Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ross Douthat

The Truth About Israel and Christians

After several days of furious commentary, Senator Ted Cruz’s decision to walk out of a conference on the plight of Middle East Christians continues to sizzle. As I first wrote last Thursday, friends of Israel praised him for telling those in attendance booing him off the stage that if they wouldn’t stand with Israel, he wouldn’t stand with them. But the chorus of criticism of Cruz has been getting louder with some conservatives weighing to express their outrage at what they consider a cynical gesture that prioritized the senator’s ties with the pro-Israel community over the plight of Christians.

Read More

After several days of furious commentary, Senator Ted Cruz’s decision to walk out of a conference on the plight of Middle East Christians continues to sizzle. As I first wrote last Thursday, friends of Israel praised him for telling those in attendance booing him off the stage that if they wouldn’t stand with Israel, he wouldn’t stand with them. But the chorus of criticism of Cruz has been getting louder with some conservatives weighing to express their outrage at what they consider a cynical gesture that prioritized the senator’s ties with the pro-Israel community over the plight of Christians.

In a follow-up post published here, our Seth Mandel did a great job assessing some of the day after commentary and in particular the hypocrisy of some anti-Israel pundits who have suddenly discovered that, at least on this issue, they no longer think it is wrong for people to making decisions about politicians on the basis of their stands on the Middle East. Yet I think there is still something more to be said about the way some people who ought to know better are rationalizing the indefensible behavior of the In Defense of Christians (IDC) group and criticizing Cruz for his principled behavior.

One of these that deserves some scrutiny is the New York Times’s Ross Douthat who joins in the pile-on against Cruz in his most recent column but attempts to do so without echoing the invective or the clear anti-Israel bias of those who write for, say, the American Conservative. Douthat acknowledges that the unsavory ties of some of its supporters are a problem for IDC. But he was critical of Cruz’s insistence on lecturing the group that instead of attacking Israel, they should recognize that the Jewish state is the best, and perhaps the only, friend they have in the Middle East.

For Douthat, this obvious statement of truth—in a region where Christians are universally treated as Dhimmi by Muslim regimes, Israel remains the only place where freedom of religion is guaranteed for adherents of all faiths—was a bridge too far for Cruz. More to the point, he thinks supporters of Israel are showing bad manners if not flawed strategy, by insisting that the cause of religious tolerance in the Middle East must include the Jews and their embattled state rather than merely treating the plight of Christians in isolation from the broader conflicts of the region.

Douthat writes in criticism of Cruz and his supporters:

Israel is a rich, well-defended, nuclear-armed nation-state; its supporters, and especially its American Christian supporters, can afford to allow a population that’s none of the above to organize to save itself from outright extinction without also demanding applause for Israeli policy as the price of sympathy and support.

There are two flawed assumptions to be unpacked in this sentence.

The first is that Israel is so strong and its position so unassailable that its friends can afford to be complacent about the mainstreaming of allies of terrorist groups—which is exactly what it seems that Cruz’s critics are asking.

The second is that the Islamist campaign to extinguish Christians and all other minority faiths in the Middle East can be resisted without the effort to do the same to Israel also being defeated.

It is, to put it mildly, a bit rich for a writer for the New York Times, which has through both slanted news coverage and biased editorial and op-ed pages, done its best to undermine Israel’s position, to demand that friends of the Jewish state stand down in its defense. That Douthat, who is otherwise the most thoughtful columnist in the paper, has rarely, if ever, voiced any dissent from the paper’s prevailing orthodoxy on Israel may be a function of his interests and that of the other putative conservative in the employ of the Times opinion section, neither of whom are, as a rule, all that interested in foreign policy (a stark contrast to the not so distant past when non-liberal writers at the Times such as William Safire and A.M. Rosenthal mounted repeated and spirited defenses of Israel to balance the attacks against it from fellow columnists, editorial writers, and reporters at the Grey Lady). But it is disappointing nonetheless.

But leaving aside Douthat’s chutzpah, that he should be treating Israel’s position as unassailable at this time shows that his knowledge of the Middle East really falls fall short of his normal sure footing on domestic and social issues. While I’m sure Christians in Iraq and Syria would gladly trade places with them, Israelis spent 50 days this summer dashing in and out of bomb shelters as Hamas terrorists launched rockets aimed to kill and maim civilians. Their army had to invade Gaza in order to demolish a vast network of cross-border tunnels aimed at facilitating acts of mass terror. They watched in horror as the streets of Europe were flooded with demonstrators denouncing Israelis for defending themselves against Islamist butchers in terms that recalled the worst excesses of the Nazi propaganda machine. And they also witnessed an American administration—ostensibly Israel’s sole superpower ally—doing its best to undermine Israel’s position, cutting off arms resupply and leaving the strategic alliance at its lowest point in more than 20 years.

Is this really a moment for Israel’s American supporters to put aside their scruples about making common cause with a group that is compromised by allies of those seeking to destroy Israel and to murder its population?

Just as important, the notion that the fight to save Christians can be separated from that of Israel is a pernicious myth that should be debunked. Douthat believes exposing the existence of Jew haters in the ranks of those purporting to represent Middle East Christians is a mistake because it shows no appreciation for the plight of Christians who face genocide. But by allying themselves with those who wish to perpetrate genocide on the other significant religious minority in the region, as some have repeatedly done in the last century of conflict, they have flung away their best hope for a strategic partner who could help them resist the Islamist tide. Religious persecution cannot be stopped against one minority while hatred against another is legitimized. As Seth wrote, Israel is already doing more to assist Christians than Douthat or the anti-Zionists at the American Conservative who claim to be their friends.

Today Christians are being slaughtered or forced to flee from Iraq and Syria to the point where soon once great communities may be extinguished. But while we rightly protest against this and lament such destruction, it is apt to also recall that a generation ago, some Christians and their foreign friends either assisted or stood by mutely while the same thing was happening to the once great Jewish communities in the Arab and Muslim world. American Christians of every denomination, including evangelicals and Catholics, are among the most faithful friends of Israel today. But the refusal of Middle East Christians to befriend the Zionist movement, even as it offered them the only possible counterforce in the region to a hostile Muslim majority, was a historic error. That this error is being repeated today is a tragedy for both sides.

Let me repeat, as I wrote on Thursday and many times before that, that Americans have a duty to rise up and demand that Western governments pay attention to the plight of Middle East Christians and to, if necessary, intervene on their behalf. But the notion that this struggle can be conducted in isolation from the defense of Israel against the same forces seeking to wipe out Christians is madness. That those who claim to care about these Christians believe that politicians like Ted Cruz should check their support for Israel at the door when discussing the Middle East is an indication of just how little some of them understand the region as well as their cluelessness about the rising tide of anti-Semitism sweeping the globe.

Read Less

Conservative Fiction and the Culture Wars

Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

Read More

Conservative editor Adam Bellow’s July 7 cover story in National Review is a fascinating call for the conservative movement to produce more written fiction. It is, I think, both learned and yet a bit too pessimistic to my mind. His point is that conservatism has become the counterculture and liberalism, especially social liberalism, the establishment, and that liberals have become so intolerant of dissenting ideas and opinions that they seek to shun and marginalize opposing voices. Here’s Bellow:

I eventually went into publishing to fight back against people like these. I had seen them coming a long way off and I knew they meant business. They wanted power and were eager to use it. Their approach to fiction was two-sided: use their own stories and novels to advance their revolutionary aims, and prevent others from using that same descriptive and imaginative power for counterrevolutionary ends. It was an American version of what used to be called socialist realism.

Conservative nonfiction has flourished. “The real problem,” Bellow asserts, turning to his right, “isn’t the practical challenge of turning serious books into bestsellers. The real problem is that we may have reached the limit of what facts and reasoned arguments can do. The real problem is that the whole conservative nonfiction enterprise has peaked and reached its limit of effectiveness.”

I recommend reading the whole thing. But while I agree with Andrew Breitbart–who Bellow quotes, and who everyone quotes on this subject–that “Politics is downstream from culture,” and that the prevailing popular culture is far more heavily influenced by liberals than by conservatives, I find myself far more optimistic than Bellow. Perhaps that is because I think there’s a difference between the culture being influenced by liberals and it being influenced by liberalism.

Bellow is right that conservatives should be creative and their creativity supported. But I think it’s worth pointing out that often “liberal” or politically neutral novels reinforce conservative ideas. The same is true of movies and television, though Bellow concentrates on the written word. One of the right’s guilty pleasures is to watch a card-carrying liberal writer or a mainstream Hollywood director or showrunner produce a piece of art intended to grapple with complexity and be verbally assaulted as a warmonger or a traitor by his or her liberal audience. When Kathryn Bigelow directed Zero Dark Thirty, for example, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, she portrayed torture in the movie, and liberals lashed out and branded her an apologist for the methods of interrogation. Bigelow took to the pages of the LA Times to respond, somewhat incredulous:

First of all: I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

Bigelow is a “lifelong pacifist” and opponent of anything resembling torture, but she was making a movie about real life, and real life is complex.

But to come back to the written word. This phenomenon is easier to spot in fiction that requires heroism or celebrates law and order. But I think it happens when the subject turns to the culture wars too. In December, Ross Douthat noted a study that found that “having daughters makes parents more likely to be Republican.” In offering his own theory, Douthat referenced the kind of man increasingly enabled by a sexually permissive culture: Nate, the protagonist of Adelle Waldman’s novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Douthat writes about Nate’s propensity to, as Waldman writes, “provoke” the “unhappiness” of the women in his life:

He provokes it by taking advantage of a social landscape in which sex has been decoupled from marriage but biology hasn’t been abolished, which means women still operate on a shorter time horizon for crucial life choices — marriage, kids — than do men. In this landscape, what Nate wants — sex, and the validation that comes with being wanted — he reliably gets. But what his lovers want, increasingly, as their cohort grows older — a more permanent commitment — he can afford to persistently withhold, feeling guilty but not that guilty about doing so.

His column touched off an interesting back-and-forth with Waldman herself on the topic of whether the situation portrayed in her book’s Brooklyn social circle calls for a more socially conservative ethic, or whether such an ethic would put too much of the responsibility for the personal misery of these women on themselves. But I think it’s worth dwelling for a moment on Nate.

We meet Nate immediately, as the book opens with a scene in which Nate runs into an ex-lover. She is uneasy and hostile to him. We learn that this is because during their brief involvement (this was not a “relationship”–an important point), she became unintentionally pregnant and had an abortion. Nate was emotionally absent, though he paid for the procedure. Nate is a good liberal–we learn early on he’s contemplating an essay on how rich societies even outsource exploitation just to salve their conscience. When he found out this non-girlfriend–Juliet–was pregnant, he:

felt like he had woken up in one of those after-school specials he watched as a kid on Thursday afternoons, whose moral was not to have sex with a girl unless you were ready to raise a child with her. This had always seemed like bullshit. What self-respecting middle-class teenage girl–soon-to-be college student, future affluent young professional, a person who could go on to do anything at all (run a multinational corporation, win a Nobel Prize, get elected first woman president)–what such young woman would decide to have a baby and thus become, in the vacuous, public service announcement jargon of the day, “a statistic”?

Nate realizes this might not be the case now for Juliet though, who is not a teenager but a professional in her thirties. Here is how he rationalizes the possibility she may want a baby:

Maybe she was no longer so optimistic about what fate held in store for her (first woman president, for example, probably seemed unlikely). Maybe she had become pessimistic about men and dating. She might view this as her last chance to become a mother.

Maybe she’s so dejected and desperate that she’ll–gasp!–want a family. You can see how the liberal cultural norms have seeped into Nate. He waits for her to decide: he has accepted the idea of “choice” in full, like a good liberal. This means it’s her choice completely, and he assumes he has no say. “Nate was all for a woman’s right to choose and all the lingo that went with it,” we’re told by way of explanation for why Nate doesn’t feel he can even suggest aborting “the baby or fetus or whatever you wanted to call it.” He doesn’t even know what to call an unborn child! Nate is opinion-less on the matter of human life, and he is so because he thinks this is How To Be A Modern Man.

After the abortion, Nate disappears, because he thinks even having an extended or personal conversation with Juliet–that is, signaling any interest at all–comes with too many strings attached now that they’ve unburdened themselves of the fetusthingamajiggy. But he doesn’t understand what makes him so toxic to these Brooklynite beauties. He’s a good person–he doesn’t even think one should shop at Whole Foods without feeling guilty about capitalist exploitation!

Is Waldman intentionally commenting on the piggish man-child who is the product of a steady cultural liberalism as practiced in the real world? Certainly not. But if you were to write a “conservative” novel, and this novel had a protagonist who was to demonstrate the perpetual adolescent loosed on the world by a yearslong immersion in liberal social values and the unintentional but very real harm he caused, might not that protagonist be Nathaniel P.?

Read Less

Why Palin Won’t Fade Away Soon

Ross Douthat’s advice to the media on Sarah Palin, which Peter Wehner wrote about on Monday, will be hard to follow. Douthat uses the metaphor of a marriage to frame his points on Palin and the media. But in this “marriage,” third parties play a decisive role — and in a telling way, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) filled a particular role this past weekend. Coburn, for whom I have great respect, has been a favorite with the Tea Party demographic because of his reputation as a fiscal hawk and constitutional-process curmudgeon. But in an interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press, Coburn failed to deliver in exactly the kind of situation in which Palin rarely disappoints her base.

Here is a key passage from Mediaite’s summary of the Coburn interview: Gregory persisted by saying some on the right speak of President Obama as an “outsider who is trying to usher in a system … that will injure America and deny them of their liberty” and wanted to know if Coburn rejects that idea and also the use of violent metaphors in political discourse. Coburn agreed that he does reject that, and Senator Charles Schumer added “we as elected officials have an obligation to try and tone that down, and if we tone it down, then maybe the media will be less vociferous.”

Quite a few Americans would say Coburn rejected the wrong thing. What he should have rejected was the rhetorical pairing of the right’s political ideas with “violent metaphors in political discourse.” Coburn didn’t question the terms in which David Gregory presented the proposition: as if proof of civility and peaceful intent could only be established by rejecting certain of the right’s political arguments against Obama’s policies. In the video clip, the senator came across as calculating, perhaps a little impatiently, that meeting Gregory’s test of “civility” was a minor but essential concession.

I imagine Coburn would defend it as valid for the people to disagree on basic political ideas, if the question were put to him directly. But in the context of a buried premise in a Sunday talk show, it didn’t seem to occur to him to make that point. It does, manifestly, occur to Palin. I don’t disagree with pundits who would like to see her be more succinct and less reactive to the personal element in media attacks on her. But the people hear with different ears: for every auditor who cringes at her style or extraneous commentary, there is another who hears, first and foremost, that she is affirming precious ideas to which other politicians are not moved to give voice.

Palin’s persistent popularity as a public icon is a financial factor for the media — and it’s not one they control. They could decline to talk about her, decline to feature photos and video clips of her, but they understand the connection between Palin, sales, Web hits, and audience share. Palin is a figure whose market power has been established through a direct bond — of love or hate — with the people.

This doesn’t mean she is or should be a front-runner for 2012. The issues are separate. My own belief is that a successful GOP candidate will find a way to transcend the arena of slings and arrows without making political compromises to secure its quiescence. Palin may not have transcended the slings-and-arrows arena, but her potential competitors have all, to varying degrees, made the kinds of compromises that Tom Coburn modeled this past Sunday. As long as other leading Republicans let their discourse be governed by a set of buried premises that disqualifies the right’s political ideas at the starting line, Sarah Palin will have devoted supporters and a prominent voice.

Ross Douthat’s advice to the media on Sarah Palin, which Peter Wehner wrote about on Monday, will be hard to follow. Douthat uses the metaphor of a marriage to frame his points on Palin and the media. But in this “marriage,” third parties play a decisive role — and in a telling way, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) filled a particular role this past weekend. Coburn, for whom I have great respect, has been a favorite with the Tea Party demographic because of his reputation as a fiscal hawk and constitutional-process curmudgeon. But in an interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press, Coburn failed to deliver in exactly the kind of situation in which Palin rarely disappoints her base.

Here is a key passage from Mediaite’s summary of the Coburn interview: Gregory persisted by saying some on the right speak of President Obama as an “outsider who is trying to usher in a system … that will injure America and deny them of their liberty” and wanted to know if Coburn rejects that idea and also the use of violent metaphors in political discourse. Coburn agreed that he does reject that, and Senator Charles Schumer added “we as elected officials have an obligation to try and tone that down, and if we tone it down, then maybe the media will be less vociferous.”

Quite a few Americans would say Coburn rejected the wrong thing. What he should have rejected was the rhetorical pairing of the right’s political ideas with “violent metaphors in political discourse.” Coburn didn’t question the terms in which David Gregory presented the proposition: as if proof of civility and peaceful intent could only be established by rejecting certain of the right’s political arguments against Obama’s policies. In the video clip, the senator came across as calculating, perhaps a little impatiently, that meeting Gregory’s test of “civility” was a minor but essential concession.

I imagine Coburn would defend it as valid for the people to disagree on basic political ideas, if the question were put to him directly. But in the context of a buried premise in a Sunday talk show, it didn’t seem to occur to him to make that point. It does, manifestly, occur to Palin. I don’t disagree with pundits who would like to see her be more succinct and less reactive to the personal element in media attacks on her. But the people hear with different ears: for every auditor who cringes at her style or extraneous commentary, there is another who hears, first and foremost, that she is affirming precious ideas to which other politicians are not moved to give voice.

Palin’s persistent popularity as a public icon is a financial factor for the media — and it’s not one they control. They could decline to talk about her, decline to feature photos and video clips of her, but they understand the connection between Palin, sales, Web hits, and audience share. Palin is a figure whose market power has been established through a direct bond — of love or hate — with the people.

This doesn’t mean she is or should be a front-runner for 2012. The issues are separate. My own belief is that a successful GOP candidate will find a way to transcend the arena of slings and arrows without making political compromises to secure its quiescence. Palin may not have transcended the slings-and-arrows arena, but her potential competitors have all, to varying degrees, made the kinds of compromises that Tom Coburn modeled this past Sunday. As long as other leading Republicans let their discourse be governed by a set of buried premises that disqualifies the right’s political ideas at the starting line, Sarah Palin will have devoted supporters and a prominent voice.

Read Less

Morning Commentary

Are Republicans coming around on New START? Eight GOP members voted to open debate on the treaty in the Senate last night, which some see as a “proxy” for the final vote. New START needs nine Republican supporters in the Senate to pass.

As repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell passes the House for a second time, it picks up another Republican supporter in the Senate: “‘After careful analysis of the comprehensive report compiled by the Department of Defense and thorough consideration of the testimony provided by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service chiefs, I support repeal of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law,’ [Sen. Olympia] Snowe said in a statement.”

Well, this pretty much ensures that the next Organization of the Islamic Conferences summit is going to be sufficiently awkward: “Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak compared Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East to a ‘cancer,’ according to a cable released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. ‘President Mubarak has made it clear that he sees Iran as Egypt’s — and the region’s — primary strategic threat,’ says the secret cable, sent April 28, 2009, from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.”

Two writers and recent Columbia graduates discuss in the New Republic the problematic politics of the university’s controversial new Center for Palestine Studies: “Of course, there is nothing wrong with gathering a broad-based community of scholars behind a new academic initiative. Columbia and American academia need a venue for the interdisciplinary study of Palestine. But, unaccompanied by a dedication to real expertise, the CPS will be little more than a clique of like-minded academics whose defining commonality is hostility toward Israel. In its current form, it’s likely that the first Palestine Center at an American university will lead the way not in ‘a new era of civility,’ but, rather, in politicizing Middle East studies further than ever before.”

The Guardian is predictably outraged that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was given to, apparently, a neocon: “[Liu Xiaobo] has endorsed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. … Liu argues that ‘The free world led by the US fought almost all regimes that trampled on human rights [and the] major wars that the US became involved in are all ethically defensible.’… Liu has also one-sidedly praised Israel’s stance in the Middle East conflict. He places the blame for the Israel/Palestine conflict on Palestinians, who he regards as ‘often the provocateurs.’”

Ross Douthat responds to Mitt Romney supporters who excuse the politician’s “serial insincerity”: “I believe that Mitt Romney is a more serious person, and would probably be a better president, than his campaign style suggests. But issue by issue, policy by policy, that same campaign style makes it awfully hard to figure out where he would actually stand when the pandering stops and the governing begins … because everything he does feels like a pander, I don’t know where he really stands on any of them. And freak show or no freak show, base or no base, that’s no way to run for president.”

Are Republicans coming around on New START? Eight GOP members voted to open debate on the treaty in the Senate last night, which some see as a “proxy” for the final vote. New START needs nine Republican supporters in the Senate to pass.

As repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell passes the House for a second time, it picks up another Republican supporter in the Senate: “‘After careful analysis of the comprehensive report compiled by the Department of Defense and thorough consideration of the testimony provided by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service chiefs, I support repeal of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law,’ [Sen. Olympia] Snowe said in a statement.”

Well, this pretty much ensures that the next Organization of the Islamic Conferences summit is going to be sufficiently awkward: “Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak compared Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East to a ‘cancer,’ according to a cable released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. ‘President Mubarak has made it clear that he sees Iran as Egypt’s — and the region’s — primary strategic threat,’ says the secret cable, sent April 28, 2009, from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.”

Two writers and recent Columbia graduates discuss in the New Republic the problematic politics of the university’s controversial new Center for Palestine Studies: “Of course, there is nothing wrong with gathering a broad-based community of scholars behind a new academic initiative. Columbia and American academia need a venue for the interdisciplinary study of Palestine. But, unaccompanied by a dedication to real expertise, the CPS will be little more than a clique of like-minded academics whose defining commonality is hostility toward Israel. In its current form, it’s likely that the first Palestine Center at an American university will lead the way not in ‘a new era of civility,’ but, rather, in politicizing Middle East studies further than ever before.”

The Guardian is predictably outraged that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was given to, apparently, a neocon: “[Liu Xiaobo] has endorsed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. … Liu argues that ‘The free world led by the US fought almost all regimes that trampled on human rights [and the] major wars that the US became involved in are all ethically defensible.’… Liu has also one-sidedly praised Israel’s stance in the Middle East conflict. He places the blame for the Israel/Palestine conflict on Palestinians, who he regards as ‘often the provocateurs.’”

Ross Douthat responds to Mitt Romney supporters who excuse the politician’s “serial insincerity”: “I believe that Mitt Romney is a more serious person, and would probably be a better president, than his campaign style suggests. But issue by issue, policy by policy, that same campaign style makes it awfully hard to figure out where he would actually stand when the pandering stops and the governing begins … because everything he does feels like a pander, I don’t know where he really stands on any of them. And freak show or no freak show, base or no base, that’s no way to run for president.”

Read Less

The Other Dowd

OK, it’s lazy to let a relative write your column. But we should go easy on Maureen, for her brother Kevin is plainly the political maven in the Dowd family, being the sibling who apparently observes America not merely from Manhattan taxi cabs. A  sample of the column she subcontracted to him:

On Nov. 2, voters across every spectrum loudly stated their preference for a return to American exceptionalism, self-reliance, limited government and personal freedoms. … It is probably a product of the revisionist history we now teach in our schools that the Tea Party, a replica of the beginnings of the American Revolution, was marginalized and mocked as a lunatic fringe group by a dismissive news media.

That same media is becoming increasingly aware that its creation is in over his head. He seems unaware of, or ambivalent about, the results of his actions. The last three weeks of the campaign were particularly unseemly. The vision of the President of the United States, one who spoke of civility and hope and change, exposed as just another Chicago pol, viciously and personally attacking his opponents, was undignified.

When my children were small, I used to take them to visit my mother. One of her favorite lines if they complained was, “Do you want some cheese with that whine?” We may have to call Switzerland to get enough cheese for the presidential whines. Read More

OK, it’s lazy to let a relative write your column. But we should go easy on Maureen, for her brother Kevin is plainly the political maven in the Dowd family, being the sibling who apparently observes America not merely from Manhattan taxi cabs. A  sample of the column she subcontracted to him:

On Nov. 2, voters across every spectrum loudly stated their preference for a return to American exceptionalism, self-reliance, limited government and personal freedoms. … It is probably a product of the revisionist history we now teach in our schools that the Tea Party, a replica of the beginnings of the American Revolution, was marginalized and mocked as a lunatic fringe group by a dismissive news media.

That same media is becoming increasingly aware that its creation is in over his head. He seems unaware of, or ambivalent about, the results of his actions. The last three weeks of the campaign were particularly unseemly. The vision of the President of the United States, one who spoke of civility and hope and change, exposed as just another Chicago pol, viciously and personally attacking his opponents, was undignified.

When my children were small, I used to take them to visit my mother. One of her favorite lines if they complained was, “Do you want some cheese with that whine?” We may have to call Switzerland to get enough cheese for the presidential whines.

What is interesting — aside from the usual nature/nurture debate it might provoke — is how much closer the mainstream-media narrative is to the Kevin narrative. What Kevin and many others on the right have observed for two years — an excess of dangerous presidential hubris, a tone-deaf White House, a vibrant Tea Party movement, liberal overreach – is only now becoming part of the mainstream conventional wisdom. Or as Noemie Emery points out, even Esquire concedes that The One’s “aura” has dimmed. Sounding rather Kevin-esque, the style-is-everything crowd finds Obama suddenly a disappointment:

President Obama, after all, was elected by virtue of his personality, which provided not only contrast but novelty, and was grounded in his near-perfect pitch when addressing audiences large and small. Sure, he was cool and cerebral, but he was also confident, almost cocky, because he had the power to summon inspiring rhetoric on command, which meant that he had the power to summon us on command. …

Now his gift has all but deserted him, and all that prevents the story from becoming tragic is his own apparent refusal to be affected by it. … Of course, Obama has never turned his back on us, but so many Americans have turned their backs on him that it amounts to The Anointed One, as he is sometimes referred, being stripped of something that can never return: his anointment. And without it — without his air of destiny, without the idea of Obama augmenting his actuality — the rooms he used to occupy so effortlessly have changed dimensions on him, until at times he might as well be speaking from the bottom of a well.

What Kevin observes with glee (the downsizing of The Ego), many in the national press corps now treat as fact and the left views with exasperation. Conservatives who cringed and gritted through more than one painful George W. Bush press conference can relate to how the left feels watching Obama as sulker in chief (“the press conference was so painfully incommensurate to its historical moment that one had to wonder if he knew it — if he knew that even on this observance of loss he was losing his audience”).

So you now have columns by liberals that sound identical to those written by conservatives. Take a guess as to the author of this one, who frets about “the shellackee in chief” and Nancy Pelosi’s reaction to the election:

Their instincts have tended more toward blaming the dogs for not understanding how good the food is for them, not accepting that it’s time to tweak the recipe.

The president’s self-diagnosis in his post-election news conference was dominated by the assessment that voters had simply failed to grasp — and that his failure lay chiefly in explaining clearly enough — why the administration took the steps it did.

That’s Ruth Marcus, but it could easily have been Ross Douthat or Rich Lowry — or any of us here at CONTENTIONS.

There is something rather unifying — like when the whole country watched the final M*A*S*H episode — about the emerging consensus. True, the left considers the cause of the shellacking to be insufficient liberalism, while the right views that explanation as daft. The “why” may be hotly disputed, but at least we’ve got some agreement on what is going on. On that score, there’s no denying that Obama is a unifier not a divider.

Read Less

Media Bias, Liberal Cluelessness

Ross Douthat writes:

A month ago, a U.C.L.A. graduate student named Emily Ekins spent hours roaming a Tea Party rally on the Washington Mall, photographing every sign she saw.

Ekins, a former CATO Institute intern, was examining the liberal conceit that Tea Party marches are rife with racism and conspiracy theorizing. Last week, The Washington Post reported on her findings: just 5 percent of the 250 signs referenced Barack Obama’s race or religion, and 1 percent brought up his birth certificate. The majority focused on bailouts, deficits and spending — exactly the issues the Tea Partiers claim inspired their movement in the first place.

On one level, as Douthat points out, this is a lesson about desperate liberals making up comforting myths. (“The Democrats are weeks away from a midterm thumping that wasn’t supposed to happen, and the liberal mind is desperate for a narrative, a storyline, something to ease the pain of losing to a ragtag band of right-wing populists.”) But it is also a cautionary tale about the willful ineptitude and outright laziness of the mainstream media.

A single intern did what not a single mainstream outlet, with collectively thousands of cameramen and reporters, refused to do: get the facts. The mainstream media eagerly recited false accounts of racial epithets but could not be bothered to do a systematic report on the Tea Partiers’ actual message.

The media and elected liberals reinforce their own contrived narrative. Liberal leaders proclaim that the Tea Partiers are racists. The media dutifully report the accusations and search out the isolated Obama = Hitler signs. The liberals breathe a sigh of relief as they read the New York Times or watch MSNBC, which confirms that, yes, these people are wackos and racists. The cycle repeats. The only thing missing are facts.

While the mainstream media’s bias rankles conservatives, the latter should be pleased that the willful indifference to reality repeatedly deprives liberal officialdom of warning signals and essential feedback on the public reaction to their agenda. It is maddening for conservatives, but it is dangerous for liberals to operate in a world of fabrication.

Ross Douthat writes:

A month ago, a U.C.L.A. graduate student named Emily Ekins spent hours roaming a Tea Party rally on the Washington Mall, photographing every sign she saw.

Ekins, a former CATO Institute intern, was examining the liberal conceit that Tea Party marches are rife with racism and conspiracy theorizing. Last week, The Washington Post reported on her findings: just 5 percent of the 250 signs referenced Barack Obama’s race or religion, and 1 percent brought up his birth certificate. The majority focused on bailouts, deficits and spending — exactly the issues the Tea Partiers claim inspired their movement in the first place.

On one level, as Douthat points out, this is a lesson about desperate liberals making up comforting myths. (“The Democrats are weeks away from a midterm thumping that wasn’t supposed to happen, and the liberal mind is desperate for a narrative, a storyline, something to ease the pain of losing to a ragtag band of right-wing populists.”) But it is also a cautionary tale about the willful ineptitude and outright laziness of the mainstream media.

A single intern did what not a single mainstream outlet, with collectively thousands of cameramen and reporters, refused to do: get the facts. The mainstream media eagerly recited false accounts of racial epithets but could not be bothered to do a systematic report on the Tea Partiers’ actual message.

The media and elected liberals reinforce their own contrived narrative. Liberal leaders proclaim that the Tea Partiers are racists. The media dutifully report the accusations and search out the isolated Obama = Hitler signs. The liberals breathe a sigh of relief as they read the New York Times or watch MSNBC, which confirms that, yes, these people are wackos and racists. The cycle repeats. The only thing missing are facts.

While the mainstream media’s bias rankles conservatives, the latter should be pleased that the willful indifference to reality repeatedly deprives liberal officialdom of warning signals and essential feedback on the public reaction to their agenda. It is maddening for conservatives, but it is dangerous for liberals to operate in a world of fabrication.

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

Isn’t it funny how the press doesn’t go nuts when this happens in a Democratic administration? “Before Marie Antoinette ‘Farmer in the Dell’ Obama’s even had a chance to teach low-income obese children how to sow and harvest and eat like so many little Johnny Appleseeds, her ‘Let’s Move’ initiative may lighten them up perforce, as Dem legislators find they are obliged to slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, to pay for it.”

Isn’t it interesting how Obama always delivers the message the “Muslim World” wants to hear? The Emergency Committee for Israel calls on the Obami to disassociate themselves from Imam Rauf: “The employment of Mr. Rauf by the State Department lends American credibility to a disturbing trend in the West: the idea that terrorism against Israelis falls into a different and less objectionable category from terrorism against other people. This may be fashionable in Europe, but the United States does not embrace an Israel exception to the unacceptability of suicide bombings. One of the most important messages the United States can deliver to the Middle East is that there is never a justification for jihadist murder, whether in New York, Madrid, London — or Tel Aviv. … There are numerous Muslim leaders in America who are willing to speak the plain truth about Hamas.”

Isn’t it a travesty that it took six years?: “The Justice Department has informed former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) that the government has ended a six-year investigation of his ties to the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to DeLay’s lead counsel in the matter. … The investigation lasted through two presidents and four attorneys general. Its demise provides a stark footnote to the lobbying scandals that helped Democrats regain the House majority they held for 40 years.”

Isn’t it getting to be desperation time for the Democrats? “Republican candidates have jumped out to a record-setting 12-point lead over Democrats on the Generic Congressional Ballot for the week ending Sunday, August 15, 2010. This is the biggest lead the GOP has held in over a decade of Rasmussen Reports surveying.”

Isn’t it time someone in the White House told Obama to stop saying “it’s clear” when it’s not? In Wisconsin, Obama was at it again: “What’s clear is that we are heading in the right direction.” But the press now is cutting him no slack: “But despite positive signs in the manufacturing sector, the White House has found itself at odds with continued high unemployment rates and anemic job growth, and the shadow of an uncertain future hung low over the event.”

Isn’t it a bad sign for Obama when he loses even Harry Reid on the Ground Zero mosque?

Isn’t the time when corporate America was trying to get along with Obama only a dim memory? Now it’s a pitched battle: “U.S. Chamber of Commerce economist Martin Regalia on Monday said the tax increases advocated by President Obama would essentially kill any chance for an economic rebound. ‘That’s what you’re suggesting, is a corporate bullet in the head,’ Regalia said. ‘That is going to be a bullet in the head for an awful lot of people that are going to be laid off and an awful lot of people who are hoping to get their jobs back.’”

Isn’t parody dead when TNR praises Ross Douthat’s rant against the rubes in “Second America” as “studiously non-judgemental”?

Isn’t it funny how the press doesn’t go nuts when this happens in a Democratic administration? “Before Marie Antoinette ‘Farmer in the Dell’ Obama’s even had a chance to teach low-income obese children how to sow and harvest and eat like so many little Johnny Appleseeds, her ‘Let’s Move’ initiative may lighten them up perforce, as Dem legislators find they are obliged to slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, to pay for it.”

Isn’t it interesting how Obama always delivers the message the “Muslim World” wants to hear? The Emergency Committee for Israel calls on the Obami to disassociate themselves from Imam Rauf: “The employment of Mr. Rauf by the State Department lends American credibility to a disturbing trend in the West: the idea that terrorism against Israelis falls into a different and less objectionable category from terrorism against other people. This may be fashionable in Europe, but the United States does not embrace an Israel exception to the unacceptability of suicide bombings. One of the most important messages the United States can deliver to the Middle East is that there is never a justification for jihadist murder, whether in New York, Madrid, London — or Tel Aviv. … There are numerous Muslim leaders in America who are willing to speak the plain truth about Hamas.”

Isn’t it a travesty that it took six years?: “The Justice Department has informed former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) that the government has ended a six-year investigation of his ties to the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to DeLay’s lead counsel in the matter. … The investigation lasted through two presidents and four attorneys general. Its demise provides a stark footnote to the lobbying scandals that helped Democrats regain the House majority they held for 40 years.”

Isn’t it getting to be desperation time for the Democrats? “Republican candidates have jumped out to a record-setting 12-point lead over Democrats on the Generic Congressional Ballot for the week ending Sunday, August 15, 2010. This is the biggest lead the GOP has held in over a decade of Rasmussen Reports surveying.”

Isn’t it time someone in the White House told Obama to stop saying “it’s clear” when it’s not? In Wisconsin, Obama was at it again: “What’s clear is that we are heading in the right direction.” But the press now is cutting him no slack: “But despite positive signs in the manufacturing sector, the White House has found itself at odds with continued high unemployment rates and anemic job growth, and the shadow of an uncertain future hung low over the event.”

Isn’t it a bad sign for Obama when he loses even Harry Reid on the Ground Zero mosque?

Isn’t the time when corporate America was trying to get along with Obama only a dim memory? Now it’s a pitched battle: “U.S. Chamber of Commerce economist Martin Regalia on Monday said the tax increases advocated by President Obama would essentially kill any chance for an economic rebound. ‘That’s what you’re suggesting, is a corporate bullet in the head,’ Regalia said. ‘That is going to be a bullet in the head for an awful lot of people that are going to be laid off and an awful lot of people who are hoping to get their jobs back.’”

Isn’t parody dead when TNR praises Ross Douthat’s rant against the rubes in “Second America” as “studiously non-judgemental”?

Read Less

Smearing 68% of America

Granted, the “conservative spot” on the Gray Lady’s op-ed pages comes with plenty of caveats and handcuffs. So if a conservative columnist is going to last more than a year, he will have to suppress his harshest impulses toward the left and a great deal of his critical faculties. The result is likely to be condescending columns like today’s by Ross Douthat.

He posits two Americas: “The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes.” The first cares about the Constitution, and the second is composed of a bunch of racist rubes, it seems. “The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.” Yes, you can guess which are the opponents of the Ground Zero mosque. (I was wondering if he was going to write, “The first America helped little old ladies across the street; the second America drowned puppies.)

I assume that this is what one has to do to keep your piece of turf next to such intellectual luminaries as Maureen Dowd, but it’s really the worst straw man sort of argument since, well, the last time Obama spoke. But he’s not done: “The first America is correct to insist on Muslims’ absolute right to build and worship where they wish. But the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith.” OK, on behalf of the rubes in Second America, enough!

Second America — that’s 68% of us — recognizes (and we’ve said it over and over again) that there may be little we can do legally (other than exercise eminent domain) to halt the Ground Zero mosque, but that doesn’t suspend our powers of judgment and moral persuasion. Those who oppose the mosque are not bigots or constitutional ruffians. They merely believe that our president shouldn’t be cheerleading the desecration of “hallowed ground” (“first America’s” term, articulated by Obama) or averting our eyes from the funding sources of the imam’s planned fortress.

Well, maybe all this was the price to be paid at the left’s altar for Douthat’s final two graphs — the ultimate buried lede. After acknowledging that second America has a point (“the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith”), he admits:

By global standards, Rauf may be the model of a “moderate Muslim.” But global standards and American standards are different. For Muslim Americans to integrate fully into our national life, they’ll need leaders who don’t describe America as “an accessory to the crime” of 9/11 (as Rauf did shortly after the 2001 attacks), or duck questions about whether groups like Hamas count as terrorist organizations (as Rauf did in a radio interview in June). And they’ll need leaders whose antennas are sensitive enough to recognize that the quest for inter-religious dialogue is ill served by throwing up a high-profile mosque two blocks from the site of a mass murder committed in the name of Islam.

They’ll need leaders, in other words, who understand that while the ideals of the first America protect the e pluribus, it’s the demands the second America makes of new arrivals that help create the unum.

OK, it’s something, at any rate. Think of it as a little consciousness-raising for the Upper West Side, a reminder that the object of their affection isn’t the best role model to promote religious reconciliation. No, it doesn’t excuse the rest of an obnoxious, fractured history of American history. (Which America is it that hired the infamous Israel Lobby authors to spout thinly disguised anti-Semitism from its Ivy-covered buildings? Which America does Reverend Wright belong to? Which America routinely ridicules Christian evangelicals?) But it does tell you what passes for “conservative” at the New York Times.

Granted, the “conservative spot” on the Gray Lady’s op-ed pages comes with plenty of caveats and handcuffs. So if a conservative columnist is going to last more than a year, he will have to suppress his harshest impulses toward the left and a great deal of his critical faculties. The result is likely to be condescending columns like today’s by Ross Douthat.

He posits two Americas: “The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes.” The first cares about the Constitution, and the second is composed of a bunch of racist rubes, it seems. “The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.” Yes, you can guess which are the opponents of the Ground Zero mosque. (I was wondering if he was going to write, “The first America helped little old ladies across the street; the second America drowned puppies.)

I assume that this is what one has to do to keep your piece of turf next to such intellectual luminaries as Maureen Dowd, but it’s really the worst straw man sort of argument since, well, the last time Obama spoke. But he’s not done: “The first America is correct to insist on Muslims’ absolute right to build and worship where they wish. But the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith.” OK, on behalf of the rubes in Second America, enough!

Second America — that’s 68% of us — recognizes (and we’ve said it over and over again) that there may be little we can do legally (other than exercise eminent domain) to halt the Ground Zero mosque, but that doesn’t suspend our powers of judgment and moral persuasion. Those who oppose the mosque are not bigots or constitutional ruffians. They merely believe that our president shouldn’t be cheerleading the desecration of “hallowed ground” (“first America’s” term, articulated by Obama) or averting our eyes from the funding sources of the imam’s planned fortress.

Well, maybe all this was the price to be paid at the left’s altar for Douthat’s final two graphs — the ultimate buried lede. After acknowledging that second America has a point (“the second America is right to press for something more from Muslim Americans — particularly from figures like Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the mosque — than simple protestations of good faith”), he admits:

By global standards, Rauf may be the model of a “moderate Muslim.” But global standards and American standards are different. For Muslim Americans to integrate fully into our national life, they’ll need leaders who don’t describe America as “an accessory to the crime” of 9/11 (as Rauf did shortly after the 2001 attacks), or duck questions about whether groups like Hamas count as terrorist organizations (as Rauf did in a radio interview in June). And they’ll need leaders whose antennas are sensitive enough to recognize that the quest for inter-religious dialogue is ill served by throwing up a high-profile mosque two blocks from the site of a mass murder committed in the name of Islam.

They’ll need leaders, in other words, who understand that while the ideals of the first America protect the e pluribus, it’s the demands the second America makes of new arrivals that help create the unum.

OK, it’s something, at any rate. Think of it as a little consciousness-raising for the Upper West Side, a reminder that the object of their affection isn’t the best role model to promote religious reconciliation. No, it doesn’t excuse the rest of an obnoxious, fractured history of American history. (Which America is it that hired the infamous Israel Lobby authors to spout thinly disguised anti-Semitism from its Ivy-covered buildings? Which America does Reverend Wright belong to? Which America routinely ridicules Christian evangelicals?) But it does tell you what passes for “conservative” at the New York Times.

Read Less

The Jews Won’t Go Back Because They’re in Their Own Country

Despite Helen Thomas’s apology and resignation, the controversy over her call for Israel’s Jews to be thrown out of their country and “go back” to Germany and Poland isn’t quite over. Not to be outdone by the anti-Semitic octogenarian scribe, radio talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell defended or at the very least rationalized Thomas’s slur on her radio show, the audio of which can be heard on YouTube. The comedian and her “friends” on the show think Thomas’s remarks are merely “politically incorrect.” O’Donnell claims that in 2010, no one could possibly believe that Thomas thinks Jews should go back to Auschwitz (as one of the Gaza flotilla “humanitarians” allegedly told the Israeli navy) and that her main point was justified because “What she was saying was, the homeland was originally Palestinian and it’s now occupied by Israel.”

O’Donnell’s rants are not particularly significant, but her assertion about whose land the Israelis currently occupy is important because it represents a common misconception about the Middle East conflict that often goes without contradiction.

Indeed, even those pundits that reacted appropriately to Thomas’s remarks, such as the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, who wrote an admirable column about what happened when some Jews did, in fact, attempt to go back to Poland after the Holocaust, failed to point out that Jewish rights to historic Palestine predate the tragic events of the 1940s. Cohen described the Kielce massacre, in which Poles slaughtered returning Jews, as well as the hostility of even some Americans, such as General George Patton, toward displaced survivors. He rightly noted that the plight of these homeless Jews helped galvanize support for Zionism at that crucial moment in history in the years leading up to Israel’s independence.

But as with President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, which posed a false moral equivalence between the sufferings of Jews in the Holocaust and the displacement of Palestinian Arab refugees, the idea that Jewish rights to the land are merely a matter of compensation for events in Europe is a pernicious myth that must be refuted at every opportunity. Jews need not be required to leave Israel for Europe not only because to do so would be insensitive but also because the place Arabs call Palestine is the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Despite the dispersion of the Jews, the Jewish presence in the land was never eradicated. For example, Jerusalem had a Jewish majority in the 1840s. Palestinian nationalism grew not as an attempt to reconstitute an ancient people or to solidify an existing political culture but strictly as a negative reaction to the return of the Jews and does not exist outside the context of trying to deny the country to the Zionists. That is why even moderate Palestinians find it impossible to sign a peace agreement legitimizing a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn.

The idea of Jews as colonists in the Middle East is a staple of anti-Zionist hatred, but it surfaces even in respectable forums and in the work of writers who are nominally sympathetic to Israel. Earlier this week, Ross Douthat wrote a column in the New York Times comparing the State of Israel to the Christian Crusader kingdoms that sprouted in what is now Israel during the Middle Ages before being swept away by a Muslim tide. Douthat doesn’t seem to wish the same fate for the Jews and acknowledged that the analogy between the Crusaders and Israel is one invoked by Arabs who wish to wipe out the Jewish state. But his analogy between Israel’s demographic and strategic problems and that of the Crusaders is itself specious. Unlike the Christian noblemen who ruled the country and its mainly non-Christian inhabitants from castles that are now historic ruins, the Jews settled on the land en masse and developed it in an unprecedented manner. Contrary to his evaluation of Israel’s current position, its economy has flourished despite war; and though it has many problems (as do all countries), it is no danger of being swept away except by the sort of cataclysmic threat that a nuclear Iran poses. Moreover, and contrary to the land grab of European knights who massacred Jews in Europe on their way to further atrocities in the Holy Land, the Jews came back to their country as a matter of historic justice, as a people reclaiming what was rightly theirs.

Friends of Israel and those representing the Jewish state generally ignore the need to point out the myths about Zionism that have resulted in all too many people accepting the idea that the Jews are “occupiers” of an exclusively Arab land. They fear boring their listeners or seeming too strident. But the costs of this neglect are to be measured in the growing numbers of people in the West who accept the lies spread by Palestinian propagandists or who don’t know enough to challenge them.

Despite Helen Thomas’s apology and resignation, the controversy over her call for Israel’s Jews to be thrown out of their country and “go back” to Germany and Poland isn’t quite over. Not to be outdone by the anti-Semitic octogenarian scribe, radio talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell defended or at the very least rationalized Thomas’s slur on her radio show, the audio of which can be heard on YouTube. The comedian and her “friends” on the show think Thomas’s remarks are merely “politically incorrect.” O’Donnell claims that in 2010, no one could possibly believe that Thomas thinks Jews should go back to Auschwitz (as one of the Gaza flotilla “humanitarians” allegedly told the Israeli navy) and that her main point was justified because “What she was saying was, the homeland was originally Palestinian and it’s now occupied by Israel.”

O’Donnell’s rants are not particularly significant, but her assertion about whose land the Israelis currently occupy is important because it represents a common misconception about the Middle East conflict that often goes without contradiction.

Indeed, even those pundits that reacted appropriately to Thomas’s remarks, such as the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, who wrote an admirable column about what happened when some Jews did, in fact, attempt to go back to Poland after the Holocaust, failed to point out that Jewish rights to historic Palestine predate the tragic events of the 1940s. Cohen described the Kielce massacre, in which Poles slaughtered returning Jews, as well as the hostility of even some Americans, such as General George Patton, toward displaced survivors. He rightly noted that the plight of these homeless Jews helped galvanize support for Zionism at that crucial moment in history in the years leading up to Israel’s independence.

But as with President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, which posed a false moral equivalence between the sufferings of Jews in the Holocaust and the displacement of Palestinian Arab refugees, the idea that Jewish rights to the land are merely a matter of compensation for events in Europe is a pernicious myth that must be refuted at every opportunity. Jews need not be required to leave Israel for Europe not only because to do so would be insensitive but also because the place Arabs call Palestine is the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Despite the dispersion of the Jews, the Jewish presence in the land was never eradicated. For example, Jerusalem had a Jewish majority in the 1840s. Palestinian nationalism grew not as an attempt to reconstitute an ancient people or to solidify an existing political culture but strictly as a negative reaction to the return of the Jews and does not exist outside the context of trying to deny the country to the Zionists. That is why even moderate Palestinians find it impossible to sign a peace agreement legitimizing a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn.

The idea of Jews as colonists in the Middle East is a staple of anti-Zionist hatred, but it surfaces even in respectable forums and in the work of writers who are nominally sympathetic to Israel. Earlier this week, Ross Douthat wrote a column in the New York Times comparing the State of Israel to the Christian Crusader kingdoms that sprouted in what is now Israel during the Middle Ages before being swept away by a Muslim tide. Douthat doesn’t seem to wish the same fate for the Jews and acknowledged that the analogy between the Crusaders and Israel is one invoked by Arabs who wish to wipe out the Jewish state. But his analogy between Israel’s demographic and strategic problems and that of the Crusaders is itself specious. Unlike the Christian noblemen who ruled the country and its mainly non-Christian inhabitants from castles that are now historic ruins, the Jews settled on the land en masse and developed it in an unprecedented manner. Contrary to his evaluation of Israel’s current position, its economy has flourished despite war; and though it has many problems (as do all countries), it is no danger of being swept away except by the sort of cataclysmic threat that a nuclear Iran poses. Moreover, and contrary to the land grab of European knights who massacred Jews in Europe on their way to further atrocities in the Holy Land, the Jews came back to their country as a matter of historic justice, as a people reclaiming what was rightly theirs.

Friends of Israel and those representing the Jewish state generally ignore the need to point out the myths about Zionism that have resulted in all too many people accepting the idea that the Jews are “occupiers” of an exclusively Arab land. They fear boring their listeners or seeming too strident. But the costs of this neglect are to be measured in the growing numbers of people in the West who accept the lies spread by Palestinian propagandists or who don’t know enough to challenge them.

Read Less

Rand Paul’s Self-Marginalizing Philosophy

Rand Paul likes to call himself a “constitutional conservative.” I don’t know what that means, nor do I think that mainstream conservative officials or candidates are unconstitutional conservatives. The Wall Street Journal editors aptly makes this point:

[Rand Paul] has now renounced the doubts he expressed last week about some parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and has declared the matter closed. But before we move on, it’s important to understand why Mr. Paul was wrong even on his own libertarian terms.

The federal laws of that era were necessary and legal interventions to remedy the unconstitutional infringement on individual rights by state and local governments. On Thursday Mr. Paul finally acknowledged this point when he told CNN, “I think there was an overriding problem in the South so big that it did require federal intervention.”

As the editors note, Paul’s difficulty in supporting civil rights legislation not only casts doubt on the Tea Party supporters who have strived to repudiate media claims that they are racists, but it has “let them change the campaign subject from the Obama Administration’s willy-nilly expansion of the corporate state.” Is the real problem, according to Paul, all that federal “meddling” by way of  the Fourteenth Amendment, which not only requires nondiscrimination by states but also authorizes Congress to enforce that edict? (If he comes out of hiding, someone in the media can ask him that.)

I’m not sure whether Paul can recover, and I have serious doubts whether he should. As Ross Douthat reminds us, Paul’s grab bag of principles — including radical noninterventionism and hostility to nearly every function of the federal government – are ultimately “self-marginalizing and self-destructive.” Mitch McConnell, I think, knew exactly what he was doing in endorsing the other guy — trying to prevent not only damage to the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party but also to those who revere the Constitution.

Rand Paul likes to call himself a “constitutional conservative.” I don’t know what that means, nor do I think that mainstream conservative officials or candidates are unconstitutional conservatives. The Wall Street Journal editors aptly makes this point:

[Rand Paul] has now renounced the doubts he expressed last week about some parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and has declared the matter closed. But before we move on, it’s important to understand why Mr. Paul was wrong even on his own libertarian terms.

The federal laws of that era were necessary and legal interventions to remedy the unconstitutional infringement on individual rights by state and local governments. On Thursday Mr. Paul finally acknowledged this point when he told CNN, “I think there was an overriding problem in the South so big that it did require federal intervention.”

As the editors note, Paul’s difficulty in supporting civil rights legislation not only casts doubt on the Tea Party supporters who have strived to repudiate media claims that they are racists, but it has “let them change the campaign subject from the Obama Administration’s willy-nilly expansion of the corporate state.” Is the real problem, according to Paul, all that federal “meddling” by way of  the Fourteenth Amendment, which not only requires nondiscrimination by states but also authorizes Congress to enforce that edict? (If he comes out of hiding, someone in the media can ask him that.)

I’m not sure whether Paul can recover, and I have serious doubts whether he should. As Ross Douthat reminds us, Paul’s grab bag of principles — including radical noninterventionism and hostility to nearly every function of the federal government – are ultimately “self-marginalizing and self-destructive.” Mitch McConnell, I think, knew exactly what he was doing in endorsing the other guy — trying to prevent not only damage to the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party but also to those who revere the Constitution.

Read Less

The South Park Test

I admit it. Until now I have always been a bit of an Islamophobia skeptic. Living in the Middle East, I have no illusions about what radical Islam, given the right kinds of fuel and the right weapons of oppression, can do in the parts of the world under its control, or to immediate neighbors who challenge its reign. And while I share in many Europeans’ concern about the spread of violent Islam’s influence across the Continent, I have never really seen it as cause for panic about the future of Western civilization, or even of Europe. An inveterate optimist, I have a great deal of faith that Europeans, deep down, understand what has made them special and will do what’s needed to defend themselves and their culture. And as for the U.S.? It frankly never occurred to me that there was any danger, not now, not ever. Americans cherish their freedom too much and are too willing to defend it even by force of arms for fans of Jefferson and Paine to be truly worried.

Until now. And all because of South Park.

For those of you who’ve missed it, this week South Park attempted to parody the prophet Muhammad, just as it’s parodied Jesus, God, Moses, and every institution of religion big enough to merit its parody. Yet after an Islamist website posted a veiled threat, to the effect that the creators of South Park would end up like Theo Van Gogh, the film director murdered in Amsterdam for publicly criticizing Islam, the folks at Comedy Central buckled. The episode was removed from the website. For more details about this and similar acts of self-censorship in the past few months, read Ross Douthat’s crucial column in the New York Times.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The core of liberal society is the belief that every new thought, every iconoclasm, every “dangerous” idea, can be uttered somewhere, by someone, as long as it doesn’t openly incite violence — and that every sacred cow is ultimately just a cow. I may watch my tongue about the things I hold sacred, but as long as others have a right to criticize, parody, or publicly rebuke even those things I revere without fear for their lives, I know that society is a free society, and that when the time comes, I too will be protected. (It is the fate of the Jew always to wonder what will happen to him when the mob goes wild. That is why so many Jews are liberals.) Religion, especially, needs to be protected — both its affirmation and its negation — precisely because religion claims to hold in its hands the ultimate truths, on which life and death, war and peace, often turn. And the more power hungry a given religion appears to be, the more we have to protect every person’s right to critique it, whether through parody or public debate. Nor is this just a matter of legal rights: the moment someone feels that his life is in danger because he publicly criticized a religious figure or institution, we are all in trouble.

No cultural institution in our world has embodied this right more than South Park. Aside from being very, very funny (my apologies to the dour souls who disagree), it is also often vile, filled with offensive ideas, language, images, and more. I have often been forced to turn it off, especially if kids are watching. But that’s the whole point of it, as everyone knows. South Park has, until now, been the one place where every holy thing can be made fun of, every taboo broken — especially religion, in the best tradition of Voltaire and Monty Python. Nobody has to watch it if they don’t like it. But it should be out there, somewhere.

With the collapse of South Park‘s credibility as the slayer of all cows, something has been lost, something very deep to the inner logic of liberty. We have caught a glimpse of a world where religion is, well, so sacred as to brook no humor whatsoever. It is a dark world that we escaped several centuries ago, a world where power and claims of ultimate truths fuse together to crush freedom, creativity, and the bold human endeavors that have given us our entire world of scientific and political advancement. In a flash, we moderns are now forced to contend with the myth of our own invincibility: are we so arrogant as to think that modernity can never be undone? (Oh, and another thing: this seems especially ironic at a time when the Catholic Church has been hammered with demands for transparency and accountability an a willingness to defy centuries-old sanctities, yet many of us refuse to demand the same from Islam.)

Many of us have been hoping that the emergence of democracy and liberty around much of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union could have an impact within the Islamic world as well — that somehow there would emerge a force of religious moderation, a realm of truly free speech, that could some day form the basis of peaceful coexistence and an end to the endless bloodshed. Instead, the battle lines are shifting the other way — and freedom is in retreat. South Park was a temple to the healthy cynicism and pushing of boundaries that have to exist somewhere if we are to feel truly free anywhere. We may hate it, and hate ourselves for enjoying it. But now we need to protect it. Or we, too, like the third-grader South Park recently depicted in a scathing assault on Facebook, will have 0 friends.

I admit it. Until now I have always been a bit of an Islamophobia skeptic. Living in the Middle East, I have no illusions about what radical Islam, given the right kinds of fuel and the right weapons of oppression, can do in the parts of the world under its control, or to immediate neighbors who challenge its reign. And while I share in many Europeans’ concern about the spread of violent Islam’s influence across the Continent, I have never really seen it as cause for panic about the future of Western civilization, or even of Europe. An inveterate optimist, I have a great deal of faith that Europeans, deep down, understand what has made them special and will do what’s needed to defend themselves and their culture. And as for the U.S.? It frankly never occurred to me that there was any danger, not now, not ever. Americans cherish their freedom too much and are too willing to defend it even by force of arms for fans of Jefferson and Paine to be truly worried.

Until now. And all because of South Park.

For those of you who’ve missed it, this week South Park attempted to parody the prophet Muhammad, just as it’s parodied Jesus, God, Moses, and every institution of religion big enough to merit its parody. Yet after an Islamist website posted a veiled threat, to the effect that the creators of South Park would end up like Theo Van Gogh, the film director murdered in Amsterdam for publicly criticizing Islam, the folks at Comedy Central buckled. The episode was removed from the website. For more details about this and similar acts of self-censorship in the past few months, read Ross Douthat’s crucial column in the New York Times.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The core of liberal society is the belief that every new thought, every iconoclasm, every “dangerous” idea, can be uttered somewhere, by someone, as long as it doesn’t openly incite violence — and that every sacred cow is ultimately just a cow. I may watch my tongue about the things I hold sacred, but as long as others have a right to criticize, parody, or publicly rebuke even those things I revere without fear for their lives, I know that society is a free society, and that when the time comes, I too will be protected. (It is the fate of the Jew always to wonder what will happen to him when the mob goes wild. That is why so many Jews are liberals.) Religion, especially, needs to be protected — both its affirmation and its negation — precisely because religion claims to hold in its hands the ultimate truths, on which life and death, war and peace, often turn. And the more power hungry a given religion appears to be, the more we have to protect every person’s right to critique it, whether through parody or public debate. Nor is this just a matter of legal rights: the moment someone feels that his life is in danger because he publicly criticized a religious figure or institution, we are all in trouble.

No cultural institution in our world has embodied this right more than South Park. Aside from being very, very funny (my apologies to the dour souls who disagree), it is also often vile, filled with offensive ideas, language, images, and more. I have often been forced to turn it off, especially if kids are watching. But that’s the whole point of it, as everyone knows. South Park has, until now, been the one place where every holy thing can be made fun of, every taboo broken — especially religion, in the best tradition of Voltaire and Monty Python. Nobody has to watch it if they don’t like it. But it should be out there, somewhere.

With the collapse of South Park‘s credibility as the slayer of all cows, something has been lost, something very deep to the inner logic of liberty. We have caught a glimpse of a world where religion is, well, so sacred as to brook no humor whatsoever. It is a dark world that we escaped several centuries ago, a world where power and claims of ultimate truths fuse together to crush freedom, creativity, and the bold human endeavors that have given us our entire world of scientific and political advancement. In a flash, we moderns are now forced to contend with the myth of our own invincibility: are we so arrogant as to think that modernity can never be undone? (Oh, and another thing: this seems especially ironic at a time when the Catholic Church has been hammered with demands for transparency and accountability an a willingness to defy centuries-old sanctities, yet many of us refuse to demand the same from Islam.)

Many of us have been hoping that the emergence of democracy and liberty around much of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union could have an impact within the Islamic world as well — that somehow there would emerge a force of religious moderation, a realm of truly free speech, that could some day form the basis of peaceful coexistence and an end to the endless bloodshed. Instead, the battle lines are shifting the other way — and freedom is in retreat. South Park was a temple to the healthy cynicism and pushing of boundaries that have to exist somewhere if we are to feel truly free anywhere. We may hate it, and hate ourselves for enjoying it. But now we need to protect it. Or we, too, like the third-grader South Park recently depicted in a scathing assault on Facebook, will have 0 friends.

Read Less

Reform or Revolution?

Ross Douthat makes the case that ObamaCare was doomed from the start:

You can make big changes to small programs, and small changes to big ones. But comprehensive solutions tend to produce comprehensive resistance. And the more sweeping the stakes, the greater the chance of political disaster — whether your name is Clinton or Gingrich, Bush or Obama — when your bill goes down to defeat.

Such a bill would have had many fewer beneficiaries — but far fewer enemies as well. It wouldn’t have transformed the system, controlled costs for the long term, or guaranteed universal care.

Douthat argues, as did many Republican lawmakers, that Democrats overshot the mark, attempting something too grand, too complex, and too scary. He contends: “The lesson for Democrats should be obvious. They wanted, admirably, to help the low-income uninsured, and Americans with pre-existing conditions. And that’s exactly what they should have done — with tax credits or vouchers or a Medicaid expansion for the poor, and better-funded risk pools for the sick.”

But is that what they really wanted to do? Or did they want to plant the sapling of a European-style welfare state that couldn’t be rooted out, setting up a new relationship between citizens and their government? At times, many liberals were candid that this is precisely what they had in mind. The public option, they confessed, was the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, the entry to a single-payer universal-health-care system. It was not simply, one could argue, that in their zeal to tinker with the existing system Democrats went overboard. It often seemed (because they said so) that they intended a “new foundation” for the country. That would entail a whole new model of government dependency for each and every citizen.

In the wake of the Scott Brown epic upset, Democrats are reduced to seeking small, focused fixes to the existing health-care system to save political face. Liberal pundits are beside themselves that they’re likely to get “no more” than something to address pre-existing conditions, some equalization of tax treatment for individual-purchased insurance plans, tort reform, and a lifting of the ban on interstate insurance sales. Well that’s “all” that’s left, given that ObamaCare has crashed and burned. Greg Sargent notes with chagrin:

Is it really advisable, in political and policy terms, for Dems to agree to pass something approximating the GOP plan and no more? Because in the real world, that’s the only way Dems will win any bipartisan cooperation.

It’s quite a comedown to simply reform the existing system. With visions of a revolutionary transformation of American society dancing in their heads, the Left imagined they could get far more. The voters, however, didn’t want to throw out the entire health-care system. They simply wanted cheaper health care and some portability. But if it meant a scary new regime of government control and “comparative effectiveness research,” well then the Democrats could forget the whole thing as far as ordinary Americans were concerned.

So Douthat, I think, is partially correct. Mega-reform wasn’t going to happen. Mostly it wasn’t going to happen because the proponents of the ObamaCare weren’t candid with the public, which they rightly suspected all along wasn’t going to go for a reorientation of a sixth of the economy and their own personal health care. Reform is hard enough; it’s near impossible when it’s a camouflaged revolution.

Ross Douthat makes the case that ObamaCare was doomed from the start:

You can make big changes to small programs, and small changes to big ones. But comprehensive solutions tend to produce comprehensive resistance. And the more sweeping the stakes, the greater the chance of political disaster — whether your name is Clinton or Gingrich, Bush or Obama — when your bill goes down to defeat.

Such a bill would have had many fewer beneficiaries — but far fewer enemies as well. It wouldn’t have transformed the system, controlled costs for the long term, or guaranteed universal care.

Douthat argues, as did many Republican lawmakers, that Democrats overshot the mark, attempting something too grand, too complex, and too scary. He contends: “The lesson for Democrats should be obvious. They wanted, admirably, to help the low-income uninsured, and Americans with pre-existing conditions. And that’s exactly what they should have done — with tax credits or vouchers or a Medicaid expansion for the poor, and better-funded risk pools for the sick.”

But is that what they really wanted to do? Or did they want to plant the sapling of a European-style welfare state that couldn’t be rooted out, setting up a new relationship between citizens and their government? At times, many liberals were candid that this is precisely what they had in mind. The public option, they confessed, was the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, the entry to a single-payer universal-health-care system. It was not simply, one could argue, that in their zeal to tinker with the existing system Democrats went overboard. It often seemed (because they said so) that they intended a “new foundation” for the country. That would entail a whole new model of government dependency for each and every citizen.

In the wake of the Scott Brown epic upset, Democrats are reduced to seeking small, focused fixes to the existing health-care system to save political face. Liberal pundits are beside themselves that they’re likely to get “no more” than something to address pre-existing conditions, some equalization of tax treatment for individual-purchased insurance plans, tort reform, and a lifting of the ban on interstate insurance sales. Well that’s “all” that’s left, given that ObamaCare has crashed and burned. Greg Sargent notes with chagrin:

Is it really advisable, in political and policy terms, for Dems to agree to pass something approximating the GOP plan and no more? Because in the real world, that’s the only way Dems will win any bipartisan cooperation.

It’s quite a comedown to simply reform the existing system. With visions of a revolutionary transformation of American society dancing in their heads, the Left imagined they could get far more. The voters, however, didn’t want to throw out the entire health-care system. They simply wanted cheaper health care and some portability. But if it meant a scary new regime of government control and “comparative effectiveness research,” well then the Democrats could forget the whole thing as far as ordinary Americans were concerned.

So Douthat, I think, is partially correct. Mega-reform wasn’t going to happen. Mostly it wasn’t going to happen because the proponents of the ObamaCare weren’t candid with the public, which they rightly suspected all along wasn’t going to go for a reorientation of a sixth of the economy and their own personal health care. Reform is hard enough; it’s near impossible when it’s a camouflaged revolution.

Read Less

Making Conservatism Seem Fresh Again

Obama and his team rode into office banking on the recession to help shift the country leftward. The private sector would be discredited, they figured. The public would turn to government. And they and their hyper-liberal agenda would be the beneficiaries. But they missed the mark on two counts.

First, the essential center-right political orientation of Americans was not altered by the downturn. Voters were in fact wary after eight years of Republican rule and some significant mismanagement. They might have been prepared for some corrective regulatory action, but they hadn’t given up on the free market or their suspicion of big government, and candidate Obama was more than anxious to assure them that he, too, was a fan of the private sector and had no desire to reorient the relationship between the private and public sectors. Had Obama not appealed to that political sentiment throughout the campaign (going line by line through the budget, for example) and not vigorously disputed critics who spied him as a extreme liberal, it is unclear whether he would have won. The election would certainly have been closer had he revealed just how radical a domestic agenda he was considering.

Second, if you’re going to push big government, you’d better be prepared to show that you are up for the task. As Ross Douthat writes:

Recessions, it seems, only benefit liberals when an activist government is perceived to have answers to the crisis. When liberal interventions seem to be effective, a downturn can help midwife an enduring Democratic majority. But if they don’t seem to be working — or worse, if they seem to be working for insiders and favored constituencies, rather than for the common man — then suspicion of state power can trump disillusionment with free markets.

All the Obami have to show for their hopey/changey revolution is a failed stimulus plan and a load of debt. It inspires only queasiness, not faith in empowering government to do more and more. Independents are moving rightward, concerned about massive spending and debt. The signature piece of legislation, a takeover of health care, is now in doubt and will pass only if lawmakers ignore public opinion.

The result of the Obami’s misreading of the public and gross underperformance has been a revitalization of their opponents and a renewed interest in a message of fiscal conservatism. The Obami may yet recalibrate their vision or improve their execution. But if they don’t do both, the Obama era may ironically mark the rebirth of a conservative agenda that had grown increasingly stale and muddled. There is, after all, nothing like liberal excess to make low taxes, spending restraint, and regulatory moderation seem like the basis for a refreshing new agenda.

Obama and his team rode into office banking on the recession to help shift the country leftward. The private sector would be discredited, they figured. The public would turn to government. And they and their hyper-liberal agenda would be the beneficiaries. But they missed the mark on two counts.

First, the essential center-right political orientation of Americans was not altered by the downturn. Voters were in fact wary after eight years of Republican rule and some significant mismanagement. They might have been prepared for some corrective regulatory action, but they hadn’t given up on the free market or their suspicion of big government, and candidate Obama was more than anxious to assure them that he, too, was a fan of the private sector and had no desire to reorient the relationship between the private and public sectors. Had Obama not appealed to that political sentiment throughout the campaign (going line by line through the budget, for example) and not vigorously disputed critics who spied him as a extreme liberal, it is unclear whether he would have won. The election would certainly have been closer had he revealed just how radical a domestic agenda he was considering.

Second, if you’re going to push big government, you’d better be prepared to show that you are up for the task. As Ross Douthat writes:

Recessions, it seems, only benefit liberals when an activist government is perceived to have answers to the crisis. When liberal interventions seem to be effective, a downturn can help midwife an enduring Democratic majority. But if they don’t seem to be working — or worse, if they seem to be working for insiders and favored constituencies, rather than for the common man — then suspicion of state power can trump disillusionment with free markets.

All the Obami have to show for their hopey/changey revolution is a failed stimulus plan and a load of debt. It inspires only queasiness, not faith in empowering government to do more and more. Independents are moving rightward, concerned about massive spending and debt. The signature piece of legislation, a takeover of health care, is now in doubt and will pass only if lawmakers ignore public opinion.

The result of the Obami’s misreading of the public and gross underperformance has been a revitalization of their opponents and a renewed interest in a message of fiscal conservatism. The Obami may yet recalibrate their vision or improve their execution. But if they don’t do both, the Obama era may ironically mark the rebirth of a conservative agenda that had grown increasingly stale and muddled. There is, after all, nothing like liberal excess to make low taxes, spending restraint, and regulatory moderation seem like the basis for a refreshing new agenda.

Read Less

How McCain Gets His Groove Back

The normally astute Ross Douthat is mistaken when he argues that McCain may have already reached his peak.

His argument is that, at a moment of Democratic confusion, McCain’s poll numbers and fundraising aren’t particularly impressive.  What is he going to do, Douthat asks, when the Democrats finally get their act together and unite behind a single candidate?

The obvious answer — and the one Douthat never considers — is that McCain will go negative.  Not in the usual, Willie Horton way that the press usually interprets negative campaigning.  But McCain will do everything he
can to denigrate the accomplishments and ideas of his opponents and critics. That is essentially what he has done most of his political life — and it has usually worked quite well.  The nice McCain, the prisoner of war McCain,
the straight talk McCain, the “third-way” McCain was something the press fawned over in 2000. But that narrative has worn out its welcome.  That’s why his recent “biography tour” failed to move the needle.

What McCain needs is an enemy, in either the form of Obama or Hillary.  In all his recent Senate battles, he has positioned himself in opposition to someone or something.  He’ll do it again in the fall, even as he swears he
won’t run negative ads. He will also unleash the snarl, the caustic dismissals of his opponents experience, and an ad campaign that will directly question the Democratic nominee’s fitness for office.  This is how the race will get exciting — and how enthusiasm for McCain might return.

The normally astute Ross Douthat is mistaken when he argues that McCain may have already reached his peak.

His argument is that, at a moment of Democratic confusion, McCain’s poll numbers and fundraising aren’t particularly impressive.  What is he going to do, Douthat asks, when the Democrats finally get their act together and unite behind a single candidate?

The obvious answer — and the one Douthat never considers — is that McCain will go negative.  Not in the usual, Willie Horton way that the press usually interprets negative campaigning.  But McCain will do everything he
can to denigrate the accomplishments and ideas of his opponents and critics. That is essentially what he has done most of his political life — and it has usually worked quite well.  The nice McCain, the prisoner of war McCain,
the straight talk McCain, the “third-way” McCain was something the press fawned over in 2000. But that narrative has worn out its welcome.  That’s why his recent “biography tour” failed to move the needle.

What McCain needs is an enemy, in either the form of Obama or Hillary.  In all his recent Senate battles, he has positioned himself in opposition to someone or something.  He’ll do it again in the fall, even as he swears he
won’t run negative ads. He will also unleash the snarl, the caustic dismissals of his opponents experience, and an ad campaign that will directly question the Democratic nominee’s fitness for office.  This is how the race will get exciting — and how enthusiasm for McCain might return.

Read Less

Are the 70′s Back? If Only!

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Ross Douthat has a very fine essay on what he frames as Hollywood’s return to the 1970′s. It puts last fall’s spate of Iraq war films in context, bringing them into place alongside everything from the neo-exploitation slasher flicks of Eli Roth to the Bourne series and mediocre remakes like The Manchurian Candidate. Lots of ink (some of it mine) was spilled last fall dissecting the movie biz’s dreary, self-righteous takes on the war, but his essay paints the clearest picture by far.

I would say, however, he gives short shrift to one point: lame-brained politics or no, the crusading, politically-infused films of the 1970′s were simply better films–and that goes for the prestige pics as well as the B-movies. Douthat notes this in passing, agreeing that the 80′s were “a more middlebrow, conservative decade in pop culture” in comparison with the political engagement of 70′s cinema.

But it’s essential to note that today’s crop–at least in its most explicitly political incarnations–is by any standard rife with unambiguously rotten material. Lions for Lambs, Redacted, and In the Valley of Elah were painful to sit through. Even the better stuff, like the 2005 Clooney duo of Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck were merely average–decent productions that fail to rise to the level of most cable television series. The only recent productions in this vein that stand out at all are the three Bourne films, which tend to use their political framework as a background and succeed mostly on the strength of their dazzling action setpieces.

Contrast this with the films of the 1970′s. There’s little comparison. Apocalypse Now may have little to do with the real-life experience of Vietnam, but it’s a hypnotic, singular vision from an accomplished cinematic artist working at the peak of his powers. All the President’s Men remains one of film’s best detective stories, and probably the best movie about Washington or journalism ever made. Middlebrow fare like The Parallax View and Flight of the Condor sparkled in a way that today’s mainstream thrillers rarely accomplish. And even low-budget films like Death Race 2000 and The Warriors crackled with a sense of outrage, awareness, and energy. Movies like these, as well as the early works of directors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, indulged in exploitation flick shenanigans. But they also had a tremendous amount of fun, and maybe even managed to say something about the state of the world, too.

Heaven knows the politics of Hollywood in 1970′s were off the wall, perhaps even wackier and more radical than today’s. But somehow, they still managed to turn out movies that were far less irritating than the artless, self-satisfied liberal consciousness-raisers we seem to be stuck with now.

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Ross Douthat has a very fine essay on what he frames as Hollywood’s return to the 1970′s. It puts last fall’s spate of Iraq war films in context, bringing them into place alongside everything from the neo-exploitation slasher flicks of Eli Roth to the Bourne series and mediocre remakes like The Manchurian Candidate. Lots of ink (some of it mine) was spilled last fall dissecting the movie biz’s dreary, self-righteous takes on the war, but his essay paints the clearest picture by far.

I would say, however, he gives short shrift to one point: lame-brained politics or no, the crusading, politically-infused films of the 1970′s were simply better films–and that goes for the prestige pics as well as the B-movies. Douthat notes this in passing, agreeing that the 80′s were “a more middlebrow, conservative decade in pop culture” in comparison with the political engagement of 70′s cinema.

But it’s essential to note that today’s crop–at least in its most explicitly political incarnations–is by any standard rife with unambiguously rotten material. Lions for Lambs, Redacted, and In the Valley of Elah were painful to sit through. Even the better stuff, like the 2005 Clooney duo of Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck were merely average–decent productions that fail to rise to the level of most cable television series. The only recent productions in this vein that stand out at all are the three Bourne films, which tend to use their political framework as a background and succeed mostly on the strength of their dazzling action setpieces.

Contrast this with the films of the 1970′s. There’s little comparison. Apocalypse Now may have little to do with the real-life experience of Vietnam, but it’s a hypnotic, singular vision from an accomplished cinematic artist working at the peak of his powers. All the President’s Men remains one of film’s best detective stories, and probably the best movie about Washington or journalism ever made. Middlebrow fare like The Parallax View and Flight of the Condor sparkled in a way that today’s mainstream thrillers rarely accomplish. And even low-budget films like Death Race 2000 and The Warriors crackled with a sense of outrage, awareness, and energy. Movies like these, as well as the early works of directors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, indulged in exploitation flick shenanigans. But they also had a tremendous amount of fun, and maybe even managed to say something about the state of the world, too.

Heaven knows the politics of Hollywood in 1970′s were off the wall, perhaps even wackier and more radical than today’s. But somehow, they still managed to turn out movies that were far less irritating than the artless, self-satisfied liberal consciousness-raisers we seem to be stuck with now.

Read Less

Boxer on Blogs

I am continually fascinated by the blogosphere—its odd blend of willful insularity and often-startling reach; its dominant personalities, at who’ve succeeded not so much at being larger than life, but at simply recreating parallel versions of themselves online, seemingly able to document every waking thought in real time; at the alliances and infighting that dominate, especially in political commentary; at the way it allows us to see the evolution of language, the spread of ideas, jargon, and stylistic modes, at a an amazingly rapid pace. In just the last few years, blogs have generated reams of material ripe for critical evaluation.

So I was rather disappointed by Sarah Boxer’s essay on blogs in The New York Review of Books, which seems written for people who have never—or only rarely—encountered blogs. The essay provides a cursory summary of how blogs work, notes a few of their literary tics, and suggests that they are popular because of the freedom they provide. It’s sort of “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog” in 5,000 words. It’s a primer on blogging, but it suggests very little about the medium that isn’t patently obvious to a regular consumer. All this might have been fine in 2004, but in this case, it comes off as a marginally less awe-struck version of what Ross Douthat has called the “critic-as-fanboy style of criticism,” which he says usually come in the form of “extremely long critical essays that describe their subject, often in painstaking and florid detail, without bothering to interpret it.” I’m glad to see that writers are taking the internet seriously as a medium that deserves thoughtful examination, but if Boxer’s essay offers indication, the critical community has yet to figure out what to make of it.

I am continually fascinated by the blogosphere—its odd blend of willful insularity and often-startling reach; its dominant personalities, at who’ve succeeded not so much at being larger than life, but at simply recreating parallel versions of themselves online, seemingly able to document every waking thought in real time; at the alliances and infighting that dominate, especially in political commentary; at the way it allows us to see the evolution of language, the spread of ideas, jargon, and stylistic modes, at a an amazingly rapid pace. In just the last few years, blogs have generated reams of material ripe for critical evaluation.

So I was rather disappointed by Sarah Boxer’s essay on blogs in The New York Review of Books, which seems written for people who have never—or only rarely—encountered blogs. The essay provides a cursory summary of how blogs work, notes a few of their literary tics, and suggests that they are popular because of the freedom they provide. It’s sort of “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog” in 5,000 words. It’s a primer on blogging, but it suggests very little about the medium that isn’t patently obvious to a regular consumer. All this might have been fine in 2004, but in this case, it comes off as a marginally less awe-struck version of what Ross Douthat has called the “critic-as-fanboy style of criticism,” which he says usually come in the form of “extremely long critical essays that describe their subject, often in painstaking and florid detail, without bothering to interpret it.” I’m glad to see that writers are taking the internet seriously as a medium that deserves thoughtful examination, but if Boxer’s essay offers indication, the critical community has yet to figure out what to make of it.

Read Less

The Bloody End

Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)

A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.

Read More

Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)

A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.

The first thing worth noting is that Anderson has finished other films with similar tonal shifts. Indeed, he seems to enjoy pushing his films both over the top and out of this world in their final moments. His last two pictures both started relatively small and naturalistic, but built towards grand, fanciful scenes of magical realism. Magnolia, an Altman-style California character drama, ended with a literal plague of frogs descending upon Los Angeles, and Punch-Drunk Love ended with a dream-like flight out of L.A. to a confrontation with a surly pimp in mattress warehouse. Anderson, in other words, has never been much for restraint in his finales.

And it seems to me that restraint—emotional restraint—is what finally does Plainview in. Lewis’s phenomenal performance (favored, correctly, I think, to win an Oscar) is centrally about one thing: domination. He’s a conqueror of men, land, and fortunes—not because he particularly cares for any of those things, but because he is driven to conquer simply for conquering’s sake.

And for Plainview, the will to conquer and dominate requires emotional constriction of the sort that is ultimately unsustainable. For most of the film, he’s a sharp tactical manipulator, coolly and calmly assessing his opponents—which is to say everyone—and how he can best them. But such a drive must, at some point erupt, must blow up, and is likely to result in the sort of hysterical violence found in the final scene.
There’s a reason, I think, that Plainview is drawn to oil; they share many of the same qualities, and they grow more alike as the film goes on. Like him, it is a source of great power, great wealth, and great misery, always pulsing, always flowing, always threatening to explode or ignite when others try to control it. One might even say the violent, oddly spectacular explosion in the final scene was inevitable: Like so many of the oil wells he built through his life, eventually Daniel Plainview was bound to blow his top.

Read Less

Does Hollywood Hate Arabs?

Steve Clemons has posted a video on his blog he says was sent to him by an Al Jazeera anchor. The video, called “Reel Bad Arabs,” purports to show what the American Prospect‘s Matthew Duss says is “Hollywood’s villification of Arabs.” Clemons says the video is “worth learning from” but doesn’t bother to tell us what (if anything) he learned from it.

Bypassing the obvious questions raised about the validity of anything forwarded along by an Al Jazeera journalist, Ross Douthat nevertheless very smartly writes that nearly all of the movies depicted in the documentary are at least fifteen years old. He also points out that “America’s most deadly and dedicated enemies tend to be, well, Arabic,” a fact which no doubt offends the tender sensibilities of Clemons and Duss. I imagine both of them would prefer that Hollywood change the scripts of movies so that, for instance, Arab terrorists become European neo-Nazis hell-bent on world domination. Everyone knows, after all, that the latter are a grave threat to humanity and the former are mere holograms created by the neocon war machine.

Steve Clemons has posted a video on his blog he says was sent to him by an Al Jazeera anchor. The video, called “Reel Bad Arabs,” purports to show what the American Prospect‘s Matthew Duss says is “Hollywood’s villification of Arabs.” Clemons says the video is “worth learning from” but doesn’t bother to tell us what (if anything) he learned from it.

Bypassing the obvious questions raised about the validity of anything forwarded along by an Al Jazeera journalist, Ross Douthat nevertheless very smartly writes that nearly all of the movies depicted in the documentary are at least fifteen years old. He also points out that “America’s most deadly and dedicated enemies tend to be, well, Arabic,” a fact which no doubt offends the tender sensibilities of Clemons and Duss. I imagine both of them would prefer that Hollywood change the scripts of movies so that, for instance, Arab terrorists become European neo-Nazis hell-bent on world domination. Everyone knows, after all, that the latter are a grave threat to humanity and the former are mere holograms created by the neocon war machine.

Read Less

Douthat’s Doubts

Ross Douthat, one of the bright lights of the rising generation of young conservatives (boy, it makes me feel old to write that!), professes himself dissatisfied with my forthcoming COMMENTARY article, “How Not to Get out of Iraq.” On his Atlantic blog he pounces on my admission that “the surge might still fail in the long run if Iraqis prove incapable of reaching political compromises even in a more secure environment.”

“This is not satisfactory. . . .” he writes. “[I]f we are to continue on our current path, we need to have less talk about the dangers of the alternative military approaches, and more talk about our options on the political front.” Unless we can come up with a good political solution, Douthat suggests, we might as well pull out. “As bad as admitting defeat would be, it’s preferable to asking thousands more Americans to die for what ends up being judged a mistake.”

Read More

Ross Douthat, one of the bright lights of the rising generation of young conservatives (boy, it makes me feel old to write that!), professes himself dissatisfied with my forthcoming COMMENTARY article, “How Not to Get out of Iraq.” On his Atlantic blog he pounces on my admission that “the surge might still fail in the long run if Iraqis prove incapable of reaching political compromises even in a more secure environment.”

“This is not satisfactory. . . .” he writes. “[I]f we are to continue on our current path, we need to have less talk about the dangers of the alternative military approaches, and more talk about our options on the political front.” Unless we can come up with a good political solution, Douthat suggests, we might as well pull out. “As bad as admitting defeat would be, it’s preferable to asking thousands more Americans to die for what ends up being judged a mistake.”

But the whole point of the surge is to set the conditions for political progress. We’ve already seen considerable movement at the grass-roots level. There has not been comparable political progress in Baghdad, but it’s too early to expect that. First, the surge has to create a climate in which compromise is possible. Short-cut political solutions—Douthat mentions moving up the elections or instituting a “soft partition” (the latter is an option I discuss in “How Not to Get out of Iraq”)—won’t work absent a basic level of security, which American and Iraqi forces are just now in the process of establishing. This is a long-overdue correction to the failed strategy of the past four years: putting politics before security. Douthat seems strangely enamored of that plan.

If we’d taken the right approach from the beginning and emphasized security, as any seasoned counterinsurgency strategist would counsel, we would probably be much further along than we are today. Because we made so many mistakes in the first four years of the war, any strategy that we implement now, no matter how sound, faces daunting odds. But that doesn’t mean, as Douthat implies, that we should simply throw up our hands in despair and withdraw. At least the surge gives us a reasonable chance to succeed. Any other option would be virtually certain to result in a catastrophic defeat.

Read Less

Hot Air in Aspen

Imagine going to the Heritage Foundation to see Ronald Reagan in the late 1980’s. Or listening to Margaret Thatcher at a National Review dinner at around the same time. Or applauding Charlton Heston at the NRA’s annual meeting. This must be the feeling that liberals get during a week of activities at the Aspen Festival of Ideas. A mix of political camaraderie, self-righteousness, and triumphalism oozed from every panel discussion and roundtable.

Only in its third year, this week-long conference, co-sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly and the Aspen Institute, has quickly established itself as the intellectual Woodstock for the wealthy and well-meaning. Bill Clinton made his annual pilgrimage—Aspen is his new Renaissance festival, apparently—and was reliably greeted as healer and seer for those who have had to endure two terms of Republican rule. This year Hillary joined him for some nighttime high-dollar fund-raising. The old Clinton crowd showed up, too: there rarely seemed to be a panel without Rahm Emmanuel, Gene Sperling, Madeline Albright, David Gergen, or Justice Stephen Breyer. True, there were a few Republicans thrown in for appearances, but mostly of the safe variety: Colin Powell or Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Karl Rove showed up on the final day for a ritual yet respectful skewering, just so everyone could feel bi-partisan and open-minded.

Read More

Imagine going to the Heritage Foundation to see Ronald Reagan in the late 1980’s. Or listening to Margaret Thatcher at a National Review dinner at around the same time. Or applauding Charlton Heston at the NRA’s annual meeting. This must be the feeling that liberals get during a week of activities at the Aspen Festival of Ideas. A mix of political camaraderie, self-righteousness, and triumphalism oozed from every panel discussion and roundtable.

Only in its third year, this week-long conference, co-sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly and the Aspen Institute, has quickly established itself as the intellectual Woodstock for the wealthy and well-meaning. Bill Clinton made his annual pilgrimage—Aspen is his new Renaissance festival, apparently—and was reliably greeted as healer and seer for those who have had to endure two terms of Republican rule. This year Hillary joined him for some nighttime high-dollar fund-raising. The old Clinton crowd showed up, too: there rarely seemed to be a panel without Rahm Emmanuel, Gene Sperling, Madeline Albright, David Gergen, or Justice Stephen Breyer. True, there were a few Republicans thrown in for appearances, but mostly of the safe variety: Colin Powell or Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Karl Rove showed up on the final day for a ritual yet respectful skewering, just so everyone could feel bi-partisan and open-minded.

But what struck me in the four days of sessions I attended was not Bush-hatred (or any particular display of partisanship), but rather the insipid and anodyne quality of the ideas under such grave discussion. After just two days, it was clear that the assembled crowd of the good and the great strongly believed that teachers should be paid more, that more investments need to be made in early childhood education, that energy and environment issues ought to be at the top of the national agenda, and that far too many college graduates want to become hedge fund managers. In dozens of panels, there were certainly exceptions, but I would refer anyone interested to the Aspen Festival blog posts by Ross Douthat, whose dry yet incisive commentaries captured the hollowness of this gathering of worthies.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.