Commentary Magazine


Topic: Stalin

Doubling Down on the War on Ann Romney

Michelle Goldberg just doesn’t know how to quit when she’s behind. The Daily Beast pundit dug herself a deep hole on MSNBC on Sunday when she made an astonishing comparison between an innocuous Ann Romney op-ed about Mother’s Day and the policies of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Predictably, that whopper drew attention to her bad judgment as well as a desire on the left to smear the Romneys. But rather than merely admit that her analogy was inappropriate and move on, Goldberg is guilty of the same fault that she accuses the candidate’s wife of committing: trying to make herself a victim.

In her column about the incident, Goldberg refuses to apologize and puts the controversy down as just another Twitter-era fake controversy that Romney is exploiting. But before we buy into that attempt to weasel out of this, it might be apt to ponder exactly what Goldberg and the entire mainstream media would be saying if a conservative talking head on one of the cable TV networks compared Michelle Obama to Hitler and Stalin for praising motherhood of all things. However, Goldberg’s decision to air her animus for Mrs. Romney again shows that her problem goes deeper than forgetting the person who first mentions Hitler and Stalin in a debate almost always is the loser.

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Michelle Goldberg just doesn’t know how to quit when she’s behind. The Daily Beast pundit dug herself a deep hole on MSNBC on Sunday when she made an astonishing comparison between an innocuous Ann Romney op-ed about Mother’s Day and the policies of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Predictably, that whopper drew attention to her bad judgment as well as a desire on the left to smear the Romneys. But rather than merely admit that her analogy was inappropriate and move on, Goldberg is guilty of the same fault that she accuses the candidate’s wife of committing: trying to make herself a victim.

In her column about the incident, Goldberg refuses to apologize and puts the controversy down as just another Twitter-era fake controversy that Romney is exploiting. But before we buy into that attempt to weasel out of this, it might be apt to ponder exactly what Goldberg and the entire mainstream media would be saying if a conservative talking head on one of the cable TV networks compared Michelle Obama to Hitler and Stalin for praising motherhood of all things. However, Goldberg’s decision to air her animus for Mrs. Romney again shows that her problem goes deeper than forgetting the person who first mentions Hitler and Stalin in a debate almost always is the loser.

Goldberg complains that the outrage about the incident was feigned. But that is no truer than the Democrats’ crocodile tears for Seamus the dog’s rooftop ride to Canada or the boy Mitt Romney may have hazed in high school 47 years ago. She also complains that many of the comments made about her gaffe on Twitter and e-mail are rude. No doubt they are, but for someone who writes on the Internet to complain about that sort of thing is pretty weak. As anyone who does this for a living knows, anything one writes, no matter how bland the topic, may provoke nasty comments.

But Goldberg’s not apologizing for a reason. What she resents about Ann Romney is her ability to undermine the Democratic theme of a fake Republican war on women. It that quality that is frustrating the left:

For the record, I don’t believe that Ann Romney is either Hitleresque or Stalinesque. Rather, I think she is a calculating political wife who once struck me as fairly likeable, but who is now determined to play up the idea that’s she’s being victimized for being a stay-at-home mom. Her op-ed was part of that effort. Unfortunately, if the messages I received on Monday are any indication, it’s an effort I might have assisted.

While I don’t think anyone ever accused Goldberg of being a brilliant political observer, trying to gin up an effort to portray a woman as generally admired as Ann Romney as a political villain is about as dumb an idea as has come down the pike in a long time.

As I wrote earlier today, polls seem to indicate that the voters aren’t buying the war on women as a substitute for a defense of President Obama’s failed economic policies. Neither is the war on Ann Romney.

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Why Hitler’s Palestinian Ally Still Matters

WikiLeaks isn’t the only source of interesting government documents. On Friday, the National Archives published a report about American efforts to recruit former Nazis to help intelligence efforts during the Cold War. This is familiar territory for those familiar with the period. While war has always made for strange bedfellows (such as the necessity of the wartime alliance with Stalin against Hitler), the willingness of the United States government to employ all sorts of Nazi criminals to combat the Soviets is a sorry chapter in our history.

Nevertheless, included in this report was some fascinating material about one particular Nazi war criminal whose historical legacy lives on today: Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The willingness of Husseini, the putative leader of Palestinian Arab nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, to collaborate with the Nazis has long been established and has been the subject of more scholarly scrutiny in recent years. However, this report does help fill in some of the details about the extent of the mufti’s relationship with Berlin.

Among the interesting tidbits: the mufti who did Nazi propaganda broadcasts to the Islamic world and helped recruit a Bosnian Muslim brigade for the SS was on Hitler’s payroll and actually paid twice the salary received by German field marshals. More chilling was Hitler’s promise that he would install Husseini as the head of a Palestinian state after the planned German conquest of the Middle East and the extermination of the hundreds of thousands of Jews then in the British Mandate for Palestine. The report also details the way French and British intelligence allowed the mufti to flee his European hideouts and return to the Middle East in order to carry on his war against the Jews.

While this may seem like ancient history to observers of the contemporary Middle East, the mufti’s relevance to the political culture of the Palestinians should not be underestimated. His rejection of any accommodation with the Jews and his embrace of the crudest anti-Semitic slurs, which deliberately echo Nazi themes, is still felt today, what with even the supposedly “moderate” Palestinian Authority engaging in similar anti-Jewish incitement and hatred. So long as Hitler’s faithful Muslim ally remains a role model for Palestinians, peace is a long way off.

WikiLeaks isn’t the only source of interesting government documents. On Friday, the National Archives published a report about American efforts to recruit former Nazis to help intelligence efforts during the Cold War. This is familiar territory for those familiar with the period. While war has always made for strange bedfellows (such as the necessity of the wartime alliance with Stalin against Hitler), the willingness of the United States government to employ all sorts of Nazi criminals to combat the Soviets is a sorry chapter in our history.

Nevertheless, included in this report was some fascinating material about one particular Nazi war criminal whose historical legacy lives on today: Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The willingness of Husseini, the putative leader of Palestinian Arab nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, to collaborate with the Nazis has long been established and has been the subject of more scholarly scrutiny in recent years. However, this report does help fill in some of the details about the extent of the mufti’s relationship with Berlin.

Among the interesting tidbits: the mufti who did Nazi propaganda broadcasts to the Islamic world and helped recruit a Bosnian Muslim brigade for the SS was on Hitler’s payroll and actually paid twice the salary received by German field marshals. More chilling was Hitler’s promise that he would install Husseini as the head of a Palestinian state after the planned German conquest of the Middle East and the extermination of the hundreds of thousands of Jews then in the British Mandate for Palestine. The report also details the way French and British intelligence allowed the mufti to flee his European hideouts and return to the Middle East in order to carry on his war against the Jews.

While this may seem like ancient history to observers of the contemporary Middle East, the mufti’s relevance to the political culture of the Palestinians should not be underestimated. His rejection of any accommodation with the Jews and his embrace of the crudest anti-Semitic slurs, which deliberately echo Nazi themes, is still felt today, what with even the supposedly “moderate” Palestinian Authority engaging in similar anti-Jewish incitement and hatred. So long as Hitler’s faithful Muslim ally remains a role model for Palestinians, peace is a long way off.

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Saudi Glasnost Cities Illustrate Tyranny’s Dilemma

Is it possible for a tyrannical system to modernize its society and economy while keeping its people in check? In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev tried and failed to save the Soviet Union for Communism by such an effort. Nevertheless, with help from Western businesses (of whom George Will once rightly said that they “loved commerce more than they loathed communism”), the gerontocracy that ruled Communist China succeeded in transforming the economy of its country while maintaining an iron grip on power in the world’s most populous nation.

But as difficult as such changes are for secular ideological tyrannies, the challenge is even greater for those ruled by religion. And that is the dilemma faced by Saudi Arabia. Yesterday’s New York Times unveiled the plans for four new cities to be built in the Arabian desert whose purpose is to provide an outlet for the growing population of educated but underemployed Saudis. The cities, the first of which is to bear the catchy name of King Abdullah Economic City, are, as the Times notes, a dreary throwback to previous planned cities such as Brasilia or the urban monstrosities built by the Soviets in the 1930s. But the purpose of these cities is more reminiscent of Gorbachev’s glasnost than Stalin’s experiments. The Saudis want them to be places where a less-repressive form of Islam than the fanatical brand of Wahhabism that is the norm in the rest of the country will exist. They hope that the slight openings to freedom that will supposedly blossom there will satisfy their restive people and boost their economy without threatening the monarchy or the Islamist faith that has been an indispensable element in their regime’s hold on power.

But, as the article relates, the difficulties of opening the slightest crack toward a free society are enormous. Once the floodgates of freedom are even slightly ajar, it is hard to hold back the forces of change. That is why it is unlikely that much will come of this development in terms of real reform.

Those who deplore or fear the spread of democracy in the Arab world rightly note that the only current alternative to authoritarian regimes like the Saudi monarchy is an even more repressive Islamist movement. But the creation of institutions in which Islamist rules don’t always apply and that engineer a modern economy might mean that more liberal forces will appear.

The strength of religious extremism in Saudi Arabia may make that a pipe dream. Nevertheless, the Arabs deserve something better their current choices, in which the repressed anger of the people is always wrongly focused on outside forces, such as the West or Israel.

Is it possible for a tyrannical system to modernize its society and economy while keeping its people in check? In the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev tried and failed to save the Soviet Union for Communism by such an effort. Nevertheless, with help from Western businesses (of whom George Will once rightly said that they “loved commerce more than they loathed communism”), the gerontocracy that ruled Communist China succeeded in transforming the economy of its country while maintaining an iron grip on power in the world’s most populous nation.

But as difficult as such changes are for secular ideological tyrannies, the challenge is even greater for those ruled by religion. And that is the dilemma faced by Saudi Arabia. Yesterday’s New York Times unveiled the plans for four new cities to be built in the Arabian desert whose purpose is to provide an outlet for the growing population of educated but underemployed Saudis. The cities, the first of which is to bear the catchy name of King Abdullah Economic City, are, as the Times notes, a dreary throwback to previous planned cities such as Brasilia or the urban monstrosities built by the Soviets in the 1930s. But the purpose of these cities is more reminiscent of Gorbachev’s glasnost than Stalin’s experiments. The Saudis want them to be places where a less-repressive form of Islam than the fanatical brand of Wahhabism that is the norm in the rest of the country will exist. They hope that the slight openings to freedom that will supposedly blossom there will satisfy their restive people and boost their economy without threatening the monarchy or the Islamist faith that has been an indispensable element in their regime’s hold on power.

But, as the article relates, the difficulties of opening the slightest crack toward a free society are enormous. Once the floodgates of freedom are even slightly ajar, it is hard to hold back the forces of change. That is why it is unlikely that much will come of this development in terms of real reform.

Those who deplore or fear the spread of democracy in the Arab world rightly note that the only current alternative to authoritarian regimes like the Saudi monarchy is an even more repressive Islamist movement. But the creation of institutions in which Islamist rules don’t always apply and that engineer a modern economy might mean that more liberal forces will appear.

The strength of religious extremism in Saudi Arabia may make that a pipe dream. Nevertheless, the Arabs deserve something better their current choices, in which the repressed anger of the people is always wrongly focused on outside forces, such as the West or Israel.

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Reading Roger Cohen’s Mind Is Easier Than Reading His Columns

Back in November of 2007, not long after Roger Cohen joined the roster of op-ed pundits at the New York Times, Jack Shafer, the media critic at Slate, took the columnist apart in a piece in which he skewered him for his laziness, lame clichés, and generally bad writing. Cohen’s predilection for tired journalistic tropes prompted Shafer to wonder whether he was paying the Scotty Reston estate royalties for using the same pompous copy the ancient Times institution employed in its pages decades ago.

Since then, Cohen has at least showed some creativity. After all, no ordinary mediocrity would have the chutzpah to spend weeks in Iran and then claim that interviews with some of the intimidated remnants of that country’s Jewish community (conducted in the presence of government minders and translators) proved that the Islamist tyranny wasn’t so bad after all. Whitewashing an anti-Semitic regime may have been despicable and hearkened back to the worst sort of propaganda journalism in the tradition of Stalin apologist Walter Duranty — but it did require some effort.

But, alas, after his exertions in Iran last year and a steady stream of convoluted columns blasting Israel and his critics, Cohen is back to the same sort of lazy, stupid writing that struck Shafer as evidence of his utter incompetence. Today, he returns to what Shafer aptly called the “threadbare cliché of constructing [a] piece as a faux conversation or speech” in which he presents a fake monologue titled “Reading Sarkozy’s Mind” from inside the head of French President Nicholas Sarkozy. This sort of shtick was stale twenty years ago when William Safire regularly employed it in the Times but at least that able wordsmith usually managed to execute such columns with a modicum of wit. The genre was further degraded by the wise-aleck versions of this cliché written by Thomas Friedman. Those were bad enough. But get a load of the following prose from Cohen, purporting to be the thoughts of Sarkozy:

“And Iran. Ooh la la! All these advisers telling me Khamenei is not Ahmadinejad and Ahmadinejad is not Larijani. C’est du baloney! Du pur baloney!”

or

“So I tell Barack to be firm. And he says, Nicolas, we need the Chinese. The Chinese! I’m a trained lawyer and I tell him, Barack, I could bill you beaucoup hours while you wait for the Middle Kingdom! Barack’s a good guy. He’s learning. The press portrays us as two fighting cocks! C’est du twaddle!”

Does Cohen really think this is funny? Insightful? It’s not a matter of him being right or wrong about Sarkozy or Obama but rather that he is floundering around trying desperately to pound out a column no matter how bad it might be. There’s no point trying to parse such pieces for the value of Cohen’s opinions, as all they are is evidence that the columnist has run out of ideas. In such cases, it’s not just that the internal editor that every writer must have is absent, but that the actual editors at the Times who are responsible for publishing such trash are also missing in action. As Shafer wrote in 2007, there ought to be a law against such bad writing.

Back in November of 2007, not long after Roger Cohen joined the roster of op-ed pundits at the New York Times, Jack Shafer, the media critic at Slate, took the columnist apart in a piece in which he skewered him for his laziness, lame clichés, and generally bad writing. Cohen’s predilection for tired journalistic tropes prompted Shafer to wonder whether he was paying the Scotty Reston estate royalties for using the same pompous copy the ancient Times institution employed in its pages decades ago.

Since then, Cohen has at least showed some creativity. After all, no ordinary mediocrity would have the chutzpah to spend weeks in Iran and then claim that interviews with some of the intimidated remnants of that country’s Jewish community (conducted in the presence of government minders and translators) proved that the Islamist tyranny wasn’t so bad after all. Whitewashing an anti-Semitic regime may have been despicable and hearkened back to the worst sort of propaganda journalism in the tradition of Stalin apologist Walter Duranty — but it did require some effort.

But, alas, after his exertions in Iran last year and a steady stream of convoluted columns blasting Israel and his critics, Cohen is back to the same sort of lazy, stupid writing that struck Shafer as evidence of his utter incompetence. Today, he returns to what Shafer aptly called the “threadbare cliché of constructing [a] piece as a faux conversation or speech” in which he presents a fake monologue titled “Reading Sarkozy’s Mind” from inside the head of French President Nicholas Sarkozy. This sort of shtick was stale twenty years ago when William Safire regularly employed it in the Times but at least that able wordsmith usually managed to execute such columns with a modicum of wit. The genre was further degraded by the wise-aleck versions of this cliché written by Thomas Friedman. Those were bad enough. But get a load of the following prose from Cohen, purporting to be the thoughts of Sarkozy:

“And Iran. Ooh la la! All these advisers telling me Khamenei is not Ahmadinejad and Ahmadinejad is not Larijani. C’est du baloney! Du pur baloney!”

or

“So I tell Barack to be firm. And he says, Nicolas, we need the Chinese. The Chinese! I’m a trained lawyer and I tell him, Barack, I could bill you beaucoup hours while you wait for the Middle Kingdom! Barack’s a good guy. He’s learning. The press portrays us as two fighting cocks! C’est du twaddle!”

Does Cohen really think this is funny? Insightful? It’s not a matter of him being right or wrong about Sarkozy or Obama but rather that he is floundering around trying desperately to pound out a column no matter how bad it might be. There’s no point trying to parse such pieces for the value of Cohen’s opinions, as all they are is evidence that the columnist has run out of ideas. In such cases, it’s not just that the internal editor that every writer must have is absent, but that the actual editors at the Times who are responsible for publishing such trash are also missing in action. As Shafer wrote in 2007, there ought to be a law against such bad writing.

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Ridiculous Writings on Totalitarian Countries

I don’t know why, but I am still amazed by the credulity of some reporters. In researching my history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism (tentatively titled Invisible Armies), I have been running across some startling quotes from Western journalists who visited Communist-held areas of China in the 1930s and ‘40s. Sample:

The Chinese Communists are not Communists — not according to the Russian definition of the term. They do not, at the present time, either advocate or practice Communism…. Today the  Chinese Communists are no more Communistic than we Americans are.

That’s from the 1945 book, Report from Red China, written by the photojournalist Harrison Forman. He took seriously Mao Zedong’s statements to him that “we are not striving for the social and political Communism of Soviet Russia. Rather, we prefer to think of what we are doing as something that Lincoln fought for in your Civil War: the liberation of slaves. In China today, we have many millions of slaves, shackled by feudalism.” He also reported uncritically about Mao’s vow that the Communists would not establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and would instead set up a “democratic government” that would include “landlords, merchants, capitalists, and petit bourgeois as well as peasants and workers.” Apparently, Forman was unaware of the bloody campaigns the Communists had already carried out against “landlords” and “rich peasants.” Forman couldn’t understand why Mao didn’t change the party’s name to “Neo-Democracy” or “Democraticism” or “some such” name! (Mao’s canny non-reply: “If we were to change suddenly to some other name, there are those in China today — and abroad, too — who would make capital out of it, would accuse us of trying to cover up something.”)

And then, of course, there was the infamous Edgar Snow, whose Red Star Over China (1938) introduced Mao & Co. to much of the world — including to much of China.  Snow actually thought Mao, who would become arguably history’s worst mass-murder, was “a moderating influence in the Communist movement where life and death were concerned.”

This is hardly an isolated phenomenon, given how many boosters Stalin and Castro, Ho Chi Minh and even Pol Pot had among the Western press corps. The tradition continues today with some prominent writers (like Roger Cohen of the New York Times) offering apologetics on behalf of Iran, while his colleague, Tom Friedman, exalts China’s current lack of democracy. Someday, I trust their writings will be as ridiculed as Forman’s and Snow’s deserve to be.

I don’t know why, but I am still amazed by the credulity of some reporters. In researching my history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism (tentatively titled Invisible Armies), I have been running across some startling quotes from Western journalists who visited Communist-held areas of China in the 1930s and ‘40s. Sample:

The Chinese Communists are not Communists — not according to the Russian definition of the term. They do not, at the present time, either advocate or practice Communism…. Today the  Chinese Communists are no more Communistic than we Americans are.

That’s from the 1945 book, Report from Red China, written by the photojournalist Harrison Forman. He took seriously Mao Zedong’s statements to him that “we are not striving for the social and political Communism of Soviet Russia. Rather, we prefer to think of what we are doing as something that Lincoln fought for in your Civil War: the liberation of slaves. In China today, we have many millions of slaves, shackled by feudalism.” He also reported uncritically about Mao’s vow that the Communists would not establish a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and would instead set up a “democratic government” that would include “landlords, merchants, capitalists, and petit bourgeois as well as peasants and workers.” Apparently, Forman was unaware of the bloody campaigns the Communists had already carried out against “landlords” and “rich peasants.” Forman couldn’t understand why Mao didn’t change the party’s name to “Neo-Democracy” or “Democraticism” or “some such” name! (Mao’s canny non-reply: “If we were to change suddenly to some other name, there are those in China today — and abroad, too — who would make capital out of it, would accuse us of trying to cover up something.”)

And then, of course, there was the infamous Edgar Snow, whose Red Star Over China (1938) introduced Mao & Co. to much of the world — including to much of China.  Snow actually thought Mao, who would become arguably history’s worst mass-murder, was “a moderating influence in the Communist movement where life and death were concerned.”

This is hardly an isolated phenomenon, given how many boosters Stalin and Castro, Ho Chi Minh and even Pol Pot had among the Western press corps. The tradition continues today with some prominent writers (like Roger Cohen of the New York Times) offering apologetics on behalf of Iran, while his colleague, Tom Friedman, exalts China’s current lack of democracy. Someday, I trust their writings will be as ridiculed as Forman’s and Snow’s deserve to be.

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Stone Drops Rock on China

Today, Christian Dior announced it is removing its advertisements in China featuring Sharon Stone “due to some customer reaction.” The French fashion house also released an apology from the star: “Due to my inappropriate words and acts during the interview, I feel deeply sorry and sad about hurting Chinese people.”

And how did the “Basic Instinct” actress manage to do that? “I’m not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don’t think anyone should be unkind to anyone else,” she said last week at Cannes. “And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened and I thought: Is that karma, when you are not nice that the bad things happen to you?”

Ms. Stone, by making her remarks, joins a long list of people who are not considered good friends of China. In fact, she is not a good friend of anyone, at least according to Beijing’s Xinhua News Agency. The official media outlet today called her the “public enemy of all mankind.” Stone’s words may have been ill-considered–the quake struck a predominately Tibetan area. But they hardly put the actress in the same league as, say, Hitler, Stalin, or–dare I day it?–Mao.

I was sad to see Sharon Stone retract her comments. She was, after all, only expressing heartfelt (if confused) sentiments about abhorrent leaders. Although Beijing has been successful in intimidating virtually every world leader these days, it cannot change people’s innate sense of right and wrong. If there is any justice in this world-and I for one believe there is-events will eventually hold Chinese autocrats to account. It may not be karmic, but it will happen nonetheless.

Today, Christian Dior announced it is removing its advertisements in China featuring Sharon Stone “due to some customer reaction.” The French fashion house also released an apology from the star: “Due to my inappropriate words and acts during the interview, I feel deeply sorry and sad about hurting Chinese people.”

And how did the “Basic Instinct” actress manage to do that? “I’m not happy about the way the Chinese are treating the Tibetans because I don’t think anyone should be unkind to anyone else,” she said last week at Cannes. “And then all this earthquake and all this stuff happened and I thought: Is that karma, when you are not nice that the bad things happen to you?”

Ms. Stone, by making her remarks, joins a long list of people who are not considered good friends of China. In fact, she is not a good friend of anyone, at least according to Beijing’s Xinhua News Agency. The official media outlet today called her the “public enemy of all mankind.” Stone’s words may have been ill-considered–the quake struck a predominately Tibetan area. But they hardly put the actress in the same league as, say, Hitler, Stalin, or–dare I day it?–Mao.

I was sad to see Sharon Stone retract her comments. She was, after all, only expressing heartfelt (if confused) sentiments about abhorrent leaders. Although Beijing has been successful in intimidating virtually every world leader these days, it cannot change people’s innate sense of right and wrong. If there is any justice in this world-and I for one believe there is-events will eventually hold Chinese autocrats to account. It may not be karmic, but it will happen nonetheless.

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Bookshelf: The Best of 2007

I’ve been reviewing books in this space for the past year, and instead of telling you about a new one this week, I thought I’d remind you of five of the ones I enjoyed most in 2007:

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95) is the best short book about Shakespeare that I know. Instead of writing about the plays, Bryson has chosen instead to concentrate on summarizing the known facts of Shakespeare’s life—of which there are precious few—and presenting them in a lively, literate manner.

• Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) will doubtless be self-recommending to regular readers of COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard. It contains a wide-ranging selection of the familiar and literary essays that Epstein has published there and elsewhere in recent years, and like all his other books, it’s chatty, thoughtful and so irresistibly readable that the wise man will take care not to pick it up unless he has a free evening ahead of him.

• Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24) is a witty semi-memoir in which the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces tells us what it’s like to visit Lincoln-related sites and events throughout America. His adventures and misadventures among the Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters are hugely amusing, but don’t let the one-liners throw you off the scent: Land of Lincoln is a deeply thoughtful consideration of Abraham Lincoln’s increasingly problematic place in postmodern American culture.

• Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35) is a near-indescribable book whose virtues, like those of Land of Lincoln, are partially obscured by the fact that it’s so hard to pigeonhole. The best I can do is to quote myself:

[I]t’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them twentieth-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them.

Rarely has so gloomy a subject been written about with such infectious gusto. Don’t expect James to toe the right-of-center line, but the hard common sense with which he weighs the intellectual follies of the Low, Dishonest Century is arguably even more refreshing to hear from a littérateur of the center-left.

• Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter, 118 pp., $20) is an extended essay in which the noted philosopher makes the case for the primacy of Western culture at a moment when much of the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project. It is short, pointed, lucid, compelling and disturbing. Think of it as a stocking-stuffer for pessimists and you won’t be far wrong.

See you in 2008!

I’ve been reviewing books in this space for the past year, and instead of telling you about a new one this week, I thought I’d remind you of five of the ones I enjoyed most in 2007:

• Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage (HarperCollins, 208 pp., $19.95) is the best short book about Shakespeare that I know. Instead of writing about the plays, Bryson has chosen instead to concentrate on summarizing the known facts of Shakespeare’s life—of which there are precious few—and presenting them in a lively, literate manner.

• Joseph Epstein’s In a Cardboard Belt! (Houghton Mifflin, 410 pp., $26) will doubtless be self-recommending to regular readers of COMMENTARY and the Weekly Standard. It contains a wide-ranging selection of the familiar and literary essays that Epstein has published there and elsewhere in recent years, and like all his other books, it’s chatty, thoughtful and so irresistibly readable that the wise man will take care not to pick it up unless he has a free evening ahead of him.

• Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pp., $24) is a witty semi-memoir in which the author of Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces tells us what it’s like to visit Lincoln-related sites and events throughout America. His adventures and misadventures among the Lincoln-lovers and Abe-haters are hugely amusing, but don’t let the one-liners throw you off the scent: Land of Lincoln is a deeply thoughtful consideration of Abraham Lincoln’s increasingly problematic place in postmodern American culture.

• Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (W.W. Norton, 876 pp., $35) is a near-indescribable book whose virtues, like those of Land of Lincoln, are partially obscured by the fact that it’s so hard to pigeonhole. The best I can do is to quote myself:

[I]t’s a fat volume of short essays about a hundred or so people, most of them twentieth-century artists and writers of various kinds. Each essay is a commentary on a well-chosen quotation from its subject, and the essays are arranged alphabetically. The overarching theme of the book is the fate of humanism in what James describes as “an age of extermination, an epoch of the abattoir,” meaning that many of its subjects either ran afoul of Hitler and Stalin or sucked up to them.

Rarely has so gloomy a subject been written about with such infectious gusto. Don’t expect James to toe the right-of-center line, but the hard common sense with which he weighs the intellectual follies of the Low, Dishonest Century is arguably even more refreshing to hear from a littérateur of the center-left.

• Roger Scruton’s Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter, 118 pp., $20) is an extended essay in which the noted philosopher makes the case for the primacy of Western culture at a moment when much of the West is experiencing “an acute crisis of identity” triggered by the twin challenges of radical Islam and the multicultural project. It is short, pointed, lucid, compelling and disturbing. Think of it as a stocking-stuffer for pessimists and you won’t be far wrong.

See you in 2008!

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A Response to Andrew Sullivan

In my article “The Case for Bombing Iran” (COMMENTARY, June 2007), in my book World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, and in various public appearances (including a televised debate with Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek), I quoted the Ayatollah Khomeini as having said the following:

We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.

My source for this statement was Amir Taheri, the prolific Iranian-born journalist now living in London, who has also contributed a number of articles to COMMENTARY. Now, however, the Economist, relying on another Iranian-born writer, Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University, has alleged on its blog “Democracy in America” that Khomeini never said any such thing. “Someone,” says Mr. Bakhash, “should inform Mr. Podhoretz he is citing a non-existent statement.”

That “someone” has turned out to be Andrew Sullivan in his widely read blog, “The Daily Dish.” Linking to the Economist post, Sullivan accuses me of intellectual dishonesty for failing to admit that I have made an “error” in relying on a “bogus quotation” to bolster my argument that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it would not be deterred from using them by the fear of retaliation.

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In my article “The Case for Bombing Iran” (COMMENTARY, June 2007), in my book World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, and in various public appearances (including a televised debate with Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek), I quoted the Ayatollah Khomeini as having said the following:

We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.

My source for this statement was Amir Taheri, the prolific Iranian-born journalist now living in London, who has also contributed a number of articles to COMMENTARY. Now, however, the Economist, relying on another Iranian-born writer, Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University, has alleged on its blog “Democracy in America” that Khomeini never said any such thing. “Someone,” says Mr. Bakhash, “should inform Mr. Podhoretz he is citing a non-existent statement.”

That “someone” has turned out to be Andrew Sullivan in his widely read blog, “The Daily Dish.” Linking to the Economist post, Sullivan accuses me of intellectual dishonesty for failing to admit that I have made an “error” in relying on a “bogus quotation” to bolster my argument that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it would not be deterred from using them by the fear of retaliation.

I do not usually bother responding to Sullivan’s frequent attacks on me, which are fueled by the same shrill hysteria that, as has often been pointed out, deforms most of what he “dishes” out on a daily basis. But in this case I have decided to respond because, by linking to a sober source like the Economist, he may for a change seem credible.

The Economist concludes its piece by challenging Amir Taheri to produce “the original source for this quote.” In response to a query from me, Mr. Taheri has now met that challenge. He writes:

The quote can be found in several editions of Khomeini’s speeches and messages. Here is one edition:

Paymaha va Sokhanraniyha-yi Imam Khomeini (“Messages and Speeches of Imam Khomeini”) published by Nur Research and Publication Institute (Tehran, 1981).

The quote, along with many other passages, disappeared from several subsequent editions as the Islamic Republic tried to mobilize nationalistic feelings against Iraq, which had invaded Iran in 1980.

The practice of editing and even censoring Khomeini to suit the circumstances is widely known by Iranian scholars. This is how Professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, the Director of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland and a specialist in Islamic censorship, states the problem: “Khumayni’s [sic] speeches are regularly published in fresh editions wherein new selections are made, certain references deleted, and various adjustments introduced depending on the state’s current preoccupation” (Persian Studies in North America, 1994).

In any case, Mr. Taheri continues in his letter to me:

Your real argument is that Khomeini is not an Iranian nationalist but a pan-Islamist and thus would not have been affected by ordinary nationalistic considerations, including the safety of any “motherland.” This is known to Iranians as a matter of fact. Khomeini opposed the use of the words mellat (“nation”) and melli (“national”), replacing them with Ummat (“the Islamic community”) and ummati (“pertaining to the Islamic community”).

Thus, Majlis Shuray e Melli (“The National Consultative Assembly”) was renamed by Khomeini as Majlis Shuray Islami (“Islamic Consultative Assembly”). He also replaced the Iranian national insignia of Lion and Sun with a stylized calligraphy of the word Allah.

Thus, too, when he returned to Tehran after sixteen years of exile, Khomeini was asked by a French journalist, who had accompanied him on the Air France plane from Paris, what he felt. “Nothing,” the ayatollah replied. He then rejected the suggestion by his welcoming committee to kiss the soil of Iran. That would have been sherk, which means associating something with Allah, the gravest of sins in Islam.

Finally, Mr. Taheri rightly observes:

What is at issue here is the exact nature of the Khomeinist regime. Is it a nationalistic power pursuing the usual goals of nations? Or is it a messianic power with an eschatological ideology and the pretension to conquer the world on behalf of “The One and Only True Faith”?

Khomeini built a good part of his case against the Shah by claiming that the latter was trying to force Iranians to worship Iran rather than Allah. The theme remains a leitmotif of Khomeinists even today. . . . Those who try to portray this regime as just another opportunistic power with a quixotic tendency do a grave disservice to a proper understanding of the challenge that the world faces.

But this is not new. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot also had their apologists who saw them as “nationalists” with “legitimate grievances.”

So much for the allegation that the Khomeini quotation is “non-existent.” But there is another quotation I have cited repeatedly in the course of showing why Iran would not be deterred by the fear of retaliation. This one is a statement by the supposedly moderate former President Rafsanjani:

If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession . . . application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.

In chiding me for using this statement as well, all the Economist can come up with is the feeble objection that “some say Rafsanjani was misleadingly quoted.” Well, some also say that it is on the basis of a mistranslation that Ahmadinejad has been quoted as calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” It is true that Ahmadinejad’s declaration can be translated in other ways. Yet the official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), in its own English edition, reported that “Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday called for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map.’”

Since the case I make both in my COMMENTARY article and in my book rests on much more than the two quotations from Khomeini and Rafsanjani, it would still stand even if those quotations were in fact “bogus” or “fabricated.” But the truth is that Khomeini and Rafsanjani did say what I said they said. Not that this will silence the growing number of foreign-policy establishmentarians who—having finally recognized that Iran’s nuclear program cannot be stopped by diplomacy and sanctions, but having ruled out military force even as a last resort—are now desperately trying to persuade us that “we can live” with an Iranian bomb. God help us all if the counsels of these apologists and appeasers disguised as “realists” should in the end prevail.

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“Churchillian” Statesmanship

The Washington, D.C.-based Churchill Centre has just awarded the first Winston Churchill Award for Statesmanship to James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton.

This is the same James A. Baker who, as Secretary of State, when asked what the U.S. would do about aggression, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina, replied: “We have no dog in that fight.” It is hard to say which was more Churchillian, the sentiment or the eloquence.

By this standard, Hamilton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was even more Churchillian. His reaction to the Bosnia debacle was described thus by Congressional Quarterly:

Hamilton was a well-modulated voice for cautious diplomacy…. Early in the Clinton administration, he agreed to a strategy under which Bosnia’s factions would agree to a partition of the republic…. But when Bosnia’s militarily dominant Serbs resisted, putting pressure on Clinton for U.S. military action…Hamilton suggested more time was needed to allow diplomacy and economic sanctions to work. To Hamilton’s many admirers, his caution as a foreign policy-maker is an aid in deterring the nation from rushing into foreign policy mistakes.

Other equally Churchillian moments in Hamilton’s legislative career include leading the opposition to military action against Iraq when it occupied Kuwait in 1990; opposition to aid to the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980’s as well as to the besieged anti-Communist government in neighboring El Salvador; votes against a raft of weapons systems from the B-1 bomber to missile defense; and championing of the nuclear freeze.

Of course, the Churchill Centre was not honoring this pair for their past records but rather, as it explained, for their leadership of “the Iraq Study group, which resulted in critical policy recommendations.” The essence of those recommendations was to abandon hope of victory, begin to withdraw our soldiers, and cushion our defeat by appealing for help to the government of Iran (whose official slogan is “death to America”).

There’s a solution that would have done Churchill proud.

If you find the Baker-Hamilton legacy incongruent with that of Churchill, the Churchill Centre is out to reshape your memory of him, much as various academics lately have redefined Ronald Reagan as a liberal or moderate in noble contrast to the odious conservative, George W. Bush. The Centre explains: “The political precept that won Churchill respect from all sides was his belief that in difficult times the best results follow when people of differing beliefs and backgrounds come together, the greatest example of which was the ‘Grand Alliance’ of World War II.” In other words, Churchill’s great feat was not his resistance to Hitler but his embrace of Stalin.

Next, perhaps, the Centre will create a Churchill Award for Appeasement.

The Washington, D.C.-based Churchill Centre has just awarded the first Winston Churchill Award for Statesmanship to James A. Baker and Lee Hamilton.

This is the same James A. Baker who, as Secretary of State, when asked what the U.S. would do about aggression, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina, replied: “We have no dog in that fight.” It is hard to say which was more Churchillian, the sentiment or the eloquence.

By this standard, Hamilton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was even more Churchillian. His reaction to the Bosnia debacle was described thus by Congressional Quarterly:

Hamilton was a well-modulated voice for cautious diplomacy…. Early in the Clinton administration, he agreed to a strategy under which Bosnia’s factions would agree to a partition of the republic…. But when Bosnia’s militarily dominant Serbs resisted, putting pressure on Clinton for U.S. military action…Hamilton suggested more time was needed to allow diplomacy and economic sanctions to work. To Hamilton’s many admirers, his caution as a foreign policy-maker is an aid in deterring the nation from rushing into foreign policy mistakes.

Other equally Churchillian moments in Hamilton’s legislative career include leading the opposition to military action against Iraq when it occupied Kuwait in 1990; opposition to aid to the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980’s as well as to the besieged anti-Communist government in neighboring El Salvador; votes against a raft of weapons systems from the B-1 bomber to missile defense; and championing of the nuclear freeze.

Of course, the Churchill Centre was not honoring this pair for their past records but rather, as it explained, for their leadership of “the Iraq Study group, which resulted in critical policy recommendations.” The essence of those recommendations was to abandon hope of victory, begin to withdraw our soldiers, and cushion our defeat by appealing for help to the government of Iran (whose official slogan is “death to America”).

There’s a solution that would have done Churchill proud.

If you find the Baker-Hamilton legacy incongruent with that of Churchill, the Churchill Centre is out to reshape your memory of him, much as various academics lately have redefined Ronald Reagan as a liberal or moderate in noble contrast to the odious conservative, George W. Bush. The Centre explains: “The political precept that won Churchill respect from all sides was his belief that in difficult times the best results follow when people of differing beliefs and backgrounds come together, the greatest example of which was the ‘Grand Alliance’ of World War II.” In other words, Churchill’s great feat was not his resistance to Hitler but his embrace of Stalin.

Next, perhaps, the Centre will create a Churchill Award for Appeasement.

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Hello, Arrabal!

I recently sat down for a chat with the Spanish playwright and filmmaker Fernando Arrabal, who was in town to give an October 31 lecture at St. John’s University and introduce his 1992 film Goodbye, Babylon! at a downtown arts foundation on November 2. A diminutive, bubbly 75-year-old, Arrabal is prone to sudden enthusiasms, whether for mathematicians like Alexander Grothendieck and Benoît Mandelbrot; chess-players like Gata Kamsky; or toreadors like Diego Bardon. He is currently reading Saint Isidore of Seville, a 7th century etymologist whose Etymologiae, Arrabal announces with delight, recently has appeared in English from Cambridge University Press.

A confirmed bookworm, Arrabal has lived with his wife and children in Paris since 1955, but is defiantly unfashionable among French intellectuals for his staunch opposition to Communism and support for Israel. In 1999 his play Love Letter had its world premiere at Israel’s Habimah Theatre, performed by the acclaimed actress Orna Porat. Love Letter, so far unperformed in New York (although Liv Ullmann has been rumored to be considering the play for Broadway), is a monologue by a mother who may have denounced her husband to tyrannical authorities. Arrabal’s own father disappeared in 1941, after being jailed by Franco’s regime in Spain. Arrabal himself was imprisoned during a 1967 visit to Spain (he was born in Spanish Morocco in 1932), allegedly for “blasphemy.” After protests by famous writers including Samuel Beckett, François Mauriac, and Eugène Ionesco, Arrabal soon was freed.

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I recently sat down for a chat with the Spanish playwright and filmmaker Fernando Arrabal, who was in town to give an October 31 lecture at St. John’s University and introduce his 1992 film Goodbye, Babylon! at a downtown arts foundation on November 2. A diminutive, bubbly 75-year-old, Arrabal is prone to sudden enthusiasms, whether for mathematicians like Alexander Grothendieck and Benoît Mandelbrot; chess-players like Gata Kamsky; or toreadors like Diego Bardon. He is currently reading Saint Isidore of Seville, a 7th century etymologist whose Etymologiae, Arrabal announces with delight, recently has appeared in English from Cambridge University Press.

A confirmed bookworm, Arrabal has lived with his wife and children in Paris since 1955, but is defiantly unfashionable among French intellectuals for his staunch opposition to Communism and support for Israel. In 1999 his play Love Letter had its world premiere at Israel’s Habimah Theatre, performed by the acclaimed actress Orna Porat. Love Letter, so far unperformed in New York (although Liv Ullmann has been rumored to be considering the play for Broadway), is a monologue by a mother who may have denounced her husband to tyrannical authorities. Arrabal’s own father disappeared in 1941, after being jailed by Franco’s regime in Spain. Arrabal himself was imprisoned during a 1967 visit to Spain (he was born in Spanish Morocco in 1932), allegedly for “blasphemy.” After protests by famous writers including Samuel Beckett, François Mauriac, and Eugène Ionesco, Arrabal soon was freed.

For decades the Spanish playwright has been admirably industrious, creating seven full-length films, five books on his obsessive pastime of chess, and numerous polemics. These include his admonitory Letters to Franco (1972); Castro (1984); and Stalin (2003). This lively anti-Communist invective has not been translated into English, nor have Arrabal’s amusing biographical fantasias of El Greco and Cervantes. Of course, most American publishers are appalling slaves to fashion, and Arrabal may be seen as a 1960’s figure, since he first won fame in that decade, especially by those who have not bothered to read anything he has published since.

Beyond new books, which continue to appear in France, Spain, and elsewhere, Arrabal has shown rare courage in speaking his mind publicly. In 2002 he testified in Paris on behalf of the novelist Michel Houellebecq, who told an interviewer the previous year that Islam is the “most stupid religion. When you read the Koran, it’s appalling, appalling!” France’s Human Rights League, the Mecca-based World Islamic League, and others accused Houellebecq of hate speech, a crime in France that is punishable by a fine and jail time. Houellebecq was acquitted, at least in part due to Arrabal’s remarkable court appearance; the elderly Spaniard replied to a judge who asked his profession: “I am a pedestrian.” Then Arrabal pulled out a miniature bottle of cognac from his pocket and offered it to the same judge, who declined politely. This was one of the most drolly convincing theatrical moments of an author who has published over one hundred plays.

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Book Review: God and Gold

In God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, Walter Russell Mead coyly claims that the originality of his interpretation of the roots of Anglo-Saxon primacy rests in its focus on the meaning, as opposed to the mere dimensions, of American power. This is too modest: Mead’s achievement is larger than that. His real accomplishment is to restore religion to its rightful place in the history of Great Britain and the United States, and their roles in the world. This no small feat. It’s hard enough to explain why Britain—a small island in the North Sea lacking all natural resources except coal, potatoes, and herring—rose to be the first of the great powers by 1815, and equally hard to explain how the United States inherited and adapted the British system in the 20th century. Factoring the influence of religion into this dynamic is vastly more difficult, but Mead does an admirable job of it.

The historic grand strategy of Great Britain and the United States, as Mead understands it, is simply told: Britain was the world’s first enduringly liberal modern society, and the first practitioner of an open and dynamic economic system that traded throughout the world, relying on its navy to defend its trade routes. This system provided Britain the resources to fight and win its wars, and the power and self-confidence to promote liberal values and institutions. In the 20th century, the United States, shaped by its British inheritance, took over the role of protector of this maritime order from the totalitarian empires and enemies of modernity that continued to threaten it, of whom al Qaeda is merely the latest example. But the rise of Britain as a liberal capitalist power is only the better known half of the story. While capitalism generates resources and tax revenues on a scale unimaginable to early modern empires, it poses a big problem: the vast expansion of state power. Once the revenues begin to flow, in other words, the challenge becomes limiting the power of the state.

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In God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, Walter Russell Mead coyly claims that the originality of his interpretation of the roots of Anglo-Saxon primacy rests in its focus on the meaning, as opposed to the mere dimensions, of American power. This is too modest: Mead’s achievement is larger than that. His real accomplishment is to restore religion to its rightful place in the history of Great Britain and the United States, and their roles in the world. This no small feat. It’s hard enough to explain why Britain—a small island in the North Sea lacking all natural resources except coal, potatoes, and herring—rose to be the first of the great powers by 1815, and equally hard to explain how the United States inherited and adapted the British system in the 20th century. Factoring the influence of religion into this dynamic is vastly more difficult, but Mead does an admirable job of it.

The historic grand strategy of Great Britain and the United States, as Mead understands it, is simply told: Britain was the world’s first enduringly liberal modern society, and the first practitioner of an open and dynamic economic system that traded throughout the world, relying on its navy to defend its trade routes. This system provided Britain the resources to fight and win its wars, and the power and self-confidence to promote liberal values and institutions. In the 20th century, the United States, shaped by its British inheritance, took over the role of protector of this maritime order from the totalitarian empires and enemies of modernity that continued to threaten it, of whom al Qaeda is merely the latest example. But the rise of Britain as a liberal capitalist power is only the better known half of the story. While capitalism generates resources and tax revenues on a scale unimaginable to early modern empires, it poses a big problem: the vast expansion of state power. Once the revenues begin to flow, in other words, the challenge becomes limiting the power of the state.

The Anglo-Saxon societies surmounted this challenge because of their dynamic religious faith, which provided both a spiritual compass and assurance in the middle of rapid social and economic change and which, as a result of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1689, limited the ability of the monarchy to raise money without the consent of Parliament. The result was that British and American state power left room for both faith in God and the use of human reason, striking a balance between the two. This balancing continues today: the “cultural and political rebalancing the United States is currently witnessing,” writes Mead, is “part of the process by which American society adjust[s] to the rapid pace of change.”

In his book, Mead channels both Adam Smith’s understanding of the role of faith in the making of Anglo-Saxon society, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s convictions that democratic, open, and liberal institutions could not exist unless rooted in a society of believers. The failure of the declared enemies of the Anglo-Saxon order—Mead calls them Waspophobes—to understand the strengths of this order derives precisely from their focus on materialism, and on their failure to arrive at de Tocqueville’s realization that British and American society have, in their faith and their broader civil society, a cultural and intellectual life that is far from simply materialist. (Contemporary liberalism, I would say, suffers in a more mild way from the same deficiency.) Mead’s work, taken as a whole, offers a compelling vision of the roots of American power that is liberal in the truest sense of the word: that is, a study in the importance of human freedom and responsibility.

It is regrettable, therefore, that having run so well, Mead stumbles at the last gate. Throughout his book, Mead’s view is very much the view from 30,000 feet: events like the American Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, or the Suez Crisis fly by in paragraphs, or even in phrases. The emphasis throughout is on the essential unity of Anglo-Saxon culture, and on the grand strategy that resulted from it. There is much to be said for this vision, unpopular though it will be in some quarters, but by limiting himself to it, Mead misses the essential contribution of Britain and, especially, the United States to the modern world order. It is one thing to claim that the United States was influenced profoundly by British culture and faith. But while there may be an Anglo-Saxon culture, or even an Anglo-Saxon grand strategy, there is no Anglo-Saxon state: 1776 saw to that. The Anglo-Saxons did not invent the state or the diplomatic institutions by which states relate to one another. Nor, as Mead notes, is the Anglo-Saxon form of the state dominant in the world today: the French or Soviet models have a far better claim to that title. The uniqueness of Anglo-Saxon grand strategy is that it emphasized resisting empires and establishing rules of secession and state legitimacy; it was only within the nation-state order that the liberal values with which Britain and the United States identified could be defended.

In this context, the final chapters of Mead’s work are truly perplexing. Indeed, they are so out of tune that they raise the suspicion that Mead included them solely to cover himself on the Left. For, after three hundred pages of praise for the Anglo-Saxon order, he about-faces to argue that the mission of the United States now is to carry out a “diplomacy of civilizations” to assuage the grievances of the Islamic world, grievances that began with the Crusades. The United States now must turn to remedying the “centuries of inequality and oppression” by assuring that Muslims have “due recognition” for their “just and legitimate aspirations”—which Mead recognizes may not be compatible with the existing framework of the liberal maritime order.

Coming at the close of a book dedicated to sympathetic explanation of that order, this is a remarkable claim. It is only proper to note that Mead proposes to make the United States responsible for the resolution of grievances that arose long before it came into existence. Burdening the United States with the responsibility for Arab grievances is bad enough, but to view “the Arab world” as a unified entity is to make the same fundamental error that Mead makes when he writes of the Anglo-Saxons: it is to assume political unity where there are merely cultural commonalities. More concretely, it is to agree with the Islamists that the fall of the Caliphate was an immense tragedy.

Through his advocacy of the “diplomacy of civilizations,” Mead turns his back on the nation-state system and on the international organizations that Britain and the United States have, above all other nations, been responsible for creating. Mead, in fact, places the burden of satisfying the Muslim peoples entirely on the United States. He argues that “pious Muslims of unimpeachable orthodoxy, conspicuous virtue, conservative principles, and great passion for their faith,” not liberal reformers, must bring the Muslim peoples into a dynamic, capitalist, and liberal world.

To make things worse, Mead’s precise policy recommendations for the United States are conspicuous by their absence. His “diplomacy of civilizations” revolves, in the end, around listening more closely to the grievances of the Muslim world. Mead cites the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as this philosophy’s guiding light. Niebuhr’s role in Mead’s work, as it was in Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2006), is to serve as a tough-minded but sensitive liberal who was fully aware of the reality of original sin, and, hence, of the need for the United States to be more understanding of its enemies and more aware of its own potential for evil. From all points of view, this is a most implausible picture. Developing a sympathetic understanding of declared enemies of the system is entirely foreign to Anglo-Saxon grand strategy and its values. Elizabeth I, Pitt the Younger, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Reagan had no time for this approach. Neither, in fact, did Niebuhr. His role in history was, in the era of Hitler and Stalin, to tell American liberals to get in the game, to remind them that a relentless focus on their own capacity for evil was demoralizing and destructive, and that there really were worse things in the world than the United States.

Niebuhr is indeed the philosopher that we, and the democratic world, need today. Mead’s work illustrates why. By casting his lot with the Muslim conservatives and accepting their right to set the international agenda of grievances, and by abandoning the Muslim liberals and reformers whom Niebuhr would have celebrated, Mead undermines, rather than reinforces, the order he wisely, if only partially, explains. A true history of the Anglo-Saxon contribution to the making of the modern world would emphasize not only religion and capitalism, but also the transformation of the world of empires into the international state system. Mead’s failure to find this third leg of the triad leads him into historical errors and contemporary fallacies that reveal the pervasive weakness in our understanding of the system that we ourselves have been the leading force in creating. But, by restoring religion to the story, he has already done a very great deal to correct the prevailing vision.

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The Persian Version

Yesterday, Interfax reported that “several groups of suicide terrorists” are planning an attack on the life of Vladimir Putin during his oft-postponed visit to Tehran, which begins tonight. The Russian news agency, the country’s largest, attributed the report to “various sources outside Russia.” Iran’s foreign ministry called the report “completely baseless.”

For once, the Iranians appear to be correct. Interfax often works closely with the Russian government to disseminate its views, and, if the assassination threat were real, it is unlikely we would ever have heard about it. Moreover, Putin is shrugging off the threat and continuing with his travel plans, a sure sign that the Interfax report is bogus. So we have to ask what the Kremlin seeks to gain by releasing the news about a Persian plot. Putin’s Iranian visit, the first by a Russian leader since Stalin’s 1943 trip, is important to the mullahs. “It’s a break in international isolation, a chance to show that Iran is an important country,” said Alexander Pikayev, a Russian analyst.

Putin is scheduled to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in what is bound to be a difficult session. Undoubtedly, the most contentious issue is Russia’s ongoing failure to supply uranium fuel for Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, the nation’s first. The Russians were instrumental in building the facility, but they’ve shown reluctance to let it begin operations. “Tehran views Russia as an unreliable partner that uses Iran in its game with the West,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, the Russian editor of Global Affairs. Although some of the disagreements between Russia and Iran undoubtedly are manufactured for the West’s consumption, there is more than a hint of real tension in Tehran’s recent relations with Moscow. Perhaps the Interfax report is intended to put Ahmadinejad on the defensive by embarrassing Putin’s Persian hosts.

Putin, for instance, is just about out of maneuvering room in his delicate—and duplicitous—balancing game between Iran and the West. If, for example, in the next few weeks, the atomic ayatollahs do not come clean with the International Atomic Energy Agency about their nuclear program, Russia may be backed into supporting a third set of Security Council sanctions against Tehran next month. Any new measures are bound to be more coercive than the slap-on-the-wrist provisions imposed in the past, and new UN actions are bound to turn Tehran against Moscow. So whatever the unusual assassination rumor indicates, it shows that not all is well between Russia and Iran. And the disagreements between the two nations are just additional symptoms that the Iranian crisis is reaching a decisive moment.

Yesterday, Interfax reported that “several groups of suicide terrorists” are planning an attack on the life of Vladimir Putin during his oft-postponed visit to Tehran, which begins tonight. The Russian news agency, the country’s largest, attributed the report to “various sources outside Russia.” Iran’s foreign ministry called the report “completely baseless.”

For once, the Iranians appear to be correct. Interfax often works closely with the Russian government to disseminate its views, and, if the assassination threat were real, it is unlikely we would ever have heard about it. Moreover, Putin is shrugging off the threat and continuing with his travel plans, a sure sign that the Interfax report is bogus. So we have to ask what the Kremlin seeks to gain by releasing the news about a Persian plot. Putin’s Iranian visit, the first by a Russian leader since Stalin’s 1943 trip, is important to the mullahs. “It’s a break in international isolation, a chance to show that Iran is an important country,” said Alexander Pikayev, a Russian analyst.

Putin is scheduled to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in what is bound to be a difficult session. Undoubtedly, the most contentious issue is Russia’s ongoing failure to supply uranium fuel for Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, the nation’s first. The Russians were instrumental in building the facility, but they’ve shown reluctance to let it begin operations. “Tehran views Russia as an unreliable partner that uses Iran in its game with the West,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, the Russian editor of Global Affairs. Although some of the disagreements between Russia and Iran undoubtedly are manufactured for the West’s consumption, there is more than a hint of real tension in Tehran’s recent relations with Moscow. Perhaps the Interfax report is intended to put Ahmadinejad on the defensive by embarrassing Putin’s Persian hosts.

Putin, for instance, is just about out of maneuvering room in his delicate—and duplicitous—balancing game between Iran and the West. If, for example, in the next few weeks, the atomic ayatollahs do not come clean with the International Atomic Energy Agency about their nuclear program, Russia may be backed into supporting a third set of Security Council sanctions against Tehran next month. Any new measures are bound to be more coercive than the slap-on-the-wrist provisions imposed in the past, and new UN actions are bound to turn Tehran against Moscow. So whatever the unusual assassination rumor indicates, it shows that not all is well between Russia and Iran. And the disagreements between the two nations are just additional symptoms that the Iranian crisis is reaching a decisive moment.

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Bookshelf

• Last week Mary McCarthy, this week her ex-husband: I’ve been perusing two new Library of America volumes devoted to the essays of Edmund Wilson, who is now remembered chiefly by literary historians and readers of a more-than-certain age but once was America’s best-known literary critic. Between them, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920’s and 30’s and Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930’s and 40’s contain all of Wilson’s collected literary articles from the first half of his career. Additional volumes are in the pipeline, but these two bring together the bulk of Wilson’s most significant literary criticism in a convenient and attractive format not too far removed from that of the elegant little crown octavo volumes he favored for his essay collections.

I have no doubt that Wilson would have been pleased by these two volumes, for the Library of America was his idea, more or less, and for the most part it has been executed along the lines he had in mind when he envisioned a publishing venture devoted to “bringing out in a complete and compact form the principal American classics.” Yet I wonder how widely they will be read, and I’m not sure that Wilson’s memory will be served best by republishing his original collections in toto, as the Library of America apparently plans to do. Not only did he spend a fair amount of time and energy reviewing books that are no longer of any great interest today, but his work almost always becomes silly, even squalid, whenever it strays from the narrow path of art. In his journals, for instance, he preserved for posterity an enervatingly complete record of his senile couplings, while his political views were left-wing in all the most tiresome ways. Though deeply disillusioned by Stalin, Wilson thereafter embraced the idiot notion of moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States; on one infamous occasion he compared their relationship to that between a pair of hungry sea slugs bent on mutual engorgement.

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• Last week Mary McCarthy, this week her ex-husband: I’ve been perusing two new Library of America volumes devoted to the essays of Edmund Wilson, who is now remembered chiefly by literary historians and readers of a more-than-certain age but once was America’s best-known literary critic. Between them, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920’s and 30’s and Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930’s and 40’s contain all of Wilson’s collected literary articles from the first half of his career. Additional volumes are in the pipeline, but these two bring together the bulk of Wilson’s most significant literary criticism in a convenient and attractive format not too far removed from that of the elegant little crown octavo volumes he favored for his essay collections.

I have no doubt that Wilson would have been pleased by these two volumes, for the Library of America was his idea, more or less, and for the most part it has been executed along the lines he had in mind when he envisioned a publishing venture devoted to “bringing out in a complete and compact form the principal American classics.” Yet I wonder how widely they will be read, and I’m not sure that Wilson’s memory will be served best by republishing his original collections in toto, as the Library of America apparently plans to do. Not only did he spend a fair amount of time and energy reviewing books that are no longer of any great interest today, but his work almost always becomes silly, even squalid, whenever it strays from the narrow path of art. In his journals, for instance, he preserved for posterity an enervatingly complete record of his senile couplings, while his political views were left-wing in all the most tiresome ways. Though deeply disillusioned by Stalin, Wilson thereafter embraced the idiot notion of moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States; on one infamous occasion he compared their relationship to that between a pair of hungry sea slugs bent on mutual engorgement.

Fortunately, these two volumes mostly give us the critic to whose infectious gusto I and so many other readers of my generation owe an all but endless debt. Even when he was most spectacularly wrong, he rarely failed to stimulate, and the plain-spoken prose and hard-headed common sense of his best criticism still has a tonic effect:

John O’Hara subjects to a Proustian scrutiny the tight-knotted social web of a large Pennsylvania town, the potpourri of New York night-life in the twenties, the nondescript fringes of Hollywood. In all this he has explored for the first time from his peculiar semi-snobbish point of view a good deal of interesting territory: the relations between Catholics and Protestants, the relations between college men and non-college men, the relations between the underworld and “legitimate” business, the ratings of café society; and to read him on a fashionable bar or the Gibbsville country club is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one had not before been aware.

Has there ever been a critic who was better at charging such summary passages as these with the force and selectivity that makes them so perennially readable? Or who had a surer grasp of the indispensable critical skill of making his readers want to go out and buy the books he praised? It was The Shores of Light, The Wound and the Bow and Classics and Commercials, all contained in the Library of America’s first two Wilson volumes, that first inspired me to read O’Hara, Max Beerbohm, Cyril Connolly, Dr. Johnson, the later Kipling, Ring Lardner, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, and Thornton Wilder, and it is still possible to read Wilson on these and many other writers with pleasure and profit.

Those already closely familiar with Wilson’s work will be pleased to see that Lewis Dabney, the editor of this series, also plans to include a selection of reviews that didn’t make it into any of his books. These two volumes, for instance, contain Wilson’s hitherto uncollected thoughts on Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man, William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, Dawn Powell’s My Home Is Far Away, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, plus the best essay Wilson ever wrote on H.L. Mencken. All these pieces are worth reading, and it is a puzzlement why he didn’t think them worth collecting.

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Fascism Old and New

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

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

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

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

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No Investment in Repression

The Washington Post has picked up the shocking story (broken by the New York Times and mentioned in contentions last week) of China Security and Surveillance Technology. This is a company that supplies high technology tools of repression to Beijing’s secret police and whose stock is hot right now; it has also received the lion’s share of its capital from U.S. hedge funds, and is about to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Columnist Harold Meyerson tells the story in today’s edition. He estimates that “high-end surveillance equipment” which was a $500 million industry in 2003 may be worth “$43 billion . . . by 2010.”

“To be sure, leading American companies have a long and sordid record of investing in totalitarian states, including Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and axis-of-evil Iran,” Meyerson notes. “But distinguish as we must among the various levels of hell, at least those American companies did not invest in the Gestapo, the Stasi, the KGB, or the Revolutionary Guard. Maybe that was only because it was hard to turn a buck on the Stasi. Once China turned repression into an investment opportunity, however, capitalism responded as capitalism is supposed to respond: it wanted in. There are mega-bucks to be made, the hedge funds concluded, in hedging against democracy.”

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The Washington Post has picked up the shocking story (broken by the New York Times and mentioned in contentions last week) of China Security and Surveillance Technology. This is a company that supplies high technology tools of repression to Beijing’s secret police and whose stock is hot right now; it has also received the lion’s share of its capital from U.S. hedge funds, and is about to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Columnist Harold Meyerson tells the story in today’s edition. He estimates that “high-end surveillance equipment” which was a $500 million industry in 2003 may be worth “$43 billion . . . by 2010.”

“To be sure, leading American companies have a long and sordid record of investing in totalitarian states, including Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and axis-of-evil Iran,” Meyerson notes. “But distinguish as we must among the various levels of hell, at least those American companies did not invest in the Gestapo, the Stasi, the KGB, or the Revolutionary Guard. Maybe that was only because it was hard to turn a buck on the Stasi. Once China turned repression into an investment opportunity, however, capitalism responded as capitalism is supposed to respond: it wanted in. There are mega-bucks to be made, the hedge funds concluded, in hedging against democracy.”

When we set up today’s special economic relationship with China, our plan, ostensibly, was to encourage China’s embrace of freedom and democracy; unfortunately, our current relationship with China entails turning our backs on our most fundamental values. Meyerson reports that when “[a]sked about the hedge funds’ activities, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, ‘It’s not appropriate to interfere in the private decisions of Americans to invest in legally incorporated firms.'”

Not appropriate? The United States government forbids any economic relations with Cuba and other designated states—and once forbade them totally with a Communist China that has changed less, when it comes to human freedom, than some imagine. And under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act we ban bribery, kickbacks, and so forth by American firms doing business overseas—even when other, competing countries are using such tools to win contracts.

What we need now is a “Foreign Oppressive Practices Act” that would outlaw American investment in, technology transfer to, or any other cooperation or collusion with the secret police and militaries of states that are not free. Drafting such a law will not be difficult. All we need is will and leadership. Some investors and traders will squeal, yes. And China and other dictatorships will still get much of what they need from countries that do not have such rules. But equipping foreign secret police organizations is no business for the United States of America (or any other country claiming to possess democratic values). The White House should speak out clearly. The Congress should take immediate action.

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Stalin’s Music Master

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.

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Pete Seeger or Philip Johnson?

A commentator on my recent post about Philip Johnson’s Glass House asks: “Can we enjoy the art and ignore the politics?” This contentions reader compares Johnson’s support of Nazism with the political leanings of folksinger Pete Seeger, who, during the early 1940’s, was called “Stalin’s songbird” by critics of his politics (his political views have raised the ire of some recent commentators, too).

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A commentator on my recent post about Philip Johnson’s Glass House asks: “Can we enjoy the art and ignore the politics?” This contentions reader compares Johnson’s support of Nazism with the political leanings of folksinger Pete Seeger, who, during the early 1940’s, was called “Stalin’s songbird” by critics of his politics (his political views have raised the ire of some recent commentators, too).

Unlike Johnson, Pete Seeger explicitly apologized for his political past, repenting, in a 1972 memoir, for “not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader.” Seeger joined the American Communist party circa 1940 and left circa 1950.

Seeger has done work of indisputable social value: entertaining the troops while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, working for 40 years with the Clearwater group to clean the Hudson River. But I would argue that his musical performances, like this 1949 TV version of the Hebrew song “Tzena Tzena” by Seeger and his quartet The Weavers, are his most lasting achievements. But whatever Seeger’s motivations in performing it may have been, his buoyant bluegrass style in “Tzena Tzena” echoes the majesty of band member Ronnie Gilbert’s contralto, one of folk music’s great voices.

Seeger’s own voice, though fragile, possessed an ineffable charm, which may have lessened the bite of his topical songs like “Waist Deep in Big Muddy” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” (Marlene Dietrich, no less, became a frequent performer of “Flowers” both in English and in German.) What music fan, whatever political accounting he might have with Seeger, would want to be without those unexpected performances?

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Two Narratives

I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two recent articles, one in the New York Times and one in the Washington Post.

The Post article describes how Vladimir Putin’s acolytes are rewriting history textbooks used in Russian schools to give them a more nationalist flavor. One of the manuals issued to Russian teachers declares in its last chapter: “We see that practically every significant deed is connected with the name and activity of President V.V. Putin.” Another manual paints the United States as an empire that may be near “final collapse,” because “America can no longer integrate into a single unit or unite into a nation of ‘whites,’ ‘blacks,’ (they are called African-Americans in the language of political correctness) ‘Latinos’ (Latin Americans), and others.” Russia’s own history is whitewashed, with Stalin described as brutal but also “the most successful leader of the USSR.

The ethos of these textbooks was summed up by Putin, who told a meeting of educators that “we must not allow others to impose a feeling of guilt on us.”

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I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two recent articles, one in the New York Times and one in the Washington Post.

The Post article describes how Vladimir Putin’s acolytes are rewriting history textbooks used in Russian schools to give them a more nationalist flavor. One of the manuals issued to Russian teachers declares in its last chapter: “We see that practically every significant deed is connected with the name and activity of President V.V. Putin.” Another manual paints the United States as an empire that may be near “final collapse,” because “America can no longer integrate into a single unit or unite into a nation of ‘whites,’ ‘blacks,’ (they are called African-Americans in the language of political correctness) ‘Latinos’ (Latin Americans), and others.” Russia’s own history is whitewashed, with Stalin described as brutal but also “the most successful leader of the USSR.

The ethos of these textbooks was summed up by Putin, who told a meeting of educators that “we must not allow others to impose a feeling of guilt on us.”

The Times piece describes the new history textbooks in a very different kind of country—Israel. There, the Education Ministry is issuing texts to Arabic-speaking students that describe the foundation of Israel as a “catastrophe” for the Palestinians. (Emanuele Ottolenghi noted this development on contentions.)

In other words, a liberal democracy is incorporating in its curriculum the views of its enemies, while an authoritarian country is pushing a hard nationalist line in its own textbooks. Nothing surprising there, but what lesson does one draw from this disparity?

You could argue that this reveals a suicidal level of self-doubt in the West that puts us at a severe disadvantage in confronting our illiberal and often fanatical enemies. Or, you could argue that this capacity to question ourselves is actually an advantage in the competition with illiberal societies, and that dictators’ attempts to brainwash their populaces produce stunted societies incapable of competing with more dynamic ones.

Which of these “narratives” is right? At the risk of sounding like a typical, conflicted, namby-pamby, post-modern Westerner, I have to confess I’m not sure.

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A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing

Anti-Americanism is rife in the Middle East and in Europe, and even in the land of our mother tongue, Great Britain, it has grown remarkably intense. Why?

Undoubtedly, the Bush administration must get some of the blame; it has pursued policies that are unpopular among Middle Easterners and Europeans. But there are other sources, too, like Americans who go abroad to peddle the intoxicating—and toxic—elixir.

The latest entry in this import-export business is Naomi Wolf, not long ago an adviser to Vice President Al Gore. In the pages of the Guardian, she has published an essay under the title Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps. Though lengthy, it is worth summarizing in a few words.

Wolf tries to show that our freedoms and the checks and balances that restrain our government are being “systematically dismantled.” Beneath our noses, she writes, “George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society.”

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Anti-Americanism is rife in the Middle East and in Europe, and even in the land of our mother tongue, Great Britain, it has grown remarkably intense. Why?

Undoubtedly, the Bush administration must get some of the blame; it has pursued policies that are unpopular among Middle Easterners and Europeans. But there are other sources, too, like Americans who go abroad to peddle the intoxicating—and toxic—elixir.

The latest entry in this import-export business is Naomi Wolf, not long ago an adviser to Vice President Al Gore. In the pages of the Guardian, she has published an essay under the title Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps. Though lengthy, it is worth summarizing in a few words.

Wolf tries to show that our freedoms and the checks and balances that restrain our government are being “systematically dismantled.” Beneath our noses, she writes, “George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society.”

Their first action in this campaign was to use the attacks of September 11 to create an image of “a terrifying threat—hydra-like, secretive, [and] evil.” What the U.S. has done with al Qaeda, she says, is a time-tested technique, one that, “like Hitler’s invocation of a Communist threat to the nation’s security, [can] be based on actual events.” An instance of this is the way the Nazis used the “Reichstag fire of February 1933” to gain “passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency.”

Never mind that the Reichstag fire was set by the Nazis themselves. Wolf continues on in this vein, drawing comparisons between the U.S. government and the Nazis with abandon. A few juxtapositions of America to the Soviet Gulag are also tossed in. Concentration camps like Guantanamo, she says, “tend to metastasize,” starting small and growing uncontrollably large. Indeed, the procedures set up by the Pentagon to try terrorists are things that tend to crop up “early on in a fascist shift;” it is not an accident that both “Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals.”

Of course, all this is Wolf’s fantasy, and like any satisfying fantasy it has, along with its obvious villains, a set of heroes. In our dire situation, Wolf informs readers of the Guardian, “only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny for the rest of us.”

Along with herself, Wolf names the ACLU and other left-wing advocacy groups. These saviors need to be joined by decent Europeans to reverse America’s drift into fascism. If action does not come in time, we will all discover “what a U.S. unrestrained by real democracy at home can mean for the rest of the world.”

How many readers of the Guardian and other Europeans actually believe any of this drivel is hard to say, but some fraction must. Presumably the editors who published it regard it as meritorious. But should Americans accept such insults with equanimity? What choice do we have, except to point out that Naomi Wolf’s case demonstrates once again that the pursuit of writerly fame is a tough business and often requires one to say the most outlandish things? Even so, it would be difficult to imagine anything more reprehensible than Wolf’s latest foray. Her journey from The Beauty Myth to Promiscuities to The Porn Myth to Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps has been a long way down, and it did not exactly begin in a high place.

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Down the (North Korean) Rabbit Hole

A couple of months ago I blogged about a news report that North Korea had bought some giant rabbits from a German breeder as seed stock, apparently in the hope of alleviating its dire food shortage.

Although the starvation of Koreans is anything but funny, here in a capsule was the entire story of Communist economics. Despite its professed humanitarian motives, the Marxist model was entirely mechanistic, blind to the role of human invention and incentive in creating wealth. Planners could simply draw blueprints of abundance and—abracadabra—their word would become flesh.

Stalin, for example, decided that it would be more efficient if some of the rivers of the Soviet Union reversed direction, so he tasked his engineers to turn them around. Mao calculated that China could industrialize overnight if each citizen made his own steel, so millions of backyard furnaces were created. And this year the minions of Kim Jong Il figured out that national starvation could be solved by means of larger rabbits, each of which could feed many more humans than ordinary examples of that species.

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A couple of months ago I blogged about a news report that North Korea had bought some giant rabbits from a German breeder as seed stock, apparently in the hope of alleviating its dire food shortage.

Although the starvation of Koreans is anything but funny, here in a capsule was the entire story of Communist economics. Despite its professed humanitarian motives, the Marxist model was entirely mechanistic, blind to the role of human invention and incentive in creating wealth. Planners could simply draw blueprints of abundance and—abracadabra—their word would become flesh.

Stalin, for example, decided that it would be more efficient if some of the rivers of the Soviet Union reversed direction, so he tasked his engineers to turn them around. Mao calculated that China could industrialize overnight if each citizen made his own steel, so millions of backyard furnaces were created. And this year the minions of Kim Jong Il figured out that national starvation could be solved by means of larger rabbits, each of which could feed many more humans than ordinary examples of that species.

By Communist standards, the plan was good—easier than reversing rivers or smelting backyard steel. But alas, the timing was bad. Apparently, the rabbits arrived in North Korea just before the Dear Leader’s birthday, an occasion of jubilant feasting—at least by him. According to a new report, the German breeder of the giant bunnies has told reporters that the creatures disappeared before they could begin reproducing. Karl Szmolinksy, who had contracted to come to North Korea to help manage the rabbits’ propagation, has said that as far as he can discover they were requisitioned for the celebratory dinner table. “North Korea won’t be getting any more rabbits from me. They don’t even need to bother asking,” said the indignant man.

Considering the millions of human beings that perished in other Communist projects, the loss of a few rabbits is no cause for mourning—except that the North Korean people are still starving. Perhaps next, instead of larger rabbits, their Dear Leader et al. will try breeding smaller citizens.

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