Commentary Magazine


Topic: critic

Sudan?!

When last we left the UN clown show, Richard Goldstone’s report had been roundly applauded and approved, and Anne Bayefsky (who has spent a quarter century bird-dogging the UN, a task which few of us could endure for an afternoon, let alone an entire career) had been carted off and her credentials taken for speaking up with righteous indignation about the UN’s latest round of Israel-bashing. The kicker, as reported by Fox News:

Bayefsky is now waiting for the U.N. to return her credentials or to refer her case to the Committee on NGOs, which will meet during January and February and could decide whether to renew her NGO pass — a prospect that has her deeply worried.

“The chances of my getting through that committee are basically nil,” she said.

The nation that chairs the committee, Sudan, is currently engaged in a murderous war on its own citizens and expelled 13 major aid NGOs from the country in March — meaning that a human rights violator that rejects NGOs within its own borders will be overseeing the approval of NGOs at the U.N.

Asked about this apparent inconsistency, a spokeswoman for the U.N. body overseeing the NGO committee said in an e-mail that “the Departments concerned are investigating this matter on the basis of established practice, jurisprudence and thorough review of the facts.”

Well isn’t that par for the course. It’s all there: the high-minded double-talk (what “jurisprudence” justifies roughing up a critic and snatching her badge?) and the inmates running the asylum, and all of it in service of the UN’s one great and constant mission — vilifying Israel. The timing here is far from coincidental:

“The next three weeks are the heart of the entire year at the U.N. General Assembly. The frenzy of anti-Israel activity is going on right now,” she said. “There’s a reason they’re keeping me away — this is no accident.”

This  hypocrisy circus is the “international community” whose approbation Obama seeks. The Obami treat the UN with decorum and respect, as if it were a serious organization rather than a gang of thugs that devotes its time to silencing critics, providing cover to terrorists, and averting its gaze from its member states’ own appalling human-rights records. Obama tells us that the world community is one that enjoys shared values. Really. Which goals and values in particular do we share with this crowd?

Bayefsky may miss the “heart of the entire year,” but she’s gotten to the nub of the problem. Unfortunately, the Obami show no sign of taking this or any other incident to heart, nor of reconsidering their role in enabling the UN miscreants.

When last we left the UN clown show, Richard Goldstone’s report had been roundly applauded and approved, and Anne Bayefsky (who has spent a quarter century bird-dogging the UN, a task which few of us could endure for an afternoon, let alone an entire career) had been carted off and her credentials taken for speaking up with righteous indignation about the UN’s latest round of Israel-bashing. The kicker, as reported by Fox News:

Bayefsky is now waiting for the U.N. to return her credentials or to refer her case to the Committee on NGOs, which will meet during January and February and could decide whether to renew her NGO pass — a prospect that has her deeply worried.

“The chances of my getting through that committee are basically nil,” she said.

The nation that chairs the committee, Sudan, is currently engaged in a murderous war on its own citizens and expelled 13 major aid NGOs from the country in March — meaning that a human rights violator that rejects NGOs within its own borders will be overseeing the approval of NGOs at the U.N.

Asked about this apparent inconsistency, a spokeswoman for the U.N. body overseeing the NGO committee said in an e-mail that “the Departments concerned are investigating this matter on the basis of established practice, jurisprudence and thorough review of the facts.”

Well isn’t that par for the course. It’s all there: the high-minded double-talk (what “jurisprudence” justifies roughing up a critic and snatching her badge?) and the inmates running the asylum, and all of it in service of the UN’s one great and constant mission — vilifying Israel. The timing here is far from coincidental:

“The next three weeks are the heart of the entire year at the U.N. General Assembly. The frenzy of anti-Israel activity is going on right now,” she said. “There’s a reason they’re keeping me away — this is no accident.”

This  hypocrisy circus is the “international community” whose approbation Obama seeks. The Obami treat the UN with decorum and respect, as if it were a serious organization rather than a gang of thugs that devotes its time to silencing critics, providing cover to terrorists, and averting its gaze from its member states’ own appalling human-rights records. Obama tells us that the world community is one that enjoys shared values. Really. Which goals and values in particular do we share with this crowd?

Bayefsky may miss the “heart of the entire year,” but she’s gotten to the nub of the problem. Unfortunately, the Obami show no sign of taking this or any other incident to heart, nor of reconsidering their role in enabling the UN miscreants.

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NIAC’s PR Offensive

As the NIAC and Trita Parsi story unfolds in the wake of Eli Lake’s bombshell story, it is interesting to note just how it might be that many on the Left are simultaneously reaching the same conclusions (e.g., it’s all a neocon conspiracy, Parsi is besieged by an MEK agent).

On Parsi and NIAC’s side is Brown Lloyd James, a PR firm with much experience in this area. The firm’s website tells us: “Brown Lloyd James handled the international launch of Al Jazeera English.” And we also know from news reports that “Brown Lloyd James, a public relations firm with offices in London and New York, has opened an office in Tripoli. It is reported to have placed articles by Colonel Gadaffi in American newspapers.” So they have the best of the best when it comes to representing these sorts of clients.

It should come as no surprise then that even before the Washington Times story was released, NIAC was laying the groundwork to scream foul. Back on November 3, Parsi sent out a fundraising letter, which tipped the hand on the upcoming defense and those who would be telling a sympathetic tale:

Dear NIAC Friend,

When we launched the Truth out 2010 Campaign two weeks ago, we never expected the overwhelming response we got. Our sincere thanks to all those who responded. Clearly, our many supporters are just as tired of the smear campaign against NIAC as we are.

One thing that those behind the smears seem to have in common is a belief that Iranian Americans shouldn’t have a say in America’s approach to Iran simply because they are Iranian Americans. Not only is this ridiculous and offensive, it has a racist undertone with innuendos of dual loyalty.

See for instance what ultra-conservative Martin Kramer said at an AIPAC conference in 2009. Kramer argued that Iranian Americans tend to still have family in Iran and are therefore easily intimidated into backing Tehran, saying: “[W]e have to be extremely cautious about what we take away from Iranian Diaspora communities when it comes to understanding Iran. Many of these communities desperately want access to their own country. And it dramatically tilts their analysis toward accommodation.”

There has been a flurry of articles by fair-minded American journalists in the media that defend NIAC, push back and do not allow these smears to go unanswered.  Just today, the Huffington Post published an article uncovering the true motives behind the smears — stating that they “were dishonest at best and defamatory at worst,” and “as NIAC’s voice grew louder in foreign policy circles, so too did the vehemence of its critics.”

Other influential journalists have also rejected the allegations against NIAC:

Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic:

“The implication that [Trita Parsi] is somehow a tool of the regime is unfair, untrue and malicious.”

Spencer Ackerman, Washington Independent:

“Any American reporter who paid any attention to the U.S. debate over the Iranian election quoted Parsi and NIAC, constantly, denouncing Ahmadinejad.”

Matt Yglesias, Think Progress:

“What can be seen, right out in the open and on the record, is that NIAC has consistently criticized human rights abuses by the Iranian government and agitated for liberalization, fair elections, and decent treatment of the population of Iran.”

Daniel Luban, The Faster Times:

“Why, then, is [Parsi] being attacked as a stooge for the Iranian regime? The answer is simple: while Parsi has harshly criticized the regime’s actions, he has joined Iran’s leading opposition figures in opposing the use of sanctions or military force against Iran, on the grounds that they would be likely simply to kill innocent Iranian civilians while strengthening the regime’s hold on power. For the Iran hawks, this is a mortal sin.” Read More

As the NIAC and Trita Parsi story unfolds in the wake of Eli Lake’s bombshell story, it is interesting to note just how it might be that many on the Left are simultaneously reaching the same conclusions (e.g., it’s all a neocon conspiracy, Parsi is besieged by an MEK agent).

On Parsi and NIAC’s side is Brown Lloyd James, a PR firm with much experience in this area. The firm’s website tells us: “Brown Lloyd James handled the international launch of Al Jazeera English.” And we also know from news reports that “Brown Lloyd James, a public relations firm with offices in London and New York, has opened an office in Tripoli. It is reported to have placed articles by Colonel Gadaffi in American newspapers.” So they have the best of the best when it comes to representing these sorts of clients.

It should come as no surprise then that even before the Washington Times story was released, NIAC was laying the groundwork to scream foul. Back on November 3, Parsi sent out a fundraising letter, which tipped the hand on the upcoming defense and those who would be telling a sympathetic tale:

Dear NIAC Friend,

When we launched the Truth out 2010 Campaign two weeks ago, we never expected the overwhelming response we got. Our sincere thanks to all those who responded. Clearly, our many supporters are just as tired of the smear campaign against NIAC as we are.

One thing that those behind the smears seem to have in common is a belief that Iranian Americans shouldn’t have a say in America’s approach to Iran simply because they are Iranian Americans. Not only is this ridiculous and offensive, it has a racist undertone with innuendos of dual loyalty.

See for instance what ultra-conservative Martin Kramer said at an AIPAC conference in 2009. Kramer argued that Iranian Americans tend to still have family in Iran and are therefore easily intimidated into backing Tehran, saying: “[W]e have to be extremely cautious about what we take away from Iranian Diaspora communities when it comes to understanding Iran. Many of these communities desperately want access to their own country. And it dramatically tilts their analysis toward accommodation.”

There has been a flurry of articles by fair-minded American journalists in the media that defend NIAC, push back and do not allow these smears to go unanswered.  Just today, the Huffington Post published an article uncovering the true motives behind the smears — stating that they “were dishonest at best and defamatory at worst,” and “as NIAC’s voice grew louder in foreign policy circles, so too did the vehemence of its critics.”

Other influential journalists have also rejected the allegations against NIAC:

Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic:

“The implication that [Trita Parsi] is somehow a tool of the regime is unfair, untrue and malicious.”

Spencer Ackerman, Washington Independent:

“Any American reporter who paid any attention to the U.S. debate over the Iranian election quoted Parsi and NIAC, constantly, denouncing Ahmadinejad.”

Matt Yglesias, Think Progress:

“What can be seen, right out in the open and on the record, is that NIAC has consistently criticized human rights abuses by the Iranian government and agitated for liberalization, fair elections, and decent treatment of the population of Iran.”

Daniel Luban, The Faster Times:

“Why, then, is [Parsi] being attacked as a stooge for the Iranian regime? The answer is simple: while Parsi has harshly criticized the regime’s actions, he has joined Iran’s leading opposition figures in opposing the use of sanctions or military force against Iran, on the grounds that they would be likely simply to kill innocent Iranian civilians while strengthening the regime’s hold on power. For the Iran hawks, this is a mortal sin.”

Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com calls NIAC’s attackers “neocon character assassins.”

As part of our Truth in 2010 Campaign, we are providing a Facts vs Myths section on our website. It’s a great resource to find out the truth about NIAC’s work. Make sure you study it and tell your friends — nothing is more effective in fighting smear than the truth!

Your loyalty and support is what has gotten our community this far — so, please don’t stop now. Please continue to support NIAC by donating $20.10 or more to the 2010 Campaign — and remember, all your donations are tax-deductible.

But don’t just donate. Make sure you email the Huffington Post article and this email to all your friends. Post it on your Facebook status. Tweet about it. And talk to your friends about the work NIAC is doing!

Momentum is building in our favor, but that doesn’t mean our work is over. We have to continue our offensive in order to meet our commitment to you of dispelling myths and falsehoods by 2010.

As always, thank you for your support. We look forward to sharing more good news with you in the near future!

Sincerely,

Trita Parsi, PhD

Weeks before the story actually broke, the  groundwork for the defense was being laid. And it is interesting that just after the story did break, Andrew Sullivan rushed forward with the very same “dual loyalty” argument. Luban stepped up to smear a Parsi critic as a terrorist. And so it went as some in the Left blogosphere struggled mightily to paint Parsi as the innocent victim and somehow the friend of the Greens (neatly sidestepping the conspiracy to defund the same). That sort of smooth-running rebuttal doesn’t just happen on its own, it is fair to conclude, and you can’t say Parsi and NIAC aren’t getting their money’s worth from their PR team

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How NIAC Lobbied Against Dennis Ross

As revealed in Eli Lake’s bombshell story, the National Iranian-American Council has often acted as an advocate for the interests of the Iranian regime, especially in the early days of the Obama administration and before the Iranian election in June. As Lake documents, the leader of this “Iranian-American” organization, Trita Parsi, is not an American citizen. And the council, which claims to speak on behalf of the 1-million-strong Iranian-American community, has only a few thousand members.

It is also a 501(c)(3), which means that its mission and operation must be nonpartisan — no lobbying allowed. But as information obtained in the discovery phase of a lawsuit filed by NIAC against a critic shows, the organization has been deeply involved in political advocacy. What follows is but one example.

When it became clear in early January that President-elect Obama intended to pick Dennis Ross to oversee Iran policy at the State Department, NIAC sprung into action to scuttle the nomination.

In a Google group called the “New Iran Policy Coordinating Committee,” where several political allies of NIAC, including lobbying groups, participated, Patrick Disney, NIAC’s acting policy director, wrote that “I should be clear — I think we can still influence the [Ross] selection by submitting our recommendation as soon as possible.” He continued: “NIAC is obviously still formulating a plan, but we’re exploring the idea of coming out publicly, and relatively strongly, against Ross. … I’d like for all of us to coordinate our message as much as possible. So let’s discuss things now and get prepared before things move ahead.”

This was followed by e-mail from Mike Amitay, who is a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Policy Center, a George Soros–funded 501(c)(4) — a lobby. Amitay agreed on the need for action against Ross and added that “a most troubling aspects [sic] of [Ross’s] limited Iran-related resume is his role in crafting Bi-Partisan Policy Council report and prominence on Advisory Board of United Against a Nuclear Iran.”

So, involvement in United Against a Nuclear Iran was a disqualification for the New Iran Policy Coordinating Committee. UANI’s goal is to “promote efforts that focus on vigorous national and international, social, economic, political and diplomatic measures” in opposition to the Iranian nuclear program. Its leadership consists of a bipartisan cast of foreign-policy leaders — it is an utterly, even conspicuously, centrist organization. But for NIAC, even an organization that so much as expresses concern about the nuclear program is unacceptable.

This e-mail exchange shows not just the political radicalism of NIAC and its advocacy of Iranian-regime interests but also the way the organization skates blithely across some very thin ice. Here we have an employee of NIAC acting in his official capacity and using his NIAC e-mail address to help organize a campaign to undermine an Obama-administration nominee. NIAC claims, and its tax status requires, that it is not a lobby and spends zero percent of its time lobbying. Yet Disney is joined by Amitay, a lobbyist, in organizing what is clearly a lobbying campaign. Nowhere is there an attempt to distinguish between the activities of the two groups or to assume roles consistent with their legal statuses. In fact, just the opposite — it is Disney who seeks to spearhead the campaign.

And this comes in the context of a litany of other incriminating revelations — that Parsi set up meetings between U.S. congressmen and the Iranian ambassador to the UN, that members of NIAC attended meetings explicitly devoted to establishing lobbying agendas and tactics, and so on. And all this, it must be added, in order to help the Iranian regime get sanctions lifted and end American opposition to its nuclear ambitions.

Below the jump is a copy of the e-mail exchange in question.
Read More

As revealed in Eli Lake’s bombshell story, the National Iranian-American Council has often acted as an advocate for the interests of the Iranian regime, especially in the early days of the Obama administration and before the Iranian election in June. As Lake documents, the leader of this “Iranian-American” organization, Trita Parsi, is not an American citizen. And the council, which claims to speak on behalf of the 1-million-strong Iranian-American community, has only a few thousand members.

It is also a 501(c)(3), which means that its mission and operation must be nonpartisan — no lobbying allowed. But as information obtained in the discovery phase of a lawsuit filed by NIAC against a critic shows, the organization has been deeply involved in political advocacy. What follows is but one example.

When it became clear in early January that President-elect Obama intended to pick Dennis Ross to oversee Iran policy at the State Department, NIAC sprung into action to scuttle the nomination.

In a Google group called the “New Iran Policy Coordinating Committee,” where several political allies of NIAC, including lobbying groups, participated, Patrick Disney, NIAC’s acting policy director, wrote that “I should be clear — I think we can still influence the [Ross] selection by submitting our recommendation as soon as possible.” He continued: “NIAC is obviously still formulating a plan, but we’re exploring the idea of coming out publicly, and relatively strongly, against Ross. … I’d like for all of us to coordinate our message as much as possible. So let’s discuss things now and get prepared before things move ahead.”

This was followed by e-mail from Mike Amitay, who is a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Policy Center, a George Soros–funded 501(c)(4) — a lobby. Amitay agreed on the need for action against Ross and added that “a most troubling aspects [sic] of [Ross’s] limited Iran-related resume is his role in crafting Bi-Partisan Policy Council report and prominence on Advisory Board of United Against a Nuclear Iran.”

So, involvement in United Against a Nuclear Iran was a disqualification for the New Iran Policy Coordinating Committee. UANI’s goal is to “promote efforts that focus on vigorous national and international, social, economic, political and diplomatic measures” in opposition to the Iranian nuclear program. Its leadership consists of a bipartisan cast of foreign-policy leaders — it is an utterly, even conspicuously, centrist organization. But for NIAC, even an organization that so much as expresses concern about the nuclear program is unacceptable.

This e-mail exchange shows not just the political radicalism of NIAC and its advocacy of Iranian-regime interests but also the way the organization skates blithely across some very thin ice. Here we have an employee of NIAC acting in his official capacity and using his NIAC e-mail address to help organize a campaign to undermine an Obama-administration nominee. NIAC claims, and its tax status requires, that it is not a lobby and spends zero percent of its time lobbying. Yet Disney is joined by Amitay, a lobbyist, in organizing what is clearly a lobbying campaign. Nowhere is there an attempt to distinguish between the activities of the two groups or to assume roles consistent with their legal statuses. In fact, just the opposite — it is Disney who seeks to spearhead the campaign.

And this comes in the context of a litany of other incriminating revelations — that Parsi set up meetings between U.S. congressmen and the Iranian ambassador to the UN, that members of NIAC attended meetings explicitly devoted to establishing lobbying agendas and tactics, and so on. And all this, it must be added, in order to help the Iranian regime get sanctions lifted and end American opposition to its nuclear ambitions.

Below the jump is a copy of the e-mail exchange in question.

—–Original Message—–
From: Mike Amitay [mailto:mamitay@osi-dc.org]
Sent: Wednesday, January 07, 2009 2:35 PM
To: jparillo@psr.org; PDisney@niacouncil.org; new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com
Subject: RE: Response to Ross as Iran envoy

Ross has not worked extensively on Iran, though his most recent employer WINEP, is a “think-tank” created by AIPAC leadership in the 1980s. As Jill points out, a most troubling aspects of his limited Iran-related resume is his role in crafting Bi-Partisan Policy Council report and prominence on Advisory Board of United Against a Nuclear Iran. (Holbrooke also serves on this body). UANI is a right-wing “pro-Israel” PR effort established to push a more militant US policy towards Iran. If in fact Ross appointment confirmed, I find this deeply troubling. One question to consider, however, is whether publicly objecting to Ross would damage our ability to work with him and others in USG in the future.

###########################################

Mike Amitay – Senior Policy Analyst
Middle East, North Africa and Central Eurasia
Open Society Institute / Open Society Policy Center
1120 19th Street, NW – 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20036
202-721-5625 (direct) 202-530-0138 (fax)
www.soros.org / www.opensocietypolicycenter.org

—–Original Message—–
From: new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com [mailto:new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com] On Behalf Of Jill Parillo
Sent: Wednesday, January 07, 2009 2:03 PM
To: PDisney@niacouncil.org; new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com; IranPWG@yahoogroups.com
Subject: RE: Response to Ross as Iran envoy

On Ross, I sent an email earlier, but I would like to add:
Engagement with Iran is aimed at reducing tension in US-Iranian relations, to avoid war and build confidence, so to get to a point where together we can develop common policies that will US and Iranian concerns.

If someone is sent to the talks (like when Burns was) who could increase tension, the policy of engagement as a solution to the Iran challenge will not be a success.
We should talk to those that know Ross well and his policies, and ability to negotiate in a peaceful fair manner.

In spending time as part of the Department of Disarmament Affairs and at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, I sat through several high level negotiations where country Ambassadors walked out of the room because of Bush Administration officials being very rude. The right person and the right policy are important.

We need to also pay attention to who the envoy will report to, in this case it is Clinton, not Obama.
I have never met Ross in person, so I will not judge if he is a good or bad pick. However, I can say I have concerns, since he signed onto the attached paper which says, “WE BELIEVE A MILITARY STRIKE IS A FEASIBLE OPTION…..the United States will need to augment its military presence in the region. This should commence the first day the new President enters office.” I am taking this out of context, so please look at this section for yourself, but in any case, it is concerning.

Best,

Jill

PS. I am off to speak in Italy until Jan 19-Pugwash Conference, so I may not be available for much of the next 10 days. Thanks

—–Original Message—–
From: new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com [mailto:new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com] On Behalf Of pdisney@niacouncil.org
Sent: Wednesday, January 07, 2009 1:33 PM
To: new-iran-policy-coordinating-committee@googlegroups.com; IranPWG@yahoogroups.com
Subject: Response to Ross as Iran envoy

All,

As the rumors appear to be more substantiated by the hour, I think we should start a conversation about what our response will be if Dennis Ross is named Iran envoy.

I should be clear–I think we can still influence the selection by submitting our recommendation as soon as possible. However, if it does prove to be Ross, we have to make a choice as to how to respond.

NIAC is obviously still formulating a plan, but we’re exploring the idea of coming out publicly, and relatively strongly, against Ross. We would make it clear that we prefer to work with Obama, and that Ross does not align with Obama’s plan to change America’s approach. Obviously, there are pro’s and con’s to any strategy, but if it’s simply impossible for us to work with Ross, we should be in a position to say I told you so after he messes everything up. But I’d like to hear others’ thoughts.

Again, this is a brainstorm rather than a concrete plan. I’d like for all of us to coordinate our message as much as possible. So let’s discuss things now and get prepared before things move ahead.
Thanks very much.
-p

January 7, 2009, 10:21 AM
Obama
Picks Foreign Envoys

Posted by Michelle

Levi

Transition officials confirm to CBS News’ Marc Ambinder that President-elect Obama has asked Dennis Ross, Richard Haas, and Richard Holbrooke, to serve as his chief emissaries to world hot spots. Ross and Holbrooke both served in senior Clinton administration roles. Haas had senior posts in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2003 and in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

It’s expected that Ross will be assigned the Iran portfolio, that Holbrooke, the hard-headed architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, will take the difficult Southwest Asia portfolio, including India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that Haas will deal with the Middle East.

Each men’s turf is still in flux, so these early assignments are not firm.
Read More Posts In Transition

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Obama Acts Like Obama

True to form, Barack Obama’s explanation yesterday of his reasons for leaving Trinity Church are a model of double-talk. (And the remarkably passive media pack doesn’t make it very hard for him to avoid further scrutiny.) He has, he explained

“tremendous regard” for the church community, but said he could not live with a situation where everything said in the church, including comments by a guest pastor, “will be imputed to me, even if they conflict with my long-held, views, statements and principles.”

And he would have remained in a church for two decades where regularly people spoke out in ways which conflicted with his principles because . . . why, exactly? We don’t know. And no one in the press thought to ask.

But it gets worse. ABC reports:

He insisted that Trinity itself is not a church worth denouncing. “I’m not denouncing the church and I’m not interested in people who want me to denounce the church, because it’s not a church worthy of denouncing, and so if they’ve seen caricatures of the church and except [sic] those caricatures despite my insistence that that’s not what the church is about, then there’s not much I can do about it.”

Yes, remember Obama does not do denouncing. There is nothing a Wright or Pfleger or Ayers can do which deserve condemnation. Unless, of course they visit the National Press Club and critique his sincerity.

And Obama concedes that:

[A]t the start of the campaign he never would have expected this much scrutiny to be put on his faith, “which we knew there was going to be some things that we didn’t see coming, this was one. You know I did not anticipate my fairly conventional Christian faith being subject to such challenge and such scrutiny. Initially with emails suggesting that I was a Muslim, later with you know the controversy that Trinity generated.”

This one gets the trifecta for dishonesty, or perhaps cluelessness. First, it is, of course, not the case that his Christian faith is being questioned. I know of no commentator, critic, or political opponent who has done that. What is at issue is his propensity to hang out with hatemongers who suggest his current post-racial theme is a pose. Second, he apparently lacks any cultural or political compass if he really believed that Wright et al. would not become an issue. Was it self-delusion? Or is he so out of touch with average Americans that he was unable to predict what would be deeply offensive to millions of Americans? And finally, notice how he impugns the motives of those who raise concerns about his association with Trinity. They are on a footing, in his book, with those perpetrating the “He’s a Muslim” canard. But the former are not perpetrating a lie. They are discussing and probing the beliefs, sincerity, and character of the man who wants to be President.

The Trinity cast of characters and Obama’s reaction to them have been more revealing than more a dozen-plus debates, all the speeches, and just about anything that has happened in over a year of campaigning. It might be even more revealing if the media would take their role seriously and press Obama on some of these obvious points. But Obama, however inadvertently, has done a fairly good job of letting us know how he makes both political and moral judgments. And that is perhaps the most important thing to know about a potential President.

True to form, Barack Obama’s explanation yesterday of his reasons for leaving Trinity Church are a model of double-talk. (And the remarkably passive media pack doesn’t make it very hard for him to avoid further scrutiny.) He has, he explained

“tremendous regard” for the church community, but said he could not live with a situation where everything said in the church, including comments by a guest pastor, “will be imputed to me, even if they conflict with my long-held, views, statements and principles.”

And he would have remained in a church for two decades where regularly people spoke out in ways which conflicted with his principles because . . . why, exactly? We don’t know. And no one in the press thought to ask.

But it gets worse. ABC reports:

He insisted that Trinity itself is not a church worth denouncing. “I’m not denouncing the church and I’m not interested in people who want me to denounce the church, because it’s not a church worthy of denouncing, and so if they’ve seen caricatures of the church and except [sic] those caricatures despite my insistence that that’s not what the church is about, then there’s not much I can do about it.”

Yes, remember Obama does not do denouncing. There is nothing a Wright or Pfleger or Ayers can do which deserve condemnation. Unless, of course they visit the National Press Club and critique his sincerity.

And Obama concedes that:

[A]t the start of the campaign he never would have expected this much scrutiny to be put on his faith, “which we knew there was going to be some things that we didn’t see coming, this was one. You know I did not anticipate my fairly conventional Christian faith being subject to such challenge and such scrutiny. Initially with emails suggesting that I was a Muslim, later with you know the controversy that Trinity generated.”

This one gets the trifecta for dishonesty, or perhaps cluelessness. First, it is, of course, not the case that his Christian faith is being questioned. I know of no commentator, critic, or political opponent who has done that. What is at issue is his propensity to hang out with hatemongers who suggest his current post-racial theme is a pose. Second, he apparently lacks any cultural or political compass if he really believed that Wright et al. would not become an issue. Was it self-delusion? Or is he so out of touch with average Americans that he was unable to predict what would be deeply offensive to millions of Americans? And finally, notice how he impugns the motives of those who raise concerns about his association with Trinity. They are on a footing, in his book, with those perpetrating the “He’s a Muslim” canard. But the former are not perpetrating a lie. They are discussing and probing the beliefs, sincerity, and character of the man who wants to be President.

The Trinity cast of characters and Obama’s reaction to them have been more revealing than more a dozen-plus debates, all the speeches, and just about anything that has happened in over a year of campaigning. It might be even more revealing if the media would take their role seriously and press Obama on some of these obvious points. But Obama, however inadvertently, has done a fairly good job of letting us know how he makes both political and moral judgments. And that is perhaps the most important thing to know about a potential President.

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Consumer Confidence and Barack Obama

Today, the Conference Board reported that consumer confidence, after months of decline, is at a near 16-year low. This comes, of course, as no surprise. Recent polls have shown that Americans are overwhelmingly convinced that the economy is in catastrophic shape; Alan Greenspan is on record discussing the “the most wrenching” financial crisis since World War II. But what exactly accounts for this degree of despair?

Two weeks ago, in the Wall Street Journal, Zachary Karabell wrote:

[I]t would be a stretch to rank the current problems as especially notable or dramatic. Something else is going on–namely a cultural rut of pessimism that is draining our collective energy, blinding us to possibilities, and eroding our position in the world.

Right now we have an unemployment rate of 5% and headline inflation topping 4%. We have economic growth of 0.6%, extremely low consumer confidence and weakening consumer spending, small business optimism at a 28-year low, and of course a housing market that is showing declines in excess of 20% in some parts of the country.

These are hardly statistics to celebrate, but they are a far cry from the crises of the 20th century. Next time someone compares the present to the Great Depression, stop them.

Stopping all the people who make that claim these days wouldn’t leave you much time to do anything else. Karabell went on:

It is also common today to hear comparisons to the stagflation and grim economy of the 1970s. Here too perspective is in order.

For all the present talk of volatility, in 1973 and 1974 the economy expanded 10% in the first quarter of 1973, contracted 2.1% in the third quarter, went up 3.9% in the fourth quarter, went down 3.4% in the first quarter of 1974, then up 1.2% in the second quarter – continuing like a bouncing ball for another year.

The unemployment rate went from 4.9% in 1973 to 8.5% in 1977, and then nearly broke 10% in 1982. Meanwhile the stock market went from 1067 in January 1973 to 570 in December 1974, a drop of 46%. And there was double-digit inflation and a sharp rise in the price of oil, which represented a higher percentage of consumer spending than today.

Victor Davis Hanson has noted the same insistence over evidence that it’s almost breadline time:

Last week, I asked a fierce Bush critic what he thought were the current unemployment rate, the mortgage default rate, the latest economic growth figures, interest rates and the status of the stock market.

He blurted out the common campaign pessimism: “Recession! Worst since the Depression!”

Then he scoffed when I suggested that the answer was really a 5 percent joblessness rate in April that was lower than the March figure; 95 to 96 percent of mortgages not entering foreclosure in this year’s first quarter; .6 percent growth during the quarter (weak, but not recession level); historically low interest rates; and sky-high stock market prices.

There are serious problems–high fuel costs, rising food prices, staggering foreign debt, unfunded entitlements, and annual deficits. Yet a president or vice president running for office (and covered incessantly by the media) would at least make the argument that there is a lot of good news . . .

This gets to the heart of the matter. In 2004, James Carville astutely noted the following:

And by and large, our message has been we can manage problems, while the Republicans, although they will say we can solve problems, they produce a narrative. We produce a litany. They say, “I’m going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.” We say, “We’re for clean air, better schools, more health care.” And so there’s a Republican narrative, a story, and there’s a Democratic litany.

Carville is one of the Clinton faithful, but there’s no doubt that it’s Barack Obama who hit on the right narrative and figured out how to sell it. Couched in language about hope and change, Obama’s message is ultimately one of abjection and despair. From his routine stump speech to his time-stopping epic on race in America, Obama wants you to know that Americans have it bad, worse than you realized, and he’s going to get us out of it. Americans work every shift and still can’t pay their bills; they go hungry to pay for chemotherapy. But if he’s elected, together, under his audacious guidance, we just might make it through. He is a remarkably talented narrator and as we’ve seen his audience is rapt. The fact that there is some genuine financial concern in America lends legitimacy to his exaggeration. The vicious cycle is in place. We’re told the economy is dismal, we say so in polls, we read the poll results as confirmation of what we’ve been told, we look to the candidate for change who tells us the economy is dismal.

In 1992, Bill Clinton became president by convincing voters that the economy was tanking. It mattered not at all that that year’s growth rate was above the yearly average since 1945. As Americans continue to despair about the catastrophe that isn’t, Barack Obama inches ever closer to the White House.

Today, the Conference Board reported that consumer confidence, after months of decline, is at a near 16-year low. This comes, of course, as no surprise. Recent polls have shown that Americans are overwhelmingly convinced that the economy is in catastrophic shape; Alan Greenspan is on record discussing the “the most wrenching” financial crisis since World War II. But what exactly accounts for this degree of despair?

Two weeks ago, in the Wall Street Journal, Zachary Karabell wrote:

[I]t would be a stretch to rank the current problems as especially notable or dramatic. Something else is going on–namely a cultural rut of pessimism that is draining our collective energy, blinding us to possibilities, and eroding our position in the world.

Right now we have an unemployment rate of 5% and headline inflation topping 4%. We have economic growth of 0.6%, extremely low consumer confidence and weakening consumer spending, small business optimism at a 28-year low, and of course a housing market that is showing declines in excess of 20% in some parts of the country.

These are hardly statistics to celebrate, but they are a far cry from the crises of the 20th century. Next time someone compares the present to the Great Depression, stop them.

Stopping all the people who make that claim these days wouldn’t leave you much time to do anything else. Karabell went on:

It is also common today to hear comparisons to the stagflation and grim economy of the 1970s. Here too perspective is in order.

For all the present talk of volatility, in 1973 and 1974 the economy expanded 10% in the first quarter of 1973, contracted 2.1% in the third quarter, went up 3.9% in the fourth quarter, went down 3.4% in the first quarter of 1974, then up 1.2% in the second quarter – continuing like a bouncing ball for another year.

The unemployment rate went from 4.9% in 1973 to 8.5% in 1977, and then nearly broke 10% in 1982. Meanwhile the stock market went from 1067 in January 1973 to 570 in December 1974, a drop of 46%. And there was double-digit inflation and a sharp rise in the price of oil, which represented a higher percentage of consumer spending than today.

Victor Davis Hanson has noted the same insistence over evidence that it’s almost breadline time:

Last week, I asked a fierce Bush critic what he thought were the current unemployment rate, the mortgage default rate, the latest economic growth figures, interest rates and the status of the stock market.

He blurted out the common campaign pessimism: “Recession! Worst since the Depression!”

Then he scoffed when I suggested that the answer was really a 5 percent joblessness rate in April that was lower than the March figure; 95 to 96 percent of mortgages not entering foreclosure in this year’s first quarter; .6 percent growth during the quarter (weak, but not recession level); historically low interest rates; and sky-high stock market prices.

There are serious problems–high fuel costs, rising food prices, staggering foreign debt, unfunded entitlements, and annual deficits. Yet a president or vice president running for office (and covered incessantly by the media) would at least make the argument that there is a lot of good news . . .

This gets to the heart of the matter. In 2004, James Carville astutely noted the following:

And by and large, our message has been we can manage problems, while the Republicans, although they will say we can solve problems, they produce a narrative. We produce a litany. They say, “I’m going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.” We say, “We’re for clean air, better schools, more health care.” And so there’s a Republican narrative, a story, and there’s a Democratic litany.

Carville is one of the Clinton faithful, but there’s no doubt that it’s Barack Obama who hit on the right narrative and figured out how to sell it. Couched in language about hope and change, Obama’s message is ultimately one of abjection and despair. From his routine stump speech to his time-stopping epic on race in America, Obama wants you to know that Americans have it bad, worse than you realized, and he’s going to get us out of it. Americans work every shift and still can’t pay their bills; they go hungry to pay for chemotherapy. But if he’s elected, together, under his audacious guidance, we just might make it through. He is a remarkably talented narrator and as we’ve seen his audience is rapt. The fact that there is some genuine financial concern in America lends legitimacy to his exaggeration. The vicious cycle is in place. We’re told the economy is dismal, we say so in polls, we read the poll results as confirmation of what we’ve been told, we look to the candidate for change who tells us the economy is dismal.

In 1992, Bill Clinton became president by convincing voters that the economy was tanking. It mattered not at all that that year’s growth rate was above the yearly average since 1945. As Americans continue to despair about the catastrophe that isn’t, Barack Obama inches ever closer to the White House.

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Is Europe Heading Right?

Silvio Berlusconi is planning to appoint Roberto Calderoli, a far-Right critic of Islam, to his cabinet. Two years ago, during the first Danish cartoon firestorm, Calderoli went on television wearing a T-shirt bearing one of the offending images. A brave and admirable defense of freedom of expression in and of itself. But Calderoli didn’t stop at T-shirt activism. He threatened, cringe-inducingly, to walk a pig over the site of a proposed mosque in Padua. Then he made a headfirst dive into quasi-Fascism: After France lost to Italy in the 2006 World Cup, Calderoli bragged that France had “sacrificed its identity by fielding niggers, Muslims and communists.”

Berlusconi’s plan to appoint the former Reform Minister, along with other recent electoral shifts on the continent, raise a vital two-part question: Is Europe moving right? And, if so, how far?

Over the past six or so years, continental utopianism failed to produce the kind of unified EU we had been hearing so much about. Moreover, Europe’s hush-hush approach to Euro-Muslim relations failed to address the continued waves of unassimilated Muslim immigrants, witnessed everywhere from France to Italy to Spain to England to Holland. Europe talks a fabulous game of tolerance, but plays a ruthless game of tribal rugby. With some exceptions (Spain, for example) there’s increasing evidence that that most intemperate beast, the European Right, is awakening.

Witness the candidacy of Le Pen in France, or the career of Holland’s Pim Fortuyn, ended by assassination. Or take this week. In Italy, there’s the case of Berlusconi and his extreme potential appointee. Over the weekend, in England, staunch anti-Islamist Boris Johnson defeated Islamist apologist Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral race. Not troubling (perhaps even heartening) in itself. But on the heels of that victory, the extreme-Right British National Party’s Richard Barnbrook became the first BNP candidate ever to nab a seat in the London Assembly. To get the flavor of what Barnbrook is all about, consider this from the Daily Mail:

In public, Barnbrook has long favoured what one acquaintance calls a “Stormtrooper” brown suit and matching tie, which even his supporters feel is rather too suggestive of a Nuremberg rally for his electoral good.

Yikes. The problem with the European Right is that for every Berlusconi there’s a Calderoli, and for every Boris Johnson there’s a Barnbrook. Without a politically-defined national identity comparable to that of the United States, European nations are unable to mount a defense of ideals separate from a defense of (usually racialized) identity.

But one solution to the European conundrum may lie in the example of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He has said he wants to make France more like America. This means cutting back the extensive state benefits that keep the French from fully contributing to their country and attract hordes of equally unmotivated immigrants. It means saying no to Islamization without discarding religious plurality. It’s been slow going for “Sarko the American,” but moderation takes time. Extreme policies can be enacted instantly, without regard for side-effects. But that lack of caution is precisely what makes it–and politicians like Calderoli and Barnbrook– dangerous.

Silvio Berlusconi is planning to appoint Roberto Calderoli, a far-Right critic of Islam, to his cabinet. Two years ago, during the first Danish cartoon firestorm, Calderoli went on television wearing a T-shirt bearing one of the offending images. A brave and admirable defense of freedom of expression in and of itself. But Calderoli didn’t stop at T-shirt activism. He threatened, cringe-inducingly, to walk a pig over the site of a proposed mosque in Padua. Then he made a headfirst dive into quasi-Fascism: After France lost to Italy in the 2006 World Cup, Calderoli bragged that France had “sacrificed its identity by fielding niggers, Muslims and communists.”

Berlusconi’s plan to appoint the former Reform Minister, along with other recent electoral shifts on the continent, raise a vital two-part question: Is Europe moving right? And, if so, how far?

Over the past six or so years, continental utopianism failed to produce the kind of unified EU we had been hearing so much about. Moreover, Europe’s hush-hush approach to Euro-Muslim relations failed to address the continued waves of unassimilated Muslim immigrants, witnessed everywhere from France to Italy to Spain to England to Holland. Europe talks a fabulous game of tolerance, but plays a ruthless game of tribal rugby. With some exceptions (Spain, for example) there’s increasing evidence that that most intemperate beast, the European Right, is awakening.

Witness the candidacy of Le Pen in France, or the career of Holland’s Pim Fortuyn, ended by assassination. Or take this week. In Italy, there’s the case of Berlusconi and his extreme potential appointee. Over the weekend, in England, staunch anti-Islamist Boris Johnson defeated Islamist apologist Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral race. Not troubling (perhaps even heartening) in itself. But on the heels of that victory, the extreme-Right British National Party’s Richard Barnbrook became the first BNP candidate ever to nab a seat in the London Assembly. To get the flavor of what Barnbrook is all about, consider this from the Daily Mail:

In public, Barnbrook has long favoured what one acquaintance calls a “Stormtrooper” brown suit and matching tie, which even his supporters feel is rather too suggestive of a Nuremberg rally for his electoral good.

Yikes. The problem with the European Right is that for every Berlusconi there’s a Calderoli, and for every Boris Johnson there’s a Barnbrook. Without a politically-defined national identity comparable to that of the United States, European nations are unable to mount a defense of ideals separate from a defense of (usually racialized) identity.

But one solution to the European conundrum may lie in the example of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He has said he wants to make France more like America. This means cutting back the extensive state benefits that keep the French from fully contributing to their country and attract hordes of equally unmotivated immigrants. It means saying no to Islamization without discarding religious plurality. It’s been slow going for “Sarko the American,” but moderation takes time. Extreme policies can be enacted instantly, without regard for side-effects. But that lack of caution is precisely what makes it–and politicians like Calderoli and Barnbrook– dangerous.

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Was the NSA Terrorist Surveillance Program Illegal?

What are the proper limits of a president’s authority under Article II of the U.S. Constitution? The question is put squarely before the public by the release of a secret 2003 legal memorandum written by John Yoo inquiring whether a president could, among other things, order a prisoner’s eye to be poked out.

Yoo takes the view that the president’s powers as commander in chief in wartime are virtually unlimited, and can ride over federal statutes banning interrogation techniques like assault and maiming. The Justice Department disavowed this doctrine nine months after it was enunciated, and that seems entirely appropriate. Even in wartime, our constitutional history makes fairly clear that there are limits on what a president can do.

But where exactly do those limits reside? And how exactly do they bear on another controversy involving executive power: President Bush’s decision in late 2001 to authorize the National Security Agency to launch the Terrorist Surveillance Program. This program involved the interception of international calls between al-Qaeda suspects abroad and persons in the United States? Because the program seemingly violated the plain language of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and, as some also argue, the Fourth Amendment prohibition on warrantless searches, was it also every bit as much an overreach of executive power as the actions outlined in John Yoo’s torture memo?

The answer, in my view, is emphatically no.

To begin with, strong arguments have been made that to the extent FISA limited the president’s power, it was itself an unconstitutional usurpation of the president’s power. At first glance this assertion seems to be merely a restatement of Yoo’s thesis that the president’s powers are unlimited. But the difference is that for very good reason warrantless wiretapping in wartime has a long history in this country. For very good reason, legalized torture does not.

The numerous examples of warrantless searches carried out for foreign-policy purposes, some under taken by the Clinton administration even after FISA was on the books (as in the case of Aldrich Ames), suggest that the NSA activities are well within the boundaries of constitutionally acceptable wartime measures. That, in any case, was also the consensus of a panel of retired FISA court judges who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006.

Second, Congress was repeatedly briefed about the NSA program over a period of years. Although one or two members expressed reservations, no formal objection was ever lodged. When the program was disclosed to the public by the New York Times in December 2005, members of Congress from both parties voiced dismay that a valuable counterterrorism program had been compromised. The assent of Congress must carry considerable weight in any assessment of the legal status of the NSA program.

Reasonable men (and women) can disagree about this, of course. There was considerable disagreement about the NSA program within the Bush Justice Department itself. But such disagreement, one of the pretexts for the New York Times‘s decision to reveal the highly secret program, is not itself a sign of trouble but of health. If these matters were simple, there would be no need for an extensive legal bureaucracy to consider them. But in the final analysis a mere declaration by the New York Times or any other critic of the Bush administration that an intelligence program was illegal or unconstitutional does not make it so.

What are the proper limits of a president’s authority under Article II of the U.S. Constitution? The question is put squarely before the public by the release of a secret 2003 legal memorandum written by John Yoo inquiring whether a president could, among other things, order a prisoner’s eye to be poked out.

Yoo takes the view that the president’s powers as commander in chief in wartime are virtually unlimited, and can ride over federal statutes banning interrogation techniques like assault and maiming. The Justice Department disavowed this doctrine nine months after it was enunciated, and that seems entirely appropriate. Even in wartime, our constitutional history makes fairly clear that there are limits on what a president can do.

But where exactly do those limits reside? And how exactly do they bear on another controversy involving executive power: President Bush’s decision in late 2001 to authorize the National Security Agency to launch the Terrorist Surveillance Program. This program involved the interception of international calls between al-Qaeda suspects abroad and persons in the United States? Because the program seemingly violated the plain language of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and, as some also argue, the Fourth Amendment prohibition on warrantless searches, was it also every bit as much an overreach of executive power as the actions outlined in John Yoo’s torture memo?

The answer, in my view, is emphatically no.

To begin with, strong arguments have been made that to the extent FISA limited the president’s power, it was itself an unconstitutional usurpation of the president’s power. At first glance this assertion seems to be merely a restatement of Yoo’s thesis that the president’s powers are unlimited. But the difference is that for very good reason warrantless wiretapping in wartime has a long history in this country. For very good reason, legalized torture does not.

The numerous examples of warrantless searches carried out for foreign-policy purposes, some under taken by the Clinton administration even after FISA was on the books (as in the case of Aldrich Ames), suggest that the NSA activities are well within the boundaries of constitutionally acceptable wartime measures. That, in any case, was also the consensus of a panel of retired FISA court judges who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2006.

Second, Congress was repeatedly briefed about the NSA program over a period of years. Although one or two members expressed reservations, no formal objection was ever lodged. When the program was disclosed to the public by the New York Times in December 2005, members of Congress from both parties voiced dismay that a valuable counterterrorism program had been compromised. The assent of Congress must carry considerable weight in any assessment of the legal status of the NSA program.

Reasonable men (and women) can disagree about this, of course. There was considerable disagreement about the NSA program within the Bush Justice Department itself. But such disagreement, one of the pretexts for the New York Times‘s decision to reveal the highly secret program, is not itself a sign of trouble but of health. If these matters were simple, there would be no need for an extensive legal bureaucracy to consider them. But in the final analysis a mere declaration by the New York Times or any other critic of the Bush administration that an intelligence program was illegal or unconstitutional does not make it so.

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Home from the Sea

cross-posted at About Last Night

Moss Hart, who grew up poor and spent a not-inconsiderable portion of his young life riding the subway from deepest Brooklyn to Times Square, swore that if he ever struck it rich, he’d take cabs everywhere, even if his destination was only a block or two away. I’ve never been poor and have yet to strike it rich, but I rode the subway often enough in my first years as a New Yorker to be glad that I can now afford to take cabs. Be that as it may, a true New Yorker who wants to get somewhere at ten on a rainy morning takes the subway, and since today’s Mass for the repose of the soul of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died five weeks ago, was scheduled to start at ten o’clock sharp at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I put on my black outfit and raincoat, descended into the bowels of Manhattan, and made my bumpy way to Rockefeller Center in the midst of a rush-hour crowd.

It’s been quite a while since I walked through Rockefeller Center, even longer since I’ve been inside St. Patrick’s, and a very long time indeed since I last attended a memorial service for a public figure. For all these reasons, I have no standard against which to measure Bill’s funeral obsequies. All I can tell you was that today’s service seemed as splendid as it could possibly have been. The cathedral was full of mourners, the choir loft full of singers, and the music was mostly appropriate to the occasion. Bill was a serious amateur musician who loved Bach above all things–he actually performed the F Minor Harpsichord Concerto in public on more than one occasion–so the organist played “Sheep May Safely Graze” and the slow movement of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major. No less suitable were the sung portions of the Mass, drawn from Victoria’s sweetly austere Missa “O magnum mysterium,” and the closing hymn, the noble tune from Gustav Holst’s The Planets to which the following words were later set: I vow to thee, my country–all earthly things above–/Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.

The only thing that made my inner critic smile wryly was the performance during communion of the Adagio in G Minor long attributed to Albinoni but in fact woven out of whole cloth by one Remo Giazotto. It is a preposterously operatic piece of spurious yard goods, and to hear it played on the organ with all stops pulled put me in mind of something Bill wrote after attending a Virgil Fox recital many years ago:

At one point during a prelude, I am tempted to rise solemnly, commandeer a shotgun, and advise Fox, preferably in imperious German, if only I could learn German in time to consummate the fantasy, that if he does not release the goddam vox humana, which is oohing-ahing-eeing the music where Bach clearly intended something closer to a bel canto, I shall simply have to blow his head off.

That was the Bill Buckley I knew, whip-smart and impishly outrageous, the same man that David Remnick had in mind when he described Bill as having “the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat.”

I wish I could say I knew him well, but I didn’t. I dined at his table a number of times but was only alone with him once, when I interviewed him about Whittaker Chambers for an anthology of Chambers’ journalism that I edited in 1989. On that occasion Bill assured me that although they had been close, Chambers never had “any direct historical or intellectual influence” on him. The reason he gave is striking:

I never embraced, in part because subjectively it’s contra naturam to me, that utter, total, objective, strategic pessimism of his. Among other things, I think it’s wrong theologically to assume that the world is doomed before God decides to doom it. So I never drank too deeply of his Weltschmerz.

Indeed he did not: Bill was the least weltschmerzy person imaginable. Henry Kissinger, who eulogized him this morning, alluded to that side of Bill’s personality when he remarked that Bill “was vouchsafed a little miracle: to enjoy so much what was compelled by inner necessity.” I couldn’t have put it better. Bill worked fearfully hard and was deadly serious about what he believed, but he extracted self-evident enjoyment from everything he did, and you couldn’t be in his presence for more than a minute or two without responding to his joie de vivre. If I’d been in charge of the music today, I would have made a point of picking something a good deal more festive–Bach’s Fugue à la gigue, say, or one of the harpsichord sonatas in which Scarlatti turns the instrument Bill loved best into a giant guitar.

Christopher Buckley, Bill’s son, followed Henry Kissinger, and gave just the sort of eulogy I’d expected from him, funny and light-fingered, putting much-needed smiles on our faces. Only at the end did he sound a darker note, quoting the lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” that he chose as the epitaph for a man who loved sailing as much as he loved Bach: Here he lies where he long’d to be;/Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunter home from the hill. Then we all sang “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” pushed our way past the waiting photographers, and returned to the gray, misty day.

I passed up a lunch invitation and went home by myself, preferring to be alone with my thoughts. I was thinking of an evening in the fall of 1985, not long after I moved to New York from the Midwest. I’d been writing for National Review, Bill’s magazine, since 1981, but I’d never met my first great patron face to face, so he invited me to an editorial dinner at his Park Avenue apartment. Back then I was working for Harper’s, whose offices were in Greenwich Village, and the thought of meeting Bill for the first time was so exciting that I walked all the way from Astor Place up to 73 E. 73rd Street (where Bill invariably entertained at 7:30).

It was, of course, a symbolic gesture: I was taking possession of the streets of the city to which I had moved and in which I hoped someday to make a name for myself. At the end of my journey I knocked on the door of Bill’s maisonette, and a few moments later he clasped my hand and said, “Hey, buddy!” It was, I would learn, his standard greeting, always uttered with a warmth that remained disarming no matter how many times you heard it.

Ever since then I have associated Bill Buckley with New York, whose doors he flung wide to me, just as he opened the pages of the magazine he edited. Now New York is my home–but Bill is gone, buried in Connecticut, home at last from the sea. Somehow you never imagine outliving the people who show you through the doors that lead to the rest of your life.

cross-posted at About Last Night

Moss Hart, who grew up poor and spent a not-inconsiderable portion of his young life riding the subway from deepest Brooklyn to Times Square, swore that if he ever struck it rich, he’d take cabs everywhere, even if his destination was only a block or two away. I’ve never been poor and have yet to strike it rich, but I rode the subway often enough in my first years as a New Yorker to be glad that I can now afford to take cabs. Be that as it may, a true New Yorker who wants to get somewhere at ten on a rainy morning takes the subway, and since today’s Mass for the repose of the soul of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died five weeks ago, was scheduled to start at ten o’clock sharp at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I put on my black outfit and raincoat, descended into the bowels of Manhattan, and made my bumpy way to Rockefeller Center in the midst of a rush-hour crowd.

It’s been quite a while since I walked through Rockefeller Center, even longer since I’ve been inside St. Patrick’s, and a very long time indeed since I last attended a memorial service for a public figure. For all these reasons, I have no standard against which to measure Bill’s funeral obsequies. All I can tell you was that today’s service seemed as splendid as it could possibly have been. The cathedral was full of mourners, the choir loft full of singers, and the music was mostly appropriate to the occasion. Bill was a serious amateur musician who loved Bach above all things–he actually performed the F Minor Harpsichord Concerto in public on more than one occasion–so the organist played “Sheep May Safely Graze” and the slow movement of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major. No less suitable were the sung portions of the Mass, drawn from Victoria’s sweetly austere Missa “O magnum mysterium,” and the closing hymn, the noble tune from Gustav Holst’s The Planets to which the following words were later set: I vow to thee, my country–all earthly things above–/Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.

The only thing that made my inner critic smile wryly was the performance during communion of the Adagio in G Minor long attributed to Albinoni but in fact woven out of whole cloth by one Remo Giazotto. It is a preposterously operatic piece of spurious yard goods, and to hear it played on the organ with all stops pulled put me in mind of something Bill wrote after attending a Virgil Fox recital many years ago:

At one point during a prelude, I am tempted to rise solemnly, commandeer a shotgun, and advise Fox, preferably in imperious German, if only I could learn German in time to consummate the fantasy, that if he does not release the goddam vox humana, which is oohing-ahing-eeing the music where Bach clearly intended something closer to a bel canto, I shall simply have to blow his head off.

That was the Bill Buckley I knew, whip-smart and impishly outrageous, the same man that David Remnick had in mind when he described Bill as having “the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat.”

I wish I could say I knew him well, but I didn’t. I dined at his table a number of times but was only alone with him once, when I interviewed him about Whittaker Chambers for an anthology of Chambers’ journalism that I edited in 1989. On that occasion Bill assured me that although they had been close, Chambers never had “any direct historical or intellectual influence” on him. The reason he gave is striking:

I never embraced, in part because subjectively it’s contra naturam to me, that utter, total, objective, strategic pessimism of his. Among other things, I think it’s wrong theologically to assume that the world is doomed before God decides to doom it. So I never drank too deeply of his Weltschmerz.

Indeed he did not: Bill was the least weltschmerzy person imaginable. Henry Kissinger, who eulogized him this morning, alluded to that side of Bill’s personality when he remarked that Bill “was vouchsafed a little miracle: to enjoy so much what was compelled by inner necessity.” I couldn’t have put it better. Bill worked fearfully hard and was deadly serious about what he believed, but he extracted self-evident enjoyment from everything he did, and you couldn’t be in his presence for more than a minute or two without responding to his joie de vivre. If I’d been in charge of the music today, I would have made a point of picking something a good deal more festive–Bach’s Fugue à la gigue, say, or one of the harpsichord sonatas in which Scarlatti turns the instrument Bill loved best into a giant guitar.

Christopher Buckley, Bill’s son, followed Henry Kissinger, and gave just the sort of eulogy I’d expected from him, funny and light-fingered, putting much-needed smiles on our faces. Only at the end did he sound a darker note, quoting the lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” that he chose as the epitaph for a man who loved sailing as much as he loved Bach: Here he lies where he long’d to be;/Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunter home from the hill. Then we all sang “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” pushed our way past the waiting photographers, and returned to the gray, misty day.

I passed up a lunch invitation and went home by myself, preferring to be alone with my thoughts. I was thinking of an evening in the fall of 1985, not long after I moved to New York from the Midwest. I’d been writing for National Review, Bill’s magazine, since 1981, but I’d never met my first great patron face to face, so he invited me to an editorial dinner at his Park Avenue apartment. Back then I was working for Harper’s, whose offices were in Greenwich Village, and the thought of meeting Bill for the first time was so exciting that I walked all the way from Astor Place up to 73 E. 73rd Street (where Bill invariably entertained at 7:30).

It was, of course, a symbolic gesture: I was taking possession of the streets of the city to which I had moved and in which I hoped someday to make a name for myself. At the end of my journey I knocked on the door of Bill’s maisonette, and a few moments later he clasped my hand and said, “Hey, buddy!” It was, I would learn, his standard greeting, always uttered with a warmth that remained disarming no matter how many times you heard it.

Ever since then I have associated Bill Buckley with New York, whose doors he flung wide to me, just as he opened the pages of the magazine he edited. Now New York is my home–but Bill is gone, buried in Connecticut, home at last from the sea. Somehow you never imagine outliving the people who show you through the doors that lead to the rest of your life.

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Bookshelf

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

I recently finished workshopping The Letter, the Somerset Maugham opera that Paul Moravec and I are writing for Santa Fe Opera, where it will be premiered in the summer of 2009. (In the world of opera, “workshop” is a verb.) No sooner did we wrap up our rehearsals than I resumed work on my biography of Louis Armstrong, which I hope to finish by April Fool’s Day. Factor in my hectic playgoing schedule and you begin to see the problem: how does a busy man get any reading done in the interstices of a schedule run amok? I confess to not having cracked any new books in the past week, but I’ve (mostly) enjoyed revisiting a half-dozen old ones, and it occurred to me that you might enjoy knowing what I’ve read since writing my last column:

• Stark Young’s 1938 translation of The Seagull, which is currently being performed by New York’s Classic Stage Company in a more recent English-language version by Paul Schmidt. Young, who is forgotten now, was one of the few great drama critics that this country has produced, and one of the first American critics to write with intelligence and sensitivity about Anton Chekhov’s plays. He translated The Seagull and Chekhov’s three other major plays after concluding that all the existing English-language renderings were insufficiently faithful to the original Russian versions, and for many years his translations were staged with some frequency (in part because they were published in a Modern Library omnibus edition). Schmidt’s modern-sounding translations are now more popular with American actors, but Young’s lucid, slightly formal style still has its own appeal.

• Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970) and Post Captain (1972). When the going gets tough, I reach for O’Brian’s Trollope-like sea stories, which never fail to distract me from the stresses of a landlubber’s life. It’s been a couple of years since I last worked my way through the Aubrey-Maturin novels, so my wife and I resolved to read them simultaneously this year. No matter how noisy the world around me may grow, O’Brian has the power to transport me to an alternate literary universe that supplies me with “pure anesthesia.” (Pop quiz: do any of CONTENTIONS’ readers remember what once-famous critic coined that phrase, or to what still-popular work of literature the critic who coined it was referring?)

• Charles R. Townsend’s San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills (1976). “Western swing,” that high-stepping amalgam of country music and two-beat jazz, was invented, more or less, by a rowdy Texas fiddler named Bob Wills. I recently had lunch with a Texan musician who has written a play about Wills, and the meeting inspired me to dip into Townsend’s excellent biography for the first time in many years. Though not especially well written, San Antonio Rose tells you everything you could want to know about Wills and the Texas Playboys, the hugely popular band that he led for some thirty-odd years.

• Howard Pollack’s Aaron Copland: The Life of an Uncommon Man (1999). I picked up this book for purely professional reasons—I’ve been thinking of writing a Wall Street Journal column about Copland’s film scores—and once again found it comprehensive, reliable and pedestrian. Such books, alas, prevent better writers from tilling the same ground, and so it will be a very long time before America’s greatest composer receives the first-rate biography he so richly deserves. More’s the pity.

• Joseph Epstein’s Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide (2006). I usually read Epstein’s books as soon as they come out, but this one slipped past me, and I didn’t get to it until last week. It is a choice example of one of my favorite genres, the “brief life.” In 205 stylishly written small-format pages, Epstein tells you enough about Tocqueville to make you long to know much, much more. I suspect that many younger readers find the sheer bulk of Democracy in America to be alarmingly daunting, so I hope that this elegant little book will circulate widely.

Now, back to Satchmo!

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An Iraqi Sea Change

Question: What is the most extraordinary thing about the following extraordinary sentence?

BAGHDAD — After almost five years of war, many young people in Iraq, exhausted by constant firsthand exposure to the violence of religious extremism, say they have grown disillusioned with religious leaders and skeptical of the faith that they preach.

Answer: It is the lead of a story in today’s New York Times. The paper of record, which for the past few years could accurately be described as a body count with a styles section, is now acknowledging the realization of the most ambitious goal of the Iraq War: the de-radicalization of Muslim citizens. This is, in its way, more important than political reconciliation and even more important than hunting down al Qaeda. This is the long war stuff, the hearts-and-minds stuff.

The goal was to offer freedom as an alternative to extremism; the criticism was that it was a dream; the reality is that it is happening. From the Times:

Such patterns, if lasting, could lead to a weakening of the political power of religious leaders in Iraq. In a nod to those changing tastes, political parties are dropping overt references to religion.

And the revelations don’t end there. Sabrina Tavernise, who wrote the piece, notes that the extent of Iraqis’ wholesale rejection of jihad is unique in the region:

The shift in Iraq runs counter to trends of rising religious practice among young people across much of the Middle East, where religion has replaced nationalism as a unifying ideology.

It is impossible not to infer that the Bush Doctrine and the commitment of the men and women in uniform has facilitated this shift. Far from “creating more terrorists” as the failed cliché goes, the war has helped to nurture an appreciation for liberty among Iraqi youth. A 24-year-old Iraqi college student is quoted as saying she loved Osama bin Laden at the time of 9/11. Now, after seeing the efforts of religious leaders to curtail her daily freedoms, she rejects extremism entirely. While George Bush’s critics can make no useful connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq, this young woman has no problem doing so.

Ms. Tavernise rolls out another shocker with the admission that Saddam Hussien was not the simple secular player that the war’s detractors had always claimed:

Saddam Hussein encouraged religion in Iraqi society in his later years, building Sunni mosques and injecting more religion into the public school curriculum, but always made sure it served his authoritarian needs.

Well, what do you know? Someone should tell Senator Carl Levin, who in 2005 described Saddam’s regime as “intensely secular.”

This Times piece represents a tectonic shift in the Iraq War and in the larger ideological struggle. From this date on, the War cannot be talked about in quite the same way. Those opposed to it can no longer snicker so easily when recalling the President’s assertion that people everywhere want freedom, and they may have to check their rage before declaring we’ve created more terrorists. There are some who understood that changing hearts and minds was the only way to triumph in the long run, but felt that Iraq was a huge setback in that pursuit. Martin Amis, a critic of the war, said of Islamism:

I think it will atomize. And also there will be sectarian strife within it. Also, I think that it is so fantastically poisonous that in its most millennial form, Islamism, not Islam, Islamism is so poisonous that it will burn itself out.

Amis may have thought going into Iraq was the wrong move, but there is little question that the embers have started to cool in Mesopotamia.

Question: What is the most extraordinary thing about the following extraordinary sentence?

BAGHDAD — After almost five years of war, many young people in Iraq, exhausted by constant firsthand exposure to the violence of religious extremism, say they have grown disillusioned with religious leaders and skeptical of the faith that they preach.

Answer: It is the lead of a story in today’s New York Times. The paper of record, which for the past few years could accurately be described as a body count with a styles section, is now acknowledging the realization of the most ambitious goal of the Iraq War: the de-radicalization of Muslim citizens. This is, in its way, more important than political reconciliation and even more important than hunting down al Qaeda. This is the long war stuff, the hearts-and-minds stuff.

The goal was to offer freedom as an alternative to extremism; the criticism was that it was a dream; the reality is that it is happening. From the Times:

Such patterns, if lasting, could lead to a weakening of the political power of religious leaders in Iraq. In a nod to those changing tastes, political parties are dropping overt references to religion.

And the revelations don’t end there. Sabrina Tavernise, who wrote the piece, notes that the extent of Iraqis’ wholesale rejection of jihad is unique in the region:

The shift in Iraq runs counter to trends of rising religious practice among young people across much of the Middle East, where religion has replaced nationalism as a unifying ideology.

It is impossible not to infer that the Bush Doctrine and the commitment of the men and women in uniform has facilitated this shift. Far from “creating more terrorists” as the failed cliché goes, the war has helped to nurture an appreciation for liberty among Iraqi youth. A 24-year-old Iraqi college student is quoted as saying she loved Osama bin Laden at the time of 9/11. Now, after seeing the efforts of religious leaders to curtail her daily freedoms, she rejects extremism entirely. While George Bush’s critics can make no useful connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq, this young woman has no problem doing so.

Ms. Tavernise rolls out another shocker with the admission that Saddam Hussien was not the simple secular player that the war’s detractors had always claimed:

Saddam Hussein encouraged religion in Iraqi society in his later years, building Sunni mosques and injecting more religion into the public school curriculum, but always made sure it served his authoritarian needs.

Well, what do you know? Someone should tell Senator Carl Levin, who in 2005 described Saddam’s regime as “intensely secular.”

This Times piece represents a tectonic shift in the Iraq War and in the larger ideological struggle. From this date on, the War cannot be talked about in quite the same way. Those opposed to it can no longer snicker so easily when recalling the President’s assertion that people everywhere want freedom, and they may have to check their rage before declaring we’ve created more terrorists. There are some who understood that changing hearts and minds was the only way to triumph in the long run, but felt that Iraq was a huge setback in that pursuit. Martin Amis, a critic of the war, said of Islamism:

I think it will atomize. And also there will be sectarian strife within it. Also, I think that it is so fantastically poisonous that in its most millennial form, Islamism, not Islam, Islamism is so poisonous that it will burn itself out.

Amis may have thought going into Iraq was the wrong move, but there is little question that the embers have started to cool in Mesopotamia.

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Oscar Predictions

Here’s the thing: I’m generally lousy at them, because I always overthink these things. So I suppose since everybody and his brother are saying No Country for Old Men is going to win, it probably is — and since everybody is saying there’s a backlash against Juno, I guess there is.

But here’s the rub: I talk to a lot of people who actually just go to the movies rather than write about them. And most of these people didn’t really like No Country. They thought there were wonderful scenes but found the last 15 minutes baffling in a particularly off-putting way. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t love Juno. People who write about movies twist themselves into knots thinking about these matters so much they decide Juno is meretricious and the end of No Country doesn’t matter.

What I’m saying is, evidently it would be an upset if Juno won. But why? Would would a universally liked, enormously popular, and very affecting film be considered an underdog against a brilliantly made but bloody and unsatisfying existential thriller? There are only 6,000 Academy Awards voters. None of them is a critic.

Last year, when The Departed beat Little Miss Sunshine, it did so in large measure because people really loved The Departed – and it was a slightly bigger hit. Nobody really loves No Country for Old Men. Juno is the movie this year that knocked people for a loop, a happy loop.

So it just seems to me the smart money being on No Country is a result of overthink. Based on what we know about the Oscars, the only obvious choice is Juno, except for the fact that it’s a comedy. Which is a big except. All of this only goes to show that if Atonement — epic, romantic, with English accents — had been better, it would have walked away with the award.

Daniel Day Lewis will win for best actor. Nobody knows who will win Best Actress — although if Ellen Page takes it for Juno, that will be a serious indication that the movie is going to win the big one. And while everybody says Javier Bardem is a lock for supporting actor in No Country, supporting is where the surprises always happen. Nobody knows about supporting actress either, though it strikes me as weird that the Academy might give Cate Blanchett a second Oscar for impersonating a famous person (the first was Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator; this would be for being Bob Dylan in I’m Not There).

But I’ve never won an Oscar pool.

Here’s the thing: I’m generally lousy at them, because I always overthink these things. So I suppose since everybody and his brother are saying No Country for Old Men is going to win, it probably is — and since everybody is saying there’s a backlash against Juno, I guess there is.

But here’s the rub: I talk to a lot of people who actually just go to the movies rather than write about them. And most of these people didn’t really like No Country. They thought there were wonderful scenes but found the last 15 minutes baffling in a particularly off-putting way. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t love Juno. People who write about movies twist themselves into knots thinking about these matters so much they decide Juno is meretricious and the end of No Country doesn’t matter.

What I’m saying is, evidently it would be an upset if Juno won. But why? Would would a universally liked, enormously popular, and very affecting film be considered an underdog against a brilliantly made but bloody and unsatisfying existential thriller? There are only 6,000 Academy Awards voters. None of them is a critic.

Last year, when The Departed beat Little Miss Sunshine, it did so in large measure because people really loved The Departed – and it was a slightly bigger hit. Nobody really loves No Country for Old Men. Juno is the movie this year that knocked people for a loop, a happy loop.

So it just seems to me the smart money being on No Country is a result of overthink. Based on what we know about the Oscars, the only obvious choice is Juno, except for the fact that it’s a comedy. Which is a big except. All of this only goes to show that if Atonement — epic, romantic, with English accents — had been better, it would have walked away with the award.

Daniel Day Lewis will win for best actor. Nobody knows who will win Best Actress — although if Ellen Page takes it for Juno, that will be a serious indication that the movie is going to win the big one. And while everybody says Javier Bardem is a lock for supporting actor in No Country, supporting is where the surprises always happen. Nobody knows about supporting actress either, though it strikes me as weird that the Academy might give Cate Blanchett a second Oscar for impersonating a famous person (the first was Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator; this would be for being Bob Dylan in I’m Not There).

But I’ve never won an Oscar pool.

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An Encouraging Picture of Iraq

In his most recent report, The Situation From Iraq: A Briefing from the Battlefield, Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), writes this:

No one can spend some 10 days visiting the battlefields in Iraq without seeing major progress in every area. A combination of the surge, improved win and hold tactics, the tribal uprising in Anbar and other provinces, the Sadr ceasefire, and major advances in the use of IS&R have transformed the battle against Al Qaida in Iraq. If the US provides sustained support to the Iraqi government — in security, governance, and development — there is now a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state.

This is an important development. Dr. Cordesman, a respected voice on international affairs, has been highly critical of the lack of adequate post-war (Phase IV) planning in Iraq. He has long warned about the dangers of exiting Iraq prematurely and was a critic of those who argued we should divide Iraq into three ethno-religious entities. At the same time, Cordesman has been skeptical about the possibility of achieving stability in Iraq. Certainly no one could accuse Cordesman of wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to Iraq.

On May 2, 2006, Cordesman wrote:

No one can argue that the prospects for stability in Iraq are good. At best, the formation of a government will be the prelude to four months of debate over the constitution and every other divisive issue. There will follow two months of political struggle over a referendum to approve the result and Iraqis must then decide whether they can live with implementing the result. The “best case” is probably political turmoil well into 2007 and probably 2008… Even if victory is realistically defined as “muddling through” over half a decade more – the “2010 solution” – the odds are, at best, even.

On January 29, 2007, Cordesman (accurately) assessed things this way:

The insurgency in Iraq has become a “war after the war” that threatens to divide the country and create a full-scale civil conflict. It has triggered sectarian and ethnic violence that dominates the struggle to reshape Iraq as a modern state… Since its inception in the spring of 2003, the nature of the fighting in Iraq has evolved from a struggle between Coalition forces and former regime loyalists to a much more diffuse conflict, involving a number of Sunni groups, Shi’ite militias, and foreign jihadists, and which has spread to become a widespread civil conflict . . .

On February 5, 2007, in the aftermath of the President’s speech announcing the “surge,” Cordesman wrote this:

President Bush has presented a new strategy for the war in Iraq that may be able to defeat the insurgency and reverse Iraq’s drift towards large-scale civil war. His speech has, however, raised many questions as to both the risks it will create over the coming months and the real-world ability to actually implement his plans.

It turns out that the real-world ability to implement Bush’s plan was better than many thought. The risks were actually opportunities. And now, a year and a month after the surge was announced, we have seen progress far beyond what virtually anyone, even advocates of the surge, could have imagined.

We are still some distance away from Iraq emerging as a secure and stable state. “Serious threats can still bring defeat or paralysis over the coming years,” according to Cordesman, “although this seems significantly less likely than during the fall of 2007.” Yet, as Tony Cordesman now says, there is a very real chance that a secure and stable Iraq – one that is an ally instead of an adversary in the war against militant Islam – may yet come to pass. If it does, it will be an achievement of enormous, and perhaps even historic, consequence.

In his most recent report, The Situation From Iraq: A Briefing from the Battlefield, Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), writes this:

No one can spend some 10 days visiting the battlefields in Iraq without seeing major progress in every area. A combination of the surge, improved win and hold tactics, the tribal uprising in Anbar and other provinces, the Sadr ceasefire, and major advances in the use of IS&R have transformed the battle against Al Qaida in Iraq. If the US provides sustained support to the Iraqi government — in security, governance, and development — there is now a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state.

This is an important development. Dr. Cordesman, a respected voice on international affairs, has been highly critical of the lack of adequate post-war (Phase IV) planning in Iraq. He has long warned about the dangers of exiting Iraq prematurely and was a critic of those who argued we should divide Iraq into three ethno-religious entities. At the same time, Cordesman has been skeptical about the possibility of achieving stability in Iraq. Certainly no one could accuse Cordesman of wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to Iraq.

On May 2, 2006, Cordesman wrote:

No one can argue that the prospects for stability in Iraq are good. At best, the formation of a government will be the prelude to four months of debate over the constitution and every other divisive issue. There will follow two months of political struggle over a referendum to approve the result and Iraqis must then decide whether they can live with implementing the result. The “best case” is probably political turmoil well into 2007 and probably 2008… Even if victory is realistically defined as “muddling through” over half a decade more – the “2010 solution” – the odds are, at best, even.

On January 29, 2007, Cordesman (accurately) assessed things this way:

The insurgency in Iraq has become a “war after the war” that threatens to divide the country and create a full-scale civil conflict. It has triggered sectarian and ethnic violence that dominates the struggle to reshape Iraq as a modern state… Since its inception in the spring of 2003, the nature of the fighting in Iraq has evolved from a struggle between Coalition forces and former regime loyalists to a much more diffuse conflict, involving a number of Sunni groups, Shi’ite militias, and foreign jihadists, and which has spread to become a widespread civil conflict . . .

On February 5, 2007, in the aftermath of the President’s speech announcing the “surge,” Cordesman wrote this:

President Bush has presented a new strategy for the war in Iraq that may be able to defeat the insurgency and reverse Iraq’s drift towards large-scale civil war. His speech has, however, raised many questions as to both the risks it will create over the coming months and the real-world ability to actually implement his plans.

It turns out that the real-world ability to implement Bush’s plan was better than many thought. The risks were actually opportunities. And now, a year and a month after the surge was announced, we have seen progress far beyond what virtually anyone, even advocates of the surge, could have imagined.

We are still some distance away from Iraq emerging as a secure and stable state. “Serious threats can still bring defeat or paralysis over the coming years,” according to Cordesman, “although this seems significantly less likely than during the fall of 2007.” Yet, as Tony Cordesman now says, there is a very real chance that a secure and stable Iraq – one that is an ally instead of an adversary in the war against militant Islam – may yet come to pass. If it does, it will be an achievement of enormous, and perhaps even historic, consequence.

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Assad Suckers Obama

Senator Barack Obama went on the record about the never-ending political meltdown in Lebanon, and for a moment there I thought he might have it just right.

“The ongoing political crisis is resulting in the destabilization of Lebanon,” he said, “which is an important country in the Middle East. The US cannot watch while Lebanon’s fresh democracy is about to collapse.” So far so good. “We must keep supporting the democratically-elected government of PM Fouad Siniora, strengthening the Lebanese army and insisting on the disarmament of Hezbollah before it leads Lebanon into another unnecessary war.”

This is all excellent, so let’s get something out of the way. Barack Obama is not a leftist. He is a liberal. The difference between an American liberal and an American leftist on Lebanon is enormous. I can’t tell you how many Western leftists I’ve met who ran off to Beirut where they endlessly excuse or even outright support Hezbollah. (They are “victims” of Zionism, they aren’t pro-American like those icky “right-wing” bourgeois Maronite Christians, etc.) Some of these Hezbollah supporters, tragically, are journalists. They put me in the right-wing “imperialist” and “orientalist” camp for no more than saying what Barack Obama just said.

Obama’s problem isn’t that he’s on the wrong side. His problem is he’s the latest in a seemingly limitless supply of naïve Westerners who think they can reason with Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad.

Read More

Senator Barack Obama went on the record about the never-ending political meltdown in Lebanon, and for a moment there I thought he might have it just right.

“The ongoing political crisis is resulting in the destabilization of Lebanon,” he said, “which is an important country in the Middle East. The US cannot watch while Lebanon’s fresh democracy is about to collapse.” So far so good. “We must keep supporting the democratically-elected government of PM Fouad Siniora, strengthening the Lebanese army and insisting on the disarmament of Hezbollah before it leads Lebanon into another unnecessary war.”

This is all excellent, so let’s get something out of the way. Barack Obama is not a leftist. He is a liberal. The difference between an American liberal and an American leftist on Lebanon is enormous. I can’t tell you how many Western leftists I’ve met who ran off to Beirut where they endlessly excuse or even outright support Hezbollah. (They are “victims” of Zionism, they aren’t pro-American like those icky “right-wing” bourgeois Maronite Christians, etc.) Some of these Hezbollah supporters, tragically, are journalists. They put me in the right-wing “imperialist” and “orientalist” camp for no more than saying what Barack Obama just said.

Obama’s problem isn’t that he’s on the wrong side. His problem is he’s the latest in a seemingly limitless supply of naïve Westerners who think they can reason with Syria’s tyrant Bashar Assad.

“Washington must rectify the wrong policy of President George Bush in Lebanon and resort to an efficient and permanent diplomacy, rather than empty slogans,” he said.

“What is bizarre about this sentence,” Lebanese political analyst Tony Badran said to me in an email, “is that the Lebanon policy has been precisely that. While Sen. Obama’s statement — and indeed conventional wisdom — tries to paint all Bush administration policies with the old brush of arrogant unilateralism, in reality, the Lebanon policy has always been a multilateral policy of consensus, through the UN security council, through international law, and through close partnership with European and regional allies like France and Saudi Arabia. It is unclear how Sen. Obama wishes to ‘replace’ that. The current policy is as consensual, multilateral and internationalist as you can get. What you need to replace ‘hollow rhetoric,’ as he put it, is not more ‘diplomatic engagement,’ it’s more tools of pressure.”

This is exactly right. Pressure of one kind or another is the only thing Bashar Assad, or his more ruthless father Hafez Assad, ever responds to.

Syria has exported terrorism to almost all its neighbors – to Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. So far only Turkey has managed to put an end to it once for all, and did so by threatening to invade. Turkey could smash Syria to pieces almost as quickly and easily as the Israelis were they so inclined. So that, as they say, was that.

Likewise, Assad withdrew all his occupation troops from Lebanon in 2005 after a million Lebanese citizens – almost a third of the total population – protested in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square and demanded their evacuation. It wasn’t the protest, though, that forced Assad out. It was what he felt was extraordinary pressure from the international community, most pointedly from the United States. “I am not Saddam Hussein,” he said at the time. “I want to cooperate.”

I doubt the Bush Administration threatened an invasion of Syria. It wasn’t necessary. The United States had just pulled the trigger in Iraq.

“We have,” Tony Badran continued, “as have our allies and friends, tried talking to the Syrians and the result is always the same: disastrous failure. Mr. Obama might think that his own personal charm is enough to turn Assad into a gushing 14 year old girl at an N’Sync concert, but he should pay close attention to the recent experience of one of our closest trans-Atlantic allies, French president Nicholas Sarkozy.”

Sarkozy thought he could achieve what Obama says he’ll achieve. After finally getting over the learning curve he decided, as have all others before him, that the only solution is a united Western front against Syria. That united Western front would join the already existing united Arab front against Syria. Every Arab government in the world is aligned against Syria already. The only Assad-friendly government in the region is the (Persian) Islamic Republic of Iran. All Arab governments are ahead of Obama, just as they were ahead of Sarkozy, who refused to listen when they warned him.

Assad is not going to break the Syrian-Iranian-Hamas-Hezbollah axis because Obama talks him into it over tea after everyone else who has ever tried has failed utterly. Obama could be counted on to iron out at least some differences with European diplomats and Republicans in Congress, but that’s because they’re democratic, civilized, and basically on the same side. Syria is an enemy state and acts accordingly. Assad isn’t a spouse in a troubled marriage on the Dr. Phil show. Obama is no more able to flip Syria into the Western camp than Syria can convince the U.S. to join Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

Common ground does not exist. We have nothing to talk about because what Assad wants first and foremost – Syria’s re-domination of Lebanon and its absorption into its state-sponsored terrorist axis – is unacceptable for everyone involved from Barack Obama to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

A united Arab-Western front against Syria might be effective. That’s what Assad is afraid of, and it’s the reason he continues to pretend what he wants is just “dialogue.” As if he just wants a friend and Bush is mean for not listening, as if “dialogue” is a cry for help so someone can help him kick his terrorist habit. There is always another sucker, somewhere, who thinks he or she can talk sense into the man and is willing to sabotage a united front in order to try.

Everyone who has ever tried to reason with Assad at length will tell you what I’m telling you now. It’s not a “liberal” or “conservative” thing, it just is. Obama is like the smart and popular college kid with a bright future, yet who still needs time to learn how the world works. He hasn’t acquired any foreign policy experience or expertise, and unfortunately his advisors are failing him here. They, of all people, should know this by now, yet they do not.

Obama desperately needs an advisor who understands Syria, and if he wants one who isn’t conservative he could could far worse than bringing on board political analyst and blogger Abu Kais, a Lebanese Shia who moved to Washington and is a critic of the Bush Administration.

“Murder has been profitable in our country, and in the region,” he wrote last month after assassins murdered anti-terrorist investigator Wissam Eid with a car bomb. “No one is going after the killers – their harshest punishment to date took the form of ‘initiatives’ and ‘dialogue.’ Lebanon, once again, is where anything goes, a free killing zone sanctioned by its enemies, and by friends who talk too much and do nothing.”

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Hillary in SC

Most of the conversation about last night’s Democratic debate in South Carolina is about how strikingly personal and heated the exchanges were between Senators Clinton and Obama. It appears as if having to deal with the flood of false charges made by Bill Clinton is starting to agitate the young Senator from Illinois. Bill Clinton is an icon among many Democrats; he is also a promiscuous liar. Barack Obama is having to deal with both things.

But last night there were also two important moments on substantive issues. The first came when Joe Johns of CNN prefaced a question to Hillary Clinton this way: “Last week, U.S. military commanders on the ground in Iraq said that Baghdad is now 75 percent secured. There’s also important signs of political progress, including de-Baathification, which was basically long awaited. That, of course, was a big benchmark. Last week, you said the next president will, quote, ‘have a war to end in Iraq.’ In light of the new military and political progress on the ground there in Iraq, are you looking to end this war or win it?

Senator Clinton responded this way: “I’m looking to bring our troops home, starting within 60 days of my becoming president…”

This is about as clear as things can get. Hillary Clinton, when asked if she is looking to win the war, answered that she is looking to bring the troops home. She obviously believes victory is impossible and that her role as commander-in-chief would be to navigate an American loss in Iraq as quickly as possible. Given the security and political progress we’ve seen there in the last year and the consequences of losing in Iraq, her position is not only unwise; it is reckless. What is it that would drive Mrs. Clinton to delude herself into believing the United States has irredeemably lost a war in which we’re making remarkable and empirically demonstrable progress? And what additional evidence does the nation need that leading Democrats are invested in a narrative of defeat in Iraq – and they will stick with it regardless of the progress we make? This, in turn, gives rise to a third question: Will the American people elect a person for President who has an ideological stake in seeing America lose this war, which is itself part of an epic struggle against militant Islam?

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Most of the conversation about last night’s Democratic debate in South Carolina is about how strikingly personal and heated the exchanges were between Senators Clinton and Obama. It appears as if having to deal with the flood of false charges made by Bill Clinton is starting to agitate the young Senator from Illinois. Bill Clinton is an icon among many Democrats; he is also a promiscuous liar. Barack Obama is having to deal with both things.

But last night there were also two important moments on substantive issues. The first came when Joe Johns of CNN prefaced a question to Hillary Clinton this way: “Last week, U.S. military commanders on the ground in Iraq said that Baghdad is now 75 percent secured. There’s also important signs of political progress, including de-Baathification, which was basically long awaited. That, of course, was a big benchmark. Last week, you said the next president will, quote, ‘have a war to end in Iraq.’ In light of the new military and political progress on the ground there in Iraq, are you looking to end this war or win it?

Senator Clinton responded this way: “I’m looking to bring our troops home, starting within 60 days of my becoming president…”

This is about as clear as things can get. Hillary Clinton, when asked if she is looking to win the war, answered that she is looking to bring the troops home. She obviously believes victory is impossible and that her role as commander-in-chief would be to navigate an American loss in Iraq as quickly as possible. Given the security and political progress we’ve seen there in the last year and the consequences of losing in Iraq, her position is not only unwise; it is reckless. What is it that would drive Mrs. Clinton to delude herself into believing the United States has irredeemably lost a war in which we’re making remarkable and empirically demonstrable progress? And what additional evidence does the nation need that leading Democrats are invested in a narrative of defeat in Iraq – and they will stick with it regardless of the progress we make? This, in turn, gives rise to a third question: Will the American people elect a person for President who has an ideological stake in seeing America lose this war, which is itself part of an epic struggle against militant Islam?

Later in last night’s debate another revealing moment occurred. During a conversation about poverty, Senator Clinton said this:

Well, I respect John’s [Edwards] commitment to ending poverty. That’s why, 35 years ago, when I graduated from law school, I didn’t go to work for a law firm. I went to work for Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund, because ending poverty– particularly ending poverty for children, has been the central core cause of everything that I’ve been doing for 35 years.

It’s worth recalling that Ms. Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, was a fierce critic of welfare reform and called the 1996 law an “outrage… that will hurt and impoverish millions of American children.” Her husband Peter Edelman, then Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, called the new law “awful” policy that would do “serious harm to American children.” He resigned from his post in protest. And Mrs. Clinton was hardly a champion, and at various points a critic, of welfare reform within the Clinton Administration.

Yet it turns out that the 1996 welfare reform bill was the most successful and dramatic social policy innovation in many decades. The welfare caseload has declined by more than 60 percent since its high-water mark in 1994. All but one state reduced its caseloads by at least one-third, and some states reduced them by more than 90 percent. Not only has the number of people on welfare plunged, but in the wake of welfare reform overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, and child hunger declined, while employment of single mothers increased.

Last night’s debate also focused on health care, so it is worth recalling that Mrs. Clinton, as first lady, attempted to engineer a government takeover of our health care system. Her idea was awful and she was politically routed. Her health care failure helped set the stage for Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years (Republicans picked up 52 House seats, as well as eight Senate seats, in the 1994 mid-term election).

Senator Clinton portrays herself as a person of extraordinary experience and ability, one who would be “the best president on day one.” Yet most of her experience was as first lady of Arkansas and then the United States. She fulfilled that role for 20 years – and to the degree that she was involved in driving specific policies, she was often wrong.

The GOP is in a bad way right now. But if Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic nominee, a pathway for a GOP victory in November opens up. She wants to make the race about her stances on the issues and her record. So do Republicans.

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Ron Paul: When Right Meets Left

When someone argues for moral equivalency between the American government and Al Qaeda and suggests Bush is leading America toward fascism, we tend to assume the person is a leftist. But those same views are widely shared by parts of the libertarian right.

This isn’t entirely new: in the 1930’s the pro-communist left and the isolationist right both decried Roosevelt as a fascist war-mongerer. In the 1960’s both the New Right and New Left were sure that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was the incarnation of “friendly fascism.” The common thread was that both the anarcho-libertarians of Young Americans for Freedom and the anarcho-socialists of The Students for a Democratic Society saw the compromises of politics and the bureaucracies associated with governments as the spawn of soul-slaying managerialism. They (like Ron Paul) both adored Randolph Bourne, the American critic of WWI, entirely unaware of the appeal German romanticism and proto-fascism had for him. You could hear those common chords in Tim Russert’s interview with Ron Paul on Meet the Press this past Sunday:

MR. RUSSERT: But let me go back to this ad. You do not believe that Mike Huckabee, that ad commercial represents the potential of fascism in the form of a cross.

REP. PAUL: No. But I think this country, a movement in the last 100 years, is moving toward fascism. Fascism today, the softer term, because people have different definition of fascism, is corporatism when the military industrial complex runs the show, when the—in the name of security pay—pass the Patriot Act. You don’t vote for it, you know, you’re not patriotic America. If you don’t support the troops and you don’t support—if you don’t support the war you don’t support the troops. It’s that kind of antagonism. But we have more corporatism and more abuse of our civil liberties, more loss of our privacy, national ID cards, all this stuff coming has a fascist tone to it. And the country’s moving in that direction. That’s what I’m thinking about. This was not personalized. I never even used my opponents names if you, if you notice.

MR. RUSSERT: So you think we’re close to fascism?

REP. PAUL: I think we’re approaching it very close. One—there’s one, there’s one documentary that’s been put out recently that has generated a lot of interest called “Freedom to Fascism.” And we’re moving in that direction. Were not moving toward Hitler-type fascism, but we’re moving toward a softer fascism. Loss of civil liberties, corporations running the show, big government in bed with big business. So you have the military industrial complex, you have the medical industrial complex, you have the financial industry, you have the communications industry. They go to Washington and spend hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s where the control is. I call that a soft form of fascism, something that is very dangerous.

Paul, the provincial, is as blissfully unaware of the history of 1300 years of Jihad as the Daily Kos and most of its readers. Here’s his exchange with Russert on Al-Qaeda:

MR. RUSSERT: It sounds like you think that the problem is al-Qaeda—the problem is the United States, not al-Qaeda.

REP. PAUL: No, it’s both. It’s both—al-Qaeda becomes violent. It’s sort of like if you step in a snake pit and you get bit, you know, who caused the trouble? Because you stepped in the snake pit or because snakes bite you? So I think you have to understand both. But why, why produce the incentive for these violent, vicious thugs to want to come here and kill us.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think there’s an ideological struggle that Islamic fascists want to take over the world?

REP. PAUL: Oh, I think some, just like the West is wanting to do that all the time. Look at the way they look at us. I mean, we’re in a, we’re in a 130 countries. We have 700 bases. How do you think they proposed that to their people, saying “What does America want to do? Are they over here to be nice to us and teach us how to be good democrats?”

MR. RUSSERT: So you see a moral equivalency between the West and Islamic fascism.

REP. PAUL: For some people, some radicals on each side that when we impose our will with force by a few number of people—not the American people—I’m talking the people who have hijacked our foreign policy, the people who took George Bush’s foreign policy of a humble foreign policy and turned it into one of nation-building which he complained about.

But for all the similarities between the heirs of the New Right and the New Left, Paul, a Texan still carries some burden peculiar to right-wing libertarians. Abe Lincoln is a very bad guy, the father of Leviathan state that’s lead to today’s incipient (it’s always incipient) fascism. And while there are and have been card-carrying left-liberal Lincoln haters (Gore Vidal, John Updike, and Edmund Wilson, to name a few) this is largely an affectation of the right. Paul, unaware that Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until 1888 and Saudi Arabia till 1962, had the following exchange with Russert:

MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. “According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery.”

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the—that iron, iron fist..

MR. RUSSERT: We’d still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I’m advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn’t sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

Still, for all their similarities, the heirs of the New Right and the New Left do have some fundamental differences. In part because the leftists are afraid that we will pollute the world with our capitalist-liberal democratic ideals, while the rightists are worried that the rest of the world will pollute our founding traditions with statist and socialist effects. But the common bottom line is neo-isolationism.

When someone argues for moral equivalency between the American government and Al Qaeda and suggests Bush is leading America toward fascism, we tend to assume the person is a leftist. But those same views are widely shared by parts of the libertarian right.

This isn’t entirely new: in the 1930’s the pro-communist left and the isolationist right both decried Roosevelt as a fascist war-mongerer. In the 1960’s both the New Right and New Left were sure that Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was the incarnation of “friendly fascism.” The common thread was that both the anarcho-libertarians of Young Americans for Freedom and the anarcho-socialists of The Students for a Democratic Society saw the compromises of politics and the bureaucracies associated with governments as the spawn of soul-slaying managerialism. They (like Ron Paul) both adored Randolph Bourne, the American critic of WWI, entirely unaware of the appeal German romanticism and proto-fascism had for him. You could hear those common chords in Tim Russert’s interview with Ron Paul on Meet the Press this past Sunday:

MR. RUSSERT: But let me go back to this ad. You do not believe that Mike Huckabee, that ad commercial represents the potential of fascism in the form of a cross.

REP. PAUL: No. But I think this country, a movement in the last 100 years, is moving toward fascism. Fascism today, the softer term, because people have different definition of fascism, is corporatism when the military industrial complex runs the show, when the—in the name of security pay—pass the Patriot Act. You don’t vote for it, you know, you’re not patriotic America. If you don’t support the troops and you don’t support—if you don’t support the war you don’t support the troops. It’s that kind of antagonism. But we have more corporatism and more abuse of our civil liberties, more loss of our privacy, national ID cards, all this stuff coming has a fascist tone to it. And the country’s moving in that direction. That’s what I’m thinking about. This was not personalized. I never even used my opponents names if you, if you notice.

MR. RUSSERT: So you think we’re close to fascism?

REP. PAUL: I think we’re approaching it very close. One—there’s one, there’s one documentary that’s been put out recently that has generated a lot of interest called “Freedom to Fascism.” And we’re moving in that direction. Were not moving toward Hitler-type fascism, but we’re moving toward a softer fascism. Loss of civil liberties, corporations running the show, big government in bed with big business. So you have the military industrial complex, you have the medical industrial complex, you have the financial industry, you have the communications industry. They go to Washington and spend hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s where the control is. I call that a soft form of fascism, something that is very dangerous.

Paul, the provincial, is as blissfully unaware of the history of 1300 years of Jihad as the Daily Kos and most of its readers. Here’s his exchange with Russert on Al-Qaeda:

MR. RUSSERT: It sounds like you think that the problem is al-Qaeda—the problem is the United States, not al-Qaeda.

REP. PAUL: No, it’s both. It’s both—al-Qaeda becomes violent. It’s sort of like if you step in a snake pit and you get bit, you know, who caused the trouble? Because you stepped in the snake pit or because snakes bite you? So I think you have to understand both. But why, why produce the incentive for these violent, vicious thugs to want to come here and kill us.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think there’s an ideological struggle that Islamic fascists want to take over the world?

REP. PAUL: Oh, I think some, just like the West is wanting to do that all the time. Look at the way they look at us. I mean, we’re in a, we’re in a 130 countries. We have 700 bases. How do you think they proposed that to their people, saying “What does America want to do? Are they over here to be nice to us and teach us how to be good democrats?”

MR. RUSSERT: So you see a moral equivalency between the West and Islamic fascism.

REP. PAUL: For some people, some radicals on each side that when we impose our will with force by a few number of people—not the American people—I’m talking the people who have hijacked our foreign policy, the people who took George Bush’s foreign policy of a humble foreign policy and turned it into one of nation-building which he complained about.

But for all the similarities between the heirs of the New Right and the New Left, Paul, a Texan still carries some burden peculiar to right-wing libertarians. Abe Lincoln is a very bad guy, the father of Leviathan state that’s lead to today’s incipient (it’s always incipient) fascism. And while there are and have been card-carrying left-liberal Lincoln haters (Gore Vidal, John Updike, and Edmund Wilson, to name a few) this is largely an affectation of the right. Paul, unaware that Brazil didn’t abolish slavery until 1888 and Saudi Arabia till 1962, had the following exchange with Russert:

MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. “According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery.”

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the—that iron, iron fist..

MR. RUSSERT: We’d still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I’m advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn’t sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

Still, for all their similarities, the heirs of the New Right and the New Left do have some fundamental differences. In part because the leftists are afraid that we will pollute the world with our capitalist-liberal democratic ideals, while the rightists are worried that the rest of the world will pollute our founding traditions with statist and socialist effects. But the common bottom line is neo-isolationism.

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Bookshelf

• The perfect non-fiction book is one that tells you everything you really need to know about a given subject, be it large or small, in 250 pages or less, and does the job with style. That was the yardstick I used when writing my brief life of George Balanchine, which is 185 pages long. I leave it to you to judge whether I succeeded, but even if I didn’t, I know such books when I see them, and Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago, 248 pp., $18 paper) fills the bill—perfectly.

One of the many disheartening things I’ve learned after four years as a drama critic is that most contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are exercises in theatrical futility. Why do they go wrong, and what makes the good ones good? Until I read How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, I was unable to answer those questions save by way of guesswork and instinct, not having had the benefits of a classical education or seen very many stagings of the Greek classics in my wasted youth. Henceforth, though, I’ll know what I failed to learn in school, thanks entirely to this priceless little book.

Goldhill, a professor of Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, is realistic about the vast cultural distance that separates us from the plays of which he writes:

Greek drama is a wordy genre. Whenever any character says, “I have told the whole story,” that is always the beginning of more stories and a lot more laments. There is little action, at least for those brought up on action movies. There are few people who run in Greek tragedy, fewer explosions, and rarely even any physical contact onstage—though when people do touch, it is explosive.

How to reduce that distance? Though Goldhill is no literal-minded antiquarian, he understands that part of the paradoxical answer to this difficult question lies in paying close attention to the circumstances under which Greek tragedies were originally produced. As he explains in his introduction:

The book highlights what I regard as the six most pressing problems that face any company that chooses to produce a Greek tragedy. Each of the six chapters . . . looks first at whether we can learn anything from the ancient world, and then discusses how modern companies have tried to solve these difficulties in the theater, and analyzes their successes and failures.

Some of Goldhill’s problems will make immediate sense to most readers: what do you do with the chorus? Others are subtler: in what ways did the architectural design of Greek amphitheaters influence the way in which Greek tragedies were written? And how do you play those long, long speeches?

Finding the right level of expression is always an actor’s problem: but Greek tragedy poses this problem in the most acute form, because there is no small talk. It is because of this that so many actors fall back on “grandeur” or “magnificence,” although grandiloquence so rarely leads into the heart of any role.

Without minimizing the formidable difficulties posed by the genre, Goldhill shows how a modern production that pays no heed whatsoever to ancient precedents is likely to run into trouble, whereas a director who keeps those precedents firmly in mind will often find that his six problems have a way of solving themselves. Though he is not a “theater person,” he has looked closely at countless contemporary productions—some of which, like The Gospel at Colonus and Deborah Warner’s 2001 staging of Euripides’ Medea, will be familiar to American playgoers—and analyzes them with a shrewdness that no critic will fail to envy. His approach is at once deeply informed by the best academic scholarship and no less deeply rooted in a commonsense understanding of what works on stage. The result is one of the most instructive and lucidly written books about theater to have been published in recent years. No one whose interest in drama is more than merely casual should pass it by.


• The perfect non-fiction book is one that tells you everything you really need to know about a given subject, be it large or small, in 250 pages or less, and does the job with style. That was the yardstick I used when writing my brief life of George Balanchine, which is 185 pages long. I leave it to you to judge whether I succeeded, but even if I didn’t, I know such books when I see them, and Simon Goldhill’s How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (University of Chicago, 248 pp., $18 paper) fills the bill—perfectly.

One of the many disheartening things I’ve learned after four years as a drama critic is that most contemporary productions of Greek tragedy are exercises in theatrical futility. Why do they go wrong, and what makes the good ones good? Until I read How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, I was unable to answer those questions save by way of guesswork and instinct, not having had the benefits of a classical education or seen very many stagings of the Greek classics in my wasted youth. Henceforth, though, I’ll know what I failed to learn in school, thanks entirely to this priceless little book.

Goldhill, a professor of Greek literature and culture at Cambridge, is realistic about the vast cultural distance that separates us from the plays of which he writes:

Greek drama is a wordy genre. Whenever any character says, “I have told the whole story,” that is always the beginning of more stories and a lot more laments. There is little action, at least for those brought up on action movies. There are few people who run in Greek tragedy, fewer explosions, and rarely even any physical contact onstage—though when people do touch, it is explosive.

How to reduce that distance? Though Goldhill is no literal-minded antiquarian, he understands that part of the paradoxical answer to this difficult question lies in paying close attention to the circumstances under which Greek tragedies were originally produced. As he explains in his introduction:

The book highlights what I regard as the six most pressing problems that face any company that chooses to produce a Greek tragedy. Each of the six chapters . . . looks first at whether we can learn anything from the ancient world, and then discusses how modern companies have tried to solve these difficulties in the theater, and analyzes their successes and failures.

Some of Goldhill’s problems will make immediate sense to most readers: what do you do with the chorus? Others are subtler: in what ways did the architectural design of Greek amphitheaters influence the way in which Greek tragedies were written? And how do you play those long, long speeches?

Finding the right level of expression is always an actor’s problem: but Greek tragedy poses this problem in the most acute form, because there is no small talk. It is because of this that so many actors fall back on “grandeur” or “magnificence,” although grandiloquence so rarely leads into the heart of any role.

Without minimizing the formidable difficulties posed by the genre, Goldhill shows how a modern production that pays no heed whatsoever to ancient precedents is likely to run into trouble, whereas a director who keeps those precedents firmly in mind will often find that his six problems have a way of solving themselves. Though he is not a “theater person,” he has looked closely at countless contemporary productions—some of which, like The Gospel at Colonus and Deborah Warner’s 2001 staging of Euripides’ Medea, will be familiar to American playgoers—and analyzes them with a shrewdness that no critic will fail to envy. His approach is at once deeply informed by the best academic scholarship and no less deeply rooted in a commonsense understanding of what works on stage. The result is one of the most instructive and lucidly written books about theater to have been published in recent years. No one whose interest in drama is more than merely casual should pass it by.


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Fareed Zakaria and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The inimitable Charles Johnson over at Little Green Footballs links to an interview between Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch Parliamentarian, AEI scholar, and critic of Islam.

Their conversation, in two segments, itemizes some of the chief difficulties Islam faces in reconciling itself to modernity—mostly resulting from Islam’s literal approach to scripture. Hirsi Ali points out that a distinction between Islamic beliefs and the rights of individual Muslims, as well as economic liberalization, are both prerequisites of an Islamic Reformation.

She has cutting words for the practice of child marriage—such as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s marriage to a nine year old. And she boldly indicts the Council on American Islamic Relations. When Zakaria describes the thesis of Dinesh D’Souza’s book, The Enemy at Home, which proposes an alliance between conservative Muslims and Americans alienated by a permissive culture, Hirsi Ali whispers: “Oh, God.”

Watch.

The inimitable Charles Johnson over at Little Green Footballs links to an interview between Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch Parliamentarian, AEI scholar, and critic of Islam.

Their conversation, in two segments, itemizes some of the chief difficulties Islam faces in reconciling itself to modernity—mostly resulting from Islam’s literal approach to scripture. Hirsi Ali points out that a distinction between Islamic beliefs and the rights of individual Muslims, as well as economic liberalization, are both prerequisites of an Islamic Reformation.

She has cutting words for the practice of child marriage—such as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s marriage to a nine year old. And she boldly indicts the Council on American Islamic Relations. When Zakaria describes the thesis of Dinesh D’Souza’s book, The Enemy at Home, which proposes an alliance between conservative Muslims and Americans alienated by a permissive culture, Hirsi Ali whispers: “Oh, God.”

Watch.

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COMING SOON: Sweeney Todd on Screen

A few select critics and industry types (Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner was among those in attendance, on the arm of his husband, Entertainment Weekly‘s critic Mark Harris) were finally shown director Tim Burton’s long-gestating big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol Broadway opera Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street last night at Lincoln Square on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. (The film opens on December 21.) Though macabre violence is at the heart of the story, Burton takes it too far. I haven’t seen a bloodier film since Hostel: Part II.

Stage directors challenged to deal with Sweeney’s throat-slashing make a virtue of not having cinematic special effects at their disposal; I once saw a production in which an opened artery was conveyed by a red ribbon set free to flutter at the throat. Burton’s Sweeney paints the town, the screen, and maybe the whole multiplex red. Even Brian De Palma’s brutal Iraq film Redacted, which realistically depicts a Jihadist beheading a kidnapped American serviceman, doesn’t depict the actual throat slashing, though a woman in the audience screamed when I first saw that film. Burton does.

As played by a riveting Johnny Depp, Sweeney makes arteries gush like fountains, with stage blood spattering his face and arms and even the camera lens, then dumps the bodies to the cellar with sickeningly awful noises as the corpses plummet to land head first on a cement floor. Women at Lincoln Square were seen covering their eyes during some of the goriest moments.

Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, to my mind one of the towering works of art of the 20th century, is a delicate balance of the comic, the horrific and the tragic, and it loses some of its comic pull when its violence is this explicit. The movie is rated R, but it isn’t hard to imagine a faithful version that would earn a PG-13 if it left the slashing largely to the imagination. And that would suffice.

A few select critics and industry types (Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner was among those in attendance, on the arm of his husband, Entertainment Weekly‘s critic Mark Harris) were finally shown director Tim Burton’s long-gestating big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol Broadway opera Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street last night at Lincoln Square on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. (The film opens on December 21.) Though macabre violence is at the heart of the story, Burton takes it too far. I haven’t seen a bloodier film since Hostel: Part II.

Stage directors challenged to deal with Sweeney’s throat-slashing make a virtue of not having cinematic special effects at their disposal; I once saw a production in which an opened artery was conveyed by a red ribbon set free to flutter at the throat. Burton’s Sweeney paints the town, the screen, and maybe the whole multiplex red. Even Brian De Palma’s brutal Iraq film Redacted, which realistically depicts a Jihadist beheading a kidnapped American serviceman, doesn’t depict the actual throat slashing, though a woman in the audience screamed when I first saw that film. Burton does.

As played by a riveting Johnny Depp, Sweeney makes arteries gush like fountains, with stage blood spattering his face and arms and even the camera lens, then dumps the bodies to the cellar with sickeningly awful noises as the corpses plummet to land head first on a cement floor. Women at Lincoln Square were seen covering their eyes during some of the goriest moments.

Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, to my mind one of the towering works of art of the 20th century, is a delicate balance of the comic, the horrific and the tragic, and it loses some of its comic pull when its violence is this explicit. The movie is rated R, but it isn’t hard to imagine a faithful version that would earn a PG-13 if it left the slashing largely to the imagination. And that would suffice.

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Bookshelf

• I can’t think of an art critic whom I admire more, or read more attentively, than Karen Wilkin. Not only does she write about modern art with stylish, jargon-free clarity, but she is immune to the trendiness that is the driving force behind the “thinking” of so many American critics. Her essays and reviews invariably help me to see the painters about whom she writes with an enhanced clarity that owes nothing to the factitious charms of fashion. Her name figures prominently on the very short list of critics whose books I will buy and read regardless of their subject.

As it happens, Wilkin has just published two new books, though one of them is not “new” in the usual sense of the word. Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews (Ediciones Polígrafa, 160 pp., $45) is an exceedingly well-made folio based in substantial part on a Morandi monograph published by Wilkin nine years ago in Rizzoli’s Twentieth-Century Masters series. Not only has the text of the earlier volume been reprinted here without change, but so have most of the illustrations (I assume that the same plates were used). The main difference is that the new book also includes a selection of the Italian painter’s writings, including four letters, two interviews and a 1928 autobiographical statement, all of which shed much light on his artistic thinking:

I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.

I’m sorry that Wilkin was (apparently) not given the opportunity to update what she wrote about Morandi in light of the important revelations about his life in wartime Italy included in Janet Abramowicz’s Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, which was published virtually without notice three years ago. Nevertheless, her 1998 essay remains the most perceptive criticism of Morandi to have appeared in English, and those who don’t already own the Rizzoli volume in which it was originally published will want to acquire it in this format in order to have access to Morandi’s own writings. Though his work is comparatively little known in the United States, he is an artist of near-inscrutable power whose still lifes have the power to silence the grinding racket of everyday urban life and spirit the harried viewer away to a place of intense stillness. Wilkin has done more than any other American critic to spread the word about Morandi in this country, and I hope that Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews will do still more to advance his cause.

Another of Wilkin’s critical causes is the “color-field” abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and their contemporaries and followers, which was widely admired in the days of Clement Greenberg’s ascendancy but has long since come to be regarded as passé. Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 (Yale, 128 pp., $45) is the catalogue of a retrospective curated by Wilkin that just opened at the Denver Art Museum (it closes on Feb. 3) and will travel from there to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Feb. 29-May 26) and Nashville’s Frist Center for Visual Arts (June 20-Sept. 21). Rarely has a catalogue made a more powerful case for the revaluation of a now-disdained style, not least because of Wilkin’s pithy, characteristically straight-talking introductory essay:

Modish critics and art historians, reared on a diet of art that insists on elaborate verbal explication, and deeply mistrustful of anything that doesn’t come fully bolstered with words, have decried Color Field painting as merely decorative . . . Unfortunately, the minds of many spectators, who include makers of art, as well as art historians, critics, and curators, have been carried so far into regions so purely literary that they seem to have forgotten that the visual is as much a cerebral function as the verbal.

I can’t wait to see the show.

• I can’t think of an art critic whom I admire more, or read more attentively, than Karen Wilkin. Not only does she write about modern art with stylish, jargon-free clarity, but she is immune to the trendiness that is the driving force behind the “thinking” of so many American critics. Her essays and reviews invariably help me to see the painters about whom she writes with an enhanced clarity that owes nothing to the factitious charms of fashion. Her name figures prominently on the very short list of critics whose books I will buy and read regardless of their subject.

As it happens, Wilkin has just published two new books, though one of them is not “new” in the usual sense of the word. Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews (Ediciones Polígrafa, 160 pp., $45) is an exceedingly well-made folio based in substantial part on a Morandi monograph published by Wilkin nine years ago in Rizzoli’s Twentieth-Century Masters series. Not only has the text of the earlier volume been reprinted here without change, but so have most of the illustrations (I assume that the same plates were used). The main difference is that the new book also includes a selection of the Italian painter’s writings, including four letters, two interviews and a 1928 autobiographical statement, all of which shed much light on his artistic thinking:

I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.

I’m sorry that Wilkin was (apparently) not given the opportunity to update what she wrote about Morandi in light of the important revelations about his life in wartime Italy included in Janet Abramowicz’s Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, which was published virtually without notice three years ago. Nevertheless, her 1998 essay remains the most perceptive criticism of Morandi to have appeared in English, and those who don’t already own the Rizzoli volume in which it was originally published will want to acquire it in this format in order to have access to Morandi’s own writings. Though his work is comparatively little known in the United States, he is an artist of near-inscrutable power whose still lifes have the power to silence the grinding racket of everyday urban life and spirit the harried viewer away to a place of intense stillness. Wilkin has done more than any other American critic to spread the word about Morandi in this country, and I hope that Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews will do still more to advance his cause.

Another of Wilkin’s critical causes is the “color-field” abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and their contemporaries and followers, which was widely admired in the days of Clement Greenberg’s ascendancy but has long since come to be regarded as passé. Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 (Yale, 128 pp., $45) is the catalogue of a retrospective curated by Wilkin that just opened at the Denver Art Museum (it closes on Feb. 3) and will travel from there to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Feb. 29-May 26) and Nashville’s Frist Center for Visual Arts (June 20-Sept. 21). Rarely has a catalogue made a more powerful case for the revaluation of a now-disdained style, not least because of Wilkin’s pithy, characteristically straight-talking introductory essay:

Modish critics and art historians, reared on a diet of art that insists on elaborate verbal explication, and deeply mistrustful of anything that doesn’t come fully bolstered with words, have decried Color Field painting as merely decorative . . . Unfortunately, the minds of many spectators, who include makers of art, as well as art historians, critics, and curators, have been carried so far into regions so purely literary that they seem to have forgotten that the visual is as much a cerebral function as the verbal.

I can’t wait to see the show.

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Music’s Golden Age

A new polemic from Oxford University Press, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton, a professor at the University of Birmingham, argues that the worst excesses of the 19th century Romantic age of performance were more lively and fun than what he sees as today’s tedious and stuffy concert scene.

Hamilton lauds the clownish old pianist Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), who was notorious for chatting with the audience during recitals, and occasionally exclaiming “Bravo, Pachmann!” when he had played a passage to his own satisfaction. Hamilton wants concert etiquette to hearken back to the 19th century’s so-called Golden Age. He feels that classical concerts would be improved if pianists today were more unfaithful to the printed notes, if they performed brief, isolated movements of sonatas instead of entire works, and if audiences felt free to applaud whenever they liked, including in the middle of works.

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A new polemic from Oxford University Press, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton, a professor at the University of Birmingham, argues that the worst excesses of the 19th century Romantic age of performance were more lively and fun than what he sees as today’s tedious and stuffy concert scene.

Hamilton lauds the clownish old pianist Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), who was notorious for chatting with the audience during recitals, and occasionally exclaiming “Bravo, Pachmann!” when he had played a passage to his own satisfaction. Hamilton wants concert etiquette to hearken back to the 19th century’s so-called Golden Age. He feels that classical concerts would be improved if pianists today were more unfaithful to the printed notes, if they performed brief, isolated movements of sonatas instead of entire works, and if audiences felt free to applaud whenever they liked, including in the middle of works.

Hamilton must attend some odd concerts to inspire such notions. As for me, on November 3 at Carnegie Hall, I heard the pianist Murray Perahia in a recital of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin. Perahia plays Bach as love music, with plush, seamless legato and a strong sense of polyphony. Beethoven’s “Pastoral” sonata (1801) was played with an ideal sense of rubato, capturing the agitation that bubbles beneath even Beethoven’s works with tranquil-sounding subtitles. The “Pastoral”’s second movement “Andante,” played in a forward-moving yet mysterious way, showed Perahia at 60 to still be a youthful musician (his left hand ardently conducted while he played a passage for right hand alone). Perahia is in his prime today, as indeed are other magisterial pianists like Richard Goode, András Schiff, Maurizio Pollini, and Peter Serkin. Who needs Pachmann? Could our own time be a golden age of performance?

For me, the question was answered definitively on November 7 at Rockefeller University, where the Peggy Rockefeller Concerts series presented the Claremont Trio. Consisting of twin sisters Emily (violin) and Julia Bruskin (cello) with Donna Kwong (piano), the Claremonts, all in their mid-20’s, play and record with exceptional maturity. At Rockefeller University, they performed Schumann’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 63, capturing the composer’s obsessive energy, yet with deep feeling, which allowed Schumann’s romantic fantasy world to materialize. Despite their sylph-like appearances, the Bruskin sisters play their respective instruments with hearty, plangently eloquent tones.

A splendid up-and-coming ensemble like the Claremont Trio is the perfect counter-argument to any critic who bemoans the present or future of classical music. Learning from past great musicians—not freaks like Pachmann—is a sine qua non for today’s musicians, yet desperate nostalgia born of boredom obscures all the evidence that we are in fact living in our own golden age of performance. After hearing such spectacular concerts by exemplary artists like Perahia and the Claremont Trio, only a thick-skulled ingrate would react by complaining that something is wrong with classical music performance in our time.

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