Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 28, 2011

A Mountain of Unread Writing

No one at all reads literary scholarship, and there is far too much poetry for any human being to read. Or, in other words, two of the three legs of literary culture’s three-legged stool are wobbling dangerously. And fiction, the remaining leg, has been sawed in half — “genre” fiction has been taken away for a different project, and only “literary” fiction remains.

The problem, as I’ve said before, is one of markets. Over the past three decades literary scholars, poets, and writers of “literary” fiction have responded rationally to economic opportunities and limitations. But those opportunities have been almost entirely opportunities for careers in university departments of English. The literary market has been reduced to academic committees — hiring committees, tenure committees, salary committees, promotion committees — none of which considers sales or readership (or, in the case of literary scholarship, citations by other scholars) in reaching its decisions.

As the poet Dana Gioia wrote two decades ago in the Atlantic:

The proliferation of literary journals and presses over the past 30 years has been a response less to an increased appetite for poetry among the public than to the desperate need of writing teachers for professional validation. Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed.

Literature in America has become a fully subsidized market. Among literary scholars, in fact, the ideology of production is exactly the reverse of Dr. Johnson’s: no man but a blockhead writes for money. There is respect and honor in writing for specialized journals that no one reads, although every university library in the country subscribes to them. There is only compromise and superficiality in writing to be read. Scholars are judged on the bulk and prestige of their CV’s, not the originality and influence of their research and writing.

The literary scholar Mark Bauerlein is devastating on “The Research Bust” in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

[A]fter four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?

When he must propose a solution to the problem, however, Bauerlein falls back upon fantasies of institutional reform: “The time has come . . . for [English] departments firmly to declare the counterpoint: ‘No! We ask for less because we judge on quality, not quantity. We are raising standards, not lowering them [by reducing the demand for publication].’ ”

If possible, the critic Robert Archambeau is even more cavalier in addressing American poetry’s “problem of the multitude.” There is so much to read that even those who are devoted to contemporary poetry “must tune out certain presses, journals, styles, schools, forms, or even generations,” he observes. There is simply “no way to keep track of the multitude of new books,” no way to sort good from mediocre. What to do? What to do? Archambeau shrugs:

The multitude is the condition of American poetry in our time. The problem of the multitude, though, exists only for poets ambitious for recognition, and readers who wish to feel they can read everything worth reading.

Abandon all literary ambition, in short, along with any practical means of literary evaluation. And what becomes of poetry under this new “condition,” then? It becomes pretty much the same as electronic gaming. It is an absorbing hobby with a lot of participants and no audience.

The real problem is not in the institutions with which writers and scholars affiliate themselves and make careers. The real problem is in the thinking behind academic affiliation and career advancement. Writers and scholars have severed their ties with ordinary readers and placed their fate in the hands of a bureaucratized elite. The class that rules the institutions of literary life in America establish and uphold the standards by which writing and scholarship are to be judged, and inevitably these are the standards that confirm and expand their own authority.

There is another conception of literary authority, however, in which authority derives from a literary tradition, which entails faithfulness to experience and responsibility to an audience. The tradition of the 19th-century novel, for example, is still rewarded in the marketplace. Who knows but that a return to the tradition of Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson might not do the same for American poetry, or a return to the tradition of Lionel Trilling and Yvor Winters might not do the same for literary scholarship? Poets and scholars will have to stop writing for committees and return to writing for readers — actual readers, ideal readers — if they have any hope of repairing their legs of the stool.

No one at all reads literary scholarship, and there is far too much poetry for any human being to read. Or, in other words, two of the three legs of literary culture’s three-legged stool are wobbling dangerously. And fiction, the remaining leg, has been sawed in half — “genre” fiction has been taken away for a different project, and only “literary” fiction remains.

The problem, as I’ve said before, is one of markets. Over the past three decades literary scholars, poets, and writers of “literary” fiction have responded rationally to economic opportunities and limitations. But those opportunities have been almost entirely opportunities for careers in university departments of English. The literary market has been reduced to academic committees — hiring committees, tenure committees, salary committees, promotion committees — none of which considers sales or readership (or, in the case of literary scholarship, citations by other scholars) in reaching its decisions.

As the poet Dana Gioia wrote two decades ago in the Atlantic:

The proliferation of literary journals and presses over the past 30 years has been a response less to an increased appetite for poetry among the public than to the desperate need of writing teachers for professional validation. Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers. And in the process the integrity of the art has been betrayed.

Literature in America has become a fully subsidized market. Among literary scholars, in fact, the ideology of production is exactly the reverse of Dr. Johnson’s: no man but a blockhead writes for money. There is respect and honor in writing for specialized journals that no one reads, although every university library in the country subscribes to them. There is only compromise and superficiality in writing to be read. Scholars are judged on the bulk and prestige of their CV’s, not the originality and influence of their research and writing.

The literary scholar Mark Bauerlein is devastating on “The Research Bust” in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

[A]fter four decades of mountainous publication, literary studies has reached a saturation point, the cascade of research having exhausted most of the subfields and overwhelmed the capacity of individuals to absorb the annual output. Who can read all of the 80 items of scholarship that are published on George Eliot each year? After 5,000 studies of Melville since 1960, what can the 5,001st say that will have anything but a microscopic audience of interested readers?

When he must propose a solution to the problem, however, Bauerlein falls back upon fantasies of institutional reform: “The time has come . . . for [English] departments firmly to declare the counterpoint: ‘No! We ask for less because we judge on quality, not quantity. We are raising standards, not lowering them [by reducing the demand for publication].’ ”

If possible, the critic Robert Archambeau is even more cavalier in addressing American poetry’s “problem of the multitude.” There is so much to read that even those who are devoted to contemporary poetry “must tune out certain presses, journals, styles, schools, forms, or even generations,” he observes. There is simply “no way to keep track of the multitude of new books,” no way to sort good from mediocre. What to do? What to do? Archambeau shrugs:

The multitude is the condition of American poetry in our time. The problem of the multitude, though, exists only for poets ambitious for recognition, and readers who wish to feel they can read everything worth reading.

Abandon all literary ambition, in short, along with any practical means of literary evaluation. And what becomes of poetry under this new “condition,” then? It becomes pretty much the same as electronic gaming. It is an absorbing hobby with a lot of participants and no audience.

The real problem is not in the institutions with which writers and scholars affiliate themselves and make careers. The real problem is in the thinking behind academic affiliation and career advancement. Writers and scholars have severed their ties with ordinary readers and placed their fate in the hands of a bureaucratized elite. The class that rules the institutions of literary life in America establish and uphold the standards by which writing and scholarship are to be judged, and inevitably these are the standards that confirm and expand their own authority.

There is another conception of literary authority, however, in which authority derives from a literary tradition, which entails faithfulness to experience and responsibility to an audience. The tradition of the 19th-century novel, for example, is still rewarded in the marketplace. Who knows but that a return to the tradition of Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson might not do the same for American poetry, or a return to the tradition of Lionel Trilling and Yvor Winters might not do the same for literary scholarship? Poets and scholars will have to stop writing for committees and return to writing for readers — actual readers, ideal readers — if they have any hope of repairing their legs of the stool.

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Not a Parody: Head of Arab League Monitors in Syria Led Darfur Genocide

The notion that the Arab League was going to stand up for human rights in Syria was always somewhat farcical. This is, after all, a group that has numbered among its members some of the worst tyrants in the world and which has supported terrorist groups so long as their targets were Jews and not Arab oligarchs. Nevertheless the world applauded when the League turned on Bashar Assad’s murderous Syrian regime and viewed its offer of placing monitors to ensure that the violence there ended. But in case anyone in the West is actually paying attention to the slaughter in Syria, the identity of the head of that peace mission ought to pour cold water on the idea that it will do much to help alleviate human rights abuses.

As David Kenner reports in Foreign Policy, the head of the mission is none other than Sudanese General Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi. Al-Dabi just happens to be the man who created the murderous janjaweed militias that were the principal perpetrators in the Darfur genocide. So we should take his claims that the Assad government has so far been “very cooperative” and that all is going well in the country where thousands of have been slaughtered by the regime with a shovelful of South Sudanese salt.

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The notion that the Arab League was going to stand up for human rights in Syria was always somewhat farcical. This is, after all, a group that has numbered among its members some of the worst tyrants in the world and which has supported terrorist groups so long as their targets were Jews and not Arab oligarchs. Nevertheless the world applauded when the League turned on Bashar Assad’s murderous Syrian regime and viewed its offer of placing monitors to ensure that the violence there ended. But in case anyone in the West is actually paying attention to the slaughter in Syria, the identity of the head of that peace mission ought to pour cold water on the idea that it will do much to help alleviate human rights abuses.

As David Kenner reports in Foreign Policy, the head of the mission is none other than Sudanese General Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi. Al-Dabi just happens to be the man who created the murderous janjaweed militias that were the principal perpetrators in the Darfur genocide. So we should take his claims that the Assad government has so far been “very cooperative” and that all is going well in the country where thousands of have been slaughtered by the regime with a shovelful of South Sudanese salt.

His boss, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, for which al-Dabi also bears no small responsibility.  He founded the janjaweed during his service as the regime’s head of military operations from 1996-1999. Since then he has served al-Bashir loyally in a number of different job, including some diplomatic postings.

The irony of sending a war criminal to try and stop the commission of war crimes is lost on the Arab League. It is also lost on Syria’s dissidents who continue to be killed and harassed by the government with the so-called monitors doing nothing.

President Obama has done his best to ignore the ongoing massacre of protesters in Syria and, like many others in the West, seems content to let the Arabs sort out the mess there without much fuss from the United States. But al-Dabi’s role in this farce should serve as a reminder that Assad is counting on a quiescent Arab world and its Iranian ally to survive. If he does, along with the new Egypt, Syria will be more proof that the Arab Spring’s promise of democracy has turned out to be a sad delusion.

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For Whom Does the Taliban Ring Tone Toll?

How alarmed should we be by this Wall Street Journal article reporting on the brisk sale of Taliban songs and ring tones in Kabul? Even anti-Taliban residents of the capital feel compelled to have them on their cell phones in case they are stopped by a Taliban checkpoint which, the article claims, are common only an hour’s drive from the city center. The Journal reporters note:

“If you are going 30 or 60 miles outside of Kabul, you will surely find Taliban on the road,” said a member of President Hamid Karzai’s government. “If you have Indian music or Afghan music ringtones, they will tell you that you are not obeying Islamic rules and, in most cases, break our mobiles.”

This official said that whenever he leaves Kabul, he routinely carries two SIM cards for his cell phone. One contains the numbers of Afghan leaders, Western officials, military officers and other contacts he needs to do his job. The other is the Taliban-safe SIM card that he pops into his phone outside the capital.

Obviously this is cause for concern — but hardly panic. After all in Iraq, during the bad years (roughly 2004-2007), it was common for insurgent hit squads and checkpoints (sometimes under the color of Iraqi police units) to operate right in the capital city itself. Baghdad was in fact one of the biggest killing fields in the entire country before the surge took effect.
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How alarmed should we be by this Wall Street Journal article reporting on the brisk sale of Taliban songs and ring tones in Kabul? Even anti-Taliban residents of the capital feel compelled to have them on their cell phones in case they are stopped by a Taliban checkpoint which, the article claims, are common only an hour’s drive from the city center. The Journal reporters note:

“If you are going 30 or 60 miles outside of Kabul, you will surely find Taliban on the road,” said a member of President Hamid Karzai’s government. “If you have Indian music or Afghan music ringtones, they will tell you that you are not obeying Islamic rules and, in most cases, break our mobiles.”

This official said that whenever he leaves Kabul, he routinely carries two SIM cards for his cell phone. One contains the numbers of Afghan leaders, Western officials, military officers and other contacts he needs to do his job. The other is the Taliban-safe SIM card that he pops into his phone outside the capital.

Obviously this is cause for concern — but hardly panic. After all in Iraq, during the bad years (roughly 2004-2007), it was common for insurgent hit squads and checkpoints (sometimes under the color of Iraqi police units) to operate right in the capital city itself. Baghdad was in fact one of the biggest killing fields in the entire country before the surge took effect.

Kabul, by contrast, is relatively secure — notwithstanding the occasional Haqqani Network atrocity. Many of the surrounding areas are secure too, e.g. Parwan Province to the northwest, whose Tajik and HAZARA population is immune to the lure of the Taliban. The trouble really starts in the east and south where coalition forces have not been present in enough density to guarantee security. In particular Logar, Wardak and Ghazni provinces, all south of Kabul, have been and remain prime Taliban areas because so few American troops have been deployed there.

The NATO plan was always to secure Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south and then transition the main effort to eastern Afghanistan and to the area around the capital itself. If Gen. John Allen is given the forces he needs, there is little doubt that he can implement this plan with considerable success. But there is considerable doubt now as to whether he will get the forces he needs — or whether President Obama will declare a premature pullout which will leave the Taliban in control of areas an hour’s drive from Kabul. If we do depart too soon it will be a disaster — and those Taliban checkpoints will start inexorable closing in on Kabul itself.

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Why the “Establishment” Opposes Gingrich

“Winning Our Future,” a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich, has released an ad that complains that the “Republican establishment” and the “liberal Republican establishment” want to “pick our next candidate” — and that candidate is not the “principled conservative,” Newt Gingrich.

I understand the theory behind the ad. The avalanche of attacks being leveled against Gingrich need to be framed in a way that celebrates his virtues. The argument is that the much-reviled Republican “establishment” is afraid of an authentic conservative. And so the establishment is terrified of Gingrich. The problem is that much of the establishment that has been critical of Gingrich consists of principled conservatives, including George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Mona Charen, Rich Lowry, Jennifer Rubin and our own John Podhoretz. Mark Steyn (a frequent guest host for Rush Limbaugh) and Ann Coulter (author of Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America) have been ferocious critics of Gingrich. In what way are they RINOs (“Republicans in Name Only”)?

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“Winning Our Future,” a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich, has released an ad that complains that the “Republican establishment” and the “liberal Republican establishment” want to “pick our next candidate” — and that candidate is not the “principled conservative,” Newt Gingrich.

I understand the theory behind the ad. The avalanche of attacks being leveled against Gingrich need to be framed in a way that celebrates his virtues. The argument is that the much-reviled Republican “establishment” is afraid of an authentic conservative. And so the establishment is terrified of Gingrich. The problem is that much of the establishment that has been critical of Gingrich consists of principled conservatives, including George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Mona Charen, Rich Lowry, Jennifer Rubin and our own John Podhoretz. Mark Steyn (a frequent guest host for Rush Limbaugh) and Ann Coulter (author of Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America) have been ferocious critics of Gingrich. In what way are they RINOs (“Republicans in Name Only”)?

To complicate things further: many of the so-called Republican establishment desperately wanted Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Representative Paul Ryan to enter the race, figures whom the “establishment” considers more conservative, reliable, and disciplined than Gingrich. And to complicate things even further: if there is one person in the race who qualifies as “the establishment,” it’s Newton Leroy Gingrich.

Here’s the real story: some influential conservatives oppose Newt Gingrich because they care about conservatism and believe Gingrich would do harm to the cause. Many people who worked with and for Gingrich admire certain things about him — but would never cast a vote for him to be president. They have concerns about his temperament, grandiosity and ego, and lack of discipline. Still others oppose Gingrich because they don’t believe he can win a general election.

Now these concerns may be right and they may be wrong. But it’s wrong to argue that figures like George Will and magazines like National Review oppose Gingrich because they know he is a “principled conservative” while they are unprincipled RINOs who choose their candidates based on whether it ingratiates them with the liberal political class. What we have is a genuine and deep difference of opinion. That happens in primaries. And to pretend that opposition to Gingrich is based on fears that he is too much of a principled conservative is a fantasy. It is more nearly the opposite.

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The Dangers of Obama’s Drone Dependence

It’s a good thing Barack Obama is president. For one reason at least: If he were not in the White House, and a Republican was, you can bet that influential Democrats would be doing their utmost to block or curtail the use of armed drones in the nation’s war on terrorists.

That thought is prompted by this lengthy Washington Post article [] which examines the growing use of such unmanned strikes under Obama’s watch. Reporter Greg Miller notes:

Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals….

Obama was sworn into office in 2009, the nation’s clandestine drone war was confined to a single country, Pakistan, where 44 strikes over five years had left about 400 people dead, according to the New America Foundation. The number of strikes has since soared to nearly 240, and the number of those killed, according to conservative estimates, has more than quadrupled.

While undoubtedly effective, those strikes are increasingly raising questions about extra-judicial killings and the authority under which they are conducted.

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It’s a good thing Barack Obama is president. For one reason at least: If he were not in the White House, and a Republican was, you can bet that influential Democrats would be doing their utmost to block or curtail the use of armed drones in the nation’s war on terrorists.

That thought is prompted by this lengthy Washington Post article [] which examines the growing use of such unmanned strikes under Obama’s watch. Reporter Greg Miller notes:

Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals….

Obama was sworn into office in 2009, the nation’s clandestine drone war was confined to a single country, Pakistan, where 44 strikes over five years had left about 400 people dead, according to the New America Foundation. The number of strikes has since soared to nearly 240, and the number of those killed, according to conservative estimates, has more than quadrupled.

While undoubtedly effective, those strikes are increasingly raising questions about extra-judicial killings and the authority under which they are conducted.

As Miller further notes: “The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.”

You can bet that those legal concerns would be front and center in media coverage and would be used by Hill Democrats in an attempt to block further strikes — if Obama weren’t president. The fact that a liberal Democratic commander-in-chief is ordering such strikes gives them political and legal insulation that they may not necessarily enjoy in future administrations.

Even from an operational standpoint, however, there is reason to doubt Obama’s heavy emphasis on these strikes. First there is a danger of backlash — that targeted killings may undermine and discredit moderate leaders in places like Pakistan while causing the populace to sympathize with radicals being targeted, much as Nazi bombing during the Battle of Britain simply drove the British people closer to their government. To my mind that is not a big danger at the moment because moderate leaders don’t enjoy any real power in places like Pakistan or Yemen, and because the benefits of strikes in disrupting Al Qaeda operations so far outweigh any public relations costs.

But there is another danger as well — that by choosing to kill so many militants we lose an opportunity to capture and interrogate them and thereby to unravel the networks to which they belong. Miller hints at this problem when he writes: “The escalation of the lethal drone campaign under Obama was driven to an extent by early counterterrorism decisions. Shuttering the CIA’s detention program and halting transfers to Guantanamo Bay left few options beyond drone strikes or detention by often unreliable allies.”

The administration needs to overcome its squeamishness about transfers to Gitmo and to start more effectively utilizing the system of military tribunals which is in place to try captured terrorist suspects. Otherwise there is a real danger of leaning too much on one pillar of counter-terrorism policy — drone strikes. However effective and however justified (and I remain a strong supporter of the program carried out by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command), it cannot be the be all and end all of our efforts to counter terrorist groups.

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Hamas Leader’s Tour Theme: Fight “Judaization” of Jerusalem

The tour of Arab capitals being conducted by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh should throw cold water on the idea that the Hamas-Fatah unity pact will result in greater Palestinian flexibility and willingness to make peace with Israel. Haniyeh, who was in Cairo yesterday as part of his triumphant journey through the Middle East, made it clear that Hamas’ priority remains heating up the conflict with the Jewish state. By using the visit to call upon Muslims and Arabs to fight against what he called the “Judaization” of Jerusalem, the leader of the Gaza-based terror movement shone a spotlight on a new phase of incitement toward violence.

In attempting to rally Muslims to “defend” the city against the Jews, Haniyeh is following in the footsteps of past generations of Islamist leaders who sought to foment violence against Jewish targets. Considering that Hamas’ declared goal is the eviction of Jews from all of the Jewish state, his declaration that Israel is planning an “ethnic cleansing” of the city and, indeed, the whole country, rings false. But, coming as it did at the end of the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the Jewish effort to hold onto their capital and holy places, his statements ought to sober up any Israelis who thought the unity pact might heighten the chances for peace.

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The tour of Arab capitals being conducted by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh should throw cold water on the idea that the Hamas-Fatah unity pact will result in greater Palestinian flexibility and willingness to make peace with Israel. Haniyeh, who was in Cairo yesterday as part of his triumphant journey through the Middle East, made it clear that Hamas’ priority remains heating up the conflict with the Jewish state. By using the visit to call upon Muslims and Arabs to fight against what he called the “Judaization” of Jerusalem, the leader of the Gaza-based terror movement shone a spotlight on a new phase of incitement toward violence.

In attempting to rally Muslims to “defend” the city against the Jews, Haniyeh is following in the footsteps of past generations of Islamist leaders who sought to foment violence against Jewish targets. Considering that Hamas’ declared goal is the eviction of Jews from all of the Jewish state, his declaration that Israel is planning an “ethnic cleansing” of the city and, indeed, the whole country, rings false. But, coming as it did at the end of the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the Jewish effort to hold onto their capital and holy places, his statements ought to sober up any Israelis who thought the unity pact might heighten the chances for peace.

This “anti-Judaization” campaign is part and parcel of a concerted effort by both Hamas and its “moderate” Fatah allies to deny Jewish history and the authenticity of the millennia-old claim of the Jewish people to their capital. This same week, the announcement that a tourist center might be built on the site of the ancient City of David in Jerusalem where archeologists have made important discoveries about the history of the ancient Davidic kingdom generated protests. Palestinian Arabs are offended that this significant historical treasure will be preserved not just because it sits in a part of the city where many Arabs live but also because its presence reaffirms the historical claims of Israel and the Jews to the place.

Last week, another proof of the authenticity of biblical history was provided when the Israeli Antiquities Authority put on display a rare clay seal that was used to authenticate the purity of ritual objects used in the Second Temple which was discovered near the Western Wall. Israeli Cabinet member Limor Livnat called the find “a seal of verification of our right to the Land of Israel.” Her colleague, Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, also rightly pointed out “these excavations could not have taken place without Israeli sovereignty.”

The point here is not just that Hamas seeks to destroy the State of Israel but that it is also trying to eradicate Jewish history. Many conquerors in the past have attempted to strip Jerusalem of its Jewish identity, but the ancient capital of the Jewish state and Jewish life cannot be “Judaized.” Haniyeh claims he is trying to build support for embattled Muslims in the city but his listeners must know that the last 41 years of Israeli sovereignty over the city is the only time in its history when there has been full religious freedom there. His goal is to end that era and replace it with an Islamist reign of terror. To the extent that any shift in tactics on Hamas’ part causes the West to drop its designation of the organization as a terror group, they will be aiding his campaign against the peace of Jerusalem.

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Nelson’s Retirement Makes a GOP Senate in 2013 More Likely

Yesterday’s announcement that Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson will not seek re-election next year was a stunning blow to a Democratic Party that had already been facing an uphill battle to retain their narrow majority in the upper house. Nelson is the seventh Democrat to retire in 2012. And as is the case with seats in Virginian, North Dakota and Wisconsin, Nelson’s exit creates another opportunity for a Republican gain. It’s arguable that Nelson would likely have lost next year anyway as a consequence of his vote for Obamacare, but the incumbent’s withdrawal now moves the seat from a “leans GOP” to “likely GOP” in any analysis of the coming battle for the Senate next November.

But the main point to be gleaned from this news is not just that the odds of Mitch McConnell assuming the post of Senate Majority Leader in January 2013 have increased. Rather, it is to point out to Republicans that despite their well-publicized dissatisfaction with their choices for president, with an unpopular incumbent president presiding over a sinking economy, the stage is still set for a big GOP triumph in 2012. Provided that is, they don’t nominate a presidential candidate who will not only allow Obama to be re-elected but sink the Republican opportunity to regain majorities in both the House and Senate.

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Yesterday’s announcement that Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson will not seek re-election next year was a stunning blow to a Democratic Party that had already been facing an uphill battle to retain their narrow majority in the upper house. Nelson is the seventh Democrat to retire in 2012. And as is the case with seats in Virginian, North Dakota and Wisconsin, Nelson’s exit creates another opportunity for a Republican gain. It’s arguable that Nelson would likely have lost next year anyway as a consequence of his vote for Obamacare, but the incumbent’s withdrawal now moves the seat from a “leans GOP” to “likely GOP” in any analysis of the coming battle for the Senate next November.

But the main point to be gleaned from this news is not just that the odds of Mitch McConnell assuming the post of Senate Majority Leader in January 2013 have increased. Rather, it is to point out to Republicans that despite their well-publicized dissatisfaction with their choices for president, with an unpopular incumbent president presiding over a sinking economy, the stage is still set for a big GOP triumph in 2012. Provided that is, they don’t nominate a presidential candidate who will not only allow Obama to be re-elected but sink the Republican opportunity to regain majorities in both the House and Senate.

To conservatives who scoff at the notion that electing Republicans ought to be a higher priority over choosing solid conservatives rather than moderates, it should be pointed out that the alternative–Democratic control of Congress–would be a disaster for their movement. Obamacare was made possible not just by the election of a Democrat to the White House but his carrying along majorities in both the House and the Senate. Repeal of that measure will not happen unless Obama is defeated while Republicans retain the House and seize the Senate.

Keeping that goal in mind does not mean that conservatives must acquiesce to the nomination of any candidate with an R after their name, even if he is an incumbent. Tea Party favorites like Marco Rubio won races against Democrats after beating moderates. But it means that the GOP must guard against throwing away certain victories, as in Nevada with Sharon Angle and in Delaware with Christine O’Donnell. And, yes, it also means nominating a candidate for president who can not only win but also, at the very least, not act as a drag on the rest of the ticket.

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Do Conservatives Want Another Goldwater?

Some conservative pundits are still mad at the editors of National Review for an editorial in which the venerable magazine urged Republicans not to back Newt Gingrich for president. Though NR didn’t endorse a candidate in the piece, many outraged conservatives who had embraced the former speaker as the leading “not Romney” in the race felt that Mitt Romney was the intended beneficiary of the broadside. The latest to vent his spleen about this alleged betrayal of conservative principle is Jeffrey Lord who wrote in the American Spectator that the attack on Gingrich was akin to NR’s founder William F. Buckley blasting Barry Goldwater in 1964 or Ronald Reagan in 1980. His point was not just that any of the other conservatives still in the race was better than Romney but that Buckley’s magazine had become the moral equivalent of the old-line GOP establishment that its founder had spent his life battling.

But Lord’s anguish is misplaced. Newt Gingrich isn’t Ronald Reagan. Neither is Rick Santorum, Michele Bachman or Rick Perry. And if you really think any of them are worthy successors to Barry Goldwater, does anyone on the right believe another 1964-style wipeout that would mean four more years of President Barack Obama is a good idea?

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Some conservative pundits are still mad at the editors of National Review for an editorial in which the venerable magazine urged Republicans not to back Newt Gingrich for president. Though NR didn’t endorse a candidate in the piece, many outraged conservatives who had embraced the former speaker as the leading “not Romney” in the race felt that Mitt Romney was the intended beneficiary of the broadside. The latest to vent his spleen about this alleged betrayal of conservative principle is Jeffrey Lord who wrote in the American Spectator that the attack on Gingrich was akin to NR’s founder William F. Buckley blasting Barry Goldwater in 1964 or Ronald Reagan in 1980. His point was not just that any of the other conservatives still in the race was better than Romney but that Buckley’s magazine had become the moral equivalent of the old-line GOP establishment that its founder had spent his life battling.

But Lord’s anguish is misplaced. Newt Gingrich isn’t Ronald Reagan. Neither is Rick Santorum, Michele Bachman or Rick Perry. And if you really think any of them are worthy successors to Barry Goldwater, does anyone on the right believe another 1964-style wipeout that would mean four more years of President Barack Obama is a good idea?

A focus on winning in 2012 is what many conservatives think is wrong with NR’s editors and others who have come to grips with the fact that Romney is the Republicans’ best chance for victory next November. Lord, and others who agree with him are not really arguing that Gingrich should be president any more than they are making a serious case for Perry, Bachmann or Santorum. None of them have a ghost of a shot at beating Obama though all of them can make a much better case than Gingrich for representing a consistent conservative stance on the majority of the issues. Rather, Lord seems to be making the case that ideological purity is a higher value than electability.

To that one can only respond with one of Buckley’s most famous sayings that instructed his followers to always back the most conservative candidate available who could win.

It should be stipulated that this didn’t mean you always backed a Republican. In Buckley’s heyday the two parties were not divided so much by ideology with conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, two now largely extinct factions, being very much a part of our political life. Buckley helped found the Conservative Party of New York to combat the leftward tilt of a Republican Party dominated by liberals like Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits.

But the notion that a relatively moderate candidate like Romney is in any way comparable to the liberal Rockefeller Republicans that the conservative moment defeated in 1964 is absurd. For all of his imperfections and flip-flopping there is no question that he is to the right of center. Like the first President George Bush whom Buckley and other conservatives backed in 1988, Romney is no favorite of the right and may disappoint them. But, as Republicans learned after 1992 when some stood by and watched Bill Clinton beat Bush, life is choice. Any conservative who would prefer to see Obama re-elected than to stomach a Romney presidency has lost perspective about the whole point of their movement.

Even more to the point, the argument that Gingrich — whose deviations from conservative principles over the years are too numerous to count — is more authentically conservative than Romney is unsustainable. As for Perry, Bachmann and Santorum, even the most fervent Romney-haters know they can’t be elected.

That may say something unflattering about the current state of American conservatism but it is no reason to willfully choose to go off the cliff with a certain loser. Unlike in 1964 when the main point of Goldwater’s candidacy was to seize control of the GOP from its liberal establishment, conservatives already run the party. To the extent that there is a Republican establishment these days (and I have argued that there is no such thing anymore), everyone that is supposedly part of  it, like Weekly Standard publisher William Kristol and the editors of NR, are all conservatives. Nominating another Goldwater (not that anybody in the race can really be compared to the Arizonan) would merely be doing a hard-core liberal like Obama a favor. Surely, that is not something Bill Buckley would ever have supported.

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