Commentary Magazine


Topic: Christopher Hitchens

Out of the Box, or Off the Wall?

Over the past few months, I’ve written a few posts that raised questions about the arrangement of the marbles inside the brain of Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit and now a widely cited “expert” on counterterrorism. In his new book, The Road to Hell, Scheuer has turned around and accused me and some of his other critics of being “Israel Firsters,” Americans who put the interests of the state of Israel ahead of those of the United States, and therefore bent on discrediting him because he is exposing our “dual loyalty.”

Never mind that the allegation of treason he levels at me and others, including James Carroll, Max Boot, Steven Simon, Alan Dershowitz, David Gergen, Christopher Hitchens, Marvin Kalb, and Eliot Cohen is offered without a shred of evidence to back it up. And never mind that some of his targets, like Carroll, are themselves harsh critics of Israel.

Here is James Carroll writing about Israeli settlements in a recent column:

Among the factors that derailed the so-called peace process across the years was the ongoing Israeli expansion of settlements, despite agreements to stop. The integrity of Israel’s word was compromised, and its goodwill was questioned. Settlement construction, especially in the environs of Jerusalem, amounted to a radical prejudicing of any conceivable end-game agreement.

I have no idea why Carroll has ended up on Scheuer’s list of “Israel Firsters.” But it is amusing that even some sharp critics of Israel in the mainstream media are now wondering about the arrangement of Scheuer’s marbles, too.

On Bloomberg news, Scheuer’s new book has been reviewed by George Walden, a British member of parliament. When Scheuer argues that the United States is too closely allied to Israel and Saudi Arabia, writes Walden, he is being perfectly “sane.” But “[m]ixed in with his more reasonable opinions,” Walden continues, “we find some thinking that’s not so much out-of-the-box as off-the-wall”:

outrage is his steady state, and he pummels the reader with phrases such as “Hogwash!” and “A pox on them all!” Cool argument isn’t his forte, and he abhors complexity. Nuance is what the elites use to evade decisions, he shrieks.

The title of the Bloomberg news review is Eggheads, Mavericks, Nut Cases: Why the CIA Missed Bin Laden. One of the most marvelous things about the British is their penchant for understatement. Walden’s final assessment, that Scheuer is “mildly touched,” is a classic example of the genre.

Over the past few months, I’ve written a few posts that raised questions about the arrangement of the marbles inside the brain of Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit and now a widely cited “expert” on counterterrorism. In his new book, The Road to Hell, Scheuer has turned around and accused me and some of his other critics of being “Israel Firsters,” Americans who put the interests of the state of Israel ahead of those of the United States, and therefore bent on discrediting him because he is exposing our “dual loyalty.”

Never mind that the allegation of treason he levels at me and others, including James Carroll, Max Boot, Steven Simon, Alan Dershowitz, David Gergen, Christopher Hitchens, Marvin Kalb, and Eliot Cohen is offered without a shred of evidence to back it up. And never mind that some of his targets, like Carroll, are themselves harsh critics of Israel.

Here is James Carroll writing about Israeli settlements in a recent column:

Among the factors that derailed the so-called peace process across the years was the ongoing Israeli expansion of settlements, despite agreements to stop. The integrity of Israel’s word was compromised, and its goodwill was questioned. Settlement construction, especially in the environs of Jerusalem, amounted to a radical prejudicing of any conceivable end-game agreement.

I have no idea why Carroll has ended up on Scheuer’s list of “Israel Firsters.” But it is amusing that even some sharp critics of Israel in the mainstream media are now wondering about the arrangement of Scheuer’s marbles, too.

On Bloomberg news, Scheuer’s new book has been reviewed by George Walden, a British member of parliament. When Scheuer argues that the United States is too closely allied to Israel and Saudi Arabia, writes Walden, he is being perfectly “sane.” But “[m]ixed in with his more reasonable opinions,” Walden continues, “we find some thinking that’s not so much out-of-the-box as off-the-wall”:

outrage is his steady state, and he pummels the reader with phrases such as “Hogwash!” and “A pox on them all!” Cool argument isn’t his forte, and he abhors complexity. Nuance is what the elites use to evade decisions, he shrieks.

The title of the Bloomberg news review is Eggheads, Mavericks, Nut Cases: Why the CIA Missed Bin Laden. One of the most marvelous things about the British is their penchant for understatement. Walden’s final assessment, that Scheuer is “mildly touched,” is a classic example of the genre.

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The Scheuer Charade

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the Osama bin Laden desk and now a leading media “expert” on counterterrorism, has two faces.

When he is talking to or writing for the non-mainstream media, he heads for zany territory. One only has to read his diatribes on antiwar.com or listen to him on antiwar radio talking about Israel’s covert-action programs in this country to get a good sense of what kind of crackpot he is.

But when Scheuer talks to the mainstream media, he strives to make sense. Even though he incessantly punctuates his speech with the word “sir,” — giving himself a military patina, although he has no military service in his background — he seldom dives off into cloud-cuckoo land. One exception was when he spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations and accused Israel of mounting a clandestine operation in the United States through the Holocaust museum on the Washington mall. But mostly he sticks to more defensible themes, usually hammering away on his principal point: that al Qaeda hates us because of what we do, not who we are.

Scheuer has a new book out, Marching Toward Hell. In it, he seems to have allowed his two sides to converge, freely mixing up his more reasonable (if arguable) themes with his whacko ones. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but my favorite point so far is Scheuer’s disquisition on free speech in the United States.

Scheuer begins by ticking off  a long and eclectic list of people whom he deems “reliable Israel-firsters.” In addition to me, he names James Carroll, Max Boot, Steven Simon, Alan Dershowitz, David Gergen, Christopher Hitchens, Marvin Kalb, and Eliot Cohen. “These are all dangerous men,” he writes, “who, in my judgment, are seeking to place de facto limitations on the First Amendment to protect the nation of their primary attachment.”

What Scheuer is referring to is not an attempt by me or any of these individuals to amend the Constitution, or to silence him through the courts, or to repeal his right to spout nonsense. Rather, he is merely talking about our criticism of him. To which one can only answer: Sir, criticism of you for your nuttiness and your anti-Semitism is our right under the First Amendment. To quote your writings to demonstrate that you are a crackpot, sir, is not to deny you your First Amendment right to speak or scribble as you please.

A particularly amusing aspect of all this is the way certain individuals in the mainstream media continue to take Scheuer seriously. Today’s interview with Scheuer in Newsweek, on the occasion of the publication of his new book, is a case in point. John Barry conducted that interview, and his journalistic laziness should win him a Pulitzer. Either Barry did not crack open Scheuer’s book, or he cracked it and is affecting not to notice what was staring him in the face.

My question of the day is: how long will this charade last?

For previous posts about Michael Scheuer, click here.

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the Osama bin Laden desk and now a leading media “expert” on counterterrorism, has two faces.

When he is talking to or writing for the non-mainstream media, he heads for zany territory. One only has to read his diatribes on antiwar.com or listen to him on antiwar radio talking about Israel’s covert-action programs in this country to get a good sense of what kind of crackpot he is.

But when Scheuer talks to the mainstream media, he strives to make sense. Even though he incessantly punctuates his speech with the word “sir,” — giving himself a military patina, although he has no military service in his background — he seldom dives off into cloud-cuckoo land. One exception was when he spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations and accused Israel of mounting a clandestine operation in the United States through the Holocaust museum on the Washington mall. But mostly he sticks to more defensible themes, usually hammering away on his principal point: that al Qaeda hates us because of what we do, not who we are.

Scheuer has a new book out, Marching Toward Hell. In it, he seems to have allowed his two sides to converge, freely mixing up his more reasonable (if arguable) themes with his whacko ones. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but my favorite point so far is Scheuer’s disquisition on free speech in the United States.

Scheuer begins by ticking off  a long and eclectic list of people whom he deems “reliable Israel-firsters.” In addition to me, he names James Carroll, Max Boot, Steven Simon, Alan Dershowitz, David Gergen, Christopher Hitchens, Marvin Kalb, and Eliot Cohen. “These are all dangerous men,” he writes, “who, in my judgment, are seeking to place de facto limitations on the First Amendment to protect the nation of their primary attachment.”

What Scheuer is referring to is not an attempt by me or any of these individuals to amend the Constitution, or to silence him through the courts, or to repeal his right to spout nonsense. Rather, he is merely talking about our criticism of him. To which one can only answer: Sir, criticism of you for your nuttiness and your anti-Semitism is our right under the First Amendment. To quote your writings to demonstrate that you are a crackpot, sir, is not to deny you your First Amendment right to speak or scribble as you please.

A particularly amusing aspect of all this is the way certain individuals in the mainstream media continue to take Scheuer seriously. Today’s interview with Scheuer in Newsweek, on the occasion of the publication of his new book, is a case in point. John Barry conducted that interview, and his journalistic laziness should win him a Pulitzer. Either Barry did not crack open Scheuer’s book, or he cracked it and is affecting not to notice what was staring him in the face.

My question of the day is: how long will this charade last?

For previous posts about Michael Scheuer, click here.

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Lessing Earns Her Nobel

The Nobel Prize has become little more than an award offered in recognition of outspoken anti-Western, anti-American, or anti-Israel bile. Whether the recipient is Yasser Arafat or Al Gore (for Peace) or Harold Pinter (for Literature), the ideological thread that links the winners is visible in varying degrees: America is either on the wrong track or apocalyptically on the wrong track, and Israel was never on the right one.

So, when Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel prize for literature, Christopher Hitchens, a Nobel detractor and a big Lessing fan, wrote: “It’s as though the long, dreary reign of the forgettable and the mediocre and the sinister had been just for once punctuated by a bright flash of talent.”

It turns out the Nobel Committee must have known something Hitchens didn’t, because since receiving the award, Ms. Lessing has seen to her “sinister” duties retroactively, as it were. In October of 2007, the BBC quoted Lessing on 9/11: “Many people died, two prominent buildings fell, but it was neither as terrible nor as extraordinary as they think.” Additionally, she described Americans as “very naïve people.” Today, the International Herald Tribune quotes Lessing predicting the assassination of a President Barack Obama: “He would probably not last long, a black man in the position of president. They would kill him.” One supposes this has to do with those American propensities for alarm and naïveté.

Do you think the Nobel Committee made an arrangement with Doris Lessing beforehand?

The Nobel Prize has become little more than an award offered in recognition of outspoken anti-Western, anti-American, or anti-Israel bile. Whether the recipient is Yasser Arafat or Al Gore (for Peace) or Harold Pinter (for Literature), the ideological thread that links the winners is visible in varying degrees: America is either on the wrong track or apocalyptically on the wrong track, and Israel was never on the right one.

So, when Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel prize for literature, Christopher Hitchens, a Nobel detractor and a big Lessing fan, wrote: “It’s as though the long, dreary reign of the forgettable and the mediocre and the sinister had been just for once punctuated by a bright flash of talent.”

It turns out the Nobel Committee must have known something Hitchens didn’t, because since receiving the award, Ms. Lessing has seen to her “sinister” duties retroactively, as it were. In October of 2007, the BBC quoted Lessing on 9/11: “Many people died, two prominent buildings fell, but it was neither as terrible nor as extraordinary as they think.” Additionally, she described Americans as “very naïve people.” Today, the International Herald Tribune quotes Lessing predicting the assassination of a President Barack Obama: “He would probably not last long, a black man in the position of president. They would kill him.” One supposes this has to do with those American propensities for alarm and naïveté.

Do you think the Nobel Committee made an arrangement with Doris Lessing beforehand?

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Obama: The New Princess Diana?

This was Christopher Hitchens’s question a year after the death of Princess Diana, which brought forth a “frightful binging and gorging of sentimentality” from the British populace, odd in a nation stoic by reputation. The people of a stiff upper lip had quavered. Hitchens is hardly averse to sentimentality, some of his best writing causes a catch in the throat; it is bogus sentimentality that be abhors. The death of a “hyperactive debutante” didn’t merit the wall-to-wall coverage, acres of flowers, and very public, very group-therapyesque bereavement that it had inspired.

As a 24 year-old male — just the sort of demographic he has solidly won over — I should probably hide while admitting this, but I feel the same away about the Barack Obama phenomenon as Hitchens did about the mourning of Princess Diana. And I’ll risk sounding a little self-satisfied by predicting that should Obama not be the one sworn into office come January 2009, the country will look back on this current presidential campaign feeling a similar sort of collective embarrassment that the British felt about their mourning of “The People’s Princess.” We may even be asking ourselves “What the hell was that all about?” should Obama actually win the presidency, a year or so into his tenure when his unpreparedness becomes manifest.

CONTENTIONS contributor Fred Siegel has a brilliant essay up on the website of City Journal that lays waste to much of the mythology surrounding Barack Obama. Siegel highlights the naivete and contradictions behind Obama’s various claims, from his vow to invade Pakistan unilaterally to his belief that hosting a convention with Muslim nations will bring about the end of Islamic extremism. What is most obnoxious about the Obama candidacy is the belief that his mere presence in the White House will end the world’s problems, for instance, Andrew Sullivan’s assertion that the reason to support Obama, “First and foremost,” is “his face.”

Siegel’s piece is worth reading in full, but I’ll excerpt this short portion:

It will be ironic if in the name of post-partisanship we manage, with the contrivance of both Left and Right, to elect Oprah’s candidate, a man with a narrowly partisan record who has never demonstrated a capacity (rhetoric aside) either to lead or to govern. Only Clinton derangement syndrome can explain the alliance of so many otherwise thoughtful people of both parties who speak well of the candidacy of a man with scant knowledge of the world who has never been tested and has never run anything larger than a senatorial office. The question that we need to ask is whether this man—who candidly admits, “I’m not a manager”—can manage the vast apparatus of the federal government. Will packaging be enough to deal with our problems?

Those who think like Siegel are not uncommon, but you would never know it from the media, which long ago gave up on any pretense of objectivity and is firmly in the tank for Obama. After all, a competitive campaign is not only fun for the journalists covering it, it also translates into better ratings. For the same reason that, during the Diana spectacle, the British media didn’t bother to report on curmudgeonly, unpleasant arguments like the one Hitchens raised, questions about Obama’s fitness for office — for instance, the whole Jeremiah Wright thing — are going unexplored (Mormonism has become a crucial issue for Mitt Romney, yet what the Mormon Church says pales in comparison to Wright). When Richard Cohen brought up the issue last month, Alan Wolfe pronounced it “the single most despicable op-ed of this century so far.” Far from unique, Hitchens’s “revulsion” towards the lachrymose “had been plentiful at the time but didn’t stand a prayer of being reported by a deferential mass media that became an echo chamber and feedback loop to the blubbering classes.” Sound familiar? While Diana had her “Candle in the Wind,” we now get the hip-hop video “Yes We Can.”

It’s long past time that we pause, take a deep breath, and evaluate the presidential candidates using concrete criteria as opposed to vague pronouncements that this or that candidate can “unite” the country or “transcend” this or that division, whether it be racial or political or what have you. It may be that Barack Obama is the best candidate at this moment in time; ultimately, of course, that’s a purely subjective question. But I fear about the emotional baggage that people have invested in his candidacy, and what his most fervent supporters will believe about American democracy should he lose. The country will, in short, become irredeemable. Given the unchecked passion already on display, it may already be too late to save this election from becoming marked, like the decade-old death of a blond divorcée, for its “bogus emotion and mass credulity.”

This was Christopher Hitchens’s question a year after the death of Princess Diana, which brought forth a “frightful binging and gorging of sentimentality” from the British populace, odd in a nation stoic by reputation. The people of a stiff upper lip had quavered. Hitchens is hardly averse to sentimentality, some of his best writing causes a catch in the throat; it is bogus sentimentality that be abhors. The death of a “hyperactive debutante” didn’t merit the wall-to-wall coverage, acres of flowers, and very public, very group-therapyesque bereavement that it had inspired.

As a 24 year-old male — just the sort of demographic he has solidly won over — I should probably hide while admitting this, but I feel the same away about the Barack Obama phenomenon as Hitchens did about the mourning of Princess Diana. And I’ll risk sounding a little self-satisfied by predicting that should Obama not be the one sworn into office come January 2009, the country will look back on this current presidential campaign feeling a similar sort of collective embarrassment that the British felt about their mourning of “The People’s Princess.” We may even be asking ourselves “What the hell was that all about?” should Obama actually win the presidency, a year or so into his tenure when his unpreparedness becomes manifest.

CONTENTIONS contributor Fred Siegel has a brilliant essay up on the website of City Journal that lays waste to much of the mythology surrounding Barack Obama. Siegel highlights the naivete and contradictions behind Obama’s various claims, from his vow to invade Pakistan unilaterally to his belief that hosting a convention with Muslim nations will bring about the end of Islamic extremism. What is most obnoxious about the Obama candidacy is the belief that his mere presence in the White House will end the world’s problems, for instance, Andrew Sullivan’s assertion that the reason to support Obama, “First and foremost,” is “his face.”

Siegel’s piece is worth reading in full, but I’ll excerpt this short portion:

It will be ironic if in the name of post-partisanship we manage, with the contrivance of both Left and Right, to elect Oprah’s candidate, a man with a narrowly partisan record who has never demonstrated a capacity (rhetoric aside) either to lead or to govern. Only Clinton derangement syndrome can explain the alliance of so many otherwise thoughtful people of both parties who speak well of the candidacy of a man with scant knowledge of the world who has never been tested and has never run anything larger than a senatorial office. The question that we need to ask is whether this man—who candidly admits, “I’m not a manager”—can manage the vast apparatus of the federal government. Will packaging be enough to deal with our problems?

Those who think like Siegel are not uncommon, but you would never know it from the media, which long ago gave up on any pretense of objectivity and is firmly in the tank for Obama. After all, a competitive campaign is not only fun for the journalists covering it, it also translates into better ratings. For the same reason that, during the Diana spectacle, the British media didn’t bother to report on curmudgeonly, unpleasant arguments like the one Hitchens raised, questions about Obama’s fitness for office — for instance, the whole Jeremiah Wright thing — are going unexplored (Mormonism has become a crucial issue for Mitt Romney, yet what the Mormon Church says pales in comparison to Wright). When Richard Cohen brought up the issue last month, Alan Wolfe pronounced it “the single most despicable op-ed of this century so far.” Far from unique, Hitchens’s “revulsion” towards the lachrymose “had been plentiful at the time but didn’t stand a prayer of being reported by a deferential mass media that became an echo chamber and feedback loop to the blubbering classes.” Sound familiar? While Diana had her “Candle in the Wind,” we now get the hip-hop video “Yes We Can.”

It’s long past time that we pause, take a deep breath, and evaluate the presidential candidates using concrete criteria as opposed to vague pronouncements that this or that candidate can “unite” the country or “transcend” this or that division, whether it be racial or political or what have you. It may be that Barack Obama is the best candidate at this moment in time; ultimately, of course, that’s a purely subjective question. But I fear about the emotional baggage that people have invested in his candidacy, and what his most fervent supporters will believe about American democracy should he lose. The country will, in short, become irredeemable. Given the unchecked passion already on display, it may already be too late to save this election from becoming marked, like the decade-old death of a blond divorcée, for its “bogus emotion and mass credulity.”

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Hitchens on Lefkowitz

A couple of weeks ago, Gordon G. Chang wrote about the State Department’s shameful disavowal of its special envoy for human rights in North Korea, Jay Lefkowitz. (Lefkowitz, a COMMENTARY contributor, published “Stem Cells and the President” in our January issue.) Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Lefkowitz had registered some blunt complaints about the ineffectiveness of the six-party talks to disarm North Korea, and emphasized the failings of South Korea and China in particular. Today in Slate, Christopher Hitchens takes up Lefkowitz’s cause.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had distanced the Bush administration from Lefkowitz’s comments by telling him to stick to human rights and leave the disarmament business to the big shots—in almost those words. Hitchens argues that in the case of North Korea the challenges of human rights and nuclear disarmament are necessarily linked:

The specific method of enslavement north of the border is to consider all citizens to be conscripts as well as serfs, an unprecedented mobilization that in the last resort has every North Korean a robotized soldier. This, in turn, especially given the proximity of the South Korean capital, Seoul, to the so-called “demilitarized zone,” compels South Korea to maintain a disproportionate armed force and the United States to commit an extraordinary number of its own troops, ships, and airplanes…Because of famine and exploitation, the average North Korean soldier is now as much as 6 inches shorter than his South Korean counterpart. The struggle—ideological, political, and military—would be more or less over if Pyongyang did not have a thermonuclear capacity and a well-earned reputation for being governed by an unpredictable psychopath who may not understand the concept of self-preservation.

Hitchens goes on to point out the undesirability of a policy that managed to denuclearize North Korea incrementally, through bribes, at the expense of the human rights cause.

Now, this might not matter so much if it were only as irritating and humiliating as the long-drawn-out charade that we played with Saddam Hussein and are still playing with the Iranian mullahs. But meanwhile, we are authorizing and expediting the delivery of essential fuel and food to the regime, and thus becoming co-administrators and physical guarantors of the most cruel and oppressive system of tyranny on the planet.

Not only has the Bush administration gone mum about the evil of the axis-of-evil’s only non-deterrable member, but the issue of North Korean human rights hasn’t earned so much as a soundbite from any presidential candidate. Silence on this issue is not only an ideological failure, but a strategic one. As Hitchens says, “That’s why Lefkowitz was right to speak up and right to imply that it is within the terms of his brief to do so.”

A couple of weeks ago, Gordon G. Chang wrote about the State Department’s shameful disavowal of its special envoy for human rights in North Korea, Jay Lefkowitz. (Lefkowitz, a COMMENTARY contributor, published “Stem Cells and the President” in our January issue.) Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, Lefkowitz had registered some blunt complaints about the ineffectiveness of the six-party talks to disarm North Korea, and emphasized the failings of South Korea and China in particular. Today in Slate, Christopher Hitchens takes up Lefkowitz’s cause.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had distanced the Bush administration from Lefkowitz’s comments by telling him to stick to human rights and leave the disarmament business to the big shots—in almost those words. Hitchens argues that in the case of North Korea the challenges of human rights and nuclear disarmament are necessarily linked:

The specific method of enslavement north of the border is to consider all citizens to be conscripts as well as serfs, an unprecedented mobilization that in the last resort has every North Korean a robotized soldier. This, in turn, especially given the proximity of the South Korean capital, Seoul, to the so-called “demilitarized zone,” compels South Korea to maintain a disproportionate armed force and the United States to commit an extraordinary number of its own troops, ships, and airplanes…Because of famine and exploitation, the average North Korean soldier is now as much as 6 inches shorter than his South Korean counterpart. The struggle—ideological, political, and military—would be more or less over if Pyongyang did not have a thermonuclear capacity and a well-earned reputation for being governed by an unpredictable psychopath who may not understand the concept of self-preservation.

Hitchens goes on to point out the undesirability of a policy that managed to denuclearize North Korea incrementally, through bribes, at the expense of the human rights cause.

Now, this might not matter so much if it were only as irritating and humiliating as the long-drawn-out charade that we played with Saddam Hussein and are still playing with the Iranian mullahs. But meanwhile, we are authorizing and expediting the delivery of essential fuel and food to the regime, and thus becoming co-administrators and physical guarantors of the most cruel and oppressive system of tyranny on the planet.

Not only has the Bush administration gone mum about the evil of the axis-of-evil’s only non-deterrable member, but the issue of North Korean human rights hasn’t earned so much as a soundbite from any presidential candidate. Silence on this issue is not only an ideological failure, but a strategic one. As Hitchens says, “That’s why Lefkowitz was right to speak up and right to imply that it is within the terms of his brief to do so.”

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The Real Benazir Bhutto

Never mind the mystery of who killed Benazir Bhutto and what method was used. There’s an emerging chorus of conflicting opinions about just who the late prime minister was. Liberator? Operator? Criminal?

Bernard-Henri Levy’s encomium in today’s Wall Street Journal skips beatification and plunges straight into sainthood:

And now they have killed Benazir Bhutto—killed her because she was a woman, because she had a woman’s face, unadorned yet filled with an unswerving strength, because she was living out her destiny and refusing the curse that, according to the new fascists (the jihadists) floats over the human face of women. They killed this woman incarnation of hope, of spirit, of the will to democracy, not only in Pakistan, but in all the lands of Islam.

Thomas Barnett brings Ms. Bhutto back down to earth:

Bhutto, despite our mythologizing of her past rule and future potential, was not going to fix Pakistan. As such, her passing matters only to the extent it creates short-term instability. But, in the end, I don’t expect to change much about the correlation of forces right now in Pakistan.

In Slate, Christopher Hitchens offers tempered admiration:

The fact of the matter is that Benazir’s undoubted courage had a certain fanaticism to it. She had the largest Electra complex of any female politician in modern history, entirely consecrated to the memory of her executed father . . .

It’s hard to beat Mark Steyn’s early assessment:

She was beautiful and charming and sophisticated and smart and modern, and everything we in the west would like a Muslim leader to be—though in practice, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, she was just another grubby wardheeler from one of the world’s most corrupt political classes.

Steyn is particularly dead-on about the West. We’ll never know what Benazir Bhutto would have meant to Pakistan’s future, but perhaps we should re-calibrate our expectations about what’s next—and start by softening the sharp lines along which we demonize or celebrate Pervez Musharraf.

Never mind the mystery of who killed Benazir Bhutto and what method was used. There’s an emerging chorus of conflicting opinions about just who the late prime minister was. Liberator? Operator? Criminal?

Bernard-Henri Levy’s encomium in today’s Wall Street Journal skips beatification and plunges straight into sainthood:

And now they have killed Benazir Bhutto—killed her because she was a woman, because she had a woman’s face, unadorned yet filled with an unswerving strength, because she was living out her destiny and refusing the curse that, according to the new fascists (the jihadists) floats over the human face of women. They killed this woman incarnation of hope, of spirit, of the will to democracy, not only in Pakistan, but in all the lands of Islam.

Thomas Barnett brings Ms. Bhutto back down to earth:

Bhutto, despite our mythologizing of her past rule and future potential, was not going to fix Pakistan. As such, her passing matters only to the extent it creates short-term instability. But, in the end, I don’t expect to change much about the correlation of forces right now in Pakistan.

In Slate, Christopher Hitchens offers tempered admiration:

The fact of the matter is that Benazir’s undoubted courage had a certain fanaticism to it. She had the largest Electra complex of any female politician in modern history, entirely consecrated to the memory of her executed father . . .

It’s hard to beat Mark Steyn’s early assessment:

She was beautiful and charming and sophisticated and smart and modern, and everything we in the west would like a Muslim leader to be—though in practice, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, she was just another grubby wardheeler from one of the world’s most corrupt political classes.

Steyn is particularly dead-on about the West. We’ll never know what Benazir Bhutto would have meant to Pakistan’s future, but perhaps we should re-calibrate our expectations about what’s next—and start by softening the sharp lines along which we demonize or celebrate Pervez Musharraf.

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Top Five Christmas Books

If one is trying to “prove,” as Christopher Hitchens has been doing, that “religion poisons everything,” he probably ought to give it a rest around this time of year—if only as a matter of strategy. Many believers are willing and able to debate points of doctrine in a calm and dispassionate way; fewer will countenance assaults on their favorite holidays. How the Hitch Stole Hannukah was surely a self-defeating effort. Religion hasn’t poisoned anything by giving us these annual opportunities to spend time with family and friends. (Forgive the sappiness, but it’s running freely from my Douglas Fir.) For my part, I don’t think I could do without my favorite Christmas literature. Here’s a top five that the goyim and the Chosen alike can enjoy:

1. How to Be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. A treasury of advice from the spelling-disabled British schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, this one isn’t strictly a Christmas book, but its last chapter, “Ding-Dong Farely Merily For Xmas,” is indispensable. “You canot so much as mention that there is no father xmas when some grown-sa Hush not in front of wee tim. So far as I am concerned if father xmas use langwage like that when he tripped over the bolster last time we had beter get a replacement.” The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter can be used all year round.

2. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before the noble fruitcake was just another sight gag on some post-Thanksgiving Best Buy commercial, there was Capote’s charming memoir of “fruitcake weather” and a child’s Christmas in Alabama.

3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The only thing better than reading the Welsh poet’s famous Christmas memoir is reading it with a whiskey in hand, and the only thing better than that would be having a drunken Thomas on hand to recite a wish list like: “Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Families. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions.”

4. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” Sedaris’s exclamation-point-laden parody of a Christmas “update” letter, is worth the price of admission.

5. A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm. Is it a holiday bagatelle or a stunning work of literary criticism? I report, you decide. George Bernard Shaw called him “the incomparable Max,” and you will too once you’ve read this collection of seventeen literary parodies, each on the subject of Christmas. “The Feast” (Joseph Conrad), “Some Damnable Errors About Christmas” (G. K. Chesterton), and “Shakespeare and Christmas” (Frank Harris) are enthusiastically recommended, but it’s all gravy. Henry James and Rudyard Kipling also take their places on Beerbohm’s skewer.

If one is trying to “prove,” as Christopher Hitchens has been doing, that “religion poisons everything,” he probably ought to give it a rest around this time of year—if only as a matter of strategy. Many believers are willing and able to debate points of doctrine in a calm and dispassionate way; fewer will countenance assaults on their favorite holidays. How the Hitch Stole Hannukah was surely a self-defeating effort. Religion hasn’t poisoned anything by giving us these annual opportunities to spend time with family and friends. (Forgive the sappiness, but it’s running freely from my Douglas Fir.) For my part, I don’t think I could do without my favorite Christmas literature. Here’s a top five that the goyim and the Chosen alike can enjoy:

1. How to Be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. A treasury of advice from the spelling-disabled British schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, this one isn’t strictly a Christmas book, but its last chapter, “Ding-Dong Farely Merily For Xmas,” is indispensable. “You canot so much as mention that there is no father xmas when some grown-sa Hush not in front of wee tim. So far as I am concerned if father xmas use langwage like that when he tripped over the bolster last time we had beter get a replacement.” The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter can be used all year round.

2. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before the noble fruitcake was just another sight gag on some post-Thanksgiving Best Buy commercial, there was Capote’s charming memoir of “fruitcake weather” and a child’s Christmas in Alabama.

3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The only thing better than reading the Welsh poet’s famous Christmas memoir is reading it with a whiskey in hand, and the only thing better than that would be having a drunken Thomas on hand to recite a wish list like: “Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Families. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions.”

4. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” Sedaris’s exclamation-point-laden parody of a Christmas “update” letter, is worth the price of admission.

5. A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm. Is it a holiday bagatelle or a stunning work of literary criticism? I report, you decide. George Bernard Shaw called him “the incomparable Max,” and you will too once you’ve read this collection of seventeen literary parodies, each on the subject of Christmas. “The Feast” (Joseph Conrad), “Some Damnable Errors About Christmas” (G. K. Chesterton), and “Shakespeare and Christmas” (Frank Harris) are enthusiastically recommended, but it’s all gravy. Henry James and Rudyard Kipling also take their places on Beerbohm’s skewer.

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Hang on a Minute, Scrooge

I admire Christopher Hitchens as a fierce critic of Islamist violence, and his thunderbolts against organized religion are unfailingly entertaining. But he makes a couple of easy elisions in his Slate essay about Hanukkah that need addressing.

Hitchens claims that:

About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.

Hitchens goes on to cite Michael Lerner of Tikkun fame:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Sounds pretty great, right? But as it happens, the specific events commemorated by Hanukkah have a rather different cast. The Maccabees were not so much fighting to destroy Hellenism as to drive out the occupying forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, who had banned (in an unprecedented step for a Seleucid) the practice of Judaism as a whole.

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I admire Christopher Hitchens as a fierce critic of Islamist violence, and his thunderbolts against organized religion are unfailingly entertaining. But he makes a couple of easy elisions in his Slate essay about Hanukkah that need addressing.

Hitchens claims that:

About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.

Hitchens goes on to cite Michael Lerner of Tikkun fame:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Sounds pretty great, right? But as it happens, the specific events commemorated by Hanukkah have a rather different cast. The Maccabees were not so much fighting to destroy Hellenism as to drive out the occupying forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, who had banned (in an unprecedented step for a Seleucid) the practice of Judaism as a whole.

As Sam Schulman, reviewing Hitchens’s God Is Not Great in the June 2007 issue of COMMENTARY, notes:

[Hitchens’s] stroke of counterhistory has been heavily prettified in the details. On the one hand, as Hitchens tells it, there were the Hellenized Jews of Palestine—suave, cosmopolitan, athletic, well educated, yearning to enjoy the finer things in life as represented by their Greek overlords. On the other hand, there were the religious fundamentalists of the day, the Jewish reactionaries seeking only to proscribe and to prescribe. In Hitchens’s reconstruction, the Maccabean revolt sounds like nothing so much as the struggle between “aesthetes” and “hearties” in the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

But the Maccabean wars were not like that. The Greeks were not fighting for the mellow and the metrosexual. They aimed to pour hogs’ blood over the altar, erect statues of Jove in the sanctuary, eradicate Jewish identity itself. Had the Maccabees failed, there would have been a victory not of secular humanism over religious fundamentalism but of the pitiless Olympian gods—and their Egyptian co-deities—over monotheism and the complexities of ethical life.

It’s all very well for Hitchens to call Hanukkah a celebration of tribal Jewish backwardness. But were the practices of the Greeks any less backward? No to circumcision but yes to exposing imperfect infants? No to the special relationship with God but yes to the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona?

A little thought experiment: can you think of a more theologically “complex” story than the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, after Abraham was commanded to sacrifice him? Ah, the binding of Isaac, you say! The signal example of Judaism’s “cruelty”! But hang on. Those Aeschylean and Euripidean “complexities of life” so beloved of Rabbi Lerner and cited with such approval by Hitchens—does anyone really need to be reminded of how blood-drenched they were? How Orestes suffers in their toils? How Medea’s children die? Isaac, you’ll remember, lives.

But there’s something even more troubling about Hitchens’s reading of Hanukkah:

To celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism’s bastard child in the shape of Christianity. You might think that masochism could do no more. Except that it always can. Without the precedents of rabbinic Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either. . . . And this is not just a disaster for the Jews. When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.

Umberto Eco once observed that counterfactual conditionals are always true, because their premises are always false. Hitchens’s thumbnail sketch is too deterministic a reading to bear much scrutiny. Let me see if I have this right: because an obscure sect of Jewish guerrillas defeated an occupying Syrian army in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E., we got . . . the Christian Church astride the globe like a colossus, the Crusades, the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Inquisition, all the depredations of the monotheistic religions against each other and against secularists ever since, up to and including 9/11? So, if the Maccabees had lost in Jerusalem, absolutely none of this would have happened? That contention, at least, seems ridiculous on its face.

Hitchens complains that Hanukkah has become a Jewish analogue for Christmas. Sociologically that is trivially true; theologically and historically it’s nonsense. Yet Hitchens can now say that:

Every Jew who honors the Hanukkah holiday because it gives his child an excuse to mingle the dreidel with the Christmas tree and the sleigh (neither of these absurd symbols having the least thing to do with Palestine two millenniums past) is celebrating the making of a series of rods for his own back.

Coming from him, this is a remarkable statement. Strange, isn’t it, how much Hitchens the secularist can sound like a militant Jewish purist? Even (dare I say it) a Maccabee?

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The New CW

The security progress in Iraq this year is so overwhelming and obvious that even critics of the war cannot gainsay it. And now, belatedly, we are seeing the inevitable political ramifications in this country of that progress. On the front page of Sunday’s New York Times, for example, we read:

As violence declines in Baghdad, the leading Democratic presidential candidates are undertaking a new and challenging balancing act on Iraq: acknowledging that success, trying to shift the focus to the lack of political progress there, and highlighting more domestic concerns like health care and the economy. Advisers to Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama say that the candidates have watched security conditions improve after the troop escalation in Iraq and concluded that it would be folly not to acknowledge those gains…. While the Democratic candidates are continuing to assail the war—a popular position with many of the party’s primary voters—they run the risk that Republicans will use those critiques to attack the party’s nominee in the election as defeatist and lacking faith in the American military…. “The politics of Iraq are going to change dramatically in the general election, assuming Iraq continues to show some hopefulness,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is a supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s and a proponent of the military buildup. “If Iraq looks at least partly salvageable, it will be important to explain as a candidate how you would salvage it—how you would get our troops out and not lose the war. The Democrats need to be very careful with what they say and not hem themselves in.”

In the Financial Times, Clive Crook writes

Up to now, Democrats have been stinting in their recognition that the situation in Iraq has improved: “Yes, violence is down a bit, but….” That is the wrong posture. They need to celebrate the success, as long as it lasts, as enthusiastically as the Republicans. They also need to stop harrying the administration with symbolic war-funding measures demanding a timetable for rapid withdrawal, as though nothing has changed. This would take little away from their larger valid criticisms of the war and of its conduct until very recently. And it is not as though Iraq is all the Democrats have going for them in this election – they are on to a winner with healthcare. Any suspicion that they are rooting for defeat in Iraq could sink them.

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The security progress in Iraq this year is so overwhelming and obvious that even critics of the war cannot gainsay it. And now, belatedly, we are seeing the inevitable political ramifications in this country of that progress. On the front page of Sunday’s New York Times, for example, we read:

As violence declines in Baghdad, the leading Democratic presidential candidates are undertaking a new and challenging balancing act on Iraq: acknowledging that success, trying to shift the focus to the lack of political progress there, and highlighting more domestic concerns like health care and the economy. Advisers to Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama say that the candidates have watched security conditions improve after the troop escalation in Iraq and concluded that it would be folly not to acknowledge those gains…. While the Democratic candidates are continuing to assail the war—a popular position with many of the party’s primary voters—they run the risk that Republicans will use those critiques to attack the party’s nominee in the election as defeatist and lacking faith in the American military…. “The politics of Iraq are going to change dramatically in the general election, assuming Iraq continues to show some hopefulness,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is a supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s and a proponent of the military buildup. “If Iraq looks at least partly salvageable, it will be important to explain as a candidate how you would salvage it—how you would get our troops out and not lose the war. The Democrats need to be very careful with what they say and not hem themselves in.”

In the Financial Times, Clive Crook writes

Up to now, Democrats have been stinting in their recognition that the situation in Iraq has improved: “Yes, violence is down a bit, but….” That is the wrong posture. They need to celebrate the success, as long as it lasts, as enthusiastically as the Republicans. They also need to stop harrying the administration with symbolic war-funding measures demanding a timetable for rapid withdrawal, as though nothing has changed. This would take little away from their larger valid criticisms of the war and of its conduct until very recently. And it is not as though Iraq is all the Democrats have going for them in this election – they are on to a winner with healthcare. Any suspicion that they are rooting for defeat in Iraq could sink them.

And in Newsweek Charles Peters, founder of the Washington Monthly, writes

I have been troubled by the reluctance of my fellow liberals to acknowledge the progress made in Iraq in the last six months, a reluctance I am embarrassed to admit that I have shared. Giving Gen. David Petraeus his due does not mean we have to start saying it was a great idea to invade Iraq. It remains the terrible idea it always was. And the occupation that followed has been until recently a continuing disaster, causing the death or maiming of far too many American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Still, the fact is that the situation in Iraq, though some violence persists, is much improved since the summer. Why do liberals not want to face this fact, let alone ponder its implications?

These accounts reinforce what some observers have been saying for months now: the Democratic Party crossed into treacherous political territory when its leadership declared the “surge” to be lost even before it was in place. This mistake was compounded when scores of Democrats denied, and even seemed to get agitated at, the progress the United States military was making in Iraq; when Democrats went out of their way to attack the credibility of General David Petraeus, the architect of our success there; and when they persisted, and continue to persist, in their attempts to subvert a military strategy that is showing extraordinary gains.

The better things got in Iraq, the more frantic the Democratic leadership seemed to get. While it is entirely legitimate for Democrats to criticize the Bush administration’s mistakes in Iraq, and while it was also understandable for them to be skeptical about the progress in the early part of this year, given the false summits we have experienced, what was unpardonable, according to Christopher Hitchens, was “the dank and sinister impression [liberals and Democrats] give that the worse the tidings, the better they would be pleased.”

That this happened at all ranks among the most disheartening and disturbing political developments we have seen. That there will be an accounting for it is only just—and, perhaps, only now a matter of time.

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Unpardonable Behavior

The New York Times yesterday carried a front-page article entitled “As Democrats See Security Gains in Iraq, Tone Shifts.” The story details the rank cynicism of the Democratic presidential candidates, who—with the possible exception of Joe Biden—have tailored their presidential campaigns to a narrative of defeat in Iraq. Now that the tide unmistakably is turning for the better, Democrats seem to have found themselves in a quandary: their campaign slogans not only are embarrassingly incongruous with the facts on the ground, but also seem politically obsolescent. Now that American defeat in Iraq no longer is an inevitability—and thus, no longer a “victory” for partisans who view Iraq in terms of how it will affect the fortunes of the Bush administration, rather than contemplating what a defeat there might mean for the United States and its allies—the Democrats “are also turning to pocketbook concerns with new intensity as the nominating contests approach in January.” One wonders what the Democrats will do if “pocketbook concerns” like the economy and oil prices fare better in the coming months and they’re left with less and less to lament.

The Times article reveals that, regarding Iraq, of foremost concern to the Democrats is how the situation there will affect their political prospects:

“The politics of Iraq are going to change dramatically in the general election, assuming Iraq continues to show some hopefulness,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is a supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s and a proponent of the military buildup. “If Iraq looks at least partly salvageable, it will be important to explain as a candidate how you would salvage it—how you would get our troops out and not lose the war. The Democrats need to be very careful with what they say and not hem themselves in.”

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The New York Times yesterday carried a front-page article entitled “As Democrats See Security Gains in Iraq, Tone Shifts.” The story details the rank cynicism of the Democratic presidential candidates, who—with the possible exception of Joe Biden—have tailored their presidential campaigns to a narrative of defeat in Iraq. Now that the tide unmistakably is turning for the better, Democrats seem to have found themselves in a quandary: their campaign slogans not only are embarrassingly incongruous with the facts on the ground, but also seem politically obsolescent. Now that American defeat in Iraq no longer is an inevitability—and thus, no longer a “victory” for partisans who view Iraq in terms of how it will affect the fortunes of the Bush administration, rather than contemplating what a defeat there might mean for the United States and its allies—the Democrats “are also turning to pocketbook concerns with new intensity as the nominating contests approach in January.” One wonders what the Democrats will do if “pocketbook concerns” like the economy and oil prices fare better in the coming months and they’re left with less and less to lament.

The Times article reveals that, regarding Iraq, of foremost concern to the Democrats is how the situation there will affect their political prospects:

“The politics of Iraq are going to change dramatically in the general election, assuming Iraq continues to show some hopefulness,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who is a supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s and a proponent of the military buildup. “If Iraq looks at least partly salvageable, it will be important to explain as a candidate how you would salvage it—how you would get our troops out and not lose the war. The Democrats need to be very careful with what they say and not hem themselves in.”

O’Hanlon is correct in predicting that the Democrats—none of whom supported the troop surge, which has led to the positive gains in and around Baghdad—will have a tough time waging a campaign on the supposed failure of Iraq if the situation there proves “at least partly salvageable” come November of next year. And certainly it would be nice to hear something more constructive than mere defeatism coming from the mouths of Democratic candidates. Yet will voters trust a Democratic nominee to explain how they “would salvage” Iraq, especially in light of the fact that said nominee inevitably will have opposed from the very start and decried every step of the way the very strategy that got us to the present moment?

This situation (in which good news must be, at best, ignored and, at worst, distorted) poses a difficult problem for the antiwar Left in general and the Democrats in particular, and brings to mind the latest offering from Christopher Hitchens, who, while readily acknowledging that the good news out of Iraq may prove ephemeral, last week argued that:

What worries me about the reaction of liberals and Democrats is not the skepticism, which is pardonable, but the dank and sinister impression they give that the worse the tidings, the better they would be pleased. The latter mentality isn’t pardonable and ought not to be pardoned, either.

Given his own political odyssey, Hitchens is quite familiar with this sort of crass anti-Americanism. Wishing for America’s defeat at the hands of whatever enemy wearing an “anti-imperialist” mantle it happens to face is a longstanding article of faith amongst many of his erstwhile comrades on the Left. The times and conflicts may have changed dramatically since the days Hitchens was an unreconstructed Marxist, but the enemy—American power—remains, apparently, the same.

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Richard Dawkins’s Selective Rationality

On Monday, this article in the Guardian, “Atheists arise: Dawkins spreads the A-word among America’s unbelievers,” about what is best described as an evangelical crusade by the celebrated Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, caught my eye.

I confess to being a bit puzzled by the current wave of attacks on religion. I am both a Ph.D. (with lots of science) and a regular church-goer, long under the impression that the alleged incompatibility of the two was a 19th century notion, associated with such organizations as The National Secular Society in England (to which Annie Besant devoted her estimable talents during the years before she helped found Theosophy), and perhaps best exemplified by vigorous period pieces, such as Andrew Dickson White’s massive two volumes, published in 1898, on The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom. Over the last year or so, however, a powerful new wave of distinctly old-fashioned anti-religious campaigning has begun, with people like Christopher Hitchens and Professor Dawkins in the lead. I find myself asking why.

Many factors can be adduced: merits in the atheist argument; a desire to forestall criticism that secular and scientific politics as practiced in the last century proved disastrous; resentment of the way some politicians constantly invoke God. But maybe more sinister forces are at work.

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On Monday, this article in the Guardian, “Atheists arise: Dawkins spreads the A-word among America’s unbelievers,” about what is best described as an evangelical crusade by the celebrated Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, caught my eye.

I confess to being a bit puzzled by the current wave of attacks on religion. I am both a Ph.D. (with lots of science) and a regular church-goer, long under the impression that the alleged incompatibility of the two was a 19th century notion, associated with such organizations as The National Secular Society in England (to which Annie Besant devoted her estimable talents during the years before she helped found Theosophy), and perhaps best exemplified by vigorous period pieces, such as Andrew Dickson White’s massive two volumes, published in 1898, on The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom. Over the last year or so, however, a powerful new wave of distinctly old-fashioned anti-religious campaigning has begun, with people like Christopher Hitchens and Professor Dawkins in the lead. I find myself asking why.

Many factors can be adduced: merits in the atheist argument; a desire to forestall criticism that secular and scientific politics as practiced in the last century proved disastrous; resentment of the way some politicians constantly invoke God. But maybe more sinister forces are at work.

Consider this statement by Professor Dawkins in an interview with the Guardian:

When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though in fact they are less numerous, I am told—religious Jews anyway—than atheists and (yet they) more or less monopolize American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence the world would be a better place.

What do we make of a professor of science who claims to be so rational as to have no tolerance for The God Delusion—the title of his latest book—but who nevertheless accepts uncritically that Jews “more or less monopolize American foreign policy”? Dawkins does not say “influence” or even “disproportionately influence,” both of which would be debatable but empirically defensible. He says “monopolize,” which is simply untrue.

This quotation suggests that, if not actually hostile to Jews, Dawkins focuses on them and their alleged monopoly of influence in a way that bodes nothing welcome. Will the new, passionate non-believers Dawkins seeks to awaken now join the long procession of mobs, demagogues, religious zealots, and conspiracy theorists who have likewise focused irrationally on Jews? I sense worrying disorder in the mind of this self-proclaimed rationalist.

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Misreading Christopher Hitchens

Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens—his views on Israel, most exhaustively rendered in a book he co-authored with the late Edward Said, leave much to be desired—but he is the most eloquent and passionate opponent of Islamic jihadism writing today. He is also a passionate critic of all forms of religious hucksterism, and offers the most concise and devastating rebuke of Al Sharpton in the current issue of Vanity Fair: “A man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you shove the word ‘Reverend’ in front of your name.”

Anyone who writes honestly and bluntly about Islam inevitably is labeled a “racist,” an appalling misunderstanding of the word, since it can be applied only to those who abjure someone for the pigmentation of their skin, not their belief system. In a diatribe on the popular and engaging blog associated with the online magazine Jewcy, Richard Silverstein, a contributor to Tikkun magazine*, furthers the misunderstanding. After the obligatory tributes to Hitchens’s “high-toned English accent” and “mellifluous” voice (which apparently trick all those gullible fools not as smart as Silverstein), he takes issue with Hitchens’s contention that, “Islam, by the way, does not mean ‘peace.’ It means ‘surrender,’ ‘prostration.'”

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Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens—his views on Israel, most exhaustively rendered in a book he co-authored with the late Edward Said, leave much to be desired—but he is the most eloquent and passionate opponent of Islamic jihadism writing today. He is also a passionate critic of all forms of religious hucksterism, and offers the most concise and devastating rebuke of Al Sharpton in the current issue of Vanity Fair: “A man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you shove the word ‘Reverend’ in front of your name.”

Anyone who writes honestly and bluntly about Islam inevitably is labeled a “racist,” an appalling misunderstanding of the word, since it can be applied only to those who abjure someone for the pigmentation of their skin, not their belief system. In a diatribe on the popular and engaging blog associated with the online magazine Jewcy, Richard Silverstein, a contributor to Tikkun magazine*, furthers the misunderstanding. After the obligatory tributes to Hitchens’s “high-toned English accent” and “mellifluous” voice (which apparently trick all those gullible fools not as smart as Silverstein), he takes issue with Hitchens’s contention that, “Islam, by the way, does not mean ‘peace.’ It means ‘surrender,’ ‘prostration.'”

Hitchens, as anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of Islam will know, is literally correct. But it is the figurative meaning of this contention that so upsets the morally and culturally relativist Silverstein. He writes:

What is misleading about Hitchens’s statement is he neglects that “Islam” connotes the peaceful “surrender” of a believer to the will of God, but not the “surrender” of a non-believer before the force or power of Islam. Such peaceful surrender, which some see as the essence of faith, is a feature of many of the world’s religions. Hitchens is spinning Islam as a religion of violence and domination. So it’s convenient to distort the religion’s name as well. We see here the power of a guileful ideologue used to stir the pot of intolerance and Muslim-bashing.

Leave aside for the moment that Islam, at least to untold millions of its practitioners, most certainly does “connote” the violent “‘surrender’ of a non-believer before the force or power of Islam” in a way that is most certainly not “a feature of many of the world’s religions.” What Hitchens really is getting at—and what Silverstein apparently cannot understand—is that for many Muslims, “surrender” means to abandon one’s reason and belief in common humanity to an ancient and conquering creed. It is for this reason that precious few Muslim-majority states are secular democracies that respect human rights and minority faiths. Alas, this is a truth that Silverstein and the useful idiots at Tikkun will never acknowledge.

* CORRECTION: Richard Silverstein is not associated with Tikkun, but has a blog entitled Tikun Olam. I regret the error. But his views are indistinguishable from those espoused in that publication, and I stand by my contention that he and its editors are “useful idiots.”

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The Hypothetical Atheist

One of Christopher Hitchens’s favorite evangelists of atheism is Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French mathematician. In God is Not Great, the Anglo-American polemicist takes special delight in retelling the story of how Laplace was asked by Napoleon why his great Treatise on Celestial Mechanics made no mention of God. “Sire, je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse,” Laplace is supposed to have replied. (“Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”) This incident is the occasion for one of Hitchens’s diatribes against the Judeo-Christian God—though I am bewildered as to why a mere superfluous hypothesis should arouse his odium theologicum.

However, there are a few problems with the way that Hitchens uses this anecdote to bolster his argument. In the first place, Laplace was dealing with a specific scientific problem—the instability of the solar system—rather than with the general question of God’s place in nature. A century earlier, Isaac Newton, who was a theist of a very esoteric kind, had believed in the necessity of regular “corrections” by God to preserve cosmic equilibrium. Using much more accurate observational data, Laplace showed that no such interventions by the divine clockmaker were necessary. In his paper Does God Play Dice? Stephen Hawking commented: “I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of science.”

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One of Christopher Hitchens’s favorite evangelists of atheism is Pierre-Simon Laplace, the French mathematician. In God is Not Great, the Anglo-American polemicist takes special delight in retelling the story of how Laplace was asked by Napoleon why his great Treatise on Celestial Mechanics made no mention of God. “Sire, je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse,” Laplace is supposed to have replied. (“Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”) This incident is the occasion for one of Hitchens’s diatribes against the Judeo-Christian God—though I am bewildered as to why a mere superfluous hypothesis should arouse his odium theologicum.

However, there are a few problems with the way that Hitchens uses this anecdote to bolster his argument. In the first place, Laplace was dealing with a specific scientific problem—the instability of the solar system—rather than with the general question of God’s place in nature. A century earlier, Isaac Newton, who was a theist of a very esoteric kind, had believed in the necessity of regular “corrections” by God to preserve cosmic equilibrium. Using much more accurate observational data, Laplace showed that no such interventions by the divine clockmaker were necessary. In his paper Does God Play Dice? Stephen Hawking commented: “I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of science.”

The second, far more serious problem, is that Laplace never used the words attributed to him by Hitchens. The encounter took place in 1802, before Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, when he was still First Consul of the French Republic, so Laplace would certainly not have addressed him as “Sire.” Laplace was in the company of Sir William Herschel, the English astronomer, who is our only eyewitness source for the meeting with Napoleon. According to Brandon Watson’s science website Houyhnhnm Land, the anecdote is found in Herschel’s diary of his visit to Paris, quoted in Constance Lubbock’s The Herschel Chronicle (Cambridge, 1933), p. 310:

The first Consul then asked a few questions relating to Astronomy and the construction of the heavens to which I made such answers as seemed to give him great satisfaction. He also addressed himself to Mr. Laplace on the same subject, and held a considerable argument with him in which he differed from that eminent mathematician. The difference was occasioned by an exclamation of the first Consul, who asked in a tone of exclamation or admiration (when we were speaking of the extent of the sidereal heavens): “And who is the author of all this!” Mons. De la Place wished to shew that a chain of natural causes would account for the construction and preservation of the wonderful system. This the first Consul rather opposed. Much may be said on the subject; by joining the arguments of both we shall be led to “Nature and nature’s God.”

Where, then, did the bon mot attributed to Laplace by Hitchens and countless others come from? Watson believes that it was invented by the popular historian E.T. Bell, whose well-known book Men of Mathematics appeared in 1937, just four years after Lubbock’s book. Bell gives no source for the Laplace quotation, and it appears to be one of many that he embellished or simply made up. Bell’s scholarship, incidentally, was unreliable in other ways, too: his book contains odious asides about the “aggressive clannishness” of Jewish academics.

Herschel’s account leaves no doubt that he, like Napoleon, believed in God. What, though, did Laplace believe? One of his two recent biographers, Charles Coulston Gillispie, does not even mention the discussion with Napoleon. Perhaps he regarded the question of Laplace’s views on God as a superfluous hypothesis. But Roger Hahn, another biographer of Laplace, found in his papers a 25-page manuscript detailing his objections to Catholicism, in particular to miracles and transubstantiation. (Clearly this manuscript was not intended for publication until after the author’s death.)

Laplace, who looks more and more like the Talleyrand of French science, enjoyed both Bonapartist and Bourbon patronage. Born in 1749, he was able to publish freely throughout the period from the ancien regime, the Republic, and the Empire through to the Restoration. Briefly Napoleon’s interior minister and president of his puppet senate, Laplace never hesitated to sign the warrant for the emperor’s deposition. He died a marquis, and was buried with great pomp, in 1827. If he was an atheist, he was certainly not prepared to risk his position in society by openly expressing his views. Laplace was a great man of science, but he was a great trimmer, as well. Hitchens and other militant atheists should look elsewhere for their heroes.

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The New Anti-Islamist Intelligentsia

Yesterday Michael Gove, a Tory member of Parliament and the author of Celsius 7/7, a hard-hitting study of the London subway bombers, asked an audience of the New Culture Forum a highly pertinent question: “Are we seeing the emergence of a new anti-Islamist intelligentsia?”

Gove answered his own question emphatically in the affirmative, and provided chapter and verse, too. What adds lustre to his thesis is the remarkable fact that the most prominent voices now being heard in protest against the scandalous alliance of the Left with Islamo-fascism are themselves for the most part intellectuals with impeccable Left-liberal credentials. Gove singled out the journalists Nick Cohen (whose book What’s Left? How the Liberals Lost Their Way chronicles the Left’s great self-betrayal), David Aaronovich (who defected from the Guardian to the Times of London), and Christopher Hitchens, who needs no introduction for American readers. Nick Cohen is also a leading light among the group of liberal academics and writers who last year signed the Euston Manifesto, distancing themselves from the Leftist consensus.

Most remarkable of all, three of the most celebrated British novelists—Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Martin Amis—have all come out strongly against Islamism. Amis even describes himself as an “Islamismophobe,” but the real objects of his hatred are the “middle-class white demonstrators last August waddling around under placards saying ‘We Are All Hizbollah Now.'” As he observes, “People of liberal sympathies, stupefied by relativism, have become the apologists for a creedal wave that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, imperialist, and genocidal. To put it another way, they are up the arse of those that want them dead.”

All of these prodigal sons are more than welcome in their return to what those who have always defended it fondly persist in calling Western civilization. Like many others, I have not forgotten Martin Amis’s essay “Fear and Loathing,” published in the Guardian a week after 9/11, in which he wrote: “The message of September 11 ran as follows: America, it is time you learned how implacably you are hated. . . . We would hope that the response will be, above all, non-escalatory.” He and his intellectual compatriots have come a long way since then—at least on seeing the threat of radical Islam for what it is.

Yesterday Michael Gove, a Tory member of Parliament and the author of Celsius 7/7, a hard-hitting study of the London subway bombers, asked an audience of the New Culture Forum a highly pertinent question: “Are we seeing the emergence of a new anti-Islamist intelligentsia?”

Gove answered his own question emphatically in the affirmative, and provided chapter and verse, too. What adds lustre to his thesis is the remarkable fact that the most prominent voices now being heard in protest against the scandalous alliance of the Left with Islamo-fascism are themselves for the most part intellectuals with impeccable Left-liberal credentials. Gove singled out the journalists Nick Cohen (whose book What’s Left? How the Liberals Lost Their Way chronicles the Left’s great self-betrayal), David Aaronovich (who defected from the Guardian to the Times of London), and Christopher Hitchens, who needs no introduction for American readers. Nick Cohen is also a leading light among the group of liberal academics and writers who last year signed the Euston Manifesto, distancing themselves from the Leftist consensus.

Most remarkable of all, three of the most celebrated British novelists—Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Martin Amis—have all come out strongly against Islamism. Amis even describes himself as an “Islamismophobe,” but the real objects of his hatred are the “middle-class white demonstrators last August waddling around under placards saying ‘We Are All Hizbollah Now.'” As he observes, “People of liberal sympathies, stupefied by relativism, have become the apologists for a creedal wave that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, imperialist, and genocidal. To put it another way, they are up the arse of those that want them dead.”

All of these prodigal sons are more than welcome in their return to what those who have always defended it fondly persist in calling Western civilization. Like many others, I have not forgotten Martin Amis’s essay “Fear and Loathing,” published in the Guardian a week after 9/11, in which he wrote: “The message of September 11 ran as follows: America, it is time you learned how implacably you are hated. . . . We would hope that the response will be, above all, non-escalatory.” He and his intellectual compatriots have come a long way since then—at least on seeing the threat of radical Islam for what it is.

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