Commentary Magazine


Topic: sociologist

Progress on Crime

According to the FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report (see here and here), compared with data from 2008, violent crime in America decreased by 5.5 percent; property crime declined by 4.9 percent; and arson offenses declined by 10.4 percent.

When disaggregating the data, we find that all four violent crime offenses — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — declined. Robbery dropped by 8.1 percent; murder by 7.2 percent; aggravated assault by 4.2 percent; and forcible rape by 3.1 percent. Violent crime declined by 4 percent in the nation’s metropolitan counties and by 3 percent in non-metropolitan counties. And all four regions in the nation showed decreases in violent crime in 2009 compared with data from 2008. Violent crime decreased by 6.6 percent in the South, 5.6 percent in the West, 4.6 percent in the Midwest, and 3.5 percent in the Northeast.

In addition, all property crime offenses — burglary, larceny-theft, and motor-vehicle theft — decreased in 2009 compared with 2008 data. Motor-vehicle theft showed the largest drop in volume, by 17.2 percent, larceny-thefts declined by 4.2 percent, and burglaries decreased by 1.7 percent.

The figures, which are still preliminary, indicate a third straight year of crime decreases, along with a sharply accelerating rate of decline.

The New York Times begins its story by saying, “Despite turmoil in the economy and high unemployment, crimes rates fell significantly across the Unites States in 2009.” Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said, “That’s a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions.”

Actually, it’s not all that remarkable. Crime rates, for example, fell significantly during the Great Depression. As David Rubinstein of the University of Illinois has pointed out, if you chart homicide beginning in 1900, its rates began to rise in 1905, continued through the prosperous 20s, and crested in 1933. They began to decline in 1934, as the Great Depression began to deepen. And between 1933 and 1940, the murder rate dropped by nearly 40 percent, while property crimes revealed a similar pattern. One possible explanation is that times of crisis, including economic crisis, create greater social cohesion.

The drop in all levels of crime since the early 90s has been staggering and counts as a truly remarkable success story. There are undoubtedly many explanations for it, from higher incarceration rates to private security to improved technology. But surely advances in policing deserve a healthy share of the credit. As William Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York has said: “We’ve gotten better at spotting crime trends more quickly. We can respond much more quickly.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that at a time when faith in many public institutions, including government and the media, is almost nonexistent, two institutions that command public trust are the military and law-enforcement officials. It’s no surprise, either, as they have impressive results to show for their efforts — from the battlefields in Iraq to the streets of New York.

One final thought: one of the things that characterized the 70s was a deep distrust of authority and of symbols of authority. Animus and disrespect were directed against our military and our cops. The former were accused of war crimes because of their service to our country in Vietnam; the latter were called pigs. Today the situation is dramatically reversed and dramatically better. In that sense, and in many other respects, our nation is a great deal better off than in the 70s.

We certainly have our share of social challenges. But in addressing them, we shouldn’t forget about the progress we have made, both practically and in terms of some of our social attitudes.

According to the FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report (see here and here), compared with data from 2008, violent crime in America decreased by 5.5 percent; property crime declined by 4.9 percent; and arson offenses declined by 10.4 percent.

When disaggregating the data, we find that all four violent crime offenses — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — declined. Robbery dropped by 8.1 percent; murder by 7.2 percent; aggravated assault by 4.2 percent; and forcible rape by 3.1 percent. Violent crime declined by 4 percent in the nation’s metropolitan counties and by 3 percent in non-metropolitan counties. And all four regions in the nation showed decreases in violent crime in 2009 compared with data from 2008. Violent crime decreased by 6.6 percent in the South, 5.6 percent in the West, 4.6 percent in the Midwest, and 3.5 percent in the Northeast.

In addition, all property crime offenses — burglary, larceny-theft, and motor-vehicle theft — decreased in 2009 compared with 2008 data. Motor-vehicle theft showed the largest drop in volume, by 17.2 percent, larceny-thefts declined by 4.2 percent, and burglaries decreased by 1.7 percent.

The figures, which are still preliminary, indicate a third straight year of crime decreases, along with a sharply accelerating rate of decline.

The New York Times begins its story by saying, “Despite turmoil in the economy and high unemployment, crimes rates fell significantly across the Unites States in 2009.” Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said, “That’s a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions.”

Actually, it’s not all that remarkable. Crime rates, for example, fell significantly during the Great Depression. As David Rubinstein of the University of Illinois has pointed out, if you chart homicide beginning in 1900, its rates began to rise in 1905, continued through the prosperous 20s, and crested in 1933. They began to decline in 1934, as the Great Depression began to deepen. And between 1933 and 1940, the murder rate dropped by nearly 40 percent, while property crimes revealed a similar pattern. One possible explanation is that times of crisis, including economic crisis, create greater social cohesion.

The drop in all levels of crime since the early 90s has been staggering and counts as a truly remarkable success story. There are undoubtedly many explanations for it, from higher incarceration rates to private security to improved technology. But surely advances in policing deserve a healthy share of the credit. As William Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York has said: “We’ve gotten better at spotting crime trends more quickly. We can respond much more quickly.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that at a time when faith in many public institutions, including government and the media, is almost nonexistent, two institutions that command public trust are the military and law-enforcement officials. It’s no surprise, either, as they have impressive results to show for their efforts — from the battlefields in Iraq to the streets of New York.

One final thought: one of the things that characterized the 70s was a deep distrust of authority and of symbols of authority. Animus and disrespect were directed against our military and our cops. The former were accused of war crimes because of their service to our country in Vietnam; the latter were called pigs. Today the situation is dramatically reversed and dramatically better. In that sense, and in many other respects, our nation is a great deal better off than in the 70s.

We certainly have our share of social challenges. But in addressing them, we shouldn’t forget about the progress we have made, both practically and in terms of some of our social attitudes.

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A Sermon on Morality

For a fellow who presumably doesn’t much care for finger-wagging moralists, E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post has gotten quite good at that role over the years.

In his column today, Dionne deals with the fall from grace of Rep. Mark Souder, who resigned after admitting to an affair with an aide, as an opportunity to “shout as forcefully as I can to my conservative Christian friends: Enough! … Enough with pretending that personal virtue is connected with political creeds. Enough with condemning your adversaries, sometimes viciously, and then insisting upon understanding after the failures of someone on your own side become known to the world.”

Dionne ends his column on Souder this way:

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It’s a scriptural passage that no doubt appeals to Mark Souder. But it would be lovely if conservative Christians remembered Jesus’ words not only when needing a lifeline but also when they are tempted to give speeches or send out mailers excoriating their political foes as permissive anti-family libertines. How many more scandals will it take for people who call themselves Christian to rediscover the virtues of humility and solidarity?

And wouldn’t it be lovely if liberal Christians remembered Jesus’s words when they were tempted, as the prominent liberal evangelical Jim Wallis has been, to say words excoriating their political foes as war criminals. I have in mind, for example, what Wallis said here:

I believe that Dick Cheney is a liar; that Donald Rumsfeld is also a liar; and that George W. Bush was, and is, clueless about how to be the president of the United States. … Almost 4,000 young Americans are dead because of the lies of this administration, tens of thousands more wounded and maimed for life, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also dead, and 400 billion dollars wasted — because of their lies, incompetence, and corruption.

But I don’t favor impeachment, as some have suggested. I would wait until after the election, when they are out of office, and then I would favor investigations of the top officials of the Bush administration on official deception, war crimes, and corruption charges. And if they are found guilty of these high crimes, I believe they should spend the rest of their lives in prison — after offering their repentance to every American family who has lost a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, or sister. Deliberately lying about going to war should not be forgiven.

It’s worth noting that Dionne has had glowing things to say about Wallis, going so far as comparing him to the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, or Isaiah — something that, on reflection, even E.J. must cringe at.

Mr. Wallis doesn’t exhaust the list of offenders, by any means. Take the case of Randall Balmer, an influential professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, an editor for Christianity Today, author of a dozen books, and Emmy Award nominee. In his book To Change the World, the sociologist James Davison Hunter writes that in Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament:

[Balmer’s] disdain for the Christian Right lead him to engage in name-calling that is as one-dimensional and dehumanizing as the most extreme voices of the Christian Right, labeling his opponents “right-wing zealots” and “bullies” and their followers “minions,” who together are “intolerant,” “vicious,” “militaristic,” “bloviating,” and theocratic. In this regard, his perspective also matches the Manichaeism of the most extreme voices of the Christian Right for there is no shade or nuance in his description of the political realities with which he is wrestling.

I don’t recall Dionne often, or ever, specifically taking on liberal evangelicals for their slashing rhetoric — to say nothing of the left’s often uncivil and vicious attacks against conservatives, from George W. Bush on down. (Some examples can be found here.) The Outrage Meter seems to have been out of commission during that brief eight-year interlude.

And so let me take E.J.’s column to shout out as forcefully as I can to my liberal Christian friends: enough! Enough with the double standards. Enough with condemning your adversaries, sometimes viciously, in a spirit that is markedly un-Christian. Enough with pretending that all the vices lie on one side rather than on both. Enough of the Manichaeism. Enough with the rigid ideology. Enough with the hypocrisy. Enough with pretending that you care about civility when what you really care about is advancing liberalism.

For a fellow who presumably doesn’t much care for finger-wagging moralists, E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Washington Post has gotten quite good at that role over the years.

In his column today, Dionne deals with the fall from grace of Rep. Mark Souder, who resigned after admitting to an affair with an aide, as an opportunity to “shout as forcefully as I can to my conservative Christian friends: Enough! … Enough with pretending that personal virtue is connected with political creeds. Enough with condemning your adversaries, sometimes viciously, and then insisting upon understanding after the failures of someone on your own side become known to the world.”

Dionne ends his column on Souder this way:

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It’s a scriptural passage that no doubt appeals to Mark Souder. But it would be lovely if conservative Christians remembered Jesus’ words not only when needing a lifeline but also when they are tempted to give speeches or send out mailers excoriating their political foes as permissive anti-family libertines. How many more scandals will it take for people who call themselves Christian to rediscover the virtues of humility and solidarity?

And wouldn’t it be lovely if liberal Christians remembered Jesus’s words when they were tempted, as the prominent liberal evangelical Jim Wallis has been, to say words excoriating their political foes as war criminals. I have in mind, for example, what Wallis said here:

I believe that Dick Cheney is a liar; that Donald Rumsfeld is also a liar; and that George W. Bush was, and is, clueless about how to be the president of the United States. … Almost 4,000 young Americans are dead because of the lies of this administration, tens of thousands more wounded and maimed for life, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also dead, and 400 billion dollars wasted — because of their lies, incompetence, and corruption.

But I don’t favor impeachment, as some have suggested. I would wait until after the election, when they are out of office, and then I would favor investigations of the top officials of the Bush administration on official deception, war crimes, and corruption charges. And if they are found guilty of these high crimes, I believe they should spend the rest of their lives in prison — after offering their repentance to every American family who has lost a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, or sister. Deliberately lying about going to war should not be forgiven.

It’s worth noting that Dionne has had glowing things to say about Wallis, going so far as comparing him to the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, or Isaiah — something that, on reflection, even E.J. must cringe at.

Mr. Wallis doesn’t exhaust the list of offenders, by any means. Take the case of Randall Balmer, an influential professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, an editor for Christianity Today, author of a dozen books, and Emmy Award nominee. In his book To Change the World, the sociologist James Davison Hunter writes that in Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament:

[Balmer’s] disdain for the Christian Right lead him to engage in name-calling that is as one-dimensional and dehumanizing as the most extreme voices of the Christian Right, labeling his opponents “right-wing zealots” and “bullies” and their followers “minions,” who together are “intolerant,” “vicious,” “militaristic,” “bloviating,” and theocratic. In this regard, his perspective also matches the Manichaeism of the most extreme voices of the Christian Right for there is no shade or nuance in his description of the political realities with which he is wrestling.

I don’t recall Dionne often, or ever, specifically taking on liberal evangelicals for their slashing rhetoric — to say nothing of the left’s often uncivil and vicious attacks against conservatives, from George W. Bush on down. (Some examples can be found here.) The Outrage Meter seems to have been out of commission during that brief eight-year interlude.

And so let me take E.J.’s column to shout out as forcefully as I can to my liberal Christian friends: enough! Enough with the double standards. Enough with condemning your adversaries, sometimes viciously, in a spirit that is markedly un-Christian. Enough with pretending that all the vices lie on one side rather than on both. Enough of the Manichaeism. Enough with the rigid ideology. Enough with the hypocrisy. Enough with pretending that you care about civility when what you really care about is advancing liberalism.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

A disappointment to leftist civil rights groups? “The issue of race is one reason some liberals fear Kagan’s confirmation would actually tug the court to the right, particularly on voting rights, immigration and racial profiling cases that could come before the justices.”

A coward on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism? “Holder, who last year called America ‘a nation of cowards’ for refusing to talk frankly about race, plainly didn’t want to say what is plain to everyone else, that Faisal Shahzad, back from five months in Waziristan, launched his terror attack because of his Islamist beliefs.”

A sign of the administration’s obliviousness? “[T]he State Department’s showcasing of the Dar al-Hijra Islamic Center in a film about Muslim life in America — despite the mosque’s longstanding ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, its virulent Islamist ideology, its support for the murderous Hamas organization, its notorious Islamist imams and elders (including al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki), and the ties of some of its worshippers to the 9/11 attacks and the Fort Hood massacre. Then, we learned that the federal government has struck a deal to pay Dar al-Hijra a whopping $582K just for this year (i.e., about one-tenth what it cost the Saudis to build the place), purportedly because the Census Bureau needs work space — y’know, because there are like no federal facilities anywhere near Falls Church, Virginia.”

A preview of what is to come? “A British chemicals firm is involved in a secret MI5 inquiry into the illegal export to Iran of material that could make a radioactive “dirty bomb”. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) raided the Essex home of the firm’s former sales manager after a tip that potentially lethal chemicals, including cobalt, were sold to Iran last summer.”

A reminder that Richard Goldstone had the choice not to facilitate evil? “Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, 70, who helped South Africa chart a peaceful way out of apartheid by leading fellow whites into talks with exiled black leaders, died May 14 at his home in Johannesburg after being treated for a liver-related complication, Reuters reported. … As a political figure, he symbolized the emergence of a new breed of Afrikaner: urbane, articulate and committed to racial equality. … Mr. Slabbert tried to lead, leaving behind an early career as a sociologist in academia to enter politics. He represented the Progressive Federal Party, a precursor to the current opposition Democratic Alliance, in parliament during the apartheid years. He resigned as party leader and left parliament in 1985, during a crackdown on black activists, saying the whites-only legislature was no longer relevant.”

A nail biter in the Democratic Pennsylvania primary? The last tracking poll had Joe Sestak and Arlen Specter tied at 44 percent each.

A character witness he (and the rest of us) could do without?: “Woody Allen has restated his support for fellow filmmaker Roman Polanski, who is in house arrest in connection with a 33-year-old sex scandal. Allen said Polanski ‘was embarrassed by the whole thing,’ ”has suffered’ and ‘has paid his dues.’ He said Polanski is ‘an artist and is a nice person’ who ‘did something wrong and he paid for it.'” I must have missed the jail time Polanski served for raping a 13-year-old.

A disappointment to leftist civil rights groups? “The issue of race is one reason some liberals fear Kagan’s confirmation would actually tug the court to the right, particularly on voting rights, immigration and racial profiling cases that could come before the justices.”

A coward on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism? “Holder, who last year called America ‘a nation of cowards’ for refusing to talk frankly about race, plainly didn’t want to say what is plain to everyone else, that Faisal Shahzad, back from five months in Waziristan, launched his terror attack because of his Islamist beliefs.”

A sign of the administration’s obliviousness? “[T]he State Department’s showcasing of the Dar al-Hijra Islamic Center in a film about Muslim life in America — despite the mosque’s longstanding ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, its virulent Islamist ideology, its support for the murderous Hamas organization, its notorious Islamist imams and elders (including al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki), and the ties of some of its worshippers to the 9/11 attacks and the Fort Hood massacre. Then, we learned that the federal government has struck a deal to pay Dar al-Hijra a whopping $582K just for this year (i.e., about one-tenth what it cost the Saudis to build the place), purportedly because the Census Bureau needs work space — y’know, because there are like no federal facilities anywhere near Falls Church, Virginia.”

A preview of what is to come? “A British chemicals firm is involved in a secret MI5 inquiry into the illegal export to Iran of material that could make a radioactive “dirty bomb”. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) raided the Essex home of the firm’s former sales manager after a tip that potentially lethal chemicals, including cobalt, were sold to Iran last summer.”

A reminder that Richard Goldstone had the choice not to facilitate evil? “Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, 70, who helped South Africa chart a peaceful way out of apartheid by leading fellow whites into talks with exiled black leaders, died May 14 at his home in Johannesburg after being treated for a liver-related complication, Reuters reported. … As a political figure, he symbolized the emergence of a new breed of Afrikaner: urbane, articulate and committed to racial equality. … Mr. Slabbert tried to lead, leaving behind an early career as a sociologist in academia to enter politics. He represented the Progressive Federal Party, a precursor to the current opposition Democratic Alliance, in parliament during the apartheid years. He resigned as party leader and left parliament in 1985, during a crackdown on black activists, saying the whites-only legislature was no longer relevant.”

A nail biter in the Democratic Pennsylvania primary? The last tracking poll had Joe Sestak and Arlen Specter tied at 44 percent each.

A character witness he (and the rest of us) could do without?: “Woody Allen has restated his support for fellow filmmaker Roman Polanski, who is in house arrest in connection with a 33-year-old sex scandal. Allen said Polanski ‘was embarrassed by the whole thing,’ ”has suffered’ and ‘has paid his dues.’ He said Polanski is ‘an artist and is a nice person’ who ‘did something wrong and he paid for it.'” I must have missed the jail time Polanski served for raping a 13-year-old.

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The Real Lindsay

A new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, a new book, and a new documentary (to air again on PBS May 12) comprise a joint project with the apparent aim of refurbishing the tarnished reputation of John Lindsay, who presided over the rapid decline of New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This attempted revisionism is reminiscent of the obituaries and press tributes that came Lindsay’s way on the occasion of his passing in December 2000, as the very media that created and nurtured Lindsay would, at the time of his death, seek to put the best possible face on a political career that ranged from the mediocre to the disastrous. How deep in the tank for Lindsay were the city’s leading media outlets? Ken Auletta, in The Streets Were Paved with Gold, his study of how New York nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, wrote:

The paper that thinks of itself as the city’s conscience — The New York Times — abdicated. … The editorial page editors of both [the Times and the then-liberal New York Post] were too close to Lindsay, serving as advisers. They were not only politically but ideologically coopted. They supported the city’s tax and spending policies. Instead of viewing what the city was doing as harshly as they would Defense Department cost overruns, they permitted their liberal ideology to sway their judgment.

In a telling anecdote in Fit to Print, a biography of former Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, author Joseph Goulden quotes a reporter named Douglas Robinson who witnessed something extraordinary on election night 1965: Rosenthal and deputy metropolitan editor, Arthur Gelb, “were dancing up and down as the returns came in showing a victory for Lindsay. ‘We won! We won!’ they were shouting.”

Of course, there are limits to what even the most accomplished revisionist can do with a record like Lindsay’s, and the Times, straining to find praise in an editorial the week of Lindsay’s death, was forced to acknowledge the realities of life under Lindsay:

There was continuing labor unrest, fiscal problems, rising taxes and crime, a tripling of the welfare rolls. During his tenure … the white middle and working classes felt increasingly alienated, especially when the mayor tried to build housing for poor blacks in the mostly Jewish, middle-class section of Forest Hills. … He even gets much of the legitimate blame for the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. Quite the indictment, all around.

Lindsay was an especially unloved figure in the city’s Jewish community, reviled by outer-borough Jews who blamed him for the city’s skyrocketing crime rate and his administration’s pandering to militants in minority communities.

As noted by sociologist Jonathan Rieder in Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism, when Lindsay ran for re-election in 1969, his share of the Jewish vote totaled between 30 and 36 percent in Canarsie’s most liberal areas and considerably less in other parts of what at the time was a quintessentially lower-middle-class neighborhood.

One of Rieder’s interviewees summed up the feelings of his friends and neighbors: “It was under John Lindsay,” he said, “that the Jewish community in New York suffered its greatest decline.”

A new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, a new book, and a new documentary (to air again on PBS May 12) comprise a joint project with the apparent aim of refurbishing the tarnished reputation of John Lindsay, who presided over the rapid decline of New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This attempted revisionism is reminiscent of the obituaries and press tributes that came Lindsay’s way on the occasion of his passing in December 2000, as the very media that created and nurtured Lindsay would, at the time of his death, seek to put the best possible face on a political career that ranged from the mediocre to the disastrous. How deep in the tank for Lindsay were the city’s leading media outlets? Ken Auletta, in The Streets Were Paved with Gold, his study of how New York nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s, wrote:

The paper that thinks of itself as the city’s conscience — The New York Times — abdicated. … The editorial page editors of both [the Times and the then-liberal New York Post] were too close to Lindsay, serving as advisers. They were not only politically but ideologically coopted. They supported the city’s tax and spending policies. Instead of viewing what the city was doing as harshly as they would Defense Department cost overruns, they permitted their liberal ideology to sway their judgment.

In a telling anecdote in Fit to Print, a biography of former Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal, author Joseph Goulden quotes a reporter named Douglas Robinson who witnessed something extraordinary on election night 1965: Rosenthal and deputy metropolitan editor, Arthur Gelb, “were dancing up and down as the returns came in showing a victory for Lindsay. ‘We won! We won!’ they were shouting.”

Of course, there are limits to what even the most accomplished revisionist can do with a record like Lindsay’s, and the Times, straining to find praise in an editorial the week of Lindsay’s death, was forced to acknowledge the realities of life under Lindsay:

There was continuing labor unrest, fiscal problems, rising taxes and crime, a tripling of the welfare rolls. During his tenure … the white middle and working classes felt increasingly alienated, especially when the mayor tried to build housing for poor blacks in the mostly Jewish, middle-class section of Forest Hills. … He even gets much of the legitimate blame for the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s. Quite the indictment, all around.

Lindsay was an especially unloved figure in the city’s Jewish community, reviled by outer-borough Jews who blamed him for the city’s skyrocketing crime rate and his administration’s pandering to militants in minority communities.

As noted by sociologist Jonathan Rieder in Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism, when Lindsay ran for re-election in 1969, his share of the Jewish vote totaled between 30 and 36 percent in Canarsie’s most liberal areas and considerably less in other parts of what at the time was a quintessentially lower-middle-class neighborhood.

One of Rieder’s interviewees summed up the feelings of his friends and neighbors: “It was under John Lindsay,” he said, “that the Jewish community in New York suffered its greatest decline.”

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The Liberal Moment?

Washington Post columnist and Georgetown professor E. J. Dionne has written a thoughtful essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education on what he calls “The Liberal Moment.” With one eye on the polls—which show plunging support for Republicans among the young, Hispanics, and independent voters—Dionne writes that “American liberals and the Left now have their greatest political opening since the 1960’s and their greatest opportunity to alter the philosophical direction of the public debate since the 1930’s.” He’s right. But will liberals be able actually to seize the opening?

Dionne invokes the late social scientist Michael Harrington, arguing that the Left must embrace a program that “will radically improve the conditions of life of everyone in the society,” because “the politics of noblesse oblige simply will not mobilize a majority that includes a very large number of people who are not poor yet are still suffering from relative deprivation.” But the very mechanism by which the Left once was able to accomplish those goals—Keynesian pump-priming—has been obviated by the globalization of economies. And today the most frequent and vitriolic attacks on attempts by Democrats to use market mechanisms to advance liberal goals come from the Democrats: specifically, from the netroots activists. (The netroots, in other words, bring to the Democratic party the same blind and destructive partisanship Dionne rightly condemns in Karl Rove.)

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Washington Post columnist and Georgetown professor E. J. Dionne has written a thoughtful essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education on what he calls “The Liberal Moment.” With one eye on the polls—which show plunging support for Republicans among the young, Hispanics, and independent voters—Dionne writes that “American liberals and the Left now have their greatest political opening since the 1960’s and their greatest opportunity to alter the philosophical direction of the public debate since the 1930’s.” He’s right. But will liberals be able actually to seize the opening?

Dionne invokes the late social scientist Michael Harrington, arguing that the Left must embrace a program that “will radically improve the conditions of life of everyone in the society,” because “the politics of noblesse oblige simply will not mobilize a majority that includes a very large number of people who are not poor yet are still suffering from relative deprivation.” But the very mechanism by which the Left once was able to accomplish those goals—Keynesian pump-priming—has been obviated by the globalization of economies. And today the most frequent and vitriolic attacks on attempts by Democrats to use market mechanisms to advance liberal goals come from the Democrats: specifically, from the netroots activists. (The netroots, in other words, bring to the Democratic party the same blind and destructive partisanship Dionne rightly condemns in Karl Rove.)

And while the Bush administration, as Dionne rightly notes, suffered serious setbacks when it pushed for more market-oriented social programs (such as privatizing social security), liberals need to ask themselves why it is that in the very areas where their policies are most dominant (such as New York, or Boston, or Los Angeles), the social order is the least egalitarian. As a group, they won’t reconsider a social security program/tax that’s not only regressive and a job killer, but far more onerous for the lower-middle class than the income tax. They come up similarly empty-handed on education, where the powerful NEA is wedded to failure, and no amount of new spending seems to be able to improve the outcome. Nor, as a group, do liberals seem to be able to come to grips with the Jihadist thread within Islam. In short, the failings of the Republicans notwithstanding, it’s hard to discern the basis for a liberal revival.

Columbia sociologist Todd Gitlin, commenting on Dionne’s article, insists that liberals and Democrats represent the “party of reason.” (Was it reason, then, that motivated MoveOn.org to call General Petraeus “General Betray-us” in a full-page New York Times ad?) As long as the Left is still capable of rhetoric like this, there is not likely to be a “Liberal Moment” in the sense that Dionne means—just a political opportunity for the Democrats. And I’d say that, as was the case with Bill Clinton, the success of any future Democratic administration will depend on the degree to which it can break with liberal dogma.

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Why We Remember Jerry Hadley

My fellow blogger Terry Teachout has already posted an apt expression of poignant regret at the news of the suicide of the American tenor Jerry Hadley, who shot himself at age 55. A career in music can be cruelly difficult, and many performers are worn down by the stresses and frustrations inherent to the profession. Yet classical musicians who commit suicide do so for different reasons, rarely linked to their choice of career.

Listeners to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts will recall how, in 1988, the Bulgarian-born singer and vocal coach Bantcho Bantchevsky (1906-1988), in failing health, threw himself off the balcony of the Met’s auditorium during an intermission between the 2nd and 3rd Acts of Verdi’s Macbeth, ending both that day’s performance and his own life. In 1994, the Duo Crommelynck—two married pianists, Patrick Crommelynck (1947-1994) and Taeko Kuwata (1945-1994)—committed double suicide after an apparent crisis in their relationship. A gifted Australian-born pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953), reportedly committed suicide after the death of his gay lover. The acclaimed Viennese-born conductor Georg Tintner (1917-1999), honored with a posthumous series of CD reissues from Naxos, leapt off the balcony of his apartment after a lengthy battle with cancer. Another conductor, Austria’s Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), whose performances have been reprinted by Music & Arts, killed himself after World War II, supposedly because, as a Hitler supporter, he feared the aftermath of the Nazi defeat . Meanwhile, the suicide of the modern German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) is ascribed to depression and eye problems , and the impoverished Czech-American composer Jaromír Weinberger (1896-1967), whose opera Schwanda the Bagpiper is available on Naxos, ended his life after being afflicted with brain cancer.

Still, suicide is a human problem, not a peculiarly musical or artistic one. French Jewish sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), in his treatise On Suicide, now available in a new translation by Robin Buss, confirms this assertion. Reading Durkheim, we may conclude that it is not prudent to venture instant guesses about the motives of a suicide, whether the unfortunate subject is a singer in decline, or a disappointed Nazi conductor.

It is best to recall Jerry Hadley for his bright lyric tenor, featured in a 1992 Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and available on Philips; or in a 1986 Schubert Mass No. 6 in E-Flat Major conducted by Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. Singing in English, Hadley was particularly forceful and self-assured in such CD’s as Weill’s Street Scene on Decca; Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Telarc; and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat on EMI. These CD’s furnish evidence of why we should remember Hadley’s life, instead of merely his tragic way of leaving it.

My fellow blogger Terry Teachout has already posted an apt expression of poignant regret at the news of the suicide of the American tenor Jerry Hadley, who shot himself at age 55. A career in music can be cruelly difficult, and many performers are worn down by the stresses and frustrations inherent to the profession. Yet classical musicians who commit suicide do so for different reasons, rarely linked to their choice of career.

Listeners to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts will recall how, in 1988, the Bulgarian-born singer and vocal coach Bantcho Bantchevsky (1906-1988), in failing health, threw himself off the balcony of the Met’s auditorium during an intermission between the 2nd and 3rd Acts of Verdi’s Macbeth, ending both that day’s performance and his own life. In 1994, the Duo Crommelynck—two married pianists, Patrick Crommelynck (1947-1994) and Taeko Kuwata (1945-1994)—committed double suicide after an apparent crisis in their relationship. A gifted Australian-born pianist, Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953), reportedly committed suicide after the death of his gay lover. The acclaimed Viennese-born conductor Georg Tintner (1917-1999), honored with a posthumous series of CD reissues from Naxos, leapt off the balcony of his apartment after a lengthy battle with cancer. Another conductor, Austria’s Oswald Kabasta (1896-1946), whose performances have been reprinted by Music & Arts, killed himself after World War II, supposedly because, as a Hitler supporter, he feared the aftermath of the Nazi defeat . Meanwhile, the suicide of the modern German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) is ascribed to depression and eye problems , and the impoverished Czech-American composer Jaromír Weinberger (1896-1967), whose opera Schwanda the Bagpiper is available on Naxos, ended his life after being afflicted with brain cancer.

Still, suicide is a human problem, not a peculiarly musical or artistic one. French Jewish sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), in his treatise On Suicide, now available in a new translation by Robin Buss, confirms this assertion. Reading Durkheim, we may conclude that it is not prudent to venture instant guesses about the motives of a suicide, whether the unfortunate subject is a singer in decline, or a disappointed Nazi conductor.

It is best to recall Jerry Hadley for his bright lyric tenor, featured in a 1992 Handel’s Messiah conducted by Sir Neville Marriner and available on Philips; or in a 1986 Schubert Mass No. 6 in E-Flat Major conducted by Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. Singing in English, Hadley was particularly forceful and self-assured in such CD’s as Weill’s Street Scene on Decca; Mendelssohn’s Elijah on Telarc; and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat on EMI. These CD’s furnish evidence of why we should remember Hadley’s life, instead of merely his tragic way of leaving it.

Read Less

Memory Deconstructed

It is unfortunate that, even as Americans have struggled with the form and meaning of the World Trade Center Memorial, they have mostly ignored similar efforts in other countries. Last week’s passing news interest in Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, which was defaced by vandals, might have provided useful lessons in what to avoid.

There was a brief spell of media curiosity when Peter Eisenman’s design for the Berlin memorial was approved in 1999, and another at its completion in May 2005. The only sustained media coverage came when it was learned that the company hired to apply an anti-graffiti coating to the memorial was a subsidiary of the firm that had manufactured the Zyklon B gas used in Nazi extermination camps. But this was a political story, and few, apart from architecture critics, have addressed the serious aesthetic questions raised by the memorial.

In fact, Eisenman has made a design that is peculiarly resistant to criticism. His memorial consists of 2,711 gray concrete pillars, closely spaced on a pitiless grid, and relieved only by the fluctuating heights of the pillars. Making my way through the geometric labyrinth on a recent visit, I experienced it in mortuary terms, as an abstract city of the dead. To criticize this funereal solemnity would seem disrespectful, like criticizing a cemetery for being a cemetery, and yet it must be asked if an allegory of symbolic tombstones was called for.

Eisenman achieved celebrity in the 1980’s as a champion of Deconstructivism, the architectural offshoot of the literary theory known as Deconstruction. Just as Deconstruction dismisses claims of truth and order as instruments for enforcing political power or social order, Deconstructivist architecture rejects all formal resolution. Buildings are designed to be open-ended, fragmentary, even absurd—as in Eisenman’s Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, with its celebrated flight of stairs that leads to a dead end. Such an architecture is intellectually equipped to depict the Holocaust as an expression of the meaninglessness of the universe, but it is scarcely able to assert anything higher. Such is the fundamental vacuity of the Berlin memorial.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has shown that remembrance of the dead has both private and civic dimensions—both of which can be accommodated in a single design. Its wall and incised names provide a focus of private grief while its sunken plaza acts as a public gathering place. Eisenman’s claustrophobic memorial, by contrast, is organized so that the narrow paths between the pillars permit only one visitor to squeeze through at a time; the experience must therefore be solitary. With no generous public space, no place for communal experience, the memorial enforces a kind of existential isolation.

It does this with ruthless efficiency to be sure—overwhelming the visitor by its scale, monotony, and harsh industrial textures—but it sets it sights on nothing higher than inducing the thrill of a vicarious anguish. It recalls what the sociologist Nathan Glazer said in another context: “He is attacking the awful by increasing the awfulness.”

It is unfortunate that, even as Americans have struggled with the form and meaning of the World Trade Center Memorial, they have mostly ignored similar efforts in other countries. Last week’s passing news interest in Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, which was defaced by vandals, might have provided useful lessons in what to avoid.

There was a brief spell of media curiosity when Peter Eisenman’s design for the Berlin memorial was approved in 1999, and another at its completion in May 2005. The only sustained media coverage came when it was learned that the company hired to apply an anti-graffiti coating to the memorial was a subsidiary of the firm that had manufactured the Zyklon B gas used in Nazi extermination camps. But this was a political story, and few, apart from architecture critics, have addressed the serious aesthetic questions raised by the memorial.

In fact, Eisenman has made a design that is peculiarly resistant to criticism. His memorial consists of 2,711 gray concrete pillars, closely spaced on a pitiless grid, and relieved only by the fluctuating heights of the pillars. Making my way through the geometric labyrinth on a recent visit, I experienced it in mortuary terms, as an abstract city of the dead. To criticize this funereal solemnity would seem disrespectful, like criticizing a cemetery for being a cemetery, and yet it must be asked if an allegory of symbolic tombstones was called for.

Eisenman achieved celebrity in the 1980’s as a champion of Deconstructivism, the architectural offshoot of the literary theory known as Deconstruction. Just as Deconstruction dismisses claims of truth and order as instruments for enforcing political power or social order, Deconstructivist architecture rejects all formal resolution. Buildings are designed to be open-ended, fragmentary, even absurd—as in Eisenman’s Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, with its celebrated flight of stairs that leads to a dead end. Such an architecture is intellectually equipped to depict the Holocaust as an expression of the meaninglessness of the universe, but it is scarcely able to assert anything higher. Such is the fundamental vacuity of the Berlin memorial.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has shown that remembrance of the dead has both private and civic dimensions—both of which can be accommodated in a single design. Its wall and incised names provide a focus of private grief while its sunken plaza acts as a public gathering place. Eisenman’s claustrophobic memorial, by contrast, is organized so that the narrow paths between the pillars permit only one visitor to squeeze through at a time; the experience must therefore be solitary. With no generous public space, no place for communal experience, the memorial enforces a kind of existential isolation.

It does this with ruthless efficiency to be sure—overwhelming the visitor by its scale, monotony, and harsh industrial textures—but it sets it sights on nothing higher than inducing the thrill of a vicarious anguish. It recalls what the sociologist Nathan Glazer said in another context: “He is attacking the awful by increasing the awfulness.”

Read Less

Bill Keller, Secret Agent

In 1978, back when I was working for him on Capitol Hill, Senator Pat Moynihan propounded what he called “the Iron Law of Emulation.” The basic idea was that organizations in conflict with one another come to resemble one another. Because he was drawing on the work of the 19th German sociologist Georg Simmel, some on his staff used to call it, somewhat mockingly, the Iron Law of Simmelation.

But Moynihan’s point was a good one. And today, with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on the witness stand in the trial of Scooter Libby, we can see the iron law at work in the fiercely adversarial relationship between the Times and the U.S. intelligence community.

The editors and reporters of the New York Times believe they are covering the CIA–and in fact they are–but they are also in competition with the spy agency and the resemblances between the two institutions are striking.

Both, to begin with, have a remarkably similar mission. The CIA is charged with trying to inform its clients (the White House and the rest of the executive branch) about the world around it: what is going on where, what are the looming dangers, what are the facts, and how do reliably do we know them? Much of what the New York Times does is precisely the same, except its client is not the government but the newspaper-buying American public.

Because they are caught up in certain characteristic American dysfunctions, both institutions carry out their functions with mixed results.

The CIA and the Times, for one thing, are both charter members of the cult of “diversity.” In 1995, the spy agency created an internal body called the Resources Oversight Council aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities,” leading the CIA to hire more Hispanics at the very moment when it really needed more Arabic speakers.

The Times has been doing something quite similar, and damage has demonstrably been done. In 2006 the paper announced with much fanfare that an internal body known as “the diversity council” had concluded that “diversity is essential to our business future and our journalism.” But the emphasis on diversity had been in place for decades, and it was to figure in one of the worst debacles (see below) the newspaper ever endured.

Like any large elite organization the CIA and the Times must contend with mediocrity creeping in and gumming up the works. Thus, the CIA has kept incompetents in its ranks, including “anonymous”–a.k.a. Michael Scheuer, its top expert on Osama bin Laden, who despite his insistence on always “checking the checkables,” has enormous difficulty spelling proper names and who characterized bin Laden as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.” And “gentle,” too.

The Times, for its part, keeps an impressive daily log of its errors, spelling and otherwise, which despite an army of editors, it cannot seem to contain. For more serious instances of bias and misinterpretation, one need only recall the reporting by Walter Duranty of Stalin’s show trials and artificial famine in the 1930’s, the placement of the Holocaust on the back pages during the 1940’s, its depiction of the North Vietnamese defeat in the Tet offensive as a major victory, or turn to watchdog outfits like CAMERA for an array of contemporary documentation.

Both institutions, over the years, have had worse than bad apples in their ranks. The CIA has suffered outright turncoats like Soviet mole Aldrich Ames, who despite internal evaluations of egregious misbehavior was steadily promoted upward until he was in a position to give away the CIA’s most precious assets.

The New York Times has had its outright traitors, too, like the diversity-hire Jayson Blair, whose fictional reporting the paper was to call “a profound betrayal of trust.” During his five-year career progressing from intern to national reporter, the management of the Times received numerous warnings that the rising star was actually a comet waiting to crash. Despite such cautions, Blair steadily advanced, like Aldrich Ames, eventually reducing the Times to what it itself called “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

But in both institutions, it is not deliberate bad faith that typically creates malfunction but something else. The CIA notoriously failed to foresee the attacks of September 11 and then issued an erroneous “slam-dunk” assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The problem was simply that agency analysts placed too much stock in Iraqi émigré sources who were telling them what they wanted to hear. The New York Times’s credulous treatment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal fell into the same trap.

Judith Miller was front and center. In reporting on Saddam’s burgeoning (but non-existent) WMD program, she too placed too much faith in sources who were telling her what she wanted to hear. Strikingly, in both cases, the chain of command in the CIA and the New York Times failed to ask critical questions, which only became utterly obvious–and the subject of much sanctimonious handwringing–in the incandescent glow of hindsight.

Ironically, one of the factors underpinning such maladaptive behavior is that both institutions operate behind a veil of secrecy. The CIA assiduously keeps both its methods of intelligence gathering and its internal deliberations under wraps: sources and methods, in particular, are treated as ultra-sensitive matters, disclosure of which is punishable by law.

So too with the New York Times, which, even as it calls for greater openness by the U.S. government jealously conceals its own internal workings. As with the CIA, sources and methods are treated by the Times as a matter of extraordinary sensitivity, with some of its operatives ready and willing to go to jail (Judith Miller once again!) rather than reveal who has told them what.

All of which makes the Scooter Libby trial so very compelling. A window is being opened into the internal operations of news- and intelligence-gathering at once. It is only confirming that in many of their essentials, and despite the loud protestations such a claim would elicit from both sides, the iron law of emulation holds. The Times and the CIA are becoming more similar with each passing year.

To apply for employment with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, click here.

To apply for employment as a New York Times‘s reporter, editor, or deliveryman, click here.

In 1978, back when I was working for him on Capitol Hill, Senator Pat Moynihan propounded what he called “the Iron Law of Emulation.” The basic idea was that organizations in conflict with one another come to resemble one another. Because he was drawing on the work of the 19th German sociologist Georg Simmel, some on his staff used to call it, somewhat mockingly, the Iron Law of Simmelation.

But Moynihan’s point was a good one. And today, with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on the witness stand in the trial of Scooter Libby, we can see the iron law at work in the fiercely adversarial relationship between the Times and the U.S. intelligence community.

The editors and reporters of the New York Times believe they are covering the CIA–and in fact they are–but they are also in competition with the spy agency and the resemblances between the two institutions are striking.

Both, to begin with, have a remarkably similar mission. The CIA is charged with trying to inform its clients (the White House and the rest of the executive branch) about the world around it: what is going on where, what are the looming dangers, what are the facts, and how do reliably do we know them? Much of what the New York Times does is precisely the same, except its client is not the government but the newspaper-buying American public.

Because they are caught up in certain characteristic American dysfunctions, both institutions carry out their functions with mixed results.

The CIA and the Times, for one thing, are both charter members of the cult of “diversity.” In 1995, the spy agency created an internal body called the Resources Oversight Council aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities,” leading the CIA to hire more Hispanics at the very moment when it really needed more Arabic speakers.

The Times has been doing something quite similar, and damage has demonstrably been done. In 2006 the paper announced with much fanfare that an internal body known as “the diversity council” had concluded that “diversity is essential to our business future and our journalism.” But the emphasis on diversity had been in place for decades, and it was to figure in one of the worst debacles (see below) the newspaper ever endured.

Like any large elite organization the CIA and the Times must contend with mediocrity creeping in and gumming up the works. Thus, the CIA has kept incompetents in its ranks, including “anonymous”–a.k.a. Michael Scheuer, its top expert on Osama bin Laden, who despite his insistence on always “checking the checkables,” has enormous difficulty spelling proper names and who characterized bin Laden as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.” And “gentle,” too.

The Times, for its part, keeps an impressive daily log of its errors, spelling and otherwise, which despite an army of editors, it cannot seem to contain. For more serious instances of bias and misinterpretation, one need only recall the reporting by Walter Duranty of Stalin’s show trials and artificial famine in the 1930’s, the placement of the Holocaust on the back pages during the 1940’s, its depiction of the North Vietnamese defeat in the Tet offensive as a major victory, or turn to watchdog outfits like CAMERA for an array of contemporary documentation.

Both institutions, over the years, have had worse than bad apples in their ranks. The CIA has suffered outright turncoats like Soviet mole Aldrich Ames, who despite internal evaluations of egregious misbehavior was steadily promoted upward until he was in a position to give away the CIA’s most precious assets.

The New York Times has had its outright traitors, too, like the diversity-hire Jayson Blair, whose fictional reporting the paper was to call “a profound betrayal of trust.” During his five-year career progressing from intern to national reporter, the management of the Times received numerous warnings that the rising star was actually a comet waiting to crash. Despite such cautions, Blair steadily advanced, like Aldrich Ames, eventually reducing the Times to what it itself called “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

But in both institutions, it is not deliberate bad faith that typically creates malfunction but something else. The CIA notoriously failed to foresee the attacks of September 11 and then issued an erroneous “slam-dunk” assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The problem was simply that agency analysts placed too much stock in Iraqi émigré sources who were telling them what they wanted to hear. The New York Times’s credulous treatment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal fell into the same trap.

Judith Miller was front and center. In reporting on Saddam’s burgeoning (but non-existent) WMD program, she too placed too much faith in sources who were telling her what she wanted to hear. Strikingly, in both cases, the chain of command in the CIA and the New York Times failed to ask critical questions, which only became utterly obvious–and the subject of much sanctimonious handwringing–in the incandescent glow of hindsight.

Ironically, one of the factors underpinning such maladaptive behavior is that both institutions operate behind a veil of secrecy. The CIA assiduously keeps both its methods of intelligence gathering and its internal deliberations under wraps: sources and methods, in particular, are treated as ultra-sensitive matters, disclosure of which is punishable by law.

So too with the New York Times, which, even as it calls for greater openness by the U.S. government jealously conceals its own internal workings. As with the CIA, sources and methods are treated by the Times as a matter of extraordinary sensitivity, with some of its operatives ready and willing to go to jail (Judith Miller once again!) rather than reveal who has told them what.

All of which makes the Scooter Libby trial so very compelling. A window is being opened into the internal operations of news- and intelligence-gathering at once. It is only confirming that in many of their essentials, and despite the loud protestations such a claim would elicit from both sides, the iron law of emulation holds. The Times and the CIA are becoming more similar with each passing year.

To apply for employment with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, click here.

To apply for employment as a New York Times‘s reporter, editor, or deliveryman, click here.

Read Less




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