Commentary Magazine


Topic: pseudo

Sarah Palin’s Certain Type of Genius

Over at Slate, no fan club of Sarah Palin’s, John Dickerson concedes:

Sarah Palin has special medicine. That’s about the only clear conclusion to be drawn from Tuesday’s primary results. She backed five candidates in Arizona, Florida, and Alaska—and they all won. The rest of the results from the evening defied easy matching. The themes of anti-incumbency and voter anger are still out there, but the candidates who mastered those forces (or avoided them) did so in different ways.

The aspect of Palin that elicits admiration and respect even from liberal critics is her unerring eye for political talent and her certain genius for understanding where the public is going, usually before it does. It is what makes record producers and TV execs famous and rich: a feel for the public’s taste that defies conventional wisdom and relies not so much on careful analysis (who’d have imagined a slick series about ad execs in the 1960s would prove so addictive for so many viewers?) but on gut instinct.

As Dickerson notes:

Twenty of the candidates she’s endorsed have won. Ten have lost. That’s a pretty good record. Her biggest victory looks like it might come in the Republican Senate primary in her home state. … She didn’t go all out for [likely upset winner Joe] Miller but she worked for him more than a lot of her other endorsed candidates, promoting his candidacy but also tearing down his opponent. Palin can take some credit for a portion of his good showing. … Palin now has more support for a favorite story line of hers: The pundits and so-called experts said things were going to go one way but she had faith; she knew the real deal. This is part of her larger pitch: that she understands something fundamental about conservative voters.

And it’s not simply candidates that she gets right. Her death-panel zinger not only revealed an underlying truth about ObamaCare’s plans to ration care; she also managed, with a hot button phrase, to electrify critics and infuriate defenders of the bill. Her populist appeal, and sometimes overdone criticism of elite media, was in 2008 a precursor of the Tea Party movement — conservatism that is anti-establishment, small-government-minded, and celebrates individual responsibility.

Now, being a political soothsayer and a superb judge of talent (she plucked Nikki Haley out of obscurity by watching a single video) doesn’t ensure a successful candidacy or an effective presidency. But it’s not nothing. And having experienced an over-credentialed pseudo-intellectual president who lacks a basic understanding of the American people, the public may find something refreshing about someone who “gets” what the country is about. Palin knows what to look for in candidates because she is in sync with the center-right zeitgeist. If she knows what the country is about and what makes it successful, the argument would go, she might possess, as Dickerson explains, “a special light to guide the country out of the muck.” (This was the secret to Ronald Reagan, by the way. It didn’t matter what the issue was — he would get it “right” because he instinctively understood the superiority of free markets, the destiny of America, and the character of his fellow citizens. Yes, all caveats apply, and Palin is not Reagan.)

It’s not clear whether Palin will run in 2012 or could even win the nomination, but her potential opponents and the media underestimate her at their peril. And if she doesn’t win, whichever Republican does would be crazy not to take her counsel and guidance. The lady knows a thing or two about how to win races.

Over at Slate, no fan club of Sarah Palin’s, John Dickerson concedes:

Sarah Palin has special medicine. That’s about the only clear conclusion to be drawn from Tuesday’s primary results. She backed five candidates in Arizona, Florida, and Alaska—and they all won. The rest of the results from the evening defied easy matching. The themes of anti-incumbency and voter anger are still out there, but the candidates who mastered those forces (or avoided them) did so in different ways.

The aspect of Palin that elicits admiration and respect even from liberal critics is her unerring eye for political talent and her certain genius for understanding where the public is going, usually before it does. It is what makes record producers and TV execs famous and rich: a feel for the public’s taste that defies conventional wisdom and relies not so much on careful analysis (who’d have imagined a slick series about ad execs in the 1960s would prove so addictive for so many viewers?) but on gut instinct.

As Dickerson notes:

Twenty of the candidates she’s endorsed have won. Ten have lost. That’s a pretty good record. Her biggest victory looks like it might come in the Republican Senate primary in her home state. … She didn’t go all out for [likely upset winner Joe] Miller but she worked for him more than a lot of her other endorsed candidates, promoting his candidacy but also tearing down his opponent. Palin can take some credit for a portion of his good showing. … Palin now has more support for a favorite story line of hers: The pundits and so-called experts said things were going to go one way but she had faith; she knew the real deal. This is part of her larger pitch: that she understands something fundamental about conservative voters.

And it’s not simply candidates that she gets right. Her death-panel zinger not only revealed an underlying truth about ObamaCare’s plans to ration care; she also managed, with a hot button phrase, to electrify critics and infuriate defenders of the bill. Her populist appeal, and sometimes overdone criticism of elite media, was in 2008 a precursor of the Tea Party movement — conservatism that is anti-establishment, small-government-minded, and celebrates individual responsibility.

Now, being a political soothsayer and a superb judge of talent (she plucked Nikki Haley out of obscurity by watching a single video) doesn’t ensure a successful candidacy or an effective presidency. But it’s not nothing. And having experienced an over-credentialed pseudo-intellectual president who lacks a basic understanding of the American people, the public may find something refreshing about someone who “gets” what the country is about. Palin knows what to look for in candidates because she is in sync with the center-right zeitgeist. If she knows what the country is about and what makes it successful, the argument would go, she might possess, as Dickerson explains, “a special light to guide the country out of the muck.” (This was the secret to Ronald Reagan, by the way. It didn’t matter what the issue was — he would get it “right” because he instinctively understood the superiority of free markets, the destiny of America, and the character of his fellow citizens. Yes, all caveats apply, and Palin is not Reagan.)

It’s not clear whether Palin will run in 2012 or could even win the nomination, but her potential opponents and the media underestimate her at their peril. And if she doesn’t win, whichever Republican does would be crazy not to take her counsel and guidance. The lady knows a thing or two about how to win races.

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She Said What?

Michelle Obama today said that “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction.”

Really proud of her country for the first time? Michelle Obama is 44 years old. She has been an adult since 1982. Can it really be there has not been a moment during that time when she felt proud of her country? Forget matters like the victory in the Cold War; how about only things that have made liberals proud — all the accomplishments of inclusion? How about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991? Or Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s elevation to the Supreme Court? Or Carol Moseley Braun’s election to the Senate in 1998? How about the merely humanitarian, like this country’s startling generosity to the victims of the tsunami? I’m sure commenters can think of hundreds more landmarks of this sort. Didn’t she even get a twinge from, say, the Olympics?

Mrs. Obama was speaking at a campaign rally, so it is easy to assume she was merely indulging in hyperbole. Even so, it is very revealing.

It suggests, first, that the pseudo-messianic nature of the Obama candidacy is very much a part of the way the Obamas themselves are feeling about it these days. If they don’t get a hold of themselves, the family vanity is going to swell up to the size of Phileas Fogg’s hot-air balloon and send the two of them soaring to heights of self-congratulatory solipsism that we’ve never seen before.

Second, it suggests the Obama campaign really does have its roots in New Class leftism, according to which patriotism is not only the last refuge of a scoundrel, but the first refuge as well — that America is not fundamentally good but flawed, but rather fundamentally flawed and only occasionally good. There’s something for John McCain to work with here.

And third, that Michelle Obama — from the middle-class South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, Princeton 85, Harvard Law 88, associate at Sidley and Austin, and eventually a high-ranking official at the University of Chicago — may not be proud of her country, but her life, like her husband’s, gives me every reason to be even prouder of the United States.

Michelle Obama today said that “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction.”

Really proud of her country for the first time? Michelle Obama is 44 years old. She has been an adult since 1982. Can it really be there has not been a moment during that time when she felt proud of her country? Forget matters like the victory in the Cold War; how about only things that have made liberals proud — all the accomplishments of inclusion? How about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991? Or Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s elevation to the Supreme Court? Or Carol Moseley Braun’s election to the Senate in 1998? How about the merely humanitarian, like this country’s startling generosity to the victims of the tsunami? I’m sure commenters can think of hundreds more landmarks of this sort. Didn’t she even get a twinge from, say, the Olympics?

Mrs. Obama was speaking at a campaign rally, so it is easy to assume she was merely indulging in hyperbole. Even so, it is very revealing.

It suggests, first, that the pseudo-messianic nature of the Obama candidacy is very much a part of the way the Obamas themselves are feeling about it these days. If they don’t get a hold of themselves, the family vanity is going to swell up to the size of Phileas Fogg’s hot-air balloon and send the two of them soaring to heights of self-congratulatory solipsism that we’ve never seen before.

Second, it suggests the Obama campaign really does have its roots in New Class leftism, according to which patriotism is not only the last refuge of a scoundrel, but the first refuge as well — that America is not fundamentally good but flawed, but rather fundamentally flawed and only occasionally good. There’s something for John McCain to work with here.

And third, that Michelle Obama — from the middle-class South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, Princeton 85, Harvard Law 88, associate at Sidley and Austin, and eventually a high-ranking official at the University of Chicago — may not be proud of her country, but her life, like her husband’s, gives me every reason to be even prouder of the United States.

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Kike Wisse Like Me

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a piece called “Vexing Questions about Jewish Identity” that was the talk of the town, its subject being a documentary with the outlandishly provocative title Kike Like Me. Its director and star, Jamie Kastner, travels from Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn to Pat Buchanan’s house outside Washington to a Paris suburb to a Berlin Holocaust memorial to a Krakow synagogue and finally inside the gates of Auschwitz in an exploration of Jewish identity and what being a Jew means today. The movie is made Michael Moore style, with Kastner playing the role of ingenuous naif lost in the woods and looking for help trying to get himself out. The influence of Moore, combined with Kastner’s seemingly cutesy refusal in interviews to say whether or not he is in fact Jewish and its appearance on a cable channel associated with the reflexively leftist Sundance Film Festival, led me to expect Kike Like Me would be a standard-issue work of self-examination in which Jews and Jewry would effectively be put on trial, not anti-Semitism.

And…I was very, very wrong. Kike Like Me is bracing and tough-minded, and is, in fact, a study not of “Jewish identity” but of 21st century anti-Semitism. When Kastner, a Canadian with a modest and inoffensive manner, asks Pat Buchanan about a paragraph in one of his books that calls the patriotism of neoconservatives into question, Buchanan takes a quick look at the curly-headed Kastner and instantly terminates the interview. In London, he interviews Richard Ingrams, the odious one-time editor of Private Eye who has famously declared that he glances at the bottom of letters he receives to see whether its author has a Jewish name for, if so, he will simply not read it. An American expat in London tells him she has decided to return home because she is unable to have a single conversation with English friends in which the supposed perfidy of Israel is not referenced.

He wanders through Krakow looking for a Jew but finding only restaurants that cater to Jews, Israelis primarily, who have traveled there to see evidence of Polish Jewry before its destruction. Even the old woman in the Krakow shul who hands him a yarmulke isn’t a Jew, and once he discovers the fact, he takes back the $5 he gave her.

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Yesterday, the New York Times ran a piece called “Vexing Questions about Jewish Identity” that was the talk of the town, its subject being a documentary with the outlandishly provocative title Kike Like Me. Its director and star, Jamie Kastner, travels from Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn to Pat Buchanan’s house outside Washington to a Paris suburb to a Berlin Holocaust memorial to a Krakow synagogue and finally inside the gates of Auschwitz in an exploration of Jewish identity and what being a Jew means today. The movie is made Michael Moore style, with Kastner playing the role of ingenuous naif lost in the woods and looking for help trying to get himself out. The influence of Moore, combined with Kastner’s seemingly cutesy refusal in interviews to say whether or not he is in fact Jewish and its appearance on a cable channel associated with the reflexively leftist Sundance Film Festival, led me to expect Kike Like Me would be a standard-issue work of self-examination in which Jews and Jewry would effectively be put on trial, not anti-Semitism.

And…I was very, very wrong. Kike Like Me is bracing and tough-minded, and is, in fact, a study not of “Jewish identity” but of 21st century anti-Semitism. When Kastner, a Canadian with a modest and inoffensive manner, asks Pat Buchanan about a paragraph in one of his books that calls the patriotism of neoconservatives into question, Buchanan takes a quick look at the curly-headed Kastner and instantly terminates the interview. In London, he interviews Richard Ingrams, the odious one-time editor of Private Eye who has famously declared that he glances at the bottom of letters he receives to see whether its author has a Jewish name for, if so, he will simply not read it. An American expat in London tells him she has decided to return home because she is unable to have a single conversation with English friends in which the supposed perfidy of Israel is not referenced.

He wanders through Krakow looking for a Jew but finding only restaurants that cater to Jews, Israelis primarily, who have traveled there to see evidence of Polish Jewry before its destruction. Even the old woman in the Krakow shul who hands him a yarmulke isn’t a Jew, and once he discovers the fact, he takes back the $5 he gave her.

But the most stunning scene in the movie takes place in a Paris suburb called Sancerre Sarcelles, when with his digital camera rolling he finds himself in the middle of an outraged argument between two Jewish women and five male Muslim youths. As the woman argue heatedly, the boys claim Jews own all the businesses in France, that the local synagogue is a palace — this after Kastner has been taken to a nondescript shul hiding inside a Paris building that was nonetheless firebombed — and that Jews “dominate us. They’re dominators.” Kastner asks the boys what they think of him. “If you’re a Jew,” one says, “then we don’t like you…If you get a chance, you’ll screw me over…Because they’re bastards. They’re traitors.” As the boys get more and more revved up, Kastner’s translator quietly suggests it’s time for him to leave, and in a state of some alarm, he and his cameraman climb into their rental car and speed away.

Once Kastner arrives at Auschwitz, he has a negative epiphany — the gift shops and tourist stops all seem to be trivializing the enormity of the crime. “Strange to see it here like a movie set preserved for our benefit,” Kastner says. His cameraman says he needs to see the ovens, that the film needs a shot of him looking into the ovens. He has had enough. In a state of revulsion, he declares as he storms off, “This is f—ing horrible and I don’t need to see anything else. You can call me yellow, you can call me a lily-livered Y-d…this whole f—ing place should be blown up and the people who did it with it. How’s that for Jewish identity?”

(Now how would we call him a “lily-livered Y-d” if he weren’t a Jew?)

In the end, it seems, the real influence on Kike Like Me isn’t Michael Moore but COMMENTARY’s own Ruth Wisse. Now, I have no idea whether Kastner knows who Ruth is or has read her work. But in her passionate exploration in the recent Jews and Power of the threat posed to Jewry by its own historic passivity, and in other writings in which she has expressed her deep concern about the sentimentalization and pseudo-sacralization of the Holocaust (she has an unforgettable memoir on the subject in the upcoming issue of COMMENTARY), she has given intellectual voice to many of the concerns expressed in Kastner’s scorchingly honest and literally provocative documentary. (For those with TiVos and DVRs and a cable package that includes the Sundance Channel, it airs again on December 27 at 5 am.)

Review of Jews and Power from the September issue of COMMENTARY.
COMMENTARY Onscreen: An Interview with Ruth Wisse

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Caveat Emptor

Are there people out there who take Wikipedia seriously as a source of objective information? There shouldn’t be, but unfortunately there are. In fact, lots of students use it a source of first resort. It’s so popular, that whenever you type almost any subject into Google, the first hit is usually for a Wikipedia entry.

Yet disinformation abounds, often motivated by animus or prejudice. There is, for instance, the by-now famous story of a former assistant to Robert F. Kennedy who was brazenly—and completely without foundation—accused on Wikipedia of complicity in the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. (For this sorry tale, see his article.)

A friend has now called my attention to another bizarre distortion, this one an attempt not to besmirch the character of one man but of an entire country. If you look up the Philippine War (1899-1902) you get this entry. And in the very first paragraph you get this statement: “The U.S. conquest of the Philippines has been described as a genocide, and resulted in the death of 1.4 million Filipinos (out of a total population of seven million).”

I was pretty startled to read this. I have written a whole chapter on the war in my book, The Savage Wars of Peace, and I have never once heard that the U.S. was guilty of genocide. How could it have entirely escaped my attention?

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Are there people out there who take Wikipedia seriously as a source of objective information? There shouldn’t be, but unfortunately there are. In fact, lots of students use it a source of first resort. It’s so popular, that whenever you type almost any subject into Google, the first hit is usually for a Wikipedia entry.

Yet disinformation abounds, often motivated by animus or prejudice. There is, for instance, the by-now famous story of a former assistant to Robert F. Kennedy who was brazenly—and completely without foundation—accused on Wikipedia of complicity in the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. (For this sorry tale, see his article.)

A friend has now called my attention to another bizarre distortion, this one an attempt not to besmirch the character of one man but of an entire country. If you look up the Philippine War (1899-1902) you get this entry. And in the very first paragraph you get this statement: “The U.S. conquest of the Philippines has been described as a genocide, and resulted in the death of 1.4 million Filipinos (out of a total population of seven million).”

I was pretty startled to read this. I have written a whole chapter on the war in my book, The Savage Wars of Peace, and I have never once heard that the U.S. was guilty of genocide. How could it have entirely escaped my attention?

There is, needless to say, not a scintilla of evidence that Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt made any attempt to wipe out the population of the Philippines. There is no doubt that a lot of Filipinos died in the course of the war, but most of those deaths were the result of disease, not American bullets. In my book, I cite the generally accepted casualty totals: 4,234 American dead and, on the other side, 16,000 Filipinos killed in battle and another 200,000 civilians killed mainly by disease and famine. My sources for these estimates are books written by William Thaddeus Sexton, an historian writing in the 1930’s, and two more recent accounts written by Stanley Karnow and Walter LaFeber. Neither Karnow nor LaFeber is exactly an American imperialist; in fact, both are well-known liberals. Yet their casualty counts are seven times lower than those claimed by Wikipedia, and they make no mention of any genocide.

Where does the Wikipedia figure come from? The footnote refers to an online essay, “U.S. Genocide in the Philippines” by E. San Juan Jr., posted on an obscure website. The author is described as follows: “E. San Juan, Jr. was recently Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, and visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, Republic of China.” Not exactly a pedigree that instantly screams out that he has any special expertise on the Philippine War.

In his short essay (1,046 words), E. San Juan Jr. concedes that his claims of genocide and of 1.4 million dead do not come from any mainstream sources. He writes: “Among historians, only Howard Zinn and Gabriel Kolko have dwelt on the ‘genocidal’ character of the catastrophe.” But even these ultra-left-wing “revisionist” historians (who also have no expertise in the Philippine War) have, in his telling, cited no more than 600,000 dead Filipinos.

So whence the figure of 1.4 million? According to Mr. San Juan, “The first Filipino scholar to make a thorough documentation of the carnage is the late Luzviminda Francisco in her contribution to The Philippines: The End of An Illusion (London, 1973).” I confess to never having heard of Ms. Francisco (whose works are cataloged online by neither the Library of Congress nor the New York Public Library), but Amazon does contain a link for one of her books. It’s called Conspiracy for Empire: Big business, corruption, and the politics of imperialism in America, 1876-1907 and it was published in 1985 by something called the Foundation for Nationalist Studies, which doesn’t have a web page (or at least none that I could discover).

I am, to put it mildly, underwhelmed by the historical evidence gathered here to accuse the U.S. of having killed 1.4 million people in an attempted genocide. This is not the kind of finding that would be accepted for a second by any reputable scholar, regardless of political orientation. But it is the kind of pseudo-fact that is all too common on the world’s most schlocky wannabe “encyclopedia.” Caveat emptor.

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Bookshelf

• Erskine Caldwell’s novels of rural Georgia life are so completely forgotten that it is hard to grasp how popular they were a half-century ago, much less how seriously he was taken by his colleagues. Saul Bellow actually thought that the author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) rated a Nobel Prize, while William Faulkner, who got one, regarded Caldwell as one of America’s top five novelists (his other picks, for the record, were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Faulkner himself). He was one of the most successful ones, anyway. God’s Little Acre sold 10 million copies—one of which was read and underlined by Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts*—while Jack Kirkland’s stage version of Tobacco Road ran on Broadway for 3,180 performances, still the longest run ever racked up by a straight play.

So what happened to Caldwell, who died in obscurity in 1987? I can’t tell you—I’m no better at forecasting the changing winds of literary fortune than the next man—but I now know that at least one of his books is worth remembering. I’d never read a word of Caldwell when I flew down to Greensboro, N.C., to see Triad Stage give the first professional revival of Tobacco Road in some twenty-odd years. I found it hugely impressive, not just as a stage production but also as a work of theatrical art. “It combines humor and horror to strikingly modern effect,” I wrote in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, “and its unattractive characters are portrayed with an unsentimental sympathy that fills the viewer with pity.”

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• Erskine Caldwell’s novels of rural Georgia life are so completely forgotten that it is hard to grasp how popular they were a half-century ago, much less how seriously he was taken by his colleagues. Saul Bellow actually thought that the author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) rated a Nobel Prize, while William Faulkner, who got one, regarded Caldwell as one of America’s top five novelists (his other picks, for the record, were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Faulkner himself). He was one of the most successful ones, anyway. God’s Little Acre sold 10 million copies—one of which was read and underlined by Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts*—while Jack Kirkland’s stage version of Tobacco Road ran on Broadway for 3,180 performances, still the longest run ever racked up by a straight play.

So what happened to Caldwell, who died in obscurity in 1987? I can’t tell you—I’m no better at forecasting the changing winds of literary fortune than the next man—but I now know that at least one of his books is worth remembering. I’d never read a word of Caldwell when I flew down to Greensboro, N.C., to see Triad Stage give the first professional revival of Tobacco Road in some twenty-odd years. I found it hugely impressive, not just as a stage production but also as a work of theatrical art. “It combines humor and horror to strikingly modern effect,” I wrote in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, “and its unattractive characters are portrayed with an unsentimental sympathy that fills the viewer with pity.”

Curious as to whether the novel was as good as the play, I procured a copy of Tobacco Road (University of Georgia Press, $16.95 paper), which was reissued in 1995 and remains in print to this day. (The stage version, alas, is unavailable, though used copies can be found online.) Somewhat to my surprise, I found that Kirkland’s play tracks the events of Tobacco Road very closely indeed, and that most of the dialogue comes more or less directly from Caldwell’s novel. To be sure, the play is tighter and more conventionally “effective,” but in either form Tobacco Road, if by no means a masterpiece, is still quite remarkably compelling.

What is most striking about Tobacco Road is the unsparing frankness with which Caldwell writes about what we now call the underclass. Despite his sympathy for the backwoods sharecroppers who are his characters, he never makes the mistake of supposing that they bear no responsibility for their desperate plight, and his candor on this score is far more likely to shock modern readers than the comparative sexual explicitness that got him in trouble with the censors seven decades ago. Jeeter Lester, the coarse, illiterate anti-hero of Tobacco Road, may have a certain primitive dignity arising from his unswerving (if ineffectual) commitment to “the struggle to break the land each spring and plant cotton,” but his inability to support his family is unambiguously presented by Caldwell as a failure of character, and we are made to see that the tragedy of his life is in large part one of his own making:

There were always well-developed plans in Jeeter’s mind for the things he intended doing; but somehow he never got around to doing them. One day led to the next, and it was much more easy to say he would wait until tomorrow. When that day arrived, he invariably postponed action until a more convenient time. Things had been going along in that easy way for almost a lifetime now.

Such implicit censoriousness long ago went out of literary fashion, and I suspect that it is one of the reasons why Tobacco Road is no longer looked upon with favor by the literati, though there are other passages more likely to please them:

“I reckon Jeeter done right,” Lov contended. “He was a man who liked to grow things in the ground. The mills ain’t no place for a human who’s got that in his bones. The mills is sort of like automobiles—they’re all right to fool around in and have a good time in, but they don’t offer no love like the ground does. The ground sort of looks out after the people who keeps their feet on it. When people stand on planks in buildings all the time, and walk around on hard streets, the ground sort of loses interest in the human.”

Fortunately, that kind of Popular Front pseudo-poetry is rarely to be found in Tobacco Road (and is almost completely missing from the leaner stage version). For the most part Caldwell laid it on the line, leaving the reader in no possible doubt that Jeeter and his family were what the rural folk of my own Midwestern youth called “white trash.” That doesn’t make their terrible fate less tragic, but it definitely makes it more interesting.

*Editorial error originally reversed the name of the play and the name of the character.

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Male Genital Mutilation?

As the father of three daughters, and as someone whose intellectual interests lie lately in the realm of intelligence and counter-terrorism, I can’t say that the subject of circumcision is one that I find myself particularly interested in or eager to write about. But I cannot refrain.

Andrew Sullivan has published a Male Genital Mutilation Update, in which he argues that circumcision is a crime, a form of “child abuse,” being committed on “millions of men without their consent.” It is one of a series of posts by him in the same vein over the years. John Podhoretz has called Sullivan’s argument a “psychotic diatribe,” but calling it “psychotic” lets Sullivan off far too easily.

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As the father of three daughters, and as someone whose intellectual interests lie lately in the realm of intelligence and counter-terrorism, I can’t say that the subject of circumcision is one that I find myself particularly interested in or eager to write about. But I cannot refrain.

Andrew Sullivan has published a Male Genital Mutilation Update, in which he argues that circumcision is a crime, a form of “child abuse,” being committed on “millions of men without their consent.” It is one of a series of posts by him in the same vein over the years. John Podhoretz has called Sullivan’s argument a “psychotic diatribe,” but calling it “psychotic” lets Sullivan off far too easily.

Let’s devote only a little attention to Sullivan’s contention that circumcised men have had “most of their sexual pleasure zones destroyed” and experience less pleasure from sex than uncircumcised men. He points to some pseudo-scientific studies that purport to demonstrate this. But these studies, and Sullivan’s basic premise, rest on what is known in economics as an interpersonal comparison of utility. Such comparisons are inherently problematic if not impossible; it is like asking two people which of them enjoys listening to Mozart more; there is no conceivable way that such a comparison can be performed.

But a far more serious objection can be leveled to Sullivan’s enterprise. As Jon Levenson has noted in a brilliant Commentary article, The New Enemies of Circumcision, a “veritable alphabet soup of activist organizations has sprung up” to fight against the practice.

Their names offer a clue as to what kinds of people we are dealing with here. They include, in Levenson’s listing:

BUFF (Brothers United for Future Foreskins), UNCIRC (UNCircumcising Information and Resources Center), NOHARMM (the National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males), and NORM (the National Organization of Restoring Men) and its predecessor, RECAP (Recover a Penis).

Many of these organizations, as Levenson writes, “are not content to limit their efforts to public persuasion but seek nothing less than to make the practice a criminal offense.”

And there is more. Quite apart from the fact that circumcision is a widespread and accepted American medical practice, it is an essential rite of Judaism, a religious obligation that has bound the Jewish people together from time immemorial. However secular a Jew like me may be, it is clear that the idea of forbidding circumcision by law is a dagger aimed at the freedom to be Jewish. Nor is that merely accidental: some of the leading exponents of the anti-circumcision movement have in fact employed arguments, as Levenson shows, that are themselves openly anti-Semitic, including repetition of the ancient blood-libel.

Andrew Sullivan does not go forthrightly in the direction of a ban; he is disingenuously silent on the issue. Yet since in describing the practice he employs terms with criminal import like “child abuse” and “genital mutilation,” can there be any doubt that a ban is what he is seeking or, at the very least, that this is the logical sequel of his stance?

“Because American Jews live in one of the few countries in which hygienic circumcision is widely practiced,” notes Levenson, “they easily forget the role that contempt for the practice has played in the history of anti-Semitism.” Andrew Sullivan’s arguments may not be psychotic, but they are certainly bizarre and even freakish, they rest on a shaky premise, and they are definitely pernicious. That is plenty bad enough.

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