Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 16, 2008

Beyond Spin

The ABC This Week’s roundtable (running the political gamut from George Will to Donna Brazile) was unanimous on several points: Reverend Wright is a significant problem for Barack Obama, the Democrats are in a bloody war (Brazile says so bloody not even “bleach” can remove it) and Hillary Clinton’s chances for the nomination rest on her ability to demonstrate that Obama is unelectable in the general election. All of this is complicated, they reminded us, by rules crafted so oddly as to prevent a decisive winner. As George Will put it, the Democrats have gone from “an embarrassment of riches to an embarrassment.”

Many conservatives may be concerned that somehow the liberal media will sweep the last couple of days’ events under the rug and Obama will sail on. As exemplified by the ABC panel, I see no substantial risk of this happening. Once Americans saw and heard Wright’s remarks, we went beyond the ability of even the most dogged partisans in the media to spin it in a way that would extract their favored candidate from the predicament he is in.

This is not an extraneous point of policy or something beyond the ability of average people to assess. Millions of voters go to church and synagogue and don’t hear this sort of venomous talk, and would leave if they did. Everyone can ask themselves: If he went to Wright’s church for 20 years, how likely is it that he heard this stuff, and what does his continued attendance say about him? It simply isn’t possible to wish it all away and hope voters don’t notice.

The ABC This Week’s roundtable (running the political gamut from George Will to Donna Brazile) was unanimous on several points: Reverend Wright is a significant problem for Barack Obama, the Democrats are in a bloody war (Brazile says so bloody not even “bleach” can remove it) and Hillary Clinton’s chances for the nomination rest on her ability to demonstrate that Obama is unelectable in the general election. All of this is complicated, they reminded us, by rules crafted so oddly as to prevent a decisive winner. As George Will put it, the Democrats have gone from “an embarrassment of riches to an embarrassment.”

Many conservatives may be concerned that somehow the liberal media will sweep the last couple of days’ events under the rug and Obama will sail on. As exemplified by the ABC panel, I see no substantial risk of this happening. Once Americans saw and heard Wright’s remarks, we went beyond the ability of even the most dogged partisans in the media to spin it in a way that would extract their favored candidate from the predicament he is in.

This is not an extraneous point of policy or something beyond the ability of average people to assess. Millions of voters go to church and synagogue and don’t hear this sort of venomous talk, and would leave if they did. Everyone can ask themselves: If he went to Wright’s church for 20 years, how likely is it that he heard this stuff, and what does his continued attendance say about him? It simply isn’t possible to wish it all away and hope voters don’t notice.

Read Less

Bookshelf

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

Read Less

Vulnerable North Korea

“There’s a growing understanding of the issues that need to be resolved,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill after meeting with his North Korean counterpart in Geneva late last week. Washington’s chief negotiator at the six-party talks was doing his best to show progress in the inconclusive negotiations to disarm Kim Jong Il’s abhorrent state. To date, Pyongyang has shown little inclination to provide a full accounting of its nuclear weapons programs in compliance with a prior agreement to do so by the end of last year.

A weakened Bush administration appears to be at a loss as to what to do in the face of the North’s recent intransigence. In the first week of this month, Hill imposed a March-end deadline on Pyongyang to honor its commitments, but it is apparent that the announced due date is meaningless and that the United States will impose no penalty for a failure to meet his timeline.

Diplomacy may require patience, but it certainly works best with the threat of coercion, especially where rogues armed with dangerous weapons are involved. Analysts say there is no military option against North Korea. Even if this notion is correct—which it is not—the tolerance of the President is a fundamental mistake. Events over the past several weeks show that Washington is not playing its strongest cards at an important moment.

An unseasonably warm and dry winter is adversely affecting the North’s autumn crop of wheat and barley. This abnormal weather comes on top of last August’s devastating floods. As a result, the UN’s World Food Program expects a larger-than-usual shortfall in North Korea’ harvest. Surging grain prices on global markets do not help Kim Jong Il. Moreover, both China and South Korea have substantially reduced shipments of food and fertilizer to the North Korean regime. “For Kim Jong Il, this will be his most difficult year,” says Park Syung-je of the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul.

The key is the new South Korean government. President Lee Myung-bak has announced that Seoul’s aid will be closely tied to Pyongyang’s adherence to its pledges of disarmament. Moreover, Lee, who travels to Washington in the middle of April, wants to align his North Korean polices with Washington’s. This means that the South will largely abandon the approaches of his predecessors, namely the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung and the nearly identical Peace and Prosperity Policy of Roh Moo-hyun. Seoul’s new approach isolates China and makes it the sole supporter of North Korea. This permits the United States to put Beijing on the spot.

So the Bush administration has new tools to coerce Pyongyang and, more importantly, Beijing. The main issue, therefore, is whether Washington has the will to use them.

“There’s a growing understanding of the issues that need to be resolved,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill after meeting with his North Korean counterpart in Geneva late last week. Washington’s chief negotiator at the six-party talks was doing his best to show progress in the inconclusive negotiations to disarm Kim Jong Il’s abhorrent state. To date, Pyongyang has shown little inclination to provide a full accounting of its nuclear weapons programs in compliance with a prior agreement to do so by the end of last year.

A weakened Bush administration appears to be at a loss as to what to do in the face of the North’s recent intransigence. In the first week of this month, Hill imposed a March-end deadline on Pyongyang to honor its commitments, but it is apparent that the announced due date is meaningless and that the United States will impose no penalty for a failure to meet his timeline.

Diplomacy may require patience, but it certainly works best with the threat of coercion, especially where rogues armed with dangerous weapons are involved. Analysts say there is no military option against North Korea. Even if this notion is correct—which it is not—the tolerance of the President is a fundamental mistake. Events over the past several weeks show that Washington is not playing its strongest cards at an important moment.

An unseasonably warm and dry winter is adversely affecting the North’s autumn crop of wheat and barley. This abnormal weather comes on top of last August’s devastating floods. As a result, the UN’s World Food Program expects a larger-than-usual shortfall in North Korea’ harvest. Surging grain prices on global markets do not help Kim Jong Il. Moreover, both China and South Korea have substantially reduced shipments of food and fertilizer to the North Korean regime. “For Kim Jong Il, this will be his most difficult year,” says Park Syung-je of the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul.

The key is the new South Korean government. President Lee Myung-bak has announced that Seoul’s aid will be closely tied to Pyongyang’s adherence to its pledges of disarmament. Moreover, Lee, who travels to Washington in the middle of April, wants to align his North Korean polices with Washington’s. This means that the South will largely abandon the approaches of his predecessors, namely the Sunshine Policy of Kim Dae Jung and the nearly identical Peace and Prosperity Policy of Roh Moo-hyun. Seoul’s new approach isolates China and makes it the sole supporter of North Korea. This permits the United States to put Beijing on the spot.

So the Bush administration has new tools to coerce Pyongyang and, more importantly, Beijing. The main issue, therefore, is whether Washington has the will to use them.

Read Less

The Disgrace of Honor Killings

Israeli news agencies have been awash with new reports of Arab women being assaulted or murdered by members of their own family. “Family honor,” they call it.

Among many Palestinians and in much of the Arab world, when a woman enters a relationship with someone whom her family does not approve of, she takes her life into her hands. Recently we learned of a 19-year-old from the Israeli-Arab town of Naura, who sustained two gunshot wounds to her head and played dead until paramedics arrived, as she listened to her brother getting congratulated by his family. Then there was Nadi Abu-Amr, who was kidnapped and murdered by her three brothers and her uncle in November 2007. Her crime? She refused to marry the man she was engaged to. According to one of the suspects, she was “slaughtered” because she “deserved to die.”

And today’s Haaretz reports that Sara Abu-Ghanem, age 40, from the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramla, miraculously sustained only light injuries to her head and neck when an unidentified assailant opened fire on her. Abu-Ghanem, whose crime was falling in love with a Jewish man, is part of an extended family in which 9 women have been murdered in recent years. A week ago, Kamil Abu-Ghanem was sentenced to 16 years in prison for murdering his sister Hamda. But this happened only after 20 of the family’s women defied the men’s orders and testified to police about the killings.

There is no clearer indicator of a “clash of civilizations” than the prevalence of honor killings in the Arab world. With all due respect to pluralism, universalism, and respect for the Other, here is a piece of intolerance that can unite all of us, left and right, liberal and conservative. The idea that one’s relationships are one’s own business is a cornerstone of liberal thinking. That a disapproved-of relationship justifies murder — that one should take pride in killing one’s own sister because of it — well, that’s just way, way outside the pale of anything we Westerners can handle. Honor killings are so shocking to even the most tolerant among us, that one wonders why the West has failed to express its moral outrage.

One problem with honor killings is that they are not easily confined into a single religious sub-sect, and to raise the issue may be to defame a whole culture or civilization, and Westerners haven’t been into that lately. Whatever George Bush was able to achieve by not blaming terrorism on Islam broadly defined, he can never do with honor killings in the Arab world. This is exactly the kind of phenomenon that Western diplomacy cannot handle, for it suggests so great a cultural gap—a moral gap—as to bring an end to the compromise and the compulsive smoothing-over that seems to be a prerequisite for a long career at State.

A close aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once caused a stir when he suggested that the Palestinians will get their state only when they “become Finns.” Liberals do not like statements like that, because it reeks of prejudice, generalization, even racism. But what is one to do with a culture that celebrates the butchering of its family members? That treats women as literal slaves?

And more uncomfortably still: Is the West really doing a good deed by empowering such a culture with statehood?

Israeli news agencies have been awash with new reports of Arab women being assaulted or murdered by members of their own family. “Family honor,” they call it.

Among many Palestinians and in much of the Arab world, when a woman enters a relationship with someone whom her family does not approve of, she takes her life into her hands. Recently we learned of a 19-year-old from the Israeli-Arab town of Naura, who sustained two gunshot wounds to her head and played dead until paramedics arrived, as she listened to her brother getting congratulated by his family. Then there was Nadi Abu-Amr, who was kidnapped and murdered by her three brothers and her uncle in November 2007. Her crime? She refused to marry the man she was engaged to. According to one of the suspects, she was “slaughtered” because she “deserved to die.”

And today’s Haaretz reports that Sara Abu-Ghanem, age 40, from the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramla, miraculously sustained only light injuries to her head and neck when an unidentified assailant opened fire on her. Abu-Ghanem, whose crime was falling in love with a Jewish man, is part of an extended family in which 9 women have been murdered in recent years. A week ago, Kamil Abu-Ghanem was sentenced to 16 years in prison for murdering his sister Hamda. But this happened only after 20 of the family’s women defied the men’s orders and testified to police about the killings.

There is no clearer indicator of a “clash of civilizations” than the prevalence of honor killings in the Arab world. With all due respect to pluralism, universalism, and respect for the Other, here is a piece of intolerance that can unite all of us, left and right, liberal and conservative. The idea that one’s relationships are one’s own business is a cornerstone of liberal thinking. That a disapproved-of relationship justifies murder — that one should take pride in killing one’s own sister because of it — well, that’s just way, way outside the pale of anything we Westerners can handle. Honor killings are so shocking to even the most tolerant among us, that one wonders why the West has failed to express its moral outrage.

One problem with honor killings is that they are not easily confined into a single religious sub-sect, and to raise the issue may be to defame a whole culture or civilization, and Westerners haven’t been into that lately. Whatever George Bush was able to achieve by not blaming terrorism on Islam broadly defined, he can never do with honor killings in the Arab world. This is exactly the kind of phenomenon that Western diplomacy cannot handle, for it suggests so great a cultural gap—a moral gap—as to bring an end to the compromise and the compulsive smoothing-over that seems to be a prerequisite for a long career at State.

A close aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert once caused a stir when he suggested that the Palestinians will get their state only when they “become Finns.” Liberals do not like statements like that, because it reeks of prejudice, generalization, even racism. But what is one to do with a culture that celebrates the butchering of its family members? That treats women as literal slaves?

And more uncomfortably still: Is the West really doing a good deed by empowering such a culture with statehood?

Read Less

What Do They Do Now?

Some intellectually honest liberals are starting to realize that the Reverend Wright problem is a significant one for Barack Obama. From The New Republic:

It’s also clear that the question of whether Obama was present for those particular sermons now in the news isn’t really the issue. Wright’s oft-iterated political worldview, which apparently includes the belief that the US created AIDS to keep the Third World in poverty, should be quite apparent to anyone who knows him as well as Obama does. . .This is really bad news for Obama, both in the primary and if he makes it to the general. He’s worked successfully to escape the image of the “angry black man,” and here he is linked to that image in the most emotionally searing way.

From Gerald Posner at Huffington Post(h/t Instapundit):

If the parishioners of Trinity United Church were not buzzing about Reverend Wright’s post 9/11 comments, then it could only seem to be because those comments were not out of character with what he preached from the pulpit many times before. In that case, I have to wonder if it is really possible for the Obamas to have been parishioners there – by 9/11 they were there more than a decade – and not to have known very clearly how radical Wright’s views were. If, on the other hand, parishioners were shocked by Wright’s vitriol only days after more than 3,000 Americans had been killed by terrorists, they would have talked about it incessantly. Barack – a sitting Illinois State Senator – would have been one of the first to hear about it. . . .

But Barack now claims he never heard about any of this until after he began his run for the presidency, in February, 20007.And even if Barack is correct – and I desperately want to believe him – then it still does not explain why, when he learned in 2007 of Wright’s fringe comments about 9/11 and other subjects, the campaign did not then disassociate itself from the Reverend. Wright was not removed from the campaign’s Spiritual Advisory Committee until two days ago, and it appears likely that nothing would have been done had this story not broken nationally.

Well, where does this leave the Democrats now? Had this happened in January the party would have different and better options. But here we are in March with a 100 plus delegate lead for Obama.

Possible but not likely: This all blows over in a day or so, none of this impacts Obama’s appeal among white voters, he sails to the nomination, and this is a non-issue in the general election since most voters don’t see that there’s much of anything wrong with what Reverend Wright said. Yeah, right. (This scenario becomes more likely only if the writers go back on strike for the rest of the year, and SNL and the late night talk shows shut down.)

Possible but more likely: Obama hangs on to his lead, but a revived Hillary Clinton (now emboldened that the Democratic establishment will abandon Obama) takes her fight to the bitter end. Obama eventually wins the nomination after a bloody fight. The 527’s run hundreds of ads in the general election with Obama’s picture and the text of Wright’s sermons.

Also possible: Obama’s poll numbers begin to tank, Clinton wins all the remaining primaries except North Carolina, the superdelegates throw in their lot with her and a lot of really angry Obama supporters make a very big stink about racial politics.

Everyone can choose their favorite scenario, but you can bet the damage is significant when even the Clinton camp figures it’s better to leave well enough alone.

Some intellectually honest liberals are starting to realize that the Reverend Wright problem is a significant one for Barack Obama. From The New Republic:

It’s also clear that the question of whether Obama was present for those particular sermons now in the news isn’t really the issue. Wright’s oft-iterated political worldview, which apparently includes the belief that the US created AIDS to keep the Third World in poverty, should be quite apparent to anyone who knows him as well as Obama does. . .This is really bad news for Obama, both in the primary and if he makes it to the general. He’s worked successfully to escape the image of the “angry black man,” and here he is linked to that image in the most emotionally searing way.

From Gerald Posner at Huffington Post(h/t Instapundit):

If the parishioners of Trinity United Church were not buzzing about Reverend Wright’s post 9/11 comments, then it could only seem to be because those comments were not out of character with what he preached from the pulpit many times before. In that case, I have to wonder if it is really possible for the Obamas to have been parishioners there – by 9/11 they were there more than a decade – and not to have known very clearly how radical Wright’s views were. If, on the other hand, parishioners were shocked by Wright’s vitriol only days after more than 3,000 Americans had been killed by terrorists, they would have talked about it incessantly. Barack – a sitting Illinois State Senator – would have been one of the first to hear about it. . . .

But Barack now claims he never heard about any of this until after he began his run for the presidency, in February, 20007.And even if Barack is correct – and I desperately want to believe him – then it still does not explain why, when he learned in 2007 of Wright’s fringe comments about 9/11 and other subjects, the campaign did not then disassociate itself from the Reverend. Wright was not removed from the campaign’s Spiritual Advisory Committee until two days ago, and it appears likely that nothing would have been done had this story not broken nationally.

Well, where does this leave the Democrats now? Had this happened in January the party would have different and better options. But here we are in March with a 100 plus delegate lead for Obama.

Possible but not likely: This all blows over in a day or so, none of this impacts Obama’s appeal among white voters, he sails to the nomination, and this is a non-issue in the general election since most voters don’t see that there’s much of anything wrong with what Reverend Wright said. Yeah, right. (This scenario becomes more likely only if the writers go back on strike for the rest of the year, and SNL and the late night talk shows shut down.)

Possible but more likely: Obama hangs on to his lead, but a revived Hillary Clinton (now emboldened that the Democratic establishment will abandon Obama) takes her fight to the bitter end. Obama eventually wins the nomination after a bloody fight. The 527’s run hundreds of ads in the general election with Obama’s picture and the text of Wright’s sermons.

Also possible: Obama’s poll numbers begin to tank, Clinton wins all the remaining primaries except North Carolina, the superdelegates throw in their lot with her and a lot of really angry Obama supporters make a very big stink about racial politics.

Everyone can choose their favorite scenario, but you can bet the damage is significant when even the Clinton camp figures it’s better to leave well enough alone.

Read Less




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