Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating piece about the board game Monopoly’s usefulness during World War II. The game, apparently, was used by British intelligence to smuggle real currency, maps, metal files, compasses, and other implements to POWs via Red Cross shipments. Soldiers were told to “look out for the special editions, identified by a red dot in the Free Parking space.” This ingenious tactic was used during the cold war as well. Of course, Monopoly had to be swapped out for more culturally appropriate Eastern-bloc variations, such as the Soviet classic “Manage.”
Posts For: November 20, 2007
For decades now, one of Israel’s most divisive internal questions has pertained to the participation of ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim, in the military. Whereas the great majority of Israeli males are conscripted into the army, the black-hatted haredim have been exempt, due mainly to rabbinic leaders’ fears that army life will expose them to the corrupting influences of secularism and women. Instead, they argue, these young men should defend Israel spiritually—through prayer and the study of sacred texts.
Needless to say, most Israelis resent this. It’s bad enough to risk one’s life in service of one’s country while others get a bye on grounds of piety. But it’s intolerable when taxpayers heavily subsidize the ultra-Orthodox learning institutions to boot. As for the haredim, their non-enlistment makes it much harder for them to earn a decent living down the road, and as a result many of them suffer intense poverty.
Now something appears to be changing. A few years ago, the army launched a special infantry unit catering to the special needs of haredim. By finding a way for them to serve, it was believed, they could join Israeli society, defuse the resentment against them, and eventually make a decent living. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post this week, the army unit has attracted the sons and grandsons of some of Israel’s top ultra-Orthodox rabbis—a development that could give the program much-needed legitimacy in the haredi world itself. If so, we may be about to see a major expansion of the program, and the first real signs of healing one of Israel’s most painful internal wounds.
On November 24, jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck and his quartet will perform at Manhattan’s Blue Note nightclub. At 86, Brubeck still gives around 80 concerts per year, although he has not played the Blue Note since 1994. Since his rhythmically cunning 1959 album Time Out, Brubeck has won accolades from fans (Clint Eastwood, a jazz addict, is producing a documentary about him), but he is not resting on his laurels.
This past summer, Brubeck released a new piano solo CD on Telarc, Indian Summer, with his characteristic blocky-sounding chords tempered by a gentle sweetness that has characterized his music-making for decades. I well recall a chat I had with the genial Brubeck a decade ago, focused on his studies with the French Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. Brubeck began working with Milhaud at California’s Mills College in 1946, entranced by the French composer’s use of jazz in his classical ballets Le Boeuf sur le Toit and La Création du monde. Brubeck, who named his eldest son Darius in homage to his teacher, told me that his favorite Milhaud work is the monumental choral symphony “Pacem in Terris,” settings of an encyclical by Pope John XXIII.
Milhaud’s abilities were amazing; his 15th and 16th string quartets can be played as individual pieces or together as an octet. He wrote them separately in two books and just remembered what was in each quartet. I don’t think any other composer could have done that, maybe not even Mozart. Milhaud used to write in ink like a demon and never proofread; I can’t compose a bar without erasing something. I think of him almost every day, even now. He kept me involved in jazz. “Bubu”—that’s what he’d call me—”Bubu, don’t give up something you do so well. In jazz you can travel everywhere and you’ll never have to attend a faculty meeting!”
The political class is awash in excitement — a poll has just been released of Iowa voters showing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a dead heat along with John Edwards. You would think, from the gasping near-hysteria greeting these results, that Hillary Clinton has had Iowa locked up forever and that voters there are only now developing a buyer’s remorse dangerous for her future.
The smelling salts, please; some people are hyperventilating so furiously they may need to drape themselves over a divan to recover.
You wouldn’t know this from the breathless coverage today, but the leader in Iowa through most of 2007 was…John Edwards. She only took the lead away from him in the middle of August, according to the Real Clear Politics chart of all polls. And even as Iowa leader, she has never been up more than a few points. Iowa has been a two-person or three-person race since the beginning of the year. And while the poll that has some all atwitter does have Barack Obama in the lead by four points, it’s worth noting that this is a tally of only 500 potential voters with Obama and Clinton and Edwards all statistically tied. In other words, the actual numerical margin of Obama’s lead over Hillary may be eight or nine people who happened to answer the telephone when the pollster was calling.
While it’s true that Obama is doing much better than he has been of late in Iowa, there’s absolutely no evidence he’s been gaining on Mrs. Clinton by taking voters away from her. What Obama has done is climb back to the level he had reached in Iowa in the late spring with a few more percentage points besides.
This is what the data show. Forget the data. What the political class wants you to believe is that Hillary did badly in the debate before last, that Obama found his voice in attacking her for her inauthenticity, and that these two phenomena have come together to send Mrs. Clinton into a downward spiral.
The political class wants a real race in the Democratic primary, because it would be boring any other way, because of the generally besotted affect toward Obama, and because the mainstream media share with the hard Left a disgust with Mrs. Clinton for not calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. And so it is adducing, on the basis of hope more than fact, that she has gotten herself into rocky waters.
It’s amazing how easily professional politics-watchers can forget the storyline they themselves had peddled only a few months earlier — that Hillary was going to have a rough go of it in Iowa because its caucus-goers lean very hard to the Left. This was so standard a piece of conventional wisdom that it was also universally said if she managed to win Iowa on January 3, her Democratic rivals would have no hope of catching her anywhere else.
Oh, and for a little amusement, let me quote from this September 1999 story about a poll in New Hampshire:
Vice President Al Gore has lost much of his lead over former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley among New Hampshire Democratic primary voters. Bradley’s supporters are more certain in their vote than Gore supporters, and Bradley is now viewed more favorably than Gore…. Labor Day is the traditional start of the campaign season, and this year looks to be an exciting one for the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for President. With five months remaining until the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation Presidential Primary, Vice President Al Gore’s once substantial lead over former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley has shrunk to 5 percent.
A moment’s confession: This Bill Bradley surge led me to write a series of columns about how Gore was in deep trouble, that Democrats had tired of Clintonian antics and were looking for something and someone who might seem more “authentic.” By the time voters in New Hampshire actually went to the polls, Gore bested Bradley by four points and that was all she wrote for Bill Bradley. I was similarly excited by John McCain’s surge against George W. Bush, and McCain actually won New Hampshire by 19 points. He would be the nominee, I declared.
Sadder but wiser, I rose the morrow morn and every morn since, determined to tell the boring but true political tale: Hillary is still the prohibitive frontrunner, as Gore was, and she is still the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination. She will probably have to commit a spectacular blunder to lose it.
The Nation is holding a poll on its website where readers can choose their ideal choice for the Democratic presidential nomination. Online polls are usually meaningless (the popularity of Ron Paul in such internet venues is a testament to his rabidly enthusiastic and technically savvy online fan base, rather than to his actual popularity among Republican primary voters) and the magazine’s editors at least note, in the fine print, that the poll is “not statistically valid.”
Though it’s true that the poll is “not statistically valid” in the sense that it is not an accurate prediction of what will happen in the Democratic primaries, the poll is nonetheless a useful barometer of where the magazine’s readership lies on the political spectrum. And thus it’s no surprise that Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich—whose most novel proposal has been the creation of a cabinet level “Department of Peace”—takes the lead at 34 percent (at the time of this posting), trouncing the actual front runners Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. Indeed, the fact that the presumptive nominee, Clinton, garners only 5 percent, speaks volumes about how radical the magazine’s readership is. That former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel (no longer invited to Democratic Party debates and given to holding his own, one-man rants across the street) has more than double her support (11 percent) speaks to the outright self-delusion of the Nation‘s readership. Kucinich’s campaign slogan is the inversion of an old Ronald Reagan saying: “Strength through Peace,” which makes about as much sense as “Satiation through Starvation.”
Earlier this month, Democratic Party officials in South Carolina rejected Stephen Colbert’s attempt to make it onto the state’s primary ballot on the grounds that he is a comedian and would distract from the real business of presidential politicking. But that’s nonsense. There are already at least two comedians running for president in the Democratic primary.
Your reaction to the film version of Atonement, which opens December 7, may depend on whether you can be shocked twice by the same revelation.
Ian McEwan’s superlative 2001 novel starts with a fusty Victorian framework — a country house, an upstairs-downstairs flirtation and a mislaid letter — that McEwan soon charges with eroticism. The tale gradually expands into both a harrowing war story and a decades-spanning meditation on morality. Keira Knightley, who grows thinner in each movie and is now approximately the width of a parenthesis, stars with James McAvoy (who played Idi Amin’s doctor in The Last King of Scotland) in a sumptously decorated and expertly photographed vision of the novel directed by Joe Wright, who also guided her to an Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice a couple of years ago.
Wright’s Atonement is a fine effort that left me largely unmoved, possibly because the two greatest strengths of the book are absent. First is McEwan’s devastatingly precise and unnerving prose, which invariably makes you shiver at the terrible things that haven’t even happened yet and for which Wright has no real equivalent apart from a somewhat overused audio motif of a prewar typewriter’s keys slamming like ammunition being locked and loaded. Second is McEwan’s much talked-about pull-the-rug-out ending, which has little effect on you if you know it’s coming.
There’s a reason why surprise-twist stories rarely hold up well the second time around: You lose interest in the characters as people because you begin to see them as mere tools of the plot.
Yesterday, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez met with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran after both of them had attended the OPEC summit in Riyadh over the weekend. In the Iranian capital they continued their attack on the dollar that they had started a few days earlier.
In Saudi Arabia, the Iranian president, backed by Chavez, had wanted the thirteen-member cartel to price oil in a currency other than the American unit—such as the euro—or at least with reference to a basket of currencies. Saudi King Abdullah blocked that idea, but only for the present. The summit’s final declaration contains vague language about “financial cooperation” among the group’s members, and Iran’s oil minister later said that the words meant a reconsideration of acceptance of the dollar.
For now, America’s allies inside OPEC can hold off Ahmadinejad and Chavez because the price of oil has skyrocketed as the greenback has fallen. Yet continued erosion of the dollar will strengthen their case that our currency is “worthless paper”—as Ahmadinejad said in Riyadh—and should they prevail, they will have gone a long way toward dethroning it as the world’s reserve currency. The menacing pair—“united like a single fist” in Chavez’s words—knows what’s at stake. “God willing, with the fall of the dollar, the deviant U.S. imperialism will fall as soon as possible too,” the Venezuelan leader said after his meeting with his Iranian counterpart in Tehran.
There have been bouts of dollar selling in the past, but our currency has nonetheless retained its central role in the financial markets. Yet at some point, people will stop accepting the buck as its value decreases. Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen made headlines at the beginning of this month when her sister-manager revealed that she demanded to be paid in almost any currency other than the dollar—even when working for a U.S. company. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has repeatedly reaffirmed America’s strong-dollar policy, but it’s clear the Bush administration does not intend to do anything to stop what looks like a free fall.
The President’s apparent lack of concern is a mistake of enormous proportions: all his international problems will become immeasurably harder when no one wants our currency and American financial sanctions become meaningless. Ahmadinejad and Chavez are normally full of bluster, but they have now found a tactic that can injure the United States. That’s because irresponsible economic policies over the course of past administrations have essentially handed our adversaries in Iran and Venezuela a weapon.
Robert Zemeckis’s computer-animated adaptation of Beowulf led the box-office this weekend, and it will likely continue to perform well over the Thanksgiving holiday. The film utilizes a high-tech animation process some say portends the future of filmmaking (James Cameron’s next feature will employ the same technology).
Comparing it to its source material is of little use. It’s been streamlined and modernized, and now bears more resemblance to a computer game than an ancient epic. And despite a number of favorable reviews, the best that can be said about it is that it is an empty spectacle, devoid of substance and unconcerned with providing even the barest cinematic pleasure. There’s plenty of bloody fighting, and yet nothing much happens. The movie is not so much a real battle as a military parade—a carefully orchestrated show of arms more notable for the power and technology on display than for any real movement.
Shot using a process called motion capture, in which the performances of real actors are captured by computer sensors and then digitally rendered and presented in 3-D (you even get to keep the glasses), Beowulf shows off its digital wizardry at every opportunity. Mostly this means a parade of gory imagery pushing out from the screen, demanding attention in the way of a small child tugging on your shirt. There are flying 3-D arrows, thrusting 3-D swords, severed 3-D heads, and buckets of 3-D blood oozing out toward the audience. Like the cheap, crude 3-D films of the 1950′s, the presentation is pure gimmickry.
The technique seems intended to add weight and substance, to heighten the drama and add intensity to the action by making everything seem more real. But the computerized animation only serves to make everything seem hollow and fake. The detail on the animated humans is impressive—every hair and facial pore is visible—but such detail fails to impart a convincing sense of human presence. Instead, the people move awkwardly, like expensive toys controlled by remote.
In fact, the entire production has the disconnected feeling of watching a video game being played by someone else. It seems content to engage the audience solely through technology, and, as a result, lacks even the shallow visual pleasures of a bombastic Hollywood blockbuster. Perhaps more worrisome are the desires of the production team to attain an impossible standard of perfection and of the movie-going public to disengage from anything approaching reality. What does it say when even the face and figure of Angelina Jolie must be digitally nipped, tucked, smoothed, and polished? If this is the future of film, does that mean it will lose all touch with what is physical, human, imperfect, real?
If the findings of a new Pew poll are any indication, race—or more specifically, the declining prospects of African-Americans—ought to be at the very center of the presidential campaign. Today, notes Juan Williams, summarizing the grim numbers,
only 20 percent of black Americans think life is generally better for black people than it was five years ago, the lowest positive response to that question in polls going back 24 years. Only 44 percent of black people expect life to get better; that’s well below the 57 percent who predicted a better life for black people when the same question was asked in 1986.
And yet, race is playing the smallest role in any election since 1964. Part of the reason for this is the absence of a black Democrat using the presidential primaries to campaign indirectly for the leadership of black America. There is no Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton in the contest. Barack Obama’s appeal, though it has a racial element, is primarily to the same sorts of upper-middle-class Americans who once thought Adlai Stevenson a model of gentlemanly intellect. But more importantly there has been a shift in attitudes that make it harder to use race as a political issue. The Pew Poll found that
71 percent of whites and 59 percent of Hispanics feel that personal behavior—values, education, hard work—is what holds back those black Americans still trapped in poverty. But what is most striking is that a small majority, 53 percent, of black Americans agree that “blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.”
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, the Department of State is releasing a steady stream of documents from the days when Henry Kissinger ruled the roost. Among the latest batch to be made public are transcripts of Kissinger’s conversations with leading statesmen all over the world.
Here, in a December 21, 1976 record of a telephone conversation between Kissinger and Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz, is a sample of diplomacy as it was conducted at the highest levels by America’s most adroit Secretary of State:
D: How are you Mr. Secretary?
D: I have difficulty in getting flights on Thursday. I can change my flight from 8:30 to 12:30.
K: The trouble is I will be in Boston.
D: I know that. I thought of two possibilities. Ah, maybe you can . . . when are you leaving?
K: Tomorrow morning.
D: Would you like me to stop in this evening or early tomorrow morning?
K: No, I am tied up all evening.
D: If you think it can wait until I come back.
K: It is something that should be dealt with. I can’t discuss it on the phone. I have to see you before my people here begin leaking against you.
D: The other possibility is for me to see you . . .
K: Why don’t we do it early tomorrow morning?
D: That would be fine.
K: Okay, why don’t you come in at 8:00.
D: 8:00 would be fine. Thank you Mr. Secretary.
What does this document reveal? We already knew that Kissinger lived in constant fear of leaks. The shocking revelation here is the fact that the mighty Kissinger kept his own calendar.
As I noted some years back in reviewing a memoir by the East German spy, Markus Wolf, “not everything kept hidden during the cold war was significant. . . . The larger and more important truth . . . is that few genuinely significant things were kept secret for long.”
Our culture’s uneasiness about raising an unruly new generation of rugrats may have caused, at least in part, a reactionary wave of nostalgia for “angelic” child singers. The sentimental 2004 French film The Chorus made treble singing popular across Europe, following the English precedent of the “angelic” boy soprano soloists in hugely popular (although schlocky) modern choral music like Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem. This precedent has been superseded by a new EMI Classics release on CD and DVD, Angel Voices: Libera in Concert.
Libera is a South London boys’ choir directed by Robert Prizeman, which tours the world to frenzied acclaim. Their trademark garments are white monastic robes, and their closely miked voices sing, on the “Angel Voices” program, a series of peculiarly morbid tunes. These include Going Home, sung to the famous tune from Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony; the lugubrious hymn Abide with Me; and an original Prizeman composition, Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep. Much of what these Brit moppets sing is about is cheery as Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), yet ecstatic audiences lap up their concert all the same.
Fans of restrained romantic music with treble solo singing like Fauré’s Requiem may find themselves lost in this new world of overblown kitsch. After all, kids are not really angels or convenient symbols of death. They can be expressive singers in their own right, but need a little guidance, otherwise they can commit grievous errors of taste in repertory, like the little German boy who squalls one of the Queen of the Night’s arias from Mozart’s Magic Flute on Youtube, apparently because no one told him not to. Healthier by far is the feisty, characterful treble singing in Bach Cantatas No. 31 & 50 conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt; on these CD’s, newly reissued by Warner Classics, the Vienna Boys’ Choir is hyperenergetic to the point of bullying, bringing an authentic flavor of the schoolyard tantrum to the music (Bach, who fathered twenty children, doubtless knew all about this kind of exuberant expressiveness).
For a while now, I’ve been advocating that the U.S. military open its ranks to those who are not citizens or permanent residents. Offer a trade, I’ve suggested, of citizenship in return for military service. We would get a lot of high-quality soldiers who would later become high-quality Americans.
I just came back from one country that would seem to be a prime recruiting ground: Poland. Its people are resoundingly pro-American yet aggravated because of the difficulties of getting visas to travel to the United States. Poland is becoming increasingly wealthy but job opportunities are not plentiful, so many young Poles move to Britain and other countries for work. English is a common second language, so linguistic barriers would seem minimal. It’s safe to say that lots of well-educated, well-motivated Poles would jump at the chance to serve in the U.S. armed forces and emigrate to the United States.
In fact, one Polish journalist with whom I spoke said that many young Polish men dream of serving in the U.S. military because it is widely (and correctly) seen as the best in the world. Shouldn’t we give them a chance to make their dreams come true?