Commentary Magazine


Topic: Oxford University

Bookshelf

Is it possible for one person to write a first-rate large-scale reference book? Of course–if he’s Samuel Johnson. But even Dr. Johnson found it famously difficult to bring his Dictionary into being, and though there have been any number of noble successors to that great work, most of the significant reference books to be published in modern and postmodern times have been group efforts. The principal exceptions to this rule are books which, like H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations, or David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, intentionally reflect the idiosyncratic personalities of their authors, and one normally turns to books such as these in search of illumination or amusement, not information.

When it comes to works of pure reference, the opposite rule holds true, and the wider the field of interest, the harder it is for an individual author, no matter how well informed he may be, to produce a book that is both comprehensive and trustworthy. Hence I was more than a little bit surprised to discover that The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television (Oxford, 923 pp., $39.95) is the work of a single scholar, Thomas Hischak, and not surprised at all that it isn’t nearly as good as it ought to be.

Unearthing mistakes in a reference book is the sport of pedants, but the whole point of such tomes is that they should be scrupulously accurate, and I regret to say that I didn’t have to dig too deeply in the new Oxford Companion to pick nits, starting with an unacceptably high number of misspelled names (Sherie Rene Scott, Michel Legrand, Casey Nicolaw), missing persons (Conrad Salinger, Twyla Tharp) and mangled song titles (“Public Melody No. 1″). Nor does Hischak have the gift of writing the crisp, informative definitional prose that is indispensable to the lexicographer’s craft. Far more often than not he settles for flabby, anodyne boilerplate, especially when musical matters are involved. Here, for instance, is what he has to say about Leonard Bernstein’s compositional style: “His theatre music uses a variety of forms, from jazz to Latin to classical, and can be explosive and thrilling as well as tender and reflective.” True enough, I suppose, but does it tell you anything about Bernstein’s music beyond the immediately obvious? Another glaring example of his limp descriptive powers is the first sentence of his entry on Cabaret: “Arguably the most innovative, hard-hitting, and uncompromising musical of the 1960s, the powerful music-drama made few concessions to escapist entertainment, yet it was and remains very popular.” Again, this is true as far as it goes, but it is neither notably insightful nor memorably written.

In recent years Oxford University Press has acquired a reputation for publishing ill-edited books, and this one is-to put it very, very mildly-no exception. Somebody really should have stopped Hischak from describing Irving Caesar’s lyrics as “simple, direct, and sometimes contagious,” or referring to An American in Paris as a “symphonic suite.” At times his syntax comes totally unstuck: “Baxter’s career fell apart in the 1940s, suffered a nervous breakdown, and underwent a lobotomy before dying of pneumonia.” Poor career!

All these problems notwithstanding, The Oxford Companion to the American Musical is for the most part a reliable, fact-crammed reference tool, and I expect to keep my copy handy for some time to come. But it isn’t the vade mecum I’d hoped for, not by a long shot.

Is it possible for one person to write a first-rate large-scale reference book? Of course–if he’s Samuel Johnson. But even Dr. Johnson found it famously difficult to bring his Dictionary into being, and though there have been any number of noble successors to that great work, most of the significant reference books to be published in modern and postmodern times have been group efforts. The principal exceptions to this rule are books which, like H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations, or David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, intentionally reflect the idiosyncratic personalities of their authors, and one normally turns to books such as these in search of illumination or amusement, not information.

When it comes to works of pure reference, the opposite rule holds true, and the wider the field of interest, the harder it is for an individual author, no matter how well informed he may be, to produce a book that is both comprehensive and trustworthy. Hence I was more than a little bit surprised to discover that The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television (Oxford, 923 pp., $39.95) is the work of a single scholar, Thomas Hischak, and not surprised at all that it isn’t nearly as good as it ought to be.

Unearthing mistakes in a reference book is the sport of pedants, but the whole point of such tomes is that they should be scrupulously accurate, and I regret to say that I didn’t have to dig too deeply in the new Oxford Companion to pick nits, starting with an unacceptably high number of misspelled names (Sherie Rene Scott, Michel Legrand, Casey Nicolaw), missing persons (Conrad Salinger, Twyla Tharp) and mangled song titles (“Public Melody No. 1″). Nor does Hischak have the gift of writing the crisp, informative definitional prose that is indispensable to the lexicographer’s craft. Far more often than not he settles for flabby, anodyne boilerplate, especially when musical matters are involved. Here, for instance, is what he has to say about Leonard Bernstein’s compositional style: “His theatre music uses a variety of forms, from jazz to Latin to classical, and can be explosive and thrilling as well as tender and reflective.” True enough, I suppose, but does it tell you anything about Bernstein’s music beyond the immediately obvious? Another glaring example of his limp descriptive powers is the first sentence of his entry on Cabaret: “Arguably the most innovative, hard-hitting, and uncompromising musical of the 1960s, the powerful music-drama made few concessions to escapist entertainment, yet it was and remains very popular.” Again, this is true as far as it goes, but it is neither notably insightful nor memorably written.

In recent years Oxford University Press has acquired a reputation for publishing ill-edited books, and this one is-to put it very, very mildly-no exception. Somebody really should have stopped Hischak from describing Irving Caesar’s lyrics as “simple, direct, and sometimes contagious,” or referring to An American in Paris as a “symphonic suite.” At times his syntax comes totally unstuck: “Baxter’s career fell apart in the 1940s, suffered a nervous breakdown, and underwent a lobotomy before dying of pneumonia.” Poor career!

All these problems notwithstanding, The Oxford Companion to the American Musical is for the most part a reliable, fact-crammed reference tool, and I expect to keep my copy handy for some time to come. But it isn’t the vade mecum I’d hoped for, not by a long shot.

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Light, Truth, and the New Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Music’s Golden Age

A new polemic from Oxford University Press, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton, a professor at the University of Birmingham, argues that the worst excesses of the 19th century Romantic age of performance were more lively and fun than what he sees as today’s tedious and stuffy concert scene.

Hamilton lauds the clownish old pianist Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), who was notorious for chatting with the audience during recitals, and occasionally exclaiming “Bravo, Pachmann!” when he had played a passage to his own satisfaction. Hamilton wants concert etiquette to hearken back to the 19th century’s so-called Golden Age. He feels that classical concerts would be improved if pianists today were more unfaithful to the printed notes, if they performed brief, isolated movements of sonatas instead of entire works, and if audiences felt free to applaud whenever they liked, including in the middle of works.

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A new polemic from Oxford University Press, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance by Kenneth Hamilton, a professor at the University of Birmingham, argues that the worst excesses of the 19th century Romantic age of performance were more lively and fun than what he sees as today’s tedious and stuffy concert scene.

Hamilton lauds the clownish old pianist Vladimir de Pachmann (1848-1933), who was notorious for chatting with the audience during recitals, and occasionally exclaiming “Bravo, Pachmann!” when he had played a passage to his own satisfaction. Hamilton wants concert etiquette to hearken back to the 19th century’s so-called Golden Age. He feels that classical concerts would be improved if pianists today were more unfaithful to the printed notes, if they performed brief, isolated movements of sonatas instead of entire works, and if audiences felt free to applaud whenever they liked, including in the middle of works.

Hamilton must attend some odd concerts to inspire such notions. As for me, on November 3 at Carnegie Hall, I heard the pianist Murray Perahia in a recital of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin. Perahia plays Bach as love music, with plush, seamless legato and a strong sense of polyphony. Beethoven’s “Pastoral” sonata (1801) was played with an ideal sense of rubato, capturing the agitation that bubbles beneath even Beethoven’s works with tranquil-sounding subtitles. The “Pastoral”’s second movement “Andante,” played in a forward-moving yet mysterious way, showed Perahia at 60 to still be a youthful musician (his left hand ardently conducted while he played a passage for right hand alone). Perahia is in his prime today, as indeed are other magisterial pianists like Richard Goode, András Schiff, Maurizio Pollini, and Peter Serkin. Who needs Pachmann? Could our own time be a golden age of performance?

For me, the question was answered definitively on November 7 at Rockefeller University, where the Peggy Rockefeller Concerts series presented the Claremont Trio. Consisting of twin sisters Emily (violin) and Julia Bruskin (cello) with Donna Kwong (piano), the Claremonts, all in their mid-20’s, play and record with exceptional maturity. At Rockefeller University, they performed Schumann’s Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 63, capturing the composer’s obsessive energy, yet with deep feeling, which allowed Schumann’s romantic fantasy world to materialize. Despite their sylph-like appearances, the Bruskin sisters play their respective instruments with hearty, plangently eloquent tones.

A splendid up-and-coming ensemble like the Claremont Trio is the perfect counter-argument to any critic who bemoans the present or future of classical music. Learning from past great musicians—not freaks like Pachmann—is a sine qua non for today’s musicians, yet desperate nostalgia born of boredom obscures all the evidence that we are in fact living in our own golden age of performance. After hearing such spectacular concerts by exemplary artists like Perahia and the Claremont Trio, only a thick-skulled ingrate would react by complaining that something is wrong with classical music performance in our time.

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Evil Empire Symphonies

The announcement that the New York Philharmonic likely will travel to North Korea next February, at the behest of that country’s Culture Ministry, brings up memories of orchestral maneuvers during cold wars past. First Run Features has just issued on DVD the Oscar-winning 1979 documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, in which the great violinist hears direct testimony of the ghastly sufferings experienced by Chinese classical musicians during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Any trip to North Korea looks likely to be just as harrowing. Kim Jong Il, according to his official biography, has written 1,500 books and six operas, “all of which are better than any in the history of music.” In 2001, the University Press of the Pacific published Kim Jong Il’s Art of Opera, which contains such gems as: “An opera singer must sing well. A stage actor’s main task is to speak well and act well. While an opera singer’s main task is to sing well.” We are also informed that an “orchestra must accompany songs skillfully.” These gross banalities are natural from a philistine who requires that all music in his country be in praise of himself and Communism.

Jasper Becker’s Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea from Oxford University Press accuses Kim and his father Kim Il Sung of responsibility for the deaths of 7 million North Koreans from famine, war, and political oppression. Becker particularly condemns politicians, from Vladimir Putin to Madeleine Albright, who returned home after trips to North Korea reporting “how rational, well-informed, witty, charming, and deeply popular Kim Jong Il is.” This kind of flattering publicity is already being churned out by the Philharmonic, whose public relations director Eric Latzky informed the New York Times that Pyongyang, based on a preliminary visit, is “clean and orderly and not without beauty, and had a kind of high level of culture and intelligence.”

Isaac Stern visited Communist China after the worst of the Cultural Revolution was already past, but North Korea is still a tragedy-in-progress. In Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform, published earlier this year by Columbia University Press, co-authors Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland point out that Kim Jong Il’s “culpability in this vast misery elevates the North Korean famine to the level of a crime against humanity.” Mismanagement, after Soviet subsidies slowly stopped in the 1980’s, was aggravated by brutal state policies like the notorious 1991 “Eat Two Meals a Day” campaign and the 1997 songun or “military first” policy, giving the army and political hacks first claim on any foreign aid. Haggard and Noland state that by 2005, around 30 percent of foreign aid had been stolen by Kim and his cronies, while the famine deaths continued. New York Philharmonic musicians might choke on their after-concert dinners if they read these books. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but he was not a Philharmonic violinist.

The announcement that the New York Philharmonic likely will travel to North Korea next February, at the behest of that country’s Culture Ministry, brings up memories of orchestral maneuvers during cold wars past. First Run Features has just issued on DVD the Oscar-winning 1979 documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, in which the great violinist hears direct testimony of the ghastly sufferings experienced by Chinese classical musicians during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Any trip to North Korea looks likely to be just as harrowing. Kim Jong Il, according to his official biography, has written 1,500 books and six operas, “all of which are better than any in the history of music.” In 2001, the University Press of the Pacific published Kim Jong Il’s Art of Opera, which contains such gems as: “An opera singer must sing well. A stage actor’s main task is to speak well and act well. While an opera singer’s main task is to sing well.” We are also informed that an “orchestra must accompany songs skillfully.” These gross banalities are natural from a philistine who requires that all music in his country be in praise of himself and Communism.

Jasper Becker’s Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea from Oxford University Press accuses Kim and his father Kim Il Sung of responsibility for the deaths of 7 million North Koreans from famine, war, and political oppression. Becker particularly condemns politicians, from Vladimir Putin to Madeleine Albright, who returned home after trips to North Korea reporting “how rational, well-informed, witty, charming, and deeply popular Kim Jong Il is.” This kind of flattering publicity is already being churned out by the Philharmonic, whose public relations director Eric Latzky informed the New York Times that Pyongyang, based on a preliminary visit, is “clean and orderly and not without beauty, and had a kind of high level of culture and intelligence.”

Isaac Stern visited Communist China after the worst of the Cultural Revolution was already past, but North Korea is still a tragedy-in-progress. In Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform, published earlier this year by Columbia University Press, co-authors Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland point out that Kim Jong Il’s “culpability in this vast misery elevates the North Korean famine to the level of a crime against humanity.” Mismanagement, after Soviet subsidies slowly stopped in the 1980’s, was aggravated by brutal state policies like the notorious 1991 “Eat Two Meals a Day” campaign and the 1997 songun or “military first” policy, giving the army and political hacks first claim on any foreign aid. Haggard and Noland state that by 2005, around 30 percent of foreign aid had been stolen by Kim and his cronies, while the famine deaths continued. New York Philharmonic musicians might choke on their after-concert dinners if they read these books. Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but he was not a Philharmonic violinist.

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Cheapening Free Speech

When Columbia University invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak last month, the most common refrain uttered by the University’s defenders was that, by doing so, the University was honoring the time-tested and proudly American principle of “free speech.” This country was founded upon a resistance to monarchical authority; a corollary to that impulse is the individual’s freedom to say or publish what he thinks. No one can quibble with this understanding of a bedrock American freedom. But where Columbia’s defenders went wrong was in their contention that protesting Ahmadinejad’s presence would contradict thi fundamentally American notion.

This has always been a silly and unsophisticated understanding of what the Bill of Rights actually says, or what the “spirit” of free speech actually means. No one has denied Ahmadinejad a platform for his odious views; indeed, just the day after his rant at Columbia he was given an international soapbox at the United Nations General Assembly. And the fact that his views on matters ranging from the existence of the Holocaust to the future existence of Israel are so well known further lays waste to the claim that not inviting Ahmadinejad would strike a blow to “free speech.”

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When Columbia University invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak last month, the most common refrain uttered by the University’s defenders was that, by doing so, the University was honoring the time-tested and proudly American principle of “free speech.” This country was founded upon a resistance to monarchical authority; a corollary to that impulse is the individual’s freedom to say or publish what he thinks. No one can quibble with this understanding of a bedrock American freedom. But where Columbia’s defenders went wrong was in their contention that protesting Ahmadinejad’s presence would contradict thi fundamentally American notion.

This has always been a silly and unsophisticated understanding of what the Bill of Rights actually says, or what the “spirit” of free speech actually means. No one has denied Ahmadinejad a platform for his odious views; indeed, just the day after his rant at Columbia he was given an international soapbox at the United Nations General Assembly. And the fact that his views on matters ranging from the existence of the Holocaust to the future existence of Israel are so well known further lays waste to the claim that not inviting Ahmadinejad would strike a blow to “free speech.”

What ultimately mattered was that a distinguished University lent credence to his views. Columbia’s physics department would never host a speech by a member of the Flat Earth Society, nor should it. People who think the moon landing was a hoax or that the Holocaust never happened have every right to utter and publish these beliefs; they have no “right” to a speaking engagement at an Ivy League School.

This crucial distinction is one that has long been lost on those people who organize events on college campuses. The latest example occurs across the pond at Oxford University, where the Oxford Union—the school’s prestigious debating society that counts leading politicians, journalists, and business leaders as alumnae—has invited a rogue’s gallery to take part in a “Free Speech Forum” set for the end of November. The Union has already been excoriated by critics, as noted on contentions, for staging a debate on the Middle East conflict and loading it with anti-Israel activists.

Among those invited to the “Free Speech Forum” are David Irving (the notorious Holocaust denier), Nick Griffin (the leader of the anti-Semitic, racist, and fascist British National Party), and Alexander Lukoshenko, the dictator of Belarus. The Union’s president told the Guardian that, “The Oxford Union is famous for is commitment to free speech and although I do think these people have awful and abhorrent views I do think Oxford students are intelligent enough to challenge and ridicule them.” Indeed, one Oxford Union committee member even used Columbia’s example as a justification for the invite: “If Columbia can invite Ahmadinejad, then why shouldn’t we invite Irving?” Thankfully, Lukoshenko is under a European Union travel ban and will not be able to attend. Unfortunately, both the fascist and the Holocaust denier have indicated their eager anticipation.

The primary outcome of this invitation is the Oxford Union’s discrediting of itself. As with Ahmadinejad at Columbia, there is nothing to be “learned” from engaging in dialogue with fascists and Holocaust-deniers. Oxford students are indeed an “intelligent” bunch: all the more reason that they do not need to spend an evening listening to these men, thus granting them legitimacy. One presumes that the motivating impulse behind Oxford’s “Free Speech Forum” is to present some of the most outlandish views possible. But the purpose of freedom of speech is to elevate discussion and broaden our common understanding, not to promote lies and hate (Griffin’s and Irving’s specialty).

To honor “free speech,” ought not the Oxford Union instead extend invitations to individuals living in countries where the principle is non-existent? Why not invite democracy activists in China or exiled Zimbabwean journalists, of which there is no shortage in the United Kingdom?

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A Most Superior Person

Long before Lord Curzon became foreign secretary and viceroy of India, a fellow undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, summed up the future statesman in two immortal, ironic lines: “My name is George Nathaniel Curzon/ and I am a most superior person.”

I was reminded of Curzon while listening to the present chancellor of Oxford University address a fund-raising dinner in the City of London for the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Chris Patten—or Baron Patten of Barnes, Companion of Honor and Privy Counsellor, to give him his full title—is what passes for a most superior person in England these days.

Once a speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher—a fact that is now a source of mutual embarrassment—Patten rose to be a cabinet minister and chairman of the Conservative party before the electors of Bath ejected him unceremoniously from Parliament in 1992. This meant that Patten was unable to take up the post he had coveted and been promised, namely foreign secretary. However, then-Prime Minister John Major gave him the consolation prize of making him the last governor of Hong Kong. Read More

Long before Lord Curzon became foreign secretary and viceroy of India, a fellow undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, summed up the future statesman in two immortal, ironic lines: “My name is George Nathaniel Curzon/ and I am a most superior person.”

I was reminded of Curzon while listening to the present chancellor of Oxford University address a fund-raising dinner in the City of London for the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Chris Patten—or Baron Patten of Barnes, Companion of Honor and Privy Counsellor, to give him his full title—is what passes for a most superior person in England these days.

Once a speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher—a fact that is now a source of mutual embarrassment—Patten rose to be a cabinet minister and chairman of the Conservative party before the electors of Bath ejected him unceremoniously from Parliament in 1992. This meant that Patten was unable to take up the post he had coveted and been promised, namely foreign secretary. However, then-Prime Minister John Major gave him the consolation prize of making him the last governor of Hong Kong. In 1999, two years after handing over the colony, Patten was parachuted into Brussels to take up the post of European commissioner for external relations. Despite bearing considerable responsibility for the European Union’s animus against the Bush administration during the period before and after the invasion of Iraq, Patten was not considered sufficiently anti-American by the French and the Germans, and so he failed in his bid for the presidency of the European Commission. On his return to England in 2004, he was rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords.

Thwarted in politics, Patten has carved out a new career for himself as the figurehead of one of the most famous universities in the world. In liberal donnish circles, he is fêted as a most superior spokesperson. And it was in this capacity that he spoke last Thursday.

In the course of his speech, which dealt with the alleged threat that what he called “identity politics” poses to Britain’s domestic peace, Patten compared the situation of British Muslims today with that of British Catholics during the IRA terrorist campaign between 1969 and 1998. But Patten, who authored the Patten Report on the policing of Northern Ireland, should know better than anyone how suspect this analogy is.

A few weeks before Patten’s speech, in fact, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, the head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, anticipated and deconstructed precisely this analogy, contrasting al Qaeda’s nature and methods with those of the IRA. He called the latter “a domestic campaign using conventional weaponry, carried out by terrorists in tightly knit networks who were desperate to avoid capture and certainly had no wish to die.” The threat from al Qaeda, on the other hand, “is global in origin, reach, and ambition. The networks are large, fluid, mobile, and incredibly resilient.” Suicide is normal. “There is no evidence of looking to restrict casualties. There are no warnings given. . . . [T]he intention is to kill as many people as possible. We have seen both conventional and unconventional weaponry, and to date . . . there has not been an obvious political agenda around which meaningful negotiations can be built.”

Patten’s analogy ignores another highly significant fact cited by Clarke. IRA terrorists were eventually forced to abandon “the armed struggle” because they enjoyed virtually no support from Catholics in mainland Britain. British Muslims, by contrast, appear reluctant to help the police to detect, arrest, and convict al-Qaeda terrorists. As Clarke put it bluntly: “Almost all of our prosecutions have their origins in intelligence that came from overseas, the intelligence agencies, or from technical means. Few have yet originated from what is sometimes called ‘community intelligence.’” For whatever reasons, British Muslims are not yet prepared to inform on other Muslims.

And as Patten’s wrongheaded comparison might suggest, he sees himself engaged in quite a different battle—not against European Islamists at all, but against American neoconservatives. In his latest book, Not Quite the Diplomat, he writes: “There is still, in America—in newspaper columns, think tanks, academia, Congress, and the administration—an intellectual battle to be won. Even the Iraq debacle has not permanently silenced all the sovereigntists and neoconservatives.” Lord Patten may fancy himself intellectually superior to these poor benighted neocons, but he deceives himself if he thinks the so-called realists have won. The only thing that would silence the neoconservatives—those who want to defeat the jihad rather than appease it or pretend it doesn’t exist—would be a final victory for the Islamists. And should that happen, I suspect Patten might find himself silenced as well.

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The Man Who Gave the Qur’an to the West

So much controversy now surrounds the interpretation of the Qur’an that it is perhaps worth recalling the man who gave us the first reliable translation into any language: George Sale. So little regarded were Oriental scholars in his day that we do not even know his date of birth, but we know that when he died in 1736 he was not quite forty. Sale was praised for the accuracy of his scholarship by Voltaire and Gibbon, but the former mistakenly claimed that Sale had spent 25 years living in the Middle East, while Gibbon mischievously suggested that the work of translation had left Sale “half a Mussulman.” Deists such as Voltaire and Gibbon admired Islam more than Christianity, but the suggestion that Sale placed the two religions on an equal footing was scandalous to most of his countrymen.

In reality, Sale not only did not travel in the Ottoman lands: he never even left England. He learned Arabic from the small community of Arabs living in London, and accumulated a small but valuable collection of manuscripts, which are now in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Sale remained a Christian, but he conceded that Mohammed “gave his Arabs the best religion he could, preferable, at least, to those of the ancient pagan lawgivers.” He appended to his translation, which first appeared in 1734, a “Preliminary Discourse” of more than a hundred pages, which gives a remarkably fair account of Islamic history and theology.

Sale made his living as an attorney, and he dedicated his translation to Lord Carteret, which suggests that he had at least one patron. Yet he is reported by Isaac Disraeli (father of Benjamin) to have “pursued his studies through a life of want.” In his Calamities of Authors, Disraeli asserts that “this great Orientalist . . . when he quitted his studies, all too often wanted a change of linen, and often wandered in the streets in search of some compassionate friend who would supply him with the meal of the day.” The Dictionary of National Biography rejects this claim on the grounds that Sale possessed a library, but it seems to me quite possible that the great scholar preferred to go hungry and unwashed rather than to part with his books and manuscripts.

The central defect of Sale’s version is that he translates the Qur’an as prose rather than poetry, ignoring the division of the text into verses—though by turning it into a continuous narrative, he certainly renders the Qur’an more readable. His language is simple yet elevated; it recalls not only the King James Bible but also his contemporaries: John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and David Hume. The most sensitive passages, on issues such as jihad and the treatment of infidels, are clear and unambiguous. There may be more modern translations of the Qur’an—but Sale’s still remains the best prose.

So much controversy now surrounds the interpretation of the Qur’an that it is perhaps worth recalling the man who gave us the first reliable translation into any language: George Sale. So little regarded were Oriental scholars in his day that we do not even know his date of birth, but we know that when he died in 1736 he was not quite forty. Sale was praised for the accuracy of his scholarship by Voltaire and Gibbon, but the former mistakenly claimed that Sale had spent 25 years living in the Middle East, while Gibbon mischievously suggested that the work of translation had left Sale “half a Mussulman.” Deists such as Voltaire and Gibbon admired Islam more than Christianity, but the suggestion that Sale placed the two religions on an equal footing was scandalous to most of his countrymen.

In reality, Sale not only did not travel in the Ottoman lands: he never even left England. He learned Arabic from the small community of Arabs living in London, and accumulated a small but valuable collection of manuscripts, which are now in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Sale remained a Christian, but he conceded that Mohammed “gave his Arabs the best religion he could, preferable, at least, to those of the ancient pagan lawgivers.” He appended to his translation, which first appeared in 1734, a “Preliminary Discourse” of more than a hundred pages, which gives a remarkably fair account of Islamic history and theology.

Sale made his living as an attorney, and he dedicated his translation to Lord Carteret, which suggests that he had at least one patron. Yet he is reported by Isaac Disraeli (father of Benjamin) to have “pursued his studies through a life of want.” In his Calamities of Authors, Disraeli asserts that “this great Orientalist . . . when he quitted his studies, all too often wanted a change of linen, and often wandered in the streets in search of some compassionate friend who would supply him with the meal of the day.” The Dictionary of National Biography rejects this claim on the grounds that Sale possessed a library, but it seems to me quite possible that the great scholar preferred to go hungry and unwashed rather than to part with his books and manuscripts.

The central defect of Sale’s version is that he translates the Qur’an as prose rather than poetry, ignoring the division of the text into verses—though by turning it into a continuous narrative, he certainly renders the Qur’an more readable. His language is simple yet elevated; it recalls not only the King James Bible but also his contemporaries: John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and David Hume. The most sensitive passages, on issues such as jihad and the treatment of infidels, are clear and unambiguous. There may be more modern translations of the Qur’an—but Sale’s still remains the best prose.

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