Commentary Magazine


Topic: irritation

Let Us Not Praise Pro-Terrorist Newspapers

As Alana noted this morning, Jeffrey Feltman, the former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, wrote a devastating letter to the New York Times, expressing his irritation with a piece it ran praising the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper as, among other things, dynamic and daring. “Al Akhbar is less maverick and far less heroic than your article suggests,” Feltman writes. “Al Akhbar will no more criticize Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, than Syria’s state-run Tishreen newspaper would question the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.”

Al Akhbar is a totalitarian propaganda sheet and, like all such organs of disinformation, routinely publishes fiction as well as news and analysis. “The hilariously erroneous accounts of my activities reported as fact in [the] newspaper provoked morning belly laughs,” Feltman added.

I wish I could say it’s bizarre that a vastly superior and more professional newspaper such as the New York Times would find anything at all nice to say about a crude rag in a semi-democratic country that actually does have decent newspapers, but this is typical of a scandalously large percentage of Western reporters who parachute into or set up shop in Beirut.

Here is Feltman again: “One of the curiosities I discovered as ambassador to Lebanon was the number of Western journalists, academics and nongovernmental representatives who, while enjoying the fine wines and nightlife of Beirut, romanticized Hezbollah and its associates like Al Akhbar as somehow the authentic voices of the oppressed Lebanese masses. Yet, I don’t think that many of those Western liberals would wish to live in a state dominated by an unaccountable clerical militia and with Al Akhbar providing the news.”

The New York Times is usually better than this. Eli Khoury, one of the founders of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation and publisher of the news website NOW Lebanon, once made a trip to the offices of the New York Times editorial board after they published some obnoxious articles about Lebanon’s pro-democracy movement.

“I said, ‘Listen guys,’” Khoury told me. “‘Lebanon is a country that didn’t need the help of the U.S. Army. You guys didn’t have to bomb our country. We’re talking about a bunch of grassroots democrats who went into the streets and seized their own thing with their own hands. And they expect democrats in the rest of the world to support them.’ Since then the New York Times has not done one single bad story about Lebanon.”

Maybe he needs to go back.

As Alana noted this morning, Jeffrey Feltman, the former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, wrote a devastating letter to the New York Times, expressing his irritation with a piece it ran praising the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper as, among other things, dynamic and daring. “Al Akhbar is less maverick and far less heroic than your article suggests,” Feltman writes. “Al Akhbar will no more criticize Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, than Syria’s state-run Tishreen newspaper would question the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.”

Al Akhbar is a totalitarian propaganda sheet and, like all such organs of disinformation, routinely publishes fiction as well as news and analysis. “The hilariously erroneous accounts of my activities reported as fact in [the] newspaper provoked morning belly laughs,” Feltman added.

I wish I could say it’s bizarre that a vastly superior and more professional newspaper such as the New York Times would find anything at all nice to say about a crude rag in a semi-democratic country that actually does have decent newspapers, but this is typical of a scandalously large percentage of Western reporters who parachute into or set up shop in Beirut.

Here is Feltman again: “One of the curiosities I discovered as ambassador to Lebanon was the number of Western journalists, academics and nongovernmental representatives who, while enjoying the fine wines and nightlife of Beirut, romanticized Hezbollah and its associates like Al Akhbar as somehow the authentic voices of the oppressed Lebanese masses. Yet, I don’t think that many of those Western liberals would wish to live in a state dominated by an unaccountable clerical militia and with Al Akhbar providing the news.”

The New York Times is usually better than this. Eli Khoury, one of the founders of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation and publisher of the news website NOW Lebanon, once made a trip to the offices of the New York Times editorial board after they published some obnoxious articles about Lebanon’s pro-democracy movement.

“I said, ‘Listen guys,’” Khoury told me. “‘Lebanon is a country that didn’t need the help of the U.S. Army. You guys didn’t have to bomb our country. We’re talking about a bunch of grassroots democrats who went into the streets and seized their own thing with their own hands. And they expect democrats in the rest of the world to support them.’ Since then the New York Times has not done one single bad story about Lebanon.”

Maybe he needs to go back.

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No Good Explanation for Not Taking a Vote

The nearly incomprehensible decision by the Democratic leadership to avoid a vote on the extension of the Bush tax cuts is the latest problem for Democratic incumbents. On Fox News Sunday, Juan Williams tried out a novel defense: Nancy Pelosi couldn’t take a vote, because the mean Republicans would twist the minds of voters and get them all confused. The discussion went as follows:

HUME: So this poor little Speaker of the House presiding over this massive majority has the vote she says to win on this issue and send her members home, having voted to stave off the tax cuts for nearly everybody, and she was afraid of what the minority Republicans were going to say about it? And you seriously — do you believe that?

WILLIAMS: Did you just say stave off tax cuts for everyone?

HUME: Tax increases. I’m sorry.

WILLIAMS: That’s a distortion.

HUME: Tax increases. Read More

The nearly incomprehensible decision by the Democratic leadership to avoid a vote on the extension of the Bush tax cuts is the latest problem for Democratic incumbents. On Fox News Sunday, Juan Williams tried out a novel defense: Nancy Pelosi couldn’t take a vote, because the mean Republicans would twist the minds of voters and get them all confused. The discussion went as follows:

HUME: So this poor little Speaker of the House presiding over this massive majority has the vote she says to win on this issue and send her members home, having voted to stave off the tax cuts for nearly everybody, and she was afraid of what the minority Republicans were going to say about it? And you seriously — do you believe that?

WILLIAMS: Did you just say stave off tax cuts for everyone?

HUME: Tax increases. I’m sorry.

WILLIAMS: That’s a distortion.

HUME: Tax increases.

KRISTOL: The fact is — I was with four Republican Senate candidates this week by chance in New York at a little event. And they said — I asked, “How is the tax debate going?”

And they said, look, until now, it’s been the traditional Democratic/Republican debate. Democrats say they want to cut taxes for the middle class. Republicans say, you don’t want to raise any taxes in a recession. And it was probably kind of a wash politically.

All of that — now, maybe they’re wrong, but all of them were extremely happy. This was the night — the day after Nancy Pelosi adjourned the House without allowing a vote — without allowing a vote on the coming tax increase. Every Republican challenger can now say you have been in charge for two years, you could have dealt with this, you could have cut whatever deals you needed to cut to do as Juan said and bring over some of those moderate Republicans. You could have insisted on an up-or- down vote. You didn’t.

Every American now faces a tax increase in January thanks to this Democratic Congress doing nothing.

LIASSON: … Well, the problem is that they might very well get some kind of a deal, a temporary extension or whatever, in the lame duck.

The problem is that every Democrat now has to go home now without saying, “I voted to continue lower taxes for the middle class.” I do think that the White House and the Democrats overestimated how strong their argument was going to be and how easy it was going to be to keep all the Democrats on one page on this. I mean, I think if they had all their Democrats, they would have brought it up for a vote.

Now, their argument is Republicans are holding the middle class tax cut hostage to continuing the tax cuts for the rich. The problem with that is, if you don’t have a vote and kind of show them holding it hostage, how do you know that they really are?

Yeah, that’s a problem. So the Obama-Pelosi-Reid brain trust has saddled incumbent Democrats with more baggage. OK, but after the deluge that’s about to hit, won’t the Obami have a post-election epiphany, as Bill Clinton did? Don’t be too certain.

Mara Liasson says the White House doesn’t believe in all that moving to the center hooey, but reality is reality: “Look, I think that I can tell you on very good authority that at the White House, they totally reject the idea that he would adopt the Clinton model and move to the center. Now, that being said, everything is going to change in November.” Bill Kristol thinks some personnel changes may help: “I think the president has cleverly and sort of carefully gotten rid of the incredibly arrogant, smart alecks who dominated the White House in the first term — Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, Pete Orszag. They knew best. They were so clever. Never let a crisis go to waste. We can jam stuff through. No problem. This president can carry anything off. That is not Pete Rouse’s attitude. Pete Rouse worked for Tom Daschle for 19 years. He cut a lot of deals with Congress.”

But it really is up to Obama — he’s not one for cutting deals, and he certainly isn’t one to admit error. His liberal extremism has imperiled his presidency and sunk his party. His irritation with all but his most fervent supporters has left him alienated from voters and even from his party’s base. The question remains: is he willing and able to shift course? After running on a change theme and trying to radically change America, he is the one who will have to change. Unless, of course, one term is plenty for him.

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Obama Muddies the Waters

Obama not only managed to confuse American audiences with his Iraq speech; he’s baffled the Iraqis as well. An Iraqi politician reveals: “Despite U.S. insistence that Americans remain committed to Iraq, they are halfway out the door.” Mahmoud Othman explains:

“They decided to finish it, but they know it’s not over,” Othman said Thursday. “War with terrorism is here, and Iranian intervention is here. They are lying to tell their people that they left behind a government that is capable and Iraqi security forces that are capable. … There is no government, the people don’t have confidence in the Iraqi security forces, and Iraqi suffering is increasing.”

The report observes that many Iraqis “did not expect Obama’s declaration to sound so final or that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates would acknowledge that the war is over.” The report continues:

The perception of a mixed U.S. message has fed the uncertainty many Iraqis say they feel. They are unsure what they want, they say, unsure if the United States is staying or going, unsure that their future will be any better than their past.

If this seems like deja vu all over again, it is. The same consternation, confusion, and irritation was evident in Afghanistan after Obama’s West Point speech. Unfortunately, with each public utterance, Obama manages to befuddle our side and encourage our opponents. No wonder he is a reluctant commander in chief; we rarely enjoy things we do poorly.

Obama not only managed to confuse American audiences with his Iraq speech; he’s baffled the Iraqis as well. An Iraqi politician reveals: “Despite U.S. insistence that Americans remain committed to Iraq, they are halfway out the door.” Mahmoud Othman explains:

“They decided to finish it, but they know it’s not over,” Othman said Thursday. “War with terrorism is here, and Iranian intervention is here. They are lying to tell their people that they left behind a government that is capable and Iraqi security forces that are capable. … There is no government, the people don’t have confidence in the Iraqi security forces, and Iraqi suffering is increasing.”

The report observes that many Iraqis “did not expect Obama’s declaration to sound so final or that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates would acknowledge that the war is over.” The report continues:

The perception of a mixed U.S. message has fed the uncertainty many Iraqis say they feel. They are unsure what they want, they say, unsure if the United States is staying or going, unsure that their future will be any better than their past.

If this seems like deja vu all over again, it is. The same consternation, confusion, and irritation was evident in Afghanistan after Obama’s West Point speech. Unfortunately, with each public utterance, Obama manages to befuddle our side and encourage our opponents. No wonder he is a reluctant commander in chief; we rarely enjoy things we do poorly.

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Our Petulant President

I wanted to pick up on a point you made, Jen, about the latest example of petulance by our commander in chief. In Politico we read:

Obama chastised what he dubbed a current “obsession” over a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. “My focus right now is how do we make sure what we’re doing there is successful,” he said. “By next year we will begin a transition.”

Perhaps the “obsession” is based on the fact that (a) Obama included a deadline for beginning troop withdrawals in his December 2009 West Point speech; (b) Vice President Biden has said that in “July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it. Bet. On. It”; and (c) as recently as a week ago yesterday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that July 2011 is a “firm date. … The July 2011 date, as stated by the president, that’s not moving. That’s not changing.”

It’s clear that the government and people in Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban (among others), are “obsessed” about Obama’s timeline and take it seriously. Silly them.

If the president recognizes the errors of his ways and deems the deadline inoperative, terrific. And if he has to pretend that his shift is not really a shift, okay. But we could all do with a little less lecturing and self-righteousness from Captain Kick-A**.

As is usually the case with Obama, the weaker his arguments are, the more peevish and mocking of his critics he becomes. When he can’t refute criticisms with facts, he resorts to ridicule. It’s an old game — and when it comes to our president, an increasingly wearying one. It’s worth noting, I suppose, that as Obama’s failures mount, his ill-temper and irritation increase. Which means that Obama, and the country, have an increasingly dyspeptic few years ahead of us.

I wanted to pick up on a point you made, Jen, about the latest example of petulance by our commander in chief. In Politico we read:

Obama chastised what he dubbed a current “obsession” over a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. “My focus right now is how do we make sure what we’re doing there is successful,” he said. “By next year we will begin a transition.”

Perhaps the “obsession” is based on the fact that (a) Obama included a deadline for beginning troop withdrawals in his December 2009 West Point speech; (b) Vice President Biden has said that in “July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it. Bet. On. It”; and (c) as recently as a week ago yesterday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that July 2011 is a “firm date. … The July 2011 date, as stated by the president, that’s not moving. That’s not changing.”

It’s clear that the government and people in Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban (among others), are “obsessed” about Obama’s timeline and take it seriously. Silly them.

If the president recognizes the errors of his ways and deems the deadline inoperative, terrific. And if he has to pretend that his shift is not really a shift, okay. But we could all do with a little less lecturing and self-righteousness from Captain Kick-A**.

As is usually the case with Obama, the weaker his arguments are, the more peevish and mocking of his critics he becomes. When he can’t refute criticisms with facts, he resorts to ridicule. It’s an old game — and when it comes to our president, an increasingly wearying one. It’s worth noting, I suppose, that as Obama’s failures mount, his ill-temper and irritation increase. Which means that Obama, and the country, have an increasingly dyspeptic few years ahead of us.

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Less Engagement on the Middle East, Please

It was George W. Bush’s supposed “cowboy diplomacy” — high-handed, unilateral, and dismissive of valued allies — that incurred the ire of the left. (Never mind that we had warm relations with Europe, Israel, India, and other democracies.) Yet it is Obama who is unrivaled when it comes to shunning allies. If consensus with allies was really the order of the day in the Obama era, we would not have pulled the rug out from our Eastern European allies, repeatedly snubbed the Brits, irritated the French, bullied the Hondurans, and assaulted the Israelis. Jackson Diehl observes:

Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been defined so far by his attempts to “engage” with adversaries or rivals of the United States, such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran and Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. The results have been mixed. But now the president’s focus is visibly shifting. In the next 18 months, Obama’s record abroad will be made or broken by his ability to do business with two nominal U.S. allies: Hamid Karzai and Binyamin Netanyahu.

The Obami of late have tried to repair the frayed relationship with Karzai but have shown no indication that they desire a more hospitable relationship with Bibi. Diehl speculates that perhaps it was “hubris from health care that brought on this burst of presidential imperialism” that precipitated the public war of words with both Karzai and Bibi. But there is, I think, a fundamental  difference between the assault on each leader and the clean-up-the-mess gambit that has followed.

With Karzai, it appears that the Obami reacted out of pique and with the nastiness that surfaces whenever — be it a foreign leader, a cable-news network, or a Supreme Court justice — they are confronted with insufficiently obsequious rivals. But with regard to Karzai, the verbal fisticuffs did not imply a change of policy. The Obami are not pulling up stakes, at least not yet, in Afghanistan and seem committed, at least for the balance of Obama’s 18-month time frame, to achieving success.

Bibi is a different story. Here the deliberate and sustained assault (from the fit over Jerusalem housing to the threats of an imposed peace plan and an abstention in the UN Security  Council) suggests that more than personal ire or irritation is at play. Here Obama plainly intends — he’s told us as much — a change in American policy. The charm offensive is meant to quiet domestic Jewish opinion, not to repair or moderate its stance toward the Jewish state.

Diehl argues that a personal failing on Obama’s part is at the root of these conflicts. (“Public bullying won’t do it. Assurances of U.S. support and stroking by special envoys go only so far. What’s missing is personal chemistry and confidence, the construction of a bond between leaders that can persuade a U.S. ally to take a risk; in other words, presidential ‘engagement.’ Isn’t that what Obama promised?”) But with regard to Israel, there is something far more fundamental at issue. Despite the PR offensive, Obama’s goal is not to re-establish a more robust relationship with the Jewish state; it is merely to mask the animus that bubbled to the surface over the past two months. It is not through neglect that relations with Israel have been strained — it is by design. We therefore should not expect that increased presidential attention will result in an improved U.S.-Israel relationship. Frankly, the more Obama focuses on Israel, the more damage to the relationship is likely to occur. At this point, benign neglect would be a welcome development.

It was George W. Bush’s supposed “cowboy diplomacy” — high-handed, unilateral, and dismissive of valued allies — that incurred the ire of the left. (Never mind that we had warm relations with Europe, Israel, India, and other democracies.) Yet it is Obama who is unrivaled when it comes to shunning allies. If consensus with allies was really the order of the day in the Obama era, we would not have pulled the rug out from our Eastern European allies, repeatedly snubbed the Brits, irritated the French, bullied the Hondurans, and assaulted the Israelis. Jackson Diehl observes:

Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been defined so far by his attempts to “engage” with adversaries or rivals of the United States, such as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran and Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. The results have been mixed. But now the president’s focus is visibly shifting. In the next 18 months, Obama’s record abroad will be made or broken by his ability to do business with two nominal U.S. allies: Hamid Karzai and Binyamin Netanyahu.

The Obami of late have tried to repair the frayed relationship with Karzai but have shown no indication that they desire a more hospitable relationship with Bibi. Diehl speculates that perhaps it was “hubris from health care that brought on this burst of presidential imperialism” that precipitated the public war of words with both Karzai and Bibi. But there is, I think, a fundamental  difference between the assault on each leader and the clean-up-the-mess gambit that has followed.

With Karzai, it appears that the Obami reacted out of pique and with the nastiness that surfaces whenever — be it a foreign leader, a cable-news network, or a Supreme Court justice — they are confronted with insufficiently obsequious rivals. But with regard to Karzai, the verbal fisticuffs did not imply a change of policy. The Obami are not pulling up stakes, at least not yet, in Afghanistan and seem committed, at least for the balance of Obama’s 18-month time frame, to achieving success.

Bibi is a different story. Here the deliberate and sustained assault (from the fit over Jerusalem housing to the threats of an imposed peace plan and an abstention in the UN Security  Council) suggests that more than personal ire or irritation is at play. Here Obama plainly intends — he’s told us as much — a change in American policy. The charm offensive is meant to quiet domestic Jewish opinion, not to repair or moderate its stance toward the Jewish state.

Diehl argues that a personal failing on Obama’s part is at the root of these conflicts. (“Public bullying won’t do it. Assurances of U.S. support and stroking by special envoys go only so far. What’s missing is personal chemistry and confidence, the construction of a bond between leaders that can persuade a U.S. ally to take a risk; in other words, presidential ‘engagement.’ Isn’t that what Obama promised?”) But with regard to Israel, there is something far more fundamental at issue. Despite the PR offensive, Obama’s goal is not to re-establish a more robust relationship with the Jewish state; it is merely to mask the animus that bubbled to the surface over the past two months. It is not through neglect that relations with Israel have been strained — it is by design. We therefore should not expect that increased presidential attention will result in an improved U.S.-Israel relationship. Frankly, the more Obama focuses on Israel, the more damage to the relationship is likely to occur. At this point, benign neglect would be a welcome development.

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North Carolina Democratic Faceoff

Both Democratic candidates addressed a large crowd Friday night at North Carolina’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. Hillary Clinton’s theme was two-fold: she’s going to tie George Bush around John McCain’s neck and she’s the doer/fighter. Her funniest line: “If you listen closely, you can almost hear in the distance the sound . . . of a moving van pulling away from the White House.”

As for her current race, she offered up extra helpings of praise for John and Elizabeth Edwards, but focused on her core message. “I am no shrinking violet.” She is going to fight, fight, fight (did she mention she’s going to fight?) for the middle class against big business, rich people, gas companies, and . . . well, the list goes on. There’s nothing terribly lofty. She’s selling “real and immediate solutions.” (Conservatives might scoff at the notion that any of her proposals are really “solutions,” but she has lots of them and they are immediate.) She does, however, project optimism about America and a gritty determination that America will solve its problems.

Barack Obama came later in the evening. He entered to raucous cheers but seemed tired, almost subdued. He too gave a nod to the Edwards duo, but in the perfunctory list of thank-yous at the top of his speech. Remarkably, this was largely the same speech we have heard for over and over again: the “fierce urgency of now,” babies born when he began to run who now talk and walk, the pettiness of politics, his cousin Dick Cheney won’t be on the ballot, the end of Scooter Libby justice, change we can believe in, etc. (One wonders if he has anything else in his arsenal of rhetorical weapons.) The only differences are the local touches–now it’s an Indiana group of workers being thrown into unemployment–but his dreary and bleak view of a land bereft of hope and opportunity remains. One note: his position on gas tax must be causing problems, since he defensively added a line about Clinton’s false, McCain-like solution for a gas tax holiday.

He did, at the close of his speech, mention the concerns about him. He argued that his opponents were only successful when they talked about him rather than “the issues.” (Apparently the character and judgment of the potential President is not an “issue” in his book.) He reeled off a bit of biography about his relatives’ humble beginnings. It was a laundry list of meager circumstances, suggesting a growing irritation and defensiveness about his elitist image. He even noted that his story would not have been possible except in the United States. Perhaps if he had talked about this before his campaign took a nosedive it would have come across as more sincere.

Will Obama win in North Carolina? Almost certainly. (Although Clinton may try to claim a moral victory if she continues to narrow the race to mid-single digits.) But it seems unlikely he picked up many new votes by sleepwalking through the umpteenth recitation of his standard stump speech.

Both Democratic candidates addressed a large crowd Friday night at North Carolina’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. Hillary Clinton’s theme was two-fold: she’s going to tie George Bush around John McCain’s neck and she’s the doer/fighter. Her funniest line: “If you listen closely, you can almost hear in the distance the sound . . . of a moving van pulling away from the White House.”

As for her current race, she offered up extra helpings of praise for John and Elizabeth Edwards, but focused on her core message. “I am no shrinking violet.” She is going to fight, fight, fight (did she mention she’s going to fight?) for the middle class against big business, rich people, gas companies, and . . . well, the list goes on. There’s nothing terribly lofty. She’s selling “real and immediate solutions.” (Conservatives might scoff at the notion that any of her proposals are really “solutions,” but she has lots of them and they are immediate.) She does, however, project optimism about America and a gritty determination that America will solve its problems.

Barack Obama came later in the evening. He entered to raucous cheers but seemed tired, almost subdued. He too gave a nod to the Edwards duo, but in the perfunctory list of thank-yous at the top of his speech. Remarkably, this was largely the same speech we have heard for over and over again: the “fierce urgency of now,” babies born when he began to run who now talk and walk, the pettiness of politics, his cousin Dick Cheney won’t be on the ballot, the end of Scooter Libby justice, change we can believe in, etc. (One wonders if he has anything else in his arsenal of rhetorical weapons.) The only differences are the local touches–now it’s an Indiana group of workers being thrown into unemployment–but his dreary and bleak view of a land bereft of hope and opportunity remains. One note: his position on gas tax must be causing problems, since he defensively added a line about Clinton’s false, McCain-like solution for a gas tax holiday.

He did, at the close of his speech, mention the concerns about him. He argued that his opponents were only successful when they talked about him rather than “the issues.” (Apparently the character and judgment of the potential President is not an “issue” in his book.) He reeled off a bit of biography about his relatives’ humble beginnings. It was a laundry list of meager circumstances, suggesting a growing irritation and defensiveness about his elitist image. He even noted that his story would not have been possible except in the United States. Perhaps if he had talked about this before his campaign took a nosedive it would have come across as more sincere.

Will Obama win in North Carolina? Almost certainly. (Although Clinton may try to claim a moral victory if she continues to narrow the race to mid-single digits.) But it seems unlikely he picked up many new votes by sleepwalking through the umpteenth recitation of his standard stump speech.

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Bookshelf

How exasperating can a very short book be? I give you Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History (Yale, 141 pp., $22). Ozersky, whose official title is “Food Editor/Online for New York Magazine” (love that slash), has contrived in not much more than a hundred pages of heavily leaded text to cram in everything I find most irksome about the postmodern branch of semi-scholarship known as cultural studies: the jaw-breaking jargon, the sniggering coyness, the don’t-take-me-too-seriously irony.

The irritation starts on the second page:

Even before the hamburger became a universal signifier of imperialism abroad and unwholesomeness at home, it had a special semiotic power-a quality not shared even by other great American sandwiches like the hot dog, the patty melt, the Dagwood, the Reuben, the po’boy, or even such totemic standards as fried chicken and apple pie. At the end of the day, nothing says America like a hamburger . . . . Is it a sizzling disc of goodness, served in a roadside restaurant dense with local lore, or the grim end product of a secret, sinister empire of tormented animals and unspeakable slaughtering practices? Is it cooking or commodity? An icon of freedom or the quintessence of conformity?

The Hamburger is like that from start to finish. Is the hamburger a Bad Thing? Well, yes, it must be, if only because it is an American Thing beloved of ordinary folk, and you know all about those pesky ordinary folk, right? But the damn thing still tastes good, so Ozersky writes about its cultural history in such a way as to suggest at all times his superiority to that which he nonetheless allows himself to enjoy–and the benighted Americans who continue to insist on enjoying it unselfconsciously. Like a limousine liberal of fast-food cuisine, he wanders in and out of both camps, nibbling his medium-rare cheeseburgers with just the right amount of ennobling guilt.

The have-it-both-ways trickery of The Hamburger is displayed at length in the chapter devoted to McDonald’s, which Ozersky calls “the most symbolically loaded business in the world,” one that “represents America to the world in a way no other business ever has or likely ever will.” We are simultaneously invited to admire the ingenuity with which the founders of McDonald’s contrived to automate the production of 15-cent hamburgers and to tremble at the larger implications of unleashing such a technology on an unprepared world–yet at no time does Ozersky ever commit himself to the loony leftism of the anti-McDonald’s fanatics who regard Ray Kroc as the source of all evil in the modern world. In describing the experience of Sandy Agate, one of the first McDonald’s franchisees, Ozersky assures us that his story “doesn’t end happily. (Arguably, the same could be said of the McDonald’s Corporation or for that matter America.)” That throwaway parenthesis says everything about The Hamburger.

Robert Warshow first anatomized Ozersky’s politico-literary technique in his 1947 Partisan Review essay on the New Yorker:

The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.

Who could have predicted in 1947 that someone would come along six decades later who could write about the lowly hamburger in such a manner? Of such is the kingdom of cultural studies, where everything is permitted, even the consumption of ground beef on a white-bread bun–so long as you do it with the right attitude.

How exasperating can a very short book be? I give you Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History (Yale, 141 pp., $22). Ozersky, whose official title is “Food Editor/Online for New York Magazine” (love that slash), has contrived in not much more than a hundred pages of heavily leaded text to cram in everything I find most irksome about the postmodern branch of semi-scholarship known as cultural studies: the jaw-breaking jargon, the sniggering coyness, the don’t-take-me-too-seriously irony.

The irritation starts on the second page:

Even before the hamburger became a universal signifier of imperialism abroad and unwholesomeness at home, it had a special semiotic power-a quality not shared even by other great American sandwiches like the hot dog, the patty melt, the Dagwood, the Reuben, the po’boy, or even such totemic standards as fried chicken and apple pie. At the end of the day, nothing says America like a hamburger . . . . Is it a sizzling disc of goodness, served in a roadside restaurant dense with local lore, or the grim end product of a secret, sinister empire of tormented animals and unspeakable slaughtering practices? Is it cooking or commodity? An icon of freedom or the quintessence of conformity?

The Hamburger is like that from start to finish. Is the hamburger a Bad Thing? Well, yes, it must be, if only because it is an American Thing beloved of ordinary folk, and you know all about those pesky ordinary folk, right? But the damn thing still tastes good, so Ozersky writes about its cultural history in such a way as to suggest at all times his superiority to that which he nonetheless allows himself to enjoy–and the benighted Americans who continue to insist on enjoying it unselfconsciously. Like a limousine liberal of fast-food cuisine, he wanders in and out of both camps, nibbling his medium-rare cheeseburgers with just the right amount of ennobling guilt.

The have-it-both-ways trickery of The Hamburger is displayed at length in the chapter devoted to McDonald’s, which Ozersky calls “the most symbolically loaded business in the world,” one that “represents America to the world in a way no other business ever has or likely ever will.” We are simultaneously invited to admire the ingenuity with which the founders of McDonald’s contrived to automate the production of 15-cent hamburgers and to tremble at the larger implications of unleashing such a technology on an unprepared world–yet at no time does Ozersky ever commit himself to the loony leftism of the anti-McDonald’s fanatics who regard Ray Kroc as the source of all evil in the modern world. In describing the experience of Sandy Agate, one of the first McDonald’s franchisees, Ozersky assures us that his story “doesn’t end happily. (Arguably, the same could be said of the McDonald’s Corporation or for that matter America.)” That throwaway parenthesis says everything about The Hamburger.

Robert Warshow first anatomized Ozersky’s politico-literary technique in his 1947 Partisan Review essay on the New Yorker:

The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.

Who could have predicted in 1947 that someone would come along six decades later who could write about the lowly hamburger in such a manner? Of such is the kingdom of cultural studies, where everything is permitted, even the consumption of ground beef on a white-bread bun–so long as you do it with the right attitude.

Read Less

Let Taiwan In

On Friday, the Taipei government announced that it had applied for U.N. membership under its commonly used name, Taiwan. Previous attempts to gain admission under the official designation of Republic of China have failed, due to opposition from Beijing.

The Mainland was quick to denounce Taipei’s most recent move. “We resolutely oppose it,” said Liu Jianchao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The Taiwan authorities’ attempt to split China will absolutely not succeed.” Beijing’s is not the only government that is peeved. I predict that the Bush administration will, as a means of expressing its irritation at President Chen Shui-bian’s attempt to assert his nation’s sovereignty, offer no support to Taiwan’s bid.

The United States has tried to keep the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. But now the democracy of 23 million people has expressed its desire to be recognized as a sovereign political entity. The issue for President Bush at this time is clear: is all his talk about freedom just rhetoric?

On Friday, the Taipei government announced that it had applied for U.N. membership under its commonly used name, Taiwan. Previous attempts to gain admission under the official designation of Republic of China have failed, due to opposition from Beijing.

The Mainland was quick to denounce Taipei’s most recent move. “We resolutely oppose it,” said Liu Jianchao, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The Taiwan authorities’ attempt to split China will absolutely not succeed.” Beijing’s is not the only government that is peeved. I predict that the Bush administration will, as a means of expressing its irritation at President Chen Shui-bian’s attempt to assert his nation’s sovereignty, offer no support to Taiwan’s bid.

The United States has tried to keep the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. But now the democracy of 23 million people has expressed its desire to be recognized as a sovereign political entity. The issue for President Bush at this time is clear: is all his talk about freedom just rhetoric?

Read Less




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