Commentary Magazine


Topic: Lenin

The Best Speech Those High School Grads May Ever Hear

Justice Antonin Scalia gave a high school commencement address last week. As he routinely does on the Supreme Court and in his public speeches on judicial philosophy, he took modern platitudes that have become conventional wisdom and dismantled them. The gist of it was this:

[A] platitude I want to discuss comes in many flavors. It can be variously delivered as, “Follow your star,” or “Never compromise your principles.” Or, quoting Polonius in “Hamlet” — who people forget was supposed to be an idiot — “To thine own self be true.” Now this can be very good or very bad advice. Indeed, follow your star if you want to head north and it’s the North Star. But if you want to head north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star. …

Movement is not necessarily progress. More important than your obligation to follow your conscience, or at least prior to it, is your obligation to form your conscience correctly. Nobody — remember this — neither Hitler, nor Lenin, nor any despot you could name, ever came forward with a proposal that read, “Now, let’s create a really oppressive and evil society.” Hitler said, “Let’s take the means necessary to restore our national pride and civic order.” And Lenin said, “Let’s take the means necessary to assure a fair distribution of the goods of the world.”

In short, it is your responsibility, men and women of the class of 2010, not just to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being: Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person. Then, when you follow your conscience, will you be headed in the right direction.

This is anathema to the left, of course. For the left, “self-realization” is the highest ideal. And results matter so much less than their heartfelt intention and their hard work (for which they never tire of seeking approval). Moreover, Scalia’s notion that there are “right ideals” is no doubt horrifying to the moral relativists and cultural levelers.

Scalia also offers up a refreshing dose of humility in a world in which those with minimal life experience and capabilities not only assert that their own insights, hunches, preferences, and cravings are worth pursuing but also dare not be second-guessed. Scalia contends that it is essential to look to external, fixed principles and reminds us how easy it is to confuse your own desires with morally superior goals.

Yes, there’s a bit of judicial philosophy in there. (It doesn’t matter what you’d like the Constitution to say; it only matters what it does say and what those who wrote it intended.) And, yes, there is a jab at Obama implicit in Scalia’s indictment of the mindset of the left. As the epitome of  the sort of condescending, self-important, and egocentric liberal who dominates universities and the media, Obama exhibits much of what Scalia deplores. The president and his spinners never tell us how hard he works. To combat criticism that his policies are destructive and wrongheaded (e.g., his stance toward Israel, a time table for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan), he reiterates the purity of his intentions (devoted to Israel, he says) and boasts about how thoughtful his decision-making is (what president could conducts months of seminars on Afghanistan?). All this is meant to substitute for or distract us from evaluating the rightness of the decisions, the effectiveness of his conduct, and the gap between his ideology and reality.

Scalia’s is a simple and poignant plea for personal restraint and objective truth. It’s not only what underlies his judicial philosophy, but it is a fine recipe for maintaining a just and decent society. It’s also a helpful reminder to avoid presidential aspirants whose emotional and intellectual habits resemble those of incoming college freshmen.

Justice Antonin Scalia gave a high school commencement address last week. As he routinely does on the Supreme Court and in his public speeches on judicial philosophy, he took modern platitudes that have become conventional wisdom and dismantled them. The gist of it was this:

[A] platitude I want to discuss comes in many flavors. It can be variously delivered as, “Follow your star,” or “Never compromise your principles.” Or, quoting Polonius in “Hamlet” — who people forget was supposed to be an idiot — “To thine own self be true.” Now this can be very good or very bad advice. Indeed, follow your star if you want to head north and it’s the North Star. But if you want to head north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star. …

Movement is not necessarily progress. More important than your obligation to follow your conscience, or at least prior to it, is your obligation to form your conscience correctly. Nobody — remember this — neither Hitler, nor Lenin, nor any despot you could name, ever came forward with a proposal that read, “Now, let’s create a really oppressive and evil society.” Hitler said, “Let’s take the means necessary to restore our national pride and civic order.” And Lenin said, “Let’s take the means necessary to assure a fair distribution of the goods of the world.”

In short, it is your responsibility, men and women of the class of 2010, not just to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being: Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person. Then, when you follow your conscience, will you be headed in the right direction.

This is anathema to the left, of course. For the left, “self-realization” is the highest ideal. And results matter so much less than their heartfelt intention and their hard work (for which they never tire of seeking approval). Moreover, Scalia’s notion that there are “right ideals” is no doubt horrifying to the moral relativists and cultural levelers.

Scalia also offers up a refreshing dose of humility in a world in which those with minimal life experience and capabilities not only assert that their own insights, hunches, preferences, and cravings are worth pursuing but also dare not be second-guessed. Scalia contends that it is essential to look to external, fixed principles and reminds us how easy it is to confuse your own desires with morally superior goals.

Yes, there’s a bit of judicial philosophy in there. (It doesn’t matter what you’d like the Constitution to say; it only matters what it does say and what those who wrote it intended.) And, yes, there is a jab at Obama implicit in Scalia’s indictment of the mindset of the left. As the epitome of  the sort of condescending, self-important, and egocentric liberal who dominates universities and the media, Obama exhibits much of what Scalia deplores. The president and his spinners never tell us how hard he works. To combat criticism that his policies are destructive and wrongheaded (e.g., his stance toward Israel, a time table for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan), he reiterates the purity of his intentions (devoted to Israel, he says) and boasts about how thoughtful his decision-making is (what president could conducts months of seminars on Afghanistan?). All this is meant to substitute for or distract us from evaluating the rightness of the decisions, the effectiveness of his conduct, and the gap between his ideology and reality.

Scalia’s is a simple and poignant plea for personal restraint and objective truth. It’s not only what underlies his judicial philosophy, but it is a fine recipe for maintaining a just and decent society. It’s also a helpful reminder to avoid presidential aspirants whose emotional and intellectual habits resemble those of incoming college freshmen.

Read Less

We Must Stamp Out Oblomovism!

In Slate, Jessica Winter claims to offer a list of great literary works about procrastination. Oddly, she doesn’t mention the only two indisputable masterpieces on the subject. One, of course, is Hamlet, who spends four acts not killing Claudius, the uncle who killed his father and married his mother. The other is Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov’s peerless comic novel of 1859, which opens with its title character in bed — a bed from which he does not actually emerge for nearly 100 riveting and hilarious pages. “Oblomov…must be washed, cleaned, pulled about, and flogged for a long time before any kind of sense will emerge,” stated Lenin as he began the monstrous and failed work he undertook to revise the Russian character.

In Slate, Jessica Winter claims to offer a list of great literary works about procrastination. Oddly, she doesn’t mention the only two indisputable masterpieces on the subject. One, of course, is Hamlet, who spends four acts not killing Claudius, the uncle who killed his father and married his mother. The other is Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov’s peerless comic novel of 1859, which opens with its title character in bed — a bed from which he does not actually emerge for nearly 100 riveting and hilarious pages. “Oblomov…must be washed, cleaned, pulled about, and flogged for a long time before any kind of sense will emerge,” stated Lenin as he began the monstrous and failed work he undertook to revise the Russian character.

Read Less

“What Is Going To Be Done about China?”

Yesterday I suggested that President Bush use all the leverage we have to convince Beijing to disarm Kim Jong Il. The Chinese supply about 90 percent of North Korea’s oil, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food. Pyongyang, as we know, has no more loyal supporter in the councils of diplomacy than Beijing. Without China, Kim “could neither bark nor bite.” There would be no North Korean nuclear program, no North Korean missiles, and no North Korea. Jon S, a frequent contentions reader, has borrowed Lenin’s words and asked the critical question: “What is to be done?”

We must first properly understand the “correlation of forces,” if I may continue with Soviet-era lingo. In “China’s century” the general assumption is that the United States must step out of the way of the rising giant. After all, the argument goes, the central government in Beijing owns about $387 billion in U.S. Treasury obligations and holds the bulk of its $1.5 trillion in foreign exchange reserves in dollar-denominated assets. We cannot afford to irritate the Chinese, especially because they have already threatened to exercise the so-called “nuclear option” and dump their dollars. As Hillary Clinton asks, “How do you get tough on your banker?”

Clinton is wrong because she ignores the reality of the financial markets. If the Chinese sold their dollars, they would have to buy something, as a practical matter, euros and yen. The values of those currencies would then shoot through the ceiling. The Europeans and the Japanese, to bring their currencies back into alignment, would then have to buy dollars. In short, our debt would end up in the hands of our friends.

Read More

Yesterday I suggested that President Bush use all the leverage we have to convince Beijing to disarm Kim Jong Il. The Chinese supply about 90 percent of North Korea’s oil, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food. Pyongyang, as we know, has no more loyal supporter in the councils of diplomacy than Beijing. Without China, Kim “could neither bark nor bite.” There would be no North Korean nuclear program, no North Korean missiles, and no North Korea. Jon S, a frequent contentions reader, has borrowed Lenin’s words and asked the critical question: “What is to be done?”

We must first properly understand the “correlation of forces,” if I may continue with Soviet-era lingo. In “China’s century” the general assumption is that the United States must step out of the way of the rising giant. After all, the argument goes, the central government in Beijing owns about $387 billion in U.S. Treasury obligations and holds the bulk of its $1.5 trillion in foreign exchange reserves in dollar-denominated assets. We cannot afford to irritate the Chinese, especially because they have already threatened to exercise the so-called “nuclear option” and dump their dollars. As Hillary Clinton asks, “How do you get tough on your banker?”

Clinton is wrong because she ignores the reality of the financial markets. If the Chinese sold their dollars, they would have to buy something, as a practical matter, euros and yen. The values of those currencies would then shoot through the ceiling. The Europeans and the Japanese, to bring their currencies back into alignment, would then have to buy dollars. In short, our debt would end up in the hands of our friends.

And there’s a couple more things that we need to remember about the balance of power between China and the United States. Beijing’s spectacular rise has occurred in a period of sustained worldwide prosperity, but that era is now coming to an end, as the ongoing plunge in global financial markets indicates. China, the world’s largest exporter, has built its economy on selling goods to the United States. Beijing’s trade surplus with us for last year will exceed a quarter trillion dollars when the figures are announced. In short, the stability of the modern Chinese state largely depends on prosperity and that prosperity largely depends on access to American markets, capital, and technology.

Therefore, Beijing’s leaders are not about to cross Washington if they thought we were serious about proliferation. So far, we have not vigorously enforced the trade promises that Beijing made to join the World Trade Organization in 2001. Should we do so, we could drive the Chinese economy into the tank—and Beijing’s leaders know that. It’s time to have a conversation with them about their support for rogues like Kim Jong Il.

Moreover, the United States has never made China pay any price for proliferant activities. We announce slap-on-the-wrist measures on state-owned enterprises every once in a while, but now it’s time to levy real penalties on the Chinese government, which controls those businesses. Until we do that, Beijing’s leaders will just laugh at us while continuing their support for the Kims of the world.

And there’s one more thing. The United States needs to speak clearly to the Chinese, both in public as well as in private, about behavior that is, by any standard, unacceptable. The world looks to Washington for leadership, and we have not been providing it.

Read Less

Noam & Norman

New York magazine has a short piece on what disgraced professor Norman Finkelstein has been up to since he was denied tenure at DePaul University. We learn a lot about Finkelstein in this piece. Too much. For instance:

His days are now spent in solitary scholarly pursuits; his bookshelves buckle under the weight of tomes by Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. Notes of support from his students sit on a piano; there’s a photo of him and Noam Chomsky (“my closest friend”) bare-chested on the beach at Cape Cod.

Sorry to ruin your morning.

New York magazine has a short piece on what disgraced professor Norman Finkelstein has been up to since he was denied tenure at DePaul University. We learn a lot about Finkelstein in this piece. Too much. For instance:

His days are now spent in solitary scholarly pursuits; his bookshelves buckle under the weight of tomes by Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. Notes of support from his students sit on a piano; there’s a photo of him and Noam Chomsky (“my closest friend”) bare-chested on the beach at Cape Cod.

Sorry to ruin your morning.

Read Less

Putin’s Rage

What is Vladimir Putin’s problem? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pay a rare joint visit to the Kremlin, and he snubs them by keeping them cooling their heels for 40 minutes. Then he treats them to a highly undiplomatic tirade before television cameras.

His diatribe was laced with threats. Should the U.S. continue with planned deployment of a small missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia will withdraw from the agreement on conventional force deployments in Europe and another treaty governing European nuclear weapons, and perhaps retaliate in additional ways. Putin’s performance, said the New York Times, “appeared to catch Gates and Rice off guard.”

Why the surprise? Because the subject of Putin’s rage, a shield avowedly intended against Iran, could not possibly diminish Russia’s nuclear deterrent. It would comprise enough interceptors to stop a handful of missiles, but Russia disposes of thousands. Moreover, lest Moscow fear that these sites could camouflage a larger anti-Russian system, the two U.S. officials came bearing a plan of transparency. As described by the Times, it

included an invitation for Russia to join the United States and NATO as a full partner in designing and operating an anti-missile system guarding all of Europe. The offer even could include invitations for Russian and American officers to inspect—and even be stationed as liaison officers at—each other’s missile defense sites.

Read More

What is Vladimir Putin’s problem? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pay a rare joint visit to the Kremlin, and he snubs them by keeping them cooling their heels for 40 minutes. Then he treats them to a highly undiplomatic tirade before television cameras.

His diatribe was laced with threats. Should the U.S. continue with planned deployment of a small missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia will withdraw from the agreement on conventional force deployments in Europe and another treaty governing European nuclear weapons, and perhaps retaliate in additional ways. Putin’s performance, said the New York Times, “appeared to catch Gates and Rice off guard.”

Why the surprise? Because the subject of Putin’s rage, a shield avowedly intended against Iran, could not possibly diminish Russia’s nuclear deterrent. It would comprise enough interceptors to stop a handful of missiles, but Russia disposes of thousands. Moreover, lest Moscow fear that these sites could camouflage a larger anti-Russian system, the two U.S. officials came bearing a plan of transparency. As described by the Times, it

included an invitation for Russia to join the United States and NATO as a full partner in designing and operating an anti-missile system guarding all of Europe. The offer even could include invitations for Russian and American officers to inspect—and even be stationed as liaison officers at—each other’s missile defense sites.

Putin, however, was unmoved. Why? The answer can be found in his most revealing comment: “We hope . . . you will not be forcing forward your relations with the Eastern European countries.” Putin knows full well that the planned U.S. interceptors pose no threat to Russia. But they would transform America’s relationship with Poland and the Czech Republic. They are already allies, to whose defense America bears a legal and moral obligation. But nations sometimes betray allies. The missile defense installations would make those countries more than allies; they would become the frontline of America’s own defense. It would cement them to the U.S. and make it virtually unthinkable that America would ever fail to come to their defense.

Although a Russian design on these countries seems unimaginable at the moment, Putin views them as belonging to Russia’s sphere of influence. (Ergo, his designation of them as “Eastern European,” whereas they call themselves and we call them “Central European,” a term that better fits geographic as well as cultural realities.) Systematically and implacably, Putin, who publicly laments the disappearance of the Soviet Union, has rolled back democracy in Russia and worked to restore hegemony over the other former Soviet republics, the so-called “near abroad.” There is little danger that he aims to restore Communism: he seems to understand economics too well for that. But by all signs he envisions the rebirth of an imperial and authoritarian Russian state, mighty enough to silence its citizens and dominate its neighbors.

Long before Lenin, Russia subjugated whatever other nations came within its grasp, notably including Poland. Today, Warsaw and Prague are beyond reach. But tomorrow, who knows? If they cannot be conquered, perhaps they can be bent to Moscow’s will. Here, then, is the fear that stirs Putin. An American missile defense system, solidifying a special U.S-Polish-Czech relationship, will foreclose future options for the Greater Russia Putin is laboring to resurrect. That was not our original purpose, but it is another good reason to proceed full speed ahead.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• I spent the past month staying in a string of New England country inns, most of which were of the sort that have libraries—of a sort. These moldering collections typically consist of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember them?) and the best sellers of yesteryear, lightly sprinkled with the odd novelty. On occasion the novelties can be quite odd indeed. I passed a pleasant evening reading the memoirs of Lowell Thomas (remember him?) as I sat by the Atlantic Ocean a couple of weeks ago, and the very next night I stumbled across a copy of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ in Lithographs, a 1934 volume abridged and illustrated by Hugo Gellert, a long-forgotten artist whose earnest prose breathes the air of other spheres:

But out of the East rises a new Prometheus. And all the Gods in the World cannot chain him! The great disciple of Karl Marx, Lenin, led the Russian workers and peasants who created the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. And these workers and peasants became the Masters of their own destiny. The Young Giant with his mighty hands builds the future of mankind and bright lights flare up in his wake . . . .

More often, though, I contented myself with mysteries and thrillers of varying vintages, the oldest of which was John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, published in 1963, mere months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy robbed a generation of Americans of their dewy-eyed innocence, blah blah blah. Not that the pseudonymous author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold had much innocence of which to be robbed, judging by the book’s denouement, which hinges on the complete and final disillusion of its grubby, self-pitying anti-hero:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.

As it happens, I’d never read a word of le Carré, and I was fascinated to find that he appears to be the man who introduced moral equivalence to modern espionage fiction. (Actually, Somerset Maugham beat him to the punch four decades earlier with Ashenden, but that book’s eponymous secret agent is not so much disillusioned as indifferent.) In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the Brits and Russians are interchangeably unscrupulous and cynical, and it is taken for granted that neither side deserves to prevail in the “long twilight struggle” proclaimed a scant two years earlier by the idealistic speechwriters of the soon-to-be-martyred architect of the New Frontier. It says something noteworthy about the emerging ethos of the Sixties that such a book was soon to become one of its emblematic literary successes.

Read More

• I spent the past month staying in a string of New England country inns, most of which were of the sort that have libraries—of a sort. These moldering collections typically consist of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember them?) and the best sellers of yesteryear, lightly sprinkled with the odd novelty. On occasion the novelties can be quite odd indeed. I passed a pleasant evening reading the memoirs of Lowell Thomas (remember him?) as I sat by the Atlantic Ocean a couple of weeks ago, and the very next night I stumbled across a copy of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ in Lithographs, a 1934 volume abridged and illustrated by Hugo Gellert, a long-forgotten artist whose earnest prose breathes the air of other spheres:

But out of the East rises a new Prometheus. And all the Gods in the World cannot chain him! The great disciple of Karl Marx, Lenin, led the Russian workers and peasants who created the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. And these workers and peasants became the Masters of their own destiny. The Young Giant with his mighty hands builds the future of mankind and bright lights flare up in his wake . . . .

More often, though, I contented myself with mysteries and thrillers of varying vintages, the oldest of which was John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, published in 1963, mere months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy robbed a generation of Americans of their dewy-eyed innocence, blah blah blah. Not that the pseudonymous author of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold had much innocence of which to be robbed, judging by the book’s denouement, which hinges on the complete and final disillusion of its grubby, self-pitying anti-hero:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.

As it happens, I’d never read a word of le Carré, and I was fascinated to find that he appears to be the man who introduced moral equivalence to modern espionage fiction. (Actually, Somerset Maugham beat him to the punch four decades earlier with Ashenden, but that book’s eponymous secret agent is not so much disillusioned as indifferent.) In The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the Brits and Russians are interchangeably unscrupulous and cynical, and it is taken for granted that neither side deserves to prevail in the “long twilight struggle” proclaimed a scant two years earlier by the idealistic speechwriters of the soon-to-be-martyred architect of the New Frontier. It says something noteworthy about the emerging ethos of the Sixties that such a book was soon to become one of its emblematic literary successes.

• Repellent though the message of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold may be, it at least has the advantage of being exceedingly well written, albeit in a style indistinguishable from that of Graham Greene. In 1963 many best sellers still aspired to the condition of literature, and as late as 1987, Scott Turow, the author of Presumed Innocent, was clearly doing his best to produce a serious novel. Would that his editor had thus insisted on a complete rewrite, since Turow is a chronic overwriter who should be forced to spend a full year reading nothing but the complete works of Elmore Leonard. To be sure, he is also capable of writing with admirably clear-eyed straightforwardness about the mixed motives of lawyers and lawmen, and Presumed Innocent, which I found on the shelves of a Connecticut inn last week, has a richness of observation that helps to bring it within spitting distance of seriousness. Alas, it is disfigured at clockwork intervals by patches of the deepest purple:

Whatever wild, surging, libidinal rivers Carolyn undammed in me by her manner and appearance, there was something about the tender attention she showed this needy child that drew me over the brink, that gave my emotions a melting, yearning quality that I took to be far more significant than all my priapic heat.

No doubt this sentence was written with a straight face, but that doesn’t make it any easier to read with one.

• Unlike Scott Turow, John Grisham makes no pretense of being a serious writer. Indeed, it would be an act of charity to describe his lumpy prose as functional, for it bears much the same relationship to his elaborate plots that the flavor-free iceberg lettuce in a Midwestern salad bears to the Thousand Island dressing in which it is drenched. Since I find it all but impossible to read an ill-written book, I’ve hitherto made a point of steering clear of Grisham, but I reluctantly confess to having rather enjoyed The Firm, the 1991 novel in which he recounts the protracted travails and ultimate triumph of an Ivy League law-school grad who takes a way-the-hell-too-good-to-be-true job with a Memphis law firm that turns out to be a wholly owned subsidiary of Mafia, Inc.

Needless to say, The Firm is all plot and a yard wide, but at least it’s full of interesting facts. (Should the need ever arise, I now know how to launder large sums of money.) Even better, it’s a lawyer joke blown up to book length. Did you hear the one about the hot young gun fresh out of Harvard Law who landed a job with a firm that gave him a BMW and paid off his student loans . . . then tried to murder him? That’s my kind of moral equivalence.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.