anything approximating it—is among the film’s chief concerns. What’s clear, though, is that Kelly thinks his film is saying something, and probably something important. Any movie that kicks off with a nuclear cataclysm on U.S. soil, quickly moves on to news reports about America going to war with Syria and North Korea, employs Sarah Michelle Gellar to play a combination porn star/talk show host, and features Wallace Shawn as a demented (probably evil) environmentalist who shouts things like “No longer can even the most jaded neocon fatcat deny the majesty of our mother ocean!” clearly aspires to some sort of socio-political relevance.

Sadly, there’s not a shred in evidence. It’s all a hazy, manic jumble, in which dream sequences with pop-singer Justin Timberlake as a scarred, drug-dealing Iraq-war veteran make just as much (which is to say as little) sense as any other scene.

In a strange way, however, it’s refreshing. After a season full of smug, irritating political diatribes posing as prestige pictures, it’s almost pleasant to see a film that tackles current events—the energy crisis, terrorism, the war, just to name a few—without an air of smarmy self-satisfaction. Discombobulated as it all may be, it’s a step up from insolence and dimwitted self-certainty. Southland Tales obviously has no idea what it wants to say about the state of the nation’s politics. But at least it’s bold enough to own up to its confusion.

It’s possible that Southland Tales, the apocalyptic satire from Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly, is not actually as stultifying and incomprehensible as it seems, that somewhere amidst its frantic mess of pop-culture allusions and political reference points, there is a coherent narrative, or at least a reasonably cogent idea or two. Of course, it’s also possible that Dennis Kucinich will be the next President of the United States. But I wouldn’t bet on either.

The film’s influences are easy enough to spot: the paranoiac science fiction of Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick, the surrealist menace of Terry Gilliam and David Lynch. But it musters neither the cohesion nor the sustained mood of any of their work. Attempting plot summary would likely prove a fruitless endeavor, though I think David Edelstein makes a valiant effort in his review:

World War III has erupted; Middle Easterners nuke Texas (Why Texas? Why not?); the government is run by totalitarians, among them Miranda Richardson as Cruella De Vil; mutant Iraq-war vets hover like lifeguards over Venice Beach; Wallace Shawn in transvestite makeup invents “fluid karma energy” to solve the energy crisis; and Nora Dunn masterminds a “neo-Marxist” rebel group with the aid of hard-core porn star Sarah Michelle Gellar. There’s time travel, too, as well as a paranoiac screenplay that begins to blur with reality—or is the screenplay the real reality?

I think it’s a safe bet that neither reality—nor, for that matter, anything approximating it—is among the film’s chief concerns. What’s clear, though, is that Kelly thinks his film is saying something, and probably something important. Any movie that kicks off with a nuclear cataclysm on U.S. soil, quickly moves on to news reports about America going to war with Syria and North Korea, employs Sarah Michelle Gellar to play a combination porn star/talk show host, and features Wallace Shawn as a demented (probably evil) environmentalist who shouts things like “No longer can even the most jaded neocon fatcat deny the majesty of our mother ocean!” clearly aspires to some sort of socio-political relevance.

Sadly, there’s not a shred in evidence. It’s all a hazy, manic jumble, in which dream sequences with pop-singer Justin Timberlake as a scarred, drug-dealing Iraq-war veteran make just as much (which is to say as little) sense as any other scene.

In a strange way, however, it’s refreshing. After a season full of smug, irritating political diatribes posing as prestige pictures, it’s almost pleasant to see a film that tackles current events—the energy crisis, terrorism, the war, just to name a few—without an air of smarmy self-satisfaction. Discombobulated as it all may be, it’s a step up from insolence and dimwitted self-certainty. Southland Tales obviously has no idea what it wants to say about the state of the nation’s politics. But at least it’s bold enough to own up to its confusion.

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Norman Mailer, Architecture Critic?

What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?

There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.

Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

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What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?

There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.

Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

What Mailer proposed as an alternative to modernism was not made clear, and one was not sure what to make of his perverse praise for the “Gothic knots and Romanesque oppressions” of his childhood schoolhouses. But it scarcely mattered; the essay drew a storm of public attention and was reprinted in both the Architectural Forum and the Village Voice. For a rebuttal, the Forum enlisted Scully, a historian of unusual eloquence, who took Mailer to task for his “lazy, potboiling paragraphs.” Scully pointed out that modern architecture invariably was opposed to totalitarianism, that both the Soviet and the Nazi state suppressed it, and that Mailer himself was suffering from a vestigial affection for “representationalist” architecture.

Mailer’s rejoinder was memorable. It was not political totalitarianism that he meant but the cultural totalitarianism that arises when architects subordinate the visual character of neighborhoods and cities to their own insatiable egos:

modern architecture . . . tends to excite the Faustian and empty appetites of the architect’s ego rather than reveal an artist’s vision of our collective desire for shelter which is pleasurable, substantial, intricate, intimate, delicate, detailed, foibled, rich in gargoyle, guignol, false closet, secret stair, witch’s hearth, attic, grandeur, kitsch, a world of buildings as diverse as the need within the eye for stimulus and variation. For beware: the ultimate promise of modern architecture is collective sightlessness for the species. Blindness is the fruit of your design.

Such a sentiment is now a commonplace. But in 1964 it was rather unusual, even prescient. For a brief moment, Mailer perceived with clarity (and a surfeit of passion) that something had gone awry with modernism, and he expressed it with extraordinary force.

Mailer’s foray into criticism would be a one-shot affair, not a serious endeavor but simply an opportunity to play the Bad Boy in yet another sphere of human activity. More’s the pity; for Mailer—to judge from this one exchange—clearly had more natural ability as an architecture critic than a boxer.

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The Most Unsurprising Politico-Intellectual News of the Year

Sidney Blumenthal is leaving his perch at Salon.com, where he writes weekly about American politics and the neoconservative menace with all the subtlety of Buddy Hackett and all the delicacy of Sophie Tucker, to become a senior adviser to…the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Sidney Blumenthal is leaving his perch at Salon.com, where he writes weekly about American politics and the neoconservative menace with all the subtlety of Buddy Hackett and all the delicacy of Sophie Tucker, to become a senior adviser to…the Hillary Clinton campaign.

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