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Posts For: February 19, 2012

Dudamel is Not Another Toscanini

Gustavo Dudamel may not be Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, but for those who follow the world of classical music, there’s little doubt the 31-year-old is a very big deal indeed these days. The native of Venezuela is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has become the latest superstar of the symphonic set. His charisma and trademark hairdo of flowing curls have helped propel his orchestra into a series of performances that are being broadcast in movie theaters around the country. But the talented conductor is also the focus of some unflattering coverage because of the political implications of his ties to Venezuelan institutions.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the LA Philharmonic’s tour of Dudamel’s native land has thrown a spotlight on his mentor José Antonio Abreu and the youth music program El Sistema that set him on the path to stardom. Whether he intended to do so or not, Dudamel has allowed himself to be used as a prop of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s dictatorial president whose office took over El Sistema two years ago. Instead of using his international prestige to stand up against Chavez’s efforts to subvert democracy, Dudamel may have become one more artistic façade for a government hell-bent on destroying human rights in Venezuela. In doing so, he has become part of a long tradition of morally obtuse musicians who played for dictators.

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Gustavo Dudamel may not be Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, but for those who follow the world of classical music, there’s little doubt the 31-year-old is a very big deal indeed these days. The native of Venezuela is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has become the latest superstar of the symphonic set. His charisma and trademark hairdo of flowing curls have helped propel his orchestra into a series of performances that are being broadcast in movie theaters around the country. But the talented conductor is also the focus of some unflattering coverage because of the political implications of his ties to Venezuelan institutions.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the LA Philharmonic’s tour of Dudamel’s native land has thrown a spotlight on his mentor José Antonio Abreu and the youth music program El Sistema that set him on the path to stardom. Whether he intended to do so or not, Dudamel has allowed himself to be used as a prop of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s dictatorial president whose office took over El Sistema two years ago. Instead of using his international prestige to stand up against Chavez’s efforts to subvert democracy, Dudamel may have become one more artistic façade for a government hell-bent on destroying human rights in Venezuela. In doing so, he has become part of a long tradition of morally obtuse musicians who played for dictators.

In addition to the current tour that is being used by Chavez to burnish his image at home, Dudamel conducted the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (for which he also serves as music director) in the national anthem for the initial broadcasts of a new government television channel that replaced an independent channel shut down by Chavez for criticizing his administration. The televised concert was, as the Times noted, “dominated by images of Mr. Chavez and the phrase ‘Onward, Commandante!’”

So while the likeable Dudamel has become a classical star here in the United States, he has also become a symbol of the way every aspect of Venezuelan culture has been taken over by the Chavez regime to the detriment of his country’s freedom and the security of the region.

Many classical musicians have never been squeamish about taking coin from the hands of dictators or about allowing their talents to be purchased for the purpose of bolstering evil regimes. In one of the most recent instances, the New York Philharmonic accepted an invitation to play before the leadership of one of the craziest and most oppressive governments in the world: North Korea. While the New Yorkers claimed their music would be a symbol of freedom and improving relations, the only ones to benefit from the show were the Communist regime and the orchestra.

But there is another more admirable tradition in the arts: that of the artist who puts principle above all else and refuses to bow down to tyrants. The most distinguished example  is the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was an ardent foe of fascism in his Italian homeland. After an initial flirtation with Benito Mussolini’s movement, Toscanini defied the dictator and became a symbol of resistance to his rule. He suffered attacks and insults, and it was only his status as an international superstar that saved him from a worse fate. During this period it should be noted that Toscanini also conducted the inaugural performance of the fledgling Palestine Orchestra (today the Israel Philharmonic) that was largely comprised of Jewish refugees from Germany. He only returned to Italy after the Second World War and the demise of fascism.

Dudamel may be a wonderful music talent and have a long, celebrated career ahead of him. But the laurels that go to those artists, who, at their personal cost, stand up for freedom, will not go to him. He may be a fine conductor, but Gustavo Dudamel is no Toscanini.

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Obama’s Egyptian Hostage Crisis

It may not be the equivalent of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-81 or the subsequent seizures of American citizens in Lebanon, but the Obama administration has a hostage crisis of sorts on its hands, and how it handles it will be of considerable importance not only to the president’s standing but the country’s.

This crisis has come about because the transitional regime in Egypt has decided to put on trial 19 Americans and two dozen others who are guilty of the apparent crime of trying to develop civil society and democracy. Seven of those defendants, who will go on trial on Friday, are actually in Egypt and unable to leave as long as the proceedings go on. Several have sought refuge at the U.S. embassy, like Cardinal Mindszenty, who lived in the U.S. embassy in Budapest for 15 years to escape Communist persecution. Those held hostage include Sam LaHood, son of a cabinet member, who is head of the International Republican Institute’s Cairo office.

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It may not be the equivalent of the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-81 or the subsequent seizures of American citizens in Lebanon, but the Obama administration has a hostage crisis of sorts on its hands, and how it handles it will be of considerable importance not only to the president’s standing but the country’s.

This crisis has come about because the transitional regime in Egypt has decided to put on trial 19 Americans and two dozen others who are guilty of the apparent crime of trying to develop civil society and democracy. Seven of those defendants, who will go on trial on Friday, are actually in Egypt and unable to leave as long as the proceedings go on. Several have sought refuge at the U.S. embassy, like Cardinal Mindszenty, who lived in the U.S. embassy in Budapest for 15 years to escape Communist persecution. Those held hostage include Sam LaHood, son of a cabinet member, who is head of the International Republican Institute’s Cairo office.

It is hard to imagine a more direct challenge to American power than this brazen decision to try our citizens on trumped up charges. If any of these NGO workers wind up in prison, it will be a permanent blot not only on the Egyptian government but also on the Obama administration for letting it happen. Put simply, nations do not act like this if they fear American power. Clearly, we are not inducing enough respect even in a country such as Egypt which is dependent on more than $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid.

President Obama must intervene personally if necessary to resolve this crisis and get the authorities in Cairo to let our people go. Anything less would make us a laughingstock and a certain target of more affronts.

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Adelson and Santorum Agree on Gambling

Last Thursday, Jim Geraghty speculated at National Review that Sheldon Adelson might have a business motive for his preferences in the Republican presidential race. Adelson has donated more than $10 million to keep Newt Gingrich’s campaign alive and has seemed to indicate he will support Mitt Romney if and when Gingrich throws in the towel. But Adelson doesn’t appear to be at all interested in Rick Santorum, the Republican who is currently leading in the national polls. That caused Geraghty to ponder whether Santorum’s opposition to gambling may be causing the casino mogul to want to keep Gingrich in the race so as to ensure that Santorum can’t beat Romney.

Given that Adelson’s priority is ensuring a strong pro-Israel alternative to President Obama and that Santorum is as solid a supporter of the Jewish state as Gingrich and Romney, Geraghty’s notion seemed logical. But this morning COMMENTARY received an e-mail letter-to-the-editor from Adelson’s office (in response to posts by Alana and myself on the subject of Santorum’s stand on gambling) that should debunk this thesis. It reads:

Regarding your February 16th article: “Santorum wants to ban gambling?”

I agree with Rick Santorum. I am in favor of the comment he made about destination casinos and I am, as he is, against any type of gaming on the Internet. You might also know I am not against Rick Santorum. I am in favor of Newt Gingrich.

Sheldon G. Adelson

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Last Thursday, Jim Geraghty speculated at National Review that Sheldon Adelson might have a business motive for his preferences in the Republican presidential race. Adelson has donated more than $10 million to keep Newt Gingrich’s campaign alive and has seemed to indicate he will support Mitt Romney if and when Gingrich throws in the towel. But Adelson doesn’t appear to be at all interested in Rick Santorum, the Republican who is currently leading in the national polls. That caused Geraghty to ponder whether Santorum’s opposition to gambling may be causing the casino mogul to want to keep Gingrich in the race so as to ensure that Santorum can’t beat Romney.

Given that Adelson’s priority is ensuring a strong pro-Israel alternative to President Obama and that Santorum is as solid a supporter of the Jewish state as Gingrich and Romney, Geraghty’s notion seemed logical. But this morning COMMENTARY received an e-mail letter-to-the-editor from Adelson’s office (in response to posts by Alana and myself on the subject of Santorum’s stand on gambling) that should debunk this thesis. It reads:

Regarding your February 16th article: “Santorum wants to ban gambling?”

I agree with Rick Santorum. I am in favor of the comment he made about destination casinos and I am, as he is, against any type of gaming on the Internet. You might also know I am not against Rick Santorum. I am in favor of Newt Gingrich.

Sheldon G. Adelson

This makes sense. After all, in the television interview in which Santorum state his opposition to the proliferation of casinos and Internet gambling, he made it clear he saw no problem with maintaining Las Vegas and Atlantic City as the two enclaves of legalized gaming. More legal gambling undermines Adelson’s business interests.

But I think the real mistake here is in attempting to re-interpret Adelson’s politics through the lens of his business rather than his beliefs. Adelson’s political and charitable contributions have never been primarily motivated by promoting his casino businesses but by his ardent and principled backing for the state of Israel. It was Gingrich’s decades-long stand on backing Israel that brought him together with Adelson. If Romney is Adelson’s second choice, it is almost certainly because he, like many other Republicans, believes the former Massachusetts governor has a better chance of beating Barack Obama in November.

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U.S. Getting Smart Too Late on Iran

If you look at the “2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment” presented on February 16 by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and compare it with the “2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment,” you find a startling development. Last year, the assessment was “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” This year it is, “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.”

The new assessment is apparently based on a revised judgment, not new intelligence, since it cites the same evidence as the 2011 assessment, but comes to a different conclusion. It illustrates the fact that the key is nuclear weapons capability, not production. Once capability is achieved, the critical technical line has been crossed; after that, production is a political decision that cannot easily be discovered until after the fact. As Iran heads down the same path traversed by North Korea, consider Clapper’s February 16 responses to Sen. Lindsey Graham on Iran’s activities:

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If you look at the “2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment” presented on February 16 by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and compare it with the “2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment,” you find a startling development. Last year, the assessment was “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” This year it is, “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.”

The new assessment is apparently based on a revised judgment, not new intelligence, since it cites the same evidence as the 2011 assessment, but comes to a different conclusion. It illustrates the fact that the key is nuclear weapons capability, not production. Once capability is achieved, the critical technical line has been crossed; after that, production is a political decision that cannot easily be discovered until after the fact. As Iran heads down the same path traversed by North Korea, consider Clapper’s February 16 responses to Sen. Lindsey Graham on Iran’s activities:

SEN. GRAHAM: Do you think they’re building these power plants for peaceful nuclear power generation purposes?

CLAPPER: That remains to be seen.

SEN. GRAHAM: You have doubt about the Iranians’ intention when it comes to making a nuclear weapon?

CLAPPER: Uh-h, I do.  I, I, uh, I –

SEN. GRAHAM: You’re not so sure they’re trying to make a bomb? You doubt whether or not they are trying to create a nuclear bomb?

CLAPPER: I think they are keeping themselves in a position to make that decision, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.

SEN. GRAHAM: How would we know when they have made that decision?

CLAPPER: I am happy to discuss that with you in closed session.

SEN. GRAHAM: Well I guess my point is that I take a different view. I’m very convinced that they’re going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon. I can’t read anyone’s mind, but it seems logical to me that they believe that if they get a nuclear weapon they’ll become North Korea

What we do know Iran has done – and has been doing for some time – is build a “covert” uranium enrichment facility, constructed underground in the mountains near Qom, hidden for years from the international community, with enrichment operations commencing in “blatant disregard” of multiple UN and IAEA resolutions, with “no plausible justification” except to bring Iran “a significant step closer to having the capability to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium.” The quoted language is from Hillary Clinton’s press release last month. The huge underground site is a major expansion of Iran’s program.

Last month, President Obama said America is determined to prevent Iran from “getting a nuclear weapon.” Secretary Panetta said if we “get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it.” But waiting for intelligence about getting a nuclear weapon – instead of preventing nuclear weapons capability – sets the red line where a violation can neither be timely detected nor effectively reversed, as the North Korea experience demonstrates.

A group of 32 senators introduced a resolution on February 16 that would affirm a “vital national interest” in preventing Iran from “acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” and reject any policy relying on “containment” of a nuclear weapons capable Iran. It is an effort to avoid repeating the sad story of American diplomacy and intelligence between 2003 – when President Bush declared the U.S. would “not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea” – and 2012, when Director Clapper acknowledged that North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.

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Santorum’s Contraception Contradiction

Rick Santorum was interviewed Friday morning by CBS’s Charlie Rose on the former Pennsylvania senator’s views on contraception. It’s clear that Senator Santorum is tired of talking about contraception. One can understand why.

Senator Santorum’s core defense is that he’s supported federal funding for contraception in his role as a public official, even though he’s personally opposed (as a faithful Catholic) to it. But in this October 2011 interview Santorum – presumably in an effort to contrast himself with the other GOP candidates — insisted that he would talk about contraception if he were president. He argued that contraception, even within the context of marriage, was damaging to the institution. In talking about contraception, Santorum said this: “Again, I know most presidents don’t talk about those things, and maybe people don’t want us to talk about those things, but I think it’s important that you are who you are. I’m not running for preacher. I’m not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues. These have profound impact on the health of our society.” [emphasis added]

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Rick Santorum was interviewed Friday morning by CBS’s Charlie Rose on the former Pennsylvania senator’s views on contraception. It’s clear that Senator Santorum is tired of talking about contraception. One can understand why.

Senator Santorum’s core defense is that he’s supported federal funding for contraception in his role as a public official, even though he’s personally opposed (as a faithful Catholic) to it. But in this October 2011 interview Santorum – presumably in an effort to contrast himself with the other GOP candidates — insisted that he would talk about contraception if he were president. He argued that contraception, even within the context of marriage, was damaging to the institution. In talking about contraception, Santorum said this: “Again, I know most presidents don’t talk about those things, and maybe people don’t want us to talk about those things, but I think it’s important that you are who you are. I’m not running for preacher. I’m not running for pastor, but these are important public policy issues. These have profound impact on the health of our society.” [emphasis added]

When asked by Hugh Hewitt earlier last week if he was going to talk a lot about contraception, Senator Santorum changed his stance. He told Hewitt, “Well, obviously not.” He said “this is just the left trying to play their games that they always try to play.”

That’s not quite fair, though. After all, it was Santorum, in an interview with a sympathetic interlocutor, who went out of his way to say that he would talk about contraception. (“One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea,” Santorum said. “Many in the Christian faith have said, ‘Well, that’s okay. Contraception’s okay.’ It’s not okay because it’s a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) So this is a debate Santorum has invited, not others. And the question for Santorum is why he believes contraception should “continue to be available” and that the “realm of laws” should have nothing to say about contraception. Remember, the argument Santorum made is that contraception is having a profoundly negative impact on the health of society. If so, why wouldn’t he advocate laws to discourage the use of something that he believes is undermining America’s social and moral fabric? At a minimum, why wouldn’t he insist that the state stay neutral on the issue of contraception rather than trumpet the fact that he voted for federal funding of contraception (which he did in his interview with Mr. Rose)?

Now Santorum can argue, as he has, that the liberty interest of individuals supersedes the interest of the state – and that unlike the case of abortion, no other individual is involved in this matter. True enough. But how, then, does Santorum argue against same-sex marriage? You have the liberty interests of the individual pitted against (in Santorum’s view) the interest of the state. So why oppose same-sex marriage while supporting contraception?

This debate touches on fairly fundamental issues of statecraft as soulcraft (to use the title of a 1983 book by George Will). In this case, if contraception is as damaging as Mr. Santorum argues, both outside and within the context of marriage, why does he continue to support federal funding for contraception? Why wouldn’t he feel an obligation to at least talk about something that he thinks is injurious to America?

Rick Santorum is rightly seen by many as a “conviction politician.” He insists, with some justification, that one of the qualities that makes him a leader is his willingness to stick to his deeply held principles even in the face of strong political headwinds. Those headwinds are now gusting on the matter of contraception. The question is whether Senator Santorum, who is now ahead in national and state polls, will back away from an issue he was eager to talk about when he was merely an asterisk in the polls in Iowa.

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