Commentary Magazine


Topic: novelist

Where Is Nelson Mandela?

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an open letter from the Elie Wiesel Foundation, originally released July 11, signed by 51 Nobel laureates, including Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, and a host of other luminaries, decrying the various British boycotts of Israel. These boycotts, the statement read, “glorify prejudice and bigotry.”

But there is one man, reputed to know more about the horrific effects of “prejudice and bigotry” than anyone on earth, missing from the collection of signatories. The absence of his name is made even more conspicuous by the presence of another name: that of Frederick Willem de Klerk, the last apartheid-era President of South Africa, who ably helped his country transition into multi-racial democracy. (No doubt the “Israel is apartheid” crowd will use his presence for their propaganda purposes. The presence on the list of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian novelist and playwright, should complicate their attempt.) The missing name, of course, belongs to Nelson Mandela. And its absence is not all too surprising. Mandela has long been a friend of tyrants, from Fidel Castro to Muammar Qaddafi to Yasir Arafat. In the current issue of Azure, I explore the theme of Mandela’s support for these autocrats within the larger context of the troubling direction in which his political party—the African National Congress—is taking South African foreign policy.

Read More

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an open letter from the Elie Wiesel Foundation, originally released July 11, signed by 51 Nobel laureates, including Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, and a host of other luminaries, decrying the various British boycotts of Israel. These boycotts, the statement read, “glorify prejudice and bigotry.”

But there is one man, reputed to know more about the horrific effects of “prejudice and bigotry” than anyone on earth, missing from the collection of signatories. The absence of his name is made even more conspicuous by the presence of another name: that of Frederick Willem de Klerk, the last apartheid-era President of South Africa, who ably helped his country transition into multi-racial democracy. (No doubt the “Israel is apartheid” crowd will use his presence for their propaganda purposes. The presence on the list of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian novelist and playwright, should complicate their attempt.) The missing name, of course, belongs to Nelson Mandela. And its absence is not all too surprising. Mandela has long been a friend of tyrants, from Fidel Castro to Muammar Qaddafi to Yasir Arafat. In the current issue of Azure, I explore the theme of Mandela’s support for these autocrats within the larger context of the troubling direction in which his political party—the African National Congress—is taking South African foreign policy.

Say an ill word about Nelson Mandela and you become, in the eyes of the mainstream media, international glitterati, and pop culture stars, a heretic of all that’s right and good in the world. But no one is immune from criticism, not even someone who spent 27 years of his life languishing in prison for the ideals of non-racialism and democracy. And if that’s the standard for sainthood, why are figures like Armando Valladares (who spent 22 years in a Cuban gulag suffering conditions far worse than those Mandela faced), Vladimir Bukovsky, and Natan Sharansky not given the same hagiographic treatment as Mandela? One cannot help concluding that the nature of the regime behind the imprisonment—whether a right-wing authoritarian one in the case of South Africa, or a left-wing totalitarian one like the Soviet Union or Cuba—affects the attention paid to the prisoner. And so I am left asking the same question Nat Hentoff posed four years ago, regarding Mandela’s silence in the face of Robert Mugabe’s destruction of Zimbabwe: “Where is Nelson Mandela?”

Read Less

Bookshelf

• I observed in the current issue of COMMENTARY that “one learns surprisingly little about American religiosity from modern American art. Though some of our major novelists, most notably Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have been preoccupied with religious matters, it is far more common for American writers either to ignore religion altogether or to portray it as a destructive feature of American life.” I might also have mentioned Jon Hassler, were it not for the fact that he is comparatively little known outside of his home state of Minnesota. He is, nevertheless, a novelist of real quality—and one who differs from most of his contemporaries in understanding that it is impossible to portray modern American life as it is lived without making room for religion.

Read More

• I observed in the current issue of COMMENTARY that “one learns surprisingly little about American religiosity from modern American art. Though some of our major novelists, most notably Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have been preoccupied with religious matters, it is far more common for American writers either to ignore religion altogether or to portray it as a destructive feature of American life.” I might also have mentioned Jon Hassler, were it not for the fact that he is comparatively little known outside of his home state of Minnesota. He is, nevertheless, a novelist of real quality—and one who differs from most of his contemporaries in understanding that it is impossible to portray modern American life as it is lived without making room for religion.

To be sure, Hassler is more a middlebrow than a modernist, and his (mostly) sympathetic chronicles of Minnesota life are written in a straightforward, accessible style. Judge him by the exalted standards of Proust and Joyce—or, for that matter, O’Connor—and he’ll come up short. Try thinking of him as a Midwestern John P. Marquand and you’ll get a better idea of what he’s about. “Of all the people I know,” Marquand observed, “only Americans, because of some sort of inferiority complex, keep attempting the impossible and trying to get away from their environment.” Jon Hassler has never made that mistake. His novels are set in the small-town world where he was born and in which he has spent the whole of his 74 years, and his characters are ordinary people who spend their days grappling, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, with the ordinary problems of life, love, aging, and death.

One of the things that makes these characters so distinctive is that many (though not all) of them are churchgoers. Not coincidentally, Hassler is a Catholic novelist, and certain of his books are very decidedly the work of a Catholic novelist. Yet their temperate emotional climate has little in common with the claustrophobic creations of, say, Graham Greene or François Mauriac. In Hassler’s novels, no one, not even the priests, is obsessed with the problem of faith in the modern world, nor do his teachers, grocery-store owners, and family doctors take much of an interest in what Browning called “the dangerous edge of things.” They are simply trying to get along in a complicated world, and though they view that world through the prism of belief, most have learned that few answers are quite so easy as they look:

Rain’s only value, for Miss McGee, was that it reminded her how precious was good weather. She despised rain. But she knew that to the earth, rain was as necessary as sunshine. Could it be, she wondered, that the vice and barbarism abroad in the world served, like the rain, some purpose? Did the abominations in the Sunday paper mingle somehow with the goodness in the world and together, like the rain and sun feeding the ferns, did they nourish some kind of life she was unaware of?

The “Miss McGee” of this passage from Staggerford, Hassler’s first novel, is Agatha McGee, a schoolmarm of strongly conservative bent who turns up in several of his later books, most prominently in A Green Journey and Dear James. Like Barbara Pym and Elmore Leonard, Hassler likes to reuse his characters, and so there is something to be gained from reading his books in sequence, though North of Hope stands slightly apart from his ongoing chronicle of life in Staggerford and its environs, and can be read without reference to any of his other books. Reissued last year as part of the Loyola Classics series, North of Hope takes a hackneyed situation—an unhappily married woman falling in love with a priest—and contrives to turn it into something fresh and satisfying.

No matter which one you read first, Hassler’s books repay close reading, not least for their unpretentiously thoughtful observations about life. Here are two of my favorites, from North of Hope and The Love Hunter:

There ought to be a limit (she thought as she steered the bronze Chrysler through the cemetery gate) on the number of open graves you had to look down into in any given lifetime.

He had supposed that when you dissolved a joyless marriage, you opened yourself to the return of joy, but he discovered himself open instead to loneliness.

North of Hope is my favorite Hassler novel. If you’re allergic to priestly protagonists, start with the first two, Staggerford and Simon’s Night. Both are out of print, but used copies are easy to find online.

Read Less

Mosques Are Not above the Law

Last Sunday, I had reason to be grateful that places of worship are under the law of the land. At my local Catholic church in Kensington, I found myself helping to restrain a menacing and evidently inebriated young man who had ventured inside, accompanied by his German Shepherd dog.

Swaying slightly, the intruder advanced up the steps towards the altar during the most solemn part of the Mass, the prayers of consecration, and began to wave his arms about, mocking the priest—a newly ordained and rather nervous young Cuban—as he did so. On their knees, the congregation looked on aghast, wondering what the man would do next.

At this point I, together with another layman of military bearing and one of the older altar servers, took it upon ourselves to intervene. The parish priest (not the one celebrating Mass) quickly appeared and together we coaxed the man, uttering threats and racist abuse, out of the building. The police arrived and quietly took him away.

Read More

Last Sunday, I had reason to be grateful that places of worship are under the law of the land. At my local Catholic church in Kensington, I found myself helping to restrain a menacing and evidently inebriated young man who had ventured inside, accompanied by his German Shepherd dog.

Swaying slightly, the intruder advanced up the steps towards the altar during the most solemn part of the Mass, the prayers of consecration, and began to wave his arms about, mocking the priest—a newly ordained and rather nervous young Cuban—as he did so. On their knees, the congregation looked on aghast, wondering what the man would do next.

At this point I, together with another layman of military bearing and one of the older altar servers, took it upon ourselves to intervene. The parish priest (not the one celebrating Mass) quickly appeared and together we coaxed the man, uttering threats and racist abuse, out of the building. The police arrived and quietly took him away.

Such an incident can and does take place regularly at churches and temples in this or any other capital. In the case of a London synagogue, the drunk would not have been able to get past the door: synagogue security is tight, due to the threat of Islamist terrorists and anti-Semitic vandals of various stripes. But if the police had requested access from a rabbi, it would have been granted without question. The same would have applied at most other places of worship.

Not necessarily, however, at a mosque. The British police practically never set foot inside a mosque, for fear of giving offense to the Muslim community.

The exception that proves this rule was the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park. Within a few years of its erection in 1990, this mosque had become associated with radical Islam and became notorious for its one-eyed, hook-handed preacher Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is now in prison for terrorist crimes. In 2003, the Finsbury Park mosque was raided by hundreds of armed police, who arrested several men and found a terrorist arsenal. Those indoctrinated there by Abu Hamza have since been linked to many terrorist conspiracies around the world.

But the raid on Finsbury Park has never been repeated, despite plenty of evidence of illegal activities, such as the glorification of terrorism or incitement to hatred of Jews and “Crusaders,” in a number of other British mosques. Even when a fugitive from justice is believed to be hiding in a mosque or its outbuildings, the police decline to enter.

This wariness about mosques on the part of the British authorities is not only inimical to the rule of law, but also damaging to Muslim interests. Turning mosques into no-go areas fuels suspicions about what goes on inside. Mosques must indeed be treated with the same respect other places of worship are, but they are certainly not outside the jurisdiction of the secular law.

The reluctance of police to enter a mosque actually betrays a dangerous ignorance about Islam. Mosques are modeled not on the Temple in Jerusalem (as both synagogues and churches are), but on the courtyard in Medina where Mohammed preached. They are places not of ceremony or sacrifice. Unlike synagogues or churches, mosques do not have an ark or sanctuary containing sacred objects, such as the Torah scroll for Jews or the consecrated host for Catholics. Islam does not teach that the mosque is a forbidden place to non-Muslims, nor is there a Muslim tradition of giving sanctuary to fugitives in mosques. It is precisely the simplicity and informality of the mosque that has always appealed, to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The novelist E.M. Forster wrote a paean of praise to the mosque in his 1936 collection Abinger Harvest, and in his greatest novel, A Passage to India (1924), he sets the crucial opening scene in a mosque. The Muslim Dr. Aziz is sitting alone in the evening in his favorite mosque, when he notices the arrival of an elderly Englishwoman. Aziz is angry and shouts at her: “Madam, this is a mosque, you have no right here at all; you should have taken off your shoes; this is a holy place for Muslims.” The woman, Mrs. Moore, replies: “I have taken them off.” Aziz begs her pardon and apologizes. She asks whether, unshod, she is allowed to enter, and he says: “Of course, but so few ladies take the trouble, especially if thinking no one is there to see.” She replies: “That makes no difference. God is here.”

This is fiction, of course, and an Islamophile Englishman’s fiction, to boot. In most of the mosques in Britain today (let alone in the Middle East) even a Muslim woman would not gain entrance, let alone a Christian one. As I understand it, however, Forster is correct in his interpretation of Islamic doctrine, at least as Muhammad himself taught it. The mosque is in principle accessible to all, men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, who treat it with due respect.

That ought to include the police, too.

Read Less

Amos Oz’s Nostra Culpa

It has long been a conviction of Israeli leftists that if they bend over backward far enough, Palestinians and other Arabs will respond in kind, resigning themselves to the idea of peace with the Jewish state. If a historic reconciliation with the Arabs could not be achieved through a policy of military deterrence, might not a new start be made by taking positive steps to accommodate Arab demands? By acknowledging Israeli guilt for Arab suffering? By striving, through political and territorial concessions, to mitigate the “original sin” of the Jewish state’s very existence?

Paradoxically, for proponents of this thesis, the launch of the Palestinian war of terror in September 2000 made it more necessary than ever to cling to the idea of Jewish culpability. Speaking in June 2002, three months after Israel had experienced the bloodiest terror assault in its history, with 126 citizens massacred in near-daily suicide bombings, the novelist A.B. Yehoshua blamed Israel for having driven the Palestinians to “a situation of insanity.”

Read More

It has long been a conviction of Israeli leftists that if they bend over backward far enough, Palestinians and other Arabs will respond in kind, resigning themselves to the idea of peace with the Jewish state. If a historic reconciliation with the Arabs could not be achieved through a policy of military deterrence, might not a new start be made by taking positive steps to accommodate Arab demands? By acknowledging Israeli guilt for Arab suffering? By striving, through political and territorial concessions, to mitigate the “original sin” of the Jewish state’s very existence?

Paradoxically, for proponents of this thesis, the launch of the Palestinian war of terror in September 2000 made it more necessary than ever to cling to the idea of Jewish culpability. Speaking in June 2002, three months after Israel had experienced the bloodiest terror assault in its history, with 126 citizens massacred in near-daily suicide bombings, the novelist A.B. Yehoshua blamed Israel for having driven the Palestinians to “a situation of insanity.”

Now, Amos Oz, perhaps Israel’s most prominent living novelist, has taken up the same theme. “The time has come to acknowledge openly that Israelis had a part in the catastrophe of the Palestinian refugees,” he wrote last Saturday in Canada’s Globe and Mail:

We do not bear sole responsibility, and we are not solely to blame, but our hands are not clean. The state of Israel is mature and strong enough to admit to its share of the blame, and to reach the necessary conclusion: It behooves us to take part in the effort to resettle the refugees, in the framework of peace agreements, and outside Israel’s future peace borders.

Oz fails to explain why Israel should be culpable for the adverse consequences of the violent attempt to destroy it at its birth. (Had there been no such attempt, there would have been no refugee problem in the first place.) Nor does he seem to realize that his proposed resettlement of the refugees “outside Israel’s future peace borders” falls far short of offers made by various Israeli governments during the past sixty years (e.g., the 1949 offer to take back 100,000 Palestinian refugees—equivalent to some 2 million refugees in today’s terms).

Why should the Palestinians settle for a worse solution than the ones they have adamantly rejected for decades? According to Oz,

Israel’s admission of its share in the blame for the Palestinian refugee catastrophe, and its expression of willingness to bear part of the burden of a solution, are capable of causing a positive shiver to run through the Palestinian side. It would be a kind of emotional breakthrough that will make further dialogue much easier.

This, frankly, strains credulity. As is well-known, the refugees have not been kept in squalid camps for decades for lack of ability to resettle them elsewhere, but as a means of besmirching Israel in the eyes of the West and arousing pan-Arab sentiments. The Palestinian government, such as it is, is not going to give up this trump card.

Indeed, throughout the 1990’s, successive academic study groups, made up of the most earnestly forthcoming Israelis and the most grudgingly tractable Palestinians, devoted themselves to formulating a compromise proposal on this issue. They all failed, and the reason for the failure is plain enough: the “right of return” is not, for the Palestinians, a bargaining chip; it is the heart of their entire political strategy.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• If you like Donald E. Westlake, you’ve probably already bought his latest novel, What’s So Funny? (Warner, 359 pp., $24.99). If you haven’t, stop reading and start buying. This review is for everybody else.

It always surprises me to find out that there are people who don’t know Westlake’s crime novels, most of which are comic and all of which are intensely pleasurable. I’ve been reading him since 1967, which makes me not so much a fan as an addict, and though I’ve liked some of his books more than others, I can’t think of a single one that has failed to divert me, which is a pretty amazing track record.

Like P.G. Wodehouse, a writer with whom he has quite a lot in common, Westlake is usually at his best in his series books. The Parker novels (written under the tongue-in-cheek nom de plume of Richard Stark) feature a no-nonsense professional burglar who specializes in infallible capers that go wrong only because of the fallibility of his less single-minded associates. These books are dead serious. In the Dortmunder novels, by contrast, the premise of the Parker novels is cleverly shifted to an alternate world peopled with losers whose plans are infallible only in the sense that they never fail to go sour. These novels, of which Westlake has written thirteen since 1970, are incredibly, pulverizingly funny, and the only thing wrong with them is that there aren’t twice as many.

Read More

• If you like Donald E. Westlake, you’ve probably already bought his latest novel, What’s So Funny? (Warner, 359 pp., $24.99). If you haven’t, stop reading and start buying. This review is for everybody else.

It always surprises me to find out that there are people who don’t know Westlake’s crime novels, most of which are comic and all of which are intensely pleasurable. I’ve been reading him since 1967, which makes me not so much a fan as an addict, and though I’ve liked some of his books more than others, I can’t think of a single one that has failed to divert me, which is a pretty amazing track record.

Like P.G. Wodehouse, a writer with whom he has quite a lot in common, Westlake is usually at his best in his series books. The Parker novels (written under the tongue-in-cheek nom de plume of Richard Stark) feature a no-nonsense professional burglar who specializes in infallible capers that go wrong only because of the fallibility of his less single-minded associates. These books are dead serious. In the Dortmunder novels, by contrast, the premise of the Parker novels is cleverly shifted to an alternate world peopled with losers whose plans are infallible only in the sense that they never fail to go sour. These novels, of which Westlake has written thirteen since 1970, are incredibly, pulverizingly funny, and the only thing wrong with them is that there aren’t twice as many.

What’s So Funny? is the latest episode in the life of John Archibald Dortmunder, a sad sack who has been on a losing streak ever since he emerged from the womb. As all true Westlake fans know, Dortmunder was born in Dead Indian, Illinois, raised in an orphanage run by the Bleeding Heart Sisters of Eternal Misery, and thereafter relocated to Manhattan, where he now operates out of the O.J. Bar and Grill, a seedy Upper West Side joint whose obliging bartender allows small-time crooks to conspire in the back room. Dortmunder’s widely varied capers have two things in common: they always involve the same string of maladroit, maladjusted hoods, and they never quite work out.

The fun in the Dortmunder novels comes partly from the precision-tooled farce plots (one of them is called, appropriately enough, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?) and partly from what happens in between the disasters. Westlake is a master of droll description who loves to salt his books with sharp one-liners and amusingly testy digressions about whatever happens to be on his mind at the moment:

John said, “Can you tell the difference between ostrich burger and bison burger?”

“Bison’s got four legs.”

“Burger.”

“Oh. No. Turkey burger I can tell. All those others I think they come outa the same vat, back there in the kitchen.”

“I can remember,” John said, “when ‘burger’ only meant one thing, and the only word you ever had to stick in front of it was ‘cheese.’”

“You’re showing your age, John.”

“Yeah? That’s good. Usually I show twice my age.”

This time around, Dortmunder runs afoul of an ex-cop who blackmails him into trying to track down a Russian objet d’art that went missing in 1920. Hijinks ensue more or less promptly and escalate with the usual alarming rapidity, and by the time it’s all over you’ll know you’ve been well and truly entertained.

Donald Westlake’s admirers have been known on occasion to exaggerate his merits. One of them, the Irish novelist John Banfield, recently called him one of the “great writers of the 20th century,” which reminds me of the equally overenthusiastic critic who once compared Patrick O’Brian to Proust. He is, however, a consummate craftsman who makes fun in an exceedingly intelligent and imaginative way, and What’s So Funny? is one of his neatest, most satisfying pieces of work. Long may he reign.

Read Less

On Chesil Beach

Among living British novelists, Ian McEwan is widely thought to have the highest intellect and the widest frame of reference. On Chesil Beach, his latest novel (a novella, really) has been extravagantly praised for its subtle evocation of English sexual mores in 1961, on the eve of the sexual revolution. Edward and Florence—“young, educated, and both virgins”—endure the wedding night from hell. As a tragedy of manners, it is indeed faultless.

The new work is no less worthy of attention, though, for what it tells us about its author’s political evolution. Mr. McEwan’s stature as a public intellectual has grown in recent years as his views have developed from the predictable platitudes of a conventional leftist to an unconventionally robust defence of Western civilization and an equally sharp critique of Islamist designs upon it.

Read More

Among living British novelists, Ian McEwan is widely thought to have the highest intellect and the widest frame of reference. On Chesil Beach, his latest novel (a novella, really) has been extravagantly praised for its subtle evocation of English sexual mores in 1961, on the eve of the sexual revolution. Edward and Florence—“young, educated, and both virgins”—endure the wedding night from hell. As a tragedy of manners, it is indeed faultless.

The new work is no less worthy of attention, though, for what it tells us about its author’s political evolution. Mr. McEwan’s stature as a public intellectual has grown in recent years as his views have developed from the predictable platitudes of a conventional leftist to an unconventionally robust defence of Western civilization and an equally sharp critique of Islamist designs upon it.

On Chesil Beach makes scarcely any reference to Islam, which is hardly surprising given the date. As Edward and Florence enjoy—if that is the word—a large dinner of roast beef in their hotel room for which neither has any appetite, they overhear the news on the wireless from the sitting room downstairs. Harold Macmillan is in Washington to make the case for a test-ban treaty. “Who could disagree that it was folly to go on testing H-bombs in the atmosphere and irradiating the whole planet?” the author asks. “But no one under thirty—certainly not Edward and Florence—believed that a British prime minister held much sway in global affairs.” Next they hear a story from Berlin, where refugees flee Communism just before the erection of the wall. The third “intolerable” item is “the concluding session of an Islamic conference in Baghdad.” By this time the tension between Edward and Florence has diverted their attention back to thoughts of the night ahead.

Later we are shown flashbacks that throw more light on McEwan’s politics seen through the prism of the early 1960′s. The young couple, whose political attitudes are typical of their generation, meet at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament event in Oxford. But Florence’s mother Violet, an Oxford philosophy don, takes a dim view of her daughter’s politics. Violet’s “objectionable” opinions about the evils of Communism include comparing the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany—a comparison that “disgusts” Florence. “She recognized in Violet’s opinions a typical pattern of pro-American propaganda. She was disappointed in her mother, and even said so.”

Violet also gives her prospective son-in-law a tutorial while he chauffeurs her to academic gatherings. Knowing his interest in medieval millenarian cults, she goads him by comparing these movements to early socialists and their apocalyptic beliefs to contemporary fear of nuclear war. Edward prefers to focus on the “difference between, on the one had, a lurid and absurd fantasy devised by a post-Iron Age mystic, then embellished by his credulous medieval equivalents, and, on the other, the rational fear of a possible and terrifying event it was in our power to prevent.” Violet responds “in tones of crisp reprimand that effectively closed the conversation.” Her point is not whether either the medieval cultists or the CND supporters were wrong, but that they sincerely believed they were right and acted accordingly. “Surely, as a historian, he had learned that down through the centuries mass delusions had common themes.”

Is it far-fetched to detect here a gentle authorial admonition—if not a warning—to the present-day equivalents of Edward and Florence? They, too, deny that a British prime minister could “hold much sway in world affairs”—which Tony Blair, and before him Margaret Thatcher, have palpably done. They, too, prefer to ignore the latter-day manifestations of tyranny around them—whether Communist or Islamist. They, too, object to talk of “Islamofascism” and comparisons with the Nazis, which they dismiss as “pro-American propaganda.” They, too, attend mass protests against the Iraq war and other aspects of U.S. or British foreign policy, but refuse to countenance any suggestion that these rallies might have anything in common with “mass delusions,” Islamist or otherwise. True: Edward takes a side-swipe at Jesus—McEwan’s hostility to Christianity has been widely noted—but the author has Islam in his sights at least as much as Christianity.

These few passages I have quoted are by no means the most powerful or important in the book, but they are enough to suggest that McEwan is by no means resiling from his tough pronouncements in articles and interviews. Just how unusual his stance is among British writers may be surmised from an interview given last week to the Berliner Zeitung by the Scottish novelist A.L. Kennedy, who compared Britain under Blair to Germany under Hitler. There was not a trace of humor in her remarks, which equated the fate of Muslims in present-day Bradford or Birmingham to that of Jews in the Holocaust.

At least McEwan, describing Edward’s later life, has him repudiate his former view that “everyone knew that [the press] was controlled by state, military, or financial interests.” It takes courage to admit that one has been wrong about politics—and courage is a virtue that seems to be in singularly short supply among British writers just now.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• Most American playgoers of my generation only know John Osborne through the excellent films of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer directed by Tony Richardson a half-century ago. Though the original Angry Young Man enjoyed a brief American vogue—Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced simultaneously on Broadway in 1958—no play by Osborne has been seen on the Great White Way since 1969. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the much-praised Old Vic revival of The Entertainer makes it to New York sooner or later, Anglophilia being what it is, but I very much doubt that Osborne’s plays will ever take root in this country, for what (mostly) made him angry was the British class system, about which normal Americans know little and care less. A novelist can overcome that obstacle if he’s sufficiently clever and has other interesting things to say—Kingsley Amis did it—but only the very greatest of playwrights can contrive to embed in a two-hour-long play sufficient background information to make so fundamentally impenetrable a subject intelligible to those who know nothing about it going in. Osborne had his moments, but he wasn’t that good, not even in The Entertainer.

Read More

• Most American playgoers of my generation only know John Osborne through the excellent films of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer directed by Tony Richardson a half-century ago. Though the original Angry Young Man enjoyed a brief American vogue—Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced simultaneously on Broadway in 1958—no play by Osborne has been seen on the Great White Way since 1969. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the much-praised Old Vic revival of The Entertainer makes it to New York sooner or later, Anglophilia being what it is, but I very much doubt that Osborne’s plays will ever take root in this country, for what (mostly) made him angry was the British class system, about which normal Americans know little and care less. A novelist can overcome that obstacle if he’s sufficiently clever and has other interesting things to say—Kingsley Amis did it—but only the very greatest of playwrights can contrive to embed in a two-hour-long play sufficient background information to make so fundamentally impenetrable a subject intelligible to those who know nothing about it going in. Osborne had his moments, but he wasn’t that good, not even in The Entertainer.

John Heilpern, an expatriate Brit who reviews theater for the New York Observer, has now written an authorized biography, John Osborne: The Many Lives of the Angry Young Man (Knopf, 527 pp., $35), in which he endeavors mightily to prove that Osborne is not only worth remembering but worth performing. I’m not quite sure he succeeds, though his book is lively and readable (if not especially well organized). What he does succeed in doing is leaving the reader in no possible doubt that Osborne was a monstrously difficult man whose gifts, at least in the second half of his life, weren’t impressive enough to justify his bad behavior. Be forewarned, too, that John Osborne wasn’t written for an American audience, meaning that those who don’t already know a pretty fair amount about postwar England are likely to find certain parts of the narrative to be tough sledding. If you’re interested in Osborne, though, you’ll certainly find it worthwhile.

• Clive James, like John Osborne, is not nearly so well known in the United States as in England, and his latest book, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35), is unlikely to change that, partly because it is all but impossible to describe succinctly and partly because James himself is peculiarly resistant to pigeonholing. Not only is he a liberal who despises ideology in all its myriad forms and has a pitch-perfect ear for left-wing humbug—a combination of traits increasingly hard to find on either side of the Atlantic—but he is a spectacularly well-read cultural journalist who writes with witty flair about the most serious of ideas, which makes him an oddity in a po-faced world dominated by pop culture.

As for Cultural Amnesia, it’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them 20th-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them. Most of them are present for obvious reasons, though a few are ringers (I never did figure out why James thought Tony Curtis and Zinka Milanov belonged in a book about the likes of Jean Cocteau, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Stefan Zweig) and several others are unlikely to be familiar to the average reader (I readily admit to never having previously heard of Egon Friedell or Alfred Polgar, though reading Cultural Amnesia made me want to know much more about them).

All this is part of the deliberately eccentric, wonderfully unpredictable charm of Cultural Amnesia, which is a cross between a philosophical dictionary and a bedside book for eggheads. Most of it is full of good hard common sense: I can’t imagine better short discussions of such widely varied figures as Raymond Aron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Jean-Paul Sartre, to name only a few of the people in whom James takes an interest. He is especially good on bad guys, for he writes with a razor and has an uncanny knack for summing up a lifetime of intellectual vice in one or two devastating sentences: “In the long view of history, [Bertolt] Brecht’s fame as a creep will prevail, as it ought to. An unblushing apologist for organized frightfulness against the common people whose welfare he claimed to prize above his own, he was really no nicer than Sir Oswald Mosley, and a lot more dangerous.” I don’t know when I’ve read a more quotable book, or a more stimulating one.

Read Less

Discovering Nemirovsky

Until 2005, the French novelist Irène Nemirovsky, author of the much-lauded Suite Française, had been more or less completely forgotten, even by specialists in French literature between the wars. Her name did not feature in critical surveys or in the memoirs of contemporaries. Pure chance has led to the discovery of this gifted woman and her work.

She was born in Kiev in 1903, the child of Léon Nemirovsky, a rich Jewish banker, and Faiga (or Fanny, as she called herself), a self-regarding and unfeeling mother. Fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the family settled in Paris, where Léon rebuilt his fortune. Outwardly Irène seems to have been something of a Jazz-age, party-going flapper, but in fact she was observing the human behavior around her with penetrating originality.

Read More

Until 2005, the French novelist Irène Nemirovsky, author of the much-lauded Suite Française, had been more or less completely forgotten, even by specialists in French literature between the wars. Her name did not feature in critical surveys or in the memoirs of contemporaries. Pure chance has led to the discovery of this gifted woman and her work.

She was born in Kiev in 1903, the child of Léon Nemirovsky, a rich Jewish banker, and Faiga (or Fanny, as she called herself), a self-regarding and unfeeling mother. Fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the family settled in Paris, where Léon rebuilt his fortune. Outwardly Irène seems to have been something of a Jazz-age, party-going flapper, but in fact she was observing the human behavior around her with penetrating originality.

She was only twenty-three when she married Michel Epstein, whose origins were Russian and Jewish like hers. Three years later, in 1929, she published her first novel, David Golder. No doubt it is painfully autobiographical: Golder, like her father, has risen from poverty by taking huge financial risks. His name “evoked an old, hardened Jew, who all his life had been hated and feared.” Golder’s friend Soifer, a miser, leaves thirty million francs, “thus fulfilling to the end the incomprehensible destiny of every good Jew on this earth.” (Nemirovsky drops summary sentences of the kind with terrible simplicity.)

The superficial shame in her depictions of nouveaux-riches Jews might be considered a type of self-hatred, except that Nemirovsky evidently felt pity for them, along with an underlying pride in the way that they dealt with so much contempt from everyone else. Old and hardened Jews do what they have to: they are not allowed a choice. In another early novella, The Ball, she describes Kampf, “a dry small Jew, whose eyes have fire in them,” and the pretentious Madame Kampf, no doubt modelled closely on her own mother. Their daughter wreaks a frightful revenge on them for the sin of social-climbing. And yet, under the savagery of the fiction is a redeeming quality—these people really do love, but don’t know how to show it. In her understanding of the waywardness of the heart, Irène Nemirovsky is the equal of Katherine Mansfield.

After the collapse of France in June 1940, and the installation of the Vichy regime, Irène and Michel were in mortal danger as foreign-born Jews. They hid their small daughters Denise and Elisabeth, but did not themselves try to escape. Instead, Irène’s artistry rose to the drama of the moment, and she wrote Suite Française, a full-length novel that describes the German occupation and the disintegration of France and its society. The novel is so detailed and vivid that it becomes, more or less, a historical document.

The French police came for her in July 1942, and she was murdered in Auschwitz the following month. That November, her husband Michel was also deported and murdered there. The manuscript remained in a suitcase in the possession of the two daughters who for more than sixty years found it too painful to deal with. Its survival and eventual publication was quite outside the bounds of probability.

The role of the artist ultimately is to bear witness. Irène Nemirovsky is in the select company of those who were able to do so in the face of death, thus bringing some hope to others. And how many of those murdered like her, one cannot help wondering, would also have been in that company if only they had been allowed the chance?

Read Less

Why Sontag Switched Off

Groucho Marx once observed: “I find television very educational. Whenever somebody turns it on, I go into the other room and read a book.” You may not be surprised to learn that the late Susan Sontag felt the same way, although she lacked Marx’s sense of humor. In “Pay Attention to the World,” an essay extracted from her posthumous 2007 volume At the Same Time and published in Saturday’s Guardian, Sontag writes that television, the Internet, and other mass media threaten to “render obsolete the novelist’s prophetic and critical, even subversive, task.”

Sontag charges mass media not only with having “dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading,” but also with offering “a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.” She concedes that mass media may give some pleasure and enlightenment. But “the mindset they foster and the appetites they feed,” she argues, “are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature.”

Read More

Groucho Marx once observed: “I find television very educational. Whenever somebody turns it on, I go into the other room and read a book.” You may not be surprised to learn that the late Susan Sontag felt the same way, although she lacked Marx’s sense of humor. In “Pay Attention to the World,” an essay extracted from her posthumous 2007 volume At the Same Time and published in Saturday’s Guardian, Sontag writes that television, the Internet, and other mass media threaten to “render obsolete the novelist’s prophetic and critical, even subversive, task.”

Sontag charges mass media not only with having “dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading,” but also with offering “a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.” She concedes that mass media may give some pleasure and enlightenment. But “the mindset they foster and the appetites they feed,” she argues, “are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature.”

This is a curiously old-fashioned argument, which didn’t hold water even in 1936 when her hero Walter Benjamin first wrote about the impact of mechanical reproduction on the appreciation of art. All the evidence suggests that television and the Internet, far from rendering serious literature obsolete, have vastly increased its popularity. Indeed, the Internet has brought about a renaissance of some literary genres—the letter (email), the diary (blogs), the little magazine (webzines)—that had seemed to be almost endangered species. The advent of narrowcasting has allowed specialized TV channels to multiply, giving artists unprecedented access to their publics. And the insatiable hunger of all mass media for “content” means that there are now more people earning a living by writing than ever before.

These phenomena signify only the vulgarization of high culture to Sontag. She falls back on a weak argument, a vaguely Marxist form of alienation based on a patently false dichotomy: “Literature tells stories. Television gives information. Literature involves. It is the recreation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances—immures us in our own indifference.”

There is something preposterous about Sontag’s alienation from the media that have, for better or worse, helped to keep her books and her memory alive. She is absurdly fatalistic about modes of communication that are certainly bad masters, but may be excellent servants, of the intellectual life.

Read Less

Is Ayaan Hirsi Ali a “Fundamentalist”?

The novelist Peter De Vries once observed that there are certain people who appear profound on the surface while deep down they remain superficial. This seems a fair characterization of anyone who could take seriously as an indictment the term “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” coined by Timothy Garton Ash to describe the fearless critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As an act of verbal jujitsu, “Enlightenment fundamentalist” seems arresting at first. But just try to locate the intellectual and moral ties that bind, say, Sayyid Qutb to Baruch Spinoza, and you will come up empty-handed.

Hirsi Ali’s unapologetic preference for rationalism over “revealed” truth is not rooted in her own bone-chilling experiences, as she emphasizes in her new memoir, Infidel. (She was subjected to genital mutilation, arranged marriage, and regular beatings delivered by both kin and cleric.) Rather, through reading and common sense, she concluded that the open, secular society, where women are not treated as divinely licensed sex slaves, is self-evidently better than the closed, Islamic one, where they are.

Read More

The novelist Peter De Vries once observed that there are certain people who appear profound on the surface while deep down they remain superficial. This seems a fair characterization of anyone who could take seriously as an indictment the term “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” coined by Timothy Garton Ash to describe the fearless critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As an act of verbal jujitsu, “Enlightenment fundamentalist” seems arresting at first. But just try to locate the intellectual and moral ties that bind, say, Sayyid Qutb to Baruch Spinoza, and you will come up empty-handed.

Hirsi Ali’s unapologetic preference for rationalism over “revealed” truth is not rooted in her own bone-chilling experiences, as she emphasizes in her new memoir, Infidel. (She was subjected to genital mutilation, arranged marriage, and regular beatings delivered by both kin and cleric.) Rather, through reading and common sense, she concluded that the open, secular society, where women are not treated as divinely licensed sex slaves, is self-evidently better than the closed, Islamic one, where they are.

This did not stop Garton Ash from writing, apropos of Hirsi Ali’s previous book, The Caged Virgin, that her career exhibited “a pattern familiar to historians of political intellectuals.” As he put it, she “has gone from one extreme to the other, with an emotional energy perfectly summed up by Shakespeare: ‘As the heresies that men do leave/are hated most of those they did deceive.’” (It’s in keeping with such generous standards of analysis that Garton Ash fails to mention the high irony of the fact that his quotation’s source, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lampoons the foolishness of . . . arranged marriage, one of Hirsi Ali’s bêtes-noires.)

In both of her books, Hirsi Ali shows that her disgust and outrage have been fueled not by a feeling of having been personally “deceived” but by the conditions she has witnessed around her. She ran for a seat in the Dutch parliament in order to force Holland to gather information about the incidence of domestic violence—including sexual abuse and incest—and the ethnic background of its perpetrators. She also wanted the government to “investigate the number of excisions of little girls that took place every year on Dutch kitchen tables.”

Right-thinking intellectuals may choose to ignore or rationalize Koranic injunctions like “Your wives are your tillage, go in unto your tillage in what manner so ever you will,” arguing that these are only interpreted literally in a few third-world countries. Yet Hirsi Ali, who grew up in Somalia and traveled with her divided family to Saudi Arabia and Kenya, stands as a living reply: these literalists really get around. They are now, in fact, comfortably ensconced in cosmopolitan cities like London and Amsterdam, where Theo van Gogh, her friend and collaborator on the film Submission, was pulled off his bicycle and shot to death by Mohammed Bouyeri in 2004.

What best refutes Garton Ash’s charge of fundamentalism is the demonstrable fact that, even in her newfound atheism, Hirsi Ali can still pay homage to the rituals of faith. She writes in Infidel: “People were patient with each other in the Grand Mosque, and communal—everyone washing his or her feet in the same fountain, with no shoving or prejudice. We were all Muslims in God’s house, and it was beautiful. It had a quality of timelessness. I think this is one reasons Muslims believe that Islam means peace: because in a large, cool place full of kindness you do feel peaceful.”

Now show me bin Laden’s public acknowledgment that the Bill of Rights has its charms, too.

Read Less

Bookshelf

Inspired by my fellow blogger Terry Teachout, I thought I would post a few remarks about some books I have been reading lately. Unlike Terry’s selections, these aren’t newly released—but they are for the most part new to me.

• Field Marshal Viscount Slim, Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945 (1956): A British officer who rose from the ranks, Slim is practically unknown in the United States, but he was one of the Great Captains of World War II and a far more successful general than his American counterpart in the China-Burma-India theater, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. In fact he defeated more Japanese troops than any other ground commander of the war. His memoirs are generally considered, along with Ulysses Grant’s, to be among the best penned by any general since Caesar.

Read More

Inspired by my fellow blogger Terry Teachout, I thought I would post a few remarks about some books I have been reading lately. Unlike Terry’s selections, these aren’t newly released—but they are for the most part new to me.

• Field Marshal Viscount Slim, Defeat Into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945 (1956): A British officer who rose from the ranks, Slim is practically unknown in the United States, but he was one of the Great Captains of World War II and a far more successful general than his American counterpart in the China-Burma-India theater, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. In fact he defeated more Japanese troops than any other ground commander of the war. His memoirs are generally considered, along with Ulysses Grant’s, to be among the best penned by any general since Caesar.

Great though it is, Defeat Into Victory is not quite as scintillating as the accounts of lower-ranking soldiers who were closer to the action. For my money, the best evocation of the Burma campaign remains The Road Past Mandalay, by John Masters, who served in Slim’s 14th Army but never advanced past brigade commander. The runner-up prize goes to Quartered Safe Out Here, by George MacDonald Fraser, a novelist who never advanced past corporal.

That said, Slim’s account is infinitely better than the bombastic, unreflective, self-congratulatory, ghost-written memoirs we have come to expect from our own generals. Slim is not afraid to admit when he was scared under fire—he was not one of those commanders who ostentatiously exposed himself to bullets or insisted on rushing to the front of the advance. Nor is he afraid to admit mistakes. Writing about the British retreat from Burma in 1942, he has no excuses to offer. Instead he bluntly writes: “For myself, I had little to be proud of; I could not rate my generalship high. The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing I had attempted.”

There are also flashes of political incorrectness that, however offensive to a modern sensibilities, add spice to the account—for instance when Slim writes, “The individual Japanese soldier remained, as I had always called him, the most formidable fighting insect in history.”

• Joseph Wambaugh, The Choirboys (1975): Having recently read Wambaugh’s latest novel, Hollywood Station, I went back and reread this earlier work. It has a lot in common with all of his cop books, which aren’t “mystery novels” in the conventional sense, insofar as there is no mystery to be solved. The plot always meanders, but interest never flags because Wambaugh, a former Los Angeles Police Department sergeant, has a great talent for telling vivid anecdotes involving his fellow LAPD cops. These aren’t the plaster saints of Adam 12 and Dragnet; nor are they the monsters of L.A. Confidential. Wambaugh’s cops are deeply flawed human beings—often drunk and lecherous, incorrigibly sexist and hopelessly racist, seldom able to pass up freebies and discounts they more or less extort from local merchants—but they are also intent on doing good to the best of their limited ability. Like soldiers away from home too long, they feel alienated from civilian society but reserve their real scorn for their superior officers, who are inevitably depicted as back-stabbing office politicians.

Read Less

Mailer’s Grotesquerie

Almost a month after Lee Siegel’s expansive, unfocused paean to Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, has published her own astute (and devastating) review of the novel. (It’s worth noting that Siegel, in praising Mailer as a novelist, focused for the most part on Mailer’s works of “literary non-fiction.”) Franklin’s review skirts but does not point out explicitly the novel’s Manichean theology–a vision of the positive nature of evil that has consumed Mailer from the outset of his literary career. But both pieces are worth reading, especially for the sharp relief into which Franklin’s perspicacity casts Siegel’s confused tribute. And make sure to read John Gross’s review of The Castle in the Forest in the March issue of COMMENTARY.

Almost a month after Lee Siegel’s expansive, unfocused paean to Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Ruth Franklin, a senior editor at the New Republic, has published her own astute (and devastating) review of the novel. (It’s worth noting that Siegel, in praising Mailer as a novelist, focused for the most part on Mailer’s works of “literary non-fiction.”) Franklin’s review skirts but does not point out explicitly the novel’s Manichean theology–a vision of the positive nature of evil that has consumed Mailer from the outset of his literary career. But both pieces are worth reading, especially for the sharp relief into which Franklin’s perspicacity casts Siegel’s confused tribute. And make sure to read John Gross’s review of The Castle in the Forest in the March issue of COMMENTARY.

Read Less

Hellman, Hammett, and Stalin

On February 6th, Human Rights Watch announced the winners of this year’s Hellman-Hammett grants, awarded to “writers all around the world who have been victims of political persecution.” The grants honor playwright Lillian Hellman and novelist Dashiell Hammett and are funded from Hellman’s estate. This year’s recipients were mostly from China, Vietnam, and Iran, and were presumably worthy and needy.

But what is a “human rights” organization doing honoring the memory of these two literary thugs? HRW says that “Hellman and Hammett were both interrogated in the 1950′s about their political beliefs and affiliations” in an era when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Communist paranoia helped fuel nearly a decade of anti-Communist ‘witch hunts.’. . . Hellman suffered professionally. . . . Hammett spent time in jail.”

Whatever paranoia and witch hunts there may have been in the 1950′s, Hellman and Hammett could not have been among the objects, for they were Communists, true-believing, loyally-serving devotées of Stalin.

When the Soviet dictator purged his rivals, he staged grotesque “show trials” at which first the prosecutors denounced the defendants, then the defense attorneys denounced the defendants, and then the defendants—having been tortured and threatened with the murder of their families—denounced themselves. Leftist intellectuals around the world raised their voices to protest this travesty.

Hellman and Hammett, by contrast, raised their voices to denounce the protesters. They signed a petition that appeared in the Communist party journal New Masses, with the heading “Leading Artists, Educators Support Soviet Trial Verdict.” They and their comrades declared that the Moscow defendants had

resorted to duplicity and conspiracy and allied themselves with long-standing enemies of the Soviet Union—nationalists who had ties with capitalist, fascist, and White Guard Allies, and even with former czarist agents provocateurs. Degeneration may therefore be charged to the defendants, and not the Soviet Union, which gains strength internally and externally by the prevention of treason and the eradication of spies and wreckers.

A far more fitting tribute to the memories of Hellman and Hammett would be an award honoring the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of political persecution.

On February 6th, Human Rights Watch announced the winners of this year’s Hellman-Hammett grants, awarded to “writers all around the world who have been victims of political persecution.” The grants honor playwright Lillian Hellman and novelist Dashiell Hammett and are funded from Hellman’s estate. This year’s recipients were mostly from China, Vietnam, and Iran, and were presumably worthy and needy.

But what is a “human rights” organization doing honoring the memory of these two literary thugs? HRW says that “Hellman and Hammett were both interrogated in the 1950′s about their political beliefs and affiliations” in an era when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Communist paranoia helped fuel nearly a decade of anti-Communist ‘witch hunts.’. . . Hellman suffered professionally. . . . Hammett spent time in jail.”

Whatever paranoia and witch hunts there may have been in the 1950′s, Hellman and Hammett could not have been among the objects, for they were Communists, true-believing, loyally-serving devotées of Stalin.

When the Soviet dictator purged his rivals, he staged grotesque “show trials” at which first the prosecutors denounced the defendants, then the defense attorneys denounced the defendants, and then the defendants—having been tortured and threatened with the murder of their families—denounced themselves. Leftist intellectuals around the world raised their voices to protest this travesty.

Hellman and Hammett, by contrast, raised their voices to denounce the protesters. They signed a petition that appeared in the Communist party journal New Masses, with the heading “Leading Artists, Educators Support Soviet Trial Verdict.” They and their comrades declared that the Moscow defendants had

resorted to duplicity and conspiracy and allied themselves with long-standing enemies of the Soviet Union—nationalists who had ties with capitalist, fascist, and White Guard Allies, and even with former czarist agents provocateurs. Degeneration may therefore be charged to the defendants, and not the Soviet Union, which gains strength internally and externally by the prevention of treason and the eradication of spies and wreckers.

A far more fitting tribute to the memories of Hellman and Hammett would be an award honoring the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of political persecution.

Read Less

Trust the Experts

Judging by the number of outraged responses, I seem to have struck a nerve with my post, “Maybe Al Gore Is Right.” Many readers wrote in to question the scientific consensus once again. As I said before, I’m not a scientist, much less a specialist in the field, so I don’t feel comfortable debating the pros and cons of the IPCC report. What mystifies me is why so many other readers who also aren’t experts feel comfortable disputing the experts’ judgment.

One reader, for instance, wrote: “The problem is that those who sound the alarm about catastrophic global warming tend to make statements like . . . ‘it has been the warmest January in 60 years.’ I am sure you see the logical disconnect there, but let me be explicit; they are acknowledging that there was a warmer January just 60 or so years ago. So, what does this prove?” Suffice it to say that the scientists behind the IPCC report didn’t base their conclusions on such anecdotes. The available scientific evidence, in their view, proves a human link to global warming with 90-percent certitude.

I have no problem accepting the collective wisdom of the global scientific community over the dissent of the popular novelist Michael Crichton and a few actual scientists, many of whom lack credentials in climatology or any related discipline. (I note that Kevin Shapiro, who answered my post, is a neuroscientist and medical student.) Imagine, by way of analogy, if I had gone to twenty oncologists and they all told me that I had cancer, but a metereologist buddy looked at the test results and told me to ignore the doctors because they didn’t know what they were talking about. Would Mr. Shapiro—or Mr. Crichton—applaud me in those circumstances for adopting the minority view?

A more fruitful line of argument is to discuss the policy implications of global warming—an area where we don’t have to defer to scientists. As I mentioned, I remain skeptical of the Kyoto Protocol. I think there are better, more market-friendly approaches we should consider, such as tradeable emission credits, more nuclear energy, more research on alternatives to fossil fuels, the elimination of sugar subsidies (to make sugar-derived ethanol more affordable), and higher gasoline taxes. Such policies would be a two-fer: not only would they reduce global warming, but they would reduce our dependence on oil, which comes from such unsavory states as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran. Which is why these sorts of ideas have been championed by Jim Woolsey and other conservatives, raising the possibility of a conservative/Green coalition to break our oil addiction.

Judging by the number of outraged responses, I seem to have struck a nerve with my post, “Maybe Al Gore Is Right.” Many readers wrote in to question the scientific consensus once again. As I said before, I’m not a scientist, much less a specialist in the field, so I don’t feel comfortable debating the pros and cons of the IPCC report. What mystifies me is why so many other readers who also aren’t experts feel comfortable disputing the experts’ judgment.

One reader, for instance, wrote: “The problem is that those who sound the alarm about catastrophic global warming tend to make statements like . . . ‘it has been the warmest January in 60 years.’ I am sure you see the logical disconnect there, but let me be explicit; they are acknowledging that there was a warmer January just 60 or so years ago. So, what does this prove?” Suffice it to say that the scientists behind the IPCC report didn’t base their conclusions on such anecdotes. The available scientific evidence, in their view, proves a human link to global warming with 90-percent certitude.

I have no problem accepting the collective wisdom of the global scientific community over the dissent of the popular novelist Michael Crichton and a few actual scientists, many of whom lack credentials in climatology or any related discipline. (I note that Kevin Shapiro, who answered my post, is a neuroscientist and medical student.) Imagine, by way of analogy, if I had gone to twenty oncologists and they all told me that I had cancer, but a metereologist buddy looked at the test results and told me to ignore the doctors because they didn’t know what they were talking about. Would Mr. Shapiro—or Mr. Crichton—applaud me in those circumstances for adopting the minority view?

A more fruitful line of argument is to discuss the policy implications of global warming—an area where we don’t have to defer to scientists. As I mentioned, I remain skeptical of the Kyoto Protocol. I think there are better, more market-friendly approaches we should consider, such as tradeable emission credits, more nuclear energy, more research on alternatives to fossil fuels, the elimination of sugar subsidies (to make sugar-derived ethanol more affordable), and higher gasoline taxes. Such policies would be a two-fer: not only would they reduce global warming, but they would reduce our dependence on oil, which comes from such unsavory states as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran. Which is why these sorts of ideas have been championed by Jim Woolsey and other conservatives, raising the possibility of a conservative/Green coalition to break our oil addiction.

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.