Commentary Magazine


Topic: the University of Michigan

The Afghan Study Group Opines

Something called the Afghan Study Group has produced a report on “A New Way Forward in Afghanistan.” A quick glance at the list of signatories shows a group of individuals who are not exactly notable for their expertise in Afghanistan but who can be counted on to oppose any plan of winning a war, be it the “surge” in Iraq or the one now going on in Afghanistan. For instance: Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, left-wing blogger and Arabist Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, economist James Galbraith of the University of Texas, telecom executive Leo Hindery, the notorious Iran apologists Flynt and Hillary Leverett, and, of course, anti-Israel propagandist Stephen Walt of Harvard. There are, to be sure, among the people who have signed on, a few who have actually spent some time in the region, such as former State Department employee Matthew Hoh and think-tanker Selig Harrison. But the report is notable for its standard anti-war bromides rather than any convincing “way forward” and certainly not for any “new way” put forth.

My article in COMMENTARY, on the “Case for Optimism,” offers a detailed rebuttal of many of the vapid arguments they make, but a few further observations are in order. First there is the wishful thinking that somehow victory isn’t important: “Protecting our interests does not require a U.S. military victory over the Taliban,” they write. “A Taliban takeover is unlikely even if the United States reduces its military commitment … and the risk of a new ‘safe haven’ there under more ‘friendly’ Taliban rule is overstated.” Talk about a triumph of hope over experience. The Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 1990s when the U.S. wasn’t involved and immediately turned their country into a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Why would they do any differently today? If anything, the ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban are stronger today than they were in the 1990s.

Their recommendations are really grasping for straws. They loudly demand: “Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion,” “encourage economic development,” and “engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability.” As if the U.S. hasn’t been doing all of the above since 2001. Guess what? It hasn’t worked. The Taliban are a determined, well-armed insurgency group and they see no reason to reach a power-sharing deal, no matter what “regional and global stakeholders” say. Of course, there is not a hint of how key stakeholders such as Iran and Pakistan, which support the Taliban, can be convinced to cut them off. Instead, there is a blind hope that somehow “economic development” will ameliorate Afghanistan’s woes in the face of abundant evidence that the economic aid provided since 2001 has instead made the situation worse in many respects, by fueling out-of-control corruption.

The authors of this report, with their faith in negotiating with the enemy, would do well to read this recent Wall Street Journal dispatch by ace correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov, which notes what anyone with any knowledge of Afghanistan already knows. First, that “Afghanistan’s three largest ethnic minorities” oppose “outreach to the Taliban, which they said could pave the way for the fundamentalist group’s return to power and reignite civil war.” Second, “Unless it is dealt a decisive setback in coming months, the only thing the Taliban may be interested in negotiating with Mr. Karzai is how to secure control of the central government in Kabul.” Third, “Few Afghans … believe that the Taliban, who already control ethnic Pashtun pockets throughout northern and western Afghanistan, would really stop the war after gaining the south and the east.”

In other words, negotiations with the Taliban would not result in some kind of painless resolution of the long-running war. It would only make the war bigger and more deadly, with the likely result being a Taliban triumph — just as in the 1990s. The members of the Afghan Study Group seem to think that outcome would be in America’s interests. Luckily President Obama does not. He has been right to increase our commitment in Afghanistan in the face of such feckless second-guessing on the home front. I only hope he keeps his nerve as pressure builds for a premature pullout that would hand the jihadists their biggest victory ever.

Something called the Afghan Study Group has produced a report on “A New Way Forward in Afghanistan.” A quick glance at the list of signatories shows a group of individuals who are not exactly notable for their expertise in Afghanistan but who can be counted on to oppose any plan of winning a war, be it the “surge” in Iraq or the one now going on in Afghanistan. For instance: Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, left-wing blogger and Arabist Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, economist James Galbraith of the University of Texas, telecom executive Leo Hindery, the notorious Iran apologists Flynt and Hillary Leverett, and, of course, anti-Israel propagandist Stephen Walt of Harvard. There are, to be sure, among the people who have signed on, a few who have actually spent some time in the region, such as former State Department employee Matthew Hoh and think-tanker Selig Harrison. But the report is notable for its standard anti-war bromides rather than any convincing “way forward” and certainly not for any “new way” put forth.

My article in COMMENTARY, on the “Case for Optimism,” offers a detailed rebuttal of many of the vapid arguments they make, but a few further observations are in order. First there is the wishful thinking that somehow victory isn’t important: “Protecting our interests does not require a U.S. military victory over the Taliban,” they write. “A Taliban takeover is unlikely even if the United States reduces its military commitment … and the risk of a new ‘safe haven’ there under more ‘friendly’ Taliban rule is overstated.” Talk about a triumph of hope over experience. The Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 1990s when the U.S. wasn’t involved and immediately turned their country into a safe haven for al-Qaeda. Why would they do any differently today? If anything, the ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban are stronger today than they were in the 1990s.

Their recommendations are really grasping for straws. They loudly demand: “Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion,” “encourage economic development,” and “engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability.” As if the U.S. hasn’t been doing all of the above since 2001. Guess what? It hasn’t worked. The Taliban are a determined, well-armed insurgency group and they see no reason to reach a power-sharing deal, no matter what “regional and global stakeholders” say. Of course, there is not a hint of how key stakeholders such as Iran and Pakistan, which support the Taliban, can be convinced to cut them off. Instead, there is a blind hope that somehow “economic development” will ameliorate Afghanistan’s woes in the face of abundant evidence that the economic aid provided since 2001 has instead made the situation worse in many respects, by fueling out-of-control corruption.

The authors of this report, with their faith in negotiating with the enemy, would do well to read this recent Wall Street Journal dispatch by ace correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov, which notes what anyone with any knowledge of Afghanistan already knows. First, that “Afghanistan’s three largest ethnic minorities” oppose “outreach to the Taliban, which they said could pave the way for the fundamentalist group’s return to power and reignite civil war.” Second, “Unless it is dealt a decisive setback in coming months, the only thing the Taliban may be interested in negotiating with Mr. Karzai is how to secure control of the central government in Kabul.” Third, “Few Afghans … believe that the Taliban, who already control ethnic Pashtun pockets throughout northern and western Afghanistan, would really stop the war after gaining the south and the east.”

In other words, negotiations with the Taliban would not result in some kind of painless resolution of the long-running war. It would only make the war bigger and more deadly, with the likely result being a Taliban triumph — just as in the 1990s. The members of the Afghan Study Group seem to think that outcome would be in America’s interests. Luckily President Obama does not. He has been right to increase our commitment in Afghanistan in the face of such feckless second-guessing on the home front. I only hope he keeps his nerve as pressure builds for a premature pullout that would hand the jihadists their biggest victory ever.

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Obama Should Heed His Own Advice

This weekend President Obama delivered the University of Michigan commencement address and returned to a favorite theme of his: the need for civility and respect in public discourse. In the president’s words:

The… way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate…. we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.

… The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning — since after all, why should we listen to a “fascist” or “socialist” or “right-wing nut?” It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what can we do about this?

As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash and burn politics isn’t easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.

These are wise words that should be taken seriously. Especially by the president himself.

I say that because President Obama’s party and his chief defenders — including the DNC, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Reid — have routinely engaged in the kind of vilification the president condemns. Think of the assault on the Tea Party Movement and those who attended town-hall meetings last summer; they were accused of being racists and bigots, “an angry mob,” practitioners of “un-American tactics,” “astroturfers” and Nazi-like, and potential Timothy McVeighs. Harry Reid referred to people who showed up at town-hall meetings as “evil-mongers.” Representative Alay Grayson, in characterizing the GOP health-care plans, said that “the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick…. This is what the Republicans want you to do.”

On and on it goes, issue after issue, slander after slander. Yet President Obama has done nothing to call off the attack dogs in his own party, despite his enormous influence with them.

In fact, Obama himself has engaged in ad hominem attacks to a degree that is unusual for a president. He constantly impugns the motives of those who have policy disagreements with him. His critics are greedy, venal, irresponsible, demagogic, cynical, bought and paid for, spreaders of misinformation, distorters of truth. “More than any President in memory,” the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “Mr. Obama has a tendency to vilify his opponents in personal terms and assail their arguments as dishonest, illegitimate or motivated by bad faith.”

So President Obama lacerates his critics for engaging in the very activity he indulges in. And he does so in the haughtiest way imaginable, always attempting to portray himself as hovering above us mere mortals, exasperated at the childish and petty quality of the political debate, weary of the name-calling. How hard it must be to be the embodiment of Socratic discourse, Solomonic wisdom, and Niebuhrian nuance in this fallen and broken world.

Here is the rather unpleasant reality, though: our president fancies himself a public intellectual of the highest order — think Walter Lippmann as chief executive — even as he and his team are accomplished practitioners of the Chicago Way. They relish targeting those on their enemies list. The president himself pretends to engage his critics’ arguments even as his words are used like a flamethrower in a field of straw men. It’s hard to tell if we’re watching a man engaged in an elaborate political shell game or a victim of an extraordinary, and nearly clinical, case of self-delusion. Perhaps there is some of both at play. Regardless, President Obama’s act became tiresome long ago.

I am reminded of the line from Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

This weekend President Obama delivered the University of Michigan commencement address and returned to a favorite theme of his: the need for civility and respect in public discourse. In the president’s words:

The… way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate…. we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.

… The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning — since after all, why should we listen to a “fascist” or “socialist” or “right-wing nut?” It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what can we do about this?

As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash and burn politics isn’t easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.

These are wise words that should be taken seriously. Especially by the president himself.

I say that because President Obama’s party and his chief defenders — including the DNC, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Reid — have routinely engaged in the kind of vilification the president condemns. Think of the assault on the Tea Party Movement and those who attended town-hall meetings last summer; they were accused of being racists and bigots, “an angry mob,” practitioners of “un-American tactics,” “astroturfers” and Nazi-like, and potential Timothy McVeighs. Harry Reid referred to people who showed up at town-hall meetings as “evil-mongers.” Representative Alay Grayson, in characterizing the GOP health-care plans, said that “the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick…. This is what the Republicans want you to do.”

On and on it goes, issue after issue, slander after slander. Yet President Obama has done nothing to call off the attack dogs in his own party, despite his enormous influence with them.

In fact, Obama himself has engaged in ad hominem attacks to a degree that is unusual for a president. He constantly impugns the motives of those who have policy disagreements with him. His critics are greedy, venal, irresponsible, demagogic, cynical, bought and paid for, spreaders of misinformation, distorters of truth. “More than any President in memory,” the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “Mr. Obama has a tendency to vilify his opponents in personal terms and assail their arguments as dishonest, illegitimate or motivated by bad faith.”

So President Obama lacerates his critics for engaging in the very activity he indulges in. And he does so in the haughtiest way imaginable, always attempting to portray himself as hovering above us mere mortals, exasperated at the childish and petty quality of the political debate, weary of the name-calling. How hard it must be to be the embodiment of Socratic discourse, Solomonic wisdom, and Niebuhrian nuance in this fallen and broken world.

Here is the rather unpleasant reality, though: our president fancies himself a public intellectual of the highest order — think Walter Lippmann as chief executive — even as he and his team are accomplished practitioners of the Chicago Way. They relish targeting those on their enemies list. The president himself pretends to engage his critics’ arguments even as his words are used like a flamethrower in a field of straw men. It’s hard to tell if we’re watching a man engaged in an elaborate political shell game or a victim of an extraordinary, and nearly clinical, case of self-delusion. Perhaps there is some of both at play. Regardless, President Obama’s act became tiresome long ago.

I am reminded of the line from Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

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Post-Racial No More

So much for the post-racial presidency. This report explains:

The Obama administration has asked a federal appeals court to uphold a race-conscious admissions system at the University of Texas at Austin, aiming to stymie a lawsuit that conservatives hope will spur the Supreme Court to limit affirmative action at public colleges.

The Texas case tests a 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld a race-conscious admissions system at the University of Michigan Law School. That ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger said the law school had “a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body.” By a 5-4 vote, the court prohibited “outright racial balancing,” but said race could be a “plus” factor to build a “critical mass” of minority students.

Since Grutter — when then Justice Sandra Day O’Connor promised racial preferences would fade away (“We expect that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”) — universities have maintained a fiction, namely that race matters but isn’t the sole factor in admissions. Nevertheless, it matters enough to assure admission at elite schools of minority students whose test scores and grade point average are significantly worse than non-minority students. Given the Grutter roadmap (the requirement to show a “holistic” admissions approach), admissions officers and legal defenders of the thinly disguised racial-preference schemes must resort to verbal gymnastics to justify their programs:

Patricia Ohlendorf, vice president for legal affairs at the Austin campus, said many private and public universities take some account of race in admissions. Because blacks and Hispanics on average score lower on entrance exams than white and Asian-American applicants, universities have adopted affirmative-action programs to compensate.

“We think it is critical to being able to achieve the diverse institution that we think is important,” she said.

The Obama administration agrees. “[The] university’s effort to promote diversity is a paramount government objective,” says the brief filed by the Education and Justice departments. The administration disputed claims that Texas was simply engaging in raw racial preferences.

“The question is not whether an individual belongs to a racial group, but rather how an individual’s membership in any group may provide deeper understanding of the person’s record and experiences, as well as the contribution she can make to the school,” the brief says.

What?! This is just mumbo-jumbo. It’s not the individual’s race but that individual’s membership in a racial group that is of interest? An “individual’s membership in any group may provide deeper understanding of the person’s record and experiences, as well as the contribution she can make to the school”? Somehow, school admissions officers invariably achieve this “deeper understanding” especially for minority students, who have learned to provide just enough fodder in their applications to satisfy admissions officers that there is a rationale for allowing these students to leapfrog over more qualified peers.

The Fifth Circuit will decide if all of this rhetorical hocus-pocus is worthy of deference or whether, in the Obama era, it’s time to finally put an end to the racial-preference rackets. Unfortunately, the Court will find no encouragement from the not-at-all-post-racial president.

So much for the post-racial presidency. This report explains:

The Obama administration has asked a federal appeals court to uphold a race-conscious admissions system at the University of Texas at Austin, aiming to stymie a lawsuit that conservatives hope will spur the Supreme Court to limit affirmative action at public colleges.

The Texas case tests a 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld a race-conscious admissions system at the University of Michigan Law School. That ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger said the law school had “a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body.” By a 5-4 vote, the court prohibited “outright racial balancing,” but said race could be a “plus” factor to build a “critical mass” of minority students.

Since Grutter — when then Justice Sandra Day O’Connor promised racial preferences would fade away (“We expect that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”) — universities have maintained a fiction, namely that race matters but isn’t the sole factor in admissions. Nevertheless, it matters enough to assure admission at elite schools of minority students whose test scores and grade point average are significantly worse than non-minority students. Given the Grutter roadmap (the requirement to show a “holistic” admissions approach), admissions officers and legal defenders of the thinly disguised racial-preference schemes must resort to verbal gymnastics to justify their programs:

Patricia Ohlendorf, vice president for legal affairs at the Austin campus, said many private and public universities take some account of race in admissions. Because blacks and Hispanics on average score lower on entrance exams than white and Asian-American applicants, universities have adopted affirmative-action programs to compensate.

“We think it is critical to being able to achieve the diverse institution that we think is important,” she said.

The Obama administration agrees. “[The] university’s effort to promote diversity is a paramount government objective,” says the brief filed by the Education and Justice departments. The administration disputed claims that Texas was simply engaging in raw racial preferences.

“The question is not whether an individual belongs to a racial group, but rather how an individual’s membership in any group may provide deeper understanding of the person’s record and experiences, as well as the contribution she can make to the school,” the brief says.

What?! This is just mumbo-jumbo. It’s not the individual’s race but that individual’s membership in a racial group that is of interest? An “individual’s membership in any group may provide deeper understanding of the person’s record and experiences, as well as the contribution she can make to the school”? Somehow, school admissions officers invariably achieve this “deeper understanding” especially for minority students, who have learned to provide just enough fodder in their applications to satisfy admissions officers that there is a rationale for allowing these students to leapfrog over more qualified peers.

The Fifth Circuit will decide if all of this rhetorical hocus-pocus is worthy of deference or whether, in the Obama era, it’s time to finally put an end to the racial-preference rackets. Unfortunately, the Court will find no encouragement from the not-at-all-post-racial president.

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Why the Universal Health-Care Insurance Fetish?

Republicans have been tossing out alternatives to government-centric ObamaCare for some time. They have suggested, among other ideas, that we change the tax treatment of individually purchased insurance plans, reform the tort system, and allow interstate insurance sales. But now Jim Prevor raises an interesting and compelling question: if people want to go without insurance and instead self-insure, why is it the government’s job to stop them? Or put differently:

The fact that the national debate has focused on insurance for health care–as opposed to the accessibility of care–is a byproduct of the particular worldview that all “basic needs” should be provided by communal institutions, preferably the government but, alternatively, highly regulated companies that do the government’s bidding.

Prevor suggests that we “give families money or vouchers that they could use to buy health insurance or any other thing they deemed helpful to their family’s future” and urges lawmakers to work on the supply side of care, not insurance, by among other things “wreak[ing] havoc on the American Medical Association’s efforts to restrain the supply of doctors.” Along the lines of Prevor’s argument, one of the more successful ventures in the Bush administration was emphasis on community health centers that expand care for needy Americans, quite apart from the insurance part of the equation. And expansion of medical accounts, which allows individuals to either buy insurance or pay for medical cost directly, would, following Prevor’s argument, maintain personal responsibility, individual choice, and make health-care purchases more accessible by allowing individuals to use pre-tax dollars to pay for their own care.

But what of the “cost shifting” problem caused by uninsured people? Well, now that the Democrats propose to dump millions of people into Medicare, which doesn’t fully compensate doctors and hospitals, it appears as though that argument is going by the wayside. Furthermore, as Mike Tanner of CATO has explained, cost shifting in the current system has been exaggerated and may account for a small portion of health-care costs. He notes that “it is a manageable problem. According to Jack Hadley and John Holahan of the left-leaning Urban Institute, uncompensated care for the uninsured amounts to less than 3% of total healthcare spending — a real cost, no doubt, but hardly a crisis.”

Tanner has also addressed the implied assumption of health-care reformers that universal health-care insurance will improve the nation’s collective health. He says that “in reviewing all the academic literature on the subject, Helen Levy of the University of Michigan’s Economic Research Initiative on the Uninsured, and David Meltzer of the University of Chicago, were unable to establish a ‘causal relationship’ between health insurance and better health. Believe it or not, there is ‘no evidence,’ Levy and Meltzer wrote, that expanding insurance coverage is a cost-effective way to promote health.” A New England Journal of Medicine article in 2006 likewise found that “health insurance status was largely unrelated to the quality of care.” It seems as though even if we force people to self-insure, they may not wind up much healthier.

In sum, Prevor raises a key point: the fixation on universal health-care insurance has distorted the health-care debate. It might, as he suggests, be a good time to take a step back and see whether the quest for universal insurance is really where we should be focusing our attention. Maybe it is time, as he puts it, to remember that “the moral imperative is not making everyone buy insurance. The moral imperative is freedom.”

Republicans have been tossing out alternatives to government-centric ObamaCare for some time. They have suggested, among other ideas, that we change the tax treatment of individually purchased insurance plans, reform the tort system, and allow interstate insurance sales. But now Jim Prevor raises an interesting and compelling question: if people want to go without insurance and instead self-insure, why is it the government’s job to stop them? Or put differently:

The fact that the national debate has focused on insurance for health care–as opposed to the accessibility of care–is a byproduct of the particular worldview that all “basic needs” should be provided by communal institutions, preferably the government but, alternatively, highly regulated companies that do the government’s bidding.

Prevor suggests that we “give families money or vouchers that they could use to buy health insurance or any other thing they deemed helpful to their family’s future” and urges lawmakers to work on the supply side of care, not insurance, by among other things “wreak[ing] havoc on the American Medical Association’s efforts to restrain the supply of doctors.” Along the lines of Prevor’s argument, one of the more successful ventures in the Bush administration was emphasis on community health centers that expand care for needy Americans, quite apart from the insurance part of the equation. And expansion of medical accounts, which allows individuals to either buy insurance or pay for medical cost directly, would, following Prevor’s argument, maintain personal responsibility, individual choice, and make health-care purchases more accessible by allowing individuals to use pre-tax dollars to pay for their own care.

But what of the “cost shifting” problem caused by uninsured people? Well, now that the Democrats propose to dump millions of people into Medicare, which doesn’t fully compensate doctors and hospitals, it appears as though that argument is going by the wayside. Furthermore, as Mike Tanner of CATO has explained, cost shifting in the current system has been exaggerated and may account for a small portion of health-care costs. He notes that “it is a manageable problem. According to Jack Hadley and John Holahan of the left-leaning Urban Institute, uncompensated care for the uninsured amounts to less than 3% of total healthcare spending — a real cost, no doubt, but hardly a crisis.”

Tanner has also addressed the implied assumption of health-care reformers that universal health-care insurance will improve the nation’s collective health. He says that “in reviewing all the academic literature on the subject, Helen Levy of the University of Michigan’s Economic Research Initiative on the Uninsured, and David Meltzer of the University of Chicago, were unable to establish a ‘causal relationship’ between health insurance and better health. Believe it or not, there is ‘no evidence,’ Levy and Meltzer wrote, that expanding insurance coverage is a cost-effective way to promote health.” A New England Journal of Medicine article in 2006 likewise found that “health insurance status was largely unrelated to the quality of care.” It seems as though even if we force people to self-insure, they may not wind up much healthier.

In sum, Prevor raises a key point: the fixation on universal health-care insurance has distorted the health-care debate. It might, as he suggests, be a good time to take a step back and see whether the quest for universal insurance is really where we should be focusing our attention. Maybe it is time, as he puts it, to remember that “the moral imperative is not making everyone buy insurance. The moral imperative is freedom.”

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Juan Cole’s Curious Lexicon

Juan Cole is a Middle East history professor at the University of Michigan. By virtue of his blog he has become, in recent years, a foreign policy go-to guy for the Left. For all the preening that Cole does about the nuance and sophistication of his Middle East expertise, he remains a leaden and predictable commentator whose opinions flow from the inviolable premise that the only thing one must understand in order to make sense of the world is that American and Israeli transgressions are root causes. Understanding this, all the rest—terrorism, Islamism, Arab rage, etc.—falls tidily into place.

And so yesterday, Cole posted the following bit of invective, nasty but typical:

When we cannot understand why Arab audiences, who are perfectly aware of what the Israeli army has been doing to Palestinians for decades, are outraged, it leads us into policy mistakes in dealing with the Middle East. No one in the U.S. media ever talks about Zionofascism, and the campus groups who yoke the word “fascism” to other religions and peoples are most often trying to divert attention from their own authoritarianism and approval of brutality.

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Juan Cole is a Middle East history professor at the University of Michigan. By virtue of his blog he has become, in recent years, a foreign policy go-to guy for the Left. For all the preening that Cole does about the nuance and sophistication of his Middle East expertise, he remains a leaden and predictable commentator whose opinions flow from the inviolable premise that the only thing one must understand in order to make sense of the world is that American and Israeli transgressions are root causes. Understanding this, all the rest—terrorism, Islamism, Arab rage, etc.—falls tidily into place.

And so yesterday, Cole posted the following bit of invective, nasty but typical:

When we cannot understand why Arab audiences, who are perfectly aware of what the Israeli army has been doing to Palestinians for decades, are outraged, it leads us into policy mistakes in dealing with the Middle East. No one in the U.S. media ever talks about Zionofascism, and the campus groups who yoke the word “fascism” to other religions and peoples are most often trying to divert attention from their own authoritarianism and approval of brutality.

Standard Chomskyite fare, for the most part—except for the word “Zionofascism,” which caught my eye. I’ve read a lot of this kind of invective, but I hadn’t seen that one before. The word doesn’t appear in a Google News search, except for one hit from a French news site that published Cole’s post. Doing an Internet-wide Google search turns up about 600 hits, and almost every one of them links to a particularly nasty anti-Semitic blog that traffics in such conspiracy theories as Israeli involvement in September 11 and a “Kirkuk to Haifa pipeline” (i.e. that the Iraq war is being fought to provide oil to Israel). The blog also conveys a predictable litany of comic-book theories about Jewish plots to dominate the world. That word—”Zionofascism”—is scarcely to be found anywhere on the Internet other than on the Zionofascism blog, or on a small group of hate sites that link to the Zionofascism blog.

Cole wonders why the U.S. media never talk about Zionofascism. The answer is that Zionofascism is a term invented by anti-Semites, for anti-Semites, that so far has seen regular use only by anti-Semites. Cole, who uses words and makes distinctions for a living, presumably knows this. Aside from the question of what Cole is reading—I doubt “Zionofascism” is a Cole neologism—there is the question of the readers to whom he is pandering. Why does he give a nod to anti-Semites?

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The Mystery of Ross Macdonald

Seeking inspiration and education along with entertainment, generals like to read about earlier generals, presidents about earlier presidents, tycoons about earlier tycoons, and so on. I like to read tales of generals, presidents, tycoons, and other men of action, too, but, as a writer, I have a special fondness for stories about fellow writers, even if they work in very different genres.

I just finished one such book—Ross Macdonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan—which strikes me as particularly inspirational to anyone who is a published author, or aspires to be one. The subject is one of our greatest mystery novelists—a man who is usually considered one of the grand masters of the form, along with his predecessors, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Although Hammett was the most original of the three—he basically invented the hard-boiled detective genre—for some reason, I’ve never found his novels and short stories all that engaging; I make an exception of his best-known work, The Maltese Falcon, which is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Chandler has always been my favorite mystery novelist (and one of my favorite novelists, period), notwithstanding his problems with plotting, because of his beautiful writing and timeless evocations of my hometown, Los Angeles.

Ross Macdonald, author of classics such as The Galton Case, The Chill, The Goodbye Look, and The Moving Target (filmed as Harper in 1966, starring Paul Newman), featuring detective Lew Archer, has always ranked second in my pantheon. But I never knew much about him until picking up this fascinating biography by the Wall Street Journal’s mystery reviewer, Tom Nolan.

Nolan’s book features many revelations about Macdonald, the pen name for the writer Kenneth Millar. We learn about Macdonald’s relationship with his wife, fellow mystery writer Margaret Millar; the story of their troubled daughter, who as a teenager killed a child in a drunk driving accident, and then died in her early thirties; Macdonald’s seriousness of purpose and generosity to fellow writers. All this interested me.

But what really made the book inspirational was the story of how long it took Macdonald to succeed at his chosen craft. He began writing novels as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1940’s, but he didn’t achieve widespread renown or bestsellerdom until the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. For two decades he churned out well-crafted books, year after year, only to sell a few thousand copies in hardcover and attract positive notices in “mystery roundup” columns relegated to newspaper inside pages. Together, he and his wife often made as much as a high school teacher. Money was a constant worry. But Macdonald kept toiling away, getting better and better, rejecting the extreme violence and bad writing that allowed hacks like Mickey Spillane, author of the Mike Hammer series, to sell far more books. And eventually Macdonald was rewarded by readers and critics. Now that’s what I call a happy ending.

Seeking inspiration and education along with entertainment, generals like to read about earlier generals, presidents about earlier presidents, tycoons about earlier tycoons, and so on. I like to read tales of generals, presidents, tycoons, and other men of action, too, but, as a writer, I have a special fondness for stories about fellow writers, even if they work in very different genres.

I just finished one such book—Ross Macdonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan—which strikes me as particularly inspirational to anyone who is a published author, or aspires to be one. The subject is one of our greatest mystery novelists—a man who is usually considered one of the grand masters of the form, along with his predecessors, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Although Hammett was the most original of the three—he basically invented the hard-boiled detective genre—for some reason, I’ve never found his novels and short stories all that engaging; I make an exception of his best-known work, The Maltese Falcon, which is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Chandler has always been my favorite mystery novelist (and one of my favorite novelists, period), notwithstanding his problems with plotting, because of his beautiful writing and timeless evocations of my hometown, Los Angeles.

Ross Macdonald, author of classics such as The Galton Case, The Chill, The Goodbye Look, and The Moving Target (filmed as Harper in 1966, starring Paul Newman), featuring detective Lew Archer, has always ranked second in my pantheon. But I never knew much about him until picking up this fascinating biography by the Wall Street Journal’s mystery reviewer, Tom Nolan.

Nolan’s book features many revelations about Macdonald, the pen name for the writer Kenneth Millar. We learn about Macdonald’s relationship with his wife, fellow mystery writer Margaret Millar; the story of their troubled daughter, who as a teenager killed a child in a drunk driving accident, and then died in her early thirties; Macdonald’s seriousness of purpose and generosity to fellow writers. All this interested me.

But what really made the book inspirational was the story of how long it took Macdonald to succeed at his chosen craft. He began writing novels as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1940’s, but he didn’t achieve widespread renown or bestsellerdom until the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. For two decades he churned out well-crafted books, year after year, only to sell a few thousand copies in hardcover and attract positive notices in “mystery roundup” columns relegated to newspaper inside pages. Together, he and his wife often made as much as a high school teacher. Money was a constant worry. But Macdonald kept toiling away, getting better and better, rejecting the extreme violence and bad writing that allowed hacks like Mickey Spillane, author of the Mike Hammer series, to sell far more books. And eventually Macdonald was rewarded by readers and critics. Now that’s what I call a happy ending.

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