Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 21, 2012

Peace Means Justice for Jewish Refugees

The tragic fate of Palestinian Arab refugees has always loomed over the Middle East conflict. The descendants of those who fled the territory of the newborn state of Israel in 1948 have been kept stateless and dependent on United Nations charity rather than being absorbed into other Arab countries so as to perpetuate the war to extinguish the Jewish state. The refugees and those who purport to advocate for their interests have consistently sought to veto any peace plans that might end the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. They have refused to accept any outcome that did not involve their “return” to what is now Israel, an idea that is tantamount to the destruction of Israel. The Palestinians have gotten away with this irresponsible behavior because they retained the sympathy of a world that saw them as the sole victims of Israel’s War of Independence. But the historical truth is far more complex.

Far from 1948 being a case of a one-sided population flight in which Palestinians left what is now Israel (something that most did voluntarily as they sought to escape the war or because they feared what would happen to them in a Jewish majority state), what actually occurred was a population exchange. At the same time that hundreds of thousands of Arabs left the Palestine Mandate, hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the Arab and Muslim world began to be pushed out of their homes. The story of the Jewish refugees has rarely been told in international forums or the mainstream media but it got a boost today when the first United Nations Conference on Jews expelled from Arab Countries was held at the world body’s New York headquarters. While Palestinian refugees deserve sympathy and perhaps some compensation in any agreement that would finally end the conflict, so, too, do the descendants of the Jews who lost their homes. As Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister rightly said today:

We will not arrive at peace without solving the refugee problem – but that includes the Jewish refugees. Justice does not lie on just one side and equal measures must be applied to both.

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The tragic fate of Palestinian Arab refugees has always loomed over the Middle East conflict. The descendants of those who fled the territory of the newborn state of Israel in 1948 have been kept stateless and dependent on United Nations charity rather than being absorbed into other Arab countries so as to perpetuate the war to extinguish the Jewish state. The refugees and those who purport to advocate for their interests have consistently sought to veto any peace plans that might end the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. They have refused to accept any outcome that did not involve their “return” to what is now Israel, an idea that is tantamount to the destruction of Israel. The Palestinians have gotten away with this irresponsible behavior because they retained the sympathy of a world that saw them as the sole victims of Israel’s War of Independence. But the historical truth is far more complex.

Far from 1948 being a case of a one-sided population flight in which Palestinians left what is now Israel (something that most did voluntarily as they sought to escape the war or because they feared what would happen to them in a Jewish majority state), what actually occurred was a population exchange. At the same time that hundreds of thousands of Arabs left the Palestine Mandate, hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the Arab and Muslim world began to be pushed out of their homes. The story of the Jewish refugees has rarely been told in international forums or the mainstream media but it got a boost today when the first United Nations Conference on Jews expelled from Arab Countries was held at the world body’s New York headquarters. While Palestinian refugees deserve sympathy and perhaps some compensation in any agreement that would finally end the conflict, so, too, do the descendants of the Jews who lost their homes. As Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister rightly said today:

We will not arrive at peace without solving the refugee problem – but that includes the Jewish refugees. Justice does not lie on just one side and equal measures must be applied to both.

It is true that the descendants of the Jewish refugees are not still living in camps waiting for new homes. Though the process was not without its problems, rather than abuse those Jews who were dispossessed and using them as political props as the Arabs did, refugees from the Arab world found homes and lives in Israel and the West with the help of their brethren. But that does not diminish their right to compensation or a fair hearing for their grievances.

The truth about the Jewish refugees is something that foreign cheerleaders for the Palestinians as well as the Arab nations who took part in the expulsion have never acknowledged, let alone refuted. As Ron Prosor, Israel’s UN ambassador, pointed out in his speech at the conference, what occurred after Israel’s birth was nothing less than a campaign aimed at eliminating ancient Jewish communities. Arab leaders “launched a war of terror, incitement, and expulsion to decimate and destroy their Jewish communities. Their effort was systematic. It was deliberate. It was planned.”

Indeed, not only did Jews lose billions of dollars in property but were deprived of property that amounts to a land mass that is five times the size of the state of Israel.

This is something that a lot of people, especially those to whom the peace process with the Palestinians has become an end unto itself don’t want to hear about. They believe that the putting forward of Jewish claims from 1948 is merely an obstacle to negotiations. But such arguments are absurd. Peace cannot be built merely by appeasing the Palestinian claim to sole victimhood. Just as the dispute over territory is one between two peoples with claims, so, too is the question of refugee compensation. Peace cannot be bought by pretending that only Palestinians suffered or that only Arabs have rights. Indeed, such a formulation is a guarantee that the struggle will continue indefinitely since the Palestinians are encouraged to think that they are the only ones with just claims.

For far too long the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been cast as one pitting the security of the former against the rights of the latter. Framed this way, it is no surprise that the more emotional appeals of the Palestinians have often prevailed over the arguments of Israelis. Rather than asserting their historic rights, the Jews have often allowed themselves to be cast in the false role of colonial oppressor. The Palestinian pose as the only victims of the war enables them to evade their historic responsibility for both the creation of a refugee problem in 1948 as well as their refusal to accept Israeli peace offers.

Let’s hope today’s conference is the beginning of a serious debate about the issue as well as a turning point in discussions about Middle East peace. Peace requires respect for the rights of Jewish refugees as well as those of the Palestinians.

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Mitt’s Tax Info Undermines Dem Smears

After months of being taunted on the issue by Democrats and even some of his Republican primary rivals, Mitt Romney is releasing more information on his tax returns this afternoon. The candidate’s 2011 return will be released in full along with a 20-year summary of his tax rates from 1990 through 2009 (he’s already released his 2010 returns). While you can bet this won’t satisfy partisan Democrats who will call for more information, it ought to not only put this issue to rest but give voters another reason to think well of the Republican.

Is it really possible to characterize a man who paid a tax rate of over 14 percent on his income in 2011 a cheat? Even more to the point, Romney gave away to charity double — $4,020,072 — the amount of his very hefty $1,935,708 tax bill in 2011. And since it is almost completely investment income, it needs to be pointed out that Romney had already paid tax on the money when it was first earned. Over the 20-year period, he paid an average of 20.2 percent in taxes and gave away 13.45 percent to charity.

This paints a picture of a man who is not only paying his fair share of taxes, but is also a model of civic virtue in his dedication to sharing his bounty with those who are less fortunate. That’s especially true when we realize that neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden have ever given anywhere close to that percentage of their incomes to charity. The release also should give Romney a much-needed shot in the arm after a couple of shaky weeks. Having done their best to demonize Romney as a heartless plutocrat, Democrats have probably made his tax information a much bigger deal than it may have been.

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After months of being taunted on the issue by Democrats and even some of his Republican primary rivals, Mitt Romney is releasing more information on his tax returns this afternoon. The candidate’s 2011 return will be released in full along with a 20-year summary of his tax rates from 1990 through 2009 (he’s already released his 2010 returns). While you can bet this won’t satisfy partisan Democrats who will call for more information, it ought to not only put this issue to rest but give voters another reason to think well of the Republican.

Is it really possible to characterize a man who paid a tax rate of over 14 percent on his income in 2011 a cheat? Even more to the point, Romney gave away to charity double — $4,020,072 — the amount of his very hefty $1,935,708 tax bill in 2011. And since it is almost completely investment income, it needs to be pointed out that Romney had already paid tax on the money when it was first earned. Over the 20-year period, he paid an average of 20.2 percent in taxes and gave away 13.45 percent to charity.

This paints a picture of a man who is not only paying his fair share of taxes, but is also a model of civic virtue in his dedication to sharing his bounty with those who are less fortunate. That’s especially true when we realize that neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden have ever given anywhere close to that percentage of their incomes to charity. The release also should give Romney a much-needed shot in the arm after a couple of shaky weeks. Having done their best to demonize Romney as a heartless plutocrat, Democrats have probably made his tax information a much bigger deal than it may have been.

Given that the answers to the questions the Democrats have been posing (and falsely rapping about) for so long actually make Romney look good, you might wonder why his campaign might dump this information to the press on a Friday afternoon, a time that is usually reserved for releasing bad news that will be swallowed up by the weekend and forgotten by Monday. But given the way things have been going for Romney lately, any opportunity to create some positive vibes had to be seized immediately.

A week that began with the Romney campaign playing defense on his 47 percent video gaffe can at least end by his showing the country that prominent Democrats like Senator Harry Reid have been lying about the Republican standard-bearer not paying taxes. Perhaps now that this is settled, Romney can go back on the offensive against the president rather than spinning his wheels explaining a foolish statement.

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Did Romney Shift on Iran Red Lines?

Josh Rogin reports that Mitt Romney clarified his red line on Iran as “nuclear capability” during a conference call with American rabbis last night:

“With regards to the red line, I would imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu is referring to a red line over which if Iran crossed it would take military action. And for me, it is unacceptable or Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon, which they could use in the Middle East or elsewhere,” Romney said. “So for me, the red line is nuclear capability. We do not want them to have the capacity of building a bomb that threatens ourselves, our friends, and the world.”

“Exactly where those red lines [should be drawn] is something which, I guess, I wouldn’t want to get into in great detail, but you understand they are defined by the Iranian capability to have not only fissile material, but bomb making capability and rocketry,” Romney said.

Romney’s remark that the United States should take military action if Iran develops nuclear weapons “capability” matches what many GOP leaders and pro-Israel groups have publicly stated, but it stands in contrast to the “red line” Romney set out in a Sept. 14 interview with ABC News.

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Josh Rogin reports that Mitt Romney clarified his red line on Iran as “nuclear capability” during a conference call with American rabbis last night:

“With regards to the red line, I would imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu is referring to a red line over which if Iran crossed it would take military action. And for me, it is unacceptable or Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon, which they could use in the Middle East or elsewhere,” Romney said. “So for me, the red line is nuclear capability. We do not want them to have the capacity of building a bomb that threatens ourselves, our friends, and the world.”

“Exactly where those red lines [should be drawn] is something which, I guess, I wouldn’t want to get into in great detail, but you understand they are defined by the Iranian capability to have not only fissile material, but bomb making capability and rocketry,” Romney said.

Romney’s remark that the United States should take military action if Iran develops nuclear weapons “capability” matches what many GOP leaders and pro-Israel groups have publicly stated, but it stands in contrast to the “red line” Romney set out in a Sept. 14 interview with ABC News.

Saying that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon (which is Obama’s position) and saying that Iran cannot achieve the capability to build a nuclear weapon are obviously very important distinctions. A nuclear-capable Iran would have the ability to assemble a bomb within a very short window, which is why many conservatives draw the line at capability.

Some are calling this a shift in Romney’s position, noting that he told George Stephanopoulos last week that “My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon.” When asked whether that meant his red line was the same as Obama’s, Romney said yes.

But take another look at Romney’s full quote to Stephanopoulos:

Well, my red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon.  It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world.  Iran with a nuclear weapon or with fissile material that can be given to Hezbollah or Hamas or others has the potential of not just destabilizing the Middle East.  But it could be brought here.  Hezbollah, which has presence in Latin America can be bring fissile material and threaten the United States by perhaps bringing it into the United States and suggesting they’d detonate it if we didn’t do certain things.  Look, Iran as a nuclear nation is unacceptable to the United States of America.

Romney does state that a nuclear weapon is his red line in the first sentence. But then he elaborates a bit, saying they should not have the “capacity” to terrorize the world, and warning that “fissile material” — a precursor to a bomb — could fall into the hands of terrorists. Almost immediately after the interview, Romney’s campaign clarified that he was talking about capacity. “As he said this morning, Governor Romney’s red line is Iran having a nuclear weapons capacity,” his spokesperson Andrea Saul told the New York Times.

Romney also indicated that capability was his red line during his visit to Israel in July. He said that “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability presents an intolerable threat to Israel, to America, and to the world,” adding that “the regime in Iran is five years closer to developing nuclear weapons capability. Preventing that outcome must be our highest national security priority.”

Based on all of that, his comment on the conference call last night doesn’t appear to be a deviation from his position. He can be criticized for being less than clear during his interview with Stephanopoulos (and there are lingering questions about why he agreed that his red lines are the same as Obama’s), but the position he gave on the conference call isn’t any different from the one his campaign explicitly stated last week.

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Warren’s Mistake: Nationalizing the Race

A poll of Massachusetts voters gave Scott Brown the win over Elizabeth Warren in last night’s Senate debate by ten points. Though I think Brown probably did win the debate, I thought Warren kept it very close—much closer than that poll suggests—and helped herself in a few ways. But I think two exchanges make up for the difference in perception between the poll results and the way it looked to those outside Massachusetts.

As I wrote on Wednesday, one major advantage Brown has over Warren is the fact that voters consider him to have a much stronger connection to the state than Warren, who is from Oklahoma. That discrepancy is magnified in a debate, where Brown’s accent, and Warren’s lack of one, drive the point home. But there are other ways to reinforce the local-vs.-outsider dynamic, and I think the two candidates did so clearly during their answers to a question about whether climate change is real and what can be done about it. Here is how Brown ended his answer:

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A poll of Massachusetts voters gave Scott Brown the win over Elizabeth Warren in last night’s Senate debate by ten points. Though I think Brown probably did win the debate, I thought Warren kept it very close—much closer than that poll suggests—and helped herself in a few ways. But I think two exchanges make up for the difference in perception between the poll results and the way it looked to those outside Massachusetts.

As I wrote on Wednesday, one major advantage Brown has over Warren is the fact that voters consider him to have a much stronger connection to the state than Warren, who is from Oklahoma. That discrepancy is magnified in a debate, where Brown’s accent, and Warren’s lack of one, drive the point home. But there are other ways to reinforce the local-vs.-outsider dynamic, and I think the two candidates did so clearly during their answers to a question about whether climate change is real and what can be done about it. Here is how Brown ended his answer:

[Warren is] in favor of putting wind turbines in the middle of our greatest treasure–down in the Nantucket Sound. I, like Senator Kennedy before me, believe that’s not right.

And here’s how Warren closed her answer on the same question:

This race really may be for the control of the Senate. But what that would mean is, if the Republicans take over the Senate, [Oklahoma Senator] Jim Inhofe would become the person who would be in charge of the committee that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s a man who has called global warming a hoax. In fact, that’s the title of his book. A man like that should not be in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, overseeing their work. And I just don’t understand how we could talk about going in that direction.

Brown’s rebuttal was a layup: “You’re not running against Jim Inhofe, you’re running against me, professor.”

And that was really Warren’s mistake, in a nutshell, because the other exchange I had in mind ended with Warren saying: “This really is about who you want as commander in chief,” explaining her support for President Obama over Mitt Romney as something the voters should consider.

The truth is, neither of Warren’s answers was bad, in and of itself. It’s that the responses explicitly nationalized a statewide election. And it only underlined the fact that Warren is, at heart, truly a national candidate. The Senate seat would be a consolation prize for her, since she really wanted to lead a new consumer protection bureaucracy in Washington. She has been focused on attacking Wall Street, and throughout the debate kept complaining about oil companies and a “rigged playing field.”

Her talking points are well rehearsed, but they’re mostly vague references worded for the Beltway press more than blue-collar Massachusetts voters. She seemed to be talking over her state, not to it–past the voters to the journalists who love catchy expressions of their own narratives.

Has Warren’s campaign even tested Jim Inhofe’s name recognition in Massachusetts? I’ll bet not—and I’d guess it wouldn’t be very high. That’s not because Massachusetts voters are disconnected from national issues. It’s just that name recognition of even high-ranking politicians is usually fairly low—lower, at least, than most people would think. So Warren’s decision to use her time in that answer to tie Brown to Inhofe may have been making a point her supporters would agree with, but it was probably a poor choice anyway.

It’s a bit of a vicious cycle for Warren: she is less familiar with Massachusetts issues than Brown, so she nationalizes the race, further seeming less familiar with Massachusetts issues. To break that cycle, she’d have to ditch Oklahoma politics for the Nantucket Sound.

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Obama Blames GOP, Economy for His ‘Biggest Failure’

At the Univision forum yesterday, President Obama said his “biggest failure” as president was failing to pass immigration reform. Not only was this news to everyone — last we heard, his biggest mistake was focusing too much on policy and not enough on telling stories — but he wouldn’t even take responsibility for the lack of progress. The real culprits? Obstructionist Republicans and distracting economic problems. According to Obama, his only real error — if you could call it that — was being too “naive” about the whole situation:

“My biggest failure so far is we haven’t gotten comprehensive immigration reform done,” Obama said. “But it’s not because for lack of trying or desire, and I’m confident we are going to accomplish that.” …

The president faced tough questions on why he hadn’t accomplished comprehensive immigration reform, an important issue for Hispanic voters. Jorge Ramos, one of the moderators for Univision, put it bluntly: “You promised that and a promise is a promise and with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”

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At the Univision forum yesterday, President Obama said his “biggest failure” as president was failing to pass immigration reform. Not only was this news to everyone — last we heard, his biggest mistake was focusing too much on policy and not enough on telling stories — but he wouldn’t even take responsibility for the lack of progress. The real culprits? Obstructionist Republicans and distracting economic problems. According to Obama, his only real error — if you could call it that — was being too “naive” about the whole situation:

“My biggest failure so far is we haven’t gotten comprehensive immigration reform done,” Obama said. “But it’s not because for lack of trying or desire, and I’m confident we are going to accomplish that.” …

The president faced tough questions on why he hadn’t accomplished comprehensive immigration reform, an important issue for Hispanic voters. Jorge Ramos, one of the moderators for Univision, put it bluntly: “You promised that and a promise is a promise and with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”

Obama said on Univision that he accepted responsibility but that he faced an economy “on the verge of collapse” in his first year and blamed Republicans for abandoning support for comprehensive immigration reform.

“What I confess I did not expect, and so I’m happy to take responsibility for being naive here, is that Republicans who had previously supported comprehensive immigration reform, my opponent in 2008 who had been a champion of it and who attended these meetings, suddenly would walk away,” he said. “That’s what I did not anticipate.”

This is completely delusional. If Obama was so tied up with economic issues his first year in office, why did he spend the majority of that time focused on his health care reform bill? The idea that Republicans have been blocking his attempts at immigration reform is also absurd. When did Obama do anything during his first three years — outside of giving occasional speeches — that moved the ball forward on immigration, or showed that he had any serious interest in tackling it? When confronted by Hispanic leaders, Obama would blame Republicans and insist that he couldn’t just issue an executive order on immigration. Then, as soon as the GOP started moving forward on its own immigration reform plan, he suddenly flip-flopped and took executive action.

Republicans haven’t refused to work with Obama on immigration. There’s no indication Obama even tried to reach out to them on the issue. In fact, he’s done just the opposite. The White House made every effort to kill Marco Rubio’s DREAM Act proposal, and eventually succeeded once Obama issued his immigration executive order — a temporary bandaid that’s no substitute for real reform.

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Florida Poll is Bad News for Jewish GOP

As I’ve noted before, just about every poll taken in the last year shows that President Obama is likely to lose ground among Jewish voters when compared to his performance in 2008. That’s also the finding of a new American Jewish Committee poll of Jewish voters in Florida. But while, as JTA notes, both Republicans and Democrats have sought to spin the numbers as good news for their side, in this case President Obama’s supporters have the stronger case.

The poll shows that the president leads Mitt Romney by a 69-25 percentage-point margin with five percent undecided. That is less than the 74-78 percent of the Jewish vote Obama got in 2008. But it is far less of a decrease than other polls have shown. More to the point, if these results hold up, it is not enough of a shift to be considered large enough to help swing the state if Florida turns out to be close. For that to happen, the GOP needs to hold Obama closer to 60 percent than 70 and get Romney up over the 30 percent margin. The drop in Obama’s support is explained by the answers to poll questions that show the positions of the majority of Jewish voters on topics like Israel and Iran to be significantly different from those of the administration. But those issues don’t appear to be enough to convince enough Jewish Democrats and independents to forsake the president in favor of Romney.

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As I’ve noted before, just about every poll taken in the last year shows that President Obama is likely to lose ground among Jewish voters when compared to his performance in 2008. That’s also the finding of a new American Jewish Committee poll of Jewish voters in Florida. But while, as JTA notes, both Republicans and Democrats have sought to spin the numbers as good news for their side, in this case President Obama’s supporters have the stronger case.

The poll shows that the president leads Mitt Romney by a 69-25 percentage-point margin with five percent undecided. That is less than the 74-78 percent of the Jewish vote Obama got in 2008. But it is far less of a decrease than other polls have shown. More to the point, if these results hold up, it is not enough of a shift to be considered large enough to help swing the state if Florida turns out to be close. For that to happen, the GOP needs to hold Obama closer to 60 percent than 70 and get Romney up over the 30 percent margin. The drop in Obama’s support is explained by the answers to poll questions that show the positions of the majority of Jewish voters on topics like Israel and Iran to be significantly different from those of the administration. But those issues don’t appear to be enough to convince enough Jewish Democrats and independents to forsake the president in favor of Romney.

The poll illustrates something we already knew. The vast majority of Jewish voters identify with the Democratic Party and are more liberal than the rest of the population. Though the Democrats hold on the Jewish vote is, as a Pew survey proved, slipping, the gap between the parties is still not close.

There is also some cognitive dissonance at play here. While a majority of those polled support the president’s handling of relations with Israel, an even larger majority approve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and support an Israeli attack on Iran that the president has worked harder to prevent than he has to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Clearly some of those who back Israel haven’t connected the dots between the candidates’ positions on the issues and their own.

But while the decline in Jewish support for Obama in this survey is enough to support, as do other polls, the conclusion that the president’s stand on Israel has hurt him, it is still only a marginal rather than a decisive shift. Indeed, if Obama can still wind up getting 70 percent of the Jewish vote after years of Israel-bashing and a clear determination not to act on the Iranian nuclear threat, then it must be conceded that other issues, such as the Democrats’ class warfare attack on Romney or the fake “war on women,” means more to Jewish voters than Israel.

It should be noted, as with other polls, that this poll’s credibility rests on its sample. In this case, the overall sample is not large, consisting as it does of only 254 registered voters. More to the point, it may undercount the Orthodox, who tend to be more conservative and Republican than other Jews, since it shows that they are only three percent of the total, a number that may be low even for Florida.

That said, Jewish Democrats have good reason to be encouraged by this poll. As for the GOP, it shows they need to keep hammering away on Israel and Iran — points that are being made in ad buys in Florida targeting Jewish voters — if they hope to succeed in November.

UPDATE:

The American Jewish Committee has now belatedly released the margin of error for this survey as being six percent. While earlier I pointed out that the sample size for this poll was small and that it may have undercounted Orthodox Jews, having such a big margin of error seriously undermines its credibility. This means that President Obama’s share of the Florida Jewish vote could be as low here as 63 percent (as well as being as high as 75 percent). That should calm the nerves of some Republicans who had to be perplexed by the results as well as cause Democrats to restrain their glee. But it should also encourage the GOP to redouble their efforts in this sector since, as I wrote, the breakdown on issues like Israel and Iran ought to give some room for Romney to gain ground at the president’s expense.

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Pakistan Ads Show Obama’s Cluelessness

Politico reports that the Obama administration is now running a TV ad in Pakistan, condemning the anti-Islam film that it’s been blaming for the anti-American violence across the Muslim world:

The Obama administration is airing ads on Pakistani television condemning the anti-Islamic film “The Innocence of Muslims,” a State Department spokeswoman confirmed Thursday.

“As you know, after the video came out, there was concern in lots of bodies politic, including Pakistan, as to whether this represented the views of the U.S. Government.  So in order to ensure we reached the largest number of Pakistanis – some 90 million, as I understand it in this case with these spots – it was the judgment that this was the best way to do it,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

The ads show clips of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemning the film in English (but dubbed in Urdu) in remarks they made last week, emphasizing that it was not produced or authorized by the United States government.

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Politico reports that the Obama administration is now running a TV ad in Pakistan, condemning the anti-Islam film that it’s been blaming for the anti-American violence across the Muslim world:

The Obama administration is airing ads on Pakistani television condemning the anti-Islamic film “The Innocence of Muslims,” a State Department spokeswoman confirmed Thursday.

“As you know, after the video came out, there was concern in lots of bodies politic, including Pakistan, as to whether this represented the views of the U.S. Government.  So in order to ensure we reached the largest number of Pakistanis – some 90 million, as I understand it in this case with these spots – it was the judgment that this was the best way to do it,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

The ads show clips of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemning the film in English (but dubbed in Urdu) in remarks they made last week, emphasizing that it was not produced or authorized by the United States government.

Imagine for a second that you’re a Pakistani enraged by the Muhammad video, and you are on your way to a violent riot at the U.S. embassy. Is a commercial of President Obama insisting the U.S. government had nothing to do with the film going to change your mind? The ad buy assumes that the rioters will act rationally when faced with the “truth.” But why should they, when they’re not acting rationally in the first place?

Rioting and setting things on fire is not an understandable or instinctive response to being insulted. That’s not a culturally or religiously-relative point, it’s a universal point. There are millions of devout Muslims in the U.S., many of them immigrants from countries like Libya and Egypt and Pakistan, and yet the YouTube video did not drive them to violent frenzies. Similarly, there are millions of devout Muslims in Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan who didn’t join in on the rampages outside U.S. embassies.

Those who engaged in violent riots this week and last did so for one reason: because they chose to. And why did they choose to? Maybe because there’s no real cost, and a whole lot of benefit. When top U.S. officials respond to wild tantrums across the Muslim world by pleading with crackpots like Terry Jones and blocking anti-Islam YouTube videos, it creates a moral hazard on two levels. First, it rewards these violent uprisings by handing a victory to the Islamist leaders who egged them on. Second, it hands anti-Muslim fringe figures an unhealthy amount of notoriety and power.

There’s nothing wrong with the Obama administration denouncing the anti-Islam film, in the context of condemning the riots. But that’s not what this is. This is a taxpayer-sponsored ad that repudiates a YouTube clip by a private citizen, while accepting the false premise that it was responsible for the violence. The intention is to ease the riots for the moment, but the long- (and short)-term consequence could end up being the opposite.

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The Media’s Occupy Wall Street Delusions

As the Economist’s political outlook has changed on issues throughout the years, the one constant has been the restraining of the written identities of its anonymous contributors in place of a unified “voice of God,” as it’s often referred to. And the real challenge to maintaining this weighty air of authority has never been the complicated issues that seem to cry out for the responsible reflection of the Economist’s on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other consideration. It is, rather, the attempts to wedge clear-cut and fairly ridiculous ideas into this deliberative style.

Can you make just about anything sound plausible if you employ the tone of the unimpeachable? The Economist tested that question in this week’s edition, and the answer is a resounding No. The magazine has a brief write-up of the reunion of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, which it admits has seemingly run out of steam. But then the Economist closes with this paragraph:

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As the Economist’s political outlook has changed on issues throughout the years, the one constant has been the restraining of the written identities of its anonymous contributors in place of a unified “voice of God,” as it’s often referred to. And the real challenge to maintaining this weighty air of authority has never been the complicated issues that seem to cry out for the responsible reflection of the Economist’s on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other consideration. It is, rather, the attempts to wedge clear-cut and fairly ridiculous ideas into this deliberative style.

Can you make just about anything sound plausible if you employ the tone of the unimpeachable? The Economist tested that question in this week’s edition, and the answer is a resounding No. The magazine has a brief write-up of the reunion of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, which it admits has seemingly run out of steam. But then the Economist closes with this paragraph:

Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia School of Journalism and the author of a new book, “Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street”, has explored why Occupy did not become the sort of mass movement that could deliver legislative and regulatory change. He cites over-democratic decision-making in its General Assembly and a later turn to violence by some members. On the other hand, he argues, it succeeded in transforming America’s national conversation, adding to the Lexicon not just the Twitter meme of #occupy but also the notion that the country has become divided into a wealthy 1% and a not-so-lucky 99%. Without this, argues Mr Gitlin, it would have been far harder for Mitt Romney to be attacked simply for being rich, first by Newt Gingrich and then by Barack Obama. If this attack strategy helps win Mr Obama another term, he may have the Occupy movement to thank.

First of all, I can help Gitlin figure out why the Occupy movement didn’t change the world. Violent anarchists who shield the perpetrators of sexual assault, defecate on police cars, and rage against hygiene do not get elected to Congress. Far more remarkable is Gitlin’s assertion that Barack Obama, of all people, would have struggled to attack Mitt Romney as rich without the help of the country’s furious collectivist youth.

But worst of all is the Economist’s last sentence in that paragraph. It’s not attributed to Gitlin, but merely declared by the magazine: if Obama wins reelection by bashing success and hectoring the public about inequality, he can thank Occupy.

In the modern era of American politics, this sentiment is refuted by pretty much every single election cycle. But it’s also refuted by the magazine’s hero-president, Obama. Did the Economist not watch then-candidate Barack Obama attack John McCain in 2008 for having a rich wife? Did it miss Obama telling voters we need to “spread the wealth around”? Did it not watch the truly stunning conversation Obama had with Charlie Gibson at a Democratic primary debate with Hillary Clinton, in which Gibson pointed out to Obama that raising taxes on capital gains does not lead to higher revenue, and Obama responded that revenue wasn’t the issue, but instead that he “would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness”?

The examples abound. Democrats, especially since the Bush tax cuts, have run on the class warfare argument that Republicans just want tax cuts “for the rich” (which, in the Democrats’ world, extends to the middle class with a smattering of regressive taxes on the poor as well) and that Republicans don’t understand the effects of inequality or the need to, in Obama’s terms, “spread the wealth around.”

Now, it’s true that the inequality issue’s profile may have been raised slightly by a credulous media seeing a crowd of Che wannabes in the sea of bored Chomskyites. But it’s safe to say the Obama campaign would have figured out a way to attack Romney’s wealth without the help of confused teenagers.

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A Passion for (Literary) Fashion

Stephen King turns 65 today. Happy birthday! Dwight Allen’s essay “My Stephen King Problem,” published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July, does an excellent job of summing up why I too have never been able to read America’s most popular novelist. “The writing is at times so weak,” Allen writes of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon — “so pat, so lazy — that I no longer imagined that King was attempting anything other than getting his story from Point A to Point B, even if he was doing that none too quickly.” King’s “pacing,” in book after book, is consistently “off.” The novels unfold “at a slug’s pace,” because they are “bloated” with scenes that go on too long and “unremarkable” social observations and period detail that is “slathered thickly on, as if to hide some vacancy.” For a novelist who is lauded for his single-minded devotion to story, King is addicted to much else besides, and surprisingly boring.

On King’s disappointments as a novelist Allen specifies almost exactly why The Shining and Under the Dome made me squirm (even if, unlike him, I could never get sufficiently worked up to spell out my discontent). When Allen moves on from the shortcomings of King’s novels to the question why they appeal to so many readers, though, I find myself being left behind:

Clearly, King’s readers — many of whom seem to get hooked on him when they are adolescents — don’t care that the sentences he writes or the scenes he constructs are dull. There must be something in the narrative arc, or in the nature of King’s characters, that these readers can’t resist. My sense is that King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult. . . . King coddles his readers, all nice, good, ordinary, likeable people (just like the heroes of his books), though this doesn’t completely explain why these readers are so tolerant of the bloat in these novels, why they will let King go on for a couple hundred pages about some matter that has no vital connection to the subject of the book.

The commentators to his article were appalled by Allen’s “snobbery,” his “air of superiority,” his “irritating condescension.” As it happens, I largely agree with them: when this style of armchair psychologizing substitutes for literary analysis, the critic should pack up and go home. But the tone and the amateurism are not the worst thing about his speculations. The worst thing is that Allen himself admits they are inadequate, since they fail to explain why King’s readers are “tolerant of the bloat.”

A better explanation is needed. Why are so many of King’s readers bloat-tolerant? As one of Allen’s commentators (a confessed King fan named Erik) cried, “I want story, I want meat, and I want to be transported by something other than my admiration of the author’s talent.” But why are so many of King’s readers satisfied with such mediocre cuts of the meat?

The usual answer is that “genre fiction” appeals to some readers (more readers), while “literary fiction” appeals to other readers (fewer readers). As I’ve said before — more than once, for that matter — this apportionment is clumsy and pathetic, the tactless swapping of critical terminology for marketing labels. The only question about a book is whether it is any good, even though good is a term absolutely relative. There are a lot of “genre” writers who are very good writers: the cowboy novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes, the crime novelist Jim Thompson, the detective novelist Ross Macdonald, the spy novelist Charles McCarry, the boy’s novelist John R. Tunis, the SF novelist William Gibson, the horror novelist Dean Koontz, the romance novelist Jane Austen.

Class divisions in literature cannot explain why some writers are good, both in the lower class and the higher, and some are atrocious. Allen caught the sleeve of a better explanation when he set out his expectations for any work of fiction:

Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn’t be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer. . . .

This is pretty much my standard too, my basic minimum and my ne plus ultra. Isaac Rosenfeld says somewhere that, if he is to enjoy a piece of writing, something interesting must be going on in the sentences. The whole of the controversy over William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin’s fiction was over the importance of sentences: for Giraldi, it is a necessary and sufficient condition of literature that its sentences do something more than “limp[] onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor”; for his detractors, it was “mean” of Giraldi to expect any such thing.

But the question remains. Why are some readers capable of ignoring or overlooking Stephen King’s flat and uninteresting sentences, while other readers are incapable of doing so? Again, this is no class division. First-rate critics like Arthur Krystal and Thomas Mallon have praised King’s books (although they remain silent about King’s prose). [Editor’s Note: See below.] And in fact, I mean to say just exactly what my phrasing implies: the readers who are able to ignore or overlook sentences that are swollen stiff with cliché have a talent that lesser readers — readers who can’t get past these miserable sentences — seem to lack. It’s a talent not unlike the willing suspension of disbelief. Here, though, it is the willing suspension of disgust.

My guess is that readers who are “transported” by King’s novels permit themselves the pleasure of enjoying literary fashion, while critics for whom the novels never rise above their sentences are squares and recluses and phobics who feel compelled to resist fashion at all costs. As the essayist Paul Graham points out, fashions are “arbitrary” and “invisible to most people.” You pick up an old photograph of yourself from the Seventies, wearing bell-bottom jeans and hair down to where it stops by itself, and you laugh. It rarely dawns on you, though, that the photograph of you from last week will be just as laughable in forty years.

But exactly the same is true of fiction. Take Harold Bell Wright, for example. Wright, who wrote 18 novels between 1902 and 1942, was the Stephen King of his era. Harper and Brothers once tabulated his sales and discovered that Wright’s books averaged more than 700,000 copies sold. Over 12 and a half million copies of his books were sold during his lifetime, that is. His most famous novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), sold 1,635,000 copies — an astonishing figure for the time. Wright was the “apostle of the wholesome,” just as King is the apostle of horror. Like King’s, his novels supplied material to the movies (Gary Cooper’s first starring role was in the 1926 production of Barbara Worth). Like King, Wright was jeered by the critics, but was beloved of his readers, who went back to him again and again for the red meat of story. Even a “snob” critic like William Morton Payne, writing in a “snob” magazine like The Dial, recognized Wright’s appeal:

The story [The Winning of Barbara Worth] has a great deal of character-interest, and of the interest that goes with tense situations and the solving of difficult problems. Its materials have been used many times before, but they are made to seem almost fresh by the largeness of their treatment. Still, the descriptive parts seem to us overdone. . . . The style of the book is matter-of-fact, and without any sort of distinction. But in spite of its long-windedness, and of the stretches which rival its own desert [setting] in aridity, the story is not unmoving or unsatisfying, and we can see in it many of the elements of popularity.

Yet no one reads Harold Bell Wright today. Begin at the climatic scene from The Winning of Barbara Worth and you can see why:

     In the office of The King’s Basin Land and Irrigation Company, James Greenfield was aroused by a knock at the door. He lifted his head from his arms and looked around as if awakened out of a deep sleep.
     Another knock, and he slipped the picture he held in his hand into his pocket and called, “Come in.”
     The door opened and Jefferson Worth stepped into the room.
     For a moment the president of the wrecked Company sat staring at his business rival, then he leaped to his feet, his fists clenched and his face working with passion. “You can’t come in here, sir. Get out!” he said with the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog.
     Jefferson Worth stood still. “I have business of importance with you, Mr. Greenfield,” he said, and his air of quiet dignity contrasted strangely with the rage of the larger man.
     “You can have no business with me of any sort whatever. I have nothing to do with your kind. This is my private office. I tell you to get out.”
     Jefferson Worth turned calmly as though to obey, but instead of leaving the room closed the door and locked it. Then, placing the small grip he carried upon the table, he deliberately went close to the threatening president and said coldly: “This is rank nonsense, Greenfield. I won’t leave this office until I’m through with what I came to do. I have business with you that concerns you as much as it does me.”
     “You’re a damned thief, a low sharper! I tell you I have nothing to do with you. Now get out or I’ll throw you out!”
     Jefferson Worth answered in his exact, precise manner, as though carefully choosing and considering his words: “No, you won’t throw me out. You’ll listen to what I have come to tell you. The rest of your statement, Greenfield, is false and you know it. It will be just as well for you not to repeat it.” The last low-spoken words did not appear to be uttered as a threat but as a calm statement of a carefully considered fact. James Greenfield felt as a man who permits himself to rage against an immovable obstacle—as one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path. With an effort he regained a measure of his self-control.
     “Well, out with it. What do you want?”

After a hundred years, the phrases that are both routine and awkward are both obvious and laughable (“the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog,” “one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path”). The dialogue is wooden and phony. The narrative force is detectable, but just barely — you have to push yourself across its length. Raise your hand if you wished for more. (Project Gutenberg has a digital copy if your hand is still in the air.) The plain truth is that literary fashion has changed and moved on, and the mannerisms that were invisible to readers in 1911 have become ridiculous.

Stephen King’s novels are like badly acted films. Those who enjoy them are endowed with the God-given ability to turn a blind eye to the defects and allow themselves to be carried away. In a hundred years, when it becomes clear that what they agreed to overlook were fashions that are now impossible to ignore, the novels’ appeal will have diminished to the vanishing point.
____________________

Update: After writing the above, I received the following letter:

I’m afraid that the usually precise D. G. Myers in his astute Literary Commentary blog (9-21-2012) has confused me with another critic. Although I allotted some space to Stephen King in a piece I wrote for the New Yorker, I was careful not to praise his books or his prose. I simply acknowledged in neutral tones Mr. King’s burgeoning reputation. Like Mr. Myers, I find King’s novels impossible to read for the simple reason that his sentences send me packing long before I know what he’s writing about.
                                                                                                                   Arthur Krystal

I am pleased to make the correction, and to offer Mr. Krystal my deepest apologies. Also glad to enroll him among the King skeptics.

Stephen King turns 65 today. Happy birthday! Dwight Allen’s essay “My Stephen King Problem,” published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July, does an excellent job of summing up why I too have never been able to read America’s most popular novelist. “The writing is at times so weak,” Allen writes of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon — “so pat, so lazy — that I no longer imagined that King was attempting anything other than getting his story from Point A to Point B, even if he was doing that none too quickly.” King’s “pacing,” in book after book, is consistently “off.” The novels unfold “at a slug’s pace,” because they are “bloated” with scenes that go on too long and “unremarkable” social observations and period detail that is “slathered thickly on, as if to hide some vacancy.” For a novelist who is lauded for his single-minded devotion to story, King is addicted to much else besides, and surprisingly boring.

On King’s disappointments as a novelist Allen specifies almost exactly why The Shining and Under the Dome made me squirm (even if, unlike him, I could never get sufficiently worked up to spell out my discontent). When Allen moves on from the shortcomings of King’s novels to the question why they appeal to so many readers, though, I find myself being left behind:

Clearly, King’s readers — many of whom seem to get hooked on him when they are adolescents — don’t care that the sentences he writes or the scenes he constructs are dull. There must be something in the narrative arc, or in the nature of King’s characters, that these readers can’t resist. My sense is that King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult. . . . King coddles his readers, all nice, good, ordinary, likeable people (just like the heroes of his books), though this doesn’t completely explain why these readers are so tolerant of the bloat in these novels, why they will let King go on for a couple hundred pages about some matter that has no vital connection to the subject of the book.

The commentators to his article were appalled by Allen’s “snobbery,” his “air of superiority,” his “irritating condescension.” As it happens, I largely agree with them: when this style of armchair psychologizing substitutes for literary analysis, the critic should pack up and go home. But the tone and the amateurism are not the worst thing about his speculations. The worst thing is that Allen himself admits they are inadequate, since they fail to explain why King’s readers are “tolerant of the bloat.”

A better explanation is needed. Why are so many of King’s readers bloat-tolerant? As one of Allen’s commentators (a confessed King fan named Erik) cried, “I want story, I want meat, and I want to be transported by something other than my admiration of the author’s talent.” But why are so many of King’s readers satisfied with such mediocre cuts of the meat?

The usual answer is that “genre fiction” appeals to some readers (more readers), while “literary fiction” appeals to other readers (fewer readers). As I’ve said before — more than once, for that matter — this apportionment is clumsy and pathetic, the tactless swapping of critical terminology for marketing labels. The only question about a book is whether it is any good, even though good is a term absolutely relative. There are a lot of “genre” writers who are very good writers: the cowboy novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes, the crime novelist Jim Thompson, the detective novelist Ross Macdonald, the spy novelist Charles McCarry, the boy’s novelist John R. Tunis, the SF novelist William Gibson, the horror novelist Dean Koontz, the romance novelist Jane Austen.

Class divisions in literature cannot explain why some writers are good, both in the lower class and the higher, and some are atrocious. Allen caught the sleeve of a better explanation when he set out his expectations for any work of fiction:

Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn’t be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer. . . .

This is pretty much my standard too, my basic minimum and my ne plus ultra. Isaac Rosenfeld says somewhere that, if he is to enjoy a piece of writing, something interesting must be going on in the sentences. The whole of the controversy over William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin’s fiction was over the importance of sentences: for Giraldi, it is a necessary and sufficient condition of literature that its sentences do something more than “limp[] onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor”; for his detractors, it was “mean” of Giraldi to expect any such thing.

But the question remains. Why are some readers capable of ignoring or overlooking Stephen King’s flat and uninteresting sentences, while other readers are incapable of doing so? Again, this is no class division. First-rate critics like Arthur Krystal and Thomas Mallon have praised King’s books (although they remain silent about King’s prose). [Editor’s Note: See below.] And in fact, I mean to say just exactly what my phrasing implies: the readers who are able to ignore or overlook sentences that are swollen stiff with cliché have a talent that lesser readers — readers who can’t get past these miserable sentences — seem to lack. It’s a talent not unlike the willing suspension of disbelief. Here, though, it is the willing suspension of disgust.

My guess is that readers who are “transported” by King’s novels permit themselves the pleasure of enjoying literary fashion, while critics for whom the novels never rise above their sentences are squares and recluses and phobics who feel compelled to resist fashion at all costs. As the essayist Paul Graham points out, fashions are “arbitrary” and “invisible to most people.” You pick up an old photograph of yourself from the Seventies, wearing bell-bottom jeans and hair down to where it stops by itself, and you laugh. It rarely dawns on you, though, that the photograph of you from last week will be just as laughable in forty years.

But exactly the same is true of fiction. Take Harold Bell Wright, for example. Wright, who wrote 18 novels between 1902 and 1942, was the Stephen King of his era. Harper and Brothers once tabulated his sales and discovered that Wright’s books averaged more than 700,000 copies sold. Over 12 and a half million copies of his books were sold during his lifetime, that is. His most famous novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), sold 1,635,000 copies — an astonishing figure for the time. Wright was the “apostle of the wholesome,” just as King is the apostle of horror. Like King’s, his novels supplied material to the movies (Gary Cooper’s first starring role was in the 1926 production of Barbara Worth). Like King, Wright was jeered by the critics, but was beloved of his readers, who went back to him again and again for the red meat of story. Even a “snob” critic like William Morton Payne, writing in a “snob” magazine like The Dial, recognized Wright’s appeal:

The story [The Winning of Barbara Worth] has a great deal of character-interest, and of the interest that goes with tense situations and the solving of difficult problems. Its materials have been used many times before, but they are made to seem almost fresh by the largeness of their treatment. Still, the descriptive parts seem to us overdone. . . . The style of the book is matter-of-fact, and without any sort of distinction. But in spite of its long-windedness, and of the stretches which rival its own desert [setting] in aridity, the story is not unmoving or unsatisfying, and we can see in it many of the elements of popularity.

Yet no one reads Harold Bell Wright today. Begin at the climatic scene from The Winning of Barbara Worth and you can see why:

     In the office of The King’s Basin Land and Irrigation Company, James Greenfield was aroused by a knock at the door. He lifted his head from his arms and looked around as if awakened out of a deep sleep.
     Another knock, and he slipped the picture he held in his hand into his pocket and called, “Come in.”
     The door opened and Jefferson Worth stepped into the room.
     For a moment the president of the wrecked Company sat staring at his business rival, then he leaped to his feet, his fists clenched and his face working with passion. “You can’t come in here, sir. Get out!” he said with the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog.
     Jefferson Worth stood still. “I have business of importance with you, Mr. Greenfield,” he said, and his air of quiet dignity contrasted strangely with the rage of the larger man.
     “You can have no business with me of any sort whatever. I have nothing to do with your kind. This is my private office. I tell you to get out.”
     Jefferson Worth turned calmly as though to obey, but instead of leaving the room closed the door and locked it. Then, placing the small grip he carried upon the table, he deliberately went close to the threatening president and said coldly: “This is rank nonsense, Greenfield. I won’t leave this office until I’m through with what I came to do. I have business with you that concerns you as much as it does me.”
     “You’re a damned thief, a low sharper! I tell you I have nothing to do with you. Now get out or I’ll throw you out!”
     Jefferson Worth answered in his exact, precise manner, as though carefully choosing and considering his words: “No, you won’t throw me out. You’ll listen to what I have come to tell you. The rest of your statement, Greenfield, is false and you know it. It will be just as well for you not to repeat it.” The last low-spoken words did not appear to be uttered as a threat but as a calm statement of a carefully considered fact. James Greenfield felt as a man who permits himself to rage against an immovable obstacle—as one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path. With an effort he regained a measure of his self-control.
     “Well, out with it. What do you want?”

After a hundred years, the phrases that are both routine and awkward are both obvious and laughable (“the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog,” “one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path”). The dialogue is wooden and phony. The narrative force is detectable, but just barely — you have to push yourself across its length. Raise your hand if you wished for more. (Project Gutenberg has a digital copy if your hand is still in the air.) The plain truth is that literary fashion has changed and moved on, and the mannerisms that were invisible to readers in 1911 have become ridiculous.

Stephen King’s novels are like badly acted films. Those who enjoy them are endowed with the God-given ability to turn a blind eye to the defects and allow themselves to be carried away. In a hundred years, when it becomes clear that what they agreed to overlook were fashions that are now impossible to ignore, the novels’ appeal will have diminished to the vanishing point.
____________________

Update: After writing the above, I received the following letter:

I’m afraid that the usually precise D. G. Myers in his astute Literary Commentary blog (9-21-2012) has confused me with another critic. Although I allotted some space to Stephen King in a piece I wrote for the New Yorker, I was careful not to praise his books or his prose. I simply acknowledged in neutral tones Mr. King’s burgeoning reputation. Like Mr. Myers, I find King’s novels impossible to read for the simple reason that his sentences send me packing long before I know what he’s writing about.
                                                                                                                   Arthur Krystal

I am pleased to make the correction, and to offer Mr. Krystal my deepest apologies. Also glad to enroll him among the King skeptics.

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Romney and Conservative Critics Should Focus on Obama, Not Each Other

The carping from conservatives is clearly starting to get on the nerves of the Mitt Romney campaign. The candidate’s No. 1 supporter vented a little of that frustration yesterday when in an interview on Radio Iowa Ann Romney chided critics of her husband’s efforts by saying:

“Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring,” she said. “This is hard and, you know, it’s an important thing that we’re doing right now and it’s an important election and it is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”

Mrs. Romney’s reaction is understandable. There is something terribly off-putting about the condescending attitude of writers like Peggy Noonan who wrongly attacked the candidate for quickly pushing back on the administration over the Libya debacle and then jumped on the 47 percent video with both feet. Beset as the Romney campaign is by a hostile mainstream media and a ruthless and nasty Democratic attack machine, the last thing she or anyone else associated with her husband’s candidacy needs is a shot from what is presumably their own side. What she wants is for all those opposed to President Obama to close ranks behind Romney and to push back on the narrative that he is failing. No doubt many conservatives feel the same way. But as much as some of the conservative kibitzers are off the mark, it must be admitted that their angst is merely the inevitable product of Romney’s gaffes and a campaign that has not exactly inspired confidence.

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The carping from conservatives is clearly starting to get on the nerves of the Mitt Romney campaign. The candidate’s No. 1 supporter vented a little of that frustration yesterday when in an interview on Radio Iowa Ann Romney chided critics of her husband’s efforts by saying:

“Stop it. This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring,” she said. “This is hard and, you know, it’s an important thing that we’re doing right now and it’s an important election and it is time for all Americans to realize how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”

Mrs. Romney’s reaction is understandable. There is something terribly off-putting about the condescending attitude of writers like Peggy Noonan who wrongly attacked the candidate for quickly pushing back on the administration over the Libya debacle and then jumped on the 47 percent video with both feet. Beset as the Romney campaign is by a hostile mainstream media and a ruthless and nasty Democratic attack machine, the last thing she or anyone else associated with her husband’s candidacy needs is a shot from what is presumably their own side. What she wants is for all those opposed to President Obama to close ranks behind Romney and to push back on the narrative that he is failing. No doubt many conservatives feel the same way. But as much as some of the conservative kibitzers are off the mark, it must be admitted that their angst is merely the inevitable product of Romney’s gaffes and a campaign that has not exactly inspired confidence.

Let’s specify that some of those conservatives who are being singled out for not being loyal soldiers like Bill Kristol are the same people who were telling us a year ago that the GOP needed a better alternative to Barack Obama than Mitt Romney. Romney is the same person today that he was in 2011 when most conservatives were not in love with him. But just as it was the case a year ago that there was no better GOP option available in the primaries, the candidate is the only hope for those who are appalled at the idea of four more years for Barack Obama.

Whether the Romney campaign is a model of political genius or not, now is the moment for conservatives to be focused on pointing out the administration’s deceptive policies on Iran, the Libya debacle (as our John Podhoretz points out in his column today in the New York Post) as well as the fact that the president has no plan for fixing a broken economy other than class warfare rhetoric and more taxing and spending. Win or lose, there will be plenty of time for recriminations about the campaign’s shortcomings after November.

At the same time, this isn’t the moment for the Romney camp to be saying how “hard” it is to run for president. Of course it’s hard, but to those whom much is given, much is expected. All it will take to silence Romney’s conservative critics is a focused and successful homestretch run and strong debate performances.

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President Obama’s Twice-Told Tale

As Alana noted, President Obama told a forum in Florida yesterday that the “most important lesson” he’s learned since taking office is that “you can’t change Washington from the inside.” You can only change it “from the outside.”

But this is not something he learned since taking office. He knew it four years ago, having learned it from “history.” In his acceptance speech in 2008, he told the Democratic convention that:

“You have shown what history teaches us, that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens — change happens because the American people demand it, because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time. America, this is one of those moments.”

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As Alana noted, President Obama told a forum in Florida yesterday that the “most important lesson” he’s learned since taking office is that “you can’t change Washington from the inside.” You can only change it “from the outside.”

But this is not something he learned since taking office. He knew it four years ago, having learned it from “history.” In his acceptance speech in 2008, he told the Democratic convention that:

“You have shown what history teaches us, that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens — change happens because the American people demand it, because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time. America, this is one of those moments.”

Back when he first noted the lesson that change came to Washington, not from Washington, change was something produced by “defining moments” — such as the night he clinched the Democratic nomination (which he called a “defining moment” — the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”); or the night he was elected (which he called a “defining moment” — when “change has come to America”); or the day he was inaugurated (which he called “a moment that will define a generation”). The change-producing moments were his nomination, election, and inauguration. He was change personified.

Four years after the generation-defining moment, he teaches what he has purportedly learned from the last four years, but it is what four years ago he said history had already taught him. It is the same lesson both times, but this time the lesson is offered not as a reason to elect him, but as an excuse for what he has failed to do since he was elected. The underlying message is the opposite of the prior one: this time it is don’t blame him — change comes from outside.

That dismal record of mine, he seems to be saying — I didn’t build that.

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