Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 21, 2007

Bookshelf

• Gertrude Himmelfarb, who apparently knows everything there is to know about Victorian England, has been publishing invaluable books about the Victorians for longer than it would be polite for me to disclose. I prune my shelves ruthlessly, but five of her books have found permanent places there. Now I’ll be making room for a sixth.

The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays (Yale, 327 pp., $35) is one of those anthologies that somebody should have edited years ago, a book of such self-evident value that I can’t think why it’s only now being published. In it, Himmelfarb brings together essays by seventeen of the key figures in Victorian thought, among them Lord Acton, Matthew Arnold, Walter Bagehot, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Cardinal Newman, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde. To this glittering assemblage of literary and intellectual luminaries she appends an introduction that not only supplies a historical context for their work but considers “the essay as genre” and its special significance in Victorian intellectual life:

The essay, even a substantial one, conveyed its ideas with an immediacy and vigor lacking in a book. In that shorter form, arguments were sharpened and controversy was heightened, so that the reader entered more readily into the mind and spirit of an author more knowledgeable and thoughtful than himself…. They were serious and learned, even scholarly, without being pedantic or abstruse. They were accessible to a relatively large audience because they were written by nonacademics for nonacademics, in a common language and reflecting common values.

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• Gertrude Himmelfarb, who apparently knows everything there is to know about Victorian England, has been publishing invaluable books about the Victorians for longer than it would be polite for me to disclose. I prune my shelves ruthlessly, but five of her books have found permanent places there. Now I’ll be making room for a sixth.

The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays (Yale, 327 pp., $35) is one of those anthologies that somebody should have edited years ago, a book of such self-evident value that I can’t think why it’s only now being published. In it, Himmelfarb brings together essays by seventeen of the key figures in Victorian thought, among them Lord Acton, Matthew Arnold, Walter Bagehot, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Cardinal Newman, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde. To this glittering assemblage of literary and intellectual luminaries she appends an introduction that not only supplies a historical context for their work but considers “the essay as genre” and its special significance in Victorian intellectual life:

The essay, even a substantial one, conveyed its ideas with an immediacy and vigor lacking in a book. In that shorter form, arguments were sharpened and controversy was heightened, so that the reader entered more readily into the mind and spirit of an author more knowledgeable and thoughtful than himself…. They were serious and learned, even scholarly, without being pedantic or abstruse. They were accessible to a relatively large audience because they were written by nonacademics for nonacademics, in a common language and reflecting common values.

Having edited a couple of anthologies myself, I know how hard it is to assemble a truly representative selection of writings on any subject, much less to write an introduction that makes collective sense of them all. Thus it is with an indissoluble blend of admiration and humility that I declare The Spirit of the Age to be as fine a book of its kind as could possibly be published. Not only does it cover all the bases in an absolute minimum of space, but Himmelfarb’s introduction is a miracle of clarity and concision. Never has the essence of Victorian thought been summed up so pithily:

To Carlyle, the tragedy of the age was that it was “at once destitute of faith and terrified of scepticism.” To Bulwer, it was the end of the “romantic age” and the beginning of a bleak utilitarianism. To Mill it was an age of “intellectual anarchy,” when the old virtues and moral authorities had died and new ones had not yet been born. Yet there was another aspect to the age that belied these dire diagnoses. So far from being “destitute of faith,” it was buoyed up by the Evangelical spirit that was the heir of Methodism…. If there is one word that is common to the whole of the Victorian age, it is earnestness—the religious earnestness of the early period transmuted into a moral and intellectual earnestness.

I was surprised—and pleased—to see that Himmelfarb has abridged some of the essays reprinted in The Spirit of the Age. Victorian earnestness and Victorian longwindedness (by our standards, not theirs) often went hand in hand, and by discreetly applying the blue pencil to certain of these pieces, they have been made significantly more readable. Himmelfarb apologizes in the introduction for her “temerity in doing what a Victorian editor might not have done,” but I applaud her for it. So, I suspect, will you.

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China and India, Hand-in-Hand

Today, the two giants of Asia start their first joint military exercises. Code-named “Hand-in-Hand, 2007,” the event brings Chinese and Indian forces together for five days in China’s Yunnan province. The two countries are, in the words of a statement from the Ministry of National Defense in Beijing, promoting “the strategic partnership for peace and prosperity.” Furthermore, they are enhancing their capabilities against “three evil forces:” separatists, extremists, and terrorists.

Is that so? What China and India are really doing is keeping an eye on each other. Neither government will say so, but each of them wants to find out how much progress the other has made since their border war more than four decades ago. “In 1962, India was defeated mainly because of the low standard of the soldiers,” says a Shanghai-based military expert speaking anonymously to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. Since then, the Russians and the Japanese have helped train the Indians, and the Chinese want to find out how much improvement has occurred. And the Indians for their part are curious about how much two decades of modernization have improved the People’s Liberation Army.

This decade, these two nations have slowly begun to cooperate in the military sphere, especially since conducting joint naval search-and-rescue exercises in 2003. The Indians say they will hold another joint maneuver with China next year in India.

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Today, the two giants of Asia start their first joint military exercises. Code-named “Hand-in-Hand, 2007,” the event brings Chinese and Indian forces together for five days in China’s Yunnan province. The two countries are, in the words of a statement from the Ministry of National Defense in Beijing, promoting “the strategic partnership for peace and prosperity.” Furthermore, they are enhancing their capabilities against “three evil forces:” separatists, extremists, and terrorists.

Is that so? What China and India are really doing is keeping an eye on each other. Neither government will say so, but each of them wants to find out how much progress the other has made since their border war more than four decades ago. “In 1962, India was defeated mainly because of the low standard of the soldiers,” says a Shanghai-based military expert speaking anonymously to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. Since then, the Russians and the Japanese have helped train the Indians, and the Chinese want to find out how much improvement has occurred. And the Indians for their part are curious about how much two decades of modernization have improved the People’s Liberation Army.

This decade, these two nations have slowly begun to cooperate in the military sphere, especially since conducting joint naval search-and-rescue exercises in 2003. The Indians say they will hold another joint maneuver with China next year in India.

But the United States, Japan, and the other Asian democracies need not worry too much about an alliance between Beijing and New Delhi. China and India, simply stated, are natural rivals. Yes, there may be increased military contacts, but the ongoing exercises just showcase the problem between them: China has the world’s largest armed forces (2.5 million men and women in uniform) and India the third (1.13 million), but each side is contributing just about a hundred soldiers to the Yunnan drill.

Although the Indians do not want to become part of any “anti-China” coalition, the fact is that they do not have much choice. China, after all, armed India’s mortal enemy, Pakistan, with nuclear weapons, China competes with India for investment capital flowing to the developing world, and China is the other Asian land power. The two countries still maintain claims to the same lands, and this year the Chinese have escalated the tension by unilaterally demolishing Indian military fortifications, intruding onto territory India claims, and escalating rhetoric. So where can India turn for help?

America is the perfect offshore balancer for New Delhi, especially because the two countries share a language, ideals, and even a little common heritage. When Americans finally realize that neither China nor Pakistan can become a reliable ally in the foreseeable future, they will see that the world’s largest democracy and its most powerful one should work together for a stable international system.

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Bush Has Had It With Assad

At yesterday’s year-end White House press conference, President Bush let his feelings about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be known. BBC News reports:

“My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago,” Mr. Bush told reporters at the White House.

“The reason why is because he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hizballah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon.”

For that, the President gets a B+. He left out Syria’s active interest in conspiring with Iran on WMD. The Assad regime constitutes the full spectrum of Middle East threats: Baathist tyranny, Sunni terrorism, Shia terrorism, Iraq sabotage, and coddling of Iran.

Additionally, the Syrian regime exercises suzerainty by assassination in Lebanon. Lebanese statesmen actually live in their offices for fear of Syrian bombs. The Lebanese government is in near-literal paralysis. George Bush’s pronouncement is a welcome return to common sense. While Assad took a state hostage before the eyes of the world, Madame Speaker Nancy Pelosi thought it only right to pay a visit to Syria’s President “with the assurance that we came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace.” Recently, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suffered a similar lapse in reaching out to Syria during peace talks in Annapolis.

In early January, President Bush is taking a diplomatic tour of the region. He’ll visit a handful of countries—none of them Syria. One crucial benefit of progress in Iraq is that it allows the U.S. to exercise a credibly muscular foreign policy. In so doing, we can embolden Syrian and Lebanese reformers (such as the March 14 coalition), who must have wept while Nancy Pelosi flattered their tormentor.

At yesterday’s year-end White House press conference, President Bush let his feelings about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be known. BBC News reports:

“My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago,” Mr. Bush told reporters at the White House.

“The reason why is because he houses Hamas, he facilitates Hizballah, suiciders go from his country into Iraq, and he destabilizes Lebanon.”

For that, the President gets a B+. He left out Syria’s active interest in conspiring with Iran on WMD. The Assad regime constitutes the full spectrum of Middle East threats: Baathist tyranny, Sunni terrorism, Shia terrorism, Iraq sabotage, and coddling of Iran.

Additionally, the Syrian regime exercises suzerainty by assassination in Lebanon. Lebanese statesmen actually live in their offices for fear of Syrian bombs. The Lebanese government is in near-literal paralysis. George Bush’s pronouncement is a welcome return to common sense. While Assad took a state hostage before the eyes of the world, Madame Speaker Nancy Pelosi thought it only right to pay a visit to Syria’s President “with the assurance that we came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace.” Recently, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suffered a similar lapse in reaching out to Syria during peace talks in Annapolis.

In early January, President Bush is taking a diplomatic tour of the region. He’ll visit a handful of countries—none of them Syria. One crucial benefit of progress in Iraq is that it allows the U.S. to exercise a credibly muscular foreign policy. In so doing, we can embolden Syrian and Lebanese reformers (such as the March 14 coalition), who must have wept while Nancy Pelosi flattered their tormentor.

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The U.N.’s Action

In 2005, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker said that the United Nations suffered from a “culture of inaction.” This was after he had made public his findings about the organization’s oil-for-food scandal. Mr. Volcker’s analysis of the body’s lackadaiscal approach to policing the behavior of its own employees and programs was apt. But it does not accurately describe what the UN is now doing to an internal panel tasked with investigating corruption in its procurement office.

For UN bureaucrats have been busy, busy bees in seeing that the unit tasked with investigating corruption in the awarding of contracts be eliminated. Thus far, these private investigators have uncovered over $600 million in “tainted United Nations contracts and [are] currently investigating an additional $1 billion in suspect agreements.” Much of this corruption has occurred within the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Kofi Annan’s old stomping grounds, which operates mostly in war-torn and developing countries. Many of those nations and the UN employees who staff the DPKO have been sucking at the international teat far too long and successfully to give the game up now. Today, the General Assembly will vote on a measure to shut the investigation down.

The United Nations has long been incapable of enforcing its own resolutions. This has never been a secret. What we discover now is that it is utterly incapable–even unwilling–to enforce its own workplace procedures, adopted in the aftermath of a massive financial scandal. The United Nations can’t police its own employees, let alone the world. Its defenders become irate when the United States insists on the organization fulfilling these rather basic expectations in return for the billions of dollars it receives every year. But what can they possibly say in response to this?

In 2005, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker said that the United Nations suffered from a “culture of inaction.” This was after he had made public his findings about the organization’s oil-for-food scandal. Mr. Volcker’s analysis of the body’s lackadaiscal approach to policing the behavior of its own employees and programs was apt. But it does not accurately describe what the UN is now doing to an internal panel tasked with investigating corruption in its procurement office.

For UN bureaucrats have been busy, busy bees in seeing that the unit tasked with investigating corruption in the awarding of contracts be eliminated. Thus far, these private investigators have uncovered over $600 million in “tainted United Nations contracts and [are] currently investigating an additional $1 billion in suspect agreements.” Much of this corruption has occurred within the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Kofi Annan’s old stomping grounds, which operates mostly in war-torn and developing countries. Many of those nations and the UN employees who staff the DPKO have been sucking at the international teat far too long and successfully to give the game up now. Today, the General Assembly will vote on a measure to shut the investigation down.

The United Nations has long been incapable of enforcing its own resolutions. This has never been a secret. What we discover now is that it is utterly incapable–even unwilling–to enforce its own workplace procedures, adopted in the aftermath of a massive financial scandal. The United Nations can’t police its own employees, let alone the world. Its defenders become irate when the United States insists on the organization fulfilling these rather basic expectations in return for the billions of dollars it receives every year. But what can they possibly say in response to this?

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And Speaking of Movie Reviews…

…my essay on the lavishly praised Atonement, published in The Weekly Standard, can be read here.

…my essay on the lavishly praised Atonement, published in The Weekly Standard, can be read here.

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The Funniest Movie Review of the Week Award…

….goes to our fellow blogger Kyle Smith, whose take on National Treasure: Book of Secrets is a JOY to BEHOLD. (The use of ALL CAPS will become clear if you follow the link and read Kyle’s review.)

….goes to our fellow blogger Kyle Smith, whose take on National Treasure: Book of Secrets is a JOY to BEHOLD. (The use of ALL CAPS will become clear if you follow the link and read Kyle’s review.)

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Huckabee’s Durability

Mike Huckabee’s durability is built on more than his religious appeal. The former governor is also tapping into the country’s economic anxieties. As yesterday’s Wall Street Journal explained, “On the eve of the election year, Americans are displaying increasingly severe doubts about the nation’s economic engagement with the rest of the world.” Attitudes toward even legal immigration, often a bellwether of public sentiment, are turning negative. A new Journal poll found that as recently as this past June voters were almost evenly split over whether immigration helps more than it hurts the country. Now, according to the article,

a large majority says immigration hurts more than it helps. According to the poll, 52 percent said immigration hurts the country more than it helps, with only 39 percent seeing immigration having a positive contribution.

A decade ago voters had a slightly negative of the internationalization of the American economy. Today only 28 percent view it positively and again support comes largely from managers and professionals. Add to this growing concerns over the seemingly ineluctable increases in inequality, and it’s clear that there’s an opening for a populist candidate (just not John Edwards).

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Mike Huckabee’s durability is built on more than his religious appeal. The former governor is also tapping into the country’s economic anxieties. As yesterday’s Wall Street Journal explained, “On the eve of the election year, Americans are displaying increasingly severe doubts about the nation’s economic engagement with the rest of the world.” Attitudes toward even legal immigration, often a bellwether of public sentiment, are turning negative. A new Journal poll found that as recently as this past June voters were almost evenly split over whether immigration helps more than it hurts the country. Now, according to the article,

a large majority says immigration hurts more than it helps. According to the poll, 52 percent said immigration hurts the country more than it helps, with only 39 percent seeing immigration having a positive contribution.

A decade ago voters had a slightly negative of the internationalization of the American economy. Today only 28 percent view it positively and again support comes largely from managers and professionals. Add to this growing concerns over the seemingly ineluctable increases in inequality, and it’s clear that there’s an opening for a populist candidate (just not John Edwards).

Interviewed by Meredith Vieira about his “floating cross” ad, Huckabee took the opportunity to mock those who insist on saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” And when Vieira asked him about the criticism he’s received from National Review editor Rich Lowry and others on the Right that he wasn’t an economic conservative, Huckabee saw his opening. Speaking without any visible anger, he deftly replied,

The Wall Street-to-Washington axis, this corridor of power, is absolutely, frantically against me. But out there in America, the reason we’re number one in the polls is because I’m the guy that doesn’t have some offshore mailbox bank account in the Caymans [referring to Edwards] hiding my money. I’m the guy that worked my way up through it. And there are a whole lot of people in America that believe that the President ought to be a servant of the people and ought not to be elected to the ruling class. . . .

Vieira: So why do you think they’re opposed to you, Governor?

Huckabee: Because they don’t control me. . . . I’m not a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street. I come right up from the people.

Huckabee’s ability to present himself as the real populist may be a big part of why he has, to date, largely weathered all the criticism of his bad gubernatorial record on taxes and criminal justice and of his ethical failings.

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Walzer and Cohen

Michael Walzer and Mitchell Cohen, co-editors of Dissent, have thrown down the gauntlet on the future of the American Left, battling to defend liberalism from the illiberal forces (Marxism, anti-Westernism, etc.) that threaten to hijack its political agenda. Two examples of this challenge: Walzer’s new collection of essays, Thinking Politically (just reviewed by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun) and Cohen’s major essay “Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn.” In the latter, Cohen goes to town on the anti-Semitism that lurks behind much of the far-Left criticism of Israel. He concludes:

It is time for the Left that learns, that grows, that reflects, that has historical not rhetorical perspective, and that wants a future based on its own best values to say loudly to the Left that never learns: You hijacked “Left” in the last century, but you won’t get away with it again whatever guise you don.

Kirsch is right to praise them for their “intellectual courage.” The resurgence of illiberalism on the far Left is one of the most troubling developments in political discourse in our time.

Michael Walzer and Mitchell Cohen, co-editors of Dissent, have thrown down the gauntlet on the future of the American Left, battling to defend liberalism from the illiberal forces (Marxism, anti-Westernism, etc.) that threaten to hijack its political agenda. Two examples of this challenge: Walzer’s new collection of essays, Thinking Politically (just reviewed by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun) and Cohen’s major essay “Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn.” In the latter, Cohen goes to town on the anti-Semitism that lurks behind much of the far-Left criticism of Israel. He concludes:

It is time for the Left that learns, that grows, that reflects, that has historical not rhetorical perspective, and that wants a future based on its own best values to say loudly to the Left that never learns: You hijacked “Left” in the last century, but you won’t get away with it again whatever guise you don.

Kirsch is right to praise them for their “intellectual courage.” The resurgence of illiberalism on the far Left is one of the most troubling developments in political discourse in our time.

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Lost In Translation

Pick a foreign language, any language (except Spanish and Bureaucratese), and I can guarantee that U.S. intelligence has a severe lack of personnel conversant in that tongue. The more critical the language to our intelligence efforts, the worse the shortage.

Take Chinese. The National Security Agency lacks Chinese speakers to translate all the decrypted commuications it picks up. What does it do in response? It hires outside translation services. One of them, unfortunately, was run by Chinese intelligence itself.

Naval intelligence officials familiar with the Chinese spy penetration said the access to both “raw” and analyzed intelligence at Kunia caused significant damage by giving China’s government details on both the targets and the sources of U.S. spying operations. Such information would permit the Chinese to block the eavesdropping or to provide false and misleading “disinformation” to U.S. intelligence.

The redoubtable Bill Gertz has the full story in today’s Washington Times.

Pick a foreign language, any language (except Spanish and Bureaucratese), and I can guarantee that U.S. intelligence has a severe lack of personnel conversant in that tongue. The more critical the language to our intelligence efforts, the worse the shortage.

Take Chinese. The National Security Agency lacks Chinese speakers to translate all the decrypted commuications it picks up. What does it do in response? It hires outside translation services. One of them, unfortunately, was run by Chinese intelligence itself.

Naval intelligence officials familiar with the Chinese spy penetration said the access to both “raw” and analyzed intelligence at Kunia caused significant damage by giving China’s government details on both the targets and the sources of U.S. spying operations. Such information would permit the Chinese to block the eavesdropping or to provide false and misleading “disinformation” to U.S. intelligence.

The redoubtable Bill Gertz has the full story in today’s Washington Times.

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