Commentary Magazine


Topic: historian

Obama, Jewish Voters, and the Lessons of 1984

Turns out there are real questions about the accuracy of that recent Quinnipiac poll showing President Obama’s approval rating at just 52 percent among Jewish voters. As the JTA’s Eric Fingerhut pointed out, the Jewish sampling “was derived from a sample of just 71 respondents, for a margin of error of plus or minus 11.6 percent — a sample size that pollsters generally say makes such surveys unreliable.”

Actually, common sense and some knowledge of Jewish voting habits should be enough to render any such poll findings suspect at best. Obama enjoys two important advantages that make him almost a shoo-in to win another landslide among Jewish voters three years from now: he’s a well-spoken, nonthreatening black man (a factor not to be underestimated when considering the voting psychology of liberal and moderate Jews), and he’s adamantly opposed to and by the Christian Right. Read More

Turns out there are real questions about the accuracy of that recent Quinnipiac poll showing President Obama’s approval rating at just 52 percent among Jewish voters. As the JTA’s Eric Fingerhut pointed out, the Jewish sampling “was derived from a sample of just 71 respondents, for a margin of error of plus or minus 11.6 percent — a sample size that pollsters generally say makes such surveys unreliable.”

Actually, common sense and some knowledge of Jewish voting habits should be enough to render any such poll findings suspect at best. Obama enjoys two important advantages that make him almost a shoo-in to win another landslide among Jewish voters three years from now: he’s a well-spoken, nonthreatening black man (a factor not to be underestimated when considering the voting psychology of liberal and moderate Jews), and he’s adamantly opposed to and by the Christian Right.

To put those realities into historical context, it’s instructive to look back at the presidential election of 1984. For a Republican, Ronald Reagan had done exceedingly well among Jews in 1980, winning 39 percent of their votes and holding the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, to an unimpressive plurality of 45 percent. (Third-party candidate John Anderson got the rest.) And then came the 1984 National Survey of American Jews, conducted between April and August that year, which found that while 39 percent of respondents acknowledged voting for Reagan in 1980, some 53 percent said that, looking back, Reagan was the candidate they would have preferred.

Certainly Reagan seemed poised to at least hold on to his 1980 share of the Jewish vote — and quite possibly exceed it.

In addition to Reagan’s performance in office, there was, in 1984, the Jesse Jackson factor. The longtime civil-rights firebrand was running for the Democratic nomination that year, and during the course of the campaign many of his past derogatory comments about Jews and Israel resurfaced, fueled both by his reference, in what he thought was an off-the-record conversation, to New York City as “Hymietown” and his reluctance to separate himself from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

The Jackson factor was widely thought to threaten the Democratic party’s decades-old hold on Jewish loyalties, particularly when a Los Angeles Times poll of African-American delegates at the 1984 Democratic National Convention revealed that 75 percent of the delegates pledged to Jackson and almost 50 percent of those backing eventual nominee Walter Mondale felt no need to distance themselves from Farrakhan or his statements.

Come November, however, Reagan actually ended up losing significant ground among Jewish voters. “Exit polls taken the day of the election,” wrote Charles Silberman in his 1985 book A Certain People, “indicated that no more than 35 percent of American Jews, and perhaps as few as 31 percent, had voted for Reagan; the Jewish vote for Mondale was put at 65-69 percent … analysis of the polls indicated that between 25 and 35 percent of the Jews who had voted for Reagan in 1980 switched to Mondale in 1984.”

It seems that Reagan’s increasingly vocal embrace of the New — specifically, the Christian — Right scared Jews more than anything said by either Jackson or Farrakhan. Nearly 80 percent of Jews had an unfavorable opinion of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the most visible face of the Christian Right (never mind that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had presented Falwell with the Jabotinsky Prize in recognition of his strong support of the Jewish state). In fact, Silberman noted, “more Jewish voters indicated an unfavorable opinion of Falwell than of Jesse Jackson.”

The historian Stephen Whitfield elaborated on that point in 1986, writing: “The rise of the New Right has been more disturbing to Jews than the circulation within the Democratic Party of Third World sympathies that collide with Israeli interests.”

How does all this relate to Obama and Jewish support? For one thing, the Republican party’s identification with the Christian Right is immeasurably stronger today than it was 25 years ago, making it unlikely that liberal or moderate Jews will find a comfort level with the GOP anytime soon. For another, the current generation of American Jews is not nearly as supportive of Israel and Israeli policies as were their parents and grandparents — and support for Israel was the one factor that in the past might have swayed some liberal Jews to vote for a Republican.

If Jimmy Carter, fresh off a disastrous four years in office and displaying an increasingly palpable animus toward Israel, could still outpoll his Republican opponent among Jews (and absent the Anderson candidacy, Carter probably would have won at least 55 percent of the Jewish vote), there’s no reason to believe that even a mediocre Democratic president — particularly if he’s a likable African American who talks a good liberal game — need worry about Jewish voters.

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Andrew Roberts: On Iran, Israel Must Emulate Nelson and Churchill

Over at Melanie Phillips’s Spectator blog, she reprints in its entirety the speech delivered by the great British historian and COMMENTARY contributor Andrew Roberts to the Anglo-Israel Association earlier this week.

Roberts’s brilliant speech makes for important reading and not just for students of the often difficult relationship between Britain and Israel, which he reviews in some detail, from the hopeful beginning of the Balfour Declaration to the infamy of Britain’s 1939 White Paper, which locked the gates of Palestine just as Hitler’s death machine was warming up in Europe. Add to this Britain’s futile effort to prevent the Jewish state from being born after World War II and the consistent record of bias against Israel on the part of London’s Foreign Office since 1948. While Roberts notes that Margaret Thatcher was the most philo-Semitic prime minister since Winston Churchill, he acknowledges that even the Iron Lady was stymied by the Foreign Office in her efforts to promote a better relationship with Israel.

What is his explanation for this record? He puts it down, in part, to:

The FO assumption that Britain’s relations with Israel ought constantly to be subordinated to her relations with other Middle Eastern states, especially the oil-rich ones, however badly those states behave in terms of human rights abuses, the persecution of Christians, the oppression of women, medieval practices of punishment, and so on. It seems to me that there is an implicit racism going on here. Jews are expected to behave better, goes the FO thinking, because they are like us. Arabs must not be chastised because they are not. So in warfare, we constantly expect Israel to behave far better than her neighbours, and chastise her quite hypocritically when occasionally under the exigencies of national struggle, she cannot. The problem crosses political parties today, just as it always has. [Conservative Party foreign policy spokesman] William Hague called for Israel to adopt a proportionate response in its struggle with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2007, as though proportionate responses ever won any victories against fascists. In the Second World War, the Luftwaffe killed 50,000 Britons in the Blitz, and the Allied response was to kill 600,000 Germans—twelve times the number and hardly a proportionate response, but one that contributed mightily to victory. Who are we therefore to lecture the Israelis on how proportionate their responses should be?

Roberts also notes that a prominent former British diplomat criticized the composition of the panel analyzing Britain’s entry into the Iraq war because two of its members, Martin Gilbert and Lawrence Freedman, are both Jewish and known supporters of Zionism. As Roberts put it, “If that’s the way that FO Arabists are prepared to express themselves in public, can you imagine the way that they refer to such people as Professors Gilbert and Freedman in private?”

Speaking of the Jewish state’s dilemma in facing a nuclear Iran and expressing no confidence in America’s ability or desire to prevent Ahmadinejad from obtaining a Bomb, Roberts concludes by exhorting the Israelis to follow the example of two famous Britons who boldly acted to stop a threat to their country:

None of us can pretend to know what lies ahead for Israel, but if she decides pre-emptively to strike against such a threat—in the same way that Nelson pre-emptively sank the Danish Fleet at Copenhagen and Churchill pre-emptively sank the Vichy Fleet at Oran—then she can expect nothing but condemnation from the British Foreign Office. She should ignore such criticism, because for all the fine work done by this Association over the past six decades – work that’s clearly needed as much now as ever before – Britain has only ever really been at best a fairweather friend to Israel. Although History does not repeat itself, its cadences do occasionally rhyme, and if the witness of History is testament to anything it is testament to this: That in her hopes of averting the threat of a Second Holocaust, only Israel can be relied upon to act decisively in the best interests of the Jews.

Over at Melanie Phillips’s Spectator blog, she reprints in its entirety the speech delivered by the great British historian and COMMENTARY contributor Andrew Roberts to the Anglo-Israel Association earlier this week.

Roberts’s brilliant speech makes for important reading and not just for students of the often difficult relationship between Britain and Israel, which he reviews in some detail, from the hopeful beginning of the Balfour Declaration to the infamy of Britain’s 1939 White Paper, which locked the gates of Palestine just as Hitler’s death machine was warming up in Europe. Add to this Britain’s futile effort to prevent the Jewish state from being born after World War II and the consistent record of bias against Israel on the part of London’s Foreign Office since 1948. While Roberts notes that Margaret Thatcher was the most philo-Semitic prime minister since Winston Churchill, he acknowledges that even the Iron Lady was stymied by the Foreign Office in her efforts to promote a better relationship with Israel.

What is his explanation for this record? He puts it down, in part, to:

The FO assumption that Britain’s relations with Israel ought constantly to be subordinated to her relations with other Middle Eastern states, especially the oil-rich ones, however badly those states behave in terms of human rights abuses, the persecution of Christians, the oppression of women, medieval practices of punishment, and so on. It seems to me that there is an implicit racism going on here. Jews are expected to behave better, goes the FO thinking, because they are like us. Arabs must not be chastised because they are not. So in warfare, we constantly expect Israel to behave far better than her neighbours, and chastise her quite hypocritically when occasionally under the exigencies of national struggle, she cannot. The problem crosses political parties today, just as it always has. [Conservative Party foreign policy spokesman] William Hague called for Israel to adopt a proportionate response in its struggle with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2007, as though proportionate responses ever won any victories against fascists. In the Second World War, the Luftwaffe killed 50,000 Britons in the Blitz, and the Allied response was to kill 600,000 Germans—twelve times the number and hardly a proportionate response, but one that contributed mightily to victory. Who are we therefore to lecture the Israelis on how proportionate their responses should be?

Roberts also notes that a prominent former British diplomat criticized the composition of the panel analyzing Britain’s entry into the Iraq war because two of its members, Martin Gilbert and Lawrence Freedman, are both Jewish and known supporters of Zionism. As Roberts put it, “If that’s the way that FO Arabists are prepared to express themselves in public, can you imagine the way that they refer to such people as Professors Gilbert and Freedman in private?”

Speaking of the Jewish state’s dilemma in facing a nuclear Iran and expressing no confidence in America’s ability or desire to prevent Ahmadinejad from obtaining a Bomb, Roberts concludes by exhorting the Israelis to follow the example of two famous Britons who boldly acted to stop a threat to their country:

None of us can pretend to know what lies ahead for Israel, but if she decides pre-emptively to strike against such a threat—in the same way that Nelson pre-emptively sank the Danish Fleet at Copenhagen and Churchill pre-emptively sank the Vichy Fleet at Oran—then she can expect nothing but condemnation from the British Foreign Office. She should ignore such criticism, because for all the fine work done by this Association over the past six decades – work that’s clearly needed as much now as ever before – Britain has only ever really been at best a fairweather friend to Israel. Although History does not repeat itself, its cadences do occasionally rhyme, and if the witness of History is testament to anything it is testament to this: That in her hopes of averting the threat of a Second Holocaust, only Israel can be relied upon to act decisively in the best interests of the Jews.

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Talk and Listen and Meet and Sail with COMMENTARY

It could be one of the most informative, pleasurable, and dramatically beautiful weeks of your life. Join us from August 4 through August 11, 2010, as COMMENTARY’s first Conference of Ideas convenes aboard the Regent SS Mariner as it sails through the waters of Alaska, North America’s most dazzling natural venue. We’ll be talking about what really matters—the American political and economic situation, the 2010 elections, Iran, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, the state of the Obama presidency, and the condition of the GOP. With us will be Bret Stephens, the brilliant Wall Street Journal columnist; Elliott Abrams, former chief White House Mideast expert; the great World War II historian Andrew Roberts; the omni-knowledgeable Michael Medved, of radio, movie-reviewing, and book-publishing fame; CONTENTIONS’s own Jennifer Rubin; and the ultimate power couple, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. We’ll eat, we’ll meet, we’ll speak, you’ll have dinner with the special guests, and there will be plenty of time to rest and relax and visit this unique destination. You can find out more about the Commentary Conference and Cruise here.

It could be one of the most informative, pleasurable, and dramatically beautiful weeks of your life. Join us from August 4 through August 11, 2010, as COMMENTARY’s first Conference of Ideas convenes aboard the Regent SS Mariner as it sails through the waters of Alaska, North America’s most dazzling natural venue. We’ll be talking about what really matters—the American political and economic situation, the 2010 elections, Iran, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, the state of the Obama presidency, and the condition of the GOP. With us will be Bret Stephens, the brilliant Wall Street Journal columnist; Elliott Abrams, former chief White House Mideast expert; the great World War II historian Andrew Roberts; the omni-knowledgeable Michael Medved, of radio, movie-reviewing, and book-publishing fame; CONTENTIONS’s own Jennifer Rubin; and the ultimate power couple, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. We’ll eat, we’ll meet, we’ll speak, you’ll have dinner with the special guests, and there will be plenty of time to rest and relax and visit this unique destination. You can find out more about the Commentary Conference and Cruise here.

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Vacation Stimulation—A Conference and Alaskan Cruise in One

As America heads into the 2010 elections, with unprecedented turmoil and possibly revolutionary change, COMMENTARY will be convening its first Conference of Ideas from August 4 through August 11, 2010, aboard the Regent Navigator as it sets sail from Anchorage and takes a week-long journey through the waters of Alaska. There will be daily sessions, speeches, meals, a chance to meet some of your favorite writers and thinkers, a chance to dine with them as well, and an unparalleled opportunity to meet fellow thinkers and readers from across the country. With us on the cruise will be Wall Street Journal global-affairs columnist Bret Stephens; COMMENTARY’s power couple, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter; the great World War II historian Andrew Roberts; talk-show host and author Michael Medved; CONTENTIONS’s own Jennifer Rubin; and former chief White House Mideast hand Elliott Abrams. We’ll talk Obama, Israel, Iran, the GOP, the Democrats, 2010, 2012, the state of the culture, the state of Western civilization, and the prospects for American recovery. I’ll be there too, playing traffic cop. And all of it will take place amid the most dramatic scenery in the Western Hemisphere, on a small and luxurious craft that is one of the jewels in the Regent fleet. Please consider joining us. You can learn more about the cruise here.

As America heads into the 2010 elections, with unprecedented turmoil and possibly revolutionary change, COMMENTARY will be convening its first Conference of Ideas from August 4 through August 11, 2010, aboard the Regent Navigator as it sets sail from Anchorage and takes a week-long journey through the waters of Alaska. There will be daily sessions, speeches, meals, a chance to meet some of your favorite writers and thinkers, a chance to dine with them as well, and an unparalleled opportunity to meet fellow thinkers and readers from across the country. With us on the cruise will be Wall Street Journal global-affairs columnist Bret Stephens; COMMENTARY’s power couple, Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter; the great World War II historian Andrew Roberts; talk-show host and author Michael Medved; CONTENTIONS’s own Jennifer Rubin; and former chief White House Mideast hand Elliott Abrams. We’ll talk Obama, Israel, Iran, the GOP, the Democrats, 2010, 2012, the state of the culture, the state of Western civilization, and the prospects for American recovery. I’ll be there too, playing traffic cop. And all of it will take place amid the most dramatic scenery in the Western Hemisphere, on a small and luxurious craft that is one of the jewels in the Regent fleet. Please consider joining us. You can learn more about the cruise here.

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Bookshelf

• Of all the myriad phrases that should be banned from the vocabularies of critics, “definitive biography” belongs at the top of the list. No such book exists, least of all when its subject is a person of major historical significance. About such rare birds no last words can ever be uttered. I’ve published one large-scale primary-source biography of an important writer and recently finished writing another about an important musician, and in neither case did it ever occur to me that I had said everything there was to say about my subjects.

Even less did Ian Kershaw exhaust the subject of Adolf Hitler in his impeccably researched, coolly well-written two-volume biography, in part because Kershaw, a professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield, sought to describe Hitler’s life in the light of the contemporary historical point of view that emphasizes the power of society over the significance of the individual. Like all such books, Kershaw’s Hitler, for all its great value, sometimes resembles a handsomely crafted picture frame with nothing in it. So it is in certain ways even more profitable to read Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution (Yale, 394 pp., $32.50), a collection of essays written between 1977 and the present day and assembled by the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Here we can see Kershaw working out his interpretation of Hitler step by step.

The insufficiently vivid literary portraiture that is the chief weakness of Kershaw’s “Hitler” is by definition less of a problem within the narrower compass of a single-topic essay. Without exception, the 14 pieces collected in Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, which range from an analysis of Hitler’s early speeches and writings to an exceedingly hard-headed essay that asks why “the ultra-violence that characterized the first half of the [20th] century had no equivalent in the second half,” are penetrating and illuminating. The introduction, in which Kershaw offers the reader “a clearer glimpse of the historian behind the history,” is no less worthy of close consideration. What led him to devote the greater part of his adult life to studying Nazi Germany and writing a two-volume scholarly biography of a monster like Hitler? As Kershaw explains it:

I had come to German history via an increased competence in the German language-German was a subject unavailable at my school, so I was able to begin learning it only in 1969, and then for three years purely as a casual hobby-and what really, and increasingly, intrigued me, as a product of postwar British democracy, was how Germany had so completely succumbed to a dictatorship which had brought about world war and, to ratinal minds, a scarcely intelligible persecution and extermination of the Jews.

By such unlikely routes are life-shaping decisions reached.

Kershaw’s prefatory excursion into intellectual autobiography ends with “a rather gloomy look into the crystal ball”:

At least, a replication of the conditions which produced the Holocaust is, mercifully, nowhere in sight. The problems are now very different to those which gave rise to Hitler and genocidal antisemitism. Even so, it is difficult to view the future with great optimism. The threat from an international order in disarray, most obviously in the Middle East, is palpable. And humankind’s capacity to combine new forms of ideological demonisation with bureaucratic refinement and unparalleled technological killing power is far from eradicated. So far, with great effort, the combination, which would be truly dangerous if marshalled by a powerful state entity, has been held in check. Will it continue to be?

To read these words in a book that bears the name “Yad Vashem” on the title page is at once sobering and tonic.

• Of all the myriad phrases that should be banned from the vocabularies of critics, “definitive biography” belongs at the top of the list. No such book exists, least of all when its subject is a person of major historical significance. About such rare birds no last words can ever be uttered. I’ve published one large-scale primary-source biography of an important writer and recently finished writing another about an important musician, and in neither case did it ever occur to me that I had said everything there was to say about my subjects.

Even less did Ian Kershaw exhaust the subject of Adolf Hitler in his impeccably researched, coolly well-written two-volume biography, in part because Kershaw, a professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield, sought to describe Hitler’s life in the light of the contemporary historical point of view that emphasizes the power of society over the significance of the individual. Like all such books, Kershaw’s Hitler, for all its great value, sometimes resembles a handsomely crafted picture frame with nothing in it. So it is in certain ways even more profitable to read Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution (Yale, 394 pp., $32.50), a collection of essays written between 1977 and the present day and assembled by the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Here we can see Kershaw working out his interpretation of Hitler step by step.

The insufficiently vivid literary portraiture that is the chief weakness of Kershaw’s “Hitler” is by definition less of a problem within the narrower compass of a single-topic essay. Without exception, the 14 pieces collected in Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, which range from an analysis of Hitler’s early speeches and writings to an exceedingly hard-headed essay that asks why “the ultra-violence that characterized the first half of the [20th] century had no equivalent in the second half,” are penetrating and illuminating. The introduction, in which Kershaw offers the reader “a clearer glimpse of the historian behind the history,” is no less worthy of close consideration. What led him to devote the greater part of his adult life to studying Nazi Germany and writing a two-volume scholarly biography of a monster like Hitler? As Kershaw explains it:

I had come to German history via an increased competence in the German language-German was a subject unavailable at my school, so I was able to begin learning it only in 1969, and then for three years purely as a casual hobby-and what really, and increasingly, intrigued me, as a product of postwar British democracy, was how Germany had so completely succumbed to a dictatorship which had brought about world war and, to ratinal minds, a scarcely intelligible persecution and extermination of the Jews.

By such unlikely routes are life-shaping decisions reached.

Kershaw’s prefatory excursion into intellectual autobiography ends with “a rather gloomy look into the crystal ball”:

At least, a replication of the conditions which produced the Holocaust is, mercifully, nowhere in sight. The problems are now very different to those which gave rise to Hitler and genocidal antisemitism. Even so, it is difficult to view the future with great optimism. The threat from an international order in disarray, most obviously in the Middle East, is palpable. And humankind’s capacity to combine new forms of ideological demonisation with bureaucratic refinement and unparalleled technological killing power is far from eradicated. So far, with great effort, the combination, which would be truly dangerous if marshalled by a powerful state entity, has been held in check. Will it continue to be?

To read these words in a book that bears the name “Yad Vashem” on the title page is at once sobering and tonic.

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Bookshelf

Most Americans are at one and the same time moralists and latitudinarians, and from time to time these tendencies get out of sync and cause a collective convulsion. One of the most interesting and least well remembered of these convulsions took place in 1954, when public concern over the baleful effects of comic books on the juvenile mind reached such a height as to inspire a Senate hearing at which Bill Gaines, the publisher of Crime SuspenStories, assured a roomful of skeptical politicians that his product was “a work of art.” Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist who had just published a book called Seduction of the Innocent which claimed that violent comics turned their readers into juvenile delinquents, begged to differ: “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. They get the children much younger.”

I know about these hearings because Robert Warshow published an essay in COMMENTARY called “Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham” in which he described with a typically thoughtful blend of wit and moral awareness how his 11-year-old son had become a fan of Crime SuspenStories and its companion publications:

Children do need some “sinful” world of their own to which they can retreat from the demands of the adult world; as we sweep away one juvenile dung heap, they will move on to another. The point is to see that the dung heap does not swallow them up, and to hope it may be one that will bring forth blossoms. But our power is limited; it is the children who have the initiative: they will choose what they want.

Fifty-four years later, David Hajdu, a historian of popular culture, has written a book called The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar Straus Giroux, 434 pp., $26) in which the clash between Gaines and Dr. Wertham is put in historical perspective. Hajdu’s point of view is fairly standard as these things go-he describes the 50′s as an age of “postwar paranoia” and believes that the comic books of the period deserve to be taken seriously as a species of popular art-but his discussion of the short-lived frenzy over the alleged effects of comics on their consumers is both well written and, for the most part, sensible. You don’t have to share Hajdu’s reflexive distaste for the buttoned-down cultural orthodoxies of the Eisenhower Era to read The Ten-Cent Plague with pleasure and profit.

That said, I was struck by a certain narrowness of perspective on Hajdu’s part. While he appears to know everything worth knowing about the comic books of the period, his suggestion that their critics were cultural McCarthyites fails to acknowledge that the comic-book scare cut sharply across political lines. Close readers of The Ten-Cent Plague will note that the liberal establishment of the day was no less concerned about the effects of comic books on American youth, a fact that Hajdu glosses over a bit too quickly. No less revealingly, he appears to be unaware of the existence of Warshow’s oft-cited essay on horror comics, an omission that makes one wonder what else he has overlooked in his somewhat starry-eyed attempt to portray the creators of Crime SuspenStories and its companion publications as “cultural insurgents” who “helped give birth to the popular culture of the postwar era.”

I was no less struck by the fact that The Ten-Cent Plague contains only a handful of black-and-white illustrations, none of which gives a clear sense of what the horror comics of the 50′s were like. Mere verbal descriptions cannot convey their quality, though Warshow came close:

There is a picture of a baseball game in which the ball is a man’s head with one eye dangling from its socket, the bat is a severed leg, the catcher wears a dismembered human torso as chest protector, the baselines are marked with stretched-out intestines, the bases are marked with the lungs, liver, and heart, the rosin-bag is the dead man’s stomach, and the umpire dusts off home plate with the scalp.

Hajdu tiptoes cautiously past this particular example of the genre, describing it as “a baseball game played with human body parts.” I might have been more impressed by his broad-gauge indictment of 50′s culture had he been more willing to specify the exact content of the publications whose cultural transgressiveness he lauds so passionately.

Most Americans are at one and the same time moralists and latitudinarians, and from time to time these tendencies get out of sync and cause a collective convulsion. One of the most interesting and least well remembered of these convulsions took place in 1954, when public concern over the baleful effects of comic books on the juvenile mind reached such a height as to inspire a Senate hearing at which Bill Gaines, the publisher of Crime SuspenStories, assured a roomful of skeptical politicians that his product was “a work of art.” Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist who had just published a book called Seduction of the Innocent which claimed that violent comics turned their readers into juvenile delinquents, begged to differ: “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. They get the children much younger.”

I know about these hearings because Robert Warshow published an essay in COMMENTARY called “Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham” in which he described with a typically thoughtful blend of wit and moral awareness how his 11-year-old son had become a fan of Crime SuspenStories and its companion publications:

Children do need some “sinful” world of their own to which they can retreat from the demands of the adult world; as we sweep away one juvenile dung heap, they will move on to another. The point is to see that the dung heap does not swallow them up, and to hope it may be one that will bring forth blossoms. But our power is limited; it is the children who have the initiative: they will choose what they want.

Fifty-four years later, David Hajdu, a historian of popular culture, has written a book called The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America (Farrar Straus Giroux, 434 pp., $26) in which the clash between Gaines and Dr. Wertham is put in historical perspective. Hajdu’s point of view is fairly standard as these things go-he describes the 50′s as an age of “postwar paranoia” and believes that the comic books of the period deserve to be taken seriously as a species of popular art-but his discussion of the short-lived frenzy over the alleged effects of comics on their consumers is both well written and, for the most part, sensible. You don’t have to share Hajdu’s reflexive distaste for the buttoned-down cultural orthodoxies of the Eisenhower Era to read The Ten-Cent Plague with pleasure and profit.

That said, I was struck by a certain narrowness of perspective on Hajdu’s part. While he appears to know everything worth knowing about the comic books of the period, his suggestion that their critics were cultural McCarthyites fails to acknowledge that the comic-book scare cut sharply across political lines. Close readers of The Ten-Cent Plague will note that the liberal establishment of the day was no less concerned about the effects of comic books on American youth, a fact that Hajdu glosses over a bit too quickly. No less revealingly, he appears to be unaware of the existence of Warshow’s oft-cited essay on horror comics, an omission that makes one wonder what else he has overlooked in his somewhat starry-eyed attempt to portray the creators of Crime SuspenStories and its companion publications as “cultural insurgents” who “helped give birth to the popular culture of the postwar era.”

I was no less struck by the fact that The Ten-Cent Plague contains only a handful of black-and-white illustrations, none of which gives a clear sense of what the horror comics of the 50′s were like. Mere verbal descriptions cannot convey their quality, though Warshow came close:

There is a picture of a baseball game in which the ball is a man’s head with one eye dangling from its socket, the bat is a severed leg, the catcher wears a dismembered human torso as chest protector, the baselines are marked with stretched-out intestines, the bases are marked with the lungs, liver, and heart, the rosin-bag is the dead man’s stomach, and the umpire dusts off home plate with the scalp.

Hajdu tiptoes cautiously past this particular example of the genre, describing it as “a baseball game played with human body parts.” I might have been more impressed by his broad-gauge indictment of 50′s culture had he been more willing to specify the exact content of the publications whose cultural transgressiveness he lauds so passionately.

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The Adams Family

I’ll leave judgments about the historical veracity of HBO’s new miniseries, John Adams, to those with some expertise in the field (at least one historian seems to think it’s not perfect, but not bad either). The real question is: Is it worth watching? And judging from the two episodes that aired this week, the series is (slightly) less than the sum of its parts. The good news, however, is that the parts are generally excellent.

Strong performances anchor the series. Paul Giamatti plays the title character, a lumpy, bald Boston lawyer who finds his way to greatness after successfully defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston massacre. Giamatti is characteristically frumpy here, but he lends Adams an interesting blend of arrogance and anxiety as well. He’s a patriot, yes, concerned for his country, but also about his own family, life, and legacy. It’s a showcase for Giamatti, but Tom Wilkinson (as Ben Franklin), Laura Linney (as Abigail Adams), David Morse (as George Washington) and Stephane Dillane (as Thomas Jefferson) also make quite the impression as well.

Meanwhile, from the costumes to the extravagant sets, everything on the production side is superb, but the standout element is the photography, which looks positively stunning in HD. Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto is a longtime Hollywood hand (I first recall noticing his work in 1991′s The Silence of the Lambs), and his visual trademarks are evident in nearly every scene.

He’s got two main modes behind the lens—the participant and the voyeur. The first mode is primarily used in the larger setpieces, most notably in the series’ opening sequence, which depicts the Boston Massacre; a handheld camera follows Adams as he stumbles through the streets and into the bloody scene, running side-by-side with the man as if his partner. It puts viewers inside the scene, makes them part of it. The more intimate scenes, mostly between Adams and his wife Abigail, are typically shot in low light, and often from another room, or behind an object. The effect is of peering in on history from the outside, watching an American founder from the outside.

The series’ weaknesses come mostly in the script by Kirk Ellis, which, at least at this point, has failed to bring the many other fine elements together. There are many strong moments, especially between John and Abigail (a nighttime monologue in which Adams, laying next to his silent wife, thinks through his dilemma—and those of the country—is particularly touching). But too many scenes feel overly scripted, as if the characters were simply spouting miniature editorials. I have no doubt they were eloquent men, but surely they stumbled once in a while? And in both of the inaugural episodes, there is far too much reliance on courtroom-style drama, as the series would really rather be Law & Order: American Revolution. Still, it’s by far the best thing on TV right now, and anyone with even a passing interest in the subject would do well to check it out.

I’ll leave judgments about the historical veracity of HBO’s new miniseries, John Adams, to those with some expertise in the field (at least one historian seems to think it’s not perfect, but not bad either). The real question is: Is it worth watching? And judging from the two episodes that aired this week, the series is (slightly) less than the sum of its parts. The good news, however, is that the parts are generally excellent.

Strong performances anchor the series. Paul Giamatti plays the title character, a lumpy, bald Boston lawyer who finds his way to greatness after successfully defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston massacre. Giamatti is characteristically frumpy here, but he lends Adams an interesting blend of arrogance and anxiety as well. He’s a patriot, yes, concerned for his country, but also about his own family, life, and legacy. It’s a showcase for Giamatti, but Tom Wilkinson (as Ben Franklin), Laura Linney (as Abigail Adams), David Morse (as George Washington) and Stephane Dillane (as Thomas Jefferson) also make quite the impression as well.

Meanwhile, from the costumes to the extravagant sets, everything on the production side is superb, but the standout element is the photography, which looks positively stunning in HD. Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto is a longtime Hollywood hand (I first recall noticing his work in 1991′s The Silence of the Lambs), and his visual trademarks are evident in nearly every scene.

He’s got two main modes behind the lens—the participant and the voyeur. The first mode is primarily used in the larger setpieces, most notably in the series’ opening sequence, which depicts the Boston Massacre; a handheld camera follows Adams as he stumbles through the streets and into the bloody scene, running side-by-side with the man as if his partner. It puts viewers inside the scene, makes them part of it. The more intimate scenes, mostly between Adams and his wife Abigail, are typically shot in low light, and often from another room, or behind an object. The effect is of peering in on history from the outside, watching an American founder from the outside.

The series’ weaknesses come mostly in the script by Kirk Ellis, which, at least at this point, has failed to bring the many other fine elements together. There are many strong moments, especially between John and Abigail (a nighttime monologue in which Adams, laying next to his silent wife, thinks through his dilemma—and those of the country—is particularly touching). But too many scenes feel overly scripted, as if the characters were simply spouting miniature editorials. I have no doubt they were eloquent men, but surely they stumbled once in a while? And in both of the inaugural episodes, there is far too much reliance on courtroom-style drama, as the series would really rather be Law & Order: American Revolution. Still, it’s by far the best thing on TV right now, and anyone with even a passing interest in the subject would do well to check it out.

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Buckley and the Jews

Among his many other accomplishments, William F. Buckley Jr. made the conservative movement a far less forbidding place for Jews.

Conservatism in the early 1960’s was, fairly or not, largely defined in the Jewish mind as a downscale hothouse of paranoia, racism and resentment fronted by such figures as the Christian Crusader Rev. Billy James Hargis, the anti-Semitic columnist Westbrook Pegler and, of course, Robert Welch, whose John Birch Society was never officially racist or anti-Semitic but attracted a fair number of those who could accurately be classified as such.

By basically reading the more conspiratorial-minded organizations and polemicists out of mainstream conservatism (a story engagingly told by the liberal journalist John Judis in his 1988 biography William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives), Buckley made it that much more difficult for the media to portray the right as a redoubt of angry kooks and Kleagles. His having done so no doubt smoothed the way for those liberal Jewish intellectuals who would eventually — and at first somewhat ambivalently — make their journey into the conservative camp.

A devout Catholic who wrote with remarkable frankness about the anti-Semitism of his own father, Buckley (who characterized anti-Semitism as an “awful, sinful practice”) always seemed comfortable around Jews. Indeed, several of the editors and writers who helped Buckley launch National Review were Jews; “without them,” wrote historian George Nash, “the magazine might never have gotten off the ground…”

When it came to Israel, Buckley’s support may have been a little spotty during the state’s early years — in 1958, responding to what he took to be Israel’s slow response to an American request that U.S. military aircraft be permitted to fly over Israeli territory, he snappishly wrote, “If Internal Revenue started to disallow tax exemption of gifts to the United Jewish Appeal, Israel wouldn’t be able to pay the cable-cost of sassing our State Department” — but certainly by the mid-1960’s he was a consistent champion of the Jewish state, a position he maintained for the remaining four and a half decades of his life, despite occasional differences with Israeli policy.

In 1972 Buckley famously proposed that Israel become the 51st American state, pointing out that Jerusalem is no more geographically remote from Washington than Anchorage or Honolulu.

The arrangement, Buckley argued, would forever put to rest Israeli security fears: “If Israel becomes a part of the United States, there is no further question of attacking the state of Israel–as well attack the city of Chicago.”

To expedite statehood, Buckley wrote, a “resolution should be introduced in Congress and a national debate should begin. Put me down in favor.”

A fanciful notion, to be sure, and one that most Jews and Israelis (not to mention Americans) would dismiss out of hand. What cannot be dismissed as easily is the suggestion that without William Buckley, the political right might have remained an untenable–even an unthinkable–destination for those Jews who no longer could, in good conscience, remain faithful to the political faith of their fathers.

Among his many other accomplishments, William F. Buckley Jr. made the conservative movement a far less forbidding place for Jews.

Conservatism in the early 1960’s was, fairly or not, largely defined in the Jewish mind as a downscale hothouse of paranoia, racism and resentment fronted by such figures as the Christian Crusader Rev. Billy James Hargis, the anti-Semitic columnist Westbrook Pegler and, of course, Robert Welch, whose John Birch Society was never officially racist or anti-Semitic but attracted a fair number of those who could accurately be classified as such.

By basically reading the more conspiratorial-minded organizations and polemicists out of mainstream conservatism (a story engagingly told by the liberal journalist John Judis in his 1988 biography William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives), Buckley made it that much more difficult for the media to portray the right as a redoubt of angry kooks and Kleagles. His having done so no doubt smoothed the way for those liberal Jewish intellectuals who would eventually — and at first somewhat ambivalently — make their journey into the conservative camp.

A devout Catholic who wrote with remarkable frankness about the anti-Semitism of his own father, Buckley (who characterized anti-Semitism as an “awful, sinful practice”) always seemed comfortable around Jews. Indeed, several of the editors and writers who helped Buckley launch National Review were Jews; “without them,” wrote historian George Nash, “the magazine might never have gotten off the ground…”

When it came to Israel, Buckley’s support may have been a little spotty during the state’s early years — in 1958, responding to what he took to be Israel’s slow response to an American request that U.S. military aircraft be permitted to fly over Israeli territory, he snappishly wrote, “If Internal Revenue started to disallow tax exemption of gifts to the United Jewish Appeal, Israel wouldn’t be able to pay the cable-cost of sassing our State Department” — but certainly by the mid-1960’s he was a consistent champion of the Jewish state, a position he maintained for the remaining four and a half decades of his life, despite occasional differences with Israeli policy.

In 1972 Buckley famously proposed that Israel become the 51st American state, pointing out that Jerusalem is no more geographically remote from Washington than Anchorage or Honolulu.

The arrangement, Buckley argued, would forever put to rest Israeli security fears: “If Israel becomes a part of the United States, there is no further question of attacking the state of Israel–as well attack the city of Chicago.”

To expedite statehood, Buckley wrote, a “resolution should be introduced in Congress and a national debate should begin. Put me down in favor.”

A fanciful notion, to be sure, and one that most Jews and Israelis (not to mention Americans) would dismiss out of hand. What cannot be dismissed as easily is the suggestion that without William Buckley, the political right might have remained an untenable–even an unthinkable–destination for those Jews who no longer could, in good conscience, remain faithful to the political faith of their fathers.

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More in Afghanistan

Democrats have a point when they say that the Iraq War has caused us to lose focus on Afghanistan. But that isn’t an argument for scuttling out of Iraq. Among other things, a defeat in Iraq would make our task in Afghanistan much tougher. It is an argument for doing more in Afghanistan.

Even as the situation in Iraq has been improving, things seem to be getting worse in Afghanistan. The Karzai government looks weak and ineffectual (hence the rumors that America’s Afghan-born ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, is exploring a run to succeed Karzai), while the Taliban and Al Qaeda are looking stronger thanks to their sanctuaries in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

NATO is having a hard time meeting its responsibilities in the south because so few of its members are willing to fight. The Canadians, British, Australians, and Dutch are welcome exceptions, but attempts to get the Germans and other nations to step have gotten nowhere. Even the Canadians and others who are willing to fight are having trouble doing so because of equipment shortages. This Financial Times article gives a good overview of the parlous state of the south.

Since attempts to get NATO do more are likely to prove unavailing, that leaves only one serious option: sending more American troops. The administration has already decided to send 3,200 more Marines, but a working group at the American Enterprise Institute is calling for a much larger commitment. According to this article, the AEI group, headed by historian Fred Kagan, is recommending a surge of three extra brigades (probably around 15,000 troops) in 2008-2009. That will put further stress on the overstretched armed forces, but it should be doable, especially with five surge brigades leaving Iraq.

That surge, recall, was originally outlined by this same AEI group and drew much ridicule in the rest of Washington. But the Iraq surge has worked and so should the Afghanistan surge—especially if it is accompanied by some of the other steps recommended by the AEI group, including working to bolster the counterinsurgency effort in Pakistan.

Democrats have a point when they say that the Iraq War has caused us to lose focus on Afghanistan. But that isn’t an argument for scuttling out of Iraq. Among other things, a defeat in Iraq would make our task in Afghanistan much tougher. It is an argument for doing more in Afghanistan.

Even as the situation in Iraq has been improving, things seem to be getting worse in Afghanistan. The Karzai government looks weak and ineffectual (hence the rumors that America’s Afghan-born ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, is exploring a run to succeed Karzai), while the Taliban and Al Qaeda are looking stronger thanks to their sanctuaries in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

NATO is having a hard time meeting its responsibilities in the south because so few of its members are willing to fight. The Canadians, British, Australians, and Dutch are welcome exceptions, but attempts to get the Germans and other nations to step have gotten nowhere. Even the Canadians and others who are willing to fight are having trouble doing so because of equipment shortages. This Financial Times article gives a good overview of the parlous state of the south.

Since attempts to get NATO do more are likely to prove unavailing, that leaves only one serious option: sending more American troops. The administration has already decided to send 3,200 more Marines, but a working group at the American Enterprise Institute is calling for a much larger commitment. According to this article, the AEI group, headed by historian Fred Kagan, is recommending a surge of three extra brigades (probably around 15,000 troops) in 2008-2009. That will put further stress on the overstretched armed forces, but it should be doable, especially with five surge brigades leaving Iraq.

That surge, recall, was originally outlined by this same AEI group and drew much ridicule in the rest of Washington. But the Iraq surge has worked and so should the Afghanistan surge—especially if it is accompanied by some of the other steps recommended by the AEI group, including working to bolster the counterinsurgency effort in Pakistan.

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To Fraser (And Flashman)!

I would like to join my contentions colleague Sam Munson in hoisting a tumbler of single-malt to salute the passing of George MacDonald Fraser, the crusty old Scot who produced a brilliant dozen of the Flashman novels.

Fraser has never really gotten his due. Another historical novelist of 19th century warfare—Patrick O’Brian—has received far more critical huzzahs. That is because his Aubrey/Maturin novels are more self-consciously literary, with relatively little action and lots of introspection, dialogue, and description. By contrast, Fraser’s books gallop along at the pace of a runaway mustang, with incident piled atop incident to keep the reader’s attention, many of them violent or salacious. There is also a humorous, mocking tone to Fraser’s work, a bit reminiscent of Thackeray, which contrasts with the somewhat dour mood of the Aubrey/Maturin books.

This is by no means meant to be an indictment of O’Brian, who was undoubtedly a novelist of great merit. Probably greater merit, in fact, than Fraser. But Fraser was more fun to read. And he was no less meticulous in his reconstructions of the past. A reader interested in Victorian history could do a lot worse than to pick up the Flashman series, which contain detailed descriptions of conflicts ranging from the U.S. Civil War to the First Afghan War. Flashman was a Victorian Zelig or Forrest Gump who showed up conveniently enough at every important event between 1840 and 1900.

In some ways, Fraser actually outdid most historians (and I say that as a historian myself): He captured the conversation and perspective of various historical characters in a way that is almost impossible to do for a conventional historian, who can’t embellish on the limited sources available. If there is a modern writer with a better ear for Victorian slang, I have yet to read his or her work.

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I would like to join my contentions colleague Sam Munson in hoisting a tumbler of single-malt to salute the passing of George MacDonald Fraser, the crusty old Scot who produced a brilliant dozen of the Flashman novels.

Fraser has never really gotten his due. Another historical novelist of 19th century warfare—Patrick O’Brian—has received far more critical huzzahs. That is because his Aubrey/Maturin novels are more self-consciously literary, with relatively little action and lots of introspection, dialogue, and description. By contrast, Fraser’s books gallop along at the pace of a runaway mustang, with incident piled atop incident to keep the reader’s attention, many of them violent or salacious. There is also a humorous, mocking tone to Fraser’s work, a bit reminiscent of Thackeray, which contrasts with the somewhat dour mood of the Aubrey/Maturin books.

This is by no means meant to be an indictment of O’Brian, who was undoubtedly a novelist of great merit. Probably greater merit, in fact, than Fraser. But Fraser was more fun to read. And he was no less meticulous in his reconstructions of the past. A reader interested in Victorian history could do a lot worse than to pick up the Flashman series, which contain detailed descriptions of conflicts ranging from the U.S. Civil War to the First Afghan War. Flashman was a Victorian Zelig or Forrest Gump who showed up conveniently enough at every important event between 1840 and 1900.

In some ways, Fraser actually outdid most historians (and I say that as a historian myself): He captured the conversation and perspective of various historical characters in a way that is almost impossible to do for a conventional historian, who can’t embellish on the limited sources available. If there is a modern writer with a better ear for Victorian slang, I have yet to read his or her work.

One of the clever things about Fraser’s writing is that, since he started out in the Age of Aquarius (1969 to be exact), he made sure to gird himself against charges of racism, imperialism, and the like by making his protagonist, Harry Flashman, an anti-hero. The conceit of the books is that Flashman is a consummate coward who through a combination of luck and unscrupulous scheming becomes known as a great hero—winner of the Victoria Cross, the Congressional Medal of Honor, and every other honor known to 19th century man. Yet a careful reader of the books, especially the later ones, will see that for all his protestations of buffoonery, Sir Harry often does in fact act the hero.

While Fraser gently pokes fun at the conventions of G.A. Henty and other “boy’s own” authors who glorified the British Empire, it is pretty clear that he in fact shared many of their pro-imperial prejudices. Like great satirists from Swift to Waugh, Fraser, though he was not in their class by any stretch, was essentially a conservative who managed to poke fun at various poltroons while upholding the age-old order of things.

His views were evident in his first-rate memoir of his days serving in the British army in Burma in World War II: Quartered Safe Out Here. Although written decades after the fact, it paints a convincing picture of how a young soldier reacted to his first taste of combat. It also gives his robust, old-fashioned views on a number of questions. I don’t have my copy in front of me, but this Daily Telegraph obit gives a good summary:

He was particularly firm in his conviction that the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima was justified, believing that among the lives it had saved had been his own.

Nor did he have much time for fashionable attitudes about the emotional delicacy of soldiers and their need for counselling. His experience, in what he acknowledged was another age, was that war was a job that needed to be done, one accomplished by his generation without relish but with a common sense and resolve since vanished from the public spirit.

We will not see his like again, and more’s the pity.

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Brown Comes A Cropper

On Friday, the Daily Telegraph reported results “among the most devastating for any government in the history of opinion polling”: the proportion of voters satisfied with Gordon Brown as prime minister has fallen to 23 percent. As the New York Times put it yesterday, this is a complete “reversal of fortune” from Brown’s summer dominance. His only consolation is that he has time to recover before he has to call an election in May 2010.

We have seen this movie before. In April 1955, Anthony Eden, the prime minister in waiting since 1951, took over Number 10 from Winston Churchill. Eden won a general election in May 1955, but by January 1957, destroyed by the Suez Crisis, he was out of office, replaced by Harold Macmillan.

Brown’s error was to fail to do the one thing Eden did right: hold (and win) an election soon after coming to power. Tony Blair tripped Brown up by leaving in June: Brown could not have gone to the polls until early October. But Brown made matters worse first by dithering, and then by announcing on October 6 that he had decided against calling an
election. By late September, the Tories were making up ground; since then, they have sprinted ahead.

The parallel is not just between Eden and Brown. The Marquess of Salisbury was followed in 1902 by Arthur Balfour, who lasted only three years. Stanley Baldwin was replaced by Neville Chamberlain in 1937, who left in May 1940. Winston Churchill was followed by Eden, gone in 1957. Harold Macmillan’s successor was Alec Douglas-Home, who survived only a year. Harold Wilson made room in 1976 for James Callaghan, who lost to Thatcher in 1979. Margaret Thatcher dominated the 1980’s, but her heir John Major, though he won victory against the odds in 1992, was routed by Blair in 1997. And now Blair’s heir has run onto the rocks six months after ousting his former leader.

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On Friday, the Daily Telegraph reported results “among the most devastating for any government in the history of opinion polling”: the proportion of voters satisfied with Gordon Brown as prime minister has fallen to 23 percent. As the New York Times put it yesterday, this is a complete “reversal of fortune” from Brown’s summer dominance. His only consolation is that he has time to recover before he has to call an election in May 2010.

We have seen this movie before. In April 1955, Anthony Eden, the prime minister in waiting since 1951, took over Number 10 from Winston Churchill. Eden won a general election in May 1955, but by January 1957, destroyed by the Suez Crisis, he was out of office, replaced by Harold Macmillan.

Brown’s error was to fail to do the one thing Eden did right: hold (and win) an election soon after coming to power. Tony Blair tripped Brown up by leaving in June: Brown could not have gone to the polls until early October. But Brown made matters worse first by dithering, and then by announcing on October 6 that he had decided against calling an
election. By late September, the Tories were making up ground; since then, they have sprinted ahead.

The parallel is not just between Eden and Brown. The Marquess of Salisbury was followed in 1902 by Arthur Balfour, who lasted only three years. Stanley Baldwin was replaced by Neville Chamberlain in 1937, who left in May 1940. Winston Churchill was followed by Eden, gone in 1957. Harold Macmillan’s successor was Alec Douglas-Home, who survived only a year. Harold Wilson made room in 1976 for James Callaghan, who lost to Thatcher in 1979. Margaret Thatcher dominated the 1980’s, but her heir John Major, though he won victory against the odds in 1992, was routed by Blair in 1997. And now Blair’s heir has run onto the rocks six months after ousting his former leader.

Historian David Cannadine has described this pattern in twentieth-century British history as “the village fiddler after Paganini”: a dominant leader followed by a supposedly heavyweight successor who immediately comes a cropper. Why? Bad luck is a political reality, and the Prime Ministerial successors, taken as a group, may simply have been less talented than their predecessors.

But fundamentally, the pattern exists because in parliamentary systems a government can fall with a single vote. Therefore, as Churchill put it, “the loyalties which centre upon number one are enormous. If he trips he must be sustained.” But though a British party will manifest intense loyalty to the leader that puts it into power, it never feels as strongly about his successor.

Occasionally, as in 1957, a party can discard the successor and rally around a new leader: Brown may be forced to make way for a new Labour leader at a time not of his choosing. But such successes are rare. The odds are that Brown, having turned down, will keep going that way and ride his party to defeat.

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Light, Truth, and the New Republic

At the beginning of my sophomore year in college, I decided that a part-time student job at Yale University Press would be a good line-item on my resume. At the interview, the editor, in a proud voice, told me that the “Yale Press is the second-largest university press, after Oxford. But Oxford’s not really a university press, of course.” This assertion—with its implied disdain for the black-fingernailed tradesmen at Oxford University Press—stuck, to the point that it’s been part of my table talk for eight years.

Now, it’s true that in November of 2005, a small crack appeared in the wall of separation: Yale launched a new imprint with the New Republic. But the books slated to be published were serious works of free inquiry: TNR‘s EIC Martin Peretz on Zionism, foreign policy expert Joshua Kurlantzick on China, historian Michael Makovsky on Churchill. Books, in other words, meeting Yale’s high standards. But no more. In today’s mail came Election 2008: A Voter’s Guide, by Franklin Foer and the editors of the New Republic. No! Is it possible? Is a “university press”—my university press, not those trade traitors at Oxford!—publishing a collection of magazine articles? A volume of unremarkable, tawdry candidate profiles, complete with illustrations and essays on Newt Gingrich and Chuck Hagel, neither of whom is running for president, and Sam Brownback, who is no longer doing so? And publishing it as a “Voter’s Guide,” no less?

I imagine Election 2008 is intended to be a “special gift” included with subscriptions to the New Republic. Is this what Yale University wants as its copyrighted intellectual property? The book is a compendium of the New Republic’s usual doses of too-clever-by-half partisan shtick. With the publication of a gift-offer book, Yale University Press has abandoned the proud claims made by the editor. And Yale has tarnished itself as a school: can you imagine the hysterical outcry that would result if a collection of articles from, say, the National Review, was published under its auspices?

At the beginning of my sophomore year in college, I decided that a part-time student job at Yale University Press would be a good line-item on my resume. At the interview, the editor, in a proud voice, told me that the “Yale Press is the second-largest university press, after Oxford. But Oxford’s not really a university press, of course.” This assertion—with its implied disdain for the black-fingernailed tradesmen at Oxford University Press—stuck, to the point that it’s been part of my table talk for eight years.

Now, it’s true that in November of 2005, a small crack appeared in the wall of separation: Yale launched a new imprint with the New Republic. But the books slated to be published were serious works of free inquiry: TNR‘s EIC Martin Peretz on Zionism, foreign policy expert Joshua Kurlantzick on China, historian Michael Makovsky on Churchill. Books, in other words, meeting Yale’s high standards. But no more. In today’s mail came Election 2008: A Voter’s Guide, by Franklin Foer and the editors of the New Republic. No! Is it possible? Is a “university press”—my university press, not those trade traitors at Oxford!—publishing a collection of magazine articles? A volume of unremarkable, tawdry candidate profiles, complete with illustrations and essays on Newt Gingrich and Chuck Hagel, neither of whom is running for president, and Sam Brownback, who is no longer doing so? And publishing it as a “Voter’s Guide,” no less?

I imagine Election 2008 is intended to be a “special gift” included with subscriptions to the New Republic. Is this what Yale University wants as its copyrighted intellectual property? The book is a compendium of the New Republic’s usual doses of too-clever-by-half partisan shtick. With the publication of a gift-offer book, Yale University Press has abandoned the proud claims made by the editor. And Yale has tarnished itself as a school: can you imagine the hysterical outcry that would result if a collection of articles from, say, the National Review, was published under its auspices?

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Norman Mailer, Architecture Critic?

What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?

There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.

Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

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What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?

There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.

Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

What Mailer proposed as an alternative to modernism was not made clear, and one was not sure what to make of his perverse praise for the “Gothic knots and Romanesque oppressions” of his childhood schoolhouses. But it scarcely mattered; the essay drew a storm of public attention and was reprinted in both the Architectural Forum and the Village Voice. For a rebuttal, the Forum enlisted Scully, a historian of unusual eloquence, who took Mailer to task for his “lazy, potboiling paragraphs.” Scully pointed out that modern architecture invariably was opposed to totalitarianism, that both the Soviet and the Nazi state suppressed it, and that Mailer himself was suffering from a vestigial affection for “representationalist” architecture.

Mailer’s rejoinder was memorable. It was not political totalitarianism that he meant but the cultural totalitarianism that arises when architects subordinate the visual character of neighborhoods and cities to their own insatiable egos:

modern architecture . . . tends to excite the Faustian and empty appetites of the architect’s ego rather than reveal an artist’s vision of our collective desire for shelter which is pleasurable, substantial, intricate, intimate, delicate, detailed, foibled, rich in gargoyle, guignol, false closet, secret stair, witch’s hearth, attic, grandeur, kitsch, a world of buildings as diverse as the need within the eye for stimulus and variation. For beware: the ultimate promise of modern architecture is collective sightlessness for the species. Blindness is the fruit of your design.

Such a sentiment is now a commonplace. But in 1964 it was rather unusual, even prescient. For a brief moment, Mailer perceived with clarity (and a surfeit of passion) that something had gone awry with modernism, and he expressed it with extraordinary force.

Mailer’s foray into criticism would be a one-shot affair, not a serious endeavor but simply an opportunity to play the Bad Boy in yet another sphere of human activity. More’s the pity; for Mailer—to judge from this one exchange—clearly had more natural ability as an architecture critic than a boxer.

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Caveat Emptor

Are there people out there who take Wikipedia seriously as a source of objective information? There shouldn’t be, but unfortunately there are. In fact, lots of students use it a source of first resort. It’s so popular, that whenever you type almost any subject into Google, the first hit is usually for a Wikipedia entry.

Yet disinformation abounds, often motivated by animus or prejudice. There is, for instance, the by-now famous story of a former assistant to Robert F. Kennedy who was brazenly—and completely without foundation—accused on Wikipedia of complicity in the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. (For this sorry tale, see his article.)

A friend has now called my attention to another bizarre distortion, this one an attempt not to besmirch the character of one man but of an entire country. If you look up the Philippine War (1899-1902) you get this entry. And in the very first paragraph you get this statement: “The U.S. conquest of the Philippines has been described as a genocide, and resulted in the death of 1.4 million Filipinos (out of a total population of seven million).”

I was pretty startled to read this. I have written a whole chapter on the war in my book, The Savage Wars of Peace, and I have never once heard that the U.S. was guilty of genocide. How could it have entirely escaped my attention?

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Are there people out there who take Wikipedia seriously as a source of objective information? There shouldn’t be, but unfortunately there are. In fact, lots of students use it a source of first resort. It’s so popular, that whenever you type almost any subject into Google, the first hit is usually for a Wikipedia entry.

Yet disinformation abounds, often motivated by animus or prejudice. There is, for instance, the by-now famous story of a former assistant to Robert F. Kennedy who was brazenly—and completely without foundation—accused on Wikipedia of complicity in the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. (For this sorry tale, see his article.)

A friend has now called my attention to another bizarre distortion, this one an attempt not to besmirch the character of one man but of an entire country. If you look up the Philippine War (1899-1902) you get this entry. And in the very first paragraph you get this statement: “The U.S. conquest of the Philippines has been described as a genocide, and resulted in the death of 1.4 million Filipinos (out of a total population of seven million).”

I was pretty startled to read this. I have written a whole chapter on the war in my book, The Savage Wars of Peace, and I have never once heard that the U.S. was guilty of genocide. How could it have entirely escaped my attention?

There is, needless to say, not a scintilla of evidence that Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt made any attempt to wipe out the population of the Philippines. There is no doubt that a lot of Filipinos died in the course of the war, but most of those deaths were the result of disease, not American bullets. In my book, I cite the generally accepted casualty totals: 4,234 American dead and, on the other side, 16,000 Filipinos killed in battle and another 200,000 civilians killed mainly by disease and famine. My sources for these estimates are books written by William Thaddeus Sexton, an historian writing in the 1930’s, and two more recent accounts written by Stanley Karnow and Walter LaFeber. Neither Karnow nor LaFeber is exactly an American imperialist; in fact, both are well-known liberals. Yet their casualty counts are seven times lower than those claimed by Wikipedia, and they make no mention of any genocide.

Where does the Wikipedia figure come from? The footnote refers to an online essay, “U.S. Genocide in the Philippines” by E. San Juan Jr., posted on an obscure website. The author is described as follows: “E. San Juan, Jr. was recently Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, and visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, Republic of China.” Not exactly a pedigree that instantly screams out that he has any special expertise on the Philippine War.

In his short essay (1,046 words), E. San Juan Jr. concedes that his claims of genocide and of 1.4 million dead do not come from any mainstream sources. He writes: “Among historians, only Howard Zinn and Gabriel Kolko have dwelt on the ‘genocidal’ character of the catastrophe.” But even these ultra-left-wing “revisionist” historians (who also have no expertise in the Philippine War) have, in his telling, cited no more than 600,000 dead Filipinos.

So whence the figure of 1.4 million? According to Mr. San Juan, “The first Filipino scholar to make a thorough documentation of the carnage is the late Luzviminda Francisco in her contribution to The Philippines: The End of An Illusion (London, 1973).” I confess to never having heard of Ms. Francisco (whose works are cataloged online by neither the Library of Congress nor the New York Public Library), but Amazon does contain a link for one of her books. It’s called Conspiracy for Empire: Big business, corruption, and the politics of imperialism in America, 1876-1907 and it was published in 1985 by something called the Foundation for Nationalist Studies, which doesn’t have a web page (or at least none that I could discover).

I am, to put it mildly, underwhelmed by the historical evidence gathered here to accuse the U.S. of having killed 1.4 million people in an attempted genocide. This is not the kind of finding that would be accepted for a second by any reputable scholar, regardless of political orientation. But it is the kind of pseudo-fact that is all too common on the world’s most schlocky wannabe “encyclopedia.” Caveat emptor.

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Fair Play at Oxford

This month the same Oxford Student Union that, in 1933, famously passed a motion declaring ‘”this House will under no circumstances fight for its King and Country,” is being true to the legacy of its forebears. As British blog Harry’s Place reports, on October 23 the Union, in its annual Middle East debate, will put forth the following motion: “This House Believes that One State is the Only Solution to the Israel Palestine Conflict.”

There are no surprises in the Union’s choice of the three speakers seconding the motion. Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, and Ghada Karmi have for many years been anti-Israel agitators whose writings had only a shallow pretense of academic impartiality. If debate is meant to be shrill rather than thoughtful, venomous rather than witty, the Union chose the perfect line-up.

Karmi, a medical doctor moonlighting as an academic, has the dubious record of having voiced some of the same opinions on Israel as those of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, before Ahmadinejad emerged from obscurity. In 2004, Karmi wrote that

The truth is that the West, which created Israel, cannot bear to see what it has done. In trying to solve the problem of Jewish persecution in Europe, which culminated in the Holocaust, Western powers helped to establish the Jewish state as a refuge for the Jews and their own consciences.

While Karmi clearly is not a Holocaust denier, she would nevertheless underwrite Ahmadinejad’s suggestion that Israel’s birth was the Western answer to guilt over the Holocaust. She would also support the idea that Israel should be relocated to Europe or Alaska.

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This month the same Oxford Student Union that, in 1933, famously passed a motion declaring ‘”this House will under no circumstances fight for its King and Country,” is being true to the legacy of its forebears. As British blog Harry’s Place reports, on October 23 the Union, in its annual Middle East debate, will put forth the following motion: “This House Believes that One State is the Only Solution to the Israel Palestine Conflict.”

There are no surprises in the Union’s choice of the three speakers seconding the motion. Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, and Ghada Karmi have for many years been anti-Israel agitators whose writings had only a shallow pretense of academic impartiality. If debate is meant to be shrill rather than thoughtful, venomous rather than witty, the Union chose the perfect line-up.

Karmi, a medical doctor moonlighting as an academic, has the dubious record of having voiced some of the same opinions on Israel as those of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, before Ahmadinejad emerged from obscurity. In 2004, Karmi wrote that

The truth is that the West, which created Israel, cannot bear to see what it has done. In trying to solve the problem of Jewish persecution in Europe, which culminated in the Holocaust, Western powers helped to establish the Jewish state as a refuge for the Jews and their own consciences.

While Karmi clearly is not a Holocaust denier, she would nevertheless underwrite Ahmadinejad’s suggestion that Israel’s birth was the Western answer to guilt over the Holocaust. She would also support the idea that Israel should be relocated to Europe or Alaska.

Shlaim enjoys a celebrity status as an anti-Israel historian, who holds an Israeli passport and briefly lived in Israel during his youth. His take on Israel, as an interview with Haaretz two years ago reveals, is tinged with deep personal resentment. As Meron Rapoport, his interviewer, wrote, “since he was a child, Israel has looked to him like an ‘Ashkenazi trick’ of which he doesn’t feel a part. ‘I’m not certain even now that I know how that trick works.’”

In the past, Shlaim has made some tepid efforts not to burn his own credentials as a serious scholar by occasionally distancing himself from his more radical fellow-travelers of the post-Zionist Left. As late as January 2005, Shlaim defended Zionism before 1967. Still, at an Intelligence 2 debate in London, Shlaim sided with the motion that “Zionism today is the worst enemy of the Jews.” Ilan Pappe, for his part, is consistent in his hatred for the Jewish state—so much so that he has abandoned Haifa University for the more pastoral environs of Exeter University in the U.K., where, with his department colleague Ghada Karmi, he can pursue peacefully what academics of his kind do best: promote the boycott of Israeli universities.

For the three speakers seconding the motion on Israel, the Union got the most extreme voices one could imagine. And for the other side? As the blog Harry’s Place notes,

Surely the Oxford Union, that bastion of fair and open debate, will have chosen some unflinching supporters of Israel to balance this motley collection of bigots and fanatics? Of course not! If one side includes virulent enemies of Israel and supporters of terrorists and anti-Semites, then so must the other.

To be fair, not all three members of the other side are anti-Semites and supporters of terrorists. Sir David Trimble truly is sympathetic to Israel, and has never supported terrorists—in fact, he has spent a great deal of time pleading with his fellow Brits to halt communication with his country’s home-grown brand of thugs. But the selection of the other two speakers indicates that Trimble will be lonely that night. They are Norman Finkelstein (who, clearly, after his early retirement from academia must have time on his hands) and Peter Tatchell, a British gay activist who recently commented that, had the Jerusalem World Pride parade been sponsored by the “Israeli state,” he would have boycotted it. Thankfully, the evil Zionists had no hand in the organization, and so Tatchell felt that, for once, he could approve of something happening in the Jewish state.

This is how the “bastion of fair and open debate” and the “world’s most prestigious debating society” understands fair play. As in 1933, not Britain’s finest hour.

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Who Won the Nuclear-Arms Race?

The historian Richard Rhodes is the author or editor of twenty-two books, among which my two favorites are The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: the Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. Both of these works of scholarship, despite some serious flaws, were engaging and thoroughly researched accounts of literally earth-shaking developments in the field of armaments.

Rhodes’s latest book, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, is a continuation of his previous interests. But it is also something else: an account of the cold war that is an almost perfect perversion of historical methods. It leads, unsurprisingly, to the traducing of history itself.

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The historian Richard Rhodes is the author or editor of twenty-two books, among which my two favorites are The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: the Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. Both of these works of scholarship, despite some serious flaws, were engaging and thoroughly researched accounts of literally earth-shaking developments in the field of armaments.

Rhodes’s latest book, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, is a continuation of his previous interests. But it is also something else: an account of the cold war that is an almost perfect perversion of historical methods. It leads, unsurprisingly, to the traducing of history itself.

For his past labors, Rhodes has won a Pulitzer prize and received numerous fellowships and grants from the likes of the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Given all these accomplishments, it will be interesting to see how his latest work fares with the critics. My guess is that he will be given a pass. My own inclination, which I explain in my review here in the October issue of COMMENTARY, would be to give it another Pulitzer as the most outlandish book of the year. 

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Will the Real Sarkozy Please Stand Up

In his victory speech on election night this past May, Nicolas Sarkozy declared that under his reign, “the pride and the duty of France” will be on the side of “all those who are persecuted by tyranny and dictatorship.” Sarkozy appealed to “all those in the world who believe in the values of tolerance and democracy” to join him. Specifically, Sarkozy pledged, “France will be on the side of the locked-up nurses in Libya.” Whereas his predecessor Jacques Chirac acted out of delusions of grandeur, Sarkozy’s goal is to restore identity to a nation imbued with failure and doubt.

This week Sarkozy produced a “success,” bringing home the nurses. But aiding the persecuted should not entail paying off their persecutors. Sarkozy’s pledge became farce when Madame Sarkozy, followed by le président de la République himself, sat in Colonel Qaddafi’s tent, after which the Madame said that she and the Libyan dictator had built “a real relationship of trust.”

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In his victory speech on election night this past May, Nicolas Sarkozy declared that under his reign, “the pride and the duty of France” will be on the side of “all those who are persecuted by tyranny and dictatorship.” Sarkozy appealed to “all those in the world who believe in the values of tolerance and democracy” to join him. Specifically, Sarkozy pledged, “France will be on the side of the locked-up nurses in Libya.” Whereas his predecessor Jacques Chirac acted out of delusions of grandeur, Sarkozy’s goal is to restore identity to a nation imbued with failure and doubt.

This week Sarkozy produced a “success,” bringing home the nurses. But aiding the persecuted should not entail paying off their persecutors. Sarkozy’s pledge became farce when Madame Sarkozy, followed by le président de la République himself, sat in Colonel Qaddafi’s tent, after which the Madame said that she and the Libyan dictator had built “a real relationship of trust.”

But it was more than “trust” that convinced the Libyan to free his hostages. Qaddafi’s blackmail went something like this: in exchange for freeing the nurses, European countries would forgive $400 million of Libya’s foreign debt and allow Libya (Libya!) to host the next UN conference on racism. The parties also agreed to deepen Franco-Libyan relations to include a possible military-industrial partnership and, not least, contracts for French oil companies. (Compare this haggle to Natan Sharansky’s defiant crossing of the Glienicke Bridge into West Berlin.)

The cost, when viewed in the proper context, is very high: others (North Korea, but especially Iran) are surely watching. Even the impression of relenting to blackmail and terrorism is self-defeating. To be sure, this is a very bizarre affair with a long and twisted history, and Qaddafi, though truly a crackpot, did surrender his weapons of mass destruction to the United States. But even a little goodwill in the face of brutality can be perilous.

Sarkozy remains a mystery. He showed independence when he called Hizballah a “terrorist” organization, which of course it is, even though it is not classified as such by the European Union. And whereas Chirac blocked action on Darfur, Sarkozy is eager to stop genocide—in cooperation with the United States. Still, this week’s events suggest that Sarkozy is shirking his generation’s tasks: curbing nuclear proliferation abroad and, at home, overcoming the entrenched enarchs and ending their long collaboration with Islamism and terrorism.

Far from shaking up French foreign policy, Sarkozy’s actions this week were eerily reminiscent of Monsieur Chirac’s: Sarkozy cheered on Arab nuclear power while seeking conciliation and contracts from Arab regimes. (When asked to describe Chirac, the great British historian Paul Johnson responded: “Why are the French so notorious for shiftiness? Because there are plenty of Chiracs there.”) Yes, the world looks different from the Elysée than it did from the victory stage, but, by collaborating with tyrants and dictators, Sarkozy further degrades “the pride and the duty of France.”

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Karen Armstrong, Islam, and Intolerance

Writing in Saturday’s Guardian, Karen Armstrong, a popular historian of comparative religion, describes how she was invited by the Malaysian government last month to give two public lectures. On arriving in Kuala Lumpur, however, she was “surprised” to discover that this same government had banned three of her books as “incompatible with peace and social harmony.”

She does not mention the fact that the government in question is an Islamist one, which relentlessly persecutes the 40 percent of Malays who are non-Muslims. This is in spite of the fact that the Malaysian constitution, while establishing Islam as Malaysia’s official religion, also guarantees that “other religions may be practised in peace and harmony”—the same phrase that was used as an excuse to suppress Ms. Armstrong’s books.
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Writing in Saturday’s Guardian, Karen Armstrong, a popular historian of comparative religion, describes how she was invited by the Malaysian government last month to give two public lectures. On arriving in Kuala Lumpur, however, she was “surprised” to discover that this same government had banned three of her books as “incompatible with peace and social harmony.”

She does not mention the fact that the government in question is an Islamist one, which relentlessly persecutes the 40 percent of Malays who are non-Muslims. This is in spite of the fact that the Malaysian constitution, while establishing Islam as Malaysia’s official religion, also guarantees that “other religions may be practised in peace and harmony”—the same phrase that was used as an excuse to suppress Ms. Armstrong’s books.

Malaysia is sometimes cited as a model for a Muslim state. Yet it is a country where children have their identity cards stamped with their faith, which they are then not allowed to change for the rest of their lives. Malays must be Muslim, or else lose their legal status as Malays, which entitles them to preferential treatment. Some 9 percent of the population are Christians, but they enjoy no official status, and are subject to constant harrassment. Conversion to Christianity is a criminal offense in most of the country. Ethnic Indians, who are mostly Hindu, and ethnic Chinese, who are mostly Buddhist or Confucian, are also treated as second-class citizens. All other religions are persecuted by shari’a courts and by an increasingly intolerant government. Churches and temples are often demolished. None of this is mentioned in Karen Armstrong’s article.

Most authors react to censorship with anger and indignation. Not Ms. Armstrong, who says that “my books seemed so popular in Malaysia that I found myself wondering if the veto was part of a Machiavellian plot to entice the public to read them.” She blithely ignores both the censorship and the campaign of forced Islamicization of which it forms a part, and instead takes the opportunity to wag her finger at those in the West who defend free speech.

She chastises the Danish cartoonists and their publishers who lampooned Muhammad for “failing to live up to their own liberal values, since the principle of free speech implies respect for the opinions of others.” So free speech is only permissible as long as nobody raises an objection? One begins to see why Ms. Armstrong is so unconcerned about governments like that of Malaysia.

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The Hypothetical Atheist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Was Kurt Waldheim Human?

Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the United Nations and president of Austria, has died at the age of eighty-eight. What will be history’s verdict?

The Washington Post’s obituary offers a good summary of the facts leading to his being placed on a watch list of “prohibited persons” that barred him from entry into the United States. Although his participation in Nazi war crimes was never proved in a court of law, it was enough that he had repeatedly lied about his military service during World War II, striving especially to conceal his role as a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht from 1942 through 1945 in a unit that had butchered Yugoslav partisans. Later disclosures in the mid-1980’s, reports the Post, “included a secret 1948 finding by the UN War Crimes Commission that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Waldheim for ‘murder’ and ‘putting hostages to death.’”

Despite his sinister past, Waldheim did have his admirers. One of them, remarkably enough, was the writer Gitta Sereny, whose anti-Nazi credentials, as a member of the French resistance and as a historian, are not in doubt. When she interviewed Waldheim in the late 1980’s about his activities in the Balkans, he explained to her that it was “a ‘savage war,’ like ‘Vietnam, and now the West Bank,’ where the Israelis ‘are breaking people’s bones.’”

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Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the United Nations and president of Austria, has died at the age of eighty-eight. What will be history’s verdict?

The Washington Post’s obituary offers a good summary of the facts leading to his being placed on a watch list of “prohibited persons” that barred him from entry into the United States. Although his participation in Nazi war crimes was never proved in a court of law, it was enough that he had repeatedly lied about his military service during World War II, striving especially to conceal his role as a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht from 1942 through 1945 in a unit that had butchered Yugoslav partisans. Later disclosures in the mid-1980’s, reports the Post, “included a secret 1948 finding by the UN War Crimes Commission that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Waldheim for ‘murder’ and ‘putting hostages to death.’”

Despite his sinister past, Waldheim did have his admirers. One of them, remarkably enough, was the writer Gitta Sereny, whose anti-Nazi credentials, as a member of the French resistance and as a historian, are not in doubt. When she interviewed Waldheim in the late 1980’s about his activities in the Balkans, he explained to her that it was “a ‘savage war,’ like ‘Vietnam, and now the West Bank,’ where the Israelis ‘are breaking people’s bones.’”

Sereny, despite all her talents as a writer and as investigator into the history of Nazi evil, raised only the barest challenge to her interlocutor’s likening of the Nazis to the Americans and the Israelis. She then went on to judge Waldheim a “fundamentally decent man.”

It was this, among other things, that led me to conclude in a review of her book, The Healing Wound, in the New York Times, that she was “incapable of. . . grasping, after a lifetime of studying it, the radical nature of Nazi evil.”

My appraisal of her then drew a letter to the editor defending Sereny. I still remember it today for its timeless encapsulation of a certain extreme but all-too-popular moral inversion: “It is precisely by rejecting the atavistic, thought-foreclosing notion of evil, and instead insisting on the complex humanity of her subjects,” wrote an indignant reader, “that Sereny has made fascism at all comprehensible to us. The enemy is human: that is a lesson today’s policymakers would do well to learn.”

Yes, Waldheim, was human. But he was also evil, and it is evil not to judge him so.

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