Commentary Magazine


Topic: Oxford

Obama After the Fall

After watching President Obama’s press conference, Democrats who are still left standing must have been mortified. The depth of his self-delusion was stunning.

To put things in perspective: the Democratic Party just suffered the worst repudiation any political party has since before the middle of the last century. The defeat was staggering in the House (where Republicans will net more than 60 seats), in the Senate (+6 for the GOP), and in races for governorships (where the GOP has a net gain of six, with a couple of contests still outstanding). Republicans also took control of at least 19 legislative chambers and gained more than 500 legislative seats. No region in America, not even the Northeast, was untouched by the Republican wave.

If you listened to the president, though, the “shellacking” was because of process rather than substance. ObamaCare, he assured us, is a sparkling, wondrous law; the only downside to it was the horse-trading that went on to secure its passage. They would be “misreading the election,” the president helpfully informed Republicans, if they decide to “relitigate the arguments of the last two years.”

The message from the voters, according to Obama, is that The Car (to use his beloved, overused analogy), while still in the ditch, is undeniably moving in the right direction. We just have to go faster than we are. Democratic losses can be explained because they lost the optics war: in pursuing so many wise and prudent policies all at once, you see, the hyperactive president and his administration only appeared as if they were profligate spenders and champions of big government. And what Mr. Obama most needs to do, we learned, is to get out of “the bubble” (read: Washington) more than he has. A few more trips to Idaho and Wyoming, it seems, and all would be right with the world once more.

And what set of Obama remarks would be complete without the requisite lecturing — in this case, on the importance of “civility in our discourse” and the importance of being able to “disagree without being disagreeable.” This admonition comes after Obama, during the last few days of the campaign, referred to his opponents as “enemies,” hinted that the Tea Party Movement is tinged with racism, charged Republicans with being dishonest, and accused, without a shred of evidence, the Chamber of Commerce of using illegal money to support Republican candidates across the country. But never mind. After his victory in 2008, Obama’s message to Republicans was: “I won.” Today, after his party was throttled, Obama’s message is: “Come let us reason together.”

What we saw today was less a president than a dogmatist — a man who appears to have an extraordinary capacity to hermetically seal off events and evidence that call into question his governing philosophy, his policies, and his wisdom. The election yesterday was above all a referendum on the president’s policies, yet his big takeaway was not to relitigate his agenda. He speaks as if he’s a lawyer rather than a lawmaker.

There was, to be sure, a concession here and there, around this edge and that. But one could not come away from Obama’s press conference without feeling that there isn’t anything substantive he would change about the past two years — that at the core of his problems is the inability of the polity to more fully apprehend his greatness.

“During my four years at Oxford I read hard, and finished with a considerable stock of miscellaneous knowledge,” Lord Tweedsmuir wrote in his memoirs. “That mattered little, but the trend which my mind acquired mattered much. … More and more I became skeptical of dogmas, looking upon them as questions rather than answers. … The limited outlook of my early youth had broadened.”

It is the trend of Obama’s mind — rigid, ideological, and self-justifying — that should worry Democrats. The author of one of the worst political debacles in American history seems to have learned almost nothing from it.

After watching President Obama’s press conference, Democrats who are still left standing must have been mortified. The depth of his self-delusion was stunning.

To put things in perspective: the Democratic Party just suffered the worst repudiation any political party has since before the middle of the last century. The defeat was staggering in the House (where Republicans will net more than 60 seats), in the Senate (+6 for the GOP), and in races for governorships (where the GOP has a net gain of six, with a couple of contests still outstanding). Republicans also took control of at least 19 legislative chambers and gained more than 500 legislative seats. No region in America, not even the Northeast, was untouched by the Republican wave.

If you listened to the president, though, the “shellacking” was because of process rather than substance. ObamaCare, he assured us, is a sparkling, wondrous law; the only downside to it was the horse-trading that went on to secure its passage. They would be “misreading the election,” the president helpfully informed Republicans, if they decide to “relitigate the arguments of the last two years.”

The message from the voters, according to Obama, is that The Car (to use his beloved, overused analogy), while still in the ditch, is undeniably moving in the right direction. We just have to go faster than we are. Democratic losses can be explained because they lost the optics war: in pursuing so many wise and prudent policies all at once, you see, the hyperactive president and his administration only appeared as if they were profligate spenders and champions of big government. And what Mr. Obama most needs to do, we learned, is to get out of “the bubble” (read: Washington) more than he has. A few more trips to Idaho and Wyoming, it seems, and all would be right with the world once more.

And what set of Obama remarks would be complete without the requisite lecturing — in this case, on the importance of “civility in our discourse” and the importance of being able to “disagree without being disagreeable.” This admonition comes after Obama, during the last few days of the campaign, referred to his opponents as “enemies,” hinted that the Tea Party Movement is tinged with racism, charged Republicans with being dishonest, and accused, without a shred of evidence, the Chamber of Commerce of using illegal money to support Republican candidates across the country. But never mind. After his victory in 2008, Obama’s message to Republicans was: “I won.” Today, after his party was throttled, Obama’s message is: “Come let us reason together.”

What we saw today was less a president than a dogmatist — a man who appears to have an extraordinary capacity to hermetically seal off events and evidence that call into question his governing philosophy, his policies, and his wisdom. The election yesterday was above all a referendum on the president’s policies, yet his big takeaway was not to relitigate his agenda. He speaks as if he’s a lawyer rather than a lawmaker.

There was, to be sure, a concession here and there, around this edge and that. But one could not come away from Obama’s press conference without feeling that there isn’t anything substantive he would change about the past two years — that at the core of his problems is the inability of the polity to more fully apprehend his greatness.

“During my four years at Oxford I read hard, and finished with a considerable stock of miscellaneous knowledge,” Lord Tweedsmuir wrote in his memoirs. “That mattered little, but the trend which my mind acquired mattered much. … More and more I became skeptical of dogmas, looking upon them as questions rather than answers. … The limited outlook of my early youth had broadened.”

It is the trend of Obama’s mind — rigid, ideological, and self-justifying — that should worry Democrats. The author of one of the worst political debacles in American history seems to have learned almost nothing from it.

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Obama Is No FDR

Jen references Michael Gerson’s devastating Washington Post column in which he calls President Obama an intellectual snob. Equally interesting, I think, is a front-page article in today’s New York Times, with its simply astonishing opening sentence: “It took President Obama 18 months to invite the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, to the White House for a one-on-one chat.” Who was it who ran for president as a “post-partisan,” and who was going to bring a new way of doing things to Washington?

The Times notes that, “Mr. Obama came to office vowing to reach across the aisle and change the tone in Washington, a goal he quickly abandoned when Republicans stood in lockstep against his stimulus bill.” The Republicans, of course, “stood in lockstep” against the stimulus bill because they were completely frozen out of any role in shaping it. (By the way, my inner copy editor shudders at the metaphor “stood in lockstep.” “Lockstep” is a mode of marching, not standing, but…) It was needless, counterproductive, and, alas, typical behavior on Obama’s part.

As Gershon points out, Franklin Roosevelt was an aristocrat to his fingertips, complete with Mayflower ancestors, a mansion overlooking the Hudson, a large trust fund, the right schools, the right clubs, and a “Park Avenue Oxford” accent. But he “was able to convince millions of average Americans that he was firmly on their side.” Obama has convinced millions of Americans that he regards them as fools, too scared to think straight.

The constitutional scholar in the White House might want to take a look at the Constitution’s preamble and refresh his memory as to who it was who ordained and established the government he heads. They’re going to be heard a week from tomorrow, and I don’t think President Obama is going to like what they have to say.

Jen references Michael Gerson’s devastating Washington Post column in which he calls President Obama an intellectual snob. Equally interesting, I think, is a front-page article in today’s New York Times, with its simply astonishing opening sentence: “It took President Obama 18 months to invite the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, to the White House for a one-on-one chat.” Who was it who ran for president as a “post-partisan,” and who was going to bring a new way of doing things to Washington?

The Times notes that, “Mr. Obama came to office vowing to reach across the aisle and change the tone in Washington, a goal he quickly abandoned when Republicans stood in lockstep against his stimulus bill.” The Republicans, of course, “stood in lockstep” against the stimulus bill because they were completely frozen out of any role in shaping it. (By the way, my inner copy editor shudders at the metaphor “stood in lockstep.” “Lockstep” is a mode of marching, not standing, but…) It was needless, counterproductive, and, alas, typical behavior on Obama’s part.

As Gershon points out, Franklin Roosevelt was an aristocrat to his fingertips, complete with Mayflower ancestors, a mansion overlooking the Hudson, a large trust fund, the right schools, the right clubs, and a “Park Avenue Oxford” accent. But he “was able to convince millions of average Americans that he was firmly on their side.” Obama has convinced millions of Americans that he regards them as fools, too scared to think straight.

The constitutional scholar in the White House might want to take a look at the Constitution’s preamble and refresh his memory as to who it was who ordained and established the government he heads. They’re going to be heard a week from tomorrow, and I don’t think President Obama is going to like what they have to say.

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Ignoring the Enemy

Cliff May has an important piece on the West’s reluctance to recognize the nature of the enemy we face:

We Americans are uncomfortable with such ideas as holy war and religiously motivated mass murder. Raised to believe in equality, tolerance, and diversity, we cannot imagine slaughtering fellow human beings so that adherents of the “true faith” might prevail over “enemies of God.” Nor can most of us imagine others acting in this way. Our imaginations are failing us.

As May explains, the averting-our-eyes problem is exacerbated by dim liberals searching for sociological or economic motivations for terrorists and by jihadist propagandists:

For example, Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born academic — he holds the His Highness Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Chair in Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford (no kidding) — last week told the Washington Post that jihad “has nothing to do with holy war. … Where you are trying to resist bad temptations and reform yourself with good aspirations that you have, this is a jihad of the self.”

What makes this lie so brazen — though the Post did not think to question it — is that Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Banna himself stated clearly that the Qur’an and other Islamic doctrines “summon people … to jihad, to warfare, to the armed forces, and all means of land and sea fighting.”

But, of course, the current administration has made the problem much worse, by refusing to name the enemy and by systematically downplaying in our Middle East diplomacy the nature of the jihadist threat. (This was on display in the Rashad Hussain interview, even as corrected by the State Department.) This only undermines the position of moderate Muslims:

Commenting on the Times Square bombing attempt, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a prominent American Muslim reformer, stated what so many others will not: “Islamists are at war intellectually and kinetically with western liberal democracies.” He added that while Americans are often the victims, “most Islamists globally actually target moderate Muslims who are their greatest existential threat.”

Anti-Islamist Muslims know, too, that the Islamists have not “hijacked” a “religion of peace,” comforting as that might be for us to believe. Islamists are fundamentalists, not heretics. Their reading of Islam is neither new nor unorthodox. They advocate a return to Islam as it was practiced in the seventh century. In that era, Islam was, without apology or ambiguity, a warrior faith dedicated to conquest — with power, wealth, and glory accruing to conquerors.

Americans’ natural disinclination to take at face value the extremist ideology of its foes can only be corrected by leadership from the president and his administration. It is their obligation to explain what we are fighting, to give support to anti-jihadist Muslims, and to focus all our anti-terror policies on aggressively combating an ideological foe. Until this is accomplished, we remain at a severe disadvantage against an enemy that suffers no lack of clarity, determination, and ideological focus.

Cliff May has an important piece on the West’s reluctance to recognize the nature of the enemy we face:

We Americans are uncomfortable with such ideas as holy war and religiously motivated mass murder. Raised to believe in equality, tolerance, and diversity, we cannot imagine slaughtering fellow human beings so that adherents of the “true faith” might prevail over “enemies of God.” Nor can most of us imagine others acting in this way. Our imaginations are failing us.

As May explains, the averting-our-eyes problem is exacerbated by dim liberals searching for sociological or economic motivations for terrorists and by jihadist propagandists:

For example, Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born academic — he holds the His Highness Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Chair in Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford (no kidding) — last week told the Washington Post that jihad “has nothing to do with holy war. … Where you are trying to resist bad temptations and reform yourself with good aspirations that you have, this is a jihad of the self.”

What makes this lie so brazen — though the Post did not think to question it — is that Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, who in 1928 founded the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Banna himself stated clearly that the Qur’an and other Islamic doctrines “summon people … to jihad, to warfare, to the armed forces, and all means of land and sea fighting.”

But, of course, the current administration has made the problem much worse, by refusing to name the enemy and by systematically downplaying in our Middle East diplomacy the nature of the jihadist threat. (This was on display in the Rashad Hussain interview, even as corrected by the State Department.) This only undermines the position of moderate Muslims:

Commenting on the Times Square bombing attempt, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, a prominent American Muslim reformer, stated what so many others will not: “Islamists are at war intellectually and kinetically with western liberal democracies.” He added that while Americans are often the victims, “most Islamists globally actually target moderate Muslims who are their greatest existential threat.”

Anti-Islamist Muslims know, too, that the Islamists have not “hijacked” a “religion of peace,” comforting as that might be for us to believe. Islamists are fundamentalists, not heretics. Their reading of Islam is neither new nor unorthodox. They advocate a return to Islam as it was practiced in the seventh century. In that era, Islam was, without apology or ambiguity, a warrior faith dedicated to conquest — with power, wealth, and glory accruing to conquerors.

Americans’ natural disinclination to take at face value the extremist ideology of its foes can only be corrected by leadership from the president and his administration. It is their obligation to explain what we are fighting, to give support to anti-jihadist Muslims, and to focus all our anti-terror policies on aggressively combating an ideological foe. Until this is accomplished, we remain at a severe disadvantage against an enemy that suffers no lack of clarity, determination, and ideological focus.

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The Times They Are a-Changin’

The Financial Times published a piece, “Don’t Be So Sure Invading Iraq Was Immoral,” written by Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford, a leading theologian and moral philosopher. According to Professor Biggar:

The decisive issue in evaluating the Iraq invasion is not whether it was morally flawed or disproportionate or illegal, but whether it was really necessary to stop or prevent a sufficiently great evil.

No one disputes that Saddam Hussein’s regime was grossly atrocious. In 1988 it used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in what, according to Human Rights Watch, amounted to genocide; and from 1988 to 2003 it murdered at least 400,000 of its own people. Critics of the invasion would presumably not tolerate such a regime in their own backyard; and an effective international policing authority would have changed it. Is the coalition to be condemned for filling the vacuum? Yes, there have been similar vacuums that it (and others) have failed to fill – Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Darfur. But is it not better to be inconsistently responsible than

consistently irresponsible?

Now add the concern about weapons of mass destruction. This was sufficiently grave to rouse the UN to litter the period 1991-2003 with 17 resolutions calling on Saddam to disarm permanently. Given the shocking discovery in the mid-1990s of Iraq’s success in enriching uranium and coming within 24 months of nuclear armament, and given the regime’s persistent flouting of the UN’s will, there was good reason to withhold benefit of doubt and to suppose that it was developing WMDs. It was not just Messrs Bush and Blair who supposed this. So did Jacques Chirac, then French president, and Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector.

We now know this reasonable supposition was mistaken and that the problem was less urgent than it appeared. But it was still urgent. Saddam was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and support for containment was dissolving. David Kelly, Britain ’s chief expert on Iraqi WMDs, famous for being driven to commit suicide, is less famous for being convinced that the problem’s only lasting solution was regime-change.

Maybe critics of the war view with equanimity what might have happened without the 2003 invasion, trusting that the secular rationality of Realpolitik would have prevented the rivalry between Iraq’s atrocious Saddam and Iran’s millenarian Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad from turning catastrophically nuclear. In this age of suicide bombers, however, such faith is hard to credit.

Well said. And that it was said is further evidence, I think, that we are seeing a climate change when it comes to the debate about the Iraq war.

The Financial Times published a piece, “Don’t Be So Sure Invading Iraq Was Immoral,” written by Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford, a leading theologian and moral philosopher. According to Professor Biggar:

The decisive issue in evaluating the Iraq invasion is not whether it was morally flawed or disproportionate or illegal, but whether it was really necessary to stop or prevent a sufficiently great evil.

No one disputes that Saddam Hussein’s regime was grossly atrocious. In 1988 it used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in what, according to Human Rights Watch, amounted to genocide; and from 1988 to 2003 it murdered at least 400,000 of its own people. Critics of the invasion would presumably not tolerate such a regime in their own backyard; and an effective international policing authority would have changed it. Is the coalition to be condemned for filling the vacuum? Yes, there have been similar vacuums that it (and others) have failed to fill – Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Darfur. But is it not better to be inconsistently responsible than

consistently irresponsible?

Now add the concern about weapons of mass destruction. This was sufficiently grave to rouse the UN to litter the period 1991-2003 with 17 resolutions calling on Saddam to disarm permanently. Given the shocking discovery in the mid-1990s of Iraq’s success in enriching uranium and coming within 24 months of nuclear armament, and given the regime’s persistent flouting of the UN’s will, there was good reason to withhold benefit of doubt and to suppose that it was developing WMDs. It was not just Messrs Bush and Blair who supposed this. So did Jacques Chirac, then French president, and Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector.

We now know this reasonable supposition was mistaken and that the problem was less urgent than it appeared. But it was still urgent. Saddam was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and support for containment was dissolving. David Kelly, Britain ’s chief expert on Iraqi WMDs, famous for being driven to commit suicide, is less famous for being convinced that the problem’s only lasting solution was regime-change.

Maybe critics of the war view with equanimity what might have happened without the 2003 invasion, trusting that the secular rationality of Realpolitik would have prevented the rivalry between Iraq’s atrocious Saddam and Iran’s millenarian Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad from turning catastrophically nuclear. In this age of suicide bombers, however, such faith is hard to credit.

Well said. And that it was said is further evidence, I think, that we are seeing a climate change when it comes to the debate about the Iraq war.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Christopher Hitchens is out hawking his book with tales of his Oxford escapades. Alas, now “he’s a Dorian-Gray picture of his former self invoking the memory of it all to sell books this time around, and he’s given it—and himself—a very bad name indeed.”

In case there was any confusion about what the enemy is up to: “Al-Qaida’s American-born spokesman on Sunday called on Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces to emulate the Army major charged with killing 13 people in Fort Hood. In a 25-minute video posted on militant Web sites, Adam Gadahn described Maj. Nidal Hasan as a pioneer who should serve as a role model for other Muslims, especially those serving Western militaries. ‘Brother Nidal is the ideal role-model for every repentant Muslim in the armies of the unbelievers and apostate regimes,’ he said.”

This was televised on C-SPAN: “Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich talked about ethics in politics. Following his remarks he responded to questions from law professors. The panel included Professors Tonja Jacobi, Donald Gordon, and Donna Leff.” (h/t Taegan Goddard) Seems better suited to Comedy Central.

Who better to send on a fool’s errand? “U.S. President Barack Obama dispatches his vice president to the Middle East on Sunday to try to build support for reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks despite deep skepticism on both sides.”

Clark Hoyt gets around to discussing the latest plagiarism scandal at the New York Times involving now departed Zachery Kouwe. He wonders: “How did his serial plagiarism happen and go undetected for so long? Why were warning signs overlooked? Was there anything at fault in the culture of DealBook, the hyper-competitive news blog on which Kouwe worked? And, now that the investigation is complete, what about a full accounting to readers?” Well, for starters, the Times let Maureen Dowd get away with plagiarism, so maybe Kouwe got the idea that it wasn’t really a “mortal journalistic sin.”

David Freddoso on the ongoing sanctimony festival: “‘Bankers don’t need another vote in the United States Senate,’ President Obama said as he urged Massachusetts voters to support Attorney General Martha Coakley over Republican Scott Brown. He also railed against ‘the same fat-cats who are getting rewarded for their failure.’ But in Illinois, Democrats have nominated a banker for Obama’s old Senate seat. Not only is Alexi Giannoulias’s family bank on the verge of failing, but he has a golden parachute made of federal tax refunds.”

Like all those Iran deadlines, no real deadline on ObamaCare: “Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Sunday dodged a series of questions about the White House’s plans for healthcare reform in the event lawmakers failed to pass it by the Easter recess. When asked on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ whether President Barack Obama would still pursue that legislation after the break, Sebelius offered no direct answer, only stressing, ‘I think we’ll have the votes when the leadership decides to call the votes, and I think it will pass.'”

Dana Perino on Fox News Sunday sums up the difficulty in rounding up votes for ObamaCare: “I think that a lot of the details just are now going past people’s heads and that the fundamental problem for the Democrats is that people do not want the big government spending. They don’t want the big program. They don’t understand why they’re pushing so hard on this and not on jobs. And it occurs to me that you can only vote against your constituents so many times before they start to vote against you.”

Robert Zelnick is very upset to learn that the Gray Lady doesn’t report news adverse to Obama. On Obama’s Medicare gimmickry: “The Times should, of course, be over this story like flies at a picnic table.Where will the money come from, Mr. President? Is there any precedent for draining funds like this from one soon-to-be insolvent program to another? Have you computed how the projected cuts in payment to doctors would affect the supply of physicians, the quality of medicine practiced, the health and longevity of the American people? Aren’t we really dealing with a series of misrepresentations — both explicit and implicit — unprecedented in the nation’s history.”

Reason to celebrate: “Defying a sustained barrage of mortars and rockets in Baghdad and other cities, Iraqis went to the polls in numbers on Sunday to choose a new parliament meant to outlast the American military presence here. … Insurgents here vowed to disrupt the election, and the concerted wave of attacks — as many as 100 thunderous blasts in the capital alone starting just before the polls opened — did frighten voters away, but only initially. The shrugging response of voters could signal a fundamental weakening of the insurgency’s potency.” And reason to be so very proud of one of the greatest military forces ever assembled, which, despite the naysayers, freed Iraqis from a brutal dictatorship.

Christopher Hitchens is out hawking his book with tales of his Oxford escapades. Alas, now “he’s a Dorian-Gray picture of his former self invoking the memory of it all to sell books this time around, and he’s given it—and himself—a very bad name indeed.”

In case there was any confusion about what the enemy is up to: “Al-Qaida’s American-born spokesman on Sunday called on Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces to emulate the Army major charged with killing 13 people in Fort Hood. In a 25-minute video posted on militant Web sites, Adam Gadahn described Maj. Nidal Hasan as a pioneer who should serve as a role model for other Muslims, especially those serving Western militaries. ‘Brother Nidal is the ideal role-model for every repentant Muslim in the armies of the unbelievers and apostate regimes,’ he said.”

This was televised on C-SPAN: “Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich talked about ethics in politics. Following his remarks he responded to questions from law professors. The panel included Professors Tonja Jacobi, Donald Gordon, and Donna Leff.” (h/t Taegan Goddard) Seems better suited to Comedy Central.

Who better to send on a fool’s errand? “U.S. President Barack Obama dispatches his vice president to the Middle East on Sunday to try to build support for reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks despite deep skepticism on both sides.”

Clark Hoyt gets around to discussing the latest plagiarism scandal at the New York Times involving now departed Zachery Kouwe. He wonders: “How did his serial plagiarism happen and go undetected for so long? Why were warning signs overlooked? Was there anything at fault in the culture of DealBook, the hyper-competitive news blog on which Kouwe worked? And, now that the investigation is complete, what about a full accounting to readers?” Well, for starters, the Times let Maureen Dowd get away with plagiarism, so maybe Kouwe got the idea that it wasn’t really a “mortal journalistic sin.”

David Freddoso on the ongoing sanctimony festival: “‘Bankers don’t need another vote in the United States Senate,’ President Obama said as he urged Massachusetts voters to support Attorney General Martha Coakley over Republican Scott Brown. He also railed against ‘the same fat-cats who are getting rewarded for their failure.’ But in Illinois, Democrats have nominated a banker for Obama’s old Senate seat. Not only is Alexi Giannoulias’s family bank on the verge of failing, but he has a golden parachute made of federal tax refunds.”

Like all those Iran deadlines, no real deadline on ObamaCare: “Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Sunday dodged a series of questions about the White House’s plans for healthcare reform in the event lawmakers failed to pass it by the Easter recess. When asked on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ whether President Barack Obama would still pursue that legislation after the break, Sebelius offered no direct answer, only stressing, ‘I think we’ll have the votes when the leadership decides to call the votes, and I think it will pass.'”

Dana Perino on Fox News Sunday sums up the difficulty in rounding up votes for ObamaCare: “I think that a lot of the details just are now going past people’s heads and that the fundamental problem for the Democrats is that people do not want the big government spending. They don’t want the big program. They don’t understand why they’re pushing so hard on this and not on jobs. And it occurs to me that you can only vote against your constituents so many times before they start to vote against you.”

Robert Zelnick is very upset to learn that the Gray Lady doesn’t report news adverse to Obama. On Obama’s Medicare gimmickry: “The Times should, of course, be over this story like flies at a picnic table.Where will the money come from, Mr. President? Is there any precedent for draining funds like this from one soon-to-be insolvent program to another? Have you computed how the projected cuts in payment to doctors would affect the supply of physicians, the quality of medicine practiced, the health and longevity of the American people? Aren’t we really dealing with a series of misrepresentations — both explicit and implicit — unprecedented in the nation’s history.”

Reason to celebrate: “Defying a sustained barrage of mortars and rockets in Baghdad and other cities, Iraqis went to the polls in numbers on Sunday to choose a new parliament meant to outlast the American military presence here. … Insurgents here vowed to disrupt the election, and the concerted wave of attacks — as many as 100 thunderous blasts in the capital alone starting just before the polls opened — did frighten voters away, but only initially. The shrugging response of voters could signal a fundamental weakening of the insurgency’s potency.” And reason to be so very proud of one of the greatest military forces ever assembled, which, despite the naysayers, freed Iraqis from a brutal dictatorship.

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IQ2

Political and policy debates in America are too often conducted either with soundbites or speeches. There is not much tradition in this country of Oxford-style debates in which two teams of debaters try to win over the audience with a combination of facts and clever rhetoric. Even on the floor of Congress, lawmakers tend to talk past one another. And on TV the “Firing Line” debates expired almost a decade ago.

That’s a shortfall that Robert Rosenkranz, a New York financier and philanthropist, decided to remedy. In September 2006 he created an American analog to the Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate series which has been a long-running hit in London. The U.S. version of IQ2 has been equally successfully, playing to sold-out audiences at the Asia Society in New York and to a much larger audience via National Public Radio.

I’ve been a member of the IQ2US advisory board from the start but hadn’t participated in a debate until now. On Wednesday I was part of a team of three, along with Johns Hopkins scholar Michael Mandelbaum and British think tanker Douglas Murray, speaking in favor of the motion, “Resolved, America should be the world’s policeman.” Our adversaries were Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry Stimson Center in Washington; Ian Bremmer, head of the Eurasia Group (a consulting firm); and Matthew Parris, a columnist for the Times of London.

Notwithstanding a snowstorm raging outside, the turnout was good and the debate was lively. Parris went a bit too far in mocking the members of our team, but other than that the debate was conducted on the merits. (For a transcript, see here; it will be aired on NPR stations starting next week.) Various arguments and counterarguments were aired and audience members drew their conclusions. At the end, I was amazed to find that the debate had actually swayed many of those in the room.

At the beginning of the night, 24% of the audience voted in favor of the motion that “America should be the world’s policeman,” while 44% were against and 32% undecided. At the end, 47% voted for the motion, 48% against, and only 5% were still undecided. Although we lost by one point, I think that counts as a moral victory for our side. It’s nice to know that even in a liberal bastion like New York there are still a lot of people who understand the good that America does by policing the globe. Just as importantly, it’s good to see the spirit of reasoned debate alive at a time when snarling talking heads appear to reign supreme.

Political and policy debates in America are too often conducted either with soundbites or speeches. There is not much tradition in this country of Oxford-style debates in which two teams of debaters try to win over the audience with a combination of facts and clever rhetoric. Even on the floor of Congress, lawmakers tend to talk past one another. And on TV the “Firing Line” debates expired almost a decade ago.

That’s a shortfall that Robert Rosenkranz, a New York financier and philanthropist, decided to remedy. In September 2006 he created an American analog to the Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate series which has been a long-running hit in London. The U.S. version of IQ2 has been equally successfully, playing to sold-out audiences at the Asia Society in New York and to a much larger audience via National Public Radio.

I’ve been a member of the IQ2US advisory board from the start but hadn’t participated in a debate until now. On Wednesday I was part of a team of three, along with Johns Hopkins scholar Michael Mandelbaum and British think tanker Douglas Murray, speaking in favor of the motion, “Resolved, America should be the world’s policeman.” Our adversaries were Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry Stimson Center in Washington; Ian Bremmer, head of the Eurasia Group (a consulting firm); and Matthew Parris, a columnist for the Times of London.

Notwithstanding a snowstorm raging outside, the turnout was good and the debate was lively. Parris went a bit too far in mocking the members of our team, but other than that the debate was conducted on the merits. (For a transcript, see here; it will be aired on NPR stations starting next week.) Various arguments and counterarguments were aired and audience members drew their conclusions. At the end, I was amazed to find that the debate had actually swayed many of those in the room.

At the beginning of the night, 24% of the audience voted in favor of the motion that “America should be the world’s policeman,” while 44% were against and 32% undecided. At the end, 47% voted for the motion, 48% against, and only 5% were still undecided. Although we lost by one point, I think that counts as a moral victory for our side. It’s nice to know that even in a liberal bastion like New York there are still a lot of people who understand the good that America does by policing the globe. Just as importantly, it’s good to see the spirit of reasoned debate alive at a time when snarling talking heads appear to reign supreme.

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How Long Before Gore Endorses Obama?

After Ted Kennedy’s endorsement, the only question is when Al Gore will throw his support behind Barack Obama.

Don’t think for a moment that Gore isn’t considering it. What happened this weekend was the most dramatic change of tenor we have seen since Iowa caucus night. A new front opened up in the Democratic primary race. Hillary Clinton is no longer just battling Obama. She is defending the legitimacy of the Clinton era against all those who know it and are sick of it. A Gore endorsement of the rival to the wife of the man who made him vice president would be an unprecedented blow.

South Carolina was supposed to be insignificant win for Obama – even a part of the Hillary strategy. Dick Morris and others audaciously suggested that the Clintons wanted Obama to have a huge showing among black voters, sending a signal to white voters in other southern states that the contest was shaping up along racial lines. As Obama has emerged as a shrewd campaigner and rhetorical powerhouse, the transparent Clinton maneuvers to insert race into the campaign has simply forced even one-time cheerleaders to admit that Lady Macbeth and her husband must be stopped. Pete Wehner has a terrific piece on National Review Online describing how liberal stalwarts E.J. Dionne and Bill Greider have turned on the Clintons.

Suddenly the blood lust among Democrats to put a stake through the heart of the Clinton regime is palpable. John Kerry was uncharacteristically ahead of curve. So was Robert Reich, who was not only Clinton’s Secretary of Labor but a friend dating back to their Oxford days in the late 1960s. The Ted Kennedy endorsement can only be read as a message to the Democratic establishment that it is safe to come outside and declare your disgust with the Clintons.

So who will be next? John Edwards, some time later this week, will drop out of the race and endorse Obama, if only to create the illusion that he is a king maker. But what about Bill Richardson? Or Jimmy Carter? Geraldine Ferraro? Michael Bloomberg? For Gore, this opportunity to crown the next Democratic leader and simultaneously stab the Clintons in the back is simply too much to resist. Surely he is considering Macduff’s words from Act V: “Make all our trumpets speak; give them all breath,/ Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.”

After Ted Kennedy’s endorsement, the only question is when Al Gore will throw his support behind Barack Obama.

Don’t think for a moment that Gore isn’t considering it. What happened this weekend was the most dramatic change of tenor we have seen since Iowa caucus night. A new front opened up in the Democratic primary race. Hillary Clinton is no longer just battling Obama. She is defending the legitimacy of the Clinton era against all those who know it and are sick of it. A Gore endorsement of the rival to the wife of the man who made him vice president would be an unprecedented blow.

South Carolina was supposed to be insignificant win for Obama – even a part of the Hillary strategy. Dick Morris and others audaciously suggested that the Clintons wanted Obama to have a huge showing among black voters, sending a signal to white voters in other southern states that the contest was shaping up along racial lines. As Obama has emerged as a shrewd campaigner and rhetorical powerhouse, the transparent Clinton maneuvers to insert race into the campaign has simply forced even one-time cheerleaders to admit that Lady Macbeth and her husband must be stopped. Pete Wehner has a terrific piece on National Review Online describing how liberal stalwarts E.J. Dionne and Bill Greider have turned on the Clintons.

Suddenly the blood lust among Democrats to put a stake through the heart of the Clinton regime is palpable. John Kerry was uncharacteristically ahead of curve. So was Robert Reich, who was not only Clinton’s Secretary of Labor but a friend dating back to their Oxford days in the late 1960s. The Ted Kennedy endorsement can only be read as a message to the Democratic establishment that it is safe to come outside and declare your disgust with the Clintons.

So who will be next? John Edwards, some time later this week, will drop out of the race and endorse Obama, if only to create the illusion that he is a king maker. But what about Bill Richardson? Or Jimmy Carter? Geraldine Ferraro? Michael Bloomberg? For Gore, this opportunity to crown the next Democratic leader and simultaneously stab the Clintons in the back is simply too much to resist. Surely he is considering Macduff’s words from Act V: “Make all our trumpets speak; give them all breath,/ Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.”

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Britain’s Muslim Suggestion

The Guardian reports that today the British government will suggest that British universities reject demands from Muslim students seeking separate facilities for prayer and ritual washing.

How very British to make suggestions in the face of extremism. This falls under the heading of “too little, too late.” With Europe’s most anti-Western Muslim population, a hidden judiciary imposing shari’a law, and deadly homegrown jihadists, England is fractured in a way polite suggestions won’t mend. As I write this, plans are proceeding to install loudspeakers across parts of Oxford so that local residents will be subject to a thrice-daily call to prayer from the minaret of the Central Mosque.

In 1701, Daniel Defoe wrote the “The True-Born Englishman” in defense of pluralism. The poem included these lines:

Some think of England ’twas our Saviour meant,
The Gospel should to all the world be sent:
Since, when the blessed sound did hither reach,
They to all nations might be said to preach.

Defoe could not have imagined the blessed sound to be the electronic blast “Give to Muhammad his eternal rights of intercession.”

The coddling of extremists and extremist-sympathizers is only one factor in England’s increasing Islamist menace. Until western Europe, as a whole, revokes the ample benefits that allow virtually anyone to live off the state, discouraging separate washrooms at universities will remain pointless. As gracious host to thousands of jihad-trained citizens, the British government needs to adress the shadow state that’s sprung up in Muslim enclaves before they worry about university plumbing.

The Guardian reports that today the British government will suggest that British universities reject demands from Muslim students seeking separate facilities for prayer and ritual washing.

How very British to make suggestions in the face of extremism. This falls under the heading of “too little, too late.” With Europe’s most anti-Western Muslim population, a hidden judiciary imposing shari’a law, and deadly homegrown jihadists, England is fractured in a way polite suggestions won’t mend. As I write this, plans are proceeding to install loudspeakers across parts of Oxford so that local residents will be subject to a thrice-daily call to prayer from the minaret of the Central Mosque.

In 1701, Daniel Defoe wrote the “The True-Born Englishman” in defense of pluralism. The poem included these lines:

Some think of England ’twas our Saviour meant,
The Gospel should to all the world be sent:
Since, when the blessed sound did hither reach,
They to all nations might be said to preach.

Defoe could not have imagined the blessed sound to be the electronic blast “Give to Muhammad his eternal rights of intercession.”

The coddling of extremists and extremist-sympathizers is only one factor in England’s increasing Islamist menace. Until western Europe, as a whole, revokes the ample benefits that allow virtually anyone to live off the state, discouraging separate washrooms at universities will remain pointless. As gracious host to thousands of jihad-trained citizens, the British government needs to adress the shadow state that’s sprung up in Muslim enclaves before they worry about university plumbing.

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An African Toothache

Answer honestly: what would bother you more, waking up with a toothache or waking up to read a headline in the newspaper about an ongoing malaria epidemic in Malawi causing thousands of deaths a year? 

This question came to mind at a fascinating event here in New York as part of a series called Intelligence Squared, a public forum aimed at improving the level of discourse about important public issues. On Tuesday night, in front of a full house and recorded for subsequent broadcast on NPR, six leading specialists debated the proposition: aid to Africa is doing more harm than good.

I will admit to never having had much of an interest in African affairs, and I will also confess to being one of those people who would find the toothache more bothersome than news of a malaria epidemic. So, for me, one of the achievements of this debate was that it got me thinking about a range of issues that I have given little thought to in the past, and perhaps made my hypothetical toothache feel a bit less sore.

I was helped along by the speakers. George Ayittey, an economist from Ghana who teaches at American University, offered a devastating and passionately delivered evisceration of the existing system of aid, which he argued is keeping large swaths of Africa trapped in poverty under autocratic and kleptocratic regimes. He was helped along by William Easterly of NYU, who following in the footsteps of the great P.T. Bauer, has written the most recent bible of his side: The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The writer David Rieff was also on the same three-man team, but his deeply abstract points, delivered in an academic modality (“modality,” as was apparent, is his all-time favorite word) and qualified by a sententious and irrelevant declaration that he remained a man of the Left, made him more of a drain to his side than an asset.

The defenders of aid to Africa, C. Payne Lucas, president of Africare (an aid organization), John McArthur of Columbia University’s Earth Institute (whatever that is), and Gayle Smith, director of African affairs on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton, also put on a very persuasive case that the aid picture is not entirely bleak. But it was marred by gratuitous Bush-bashing, in which they juxtaposed the billions spent fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the paucity of funds spent eradicating poverty in Africa. Revealing their left-wing tilt did not help to persuade me that their arguments focusing on the merits of aid itself were rock solid.

In the end, I came away with the view that the proposition itself, while it led to an illuminating discussion, does not make all that much sense. Like all subjects, aid to Africa is a many-sided subject and the issue cannot be decided by an easy yes or no. But I also came away with the conviction that public debate of this sort is a very valuable thing. Robert Rosenkranz, the philanthropist who has brought this Oxford-style forum from England to American shores, deserves congratulations for a genuine and original accomplishment.

Answer honestly: what would bother you more, waking up with a toothache or waking up to read a headline in the newspaper about an ongoing malaria epidemic in Malawi causing thousands of deaths a year? 

This question came to mind at a fascinating event here in New York as part of a series called Intelligence Squared, a public forum aimed at improving the level of discourse about important public issues. On Tuesday night, in front of a full house and recorded for subsequent broadcast on NPR, six leading specialists debated the proposition: aid to Africa is doing more harm than good.

I will admit to never having had much of an interest in African affairs, and I will also confess to being one of those people who would find the toothache more bothersome than news of a malaria epidemic. So, for me, one of the achievements of this debate was that it got me thinking about a range of issues that I have given little thought to in the past, and perhaps made my hypothetical toothache feel a bit less sore.

I was helped along by the speakers. George Ayittey, an economist from Ghana who teaches at American University, offered a devastating and passionately delivered evisceration of the existing system of aid, which he argued is keeping large swaths of Africa trapped in poverty under autocratic and kleptocratic regimes. He was helped along by William Easterly of NYU, who following in the footsteps of the great P.T. Bauer, has written the most recent bible of his side: The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The writer David Rieff was also on the same three-man team, but his deeply abstract points, delivered in an academic modality (“modality,” as was apparent, is his all-time favorite word) and qualified by a sententious and irrelevant declaration that he remained a man of the Left, made him more of a drain to his side than an asset.

The defenders of aid to Africa, C. Payne Lucas, president of Africare (an aid organization), John McArthur of Columbia University’s Earth Institute (whatever that is), and Gayle Smith, director of African affairs on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton, also put on a very persuasive case that the aid picture is not entirely bleak. But it was marred by gratuitous Bush-bashing, in which they juxtaposed the billions spent fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the paucity of funds spent eradicating poverty in Africa. Revealing their left-wing tilt did not help to persuade me that their arguments focusing on the merits of aid itself were rock solid.

In the end, I came away with the view that the proposition itself, while it led to an illuminating discussion, does not make all that much sense. Like all subjects, aid to Africa is a many-sided subject and the issue cannot be decided by an easy yes or no. But I also came away with the conviction that public debate of this sort is a very valuable thing. Robert Rosenkranz, the philanthropist who has brought this Oxford-style forum from England to American shores, deserves congratulations for a genuine and original accomplishment.

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Hang on a Minute, Scrooge

I admire Christopher Hitchens as a fierce critic of Islamist violence, and his thunderbolts against organized religion are unfailingly entertaining. But he makes a couple of easy elisions in his Slate essay about Hanukkah that need addressing.

Hitchens claims that:

About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.

Hitchens goes on to cite Michael Lerner of Tikkun fame:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Sounds pretty great, right? But as it happens, the specific events commemorated by Hanukkah have a rather different cast. The Maccabees were not so much fighting to destroy Hellenism as to drive out the occupying forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, who had banned (in an unprecedented step for a Seleucid) the practice of Judaism as a whole.

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I admire Christopher Hitchens as a fierce critic of Islamist violence, and his thunderbolts against organized religion are unfailingly entertaining. But he makes a couple of easy elisions in his Slate essay about Hanukkah that need addressing.

Hitchens claims that:

About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.

Hitchens goes on to cite Michael Lerner of Tikkun fame:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Sounds pretty great, right? But as it happens, the specific events commemorated by Hanukkah have a rather different cast. The Maccabees were not so much fighting to destroy Hellenism as to drive out the occupying forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, who had banned (in an unprecedented step for a Seleucid) the practice of Judaism as a whole.

As Sam Schulman, reviewing Hitchens’s God Is Not Great in the June 2007 issue of COMMENTARY, notes:

[Hitchens’s] stroke of counterhistory has been heavily prettified in the details. On the one hand, as Hitchens tells it, there were the Hellenized Jews of Palestine—suave, cosmopolitan, athletic, well educated, yearning to enjoy the finer things in life as represented by their Greek overlords. On the other hand, there were the religious fundamentalists of the day, the Jewish reactionaries seeking only to proscribe and to prescribe. In Hitchens’s reconstruction, the Maccabean revolt sounds like nothing so much as the struggle between “aesthetes” and “hearties” in the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

But the Maccabean wars were not like that. The Greeks were not fighting for the mellow and the metrosexual. They aimed to pour hogs’ blood over the altar, erect statues of Jove in the sanctuary, eradicate Jewish identity itself. Had the Maccabees failed, there would have been a victory not of secular humanism over religious fundamentalism but of the pitiless Olympian gods—and their Egyptian co-deities—over monotheism and the complexities of ethical life.

It’s all very well for Hitchens to call Hanukkah a celebration of tribal Jewish backwardness. But were the practices of the Greeks any less backward? No to circumcision but yes to exposing imperfect infants? No to the special relationship with God but yes to the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona?

A little thought experiment: can you think of a more theologically “complex” story than the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, after Abraham was commanded to sacrifice him? Ah, the binding of Isaac, you say! The signal example of Judaism’s “cruelty”! But hang on. Those Aeschylean and Euripidean “complexities of life” so beloved of Rabbi Lerner and cited with such approval by Hitchens—does anyone really need to be reminded of how blood-drenched they were? How Orestes suffers in their toils? How Medea’s children die? Isaac, you’ll remember, lives.

But there’s something even more troubling about Hitchens’s reading of Hanukkah:

To celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism’s bastard child in the shape of Christianity. You might think that masochism could do no more. Except that it always can. Without the precedents of rabbinic Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either. . . . And this is not just a disaster for the Jews. When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.

Umberto Eco once observed that counterfactual conditionals are always true, because their premises are always false. Hitchens’s thumbnail sketch is too deterministic a reading to bear much scrutiny. Let me see if I have this right: because an obscure sect of Jewish guerrillas defeated an occupying Syrian army in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E., we got . . . the Christian Church astride the globe like a colossus, the Crusades, the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Inquisition, all the depredations of the monotheistic religions against each other and against secularists ever since, up to and including 9/11? So, if the Maccabees had lost in Jerusalem, absolutely none of this would have happened? That contention, at least, seems ridiculous on its face.

Hitchens complains that Hanukkah has become a Jewish analogue for Christmas. Sociologically that is trivially true; theologically and historically it’s nonsense. Yet Hitchens can now say that:

Every Jew who honors the Hanukkah holiday because it gives his child an excuse to mingle the dreidel with the Christmas tree and the sleigh (neither of these absurd symbols having the least thing to do with Palestine two millenniums past) is celebrating the making of a series of rods for his own back.

Coming from him, this is a remarkable statement. Strange, isn’t it, how much Hitchens the secularist can sound like a militant Jewish purist? Even (dare I say it) a Maccabee?

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The “No”s Have It

I recently wrote about the Oxford Union‘s upcoming debate on the Middle East, which was scheduled to take place tonight. The motion to be debated stated: “This House Believes that One State is the Only Solution to the Israel-Palestine Conflict.” The motion was to be seconded by the Israeli revisionist historians Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe and by Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian physician with an academic appointment at Exeter University. On the “no” side: the British human rights activist Peter Tatchell, along with former Irish MP Lord David Trimble, who is staunchly pro-Israel. And, bizarrely, the passionately anti-Zionist academic Norman Finkelstein.

How, you may ask, does this qualify as a debate? Five out of the six invited participants are all harsh critics, to one degree or another, of the state of Israel. But Finkelstein really belongs in a class by himself, for the hysterical fervor and vitriol of his anti-Zionism and his obsession with minimizing the moral meaning of the Holocaust. Trimble demanded that Finkelstein be dropped from the panel as a precondition for his participation; when the Union accepted Trimble’s argument, Shlaim, Pappe, and Karmi decided to withdraw in protest. Clearly, they felt that without Finkelstein on the other side of the floor, there was now a chance the debate might be fair. The debate is taking place tonight nonetheless, with three Oxford students replacing Shlaim, Pappe, and Karmi, and Paul Usiskin of Peace Now UK replacing Finkelstein.

Why Shlaim, Pappe, and Karmi thought that running away from worthy opponents like Trimble would help their cause is a mystery, but largely besides the point. It is in the nature of such ideologues to engage only in battles they are absolutely sure of winning. Apparently, Finkelstein’s absence undercut their advantage too greatly: instead of being five-sixths anti-Zionist, the panel would be only two-thirds. I predict that the trio will try to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by claiming that Finkelstein was “silenced,” and that their withdrawal was a gesture of solidarity with their “dissident” friend. To which one should reply with the words of Hillel Halkin, appearing yesterday in the New York Sun:

Deservedly, Mr. Finkelstein was recently denied tenure at De Paul because of a Jewish campaign to demonstrate that he lacked all academic integrity. It was a fight worth winning, not because qualified scholars with anti-Israel politics should not be allowed to teach at universities, but because men whose only qualification is their politics do not belong in institutions of higher learning.

Halkin could have written these words about Shlaim, Pappe, and Karmi as well.

I recently wrote about the Oxford Union‘s upcoming debate on the Middle East, which was scheduled to take place tonight. The motion to be debated stated: “This House Believes that One State is the Only Solution to the Israel-Palestine Conflict.” The motion was to be seconded by the Israeli revisionist historians Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe and by Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian physician with an academic appointment at Exeter University. On the “no” side: the British human rights activist Peter Tatchell, along with former Irish MP Lord David Trimble, who is staunchly pro-Israel. And, bizarrely, the passionately anti-Zionist academic Norman Finkelstein.

How, you may ask, does this qualify as a debate? Five out of the six invited participants are all harsh critics, to one degree or another, of the state of Israel. But Finkelstein really belongs in a class by himself, for the hysterical fervor and vitriol of his anti-Zionism and his obsession with minimizing the moral meaning of the Holocaust. Trimble demanded that Finkelstein be dropped from the panel as a precondition for his participation; when the Union accepted Trimble’s argument, Shlaim, Pappe, and Karmi decided to withdraw in protest. Clearly, they felt that without Finkelstein on the other side of the floor, there was now a chance the debate might be fair. The debate is taking place tonight nonetheless, with three Oxford students replacing Shlaim, Pappe, and Karmi, and Paul Usiskin of Peace Now UK replacing Finkelstein.

Why Shlaim, Pappe, and Karmi thought that running away from worthy opponents like Trimble would help their cause is a mystery, but largely besides the point. It is in the nature of such ideologues to engage only in battles they are absolutely sure of winning. Apparently, Finkelstein’s absence undercut their advantage too greatly: instead of being five-sixths anti-Zionist, the panel would be only two-thirds. I predict that the trio will try to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by claiming that Finkelstein was “silenced,” and that their withdrawal was a gesture of solidarity with their “dissident” friend. To which one should reply with the words of Hillel Halkin, appearing yesterday in the New York Sun:

Deservedly, Mr. Finkelstein was recently denied tenure at De Paul because of a Jewish campaign to demonstrate that he lacked all academic integrity. It was a fight worth winning, not because qualified scholars with anti-Israel politics should not be allowed to teach at universities, but because men whose only qualification is their politics do not belong in institutions of higher learning.

Halkin could have written these words about Shlaim, Pappe, and Karmi as well.

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Richard Dawkins’s Selective Rationality

On Monday, this article in the Guardian, “Atheists arise: Dawkins spreads the A-word among America’s unbelievers,” about what is best described as an evangelical crusade by the celebrated Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, caught my eye.

I confess to being a bit puzzled by the current wave of attacks on religion. I am both a Ph.D. (with lots of science) and a regular church-goer, long under the impression that the alleged incompatibility of the two was a 19th century notion, associated with such organizations as The National Secular Society in England (to which Annie Besant devoted her estimable talents during the years before she helped found Theosophy), and perhaps best exemplified by vigorous period pieces, such as Andrew Dickson White’s massive two volumes, published in 1898, on The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom. Over the last year or so, however, a powerful new wave of distinctly old-fashioned anti-religious campaigning has begun, with people like Christopher Hitchens and Professor Dawkins in the lead. I find myself asking why.

Many factors can be adduced: merits in the atheist argument; a desire to forestall criticism that secular and scientific politics as practiced in the last century proved disastrous; resentment of the way some politicians constantly invoke God. But maybe more sinister forces are at work.

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On Monday, this article in the Guardian, “Atheists arise: Dawkins spreads the A-word among America’s unbelievers,” about what is best described as an evangelical crusade by the celebrated Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, caught my eye.

I confess to being a bit puzzled by the current wave of attacks on religion. I am both a Ph.D. (with lots of science) and a regular church-goer, long under the impression that the alleged incompatibility of the two was a 19th century notion, associated with such organizations as The National Secular Society in England (to which Annie Besant devoted her estimable talents during the years before she helped found Theosophy), and perhaps best exemplified by vigorous period pieces, such as Andrew Dickson White’s massive two volumes, published in 1898, on The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom. Over the last year or so, however, a powerful new wave of distinctly old-fashioned anti-religious campaigning has begun, with people like Christopher Hitchens and Professor Dawkins in the lead. I find myself asking why.

Many factors can be adduced: merits in the atheist argument; a desire to forestall criticism that secular and scientific politics as practiced in the last century proved disastrous; resentment of the way some politicians constantly invoke God. But maybe more sinister forces are at work.

Consider this statement by Professor Dawkins in an interview with the Guardian:

When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though in fact they are less numerous, I am told—religious Jews anyway—than atheists and (yet they) more or less monopolize American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence the world would be a better place.

What do we make of a professor of science who claims to be so rational as to have no tolerance for The God Delusion—the title of his latest book—but who nevertheless accepts uncritically that Jews “more or less monopolize American foreign policy”? Dawkins does not say “influence” or even “disproportionately influence,” both of which would be debatable but empirically defensible. He says “monopolize,” which is simply untrue.

This quotation suggests that, if not actually hostile to Jews, Dawkins focuses on them and their alleged monopoly of influence in a way that bodes nothing welcome. Will the new, passionate non-believers Dawkins seeks to awaken now join the long procession of mobs, demagogues, religious zealots, and conspiracy theorists who have likewise focused irrationally on Jews? I sense worrying disorder in the mind of this self-proclaimed rationalist.

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Bookshelf

• “The aim of poetry,” H.L. Mencken once claimed, “is to give a high and voluptuous plausibility to what is palpably not true.” It would be hard to come up with a less apt explanation of Shakespeare’s eternal appeal. We read him for many reasons, but surely the most basic one is that he tells us—beautifully—what we know is so, in the process strengthening our sense of reality. That such a man must have been by definition intelligent would seem self-evident, but in the never-never land of contemporary academic criticism, nothing is self-evident, and so A.D. Nuttall, lately of Oxford, has written Shakespeare the Thinker (Yale, 428 pp., $30), a book dedicated to the proposition that the Bard was smart.

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• “The aim of poetry,” H.L. Mencken once claimed, “is to give a high and voluptuous plausibility to what is palpably not true.” It would be hard to come up with a less apt explanation of Shakespeare’s eternal appeal. We read him for many reasons, but surely the most basic one is that he tells us—beautifully—what we know is so, in the process strengthening our sense of reality. That such a man must have been by definition intelligent would seem self-evident, but in the never-never land of contemporary academic criticism, nothing is self-evident, and so A.D. Nuttall, lately of Oxford, has written Shakespeare the Thinker (Yale, 428 pp., $30), a book dedicated to the proposition that the Bard was smart.

Nuttall starts off with a bang:

We know what Milton thought about many things. He didn’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity; he thought the execution of Charles I was morally right; he believed that married couples who didn’t get on should be allowed to divorce. But we have no idea what Shakespeare thought, finally, about any major question. The man is elusive—one might almost say, systematically elusive. There is something eerie about a figure that can write so much and give so little away.

The point, of course, is that Shakespeare’s plays exist in a realm beyond ideology, and that his intelligence consists in his extreme responsiveness to the essential, transhistorical facts of human nature:

Has no one noticed how, while the scholars increasingly seek to confine the meaning of a play to its immediate historical context, directors and actors are playing Shakespeare in 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century dress, and even, on occasion, in “mixed period” settings? . . . Such productions seem not to destroy or even diminish the force of the plays presented.

Why not? Because Shakespeare is preoccupied with human action and its motivations—and because he is smart about them, very possibly smarter than any other artist who has ever lived:

He thinks about causes and motives, identity and relation, about how pretence can convey truth, or language (by becoming conscious of its own formal character) can actually impede communication. . . . His thought is never still. No sooner has one identified a philosophical “position” than one is forced, by the succeeding play, to modify or extend one’s account.

Having staked his claim, Nuttall bears it out by serving up a series of close, richly idiosyncratic readings of virtually all of Shakespeare’s plays (he skips over King John and The Merry Wives of Windsor). These are not for novices—Shakespeare the Thinker was written for readers already familiar with the plays—but if you know the territory, you will find them immensely illuminating.

I have quoted at length from Shakespeare the Thinker because its quality is not readily communicable in snippets. Nuttall writes in periods, not epigrams. Here is one of his best, a reflection on Hal’s curt dismissal of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV:

The King slaps down Falstaff, but at the same time he is slapping down something in himself. When at the end of the speech the King rules that Falstaff is not to come within ten miles of his person, we sense that he fears the attraction of Falstaff; a truly cold manipulator would not need to make any such provision, would simply forget Falstaff at this point. Despite these moments, the speech of rejection rolls forward unstoppably. It breaks Falstaff’s heart and does the trick, politically. We hate Henry as we watch, but then we have to think, if we are English, “He is doing this for us.”

The whole book is like that, sometimes dense with allusion but always—like Shakespeare himself—bristlingly, stimulatingly intelligent. It is the best book about Shakespeare to cross my desk since I began covering theater for the Wall Street Journal four years ago. I expect to read it more than once, each time with increasing profit. So will you.

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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.

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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.

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Pope Benedict, Dr. Johnson, and Hell

The Pope says that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.” In a Lenten homily at a Roman parish on Monday, reports Richard Owen in the London Times, “Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to ‘admit blame and promise to sin no more,’ they risked ‘eternal damnation—the Inferno.’”

That the Pope believes in hell may not strike most people as surprising. But when was the last time you heard a senior Catholic churchman talk about it? The last Pope, John Paul II, was much influenced by the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was a universalist—that is to say, he believed that Christ’s salvation was universal. According to that view, if there is a hell, it is empty. In coming to this conclusion, Balthasar (whom John Paul II promoted to cardinal) was influenced by Edith Stein, the Jewish convert who became a Carmelite nun and was murdered at Auschwitz. She was later canonized by John Paul II as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her view was that God’s love is so great that it embraces even the most obdurate sinner. As she perished in a man-made simulacrum of hell, a place of mass torment beyond anything conceived by the ancient or medieval imagination, Edith Stein’s words carry considerable weight.

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The Pope says that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.” In a Lenten homily at a Roman parish on Monday, reports Richard Owen in the London Times, “Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to ‘admit blame and promise to sin no more,’ they risked ‘eternal damnation—the Inferno.’”

That the Pope believes in hell may not strike most people as surprising. But when was the last time you heard a senior Catholic churchman talk about it? The last Pope, John Paul II, was much influenced by the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was a universalist—that is to say, he believed that Christ’s salvation was universal. According to that view, if there is a hell, it is empty. In coming to this conclusion, Balthasar (whom John Paul II promoted to cardinal) was influenced by Edith Stein, the Jewish convert who became a Carmelite nun and was murdered at Auschwitz. She was later canonized by John Paul II as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her view was that God’s love is so great that it embraces even the most obdurate sinner. As she perished in a man-made simulacrum of hell, a place of mass torment beyond anything conceived by the ancient or medieval imagination, Edith Stein’s words carry considerable weight.

Yet the universalism of Stein, Balthasar, and perhaps John Paul II himself has never been the authoritative doctrine of the Church. Pope Benedict adheres to the authoritative 1994 edition of the catechism, which he largely wrote as Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith and which was one of the great landmarks of John Paul II’s pontificate. The catechism is explicit: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. . . . The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God. . . . To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice.”

The catechism leaves open the question of who, if anybody, is damned, but it rejects Calvinist predestination, stating that “God predestines no-one to go hell” and that hell is a state of “definitive self-exclusion.” Only those who freely persist in their defiance of God’s love “to the end” will suffer damnation.

Any belief in damnation, however, is regarded by many people as morbid and hence wicked. Its public restatement as a necessary part of the true faith will arouse bitter hostility from those who see hell as a relic of the superstitious, guilt-inducing caricature of Catholicism that persists in popular imagination. Ironically, as the Church has grown reluctant to reaffirm its belief in hell, the secular culture has appropriated the idea in its gothic horror. It ignores the essence of hell—separation from God—in favor of imagery drawn from other, often pagan, underworlds.

Pope Benedict’s words put me in mind of Samuel Johnson’s celebrated conversation on the subject, reported by Boswell in his Life. It took place at Oxford on June 12, 1784, when Dr. Johnson was visiting friends at Merton College. In the course of a conversation with “the amiable Dr. Adams” about the goodness of God, Johnson admitted his terror of death and what might follow it:

. . . as I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.” (looking dismally.) Dr. Adams. “What do you mean by damned!” Johnson. (passionately and loudly) “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.” Dr. Adams. “I don’t believe that doctrine.” Johnson. “Hold, Sir, do you believe that some will be punished at all?” Dr. Adams. “Being excluded from Heaven will be a punishment; yet there may be no great positive suffering.” Johnson. “Well, Sir; but, if you admit any degree of punishment, there is an end of your argument for infinite goodness simply considered; for, infinite goodness would inflict no punishment whatsoever. There is no infinite goodness physically considered: morally there is.

At this point, Boswell, who rightly considered himself much more of a sinner than his older and wiser friend, intervened:

But may not a man attain to such a degree of hope as not to be uneasy from the fear of death?” Johnson. “A man may have such a degree of hope as to keep him quiet. You see I am not quiet, from the vehemence with which I talk; but I do not despair.” Mrs. Adams. “You seem, Sir, to forget the merits of our Redeemer.” Johnson. “Madam, I do not forget the merits of my Redeemer; but my Redeemer has said that he will set some on his right hand and some on his left.

Boswell tells us that Johnson was now “in gloomy agitation” and concluded the conversation abruptly. He was 75, a great age for that time.

Johnson died exactly six months later, imploring God’s forgiveness for “the multitude of my offences,” but sufficiently at peace with himself and his maker to show more concern for the salvation of his black servant, Francis, than for himself, saying: “Attend, Francis, to the salvation of your soul, which is the object of the greatest importance.” If this isn’t exactly repentance, it’s close enough.

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The Closing of the European Mind

The Times of London reports today on yet another episode in the closing of the European mind—in this instance, a shocking case of academic censorship.

Matthias Küntzel, a German political scientist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was invited by the German department at Leeds University for three days of lectures and seminars this week. His lecture on “Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic Anti-Semitism in the Middle East” was expected to draw a large audience. Then the university’s student Islamic society complained about the lecture’s “provocative” title. Last Tuesday, at the behest of university authorities, the words “Hitler” and “Islamic” were excised and the title was amended to read: “The Nazi Legacy: The Export of Anti-Semitism to the Middle East.” But when Küntzel arrived at Leeds this Wednesday, he was informed that his lecture and the rest of his program had been cancelled “on security grounds.” Küntzel was understandably indignant: “I value the integrity of academic debate, and I feel that it really is in danger here.”

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The Times of London reports today on yet another episode in the closing of the European mind—in this instance, a shocking case of academic censorship.

Matthias Küntzel, a German political scientist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was invited by the German department at Leeds University for three days of lectures and seminars this week. His lecture on “Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic Anti-Semitism in the Middle East” was expected to draw a large audience. Then the university’s student Islamic society complained about the lecture’s “provocative” title. Last Tuesday, at the behest of university authorities, the words “Hitler” and “Islamic” were excised and the title was amended to read: “The Nazi Legacy: The Export of Anti-Semitism to the Middle East.” But when Küntzel arrived at Leeds this Wednesday, he was informed that his lecture and the rest of his program had been cancelled “on security grounds.” Küntzel was understandably indignant: “I value the integrity of academic debate, and I feel that it really is in danger here.”

What had happened? Stuart Taberner, the head of the German department, says he was summoned to a last-minute meeting with staff from the office of Michael Arthur, the university’s vice-chancellor, and the head of security, after which he was obliged to cancel Küntzel’s lectures and seminars. The university claimed that proper arrangements for stewarding the lecture on anti-Semitism had not been made, and that it had been cancelled for purely bureaucratic reasons. “The decision to cancel the meeting has nothing to do with academic freedom, freedom of speech, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia,” a Leeds spokeswoman said. (She added insult to injury by accusing “those claiming that is the case”—including Küntzel—of “making mischief.”) The spokeswoman did not explain why the university had not offered to provide additional security during the visit, nor whether the police had been involved.

Was there a threat to security? The president of the Islamic society, Ahmed Sawalem, denied responsibility for the affair: “We just sent a complaint, we did not ask for the talk to be cancelled.” Küntzel was shown two e-mails, one of which—apparently written by an Arab Muslim student—is quoted in the Times. The writer claims that the lecture is an “open racist attack” but makes no explicit threats.

The Küntzel case shows that Muslims do not even need to resort to the threat of violence in order to close down academic debate on subjects they dislike. Anthony Glees of Brunel University has been warning for years of the danger posed by Islamists on campus—a danger to which university authorities are notoriously weak in responding. Before his death last year, I spoke to Zaki Badawi, the leading Muslim opponent of Islamism in Britain, about this problem, which he saw as one of appeasement. This case, however, goes beyond appeasement. Leeds has set a new precedent: the pre-emptive cringe. Islamists everywhere will take heart from the spectacle of a reputable university setting a lower value on academic freedom than on the possibility that Muslim students might take offense.

It will be fascinating to see whether any other British university tries to efface this shameful episode by inviting Küntzel to give the lecture cancelled by Leeds. Perhaps Oxford will follow the example of Yale and many others by offering Küntzel a platform to explain how the Nazis supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. After all, Oxford is proud to provide just such a platform for that scion of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tariq Ramadan.

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Bookshelf

• Of the making of books about Miles Davis, the most influential figure in post-1950 jazz, there is no end. The latest one, Richard Cook’s It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record (Oxford, 373 pp., $27) is a sort-of-biography that tells the story of the trumpeter’s tempestuous life by describing the making of sixteen of his key albums, with extensive digressions along the way. Though this approach isn’t exactly new—Jack Chambers’s Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis did the same thing at much greater length, discussing all of Davis’s recordings through 1985—Cook’s more concentrated treatment is both readable and accessible, though jazz novices in search of a primer on Davis will likely find it too detailed. If, on the other hand, you know your way around Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain but have yet to sample any of the rock-flavored recordings Davis started making in 1969, the second half of It’s About That Time offers a (mostly) reliable roadmap to that underexplored territory.

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• Of the making of books about Miles Davis, the most influential figure in post-1950 jazz, there is no end. The latest one, Richard Cook’s It’s About That Time: Miles Davis On and Off Record (Oxford, 373 pp., $27) is a sort-of-biography that tells the story of the trumpeter’s tempestuous life by describing the making of sixteen of his key albums, with extensive digressions along the way. Though this approach isn’t exactly new—Jack Chambers’s Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis did the same thing at much greater length, discussing all of Davis’s recordings through 1985—Cook’s more concentrated treatment is both readable and accessible, though jazz novices in search of a primer on Davis will likely find it too detailed. If, on the other hand, you know your way around Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain but have yet to sample any of the rock-flavored recordings Davis started making in 1969, the second half of It’s About That Time offers a (mostly) reliable roadmap to that underexplored territory.

Somebody really ought to write a brief life of Davis. In the meantime, the best first book about him remains So What, John Szwed’s 2002 biography, after which interested readers should go straight to Bill Kirchner’s Miles Davis Reader, an exceptionally well-chosen collection of essays, articles, and reviews. Quincy Troupe’s Miles: The Autobiography is a ghostwritten memoir whose authenticity is by now notoriously suspect, though much of it sounds quite like the man himself.

• My distinguished colleague John Simon brought out three fat self-anthologies late last year that failed to attract the critical attention they deserved. John Simon on Theater: Criticism, 1974-2003 (Applause, 837 pp., $32.95), John Simon on Film: Criticism, 1982-2001 (Applause, 662 pp., $29.95) and John Simon on Music: Criticism, 1979-2005 (Applause, 504 pp., $27.95) are not the career-spanning compendia they appear at first glance to be, for Simon has opted to include nothing from his previously published collections, all of which are out of print. In addition, none of the three volumes is adequately indexed—all you get is a pseudo-index of works reviewed—and the dates of publication of the original essays are not included. These omissions are regrettable in the extreme, but that doesn’t make the books any less readable, just harder to use.

Simon is, of course, the most controversial critic ever to have covered theater in New York, give or take George Jean Nathan. He is famously willing to get personal in a way that makes many of his readers uncomfortable—myself sometimes included—and I doubt that those who have good reason to despise his sharp tongue will change their minds after reading him in bulk. But he is also the most knowledgeable theater critic alive, and though I often disagree with his negative judgments, I rarely fail to like what he likes, or to learn from his reasons for liking it. His film criticism is no less penetrating, and I’ve always had a special love for his intelligent, sympathetic writing about classical music, which is the least well known of the many arrows in his critical quiver.

The octogenarian Simon is now the dean of New York drama critics, and I see him on the aisle once or twice a week, usually looking as though he expects to be displeased, which he usually is. His standards are still fearsomely high, though he’s mellowed a bit in recent years, and he continues to teach me things I didn’t know about an art form with which he was grappling when I was in diapers. I hope Applause Books eventually gets around to reissuing Acid Test, Private Screenings, Uneasy Stages, Movies into Film, Reverse Angle, and Something to Declare, his previous books about theater and film, or at least to bringing out a volume of selections from his writings of the 60’s and early 70’s. Still, these three fat collections leave no doubt that for all his flaws, John Simon has been—and remains—one of America’s greatest working critics.

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Ramadan’s Exclusion

Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim celebrity academic and British government adviser who teaches at Oxford, is complaining again of his exclusion from the United States, where he was unable to take up a chair at Notre Dame. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he claims that he has been denied a visa “because of my criticism of [the Bush administration’s] Middle East policy and America’s unconditional support for Israel.” He lists an impressive-sounding array of U.S. organizations that “have understood that the real issue is my freedom of speech” and support his legal challenge.

In fact, Ramadan was denied a visa because of his donations to a Palestinian “charity” that supports Hamas. His claim that he was then unaware of this link is implausible, given his record as a hardline Islamist who has repeatedly refused to condemn Palestinian terrorism. In fact, Ramadan has a record of contacts with Islamist terrorists. The Algerian terrorist Djamal Beghal, who plotted to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris, claimed that he “took charge of preparing the lectures of Tariq Ramadan” while studying with him in Geneva. Ramadan was excluded from France for his contacts with Algerian terrorists, though this ban was later lifted.

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Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim celebrity academic and British government adviser who teaches at Oxford, is complaining again of his exclusion from the United States, where he was unable to take up a chair at Notre Dame. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he claims that he has been denied a visa “because of my criticism of [the Bush administration’s] Middle East policy and America’s unconditional support for Israel.” He lists an impressive-sounding array of U.S. organizations that “have understood that the real issue is my freedom of speech” and support his legal challenge.

In fact, Ramadan was denied a visa because of his donations to a Palestinian “charity” that supports Hamas. His claim that he was then unaware of this link is implausible, given his record as a hardline Islamist who has repeatedly refused to condemn Palestinian terrorism. In fact, Ramadan has a record of contacts with Islamist terrorists. The Algerian terrorist Djamal Beghal, who plotted to blow up the U.S. embassy in Paris, claimed that he “took charge of preparing the lectures of Tariq Ramadan” while studying with him in Geneva. Ramadan was excluded from France for his contacts with Algerian terrorists, though this ban was later lifted.


Even leaving aside this and other contacts with leading terrorists such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s deputy, and the “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman, who masterminded the first attack on the World Trade Center—all of which Ramadan denies—his claim to be a leading moderate who seeks to “westernize Islam” and believes in freedom of speech does not square with his public pronouncements. (For fuller documentation of these charges against Ramadan, please see this from the indispensible Daniel Pipes.) It is rank hypocrisy for Ramadan, who rarely condemns censorship in the Muslim world, to accuse the United States of “muffling critical opinion” and “requiring all its citizens to think the same way.”

Ramadan justified the protests against Danish cartoons of Mohammed, claiming that the Koran prohibits representations of Islamic prophets. (In fact, it does not.) He supported the Islamist campaign to ban Voltaire’s play about Mohammed, Fanaticism, at the French town of Saint-Genis-Pouilly. He refers to Islamist atrocities such as 9/11 and the bombings in Madrid and Bali as “interventions” and denies that bin Laden was behind 9/11. He has praised the genocidal Sudanese Islamist regime. He attacked the French intellectuals Alain Finkielkraut and Bernard-Henri Levy for “betraying the French Republic” by their support for “sectarianism”, a euphemism for Zionism, and scandalized many by identifying them as Jews. According to Mike Whine, head of the British Community Security Trust, an organization which monitors anti-Semitism, Ramadan has made many anti-Jewish statements and “is at the soft end of the extreme Islamist spectrum.”

We do not know precisely why the U.S. Department for Homeland Security has repeatedly turned down his application for a visa, despite elements in the State Department who would like to revoke the ban. The evidence against him may well include classified information. What we do know is that Ramadan has never abandoned his project of Islamification, and that he wants to pursue it in the heart of the United States. As the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan sees his own destiny in exalted terms. In his Chronicle piece, he speaks of the “period of transition” on which the West has embarked since the emergence of large Muslim minorities, who will require the host societies to make “major adjustments” to accommodate them. “We must move forward from integration,” he declares, while Muslims “must no longer see themselves as a ‘minority.’”

What does all this mean? What is Western society supposed to be in transition to—an Islamic one? What are these “major adjustments” that the Western democracies must make? What is wrong with the model of integration, which has served the United States well in the past, and why is it no longer good enough for Muslims? And why must Muslims no longer see themselves as a minority, if that is what they are?

Ramadan’s manifesto, moderate as it may sound, in reality amounts to a program of Islamification by stealth. His family was exiled from Egypt, and Ramadan remains persona non grata there, because the Muslim Brotherhood was and is seen as dangerous. It was the first and is still the largest Islamist organization in the world. Ramadan has achieved respectability in Europe, where he is feted by academics at Oxford and Geneva—he was even invited by the British government to sit on an advisory committee after the 7/7 subway bombings in London.

But the United States has looked more carefully at his record and decided that he represents a threat. To allow Ramadan’s brand of Islamism a platform in the heart of the American academy would be the equivalent of allowing, say, Martin Heidegger or Carl Schmitt to lecture in the United States during the Third Reich. It was the judge who had prosecuted many Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, Robert H. Jackson, who warned that the Constitution is not a “suicide pact.” It is not incumbent on a democracy to allow its enemies the freedom to subvert its very existence. Tariq Ramadan is just such an enemy.

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Bookshelf

I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.

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I’ve been catching up with the scholarly literature on Aaron Copland published since I last wrote about him for COMMENTARY. So far three full-length books have appeared, all of which are important—albeit in very different ways.

• In 1997, when I wrote “Fanfare for Aaron Copland,” discussing Copland’s hard-Left politics in public was widely regarded as a form of red-baiting. Even Howard Pollock, whose 1999 biography of Copland dealt more or less frankly with his close ties to the Communist party, was squirmily euphemistic when it came to such ultra-sensitive matters as his participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference. Not so Elizabeth B. Crist, whose Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland During the Depression and War (Oxford, 253 pp., $35) is utterly forthright about Copland’s involvement in the Popular Front, an experience that she rightly sees as crucial to the making of such masterpieces as Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony. The problem with Music for the Common Man is that like so many modern-day academics, Crist is starry-eyed to the point of idiocy about the Popular Front, and she’s also a bit of a jargonista to boot: “In Rodeo, the Cowgirl quite literally turns her back on typical displays of heterosexual romance and stereotypical, heteronormative feminine behavior.” Still, she’s done a first-rate job of relating Copland’s music to his politics, and her book is as illuminating as it is irritating.


• Crist is also the co-editor of The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (Yale, 288 pp., $45), the first volume of Copland’s letters to be published. It should have been much longer—he wrote 111 letters to Leonard Bernstein alone, for instance, and received as many in return—but Crist and Wayne Shirley have made a good start with this well-chosen, extensively annotated selection of letters written between 1909 and 1979, after which Alzheimer’s disease made it increasingly difficult for Copland to continue corresponding with his friends and colleagues. No doubt the rest of his surviving letters and diary entries will see print sooner or later, but my guess is that The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland contains a goodly share of the cream of the crop.

• The 2005 Bard Music Festival was devoted to Copland, and one of its fruits was Aaron Copland and His World (Princeton, 503 pp., $55), a superior collection of newly commissioned essays by such noted scholars as Crist, Pollack, Morris Dickstein, Lynn Garafola, Gail Levin, and Vivian Perlis, the last of whom collaborated with Copland on his two-volume autobiography. H.L. Mencken pithily described one of Henry James’s books as “early essays by Henry James—some in the English language.” Though the contributors to Aaron Copland and His World are card-carrying academics, nearly all of them write in English, so to speak, and most of their essays are insightful, informative, and fully accessible to non-specialists.

• I should also mention Aaron Copland: A Reader (Routledge, 368 pp., $30), edited by Richard Kostelanetz, of which I made brief mention in “Composers for Communism,” my 2004 COMMENTARY essay about Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich. As countless readers of What to Listen for in Music know, Copland was a wonderfully lucid and straightforward writer, and this wide-ranging collection of his essays and articles, which failed to receive the close critical attention it deserved, is a essential addition to the fast-growing literature on America’s greatest composer.

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News from the Continent: False Prophets

The new anti-Semitism described by Alvin H. Rosenfeld in a controversial essay published by the American Jewish Committee is not a myth, as his critics would have us believe. It is, sadly, all too real a phenomenon. If one criticism can be levelled at Rosenfeld’s essay on the succor that anti-Semitism receives from the anti-Israel rhetoric of liberal Jewish intellectuals, it is that his pool of examples, with the single exception of the British academic Jacqueline Rose, is drawn exclusively from the U.S. In fact, the emergence of Jewish voices demonizing Israel (and making condemnation of Israel, in some cases, their only expression of Jewish identity) is not unique to America.

This phenomenon is well known in Europe. If Rosenfeld ever publishes a second version of his essay, he will not have any difficulty bringing in literally dozens of additional examples. The continental landscape is littered with Jewish intellectuals engaged in exactly the kind of rhetoric he criticizes.

One of their newest outlets is Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), an organization now bidding to be the voice of Anglo-Jewry, as evidenced by its role in a debate hosted last week by the ultraliberal Guardian blog, Comment Is Free. Having taken part in this debate, I will not repeat what I said there. But a few more considerations are in order, as they apply to the debate triggered in America by Rosenfeld’s essay.

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The new anti-Semitism described by Alvin H. Rosenfeld in a controversial essay published by the American Jewish Committee is not a myth, as his critics would have us believe. It is, sadly, all too real a phenomenon. If one criticism can be levelled at Rosenfeld’s essay on the succor that anti-Semitism receives from the anti-Israel rhetoric of liberal Jewish intellectuals, it is that his pool of examples, with the single exception of the British academic Jacqueline Rose, is drawn exclusively from the U.S. In fact, the emergence of Jewish voices demonizing Israel (and making condemnation of Israel, in some cases, their only expression of Jewish identity) is not unique to America.

This phenomenon is well known in Europe. If Rosenfeld ever publishes a second version of his essay, he will not have any difficulty bringing in literally dozens of additional examples. The continental landscape is littered with Jewish intellectuals engaged in exactly the kind of rhetoric he criticizes.

One of their newest outlets is Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), an organization now bidding to be the voice of Anglo-Jewry, as evidenced by its role in a debate hosted last week by the ultraliberal Guardian blog, Comment Is Free. Having taken part in this debate, I will not repeat what I said there. But a few more considerations are in order, as they apply to the debate triggered in America by Rosenfeld’s essay.


First, the oft-repeated claim (framed in identical terms by both IJV and New York University professor and leading anti-Zionist Tony Judt) that the views of anti-Zionists are being censored is risible. Jaqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion was published by Princeton University Press, not by the Jewish underground in Warsaw circa 1943. Judt’s tirades against Israel feature in the New York Review of Books (and Haaretz, no less). The price that Jimmy Carter has paid for his book is, aside from exactly the robust debate he wished to trigger, a hefty financial gain from over a half million copies sold. Not exactly, in other words, the fate of beleaguered dissenters.

As for IJV, the percentage of professors in its membership suggests that establishment figures with access to mainstream publishing options predominate over the disenfranchised and voiceless. Antony Lerman, for example, is the director of the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, a once-serious Jewish think tank based in London, and a frequent guest at the court of London’s radical mayor, Ken Livingstone. IJV’s initiator, Brian Klug, and his colleague Avi Shlaim are both Oxford dons. Shlaim routinely publishes in the Guardian, the International Herald Tribune, and the London Review of Books (the same journal that published John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby”). It is hard to pretend, with such credentials, that IJV does not enjoy all the privileges of membership in Britain’s intellectual establishment. How can these people claim that their views are suppressed? What they really object to, it seems, is the fact that their views are challenged.

The claim that these anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals are dissidents whose daring words against Israel are an act of courage is absurd. By posing as victims, these quintessential establishment figures wish to hide their intolerance for opponents. Demonizing their opponents as the enemies of free speech and human rights serves, as University of London professor David Hirsh remarked in the IJV debate, one purpose only: to create a self-mythologizing narrative of resistance, through which liberals can reclaim their role as the enlightened but stifled vanguard.

Through their self-nomination as the true heirs of the biblical prophets, Lerman, Klug, and company demonstrate a complete ignorance of what the prophets actually stood for. They claim that the essence of Judaism lies in fighting for social justice, human rights, and pacifism. Yet the prophets they invoke—as even a cursory reading of scripture will demonstrate—were neither pacifists nor champions of human rights, but rather advocates of absolute rule by the divine, a system hardly palatable to the modern Left.

Such a clumsy effort at biblical interpretation reveals more than ignorance of Jewish thought. It shows that, for this class of liberal Jewish intellectuals, being Jewish is equivalent to being progressive. And if this is the case, then the converse must also be true: to be a progressive is to be Jewish. These days, most self-respecting progressive thinkers view Israel, the nation-state of the Jews, as nothing other than an embarrassment and “an anachronism,” as Judt wrote. Small wonder, then, that Jewish intellectuals avid of membership in the liberal elite must denounce Israel.

But surely the real question is not whether pro-Israel views are mainstream in the Jewish world; nor is it fruitful to debate who censors whom in the Jewish battle of ideas over Jewish identity and the place Israel occupies in that battle. The real question is whether liberal Jewish intellectuals, by speaking against Israel, merely exercise their freedom of speech, or whether by doing so they offer succor to Israel’s enemies.

The answer to this question is, sadly, the latter. The most extreme views of Israel, including distortions, fabrications, and double standards aimed at demonizing the Jewish state and providing a mandate for its destruction, become legitimate once Jews endorse them. This alibi—i.e., that Jews themselves level these criticisms—becomes a vital tool for those who harbor the oldest hatred but cannot freely express it. The cover offered by liberal Jews enables the anti-Semites, under the pretext of anti-Zionism, to attack all other Jews who fail to comply with the political orthodoxy of the age.

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