Commentary Magazine


Topic: Cable TV

Obama Is Borrrring!

Obama’s public persona is so predictable and his image so overexposed that even the left is over him. He’s gone from fascinating and cool to a crashing bore in less than two years. Greg Sargent: “Seems the consensus is that Obama’s presser [Friday] was way too boring, substantive and unemotional to produce an abrupt and massive enough turnaround in the polls to guarantee in advance that Dems hold their majority.” Ditto, hisses Maureen Dowd: “How did the first president of color become so colorless?” Well, he ran out of catchphrases and revealed himself to be less articulate than George Bush. Dowd admits he sounds downright loopy at times:

“How have you changed Washington?” [Chuck] Todd asked.

The president answered that he is trying to help “ordinary families” and not special interests, before conceding that he, too, is frustrated by his inability to create “a greater spirit of cooperation in Washington.”

“You know, are there, you know, things that I might have done during the course of 18 months that would, you know, at the margins have improved some of the tone in Washington?” Obama asked. “Probably.” Uncharacteristically valley girl, the usually eloquent president must have, you know, had a hard time acknowledging that.

Why are liberals so bored all of a sudden? Conservatives, of course, rolled their eyes over his New Age-like campaign rhetoric and have begun to pine for Bill Clinton, who, at least, was intellectually creative and amusing. There are, I think, several things at work.

First, style — that “superior temperament” and the coolness — was what attracted many urban liberals to him in the first place. Obama was in essence the latest trend, equivalent to this season’s fashion or the newest cell phone, which they had to have. But trends by definition come and go, and surface impressions and infatuation don’t last long.

Second, it is easier to admit that the candidate they swooned for is boring than it is to say he’s incompetent (or an empty suit). The former implies that Obama has lost his charm, the latter suggests that their own judgment was faulty. This also neatly sidesteps the troubling matter that Obama’s policies have tanked. (If he could only be more eloquent about the trillions spent, the public wouldn’t dessert him, the thinking goes.)

Third, Obama just doesn’t wear well. Having never stepped out of his campaign mode or put aside his contempt for the Bible and gun clingers (that would be a large segment of America), he’s grating on the nerves. Dowd quotes a “Peggy” (that Peggy? who knows if there is a Peggy at all):

I don’t watch him anymore. I’m turned off by him. I think he’s an elitist. He went down to the gulf, telling everyone to take a vacation down there, and then he goes to Martha’s Vineyard. He does what he wants but then he tells us to do other things. I want him in that White House acting like a president, not out on the campaign trail. Not when the country is going down the toilet.

And finally, Obama thought we could never get enough of him. He has been omnipresent — everywhere from the all-star game  to People magazine. Former White House officials warned that the presidency is a commodity that should be jealously guarded. But Obama has insisted on splattering himself on every publication and appearing on virtually every cable TV station. (He might have missed Food Network, although his wife did show up there.) Even someone with something interesting to say can’t say it for two years without losing his freshness.

I’m doubtful Obama can reinvent himself, either intellectually or personally. He’s not struck us as one willing to moderate his ideology or to reflect on his own weaknesses. And it may be that just as bored as liberals are of him, he’s bored with the job and tired of the incessant criticism, fed up with unappreciative Americans, and frustrated that the country and world do not fall at his feet. Maybe one term really is enough for him — and for his disenchanted supporters.

Obama’s public persona is so predictable and his image so overexposed that even the left is over him. He’s gone from fascinating and cool to a crashing bore in less than two years. Greg Sargent: “Seems the consensus is that Obama’s presser [Friday] was way too boring, substantive and unemotional to produce an abrupt and massive enough turnaround in the polls to guarantee in advance that Dems hold their majority.” Ditto, hisses Maureen Dowd: “How did the first president of color become so colorless?” Well, he ran out of catchphrases and revealed himself to be less articulate than George Bush. Dowd admits he sounds downright loopy at times:

“How have you changed Washington?” [Chuck] Todd asked.

The president answered that he is trying to help “ordinary families” and not special interests, before conceding that he, too, is frustrated by his inability to create “a greater spirit of cooperation in Washington.”

“You know, are there, you know, things that I might have done during the course of 18 months that would, you know, at the margins have improved some of the tone in Washington?” Obama asked. “Probably.” Uncharacteristically valley girl, the usually eloquent president must have, you know, had a hard time acknowledging that.

Why are liberals so bored all of a sudden? Conservatives, of course, rolled their eyes over his New Age-like campaign rhetoric and have begun to pine for Bill Clinton, who, at least, was intellectually creative and amusing. There are, I think, several things at work.

First, style — that “superior temperament” and the coolness — was what attracted many urban liberals to him in the first place. Obama was in essence the latest trend, equivalent to this season’s fashion or the newest cell phone, which they had to have. But trends by definition come and go, and surface impressions and infatuation don’t last long.

Second, it is easier to admit that the candidate they swooned for is boring than it is to say he’s incompetent (or an empty suit). The former implies that Obama has lost his charm, the latter suggests that their own judgment was faulty. This also neatly sidesteps the troubling matter that Obama’s policies have tanked. (If he could only be more eloquent about the trillions spent, the public wouldn’t dessert him, the thinking goes.)

Third, Obama just doesn’t wear well. Having never stepped out of his campaign mode or put aside his contempt for the Bible and gun clingers (that would be a large segment of America), he’s grating on the nerves. Dowd quotes a “Peggy” (that Peggy? who knows if there is a Peggy at all):

I don’t watch him anymore. I’m turned off by him. I think he’s an elitist. He went down to the gulf, telling everyone to take a vacation down there, and then he goes to Martha’s Vineyard. He does what he wants but then he tells us to do other things. I want him in that White House acting like a president, not out on the campaign trail. Not when the country is going down the toilet.

And finally, Obama thought we could never get enough of him. He has been omnipresent — everywhere from the all-star game  to People magazine. Former White House officials warned that the presidency is a commodity that should be jealously guarded. But Obama has insisted on splattering himself on every publication and appearing on virtually every cable TV station. (He might have missed Food Network, although his wife did show up there.) Even someone with something interesting to say can’t say it for two years without losing his freshness.

I’m doubtful Obama can reinvent himself, either intellectually or personally. He’s not struck us as one willing to moderate his ideology or to reflect on his own weaknesses. And it may be that just as bored as liberals are of him, he’s bored with the job and tired of the incessant criticism, fed up with unappreciative Americans, and frustrated that the country and world do not fall at his feet. Maybe one term really is enough for him — and for his disenchanted supporters.

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Nothing to See, Move Along

Howard Kurtz can’t understand what all the fuss over the Ground Zero mosque is about:

It seems to me a colossal waste of time, a huge expenditure of national energy over something that is ultimately symbolic, and which government doesn’t have the power to stop anyway (since the planners have obtained the necessary New York City approvals). It is as if the country’s agenda has been reduced to a noisy cable TV debate.

Umm, I think it’s a “teachable moment” — a crystallizing event that gives insight into or confirms our understanding of the president, elite opinion makers, the jihadist enemy we face, and what constitutes a “moderate Muslim.” Oh, and it’s become another issue dividing Democrats, undermining the president’s stature, and contributing to the election wipeout on the horizon. Yeah, not a big deal.

Maybe what Kurtz and certainly what the left punditocracy are saying is that it would be swell if the whole thing just went away. (Like the New Black Panther scandal! Which by the way has also disappeared from liberal media outlets after a brief effort at damage control for their non-coverage of another story deemed “unimportant.”) The mosque controversy is messy. It is divisive. It is uncontrollable by the mainstream media. It is downright inconvenient for those who would prefer the public not be so noisy and the conflict between the elites and the public so stark. But it sure is news, as important and possibly decisive an event as we have seen in the Obama presidency.

Howard Kurtz can’t understand what all the fuss over the Ground Zero mosque is about:

It seems to me a colossal waste of time, a huge expenditure of national energy over something that is ultimately symbolic, and which government doesn’t have the power to stop anyway (since the planners have obtained the necessary New York City approvals). It is as if the country’s agenda has been reduced to a noisy cable TV debate.

Umm, I think it’s a “teachable moment” — a crystallizing event that gives insight into or confirms our understanding of the president, elite opinion makers, the jihadist enemy we face, and what constitutes a “moderate Muslim.” Oh, and it’s become another issue dividing Democrats, undermining the president’s stature, and contributing to the election wipeout on the horizon. Yeah, not a big deal.

Maybe what Kurtz and certainly what the left punditocracy are saying is that it would be swell if the whole thing just went away. (Like the New Black Panther scandal! Which by the way has also disappeared from liberal media outlets after a brief effort at damage control for their non-coverage of another story deemed “unimportant.”) The mosque controversy is messy. It is divisive. It is uncontrollable by the mainstream media. It is downright inconvenient for those who would prefer the public not be so noisy and the conflict between the elites and the public so stark. But it sure is news, as important and possibly decisive an event as we have seen in the Obama presidency.

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Are the 70′s Back? If Only!

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Ross Douthat has a very fine essay on what he frames as Hollywood’s return to the 1970′s. It puts last fall’s spate of Iraq war films in context, bringing them into place alongside everything from the neo-exploitation slasher flicks of Eli Roth to the Bourne series and mediocre remakes like The Manchurian Candidate. Lots of ink (some of it mine) was spilled last fall dissecting the movie biz’s dreary, self-righteous takes on the war, but his essay paints the clearest picture by far.

I would say, however, he gives short shrift to one point: lame-brained politics or no, the crusading, politically-infused films of the 1970′s were simply better films–and that goes for the prestige pics as well as the B-movies. Douthat notes this in passing, agreeing that the 80′s were “a more middlebrow, conservative decade in pop culture” in comparison with the political engagement of 70′s cinema.

But it’s essential to note that today’s crop–at least in its most explicitly political incarnations–is by any standard rife with unambiguously rotten material. Lions for Lambs, Redacted, and In the Valley of Elah were painful to sit through. Even the better stuff, like the 2005 Clooney duo of Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck were merely average–decent productions that fail to rise to the level of most cable television series. The only recent productions in this vein that stand out at all are the three Bourne films, which tend to use their political framework as a background and succeed mostly on the strength of their dazzling action setpieces.

Contrast this with the films of the 1970′s. There’s little comparison. Apocalypse Now may have little to do with the real-life experience of Vietnam, but it’s a hypnotic, singular vision from an accomplished cinematic artist working at the peak of his powers. All the President’s Men remains one of film’s best detective stories, and probably the best movie about Washington or journalism ever made. Middlebrow fare like The Parallax View and Flight of the Condor sparkled in a way that today’s mainstream thrillers rarely accomplish. And even low-budget films like Death Race 2000 and The Warriors crackled with a sense of outrage, awareness, and energy. Movies like these, as well as the early works of directors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, indulged in exploitation flick shenanigans. But they also had a tremendous amount of fun, and maybe even managed to say something about the state of the world, too.

Heaven knows the politics of Hollywood in 1970′s were off the wall, perhaps even wackier and more radical than today’s. But somehow, they still managed to turn out movies that were far less irritating than the artless, self-satisfied liberal consciousness-raisers we seem to be stuck with now.

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Ross Douthat has a very fine essay on what he frames as Hollywood’s return to the 1970′s. It puts last fall’s spate of Iraq war films in context, bringing them into place alongside everything from the neo-exploitation slasher flicks of Eli Roth to the Bourne series and mediocre remakes like The Manchurian Candidate. Lots of ink (some of it mine) was spilled last fall dissecting the movie biz’s dreary, self-righteous takes on the war, but his essay paints the clearest picture by far.

I would say, however, he gives short shrift to one point: lame-brained politics or no, the crusading, politically-infused films of the 1970′s were simply better films–and that goes for the prestige pics as well as the B-movies. Douthat notes this in passing, agreeing that the 80′s were “a more middlebrow, conservative decade in pop culture” in comparison with the political engagement of 70′s cinema.

But it’s essential to note that today’s crop–at least in its most explicitly political incarnations–is by any standard rife with unambiguously rotten material. Lions for Lambs, Redacted, and In the Valley of Elah were painful to sit through. Even the better stuff, like the 2005 Clooney duo of Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck were merely average–decent productions that fail to rise to the level of most cable television series. The only recent productions in this vein that stand out at all are the three Bourne films, which tend to use their political framework as a background and succeed mostly on the strength of their dazzling action setpieces.

Contrast this with the films of the 1970′s. There’s little comparison. Apocalypse Now may have little to do with the real-life experience of Vietnam, but it’s a hypnotic, singular vision from an accomplished cinematic artist working at the peak of his powers. All the President’s Men remains one of film’s best detective stories, and probably the best movie about Washington or journalism ever made. Middlebrow fare like The Parallax View and Flight of the Condor sparkled in a way that today’s mainstream thrillers rarely accomplish. And even low-budget films like Death Race 2000 and The Warriors crackled with a sense of outrage, awareness, and energy. Movies like these, as well as the early works of directors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, indulged in exploitation flick shenanigans. But they also had a tremendous amount of fun, and maybe even managed to say something about the state of the world, too.

Heaven knows the politics of Hollywood in 1970′s were off the wall, perhaps even wackier and more radical than today’s. But somehow, they still managed to turn out movies that were far less irritating than the artless, self-satisfied liberal consciousness-raisers we seem to be stuck with now.

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Did It Work?

In assessing his speech on race, the key consideration is not whether Barack Obama’s swooning media fan club is impressed (of course they are) or whether it won over conservatives (mostly not) but whether it solved his problem. The measure of the speech’s success, in other words, is whether it convinced the people it was supposed to convince.

Not unlike Mitt Romney, who was forced to give a speech on faith to try to break through to evangelical Christians who stood between him and a victory in the Iowa caucus, Obama was obligated to give a speech to try to stem panic among the Democratic establishment and to satisfy the Democratic base, especially white working class voters, that he is not a fake and a fraud when he posits himself as a great racial healer. (In Romney’s case, his faith speech didn’t help and arguably hurt by raising Mormonism front and center and reminding those very voters he was trying to reach that yes, this is the Mormon guy. It did not much matter whether conservative pundits who already supported him liked the speech or whether TV commentators praised him.)

For Obama, we will have to see if the pictures and headlines trump the cable TV pundits’ praise. The video of Reverend Wright shouting his anti-white and anti-American diatribes and the headlines reporting that Obama refused to disassociate himself with Wright will provide one narrative. The gushing commentators will provide another. I suspect the result will be much the same as it was for Romney: those that didn’t need a speech to be convinced of Obama’s transcending greatness will go on supporting Obama and those who had doubts before (or who now are deeply offended by the venom-spouting Wright) aren’t going to vote for Obama. How many will view this episode as evidence of Obama’s moral clarity (“Look how he embraces all of us and takes us beyond past racial divisions!”) and how many will see it as evidence of his moral obtuseness (“The guy sat there for decades listening to this garbage and still can’t see the difference between Wright and his own grandmother?”) We will have to see whether a significant number of voter are, as my kids would say, “over him” post-Wright.

Time will tell, but the measure of the speech’s success is not the level of rapture from cable news commentators, but the vote tallies (and let’s be honest, the percentage of the white vote) in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. That will tell us if the speech was successful. One thing we know for sure: you can’t say Obama’s candidacy isn’t about race.

In assessing his speech on race, the key consideration is not whether Barack Obama’s swooning media fan club is impressed (of course they are) or whether it won over conservatives (mostly not) but whether it solved his problem. The measure of the speech’s success, in other words, is whether it convinced the people it was supposed to convince.

Not unlike Mitt Romney, who was forced to give a speech on faith to try to break through to evangelical Christians who stood between him and a victory in the Iowa caucus, Obama was obligated to give a speech to try to stem panic among the Democratic establishment and to satisfy the Democratic base, especially white working class voters, that he is not a fake and a fraud when he posits himself as a great racial healer. (In Romney’s case, his faith speech didn’t help and arguably hurt by raising Mormonism front and center and reminding those very voters he was trying to reach that yes, this is the Mormon guy. It did not much matter whether conservative pundits who already supported him liked the speech or whether TV commentators praised him.)

For Obama, we will have to see if the pictures and headlines trump the cable TV pundits’ praise. The video of Reverend Wright shouting his anti-white and anti-American diatribes and the headlines reporting that Obama refused to disassociate himself with Wright will provide one narrative. The gushing commentators will provide another. I suspect the result will be much the same as it was for Romney: those that didn’t need a speech to be convinced of Obama’s transcending greatness will go on supporting Obama and those who had doubts before (or who now are deeply offended by the venom-spouting Wright) aren’t going to vote for Obama. How many will view this episode as evidence of Obama’s moral clarity (“Look how he embraces all of us and takes us beyond past racial divisions!”) and how many will see it as evidence of his moral obtuseness (“The guy sat there for decades listening to this garbage and still can’t see the difference between Wright and his own grandmother?”) We will have to see whether a significant number of voter are, as my kids would say, “over him” post-Wright.

Time will tell, but the measure of the speech’s success is not the level of rapture from cable news commentators, but the vote tallies (and let’s be honest, the percentage of the white vote) in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. That will tell us if the speech was successful. One thing we know for sure: you can’t say Obama’s candidacy isn’t about race.

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A Warning on McCain

A few years ago, I wrote a long profile of John McCain for a now-defunct magazine called Arizona Monthly (so defunct that I can’t even find a copy of the article), and had cause to spend days on Nexis and in the Congressional Record going through his career as a politician. Pace my friends on the Right, but what came through most clearly was not his hunger to curry favor with non-conservatives but rather his hunger to stand in opposition to a prevailing authority.

For example: McCain may now trumpet his Reaganite credentials, but as a very junior Congressman from Arizona, he was surprisingly vocal in his libertarian criticisms of the Reagan administration’s spending (sound familiar?).

Later, as the most senior Vietnam vet in government, he chose to set himself against the powerful populist movement to locate living Americans missing in action in Vietnam — disgusted as he was, and properly so, by the Chichikovian hustlers who preyed on the emotions of the families of American soldiers listed as MIA by selling them bills of goods about invented eyewitness accounts of Americans still in custody in Southeast Asia.

He continued his oppositionism by deciding to take on industries with a mercantilist relationship to federal, state, and local governments that did not act in ways to benefit their consumers — Big Tobacco for one, and cable television for another. Even as he was doing this in the 1990s, he was also at the Clinton administration’s throat for behaving fecklessly on the key issues of military readiness and the situation in the former Yugoslavia. And, of course, we know about his oppositionism to the Bush administration in the areas of tax cuts (foolishly against) and the conduct of the struggle in Iraq (against in the most visionary way).

McCain begins to lose his footing when he isn’t squaring off. That is, in part, what accounts for the disastrous turn his campaign took in 2007; he was the frontrunner, the establishment choice, and he simply didn’t know what to do or how to manage it. Fortunately for McCain, he will be running throughout 2008 as an underdog. But he will also have to be a figure of unity, a leader on whom tens of millions of people can project hopes and wishes and expectations. That is what it means to be a national leader. It will be a terrific challenge for him. But who said running for president is easy?

A few years ago, I wrote a long profile of John McCain for a now-defunct magazine called Arizona Monthly (so defunct that I can’t even find a copy of the article), and had cause to spend days on Nexis and in the Congressional Record going through his career as a politician. Pace my friends on the Right, but what came through most clearly was not his hunger to curry favor with non-conservatives but rather his hunger to stand in opposition to a prevailing authority.

For example: McCain may now trumpet his Reaganite credentials, but as a very junior Congressman from Arizona, he was surprisingly vocal in his libertarian criticisms of the Reagan administration’s spending (sound familiar?).

Later, as the most senior Vietnam vet in government, he chose to set himself against the powerful populist movement to locate living Americans missing in action in Vietnam — disgusted as he was, and properly so, by the Chichikovian hustlers who preyed on the emotions of the families of American soldiers listed as MIA by selling them bills of goods about invented eyewitness accounts of Americans still in custody in Southeast Asia.

He continued his oppositionism by deciding to take on industries with a mercantilist relationship to federal, state, and local governments that did not act in ways to benefit their consumers — Big Tobacco for one, and cable television for another. Even as he was doing this in the 1990s, he was also at the Clinton administration’s throat for behaving fecklessly on the key issues of military readiness and the situation in the former Yugoslavia. And, of course, we know about his oppositionism to the Bush administration in the areas of tax cuts (foolishly against) and the conduct of the struggle in Iraq (against in the most visionary way).

McCain begins to lose his footing when he isn’t squaring off. That is, in part, what accounts for the disastrous turn his campaign took in 2007; he was the frontrunner, the establishment choice, and he simply didn’t know what to do or how to manage it. Fortunately for McCain, he will be running throughout 2008 as an underdog. But he will also have to be a figure of unity, a leader on whom tens of millions of people can project hopes and wishes and expectations. That is what it means to be a national leader. It will be a terrific challenge for him. But who said running for president is easy?

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Cleaning Up Israel

The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.

Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.

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The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.

Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.

In this sense, Israel is in the third and murkiest of the three categories that you can divide the world’s countries into. There are countries in which corruption hardly exists and no one would dream of trying to solve his problems by resorting to it. There are countries in which it is omnipresent and everyone understands that it is the only way to get things done. And there are countries, like Israel, in which the rules are simply not clear, and you never know if a bribe will pay off, be dismissed by whoever it is offered to with an indignant glare or weary smile but no worse, or land you in jail. Most people would never run the risk, but most people have also heard rumors or stories of others who have run it successfully. This makes corruption a phenomenon that everyone is aware of but of whose true dimensions no one has a clear idea.

The fact of the matter is that, even in cleaner times, Israel was always a country in which the rules were never quite clear. I’ve heard it said that there are countries, like Japan, in which “yes” never means “yes.” But in Israel, “no” has never meant “no.” It has always meant, “Let’s argue and negotiate.” And in Israel, you negotiate with everyone: the phone company about its bills, the storekeeper about his prices, the teacher about his marks. You don’t generally do this by offering bribes. You do it by reasoning, wheedling, shouting, crying, pleading, threatening, joking. Only suckers take “no” for an answer.

It took me a while to learn this when I immigrated to Israel in 1970. One of my first lessons came when filling out my first Israeli income-tax return. When it came to house expenses such as electricity and water bills—on which, as a self-employed writer living at home, I had a right to a partial deduction—the accountant scratched his head and said, “You know what? Let’s try deducting 50 percent.”

“What do you mean, let’s try?” I said. “What are the rules?”

“There are no rules,” said the accountant. “And even if there are, they’re too complicated to figure out.”

“Then why don’t you call the tax authorities and ask?” I suggested.

My accountant looked at me with astonishment. Clearly I had been born, not yesterday, but sometime in the previous hour. “If I ask, they’ll tell me it’s 10 percent,” he said. “Let’s put in for 50.”

We put in for 50, and it worked. Since then, I’ve deducted 50 percent of my house expenses from my tax returns every year. Is that what the law permits me to do? Don’t ask me, I just do it.

All this has a certain charm. It can be frustrating and unnerving, of course—there’s something to be said for knowing where you stand, instead of having to find out ad hoc each time—but it has made Israel in many ways a much more flexible place to operate in than other countries. Although people complain about Israeli bureaucracy, Israeli bureaucrats are models of human kindness compared to bureaucrats I’ve encountered in other places. You can actually get them to change their minds or make an exception for you if you’re skillful enough in presenting your case.

Such a modus operandi becomes deadly, however, the minute corruption enters into it. It’s one thing for an official behind a desk to give you the permit he really shouldn’t have given you because you’ve burst into tears or turned out to be his third cousin once-removed. It’s another thing for him to give it to you because a wad of cash has fallen unnoticed from your wallet while you were leaving. And this, once rare, is becoming a more and more accepted practice.

If Israel is not going to end up in corruption category 1, it is going to have to change its ways of doing things and learn to go by the rules—everywhere. In some ways this will be too bad. Just last week my wife phoned the cable TV company and got it to lower the rates it charges us by threatening to move to a rival. An Israel you can no longer do this in will be a less simpatico place. But it will also be a cleaner one.

Indeed, if one wants to be optimistic, this is what is happening in Israel right now. Case after case that might have gone unprosecuted before is now ending up in the courts, the cases of ranking politicians not excepted. It looks bad, and it is bad. But eventually, the lesson may sink in. There may be a golden mean between Denmark and Nigeria, but if you have to choose, it’s a lot better to be Denmark.

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