Commentary Magazine


Topic: Guardian

Sickroom Reading

You are confined to bed. Your eyes feel as if they have been pulled farther apart. A gritty smoke of feverish thoughts fills the space between. You turn on the TV, but old reruns and soaps and trash-talk shows only make you more aware of how lousy you feel. You want to read; you want to lose yourself in a book. After all, that’s what books are for — they are the light-footed transports for carrying you out of yourself.

So. What do you read? Last week in the Guardian, Sarah Crown offered some excellent reading advice (h/t: Books, Inq.). In fact, she broke down her advice into three convenient rules:

     1. Don’t tackle anything new. “Just as the point at which you’re lying feverish and fretful in your bed is not the moment to send out to the brand-new super-spicy curry house round the corner,” Crown wrote, “so it is not the moment to essay an untested novel, either.”
     2. No horror. That is, in Crown’s portmanteau, no “laceration/disemboweling/putrefaction.”
     3. Old favorites that strike the right “balance of familiarity, likeability and narrative” — those are the best. “Detective fiction,” Crown says, “hits all three spots perfectly.”

As someone who’s spent some time there and given some thought to the question, I was particularly interested in Crown’s rules for sickroom reading. Although she never says as much, Crown is pretty clearly talking about an illness that is not life-threatening. The rules change when you are facing death.

Unlike Crown, I was unsuccessful at reading detective fiction while I was sick. I tried everyone from the violent and straight-talking (Ross Macdonald, James Crumley) to the elegant and puzzling (Ellery Queen, Rex Stout). Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t keep the suspects and the clues straight. My fuzzy brain quickly got hopelessly lost.

Nor did I follow (by anticipating it) the advice to avoid anything new and stick to old favorites. If by “new” Crown means experimental writing, writing that sets out to accomplish something never attempted before, she is spot-on. William Vollman may be a great writer, but his Europe Central, which I had been meaning to get to ever since it won the National Book Award in 2005, dropped me into a groaning sleep. Richard Powers, Mark Z. Danielewski, David Mitchell, John Banville — their new books left me weakened, coughing.

The ideal prescription for sickbed reading is what Crown describes as a balance of familiarity, likeability, and narrative. But the rule of familiarity doesn’t have to be satisfied by familiar authors. A familiar kind of writing is enough to do the trick. I reread John Williams’s Stoner, but what was soothing was its quiet beauty, not my long acquaintance with it. (At least that’s why I’d recommend it to other sickroom patients.)

Old-fashioned plot-driven storytelling was deeply comforting, even where I was unused to the writers: Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps, Richard Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica, Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart, John P. Marquand’s H. M. Pulham, Esquire, William Maxwell’s Folded Leaf, anything by P. G. Wodehouse — books that are removed from the buzzing and humming present, yet written in a near-contemporary style (reading them was not like learning a new language), light on social concerns, thick with human drama. I don’t know whether such reading is fit for every sickroom. But this is the kind of reading that, at least in my bilious experience, is the best place to start.

You are confined to bed. Your eyes feel as if they have been pulled farther apart. A gritty smoke of feverish thoughts fills the space between. You turn on the TV, but old reruns and soaps and trash-talk shows only make you more aware of how lousy you feel. You want to read; you want to lose yourself in a book. After all, that’s what books are for — they are the light-footed transports for carrying you out of yourself.

So. What do you read? Last week in the Guardian, Sarah Crown offered some excellent reading advice (h/t: Books, Inq.). In fact, she broke down her advice into three convenient rules:

     1. Don’t tackle anything new. “Just as the point at which you’re lying feverish and fretful in your bed is not the moment to send out to the brand-new super-spicy curry house round the corner,” Crown wrote, “so it is not the moment to essay an untested novel, either.”
     2. No horror. That is, in Crown’s portmanteau, no “laceration/disemboweling/putrefaction.”
     3. Old favorites that strike the right “balance of familiarity, likeability and narrative” — those are the best. “Detective fiction,” Crown says, “hits all three spots perfectly.”

As someone who’s spent some time there and given some thought to the question, I was particularly interested in Crown’s rules for sickroom reading. Although she never says as much, Crown is pretty clearly talking about an illness that is not life-threatening. The rules change when you are facing death.

Unlike Crown, I was unsuccessful at reading detective fiction while I was sick. I tried everyone from the violent and straight-talking (Ross Macdonald, James Crumley) to the elegant and puzzling (Ellery Queen, Rex Stout). Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t keep the suspects and the clues straight. My fuzzy brain quickly got hopelessly lost.

Nor did I follow (by anticipating it) the advice to avoid anything new and stick to old favorites. If by “new” Crown means experimental writing, writing that sets out to accomplish something never attempted before, she is spot-on. William Vollman may be a great writer, but his Europe Central, which I had been meaning to get to ever since it won the National Book Award in 2005, dropped me into a groaning sleep. Richard Powers, Mark Z. Danielewski, David Mitchell, John Banville — their new books left me weakened, coughing.

The ideal prescription for sickbed reading is what Crown describes as a balance of familiarity, likeability, and narrative. But the rule of familiarity doesn’t have to be satisfied by familiar authors. A familiar kind of writing is enough to do the trick. I reread John Williams’s Stoner, but what was soothing was its quiet beauty, not my long acquaintance with it. (At least that’s why I’d recommend it to other sickroom patients.)

Old-fashioned plot-driven storytelling was deeply comforting, even where I was unused to the writers: Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps, Richard Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica, Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart, John P. Marquand’s H. M. Pulham, Esquire, William Maxwell’s Folded Leaf, anything by P. G. Wodehouse — books that are removed from the buzzing and humming present, yet written in a near-contemporary style (reading them was not like learning a new language), light on social concerns, thick with human drama. I don’t know whether such reading is fit for every sickroom. But this is the kind of reading that, at least in my bilious experience, is the best place to start.

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Not the Booker

The Guardian announced the finalists for its reader-nominated Not the Booker Prize this morning. As I’ve had occasion to say before, literary prizes are just another way of advertising books. The anti-establishment spirit of the Not the Booker is as feeble as complaints about sexist TV commercials.

Even so, one of the nice things about the Guardian’s prize (the winner gets a coffee mug) is that nominations must be accompanied by a defense of the novel in not-less-than 150 words, although Sam Jordison said that the paper “had to be pretty lenient with the rule.” Unexplained “complications” would have ensued otherwise. “So long as people have had a decent stab at writing something,” he admits, “we’ve accepted it.” I can’t make up my mind about that phrase decent stab. After 20 years in the college classroom, I know that a stab can be decent, and yet awfully messy. Still, the Guardian has made a decent stab at replacing book enthusiasm with at least some book discussion, and that’s worth something.

Jordison swears that he will publish his own reviews “within a week.” Desperate for informed recommendations, hungry readers will be waiting impatiently.

The Guardian announced the finalists for its reader-nominated Not the Booker Prize this morning. As I’ve had occasion to say before, literary prizes are just another way of advertising books. The anti-establishment spirit of the Not the Booker is as feeble as complaints about sexist TV commercials.

Even so, one of the nice things about the Guardian’s prize (the winner gets a coffee mug) is that nominations must be accompanied by a defense of the novel in not-less-than 150 words, although Sam Jordison said that the paper “had to be pretty lenient with the rule.” Unexplained “complications” would have ensued otherwise. “So long as people have had a decent stab at writing something,” he admits, “we’ve accepted it.” I can’t make up my mind about that phrase decent stab. After 20 years in the college classroom, I know that a stab can be decent, and yet awfully messy. Still, the Guardian has made a decent stab at replacing book enthusiasm with at least some book discussion, and that’s worth something.

Jordison swears that he will publish his own reviews “within a week.” Desperate for informed recommendations, hungry readers will be waiting impatiently.

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Palestine Papers Confirm What Israel Has Said All Along

I don’t know whether the “Palestine Papers” published yesterday by Al Jazeera and the Guardian are real or, as Barry Rubin argues, a fake aimed at discrediting the Palestinian Authority’s current leadership. What is certainly false, however, is the claim, as Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland put it, that “Now we know. Israel had a peace partner.”

If the papers are true, then, as Noah pointed out, they show the PA agreeing to let Israel keep most — though not all — of the huge Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which are home to hundreds of thousands of Israelis. The Guardian deems this concession shameful. Freedland terms it “unthinkable”; the paper’s editorial goes even further, accusing Palestinians of agreeing “to flog the family silver.”

Yet, as Rick noted, every peace plan of the past decade — starting with the Clinton Parameters in 2000, which virtually the entire world claims to view as the basis for any agreement — has proposed assigning the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to Israel. The Guardian is entitled to fantasize about a Palestinian state “created on 1967 borders, not around them,” but no serious mediator or negotiator ever has. Even UN Security Council Resolution 242, which everyone accepts as the basis for talks, was drafted so as to allow changes to the pre-1967 armistice lines.

Indeed, far from constituting an “unthinkable” concession, the PA offer detailed in these documents didn’t even amount to the minimum that every peace plan of the past decade has deemed necessary for an agreement — because every such plan, again starting with the Clinton Parameters, has also proposed giving Israel additional parts of the West Bank (usually in exchange for equivalent territory inside Israel) so as to allow it to retain some of the major settlement blocs. And, according to these documents, the Palestinians wouldn’t agree to that.

This, of course, tallies exactly with what Israel has said for the past decade. Israel never claimed that negotiations broke down over Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, but it repeatedly claimed that talks broke down over other issues, such as borders. In 2008, for instance, Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank plus territorial swaps equivalent to the remainder, but the Palestinians refused to sign: they insisted on land swaps of only about 2 percent (see here or here).

The Palestine Papers also claim that the PA agreed to cede exclusive control over the Temple Mount in favor of management by “a body or committee.” But that, too, was in Olmert’s offer: a five-member committee composed of Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.S., thereby ensuring an Arab majority. And, again, the Palestinians refused to sign. Indeed, PA President Mahmoud Abbas subsequently told the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl that “the gaps were wide.”

The documents did, however, contain one revealing quote: chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat allegedly told an American official, “Israelis want the two state solution but they don’t trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians.”

Whether or not Erekat actually said that, it’s unfortunately true. And until it changes, peace will remain a distant dream.

I don’t know whether the “Palestine Papers” published yesterday by Al Jazeera and the Guardian are real or, as Barry Rubin argues, a fake aimed at discrediting the Palestinian Authority’s current leadership. What is certainly false, however, is the claim, as Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland put it, that “Now we know. Israel had a peace partner.”

If the papers are true, then, as Noah pointed out, they show the PA agreeing to let Israel keep most — though not all — of the huge Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which are home to hundreds of thousands of Israelis. The Guardian deems this concession shameful. Freedland terms it “unthinkable”; the paper’s editorial goes even further, accusing Palestinians of agreeing “to flog the family silver.”

Yet, as Rick noted, every peace plan of the past decade — starting with the Clinton Parameters in 2000, which virtually the entire world claims to view as the basis for any agreement — has proposed assigning the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to Israel. The Guardian is entitled to fantasize about a Palestinian state “created on 1967 borders, not around them,” but no serious mediator or negotiator ever has. Even UN Security Council Resolution 242, which everyone accepts as the basis for talks, was drafted so as to allow changes to the pre-1967 armistice lines.

Indeed, far from constituting an “unthinkable” concession, the PA offer detailed in these documents didn’t even amount to the minimum that every peace plan of the past decade has deemed necessary for an agreement — because every such plan, again starting with the Clinton Parameters, has also proposed giving Israel additional parts of the West Bank (usually in exchange for equivalent territory inside Israel) so as to allow it to retain some of the major settlement blocs. And, according to these documents, the Palestinians wouldn’t agree to that.

This, of course, tallies exactly with what Israel has said for the past decade. Israel never claimed that negotiations broke down over Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, but it repeatedly claimed that talks broke down over other issues, such as borders. In 2008, for instance, Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank plus territorial swaps equivalent to the remainder, but the Palestinians refused to sign: they insisted on land swaps of only about 2 percent (see here or here).

The Palestine Papers also claim that the PA agreed to cede exclusive control over the Temple Mount in favor of management by “a body or committee.” But that, too, was in Olmert’s offer: a five-member committee composed of Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.S., thereby ensuring an Arab majority. And, again, the Palestinians refused to sign. Indeed, PA President Mahmoud Abbas subsequently told the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl that “the gaps were wide.”

The documents did, however, contain one revealing quote: chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat allegedly told an American official, “Israelis want the two state solution but they don’t trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians.”

Whether or not Erekat actually said that, it’s unfortunately true. And until it changes, peace will remain a distant dream.

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Journalism That Knows No Shame

One can understand if the editors of the New York Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel have no respect for the secrecy needed to wage war successfully — especially unpopular wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are, after all, the sorts of people who, over a few drinks, would no doubt tell you that diplomacy is far preferable to war-making. But it seems that they have no respect for the secrecy that must accompany successful diplomacy either. That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from their decision to once again collaborate with an accused rapist to publicize a giant batch of stolen State Department cables gathered by his disreputable organization, WikiLeaks.

I risk sounding like a stuffy, striped-pants diplomat myself if I say that the conduct of all concerned is reprehensible and beneath contempt. But that’s what it is, especially because the news value of the leaks is once again negligible. As with the previous releases of military reports, the WikiLeaks files only fill in details about what has generally already been known. Those details have the potential to cause acute embarrassment — or even end the lives of — those who have communicated with American soldiers or officials, but they do little to help the general public to understand what’s going on.

Only someone who has spent the past few years on the moon can be surprised to discover that countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia are extremely alarmed about the Iranian nuclear program and want the U.S. to stop it, by military action if need be. Yet this is the thrust of one of the main New York Times articles about the leaks. Other non-revelations include reports by American diplomats — which are only one degree removed from newspaper articles and hardly constitute proof of anything — that corruption is widespread in Afghanistan, that North Korea may have transferred missile technology to Iran, that the Chinese Politburo authorized the hacking of Google’s website, that Syria supplies Hezbollah with weapons, or that the U.S. offered various countries a host of incentives to take Guantanamo inmates off our hands.

OK, that’s not quite fair. There are some genuine revelations in all these documents. I, for one, didn’t realize that Libya’s head kook, Muammar Qaddafi, spends a lot of his time with a “voluptuous blonde” nurse from Ukraine or that he uses Botox. Of course, just because information is new doesn’t make it consequential, and this type of information is of interest primarily to editors and readers of Gawker, the gossip site (where I ran across it).

There was a time when editors and reporters thought of themselves as citizens first and journalists second. There were damaging leaks even during World War II, but when they occurred they were generally denounced by the rest of the press. We now seem to have reached a moment when the West’s major news organizations, working hand in glove with a sleazy website, feel free to throw spitballs at those who make policy and those who execute it. This is journalism as pure vandalism. If I were responsible, I would feel shame and embarrassment. But apparently, those healthy emotions are in short supply these days.

One can understand if the editors of the New York Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel have no respect for the secrecy needed to wage war successfully — especially unpopular wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are, after all, the sorts of people who, over a few drinks, would no doubt tell you that diplomacy is far preferable to war-making. But it seems that they have no respect for the secrecy that must accompany successful diplomacy either. That, at least, is the only conclusion I can draw from their decision to once again collaborate with an accused rapist to publicize a giant batch of stolen State Department cables gathered by his disreputable organization, WikiLeaks.

I risk sounding like a stuffy, striped-pants diplomat myself if I say that the conduct of all concerned is reprehensible and beneath contempt. But that’s what it is, especially because the news value of the leaks is once again negligible. As with the previous releases of military reports, the WikiLeaks files only fill in details about what has generally already been known. Those details have the potential to cause acute embarrassment — or even end the lives of — those who have communicated with American soldiers or officials, but they do little to help the general public to understand what’s going on.

Only someone who has spent the past few years on the moon can be surprised to discover that countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia are extremely alarmed about the Iranian nuclear program and want the U.S. to stop it, by military action if need be. Yet this is the thrust of one of the main New York Times articles about the leaks. Other non-revelations include reports by American diplomats — which are only one degree removed from newspaper articles and hardly constitute proof of anything — that corruption is widespread in Afghanistan, that North Korea may have transferred missile technology to Iran, that the Chinese Politburo authorized the hacking of Google’s website, that Syria supplies Hezbollah with weapons, or that the U.S. offered various countries a host of incentives to take Guantanamo inmates off our hands.

OK, that’s not quite fair. There are some genuine revelations in all these documents. I, for one, didn’t realize that Libya’s head kook, Muammar Qaddafi, spends a lot of his time with a “voluptuous blonde” nurse from Ukraine or that he uses Botox. Of course, just because information is new doesn’t make it consequential, and this type of information is of interest primarily to editors and readers of Gawker, the gossip site (where I ran across it).

There was a time when editors and reporters thought of themselves as citizens first and journalists second. There were damaging leaks even during World War II, but when they occurred they were generally denounced by the rest of the press. We now seem to have reached a moment when the West’s major news organizations, working hand in glove with a sleazy website, feel free to throw spitballs at those who make policy and those who execute it. This is journalism as pure vandalism. If I were responsible, I would feel shame and embarrassment. But apparently, those healthy emotions are in short supply these days.

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Journolisters Risked Their Integrity

When you read those who were part of the now infamous Journolist group — hundreds of mostly liberal journalists and academics who joined an online listserv — they present their discussions as inoffensive, unexceptional, and even high-minded. Here’s how Time‘s Joe Klein describes Journolist:

[Ezra Klein and I] became friends and he asked me to join his list-serve–which, he said, would be the kind of place to have the sort of creative discussion we’d had over breakfast. It turned out to be exactly that…and more, a place to chat about music and sports, a place to meet some spectacularly smart academics I’d not met before–and, not least, a chance to interact with the latest generation of opinion journalists, most of whom didn’t have a very high opinion of me…. These conversations were private, as most good ones are. We were taking risks, testing our ideas against others…

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When you read those who were part of the now infamous Journolist group — hundreds of mostly liberal journalists and academics who joined an online listserv — they present their discussions as inoffensive, unexceptional, and even high-minded. Here’s how Time‘s Joe Klein describes Journolist:

[Ezra Klein and I] became friends and he asked me to join his list-serve–which, he said, would be the kind of place to have the sort of creative discussion we’d had over breakfast. It turned out to be exactly that…and more, a place to chat about music and sports, a place to meet some spectacularly smart academics I’d not met before–and, not least, a chance to interact with the latest generation of opinion journalists, most of whom didn’t have a very high opinion of me…. These conversations were private, as most good ones are. We were taking risks, testing our ideas against others…

It sounds positively Platonic: great minds gathering to discuss great issues of the day. Iron sharpening iron. Who could object? And then, thanks to the groundbreaking work of the Daily Caller, we have the chance to read what Journolisters actually wrote. Creative and spectacularly smart things like this:

LAURA ROZEN: People we no longer have to listen to: would it be unwise to start a thread of people we are grateful we no longer have to listen to? If not, I’ll start off: Michael Rubin.

MICHAEL COHEN, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Mark Penn and Bob Shrum. Anyone who uses the expression “Real America.” We should send there a** to Gitmo!

JESSE TAYLOR, PANDAGON.NET: Michael Barone?  Please?

LAURA ROZEN: Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich (afraid it’s not true), Drill Here Drill Now, And David Addington, John Yoo, we’ll see you in court?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, THE NEW YORKER: As a side note, does anyone know what prompted Michael Barone to go insane?

MATT DUSS: LEDEEN.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Let’s just throw Ledeen against a wall. Or, pace Dr. Alterman, throw him through a plate glass window. I’ll bet a little spot of violence would shut him right the f*** up, as with most bullies.

JOE KLEIN, TIME: Pete Wehner…these sort of things always end badly.

ERIC ALTERMAN, AUTHOR, WHAT LIBERAL MEDIA: F****** Nascar retards…

Ah, but there’s more.

NPR producer Sarah Spitz wrote that that if Rush Limbaugh went into cardiac arrest, she would “laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out” as Limbaugh writhed in torment.

Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent urged his colleagues to deflect attention from Obama’s relationship with Jeremiah Wright by changing the subject. Pick one of Obama’s conservative critics, Ackerman wrote — “Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists.”

Bloomberg’s Ryan Donmoyer adds this: “You know, at the risk of violating Godwin’s law, is anyone starting to see parallels here between the teabaggers and their tactics and the rise of the Brownshirts? Esp. Now that it’s getting violent? Reminds me of the Beer Hall fracases of the 1920s.”

And, of course, there is Fox News. “I am genuinely scared” of Fox, wrote Guardian columnist Daniel Davies, because it “shows you that a genuinely shameless and unethical media organisation *cannot* be controlled by any form of peer pressure or self-regulation, and nor can it be successfully cold-shouldered or ostracised. In order to have even a semblance of control, you need a tought legal framework.”

“I agree,” said Michael Scherer of Time. “[Roger] Ailes understands that his job is to build a tribal identity, not a news organizations. You can’t hurt Fox by saying it gets it wrong, if Ailes just uses the criticism to deepen the tribal identity.”

I understand people speaking candidly in e-mail exchanges and wanting to create a group of like-minded people to exchange ideas. And I accept that Journolist was started with good intentions. But somewhere along the line, it slipped off track.

What we had were journalists creating a “community” in which we see expressions of hatred that are both comically adolescent and almost psychopathic. We have them endorsing slander of innocent people simply because they hold a different point of view, comparing the Tea Party movement to Nazism, and participating in a post thread with the subject, “The line on Palin.” And we have journalists endorsing a “tough legal framework” to control what a news organization says.

What we have, in short, is intellectual corruption of a fairly high order. From what we have seen and from what those like Tucker Carlson and his colleagues (who have read the exchanges in detail) say, Journolist was — at least in good measure — a hotbed of hatred, political hackery, banality, and juvenile thuggery. It is the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from troubled, towel-snapping junior high boys. (It’s worth pointing out that if a principal got a hold of e-mails like the ones produced by Journolist, he would punish and probably suspend the offending eighth graders.)

Journolist provides a window into the mindset of the journalistic and academic left in this country. It is not a pretty sight. The demonization and dehumanization of critics is arresting. Those who hold contrary views to the Journolist crowd aren’t individuals who have honest disagreements; they are evil, malignant, and their voices need to be eliminated from the public square. It is illiberal in the extreme.

Some Journolist defenders argue that what has been published doesn’t capture the true nature of what went on at Journolist and that the published exchanges were taken out of context. The Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson has a reasonable response:

So why don’t we publish whatever portions of the Journolist archive we have and end the debate? Because a lot of them have no obvious news value, for one thing. Gather 400 lefty reporters and academics on one listserv and it turns out you wind up with a strikingly high concentration of bitchiness. Shocking amounts, actually. So while it might be amusing to air threads theorizing about the personal and sexual shortcomings of various NewRepublic staffers, we’ve decided to pull back…. Anyone on Journolist who claims we quoted him “out of context” can reveal the context himself.

That is a fair challenge. If Journolist turns out to differ substantially from its portrayal, Journolisters should release the full exchanges. Ezra Klein, David Corn, Jonathan Chait, and Joe Klein have all offered defenses, though their efforts range from feeble to pathetic. (It was really and merely “an argument between moderate and left-wing journalists,” Chait assures us.) Assuming that Journolisters cannot provide a stronger defense, other members of the fourth estate should be troubled by what has been uncovered. After all, it is the probity of their profession that is being stripped away.

Those who participated in Journolist undoubtedly hope this story will fade away and be forgotten. I rather doubt it will. It is another episode in the long, downward slide of modern journalism. “We were taking risks,” Joe Klein writes in his own defense. And the Journolist participants surely were — not intellectual risks but risks with their integrity — and several of them have been caught dead-to-rights. “Broken eggs cannot be mended,” Lincoln said. Neither can some broken reputations.

In many respects, the whole thing is dispiriting. On the other hand, it has had a clarifying effect. It turns out that the worst caricatures of liberal journalists were not, at least in the case of some, a caricature at all.

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Does South Africa’s “Big Love” President Have a Lesson for Liberal America?

You have to hand it to the Republic of South Africa. That continent’s richest country may have a lot of problems, but there’s no obsessing about the sexual escapades of its political leaders in the way we prudish Americans obsess about ours. South Africans appear to believe in marriage and lots of it. In fact, in a story that didn’t make it into the pages of most American newspapers on Monday, Britain’s Guardian reports that South African President Jacob Zuma reaped the congratulations of his countrymen by marrying his third wife today in a traditional Zulu ceremony. The only hitch in the proceedings occurred when the 67-year-old president slipped and fell backward while performing a traditional solo dance throughout which he wore animal pelts and white tennis shoes. He is believed to be uninjured.

According to a different report about the event from the AP, South Africa’s new first (or should I say third) lady, 38-year-old Tobeka Madiba, has actually already been married to the president under civil law (he paid her family the bride price back in 2007) and has given birth to three of Zuma’s 19 children.

But three isn’t enough for the popular Zuma, who revels in his reputation as a representative of Zulu traditionalism. The Guardian says he is planning on marrying a fourth woman, Gloria Bongi Ngema, who has also already given birth to one of his children. His other wives are Sizakele Khumalo, whom he married in 1973, and Nompumelelo Ntuli, who became his wife in 2008. Another marriage ended in divorce (though that wife is now South Africa’s home-affairs minister). Yet another wife killed herself reportedly after describing her marriage as “24 years of hell.”

For those wondering how South African women feel toward a polygamist president, a better question would be to wonder how they feel toward a president who was tried for rape in 2006. Zuma was acquitted of raping the daughter of a family friend. His defense consisted of stating that he believed that the woman’s decision to see him alone was an invitation to consensual intercourse. The following year, the victim was granted asylum in the Netherlands.

While all this may seem either revolting or ridiculous to Western sensibilities, it does raise the question of whether or not polygamy is compatible with genuine democracy. Back in 2006, Stanley Kurtz penned a fascinating piece in the Weekly Standard, which insisted: “Polygamy in all its forms is a recipe for social structures that inhibit and ultimately undermine social freedom and democracy. A hard-won lesson of Western history is that genuine democratic self-rule begins at the hearth of the monogamous family.”

However, as Kurtz noted then, in the era we live in, a growing number of Americans, including the majority of some courts and legislatures, appear to believe that it is not only permissible but also mandatory to redefine our traditional concepts of marriage to allow gay unions. But it isn’t clear what legal — as opposed to religious — principle would mandate that same-sex marriage be labeled kosher while plural marriage still be treated as beyond the pale.

As HBO’s “Big Love” series about Mormon fundamentalists gears up for the premiere of its fourth season this week, Zuma’s shenanigans provide a version of reality TV that makes Bill Hendrickson, the show’s embattled home-improvement entrepreneur with three very different women to deal with at home, look pretty tame. But as Kurtz wrote in 2006, the impetus for the premise of the series may come from a liberal Hollywood mindset that seeks “to highlight the analogy between same-sex unions and polygamy.” The point is, if your libertarian instincts tell you that it’s none of your business if two men or two women marry each other, then why is it the state’s business if one man marries two, three, or four women, so long as they are all consenting adults? Kurtz’s answer, dictated in no small measure by his concern about the spread of polygamy in the West as a result of tolerance for the Muslim practice of plural marriage, was that “stable, monogamous, parenthood-focused marriage” is part of the foundation of a society in which freedom can thrive. There is little question that, as Zuma’s preeminence in South Africa proves, polygamy can lead to a society ruled by men, not laws. That’s a sobering thought that ought to worry even the most ardent libertarians on such issues.

You have to hand it to the Republic of South Africa. That continent’s richest country may have a lot of problems, but there’s no obsessing about the sexual escapades of its political leaders in the way we prudish Americans obsess about ours. South Africans appear to believe in marriage and lots of it. In fact, in a story that didn’t make it into the pages of most American newspapers on Monday, Britain’s Guardian reports that South African President Jacob Zuma reaped the congratulations of his countrymen by marrying his third wife today in a traditional Zulu ceremony. The only hitch in the proceedings occurred when the 67-year-old president slipped and fell backward while performing a traditional solo dance throughout which he wore animal pelts and white tennis shoes. He is believed to be uninjured.

According to a different report about the event from the AP, South Africa’s new first (or should I say third) lady, 38-year-old Tobeka Madiba, has actually already been married to the president under civil law (he paid her family the bride price back in 2007) and has given birth to three of Zuma’s 19 children.

But three isn’t enough for the popular Zuma, who revels in his reputation as a representative of Zulu traditionalism. The Guardian says he is planning on marrying a fourth woman, Gloria Bongi Ngema, who has also already given birth to one of his children. His other wives are Sizakele Khumalo, whom he married in 1973, and Nompumelelo Ntuli, who became his wife in 2008. Another marriage ended in divorce (though that wife is now South Africa’s home-affairs minister). Yet another wife killed herself reportedly after describing her marriage as “24 years of hell.”

For those wondering how South African women feel toward a polygamist president, a better question would be to wonder how they feel toward a president who was tried for rape in 2006. Zuma was acquitted of raping the daughter of a family friend. His defense consisted of stating that he believed that the woman’s decision to see him alone was an invitation to consensual intercourse. The following year, the victim was granted asylum in the Netherlands.

While all this may seem either revolting or ridiculous to Western sensibilities, it does raise the question of whether or not polygamy is compatible with genuine democracy. Back in 2006, Stanley Kurtz penned a fascinating piece in the Weekly Standard, which insisted: “Polygamy in all its forms is a recipe for social structures that inhibit and ultimately undermine social freedom and democracy. A hard-won lesson of Western history is that genuine democratic self-rule begins at the hearth of the monogamous family.”

However, as Kurtz noted then, in the era we live in, a growing number of Americans, including the majority of some courts and legislatures, appear to believe that it is not only permissible but also mandatory to redefine our traditional concepts of marriage to allow gay unions. But it isn’t clear what legal — as opposed to religious — principle would mandate that same-sex marriage be labeled kosher while plural marriage still be treated as beyond the pale.

As HBO’s “Big Love” series about Mormon fundamentalists gears up for the premiere of its fourth season this week, Zuma’s shenanigans provide a version of reality TV that makes Bill Hendrickson, the show’s embattled home-improvement entrepreneur with three very different women to deal with at home, look pretty tame. But as Kurtz wrote in 2006, the impetus for the premise of the series may come from a liberal Hollywood mindset that seeks “to highlight the analogy between same-sex unions and polygamy.” The point is, if your libertarian instincts tell you that it’s none of your business if two men or two women marry each other, then why is it the state’s business if one man marries two, three, or four women, so long as they are all consenting adults? Kurtz’s answer, dictated in no small measure by his concern about the spread of polygamy in the West as a result of tolerance for the Muslim practice of plural marriage, was that “stable, monogamous, parenthood-focused marriage” is part of the foundation of a society in which freedom can thrive. There is little question that, as Zuma’s preeminence in South Africa proves, polygamy can lead to a society ruled by men, not laws. That’s a sobering thought that ought to worry even the most ardent libertarians on such issues.

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The Red Ken and Georgeous George Show

While most political commentators are sitting on the edge of their seats watching the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, the race which has me hooked is the one for Mayor of London. There, the Conservative Boris Johnson, perhaps the most entertaining man in Anglo-American politics, is battling against incumbent Ken Livingstone, one of its most insipid. Though he is running as Labour’s candidate, Livingstone, according to the left-of-center columnist Nick Cohen, “has never moved away from the grimy conspirators of the totalitarian left, who have always despised the democratic traditions of the Labour movement.”

As if to illustrate the point that Livingstone attracts the most unsavory elements in British politics (much like Ron Paul does in the United States), Livingstone has just picked up the coveted endorsement of George Galloway, arguably the most loathsome elected official in the Western world (hat tip: Oliver Kamm). Galloway was compelled to announce his support for the London Mayor in response to a television documentary that aired earlier this month showing Livingstone imbibing whiskey on the job. (Responding to the allegations, Livingstone said that alcohol had not impaired Winston Churchill and that the whiskey helps his bronchitis). In a piece for the Guardian website, Galloway defends his leftist comrade from a slew of latter-day “Whittaker Chambers,” “the former communist turned apostate who ‘revealed’ that celebrated senior US state department official Alger Hiss was a red under the White House bed.”

In last week’s Guardian, that paper’s former comment editor Seumas Milne, portrayed London’s mayoral election as nothing less than a battle of good against evil. “A defeat for Livingstone would not just be a blow to the broadly defined left, working-class Londoners, women, ethnic minorities and greens,” he intoned. “It would represent a wider defeat for progressive politics, in Britain and beyond.” This would be the case were one’s definition of “progressive” to include the sort of violent and illiberal reactionaries whom Livingstone embraces and with whom Milne is a thinly disguised fellow traveler. A defeat for this sect of the all-too “broadly defined left” would be a victory for real liberals, in Britain and beyond.

While most political commentators are sitting on the edge of their seats watching the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, the race which has me hooked is the one for Mayor of London. There, the Conservative Boris Johnson, perhaps the most entertaining man in Anglo-American politics, is battling against incumbent Ken Livingstone, one of its most insipid. Though he is running as Labour’s candidate, Livingstone, according to the left-of-center columnist Nick Cohen, “has never moved away from the grimy conspirators of the totalitarian left, who have always despised the democratic traditions of the Labour movement.”

As if to illustrate the point that Livingstone attracts the most unsavory elements in British politics (much like Ron Paul does in the United States), Livingstone has just picked up the coveted endorsement of George Galloway, arguably the most loathsome elected official in the Western world (hat tip: Oliver Kamm). Galloway was compelled to announce his support for the London Mayor in response to a television documentary that aired earlier this month showing Livingstone imbibing whiskey on the job. (Responding to the allegations, Livingstone said that alcohol had not impaired Winston Churchill and that the whiskey helps his bronchitis). In a piece for the Guardian website, Galloway defends his leftist comrade from a slew of latter-day “Whittaker Chambers,” “the former communist turned apostate who ‘revealed’ that celebrated senior US state department official Alger Hiss was a red under the White House bed.”

In last week’s Guardian, that paper’s former comment editor Seumas Milne, portrayed London’s mayoral election as nothing less than a battle of good against evil. “A defeat for Livingstone would not just be a blow to the broadly defined left, working-class Londoners, women, ethnic minorities and greens,” he intoned. “It would represent a wider defeat for progressive politics, in Britain and beyond.” This would be the case were one’s definition of “progressive” to include the sort of violent and illiberal reactionaries whom Livingstone embraces and with whom Milne is a thinly disguised fellow traveler. A defeat for this sect of the all-too “broadly defined left” would be a victory for real liberals, in Britain and beyond.

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Dollars for Dictators

Charles Taylor was a particularly loathsome African dictator, which is saying a lot. The former president of Liberia sowed misery and destruction throughout West Africa in the 1990′s, abetting civil wars in his own country and Sierra Leone, where he was notorious for his practice of lopping off the limbs of innocent people, and where a special court is trying him for crimes against humanity under the auspices of The Hague. Taylor’s crimes extend beyond the typical; he also stands accused of harboring al Qaeda suspects wanted for the bombings of two American embassies in 1998.

Taylor’s trial is being postponed until January, and according to this Guardian report, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (a joint operation of the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone) is paying $100,000 per month so that Taylor “can hire a top legal team for his defense.” This means that the United States government and its citizens are paying no small part of Taylor’s legal expenses. Taylor, I might add, according to a UN panel, accrues about $100 million annually through unfrozen financial assets that he accumulated through his outright theft while in office.

For too long, the UN court has tolerated Taylor’s shenanigans. In June, he refused to appear for the start of his trial at The Hague, claiming that his court-appointed attorney was insufficient. Here is a proposal that the court ought to make to Mr. Taylor: pay for your own legal counsel with some of the hundreds of millions of dollars you have stashed away, or forgo your right to trial and spend the rest of your life in prison.

Of course, there is no good reason why Taylor should not be hanged or shot, a la Saddam Hussein or the Ceauşescus. Since his trial is being held under the auspices of a United Nations panel, the likelihood of this happening seems downright impossible.

Charles Taylor was a particularly loathsome African dictator, which is saying a lot. The former president of Liberia sowed misery and destruction throughout West Africa in the 1990′s, abetting civil wars in his own country and Sierra Leone, where he was notorious for his practice of lopping off the limbs of innocent people, and where a special court is trying him for crimes against humanity under the auspices of The Hague. Taylor’s crimes extend beyond the typical; he also stands accused of harboring al Qaeda suspects wanted for the bombings of two American embassies in 1998.

Taylor’s trial is being postponed until January, and according to this Guardian report, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (a joint operation of the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone) is paying $100,000 per month so that Taylor “can hire a top legal team for his defense.” This means that the United States government and its citizens are paying no small part of Taylor’s legal expenses. Taylor, I might add, according to a UN panel, accrues about $100 million annually through unfrozen financial assets that he accumulated through his outright theft while in office.

For too long, the UN court has tolerated Taylor’s shenanigans. In June, he refused to appear for the start of his trial at The Hague, claiming that his court-appointed attorney was insufficient. Here is a proposal that the court ought to make to Mr. Taylor: pay for your own legal counsel with some of the hundreds of millions of dollars you have stashed away, or forgo your right to trial and spend the rest of your life in prison.

Of course, there is no good reason why Taylor should not be hanged or shot, a la Saddam Hussein or the Ceauşescus. Since his trial is being held under the auspices of a United Nations panel, the likelihood of this happening seems downright impossible.

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Hobsbawm’s Spanish Civil War

Eric Hobsbawm was given three pages to write a cover piece about the Spanish Civil War for the review section of Saturday’s Guardian. He produced a paean to the Communist and fellow-traveling intellectuals of the 30’s, who lost the war but won, he claims, a posthumous victory by “creating the world’s memory.”

The passage in which he deals with the handful of pro-Republican intellectuals who criticized Stalin exhibits Hobsbawm’s own relativistic attitude to the truth. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he says, was turned down by his fellow-traveling publisher Victor Gollancz and given a “critical” review in the New Statesman (i.e., a hatchet job) because, as Orwell himself wrote, Gollancz and his ideological allies believed that “one must not tell the truth about what is happening in Spain and the part played by the Communist party because to do so would prejudice public opinion against the Spanish government and so aid Franco.”

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Eric Hobsbawm was given three pages to write a cover piece about the Spanish Civil War for the review section of Saturday’s Guardian. He produced a paean to the Communist and fellow-traveling intellectuals of the 30’s, who lost the war but won, he claims, a posthumous victory by “creating the world’s memory.”

The passage in which he deals with the handful of pro-Republican intellectuals who criticized Stalin exhibits Hobsbawm’s own relativistic attitude to the truth. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he says, was turned down by his fellow-traveling publisher Victor Gollancz and given a “critical” review in the New Statesman (i.e., a hatchet job) because, as Orwell himself wrote, Gollancz and his ideological allies believed that “one must not tell the truth about what is happening in Spain and the part played by the Communist party because to do so would prejudice public opinion against the Spanish government and so aid Franco.”


Hobsbawm does not dissent from this craven toeing of the party line; indeed, even 70 years later he still supports it. Smugly, he recalls that Orwell’s book sold “so poorly that the stock was still not exhausted 13 years later” and concludes: “Only in the cold-war era did Orwell cease to be an awkward, marginal figure.” But who marginalized him? The Stalinist intellectuals, of whom Hobsbawm was one, tried to wreck his career and came close to succeeding.

Hobsbawm mentions that W.H. Auden “modified his great 1937 poem ‘Spain’ in 1939 and refused to allow it to be reprinted in 1950.” But he does not explain how and why. In fact, Auden rewrote two lines of the poem in response to Orwell’s criticism. What Orwell took exception to were the following lines, which he read as justifying Stalinist liquidation: “Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death, / The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” Auden altered “deliberate” to “inevitable” and “necessary murder” became “the fact of murder.” Auden later claimed that Orwell had been “densely unjust” in his interpretation, but the fact that he excluded even the amended version of this poem from his Collected Poems suggests that he had a bad conscience about it. Indeed, the phrase “necessary murder” became notorious after Orwell attacked it, despite Auden’s attempt at self-censorship.

Yet Hobsbawm simply glosses over this and other examples of bad faith. For him, the dilemma for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War was about “Marx versus Bakunin.” He adds that “among those who fought for the republic as soldiers, most found Marx more relevant than Bakunin” and he concludes that the war “could not have been waged, let alone won, along Orwellian lines.” Well, the Republicans actually lost the war, not least due to the ruthless policies of the Soviet NKVD agents in their ranks. But Hobsbawm is peddling here the old Communist cliché that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The fact that the Left’s sanitized interpretation of the war, which did indeed come to dominate its historiography, was utterly mendacious does not trouble him at all, either as a scholar or as a human being.

He has harsh words for the “mythology and manipulation of the regime of the victors” and “cold-war propaganda,” but not a word of criticism for the lies of the Communists and their apologists. He patronizes Orwell and ignores completely the other great writer about the civil war who abandoned Stalinism: Franz Borkenau, who was actually tortured by the Spanish Communists and whose justly celebrated book The Spanish Cockpit exposed their machinations. Nor does Hobsbawm mention the leading Spanish thinkers who, while rejecting Franco, rejected Communism even more strongly, among them Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno.
In short: vintage Hobsbawm.

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