Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 18, 2011

Bachmann’s Staff Needs to Lighten Up

There are a lot of differences between Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin but perhaps the most obvious one to the public is that the Minnesota Congresswoman hasn’t yet become obsessed by negative press attention in the same manner as the former Alaska governor. While Palin’s public persona has largely become inseparable from her long-running feud with the “lamestream” media, Bachmann has usually turned the other cheek and simply stayed on message. This is smart politics as well as the sign of a more mature personality. But apparently not everyone in the Bachmann entourage is as well adjusted as their candidate. According to Politico, the Bachmann campaign staff is gaining a reputation for its confrontational attitude toward the press that has at times escalated into near violence. The story comes on the heels of previous reports about amateurish staff work by the Bachmann campaign by Politico’s Ben Smith.

The story points out two interesting things about Bachmann’s presidential effort, one flattering and one not so good.

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There are a lot of differences between Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin but perhaps the most obvious one to the public is that the Minnesota Congresswoman hasn’t yet become obsessed by negative press attention in the same manner as the former Alaska governor. While Palin’s public persona has largely become inseparable from her long-running feud with the “lamestream” media, Bachmann has usually turned the other cheek and simply stayed on message. This is smart politics as well as the sign of a more mature personality. But apparently not everyone in the Bachmann entourage is as well adjusted as their candidate. According to Politico, the Bachmann campaign staff is gaining a reputation for its confrontational attitude toward the press that has at times escalated into near violence. The story comes on the heels of previous reports about amateurish staff work by the Bachmann campaign by Politico’s Ben Smith.

The story points out two interesting things about Bachmann’s presidential effort, one flattering and one not so good.

First, if a consensus is forming around the notion that the Bachmann campaign doesn’t know what it’s doing, then it makes her victory in the Ames straw poll all the more amazing since that contest is purely a matter of organizational ability. If she could win the poll with a lousy staff, it is a tribute to her ability to connect with voters. Imagine what she would have done if better help.

The second point to be made here is that Bachmann needs to not only have her people get better organized, she needs to remind them that, contrary to the Palin school of thought, hostility to the press is not a guarantee of success. Though some will disregard this story as purely inside baseball, you can tell a lot about a campaign and a candidate by the way they act in such situations.

While most of the press corps is undoubtedly liberal and may not care for Bachmann, it is her job, and that of her staff to use them to get her message across. Anyone who ever saw John McCain accommodate the press, whether national or local, knows that giving access and maintaining a friendly atmosphere between the campaign and the media can be extremely helpful. It’s also the sign of a confident candidate while paranoia about the press, even when justified to some extent by negative coverage, is the certain mark of a loser.

Taking the focus off of Bachmann, one angle of the Politico story rings true with anyone who’s ever covered a presidential campaign even briefly. Apparently the most aggressive Bachmann staffer is a former Secret Service agent who treats reporters like potential assassins. For understandable reasons, Secret Service agents tend not to see much difference between the working press and a mob of possible killers and media interaction with these agents can be unpleasant and sometimes even painful. While unfortunately tight security for candidates is necessary in this day and age, it is incumbent on campaign staffers to know that there is a difference between the press and the general public. The failure to do so is more than a matter of hurt feelings or bruises suffered by the media. It is the sign of a campaign staff that doesn’t know its job.

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Underestimating Rick Perry

For whatever reason, the media is having a conniption over this video of Rick Perry answering a young boy’s question about evolution during his trip to New Hampshire today. There’s nothing particularly outrageous about Perry’s answer – he explains to the kid that Texas teaches “both evolution and creationism,” which isn’t a secret. But it’s being used to paint Perry as a loose-cannon on the campaign trail.

“Every day that Rick Perry is on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney looks a little more sane by comparison,” howled a New York Magazine article. “When he’s not busy threatening Fed chairman Ben Bernanke or claiming that man-made climate change is a scheme cooked up by scientists in order to secure more funding, Perry is questioning the validity of evolution, as he did at a café in New Hampshire this morning at the behest of a young boy and his weird, manipulative mother.”

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For whatever reason, the media is having a conniption over this video of Rick Perry answering a young boy’s question about evolution during his trip to New Hampshire today. There’s nothing particularly outrageous about Perry’s answer – he explains to the kid that Texas teaches “both evolution and creationism,” which isn’t a secret. But it’s being used to paint Perry as a loose-cannon on the campaign trail.

“Every day that Rick Perry is on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney looks a little more sane by comparison,” howled a New York Magazine article. “When he’s not busy threatening Fed chairman Ben Bernanke or claiming that man-made climate change is a scheme cooked up by scientists in order to secure more funding, Perry is questioning the validity of evolution, as he did at a café in New Hampshire this morning at the behest of a young boy and his weird, manipulative mother.”

It makes me wonder whether some of the snarkier reporters actually watched the whole video. It’s not easy to field questions from a hostile elementary schooler who’s being fed lines by his creepy, stage-whispering activist mother. But Perry actually came out of the exchange looking like a nice, reasonable guy — he even seemed to have won over the child. Liberals are quick to dismiss him as a wing-nut (and he might be one), but they’re underestimating how likable he appears to the average person.

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Uncle Sam Getting Even With S&P

The Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency incurred a storm of criticism earlier this month when it downgraded the United States AAA credit rating. At the time it seemed as if there was nothing that Uncle Sam could do about a decision that seemed to be more about politics than finance but it now appears that the government may get some revenge after all. The Justice Department is investigating whether S&P acted improperly when it gave high ratings to mortgage securities prior to the 2008 financial meltdown.

Though the start of the investigation into the high ratings given to mortgage bonds preceded S&P’s downgrading of the nation’s credit rating the timing of the announcement makes it appear as if the federal government is getting back at the agency. That is probably misleading but the case, if successfully pursued by the Justice Department, does call into question the methods by which an entity such as S&P can impact the markets based on nothing more than the opinion of some of their analysts and managers.

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The Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency incurred a storm of criticism earlier this month when it downgraded the United States AAA credit rating. At the time it seemed as if there was nothing that Uncle Sam could do about a decision that seemed to be more about politics than finance but it now appears that the government may get some revenge after all. The Justice Department is investigating whether S&P acted improperly when it gave high ratings to mortgage securities prior to the 2008 financial meltdown.

Though the start of the investigation into the high ratings given to mortgage bonds preceded S&P’s downgrading of the nation’s credit rating the timing of the announcement makes it appear as if the federal government is getting back at the agency. That is probably misleading but the case, if successfully pursued by the Justice Department, does call into question the methods by which an entity such as S&P can impact the markets based on nothing more than the opinion of some of their analysts and managers.

The case against S&P is based in large part on the allegation that ratings analysts wanted to lower the value of mortgage securities but were prevented from doing so by the machinations of higher-level personnel acting on unspecified motives. Whether or not this is true is a matter for the courts to decide but what the August downgrade of the United States showed was that the removal of the country’s AAA rating had more to do with an arbitrary opinion unrelated to hard fiscal data than any objective analysis of the state of the nation’s finances. The downgrade was, in essence, a financial op-ed intended as a critique of the failure of Congress and the president to do what the agency thought they ought to do about the debt crisis. The case against S&P might lead to the crackup of the current system whereby agencies make such decisions on grounds that might be described as purely capricious.

That said, the attempt to hold the agency responsible for what amounted to a bad bet on securities could also be seen as an attempt to penalize poor judgment as well as a violation of the analysts right of free speech, even if their opinion turned out to be mistaken. Seen in that light the only way for the government to prevail in the civil case against S&P is to prove that the high ratings for the mortgage securities were the result of malfeasance and a conflict of interest. If that is so, then the problem isn’t so much the system but the people who operated it.

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Is the Draft Ryan Movement Really about Ryan?

All of the elite strategists and conservative opinion writers encouraging a Paul Ryan candidacy are making a strong case but not for the Wisconsin congressman. In fact, it’s difficult not to get the impression that, at this early stage, Ryan is a poor (conservative) man’s Mitch Daniels.

Don’t get me wrong—I believe the chorus of Ryan’s backers truly like Ryan, and they mean what they say. But the Indiana governor is the man these Republicans really want. Ryan is young and bright and full of ideas. But the conservative critiques of Obama’s lack of experience were genuine too. Democrats have a history of getting swept away by the sweet words of the Music Man as he promises the Wells Fargo wagon is a-coming down the street. Conservatives loathe such garish displays of fandom. That’s what made Mitch Daniels attractive to conservatives in the first place: he was a man of words and deeds, and proved that conservative solutions can solve severe budget problems.

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All of the elite strategists and conservative opinion writers encouraging a Paul Ryan candidacy are making a strong case but not for the Wisconsin congressman. In fact, it’s difficult not to get the impression that, at this early stage, Ryan is a poor (conservative) man’s Mitch Daniels.

Don’t get me wrong—I believe the chorus of Ryan’s backers truly like Ryan, and they mean what they say. But the Indiana governor is the man these Republicans really want. Ryan is young and bright and full of ideas. But the conservative critiques of Obama’s lack of experience were genuine too. Democrats have a history of getting swept away by the sweet words of the Music Man as he promises the Wells Fargo wagon is a-coming down the street. Conservatives loathe such garish displays of fandom. That’s what made Mitch Daniels attractive to conservatives in the first place: he was a man of words and deeds, and proved that conservative solutions can solve severe budget problems.

A weary Allahpundit pleads, “Tell me how this ends.” (I see he’s also asking the question I’ve been asking anyone who supports a Ryan candidacy: Where, exactly, is the money for this candidacy coming from?) In person, Daniels impressed conservatives at CPAC, and won over (well, sort of) Hendrik Hertzberg. He gave the appearance of a man who could win swing states and perhaps even blue states. (Once New Jersey residents found out Daniels trimmed the wait times at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles from over 40 minutes to less than 10, Garden Staters would swoon.)

OK, he probably wouldn’t win New Jersey. But the point that Daniels’ supporters kept making was that he appealed to voters across partisan lines. And they were, in many cases, correct. But they cannot summon a Ryan candidacy from the wreckage of the failed campaign to draft Daniels. Ryan seems to have a bright career ahead of him. That career is unlikely to benefit, and may even suffer, from a presidential candidacy this year.

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Obama’s Delay Helped Assad

A mere six months after the start of the Syrian uprising, President Obama has finally called for Bashar Assad to step down and imposed tougher sanctions on his regime—but has not yet pulled our ambassador from Damascus. Why did he wait so long?

As I mentioned in a previous post, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained the delay as follows:

“It is not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go,” she said. “Okay, fine, what’s next? If other people say it, if Turkey says it, if (Saudi) King Abdullah says it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”

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A mere six months after the start of the Syrian uprising, President Obama has finally called for Bashar Assad to step down and imposed tougher sanctions on his regime—but has not yet pulled our ambassador from Damascus. Why did he wait so long?

As I mentioned in a previous post, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained the delay as follows:

“It is not going to be any news if the United States says Assad needs to go,” she said. “Okay, fine, what’s next? If other people say it, if Turkey says it, if (Saudi) King Abdullah says it, there is no way the Assad regime can ignore it.”

But of course neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia joined in today’s call for Assad’s departure, which was issued by the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and the European Union. Their declaration is welcome but overdue; it might have made more of a difference months ago, when the protests were first picking up steam and before Assad had been able to marshal an effective and brutal response. One wonders if the Obama administration’s habitual desire to not have the U.S. take the lead has bought the odious Assad regime a fresh lease on life.

Likewise in the case of Libya,  American hesitancy and irresolve have allowed Moammar Qaddafi to hang on far too long. There are now signs that the Qaddafi regime may finally be on its last legs, the rebels having taken possession of the crucial oil refinery at Zawiyah, just a half-hour’s drive from Tripoli. But the delay in getting rid of him has already exacted a cost in more lost lives, more destroyed property—and deeper divisions in Libyan society which will make it all the harder to create stability in Qaddafi’s wake.

On Wall Street it matters not only that you make the right investment picks but that you make them at the right time: if you wait too long a great stock may no longer be a good bargain. The same principle applies in foreign policy: It’s not just a question of making the right policy calls—it’s also a question of making them in a timely manner. That is something this administration seems to struggle with, and the result is that the U.S. appears increasingly left behind by the fast pace of events in the Middle East.

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Not a Jew Among Them

For a seminar that I am teaching tomorrow, I have been rereading Cynthia Ozick’s 1970 essay “Toward a New Yiddish,” reprinted in her collection Art and Ardor.

In passing, she makes a claim that took me aback, because I had never before realized its truth. The 19th-century novel (“essentially the novel”) was described by critics of the time as “exhausted” or “played out.” The French nouveau roman made its way to these shores, “involving not only parody, but game, play, and rite. The novel is now,” Ozick observed, “said to be ‘about itself,’ a ceremony of language.”

So far, so commonplace. But then Ozick points out a difficult truth: “Roth, Bellow, and Malamud, the most celebrated of all [American] Jewish writers, are all accused of continuing to work in ‘exhausted forms.’ ”

Ozick is right, isn’t she? The leading U.S. practitioners of “metafiction” or “self-conscious fiction” or the “anti-novel” were John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William H. Gass, William Gaddis; and then, later, David Foster Wallace.

In a blog post last year, I reeled off the names of other novelists, here and abroad, who had been described at one time or another as “experimental”: Robert M. Coates, Louis Marlow, P. H. Newby, Richard Bankowsky, Rayner Heppenstall, J. P. Donleavy, B. S. Johnson, Ann Quin, R. C. Kenedy, Nicholas Mosley, Mack Thomas, William Eastlake, Alan Burns, Gil Orlovitz, Christine Brooke-Rose, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Robert Coover, John A. Williams, Ronald Sukenick, Stuart Evans, Gilbert Sorrentino, A. G. Mojtabai, Richard Brautigan, Gordon Lish, Eva Figes, Ron Loewinsohn, Frederick Ted Castle, Deena Linett, Harry Mathews, D. M. Thomas, and Tom Marshall.

Not a Jew among them.

Ozick is provocative on the reasons:

The novel at its nineteenth-century pinnacle was a Judaized novel: George Eliot and Dickens and Tolstoy were all touched by the Jewish covenant: they wrote of conduct and of the consequences of conduct: they were concerned with a society of will and commandment. At bottom it is not the old novel as “form” that is being rejected, but the novel as a Jewish force.

These are also, of course, the conditions for its renewal in the hands of such “covenantal” novelists as Francine Prose, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Russo, Roland Merullo, Zoë Heller, Sam Munson, and Dana Spiotta—all of whom, in one way or another, are absorbed with conduct and its consequences. The best novels remain those to which a moral tradition is attached.

For a seminar that I am teaching tomorrow, I have been rereading Cynthia Ozick’s 1970 essay “Toward a New Yiddish,” reprinted in her collection Art and Ardor.

In passing, she makes a claim that took me aback, because I had never before realized its truth. The 19th-century novel (“essentially the novel”) was described by critics of the time as “exhausted” or “played out.” The French nouveau roman made its way to these shores, “involving not only parody, but game, play, and rite. The novel is now,” Ozick observed, “said to be ‘about itself,’ a ceremony of language.”

So far, so commonplace. But then Ozick points out a difficult truth: “Roth, Bellow, and Malamud, the most celebrated of all [American] Jewish writers, are all accused of continuing to work in ‘exhausted forms.’ ”

Ozick is right, isn’t she? The leading U.S. practitioners of “metafiction” or “self-conscious fiction” or the “anti-novel” were John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William H. Gass, William Gaddis; and then, later, David Foster Wallace.

In a blog post last year, I reeled off the names of other novelists, here and abroad, who had been described at one time or another as “experimental”: Robert M. Coates, Louis Marlow, P. H. Newby, Richard Bankowsky, Rayner Heppenstall, J. P. Donleavy, B. S. Johnson, Ann Quin, R. C. Kenedy, Nicholas Mosley, Mack Thomas, William Eastlake, Alan Burns, Gil Orlovitz, Christine Brooke-Rose, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Robert Coover, John A. Williams, Ronald Sukenick, Stuart Evans, Gilbert Sorrentino, A. G. Mojtabai, Richard Brautigan, Gordon Lish, Eva Figes, Ron Loewinsohn, Frederick Ted Castle, Deena Linett, Harry Mathews, D. M. Thomas, and Tom Marshall.

Not a Jew among them.

Ozick is provocative on the reasons:

The novel at its nineteenth-century pinnacle was a Judaized novel: George Eliot and Dickens and Tolstoy were all touched by the Jewish covenant: they wrote of conduct and of the consequences of conduct: they were concerned with a society of will and commandment. At bottom it is not the old novel as “form” that is being rejected, but the novel as a Jewish force.

These are also, of course, the conditions for its renewal in the hands of such “covenantal” novelists as Francine Prose, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Russo, Roland Merullo, Zoë Heller, Sam Munson, and Dana Spiotta—all of whom, in one way or another, are absorbed with conduct and its consequences. The best novels remain those to which a moral tradition is attached.

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Union Protests Becoming Violent

In Michigan last week, a non-union business owner was shot outside his home, and the word “SCAB” etched into the side of his car. In New Jersey, a striking union worker had his young daughter stand in front of an oncoming Verizon truck. In Virginia, phone and cable lines were slashed, cutting off service to Verizon customers in dozens of neighborhoods.

According to Verizon, there have been 202 reports of sabotage and vandalism since workers began striking 12 days ago. Unions have always used strong-arm tactics, but recent protests seem even more violent and fanatical than usual.

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In Michigan last week, a non-union business owner was shot outside his home, and the word “SCAB” etched into the side of his car. In New Jersey, a striking union worker had his young daughter stand in front of an oncoming Verizon truck. In Virginia, phone and cable lines were slashed, cutting off service to Verizon customers in dozens of neighborhoods.

According to Verizon, there have been 202 reports of sabotage and vandalism since workers began striking 12 days ago. Unions have always used strong-arm tactics, but recent protests seem even more violent and fanatical than usual.

And it could be because unions are weakening. In the case of Verizon, the striking members are land-line workers engaged in fight over benefit payments. But the employees don’t have a strong negotiating position, since Verizon isn’t making money off land-line customers. The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle writes that this could be the reason the fight is spiraling out of control:

This situation is pretty much unprecedented as far as I can remember.  Usually union workers are found in the core business of a company–when the company’s fortunes decline, so do the fortunes of the union.  But in this case, the union workers are becoming less valuable every year, even as Verizon is worth more. No wonder this strike seems to be getting so ugly.

Union membership has been decreasing steadily for decades, but it tends to wane even more during economic downturns. Couple that with the recent Wisconsin election failure, and unions are likely legitimately concerned about their future and reputation. That’s the kind of desperation that leads to erratic, even dangerous, behavior.

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Turkey’s Terrorism Hypocrisy

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been a cheerleader for Hamas, providing the vehemently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic terrorist group with aid and comfort. At the same time, he has roundly criticized Israeli efforts to protect her citizens, even accusing Israel’s dovish president Shimon Peres of being a murderer during the Turkish prime minister widely-publicized temper tantrum in Davos, Switzerland.

Now, it seems the shoe is on the other foot. Over the last month, Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] terror attacks have killed upwards of 30 Turks. Turkey has responded with air strikes across the Iraqi border and military action in civilian areas at home.

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been a cheerleader for Hamas, providing the vehemently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic terrorist group with aid and comfort. At the same time, he has roundly criticized Israeli efforts to protect her citizens, even accusing Israel’s dovish president Shimon Peres of being a murderer during the Turkish prime minister widely-publicized temper tantrum in Davos, Switzerland.

Now, it seems the shoe is on the other foot. Over the last month, Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] terror attacks have killed upwards of 30 Turks. Turkey has responded with air strikes across the Iraqi border and military action in civilian areas at home.

Now Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador in Washington, tweets “I strongly condemn the heinous terrorist attack perpetrated today by the PKK which took the lives of 12 Turkish troops.” Well, I do too. But since Tan has been at the forefront of urging dialogue with Hamas, why doesn’t he sit down with the PKK? After all, they have a front-office not far from the Turkish embassy in Washington, DC. If Hamas deserves the trappings of diplomacy, why not apply the same standards to the PKK?

Likewise, perhaps Namik Tan can relate why the Turkish military has been responding with disproportionate force to the PKK attacks? Perhaps this a problem better solved through the United Nations. After all, I’m sure Armenia, Greece, and Cyprus have some ideas they’d like to share, and why shouldn’t they? Turkey should just be thankful they don’t have the oil and gas to buy European, Asian, and South American votes. Perhaps Erdoğan might also be consistent and from an international soapbox tell the Turkish public that he really doesn’t believe it is legal to guarantee their safety?

For the record, I don’t believe any terrorist group deserves diplomatic niceties or the legitimacy that dialogue provides, and that includes both the PKK, its Iranian offshoot PEJAK, and, for that matter, the Mujahedin al-Khalq in Iran. But consistency also matters. Turkey—and Namik Tan especially—have made legitimization of Palestinian terrorists a cornerstone of their diplomatic agenda. I will also mourn those killed by terrorists regardless of their nationality, but it’s just as important for Turkey to recognize the precedent it set, and the blowback legitimization of terrorists brings.

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Why Hamas Plays the Terror Card

One of the big questions in Israel following today’s coordinated terror attack near Eilat in which six Israeli civilians and one Israel Defense Force soldier were murdered is this: Since, as Jonathan wrote earlier, Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and has a great deal of influence over whether other terror groups there launch attacks, why would they allow it? After all, the reasoning goes, at such a sensitive time in negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, as well as talks heating up over the possible release of Gilad Shalit, shouldn’t they want to keep things quiet?

You could, obviously, conclude that this attack, apparently carried out by the Palestinian Resistance Committees (PRC), took place over Hamas’ objections. This is apparently the position of the Israeli government, which retaliated by taking out the top three leaders of the PRC in Gaza via air strikes a few hours ago. In a short statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu in the last hour, he seemed to suggest that there wouldn’t be any further response. (“The people who ordered the attack, and those who carried it out, are no longer alive,” he declared.) It was the PNC, not Hamas, that needed to pay a price.

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One of the big questions in Israel following today’s coordinated terror attack near Eilat in which six Israeli civilians and one Israel Defense Force soldier were murdered is this: Since, as Jonathan wrote earlier, Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and has a great deal of influence over whether other terror groups there launch attacks, why would they allow it? After all, the reasoning goes, at such a sensitive time in negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, as well as talks heating up over the possible release of Gilad Shalit, shouldn’t they want to keep things quiet?

You could, obviously, conclude that this attack, apparently carried out by the Palestinian Resistance Committees (PRC), took place over Hamas’ objections. This is apparently the position of the Israeli government, which retaliated by taking out the top three leaders of the PRC in Gaza via air strikes a few hours ago. In a short statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu in the last hour, he seemed to suggest that there wouldn’t be any further response. (“The people who ordered the attack, and those who carried it out, are no longer alive,” he declared.) It was the PNC, not Hamas, that needed to pay a price.

But there’s another possibility, which is that Hamas has a huge reason to escalate violence from Gaza right now. It’s all about Syria. While President Bashar Assad has continued to slaughter his own people — including Palestinians — the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has been blasting the Assad regime. Hamas, on the other hand, has been totally mum, for the simple reason that they are headquartered in Damascus and rely on the Assad regime. So the PA has taken full advantage of an opportunity to cast itself as the true protectors of Palestinians. Hamas, which has always claimed that protecting Palestinians can happen only through terror, has to remind its people that there’s a war on against Israel, and that we shouldn’t let their silence over Assad’s brutality against Palestinians let anyone get confused as to what’s really important: Brutality against Israelis.

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Israeli Apology to Turkey Would Have Been a Mistake

After months of deliberations, Israel has finally announced that it will offer no apology to Turkey for the 2010 raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship participating in an international flotilla to break the Gaza blockade. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lobbied hard, according to press reports, for an Israeli apology in order to enable reconciliation between Jerusalem and Ankara. Her effort was misguided: Not only was Israel well within its rights to stop the Islamist activists from supplying Hamas, but had Israel apologized, it would have emboldened and empowered Turkey’s increasingly adversarial prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the man who instigated the crisis in the first place.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak who lobbied for the apology should have known better. He was prime minister during the killing of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura incident during a shoot-out between the Israeli Defense Force and Palestinian gunmen. A French cameraman caught the terrified youngster crouching behind his father moments before he was killed, and also caught the aftermath. The video spread like wildfire and al-Dura became an iconical figure for the second Intifada, indeed propelling and prolonging that uprising at the cost of millions of dollars and hundreds of lives. Barak’s government apologized almost immediately for the killing. The only problem was that the Israeli Defense Force hadn’t been the ones who fired the fatal shots. Physically, it wasn’t even possible for them to do so. Years later, an online French media watchdog chronicled how the French camera crew edited the footage to blame Israel and exculpate Palestinians. Yet, because of Barak’s rush to apologize, Israel suffered irreparable harm.

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After months of deliberations, Israel has finally announced that it will offer no apology to Turkey for the 2010 raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship participating in an international flotilla to break the Gaza blockade. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lobbied hard, according to press reports, for an Israeli apology in order to enable reconciliation between Jerusalem and Ankara. Her effort was misguided: Not only was Israel well within its rights to stop the Islamist activists from supplying Hamas, but had Israel apologized, it would have emboldened and empowered Turkey’s increasingly adversarial prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the man who instigated the crisis in the first place.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak who lobbied for the apology should have known better. He was prime minister during the killing of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura incident during a shoot-out between the Israeli Defense Force and Palestinian gunmen. A French cameraman caught the terrified youngster crouching behind his father moments before he was killed, and also caught the aftermath. The video spread like wildfire and al-Dura became an iconical figure for the second Intifada, indeed propelling and prolonging that uprising at the cost of millions of dollars and hundreds of lives. Barak’s government apologized almost immediately for the killing. The only problem was that the Israeli Defense Force hadn’t been the ones who fired the fatal shots. Physically, it wasn’t even possible for them to do so. Years later, an online French media watchdog chronicled how the French camera crew edited the footage to blame Israel and exculpate Palestinians. Yet, because of Barak’s rush to apologize, Israel suffered irreparable harm.

Likewise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should know better than to apologize. Madeleine Albright, secretary of state during her husband’s second term, made headlines by apologizing to the Islamic Republic for the U.S. role in the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq. Putting aside the irony of apologizing to the clerical class that opposed Musaddiq even more fervently than the United States, the Iranian leadership responded by demanding reparations and repercussions, complicating efforts at rapprochement rather than furthering them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has had its share of self-inflicted wounds. Thankfully, appeasing Turkey’s Vladimir Putin will not be among them.

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The Terrorist State on Israel’s Doorstep

The coordinated attacks this morning on both civilian and army targets near Eilat, Israel demonstrate again that the presence of a safe haven for terrorists on the country’s borders is a standing invitation to mayhem. Preliminary reports say that the origin of the attackers was Gaza and that they used the lax security in Egyptian-controlled Sinai to launch the assault that left seven Israelis dead.

While, as Michael wrote earlier today, this raises questions about the willingness of post-Mubarak Egypt to keep the peace along its long border with Israel, it also highlights the fact that Hamas and its iron-fist rule over Gaza constitutes the main obstacle to peace. So long as terrorists can fire missiles or launch terror strikes from the relative safety of Hamasistan, Israelis can never rest easy. Nor, it should be added, can Israel’s supposed peace partners in the Palestinian Authority.

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The coordinated attacks this morning on both civilian and army targets near Eilat, Israel demonstrate again that the presence of a safe haven for terrorists on the country’s borders is a standing invitation to mayhem. Preliminary reports say that the origin of the attackers was Gaza and that they used the lax security in Egyptian-controlled Sinai to launch the assault that left seven Israelis dead.

While, as Michael wrote earlier today, this raises questions about the willingness of post-Mubarak Egypt to keep the peace along its long border with Israel, it also highlights the fact that Hamas and its iron-fist rule over Gaza constitutes the main obstacle to peace. So long as terrorists can fire missiles or launch terror strikes from the relative safety of Hamasistan, Israelis can never rest easy. Nor, it should be added, can Israel’s supposed peace partners in the Palestinian Authority.

Today’s atrocity is being widely condemned but it is more likely than not to be dismissed as just another wildcat terror operation that shouldn’t distract the world from a campaign on pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. Yet Hamas’s reminder that it can unleash terrorists on cross-border raids anytime it likes ought to be taken into consideration by those United Nations member states who are being asked to vote this fall to recognize an independent Palestinian state without it first being required to make peace with Israel. The independent terror state in Gaza is a warning to the world of what a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Jerusalem may become.

Israeli forces are already preparing for the possibility of a third intifada this fall in the wake of the inevitable failure of the Palestinian Authority’s UN gambit. Though the PA is clearly afraid of demonstrations getting out of hand and has sought to coordinate security efforts with the Israelis, Hamas remains the wild card in all of these discussions. Should Hamas make a concerted effort to escalate the level of violence in order to enhance their credibility as a political force the results could be unpredictable. Their strength is the fact that although the PA leadership is too insecure to really make peace, Hamas believes it is invulnerable in its fortified Gaza enclave.

The Israeli military believes that it can contain and even deter Hamas, as today’s counter-strikes against terror targets in Gaza prove, but the Islamist group may think Israel won’t try another full-scale assault on Gaza as it did in December 2008. The challenge for Prime Minister Netanyahu is to re-establish that deterrence and send a message to Hamas that it can be hurt — and hurt badly — should it continues these provocations while Israel is also conducting a diplomatic offensive on the statehood issue at the UN. Though Israelis are understandably concerned about the prospect of a diplomatic setback in New York next month, dealing with a terror state on its doorstep remains a higher priority.

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Jersey Credit Downgrade Helps Christie

When Standard & Poor’s downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating in February, no one even feigned surprise. It was only a matter of time before the major ratings agencies continued to express their disapproval of what had become the customary mode of Democratic governance in the state: spend union money to get elected, raise taxes and renegotiate public collective bargaining agreements to reward them, and pray that you’re out of office when the inevitable complete collapse of the state’s finances occurs.

Lather, rinse, repeat. But then something started to change. I covered New Jersey politics throughout Chris Christie’s rise, and when he ran for governor reporters started having conversations with union members that went something like this:

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When Standard & Poor’s downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating in February, no one even feigned surprise. It was only a matter of time before the major ratings agencies continued to express their disapproval of what had become the customary mode of Democratic governance in the state: spend union money to get elected, raise taxes and renegotiate public collective bargaining agreements to reward them, and pray that you’re out of office when the inevitable complete collapse of the state’s finances occurs.

Lather, rinse, repeat. But then something started to change. I covered New Jersey politics throughout Chris Christie’s rise, and when he ran for governor reporters started having conversations with union members that went something like this:

Reporter: On the record, who are you going to vote for?

Teacher’s union member: Jon Corzine.

Reporter: OK, off the record, who are you going to vote for?

Teacher: Chris Christie.

These exchanges were almost unthinkable before 2009. Yet during that election, they were extremely common. We would ask teachers why they were voting for Christie when he wanted to cut their benefits, and the answer would come back almost invariably: “Because I can’t let my greed ruin my children’s future.” The tide had begun to turn.

That was one indication of just how bad the situation was. Another indication came yesterday, when a second ratings agency, Fitch, downgraded the state’s credit just as S&P had in February. But this downgrade, much to the chagrin of Democrats looking to saddle Christie with the blame (as Republicans have blamed the U.S. downgrade on President Obama), may be the most significant stroke of luck Christie has yet received.

According to Fitch, “Despite recent, significant action to contain future growth in the state’s accumulated pension liability, continued funding level deterioration is projected through the medium term as full funding of the actuarially required contributions is phased in, resulting in sizeable increases in annually required contributions.”

Christie’s reforms have constituted a great first step, but they don’t go far enough. Christie has been making that argument as Democrats in the state legislature have been signaling that for any additional such measures, Christie may have to go it alone. It’s an understandable political position to take, since Christie’s reforms tend to target the Democrats’ locus of support.

But Christie’s political capital has always come from the public. His approval ratings are climbing after he signed his controversial budget, and the reason he received so much help from Democrats in the legislature was that he had won the argument over the state’s finances and the public blamed the Democrats’ intransigence for the fact that action wasn’t taken earlier. That public support gave Christie the political cover he needed to enact reforms, and it gave that same political cover to Democrats who worked with him (even when it cost them powerful union endorsements).

The Fitch downgrade makes it clear that Christie and the legislature cannot yet rest on their laurels. Christie now has a ready-made justification to keep up the pressure.

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Even Obama Deserves a Vacation

The president’s 10-day trip to Martha’s Vinyard has been drawing predictable fire from conservatives, who say he should be in Washington dealing with the economic crisis. It’s not exactly clear what Obama could be doing to help the situation, especially with Congress out of town on recess. But that didn’t stop Mitt Romney from taking a shot at the president yesterday.

“If you’re the president of the United States and the nation is in crisis — and we’re in a jobs crisis right now — then you shouldn’t be out vacationing. Instead, you should be focusing on getting the economy going again,” said the candidate.

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The president’s 10-day trip to Martha’s Vinyard has been drawing predictable fire from conservatives, who say he should be in Washington dealing with the economic crisis. It’s not exactly clear what Obama could be doing to help the situation, especially with Congress out of town on recess. But that didn’t stop Mitt Romney from taking a shot at the president yesterday.

“If you’re the president of the United States and the nation is in crisis — and we’re in a jobs crisis right now — then you shouldn’t be out vacationing. Instead, you should be focusing on getting the economy going again,” said the candidate.

So WWRD? “The first thing I’d do is go back to my office immediately,” said Romney, and “pull back members of Congress [from their vacations] and focus on getting the job done.”

You can argue that Obama’s ritzy vacation is bad optics, but from a practical standpoint it’s hard to criticize him. He might be at a summer house, but his job doesn’t end when he leaves Washington — he still gets regular briefings, is in touch with his advisors, and there’s Air Force One if he needs to hop a quick flight back to the White House.

There’s also an argument to be made for Congress taking a recess. They need to spend some time seeing their constituents face-to-face and getting feedback.

Plus, Romney wasn’t so virtuously opposed to vacations when he was serving as governor. Like Obama, Romney was actually criticized for taking trips during a budget crisis in the summer of 2006. “Romney heads out of state despite budget concerns” read one AP headline:

His 10-day window for acting on the budget expires Monday, when Romney is expected to be on vacation in New Hampshire. …

Asked Thursday if it was proper for him to travel out of state given that concern, Romney said at a Statehouse news conference, “Yes.”

He then added: “I’ve done a complete review and provided that to my staff. We’ve reviewed in some depth the various requests that come our way and I have some additional questions. There will be a number of things we can’t begin to get the kind of information on that we would have expected the Legislature to provide if they felt it was important to have my support.”

In another July, 2006 AP story, Romney was also attacked for missing a health care deadline because he was out of town:

He dismissed questions about whether his regular absences from the Statehouse have undercut negotiations. Romney returned Monday night after spending a long weekend at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, and leaves at midday Friday for a speech in South Carolina and a President’s Day holiday visit to his vacation home in Utah.

“The Senate President and the Speaker of the House know that I’m available at the drop of a hat,” Romney said.

The same is true for Obama. Obviously there are times when it’s unacceptable for the president to go on vacation — when he needs to be in town for negotiations, to sign laws, or to deal with imminent threats. But during the August lulls — despite the bad economic news — it’s hard to fault him.

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Yale Exposes Social Security Numbers to Google

I was surprised to receive a letter yesterday from Len Peters, chief information officer at Yale University, informing me:

…A Yale computer file that contained your name and Social Security number was stored for 10 months in a way that left it accessible to Google Internet searches… The computer file was created in 1999 and was inadvertently moved to an insecure section of a computer server in July 2005. At that point, the file was no longer fully protected but could not be located by an ordinary Internet search engine. The situation changed in September 2010, when Google modified its search engine in a way that allowed it to locate files stored on servers like the one holding this file.

The letter is disturbing for a number of reasons.

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I was surprised to receive a letter yesterday from Len Peters, chief information officer at Yale University, informing me:

…A Yale computer file that contained your name and Social Security number was stored for 10 months in a way that left it accessible to Google Internet searches… The computer file was created in 1999 and was inadvertently moved to an insecure section of a computer server in July 2005. At that point, the file was no longer fully protected but could not be located by an ordinary Internet search engine. The situation changed in September 2010, when Google modified its search engine in a way that allowed it to locate files stored on servers like the one holding this file.

The letter is disturbing for a number of reasons.

While Yale is doing the standard thing to provide a free membership in an identity protection service, nowhere does Mr. Peters explain why and for what purpose Yale maintains a database (let alone an insecure one!) of names and social security numbers.  According to the Yale Daily News, Yale exposed 43,000 names and social security numbers.  During my nine years at Yale, I certainly saw that Yale administrators and employees did not maintain the highest professional standards. By July 2005, I had not had a relationship with Yale for more than five years, nor am I a donor to Yale University for a number of reasons stemming from insight I gained about waste during a brief time in which I was exposed to some administrative functions. What possible reason does Yale—in effect, a multi-billion dollar enterprise—have for holding onto such private information?

Mr. Peters does not explain what consequence will befall the employee(s) who treated such sensitive files so cavalierly, although that’s par for the course in Yale’s culture, where accountability is not a priority. After all, while Peters writes the problem was discovered when Google culled the information, Google is the tool of lazy criminals. Hackers are more skilled than “an ordinary Internet search engine” and yet Yale made alumni information vulnerable to them for six (!) years.

The episode should also raise greater privacy concerns about Google. Yale notes that neither Bing nor Yahoo were able to access the database, but that Google had adjusted its technology to access servers such as Yale’s. It’s against this backdrop that after more than a year swatting down privacy concerns, Yale University enabled Google to run its email system.

Something stinks in New Haven, and it’s not just the uncollected trash or the exhaust from the inevitable traffic back-up on I-95 and I-91. Yale could start righting wrongs by purging the social security numbers of all students or past employees the moment they end their university affiliation.

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Why We Criticize Friends and Foes

My comments critical of what Texas Governor Rick Perry said about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have sparked a number of stories that the “Bushies” are lining up against Governor Perry based on some intra-Texas feud. For what it’s worth, I’ve never met Governor Perry and have nothing against him. I’m impressed with his governing record and his skills as a retail politician (though I will confess that I haven’t followed his career closely). And I didn’t coordinate my comments with anyone, including any former Bush aides. My post was in reaction to what John (who did not work in the George W. Bush administration) wrote, with some sites ascribing his words to me. As is often the case, then, real life is somewhat less interesting (and less well-organized) than conspiracy theories.

In any event, the Perry incident does touch on a deeper matter having to do with the mindset that animates political criticisms. Let me explain what I mean.

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My comments critical of what Texas Governor Rick Perry said about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have sparked a number of stories that the “Bushies” are lining up against Governor Perry based on some intra-Texas feud. For what it’s worth, I’ve never met Governor Perry and have nothing against him. I’m impressed with his governing record and his skills as a retail politician (though I will confess that I haven’t followed his career closely). And I didn’t coordinate my comments with anyone, including any former Bush aides. My post was in reaction to what John (who did not work in the George W. Bush administration) wrote, with some sites ascribing his words to me. As is often the case, then, real life is somewhat less interesting (and less well-organized) than conspiracy theories.

In any event, the Perry incident does touch on a deeper matter having to do with the mindset that animates political criticisms. Let me explain what I mean.

Many of us who are politically active find ourselves drawn to either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, to conservatism or liberalism. That is where we find ourselves at home politically and intellectually. It’s where many of our (like-minded) friends are and where we find support and encouragement. And so we find ourselves siding with one “team” or the other. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, clustering of this kind is quite normal. We all do it in different areas of our lives (religious beliefs, hobbies, fields of interests, et cetera).

The tension that sometimes arises is when someone with whom we are in sympathy with says or does something wrong or inappropriate. At that point, people react differently. Some folks are inclined to overlook the mistake, believing that we should train all of our critical comments toward the other team. The argument is that it is imperative to beat the other side in order to do what is best for the country — and so whatever differences we might have with those who share our philosophical perspective should be muted.

More than that, though, many of us are simply predisposed to be more critical of those who hold political views different than ourselves. It’s not so much that there’s a conscious double standard at work; it’s that the double standard is unconscious. We’re simply less offended if someone who shares our philosophical point of view uses hyper-partisan and acidic language to describe his opponents. And so if a liberal Member of Congress refers to the Tea Party Movement a  “terrorists,” liberals are relatively untroubled, since they view the Tea Party as a pernicious force in American life. The same thing is true of many conservatives. While liberals who refer to Tea Party members as “suicide bombers” and the “Hezbollah wing of the GOP” may enrage them they’ll excuse the charge that the Federal Reserve chairman is acting in an “almost treasonous” fashion as nothing more than “indulging in irrational exuberance” or “Texas trash talk.”

The truth is we’re all susceptible to this. We’re all inclined to cut our political allies more slack than we do our adversaries. And none of us can claim perfect detachment, perfect distance, on these matters. The question, I think, is the degree to which we attempt to override our pre-dispositions in the name of intellectual integrity. It isn’t easy — but on reflection, in our calmer moments, most of us would agree that it’s what genuine fair-mindedness demands.

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Obama’s Too Late on Assad

After several months of dithering President Obama has finally issued a call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. But coming as it does only after Assad seems to have successfully suppressed Syrian protesters in a bloody crackdown, Obama’s statement is clearly too little and too late. Hundreds of Syrians have been slaughtered in the streets while the United States refused to take action or even speak roughly of Assad until recently.

Had the United States come out quickly and forcefully called for Assad’s resignation it might have had some impact on the situation. Certainly, it might have encouraged protesters and soldiers and security personnel who would be asked to kill their fellow countrymen. And it might have led to more pressure from the rest of the Arab world that could have also offset Iran’s all-out push to save their ally. But Obama’s characteristic indecision contributed to Assad’s belief that he was safe from foreign pressure and encouraged him to unleash his armed forces on critics in a manner that wasn’t tried when dictators fell earlier this year in Tunisia and Egypt. No matter what Obama or Secretary of State Clinton said today, the administration’s decision to give Assad a pass earlier this year materially contributed to his bloodstained victory in the streets of Syria.

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After several months of dithering President Obama has finally issued a call for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down. But coming as it does only after Assad seems to have successfully suppressed Syrian protesters in a bloody crackdown, Obama’s statement is clearly too little and too late. Hundreds of Syrians have been slaughtered in the streets while the United States refused to take action or even speak roughly of Assad until recently.

Had the United States come out quickly and forcefully called for Assad’s resignation it might have had some impact on the situation. Certainly, it might have encouraged protesters and soldiers and security personnel who would be asked to kill their fellow countrymen. And it might have led to more pressure from the rest of the Arab world that could have also offset Iran’s all-out push to save their ally. But Obama’s characteristic indecision contributed to Assad’s belief that he was safe from foreign pressure and encouraged him to unleash his armed forces on critics in a manner that wasn’t tried when dictators fell earlier this year in Tunisia and Egypt. No matter what Obama or Secretary of State Clinton said today, the administration’s decision to give Assad a pass earlier this year materially contributed to his bloodstained victory in the streets of Syria.

Though Obama has sought to reach out to the Arab and Muslim world repeatedly throughout his presidency, his inaction on Syria shows he clueless he still is. For too long this administration bought into the myth that Assad’s minority Alawite regime could be pried away from the embrace of its powerful Iranian ally. The intention all along was to bribe the Syrians into joining the Arab moderates. Israel would pay the bribe in the form of the Golan Heights that would be surrendered to Assad’s regime as part of a general peace deal.

But was Assad was never the “moderate” that Obama and Clinton believed him to be. Syria never had any interest in peace with Israel or giving up its alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Peace with Israel would undermine the dictatorship’s raison d’être and the friendship of a potentially nuclear Iran and its terrorist auxiliaries always struck Assad as more valuable than even that of the United States.

Yet despite the clear signs that Assad was in trouble, both Obama and Clinton clung to their illusions about him being a key to the peace process with which they are obsessed and ignored more sensible advice about taking a tough stance on Syria. In the end, they were forced by the spectacle of Assad’s horrible revenge on his critics (the very same thing that Obama said had motivated him to intervene in Libya) to say what they should have said long ago when it might have made a difference.

Rather than enhance the chances of peace or win friends in the Arab world what Obama and Clinton have done is to help keep in place one of the men who are the prime obstacles to Middle East peace and sent Syrian protesters the message that you can’t count on the United States.

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What Does It Mean to Be “Well-Read”?

Over at the World Book Night blog, Julia (first name only, please) asks what it means to be “well-read.” The question is a good one, especially at a time when university English departments have dropped any requirement to study Shakespeare. (Chaucer and Milton? Don’t make me laugh.)

Julia’s answer is not a good one, however:

To me being well read is about exploration and an open mindedness that will take you beyond your comfort zone to discover new things. We all have our own reading journeys — and that’s what W[orld] B[ook] N[ight] is really about, helping people along their own particular path, encouraging people back to reading who for whatever reason have given it up and giving those who’ve never given it a go the chance to discover it. We all start at roughly the same place (Very Hungry Caterpillar for many) but then diversify enormously. . . . Sure there are some “must-see sights” along the way but if you’ve given Dickens a go and found you didn’t get on then it’s far better to shrug and try something else instead than give up reading completely, but equally it doesn’t matter how much you read if you never give anything out of the ordinary for you a go.

There is a lot to criticize in this short paragraph, but two ideas are especially popular fallacies of the moment. In reverse order: first, that reading is intransitive (“back to reading”), an activity that can be pursued without an object, like running or dinner table conversation; and second, that being well-read is somehow “about exploration and open-mindedness.”

To read nothing in particular is an impossibility. Reading in general — what I have taken to abusing as “book enthusiasm” — is no better than cooking in general. I have friends who “love to cook,” but when it comes to preparing lasagna or ratatouille, they make a hash of it. The fallacy of intransitive reading is first cousin to the conception of reading as a set of skills and techniques that can be developed through drill and instruction. E. D. Hirsch Jr. explains the fallacy:

The skill idea becomes an oversimplification as soon as students start reading for meaning. . . . The trouble is that reading for meaning is a different sort of game entirely. It is different every time, depending on what the piece of writing is about. Every text, even the most elementary, implies information that it takes for granted and doesn’t explain. Knowing such information is the decisive skill of reading.

And that’s the trouble with reading as “exploration.” To read well is to read for meaning. To become well-read is to acquire the knowledge that makes it possible to read things “out of the ordinary for you.” Enthusiastic readers who plunge into the jungle of literature without map or compass, without a knowledge of the books that have served for decades as maps and compasses, will get hopelessly lost. Nor will being “open-minded” help them much. Here’s J. V. Cunningham:

This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.

But he could always shrug, I suppose, and try something else than Dickens. A Handful of Dust, perhaps?

Over at the World Book Night blog, Julia (first name only, please) asks what it means to be “well-read.” The question is a good one, especially at a time when university English departments have dropped any requirement to study Shakespeare. (Chaucer and Milton? Don’t make me laugh.)

Julia’s answer is not a good one, however:

To me being well read is about exploration and an open mindedness that will take you beyond your comfort zone to discover new things. We all have our own reading journeys — and that’s what W[orld] B[ook] N[ight] is really about, helping people along their own particular path, encouraging people back to reading who for whatever reason have given it up and giving those who’ve never given it a go the chance to discover it. We all start at roughly the same place (Very Hungry Caterpillar for many) but then diversify enormously. . . . Sure there are some “must-see sights” along the way but if you’ve given Dickens a go and found you didn’t get on then it’s far better to shrug and try something else instead than give up reading completely, but equally it doesn’t matter how much you read if you never give anything out of the ordinary for you a go.

There is a lot to criticize in this short paragraph, but two ideas are especially popular fallacies of the moment. In reverse order: first, that reading is intransitive (“back to reading”), an activity that can be pursued without an object, like running or dinner table conversation; and second, that being well-read is somehow “about exploration and open-mindedness.”

To read nothing in particular is an impossibility. Reading in general — what I have taken to abusing as “book enthusiasm” — is no better than cooking in general. I have friends who “love to cook,” but when it comes to preparing lasagna or ratatouille, they make a hash of it. The fallacy of intransitive reading is first cousin to the conception of reading as a set of skills and techniques that can be developed through drill and instruction. E. D. Hirsch Jr. explains the fallacy:

The skill idea becomes an oversimplification as soon as students start reading for meaning. . . . The trouble is that reading for meaning is a different sort of game entirely. It is different every time, depending on what the piece of writing is about. Every text, even the most elementary, implies information that it takes for granted and doesn’t explain. Knowing such information is the decisive skill of reading.

And that’s the trouble with reading as “exploration.” To read well is to read for meaning. To become well-read is to acquire the knowledge that makes it possible to read things “out of the ordinary for you.” Enthusiastic readers who plunge into the jungle of literature without map or compass, without a knowledge of the books that have served for decades as maps and compasses, will get hopelessly lost. Nor will being “open-minded” help them much. Here’s J. V. Cunningham:

This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.

But he could always shrug, I suppose, and try something else than Dickens. A Handful of Dust, perhaps?

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Stewart Skewers Schultz for False Race-Baiting Charge

CONTENTIONS readers know that I’m a fan of Jon Stewart. If you want to better understand why, watch this fantastic clip (courtesy of mediaite.com), where Stewart, John Oliver, and Wyatt Cenac have fun mocking MSNBC’s Ed Schultz for his race-baiting charge against Governor Rick Perry. The brilliance of this bit is that it exposes a deeper truth, which is that some on the left are freakishly eager to accuse conservatives of racism (in this instance, accusing Perry of racism for referring to the “that big, black cloud that hangs over America” — even though Perry’s full comment makes it clear he’s referring to our national debt).

The other thing that needs to be noted, once again, is that Stewart, while certainly liberal, has an impressive ability to call out liberals for saying ridiculous, stupid, and offensive things. He sees these biases in ways that many other journalists do not. Leave it to America’s finest comedian to become a model for media fairness.

CONTENTIONS readers know that I’m a fan of Jon Stewart. If you want to better understand why, watch this fantastic clip (courtesy of mediaite.com), where Stewart, John Oliver, and Wyatt Cenac have fun mocking MSNBC’s Ed Schultz for his race-baiting charge against Governor Rick Perry. The brilliance of this bit is that it exposes a deeper truth, which is that some on the left are freakishly eager to accuse conservatives of racism (in this instance, accusing Perry of racism for referring to the “that big, black cloud that hangs over America” — even though Perry’s full comment makes it clear he’s referring to our national debt).

The other thing that needs to be noted, once again, is that Stewart, while certainly liberal, has an impressive ability to call out liberals for saying ridiculous, stupid, and offensive things. He sees these biases in ways that many other journalists do not. Leave it to America’s finest comedian to become a model for media fairness.

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Did Egyptian Security Turn a Blind Eye to Terror?

A well-coordinated and multi-tiered terrorist attack struck southern Israel today, targeting public buses and private vehicles. The attack is troubling for a number of reasons. If the unholy alliance between the Egyptian military and Muslim Brotherhood leads Egyptian security elements to turn a blind eye toward terrorists infiltrating the Sinai peninsula, it could both lead to great insecurity in the region and reinforce the feeling of many Israelis that the land for peace formula which provided the basis for all peace talks since Camp David brings not peace, but greater vulnerability to terrorism.

A well-coordinated and multi-tiered terrorist attack struck southern Israel today, targeting public buses and private vehicles. The attack is troubling for a number of reasons. If the unholy alliance between the Egyptian military and Muslim Brotherhood leads Egyptian security elements to turn a blind eye toward terrorists infiltrating the Sinai peninsula, it could both lead to great insecurity in the region and reinforce the feeling of many Israelis that the land for peace formula which provided the basis for all peace talks since Camp David brings not peace, but greater vulnerability to terrorism.

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One in Four Isn’t Good Enough for Obama

According to Gallup, only 26 percent of Americans approve of President Obama’s handling of the economy, down 11 percentage points since Gallup last measured it in mid-May and well below his previous low of 35 percent in November 2010. Fewer than one in four independents (23 percent) approve of Mr. Obama’s performance on the economy and only slightly more than half of all Democrats (53 percent) do.

The president earns similarly low approval for his handling of the federal budget deficit (24 percent) and creating jobs (29 percent). Mr. Obama’s overall approval rating is now right around 40 percent (three months ago it was around 50 percent).

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According to Gallup, only 26 percent of Americans approve of President Obama’s handling of the economy, down 11 percentage points since Gallup last measured it in mid-May and well below his previous low of 35 percent in November 2010. Fewer than one in four independents (23 percent) approve of Mr. Obama’s performance on the economy and only slightly more than half of all Democrats (53 percent) do.

The president earns similarly low approval for his handling of the federal budget deficit (24 percent) and creating jobs (29 percent). Mr. Obama’s overall approval rating is now right around 40 percent (three months ago it was around 50 percent).

The last three months have simply been awful ones for the president. Economic growth is virtually non-existent, consumer confidence is collapsing, the unemployment remains above 9 percent, the share of the eligible population holding a job is now at the lowest level since the early 1980s, and the housing market is crippled, with housing prices about one-third of what they were five years ago. All of which raises this question: what on earth were those 26 percent of Americans who approve of Obama’s handling of the economy thinking?

If come November 2012 anything close to only one in four Americans approve of his handling of the economy, Barack Obama not only won’t be re-elected president; he couldn’t be elected dog catcher of Hyde Park.

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