Commentary Magazine


Topic: real estate

The Mosque and the People Who Have Suddenly Discovered Property Rights

One of the hilarious ironies attendant on the mosque debate is the sudden discovery by the liberal elites of the vital importance of property rights — how Imam Feisal Rauf and his people have purchased a site on which they should be able to build “as of right,” and how those who are objecting to the mosque’s construction are committing an offense not only against the free exercise of religion but against commonly accepted principles involving real estate.

For the past 40 years, especially in New York City, property rights have taken a back seat in almost all discussions of the proper use of real estate. Following the lamentable razing of the great old Penn Station, the general proposition has been that any major project should have a distinctly positive public use. Landmark commissions, zoning boards and the like have imposed all sorts of restrictions and demands on property owners that interfere with their right to build as they would wish. Laws have been written after the fact (especially when Broadway theaters were jeopardized by real-estate development in the early 1980s) to restrict the right of property owners to do as they would wish with the land and buildings they own.

Thus, the outrage which greeted the suggestion that zoning boards and the like should and could be used to block the Cordoba Intitiative is bitterly comic. Such boards have been used for decades to block projects for reasons involving the “sensitivities” of a neighborhood, like the time Woody Allen and others fought the construction of a building at the corner of 91st and Madison on the grounds that it would harm the historic nature of the area — when in fact he and his neighbors were concerned about a shadow the building might cast on their communal backyard. Walter Cronkite went on a tear against a tall building being built by Donald Trump on the East Side near the UN because it was going to block his view.

Nor is the right of religious institutions or religious people absolute. You can’t put a religious school anywhere; Samuel Freedman’s book Jew vs. Jew details several cases in which more secular Jews have fought the installation of more religious Jewish institutions in their communities using zoning laws.

So by all means, let us pay tribute to the primacy of property rights. Or are they only to be invoked when convenient?

One of the hilarious ironies attendant on the mosque debate is the sudden discovery by the liberal elites of the vital importance of property rights — how Imam Feisal Rauf and his people have purchased a site on which they should be able to build “as of right,” and how those who are objecting to the mosque’s construction are committing an offense not only against the free exercise of religion but against commonly accepted principles involving real estate.

For the past 40 years, especially in New York City, property rights have taken a back seat in almost all discussions of the proper use of real estate. Following the lamentable razing of the great old Penn Station, the general proposition has been that any major project should have a distinctly positive public use. Landmark commissions, zoning boards and the like have imposed all sorts of restrictions and demands on property owners that interfere with their right to build as they would wish. Laws have been written after the fact (especially when Broadway theaters were jeopardized by real-estate development in the early 1980s) to restrict the right of property owners to do as they would wish with the land and buildings they own.

Thus, the outrage which greeted the suggestion that zoning boards and the like should and could be used to block the Cordoba Intitiative is bitterly comic. Such boards have been used for decades to block projects for reasons involving the “sensitivities” of a neighborhood, like the time Woody Allen and others fought the construction of a building at the corner of 91st and Madison on the grounds that it would harm the historic nature of the area — when in fact he and his neighbors were concerned about a shadow the building might cast on their communal backyard. Walter Cronkite went on a tear against a tall building being built by Donald Trump on the East Side near the UN because it was going to block his view.

Nor is the right of religious institutions or religious people absolute. You can’t put a religious school anywhere; Samuel Freedman’s book Jew vs. Jew details several cases in which more secular Jews have fought the installation of more religious Jewish institutions in their communities using zoning laws.

So by all means, let us pay tribute to the primacy of property rights. Or are they only to be invoked when convenient?

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Still Spying After All These Years

One thing the emerging Russian spy scandal demonstrates is that America really is one heck of a melting pot. Where else would you find neighbors referring to a couple whose names are Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills as “the Russian parents” because of their Russian accents? Hey, it could happen. If a Russian ends up going by the name Patricia Mills for a legal or logical reason, America is where she’ll do it.

This is all to the good for social harmony, but it does make it easier for Russian agents to hide in plain sight. That’s one lesson from the spy incident. Another is the very basic lesson that the espionage is ongoing. It hasn’t stopped; it isn’t going to. Russia has never ceased being one of the two most espionage-invested nations in the world (the other is China). Significant infiltration by Russian spies has been reported over the past two years by Britain, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and the Netherlands. The NATO headquarters in Belgium had to remove Russian spies in 2008 and 2009. Japan and Australia have dealt with influxes of Russian spies in the last several years. Smaller-scale incidents have occurred in Canada and India.

But there are two other things we should pay attention to in the break-up of this spy ring. One is that the Russians considered it worthwhile to cultivate agents in interactive occupations that facilitate logistics, and from which access might be gained to individuals with primary knowledge of political and defense topics. People in real estate, travel planning, and opinion journalism fit this role. I see a lot of bloggers today poking fun at this method — and at the conduct of the ring in general — but this is classic, professional intelligence craft. Several of the 11 who have been arrested would more correctly be called agents than spies, but that is really the point: what we are seeing the outlines of is not a single, targeted campaign but a routine modus operandi.

The other aspect of interest is the alleged participation in the Russian ring of El Diario writer Vicky Pelaez and her husband Juan Lazaro. Latin American media are reporting that Pelaez is Peruvian and Lazaro is from Uruguay; Pelaez was reportedly a well-known TV reporter in Peru in the 1980s. She, at least, seems to be a person with a valid history, using the name she was born with. That makes her unusual in this group. It suggests her choice to act as an agent for Russia was prompted by political motivations.

Others have noted the very left-leaning tendency of her positions. She was quoted at length in a recent press release by Fidel Castro; in 2003, she penned an explanation of the putative  “Trotskyist roots of neoconservatism” that sparked furious debate among serious socialists over her invocation of Trotsky’s concept of “permanent revolution.” This is an ideological leftist who knows the theory and lingo.

And when she accepted a spying assignment, she accepted it from Russia. Her arrest certainly doesn’t implicate other left-wing journalists in espionage. But this echo from the Cold War ought to give us pause. Russia is no longer the global standard-bearer of Marxism, but it appears Marxists from elsewhere are still spying for Russia.

One thing the emerging Russian spy scandal demonstrates is that America really is one heck of a melting pot. Where else would you find neighbors referring to a couple whose names are Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills as “the Russian parents” because of their Russian accents? Hey, it could happen. If a Russian ends up going by the name Patricia Mills for a legal or logical reason, America is where she’ll do it.

This is all to the good for social harmony, but it does make it easier for Russian agents to hide in plain sight. That’s one lesson from the spy incident. Another is the very basic lesson that the espionage is ongoing. It hasn’t stopped; it isn’t going to. Russia has never ceased being one of the two most espionage-invested nations in the world (the other is China). Significant infiltration by Russian spies has been reported over the past two years by Britain, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and the Netherlands. The NATO headquarters in Belgium had to remove Russian spies in 2008 and 2009. Japan and Australia have dealt with influxes of Russian spies in the last several years. Smaller-scale incidents have occurred in Canada and India.

But there are two other things we should pay attention to in the break-up of this spy ring. One is that the Russians considered it worthwhile to cultivate agents in interactive occupations that facilitate logistics, and from which access might be gained to individuals with primary knowledge of political and defense topics. People in real estate, travel planning, and opinion journalism fit this role. I see a lot of bloggers today poking fun at this method — and at the conduct of the ring in general — but this is classic, professional intelligence craft. Several of the 11 who have been arrested would more correctly be called agents than spies, but that is really the point: what we are seeing the outlines of is not a single, targeted campaign but a routine modus operandi.

The other aspect of interest is the alleged participation in the Russian ring of El Diario writer Vicky Pelaez and her husband Juan Lazaro. Latin American media are reporting that Pelaez is Peruvian and Lazaro is from Uruguay; Pelaez was reportedly a well-known TV reporter in Peru in the 1980s. She, at least, seems to be a person with a valid history, using the name she was born with. That makes her unusual in this group. It suggests her choice to act as an agent for Russia was prompted by political motivations.

Others have noted the very left-leaning tendency of her positions. She was quoted at length in a recent press release by Fidel Castro; in 2003, she penned an explanation of the putative  “Trotskyist roots of neoconservatism” that sparked furious debate among serious socialists over her invocation of Trotsky’s concept of “permanent revolution.” This is an ideological leftist who knows the theory and lingo.

And when she accepted a spying assignment, she accepted it from Russia. Her arrest certainly doesn’t implicate other left-wing journalists in espionage. But this echo from the Cold War ought to give us pause. Russia is no longer the global standard-bearer of Marxism, but it appears Marxists from elsewhere are still spying for Russia.

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Realists Become Neocons

Richard Haass, the self-described “realist” who has come around to favor regime change in Iran and warned Obama to get over his obsession with the Middle East “peace process,” reviews the list of belligerent moves by North Korea and then offers up some advice to the Obama administration masterminds:

The next real opportunity to change things for the better is likely to come when North Korea’s mercurial tyrant Kim Jong Il departs the scene once and for all time. But positive change will only happen if China acts. If in real estate all that matters is location, location and location, it is only a slight exaggeration to contend that what matters most when it comes to North Korea is China, China and China. …

American and South Korean officials need to do more than just point out the risk to their Chinese counterparts of China’s current course. They also need to discuss the character of a unified Korea and how one would get there, addressing legitimate Chinese strategic concerns including the questions of non-Korean troop presence and the full denuclearization of the peninsula. …

South Korea’s president may have signaled an interest in just this on Monday, saying “It is now time for the North Korean regime to change.” President Obama should follow suit. There would be no better way to mark this June’s 60th anniversary of the Korean war.

Regime change to deal with despots? Dispense with self-defeating peace processing in the Middle East? Not remarkable views at all for CONTENTIONS or for COMMENTARY magazine, but startling indeed for a middle-of-the-road establishment figure like Haass. It seems that for those willing to absorb reality and not simply adopt the slogan of “realists,” the evidence is mounting that Obama’s absorption with engagement and disinclination to confront despots is useless and indeed counterproductive. These realists understand that the thugocracies are becoming more aggressive and the U.S. less credible and that some serious course correction is needed.

Political moderates and even liberals have grown disgusted with Obama’s abysmal record on human rights and religious freedom and nervous about his reluctance to project American power. The silver lining in Obama’s inept foreign policy is that a potentially broad-based alliance of critics is forming to suggest policies more in sync with neocon thinkers than with the starry-eyed multilateralist president. If not for the dangers to the U.S. and its allies, which Obama is doing little to abate (and much to increase), it would be a very positive development. Provided we and our allies can weather the Obama storm, his successor may have the benefit of a new bipartisan foreign-policy consensus, which has eluded us for some time.

Richard Haass, the self-described “realist” who has come around to favor regime change in Iran and warned Obama to get over his obsession with the Middle East “peace process,” reviews the list of belligerent moves by North Korea and then offers up some advice to the Obama administration masterminds:

The next real opportunity to change things for the better is likely to come when North Korea’s mercurial tyrant Kim Jong Il departs the scene once and for all time. But positive change will only happen if China acts. If in real estate all that matters is location, location and location, it is only a slight exaggeration to contend that what matters most when it comes to North Korea is China, China and China. …

American and South Korean officials need to do more than just point out the risk to their Chinese counterparts of China’s current course. They also need to discuss the character of a unified Korea and how one would get there, addressing legitimate Chinese strategic concerns including the questions of non-Korean troop presence and the full denuclearization of the peninsula. …

South Korea’s president may have signaled an interest in just this on Monday, saying “It is now time for the North Korean regime to change.” President Obama should follow suit. There would be no better way to mark this June’s 60th anniversary of the Korean war.

Regime change to deal with despots? Dispense with self-defeating peace processing in the Middle East? Not remarkable views at all for CONTENTIONS or for COMMENTARY magazine, but startling indeed for a middle-of-the-road establishment figure like Haass. It seems that for those willing to absorb reality and not simply adopt the slogan of “realists,” the evidence is mounting that Obama’s absorption with engagement and disinclination to confront despots is useless and indeed counterproductive. These realists understand that the thugocracies are becoming more aggressive and the U.S. less credible and that some serious course correction is needed.

Political moderates and even liberals have grown disgusted with Obama’s abysmal record on human rights and religious freedom and nervous about his reluctance to project American power. The silver lining in Obama’s inept foreign policy is that a potentially broad-based alliance of critics is forming to suggest policies more in sync with neocon thinkers than with the starry-eyed multilateralist president. If not for the dangers to the U.S. and its allies, which Obama is doing little to abate (and much to increase), it would be a very positive development. Provided we and our allies can weather the Obama storm, his successor may have the benefit of a new bipartisan foreign-policy consensus, which has eluded us for some time.

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Obama Picked the Wrong Issue

At the time, many of us who have been highly critical of Obama’s Israel policy noted that it was a bad idea for him to make Jerusalem housing permits the focus of his ire (at least for now). There is no issue so emotional and no aspect of the conflict with the Palestinians that so unites Jews as the historic capital of the Jewish people. And today, the depth of his misjudgment is laid bare by Elie Wiesel, who takes out full page ads in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal to object to the assault on what he calls “the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul.”

He doesn’t mention Obama by name but his point could not be clearer: forget it, Mr. President. He writes, in part:

For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture — and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem. To many theologians, is IS Jewish history, to many poets, a source of inspiration. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming. The first song I heard was my mother’s lullaby about and for Jerusalem. Its sadness and joy are part of our collective memory.

He continues with a historical review of the city dating back to King David. And then he brings us up to date:

Today , for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city. The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.

What is the solution? Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be. Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely? Why not first take steps which allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atomosphere of security. Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue, for such a time?

It is significant that it is Wiesel – a Jewish figure without peer and the embodiment of Holocaust memory – who writes this. It is as powerful a rebuke to an American president as any he can receive. It is not simply a geopolitical critique; it is an indictment of Obama’s ignorance of and lack of sympathy with the Jewish people. It cannot be ignored.

At the time, many of us who have been highly critical of Obama’s Israel policy noted that it was a bad idea for him to make Jerusalem housing permits the focus of his ire (at least for now). There is no issue so emotional and no aspect of the conflict with the Palestinians that so unites Jews as the historic capital of the Jewish people. And today, the depth of his misjudgment is laid bare by Elie Wiesel, who takes out full page ads in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal to object to the assault on what he calls “the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul.”

He doesn’t mention Obama by name but his point could not be clearer: forget it, Mr. President. He writes, in part:

For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture — and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem. To many theologians, is IS Jewish history, to many poets, a source of inspiration. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming. The first song I heard was my mother’s lullaby about and for Jerusalem. Its sadness and joy are part of our collective memory.

He continues with a historical review of the city dating back to King David. And then he brings us up to date:

Today , for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city. The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.

What is the solution? Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be. Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely? Why not first take steps which allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atomosphere of security. Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue, for such a time?

It is significant that it is Wiesel – a Jewish figure without peer and the embodiment of Holocaust memory – who writes this. It is as powerful a rebuke to an American president as any he can receive. It is not simply a geopolitical critique; it is an indictment of Obama’s ignorance of and lack of sympathy with the Jewish people. It cannot be ignored.

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The Middle East Needs Dubai

There is a large element of Schadenfreude in the media coverage of Dubai’s financial mess. The Gulf emirate has suspended payment on the debt of its flagship holding company, Dubai World, causing financial jitters around the world and raising suspicions that its balance sheet is a lot worse than it has been letting on. For years Dubai has been on a spending binge, which includes building the world’s tallest building, an indoor ski slope, and a series of artificial islands in “an artificial archipelago that would reconfigure the Persian Gulf coast into a thicket of trees, a map of the world, a whirling galaxy, a scythe and a sun that looks like a spider.”

It is easy to look down one’s nose at the excesses of this global parvenu, which is trying to become the Hong Kong or Singapore of the Middle East, thereby usurping Beirut’s traditional position as the place where Arabs unwind. When I visited Dubai a couple of years ago with a group of foreign-policy analysts, we were all amazed by the frenetic pace of construction. A sizable proportion of the world’s building cranes had been arrayed in this city-state and they were putting up too many skyscrapers to count. It was pretty obvious that the good times wouldn’t last forever, and they haven’t. The result of a building boom, we all know, is a glut of new structures, a lack of tenants, and a crash. That’s what has happened in the U.S. with residential homes in the past few years and now it appears to be happening with commercial real estate in Dubai.

So much, so familiar. But still for all of Dubai’s excesses it is a wonder that it has gotten this far. It deserves not ill-disguised glee at its misfortunes but a degree of respect for its willingness to flout traditional Arab taboos. It is, for example, a place where Emiratis in white robes rub shoulders with Russian hookers in mini-skirts — a place where it’s perfectly possible to get a nice cocktail (and not a “mocktail,” as in Kuwait) in a public bar, and to do so in the middle of Ramadan if you’re feeling parched at that point. No doubt some of Dubai’s competitors, the likes of Doha and Kuwait City and its sister emirate Abu Dhabi, are licking their chops at the prospect of benefitting from Dubai’s downturn but they will be hard put to it to match its dynamism because they remain much more in thrall to traditional Arab/Muslim pieties: a combination of religious and tribal traditions that have made the Middle East a laggard in many dimensions of development. Dubai has been a leader in the Arab world with respect to embracing modernity — which has repercussions both good and bad but in general is a force for positive change. We should all hope that it will get on its feet again soon. The Middle East needs Dubai.

There is a large element of Schadenfreude in the media coverage of Dubai’s financial mess. The Gulf emirate has suspended payment on the debt of its flagship holding company, Dubai World, causing financial jitters around the world and raising suspicions that its balance sheet is a lot worse than it has been letting on. For years Dubai has been on a spending binge, which includes building the world’s tallest building, an indoor ski slope, and a series of artificial islands in “an artificial archipelago that would reconfigure the Persian Gulf coast into a thicket of trees, a map of the world, a whirling galaxy, a scythe and a sun that looks like a spider.”

It is easy to look down one’s nose at the excesses of this global parvenu, which is trying to become the Hong Kong or Singapore of the Middle East, thereby usurping Beirut’s traditional position as the place where Arabs unwind. When I visited Dubai a couple of years ago with a group of foreign-policy analysts, we were all amazed by the frenetic pace of construction. A sizable proportion of the world’s building cranes had been arrayed in this city-state and they were putting up too many skyscrapers to count. It was pretty obvious that the good times wouldn’t last forever, and they haven’t. The result of a building boom, we all know, is a glut of new structures, a lack of tenants, and a crash. That’s what has happened in the U.S. with residential homes in the past few years and now it appears to be happening with commercial real estate in Dubai.

So much, so familiar. But still for all of Dubai’s excesses it is a wonder that it has gotten this far. It deserves not ill-disguised glee at its misfortunes but a degree of respect for its willingness to flout traditional Arab taboos. It is, for example, a place where Emiratis in white robes rub shoulders with Russian hookers in mini-skirts — a place where it’s perfectly possible to get a nice cocktail (and not a “mocktail,” as in Kuwait) in a public bar, and to do so in the middle of Ramadan if you’re feeling parched at that point. No doubt some of Dubai’s competitors, the likes of Doha and Kuwait City and its sister emirate Abu Dhabi, are licking their chops at the prospect of benefitting from Dubai’s downturn but they will be hard put to it to match its dynamism because they remain much more in thrall to traditional Arab/Muslim pieties: a combination of religious and tribal traditions that have made the Middle East a laggard in many dimensions of development. Dubai has been a leader in the Arab world with respect to embracing modernity — which has repercussions both good and bad but in general is a force for positive change. We should all hope that it will get on its feet again soon. The Middle East needs Dubai.

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Eliot Spitzer, Crook

The thing is, Eliot Spitzer is a crook. I’m not referring to the current prostitution scandal. I’m not referring to the scandal last year involving his senior aides and the leaking of confidential police information to the Albany Times Union. I’m not referring to the threatening phone call he made to the august John Whitehead, retired head of Goldman Sachs, who had the temerity to question a case Spitzer was building against an old friend of Whitehead’s. I’m referring to his conduct dating back to 1994, when he designed a complex scheme involving loans and real estate and collateralized apartments to evade campaign-finance laws so that his own father, Bernard Spitzer,  could pay for his campaign as attorney general of New York state. Millions of dollars. And then, in 1998, running for the same office, he did it again. It’s hard to explain, but basically, Spitzer’s father gave him a lot of real estate. He used it to secure loans totaling more than $8 million. Then his father paid back the loans. He was supposed to pay his father back. He said he did. Then he acknowledged he hadn’t. Then somehow it all went away. I’m not a big fan of campaign-finance laws, but they are laws, and they are supposed to apply to everybody.

The rules don’t apply to Eliot Spitzer, or at least, that’s how Eliot Spitzer has acted throughout his public life. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The thing is, Eliot Spitzer is a crook. I’m not referring to the current prostitution scandal. I’m not referring to the scandal last year involving his senior aides and the leaking of confidential police information to the Albany Times Union. I’m not referring to the threatening phone call he made to the august John Whitehead, retired head of Goldman Sachs, who had the temerity to question a case Spitzer was building against an old friend of Whitehead’s. I’m referring to his conduct dating back to 1994, when he designed a complex scheme involving loans and real estate and collateralized apartments to evade campaign-finance laws so that his own father, Bernard Spitzer,  could pay for his campaign as attorney general of New York state. Millions of dollars. And then, in 1998, running for the same office, he did it again. It’s hard to explain, but basically, Spitzer’s father gave him a lot of real estate. He used it to secure loans totaling more than $8 million. Then his father paid back the loans. He was supposed to pay his father back. He said he did. Then he acknowledged he hadn’t. Then somehow it all went away. I’m not a big fan of campaign-finance laws, but they are laws, and they are supposed to apply to everybody.

The rules don’t apply to Eliot Spitzer, or at least, that’s how Eliot Spitzer has acted throughout his public life. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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Last Night at the Lobster

Stewart O’Nan’s new novel Last Night at the Lobster, which details the last day in the life of a Red Lobster franchise, is near the top of my reading list this month. It isn’t just that the writers’ strike has deprived me of nightmare-job comedy like The Office; Mr. O’Nan’s book sounds more melancholy than comical, truth be told. Nor is it that today’s New York Times profile of Mr. O’Nan (“he still drives a 1995 metallic copper pearl [translation: orange] Mitsubishi Eclipse that rattles on the highway”) reassures us that the book isn’t just a hipster sneer at a soft target:

After lunch, a waiter delivered a brownie sundae to an elderly woman . . . and serenaded her with a surprisingly melodic rendition of “Happy Birthday.” “That gets to the heart of it,” Mr. O’Nan said. “It’s America. This is where folks live. There is nothing ironic or silly about it.”

That certainly helps, but the chief reason I’ll be picking up Last Night is that after Joshua Ferris’s terrific debut of office life, Then We Came to the End, I vowed to read any new fiction that depicts people working at actual jobs. Part of the fun of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, for instance, is that it takes the reader through the ins and outs of real estate, a subject that I never expected to find fascinating. By contrast, Dana Vachon’s debut Mergers & Acquisitions shows people at a job, but not working in any discernible sense. The book might as well be set in a country club.

It’s amazing how greatly a writer benefits from a working knowledge of what people spend most of their time doing. In Paul Johnson’s Creators, he notes that Geoffrey Chaucer

was involved professionally with the army and navy, international commerce, the export and import trade, central and local government finance, parliament and the law courts, the Exchequer and Chancery, the agricultural and forestry activities of the crown estates . . . and the workings of internal commerce and industry, especially the building trade.

Apparently Chaucer knew life in all its toiling variety. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that, were he our contemporary, he himself might have written The Franchise Manager’s Tale.

Stewart O’Nan’s new novel Last Night at the Lobster, which details the last day in the life of a Red Lobster franchise, is near the top of my reading list this month. It isn’t just that the writers’ strike has deprived me of nightmare-job comedy like The Office; Mr. O’Nan’s book sounds more melancholy than comical, truth be told. Nor is it that today’s New York Times profile of Mr. O’Nan (“he still drives a 1995 metallic copper pearl [translation: orange] Mitsubishi Eclipse that rattles on the highway”) reassures us that the book isn’t just a hipster sneer at a soft target:

After lunch, a waiter delivered a brownie sundae to an elderly woman . . . and serenaded her with a surprisingly melodic rendition of “Happy Birthday.” “That gets to the heart of it,” Mr. O’Nan said. “It’s America. This is where folks live. There is nothing ironic or silly about it.”

That certainly helps, but the chief reason I’ll be picking up Last Night is that after Joshua Ferris’s terrific debut of office life, Then We Came to the End, I vowed to read any new fiction that depicts people working at actual jobs. Part of the fun of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, for instance, is that it takes the reader through the ins and outs of real estate, a subject that I never expected to find fascinating. By contrast, Dana Vachon’s debut Mergers & Acquisitions shows people at a job, but not working in any discernible sense. The book might as well be set in a country club.

It’s amazing how greatly a writer benefits from a working knowledge of what people spend most of their time doing. In Paul Johnson’s Creators, he notes that Geoffrey Chaucer

was involved professionally with the army and navy, international commerce, the export and import trade, central and local government finance, parliament and the law courts, the Exchequer and Chancery, the agricultural and forestry activities of the crown estates . . . and the workings of internal commerce and industry, especially the building trade.

Apparently Chaucer knew life in all its toiling variety. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that, were he our contemporary, he himself might have written The Franchise Manager’s Tale.

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Bravo Adam Schiff!

Fans of television’s Law & Order have waited in vain for any commemoration of the 85th birthday of Steven Hill, the actor who played New York District Attorney Adam Schiff from 1990 to 2000. Hill retired at age 78 from the role, which is based on New York’s own Robert Morgenthau, now 88, who shows no signs of retiring, although he is three years older than Hill. Born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle, Washington in 1922, Hill is one of the rare Orthodox Jews to pursue a mainstream acting career in television and film. From early on, his religious beliefs inspired (and sometimes interfered with) his career; his 1946 Broadway debut, alongside Paul Muni and Marlon Brando, was in Ben Hecht’s A Flag Is Born, which advocated a new Jewish State.

After an early stage career, mentored by Lee Strasberg at The Actors’ Studio, Hill began to work widely in television and film. Much of his best work (as a weary veteran in Paddy Chayevsky’s 1958 The Goddess and as the tormented father of a learning disabled child in John Cassavetes’s A Child Is Waiting must be hunted down on VHS tapes, still unavailable on DVD. It’s worth the effort, since Hill is the epitome of a “thinking actor,” who ruminates over roles until he drives some colleagues wild. Martin Landau, who appeared with Hill in the first year of television’s Mission Impossible (1966), called him “nuts, volatile, mad, and his work was exciting.” Hill was soon fired from Mission Impossible, for intransigence about a number of things, including an extremely strict observance of the Sabbath. Hill retired to an Orthodox community in Rockland County, where he worked in real estate from 1967 to 1977; by not acting during this decade, he avoiding being made into a plastic television star (his role in Mission Impossible was filled by the suave but mechanical Peter Graves).

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Fans of television’s Law & Order have waited in vain for any commemoration of the 85th birthday of Steven Hill, the actor who played New York District Attorney Adam Schiff from 1990 to 2000. Hill retired at age 78 from the role, which is based on New York’s own Robert Morgenthau, now 88, who shows no signs of retiring, although he is three years older than Hill. Born Solomon Krakovsky in Seattle, Washington in 1922, Hill is one of the rare Orthodox Jews to pursue a mainstream acting career in television and film. From early on, his religious beliefs inspired (and sometimes interfered with) his career; his 1946 Broadway debut, alongside Paul Muni and Marlon Brando, was in Ben Hecht’s A Flag Is Born, which advocated a new Jewish State.

After an early stage career, mentored by Lee Strasberg at The Actors’ Studio, Hill began to work widely in television and film. Much of his best work (as a weary veteran in Paddy Chayevsky’s 1958 The Goddess and as the tormented father of a learning disabled child in John Cassavetes’s A Child Is Waiting must be hunted down on VHS tapes, still unavailable on DVD. It’s worth the effort, since Hill is the epitome of a “thinking actor,” who ruminates over roles until he drives some colleagues wild. Martin Landau, who appeared with Hill in the first year of television’s Mission Impossible (1966), called him “nuts, volatile, mad, and his work was exciting.” Hill was soon fired from Mission Impossible, for intransigence about a number of things, including an extremely strict observance of the Sabbath. Hill retired to an Orthodox community in Rockland County, where he worked in real estate from 1967 to 1977; by not acting during this decade, he avoiding being made into a plastic television star (his role in Mission Impossible was filled by the suave but mechanical Peter Graves).

Returning to acting, Hill landed minor roles in mostly forgettable films, with the exception of two charming if stagy filmed plays by Horton Foote, On Valentine’s Day (1986 ) and Courtship (1987). In 1990, when Law & Order debuted, Hill was seen at full force. He self-deprecatingly speaks of his role in Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion, saying: “I get a kick out of that curmudgeon business. I used to love to see actors like that, like Monty Woolley. You love those older people who do that deliberately.”

Yet, in many episodes, Hill far transcended the Monty Woolley shtick of comic disgruntlement. One that comes immediately to mind is “Terminal,” from Law & Order’s seventh season, so far unavailable on DVD. In it, Schiff has authorized his hospitalized, terminally ill wife to be unplugged from life support. As she flatlines, he watches, giving out an agonized whimper of animal-like intensity at the moment of her death. This is great acting by any definition; without dialogue and very succinctly, Hill manages to portray the physical and emotional effect of losing a life partner. Happy 85th, Mr. Hill!

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Fascism Old and New

As the jury and contestants entered the second round of Stuttgart’s triennial classical song competition last week, organized by the Internationale Hugo Wolf Akademie, idealistic young singers and pianists performed lieder by Robert Schumann and Wolf, often alluding optimistically to a better world. A brief break offered time for a stroll through one of Stuttgart’s parks, where high school girls jogged dispiritedly, sidestepping piles of horse dung. I walked to the Hegel-Haus, the birthplace of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. On display in the charmingly spare little house were letters from Hegel’s friends, stressing the importance of freedom: “Vive la liberté” writes one, while another quotes Klopstock, an 18th century German poet who cheered the American Revolution.

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As the jury and contestants entered the second round of Stuttgart’s triennial classical song competition last week, organized by the Internationale Hugo Wolf Akademie, idealistic young singers and pianists performed lieder by Robert Schumann and Wolf, often alluding optimistically to a better world. A brief break offered time for a stroll through one of Stuttgart’s parks, where high school girls jogged dispiritedly, sidestepping piles of horse dung. I walked to the Hegel-Haus, the birthplace of the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. On display in the charmingly spare little house were letters from Hegel’s friends, stressing the importance of freedom: “Vive la liberté” writes one, while another quotes Klopstock, an 18th century German poet who cheered the American Revolution.

Such echoes of the so-called German Idealism movement are all the more timely as the current talk of the town is about Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, who on September 14th made a speech at the opening of a new art museum in which he stated: “Wherever culture is separated from the worship of God, cult atrophies into ritualism and art becomes degenerate.” The word “degenerate” inevitably hearkens back to Nazi-era jargon, as local newspapers were quick to point out; the Nazi’s notorious 1937 Munich “Degenerate Art” exhibit was intended to ridicule modernist paintings. Meisner’s statement was followed by a backlash of articles defending the Cardinal from “Meisner-Bashing” by the so-called “word-police” This vehement support was to be expected, since Meisner controls a vast empire of real estate and church-owned media, stoked by the highest annual donation rate in Germany, estimated at around 680 million euros per annum. In 2005, Meisner asserted that women who have an abortion are comparable to mass killers like Hitler and Stalin. Stephan Kramer, General Secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, noted that Meisner repeatedly “misuses language as a taboo-breaker. If that sets an example, we should not be surprised if Nazi beliefs become respectable again.”

Meanwhile, in between sessions of idealistic song, equal concern is devoted to the Swiss national elections scheduled for October 21, where the front-runner is a billionaire named Christoph Blocher, Switzerland’s current Justice Minister. Blocher’s campaign, featuring a poster of a black sheep kicked off the Swiss flag by three white sheep under the caption: “For More Security,” has been called fascist, racist, and perhaps worst of all, “un-Swiss.” Blocher’s wealth has also bought him a TV program during which servile interviewers, likened to East German broadcasters in the old Communist days, ask him adoring questions. While Europe ponders these reminders of oppression old and new, it is particularly useful to focus on the optimistic message of an international gathering like the Wolf Akademie’s lieder contest, where the sheep are dismissed only if they hit wrong notes, not if the color of their wool offends.

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