Commentary Magazine


Topic: Yale

Bookshelf

• Of all the myriad phrases that should be banned from the vocabularies of critics, “definitive biography” belongs at the top of the list. No such book exists, least of all when its subject is a person of major historical significance. About such rare birds no last words can ever be uttered. I’ve published one large-scale primary-source biography of an important writer and recently finished writing another about an important musician, and in neither case did it ever occur to me that I had said everything there was to say about my subjects.

Even less did Ian Kershaw exhaust the subject of Adolf Hitler in his impeccably researched, coolly well-written two-volume biography, in part because Kershaw, a professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield, sought to describe Hitler’s life in the light of the contemporary historical point of view that emphasizes the power of society over the significance of the individual. Like all such books, Kershaw’s Hitler, for all its great value, sometimes resembles a handsomely crafted picture frame with nothing in it. So it is in certain ways even more profitable to read Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution (Yale, 394 pp., $32.50), a collection of essays written between 1977 and the present day and assembled by the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Here we can see Kershaw working out his interpretation of Hitler step by step.

The insufficiently vivid literary portraiture that is the chief weakness of Kershaw’s “Hitler” is by definition less of a problem within the narrower compass of a single-topic essay. Without exception, the 14 pieces collected in Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, which range from an analysis of Hitler’s early speeches and writings to an exceedingly hard-headed essay that asks why “the ultra-violence that characterized the first half of the [20th] century had no equivalent in the second half,” are penetrating and illuminating. The introduction, in which Kershaw offers the reader “a clearer glimpse of the historian behind the history,” is no less worthy of close consideration. What led him to devote the greater part of his adult life to studying Nazi Germany and writing a two-volume scholarly biography of a monster like Hitler? As Kershaw explains it:

I had come to German history via an increased competence in the German language-German was a subject unavailable at my school, so I was able to begin learning it only in 1969, and then for three years purely as a casual hobby-and what really, and increasingly, intrigued me, as a product of postwar British democracy, was how Germany had so completely succumbed to a dictatorship which had brought about world war and, to ratinal minds, a scarcely intelligible persecution and extermination of the Jews.

By such unlikely routes are life-shaping decisions reached.

Kershaw’s prefatory excursion into intellectual autobiography ends with “a rather gloomy look into the crystal ball”:

At least, a replication of the conditions which produced the Holocaust is, mercifully, nowhere in sight. The problems are now very different to those which gave rise to Hitler and genocidal antisemitism. Even so, it is difficult to view the future with great optimism. The threat from an international order in disarray, most obviously in the Middle East, is palpable. And humankind’s capacity to combine new forms of ideological demonisation with bureaucratic refinement and unparalleled technological killing power is far from eradicated. So far, with great effort, the combination, which would be truly dangerous if marshalled by a powerful state entity, has been held in check. Will it continue to be?

To read these words in a book that bears the name “Yad Vashem” on the title page is at once sobering and tonic.

• Of all the myriad phrases that should be banned from the vocabularies of critics, “definitive biography” belongs at the top of the list. No such book exists, least of all when its subject is a person of major historical significance. About such rare birds no last words can ever be uttered. I’ve published one large-scale primary-source biography of an important writer and recently finished writing another about an important musician, and in neither case did it ever occur to me that I had said everything there was to say about my subjects.

Even less did Ian Kershaw exhaust the subject of Adolf Hitler in his impeccably researched, coolly well-written two-volume biography, in part because Kershaw, a professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield, sought to describe Hitler’s life in the light of the contemporary historical point of view that emphasizes the power of society over the significance of the individual. Like all such books, Kershaw’s Hitler, for all its great value, sometimes resembles a handsomely crafted picture frame with nothing in it. So it is in certain ways even more profitable to read Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution (Yale, 394 pp., $32.50), a collection of essays written between 1977 and the present day and assembled by the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Here we can see Kershaw working out his interpretation of Hitler step by step.

The insufficiently vivid literary portraiture that is the chief weakness of Kershaw’s “Hitler” is by definition less of a problem within the narrower compass of a single-topic essay. Without exception, the 14 pieces collected in Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, which range from an analysis of Hitler’s early speeches and writings to an exceedingly hard-headed essay that asks why “the ultra-violence that characterized the first half of the [20th] century had no equivalent in the second half,” are penetrating and illuminating. The introduction, in which Kershaw offers the reader “a clearer glimpse of the historian behind the history,” is no less worthy of close consideration. What led him to devote the greater part of his adult life to studying Nazi Germany and writing a two-volume scholarly biography of a monster like Hitler? As Kershaw explains it:

I had come to German history via an increased competence in the German language-German was a subject unavailable at my school, so I was able to begin learning it only in 1969, and then for three years purely as a casual hobby-and what really, and increasingly, intrigued me, as a product of postwar British democracy, was how Germany had so completely succumbed to a dictatorship which had brought about world war and, to ratinal minds, a scarcely intelligible persecution and extermination of the Jews.

By such unlikely routes are life-shaping decisions reached.

Kershaw’s prefatory excursion into intellectual autobiography ends with “a rather gloomy look into the crystal ball”:

At least, a replication of the conditions which produced the Holocaust is, mercifully, nowhere in sight. The problems are now very different to those which gave rise to Hitler and genocidal antisemitism. Even so, it is difficult to view the future with great optimism. The threat from an international order in disarray, most obviously in the Middle East, is palpable. And humankind’s capacity to combine new forms of ideological demonisation with bureaucratic refinement and unparalleled technological killing power is far from eradicated. So far, with great effort, the combination, which would be truly dangerous if marshalled by a powerful state entity, has been held in check. Will it continue to be?

To read these words in a book that bears the name “Yad Vashem” on the title page is at once sobering and tonic.

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Bookshelf

How exasperating can a very short book be? I give you Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History (Yale, 141 pp., $22). Ozersky, whose official title is “Food Editor/Online for New York Magazine” (love that slash), has contrived in not much more than a hundred pages of heavily leaded text to cram in everything I find most irksome about the postmodern branch of semi-scholarship known as cultural studies: the jaw-breaking jargon, the sniggering coyness, the don’t-take-me-too-seriously irony.

The irritation starts on the second page:

Even before the hamburger became a universal signifier of imperialism abroad and unwholesomeness at home, it had a special semiotic power-a quality not shared even by other great American sandwiches like the hot dog, the patty melt, the Dagwood, the Reuben, the po’boy, or even such totemic standards as fried chicken and apple pie. At the end of the day, nothing says America like a hamburger . . . . Is it a sizzling disc of goodness, served in a roadside restaurant dense with local lore, or the grim end product of a secret, sinister empire of tormented animals and unspeakable slaughtering practices? Is it cooking or commodity? An icon of freedom or the quintessence of conformity?

The Hamburger is like that from start to finish. Is the hamburger a Bad Thing? Well, yes, it must be, if only because it is an American Thing beloved of ordinary folk, and you know all about those pesky ordinary folk, right? But the damn thing still tastes good, so Ozersky writes about its cultural history in such a way as to suggest at all times his superiority to that which he nonetheless allows himself to enjoy–and the benighted Americans who continue to insist on enjoying it unselfconsciously. Like a limousine liberal of fast-food cuisine, he wanders in and out of both camps, nibbling his medium-rare cheeseburgers with just the right amount of ennobling guilt.

The have-it-both-ways trickery of The Hamburger is displayed at length in the chapter devoted to McDonald’s, which Ozersky calls “the most symbolically loaded business in the world,” one that “represents America to the world in a way no other business ever has or likely ever will.” We are simultaneously invited to admire the ingenuity with which the founders of McDonald’s contrived to automate the production of 15-cent hamburgers and to tremble at the larger implications of unleashing such a technology on an unprepared world–yet at no time does Ozersky ever commit himself to the loony leftism of the anti-McDonald’s fanatics who regard Ray Kroc as the source of all evil in the modern world. In describing the experience of Sandy Agate, one of the first McDonald’s franchisees, Ozersky assures us that his story “doesn’t end happily. (Arguably, the same could be said of the McDonald’s Corporation or for that matter America.)” That throwaway parenthesis says everything about The Hamburger.

Robert Warshow first anatomized Ozersky’s politico-literary technique in his 1947 Partisan Review essay on the New Yorker:

The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.

Who could have predicted in 1947 that someone would come along six decades later who could write about the lowly hamburger in such a manner? Of such is the kingdom of cultural studies, where everything is permitted, even the consumption of ground beef on a white-bread bun–so long as you do it with the right attitude.

How exasperating can a very short book be? I give you Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger: A History (Yale, 141 pp., $22). Ozersky, whose official title is “Food Editor/Online for New York Magazine” (love that slash), has contrived in not much more than a hundred pages of heavily leaded text to cram in everything I find most irksome about the postmodern branch of semi-scholarship known as cultural studies: the jaw-breaking jargon, the sniggering coyness, the don’t-take-me-too-seriously irony.

The irritation starts on the second page:

Even before the hamburger became a universal signifier of imperialism abroad and unwholesomeness at home, it had a special semiotic power-a quality not shared even by other great American sandwiches like the hot dog, the patty melt, the Dagwood, the Reuben, the po’boy, or even such totemic standards as fried chicken and apple pie. At the end of the day, nothing says America like a hamburger . . . . Is it a sizzling disc of goodness, served in a roadside restaurant dense with local lore, or the grim end product of a secret, sinister empire of tormented animals and unspeakable slaughtering practices? Is it cooking or commodity? An icon of freedom or the quintessence of conformity?

The Hamburger is like that from start to finish. Is the hamburger a Bad Thing? Well, yes, it must be, if only because it is an American Thing beloved of ordinary folk, and you know all about those pesky ordinary folk, right? But the damn thing still tastes good, so Ozersky writes about its cultural history in such a way as to suggest at all times his superiority to that which he nonetheless allows himself to enjoy–and the benighted Americans who continue to insist on enjoying it unselfconsciously. Like a limousine liberal of fast-food cuisine, he wanders in and out of both camps, nibbling his medium-rare cheeseburgers with just the right amount of ennobling guilt.

The have-it-both-ways trickery of The Hamburger is displayed at length in the chapter devoted to McDonald’s, which Ozersky calls “the most symbolically loaded business in the world,” one that “represents America to the world in a way no other business ever has or likely ever will.” We are simultaneously invited to admire the ingenuity with which the founders of McDonald’s contrived to automate the production of 15-cent hamburgers and to tremble at the larger implications of unleashing such a technology on an unprepared world–yet at no time does Ozersky ever commit himself to the loony leftism of the anti-McDonald’s fanatics who regard Ray Kroc as the source of all evil in the modern world. In describing the experience of Sandy Agate, one of the first McDonald’s franchisees, Ozersky assures us that his story “doesn’t end happily. (Arguably, the same could be said of the McDonald’s Corporation or for that matter America.)” That throwaway parenthesis says everything about The Hamburger.

Robert Warshow first anatomized Ozersky’s politico-literary technique in his 1947 Partisan Review essay on the New Yorker:

The New Yorker has always dealt with experience not by trying to understand it but by prescribing the attitude to be adopted toward it. This makes it possible to feel intelligent without thinking, and it is a way of making everything tolerable, for the assumption of a suitable attitude toward experience can give one the illusion of having dealt with it adequately.

Who could have predicted in 1947 that someone would come along six decades later who could write about the lowly hamburger in such a manner? Of such is the kingdom of cultural studies, where everything is permitted, even the consumption of ground beef on a white-bread bun–so long as you do it with the right attitude.

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More on Joe Klein

In a rather stunning sentence that Ramesh Ponnuru flagged over at National Review‘s The Corner, Joe Klein, in saying that the “chronic disease among Democrats” is their tendency to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right, wrote this:

This is ironic and weirdly self-defeating, since the liberal message of national improvement is profoundly more optimistic, and patriotic, than the innate conservative pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature.

As Ponnuru points out, can you imagine Klein’s outrage if the charge had been made the other way – that the conservative message of national improvement is more “patriotic” than liberalism? Actually, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Here is Joe Klein in “An Overdose of Invective,” one of his many angry columns from 2004:

To be sure, there is a bright line between tough and scurrilous. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth crossed it, and the Bush campaign joined them when presidential surrogates, including Bush the Elder, ratified the Swifties’ lies. (They can’t all be liars, the former President told Don Imus.) Zell Miller’s frontal attacks on Kerry’s patriotism at the Republican Convention also crossed the line-as did the President’s celebration of Miller’s speech in subsequent stump appearances. Indeed, Bush’s gleeful willingness to personally join in the mudslinging is unprecedented in modern U.S. politics. Usually Presidents leave the dirty work to others. Even Richard Nixon, an apotheosis of darkness, had Spiro Agnew do most of the heavy lifting.

Liberals have made a habit out of getting furious about having their patriotism challenged even when it’s not; in Klein’s most recent column we have an example of an explicit assertion that liberalism is more patriotic than conservatism, but without the sound and fury.

This charge, beyond its falsity, is also ignorant and shallow. For one thing, some of the best arguments on behalf of patriotism in recent years have been made by leading conservative intellectuals like Walter Berns in his book, Making Patriots; Norman Podhoretz in My Love Affair With America: The Cautionary Tale of A Cheerful Conservative; William Bennett in Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (see in particular his chapter “Love of Country”); Yale Professor Donald Kagan’s November 4, 2001 lecture on patriotism; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s May 1997 Commentary essay “For the Love of Country.”

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In a rather stunning sentence that Ramesh Ponnuru flagged over at National Review‘s The Corner, Joe Klein, in saying that the “chronic disease among Democrats” is their tendency to talk more about what’s wrong with America than what’s right, wrote this:

This is ironic and weirdly self-defeating, since the liberal message of national improvement is profoundly more optimistic, and patriotic, than the innate conservative pessimism about the perfectibility of human nature.

As Ponnuru points out, can you imagine Klein’s outrage if the charge had been made the other way – that the conservative message of national improvement is more “patriotic” than liberalism? Actually, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Here is Joe Klein in “An Overdose of Invective,” one of his many angry columns from 2004:

To be sure, there is a bright line between tough and scurrilous. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth crossed it, and the Bush campaign joined them when presidential surrogates, including Bush the Elder, ratified the Swifties’ lies. (They can’t all be liars, the former President told Don Imus.) Zell Miller’s frontal attacks on Kerry’s patriotism at the Republican Convention also crossed the line-as did the President’s celebration of Miller’s speech in subsequent stump appearances. Indeed, Bush’s gleeful willingness to personally join in the mudslinging is unprecedented in modern U.S. politics. Usually Presidents leave the dirty work to others. Even Richard Nixon, an apotheosis of darkness, had Spiro Agnew do most of the heavy lifting.

Liberals have made a habit out of getting furious about having their patriotism challenged even when it’s not; in Klein’s most recent column we have an example of an explicit assertion that liberalism is more patriotic than conservatism, but without the sound and fury.

This charge, beyond its falsity, is also ignorant and shallow. For one thing, some of the best arguments on behalf of patriotism in recent years have been made by leading conservative intellectuals like Walter Berns in his book, Making Patriots; Norman Podhoretz in My Love Affair With America: The Cautionary Tale of A Cheerful Conservative; William Bennett in Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (see in particular his chapter “Love of Country”); Yale Professor Donald Kagan’s November 4, 2001 lecture on patriotism; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s May 1997 Commentary essay “For the Love of Country.”

Beyond that, is Klein really prepared to argue that the aim of the institutional strongholds of contemporary liberalism – whether we are talking about the academy or Hollywood or others – is to deepen our love for America and increase our civic devotion and pride? That their efforts will make us a more perfect union? Does Klein believe that during the last several decades liberals rather than conservatives have been more likely to reject cultural relativism and radical multiculturalism? Have liberals rather than conservatives been more vocal in arguing why the United States is better in every way than its totalitarian enemies? Is Ted Kennedy really more patriotic in his “liberal message of national improvement” than Ronald Reagan was in his conservative message of national improvement?

To be sure, patriotism is a complicated matter, as it has many elements to it and tensions within it. It is certainly not the property of any one political party. It is not blind support for America, just as it is not reflexive opposition to America. But what we can say, I think, is that, as Berns points out, part of what it has traditionally meant to be an American is to believe in our most cherished creeds – most especially that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. Patriotism also demands that we hold an honest view of our nation — which, in the case of America, means we should acknowledge our injustices (past and present) even as we acknowledge that, in Allan Bloom’s words, “America tells one story: the unbroken ineluctable progress of freedom and equality.” And of course patriotism requires us to sacrifice for our country, to defend her when she is under assault, and to do what we can to help America live up to her founding ideals.

I would finally add this: Conservatives are not “pessimistic” about the perfectibility of human nature; rather, they are realistic about human nature, which is an admixture of virtues and vices. Conservatism is skeptical about grand programs to remake human nature itself, but it is risible to argue that conservatism is philosophically proscribed from making an argument for national improvement. Many of the greatest conservatives in American history have done just that. One could also argue that those who believe in the perfectibility of human nature tend to embrace the view that we are “citizens of the world” even before we are citizens of America.

Joe Klein has waded into ugly waters. Let’s hope he can make his way out of them before too long.

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Obama’s Quandary

Margaret Carlson contends that Barack Obama has made two big errors in his campaign. One was failing to recognize the impact of Rev. Wright’s incendiary language The other was his failure at bowling. She makes a good case that, in working-class, primarily white suburbs, Obama “is having a hard time passing himself off as ordinary folk” and his 37 (a really abysmal score) just made it worse.

One might argue, as many of us here have, that his association with Wright was more than a failure to anticipate public reaction: it was a moral and intellectual failing. (Juan Williams, as he has before, explains this in today’s Wall Street Journal with searing clarity.) Yet she has a point: does Obama lack a “feel” for ordinary voters’ sensibilities?

Well, of course. His life experience is utterly unlike the average voter’s. On his journey from Hawaii to Indonesia to Hawaii to Harvard, he probably ran into a lot of critiques of American culture and not very much bowling. He hasn’t, it looks like, developed an internal compass that warns him when something may be offensive or off-putting to ordinary Americans.

So while Clinton has morphed from a former First Lady and Yale-educated feminist lawyer to a champion of working class voters (“her ‘Rocky’ doggedness has grabbed the sympathy of people so unlike her yet drawn by what looks like a hard-luck story”), Obama is still grasping for a connection to the people whose votes will be critical in November.

That is the downside of continually criticizing your country and fellow countrymen. It makes it that much harder to turn around and tell them you’re one of them.

Margaret Carlson contends that Barack Obama has made two big errors in his campaign. One was failing to recognize the impact of Rev. Wright’s incendiary language The other was his failure at bowling. She makes a good case that, in working-class, primarily white suburbs, Obama “is having a hard time passing himself off as ordinary folk” and his 37 (a really abysmal score) just made it worse.

One might argue, as many of us here have, that his association with Wright was more than a failure to anticipate public reaction: it was a moral and intellectual failing. (Juan Williams, as he has before, explains this in today’s Wall Street Journal with searing clarity.) Yet she has a point: does Obama lack a “feel” for ordinary voters’ sensibilities?

Well, of course. His life experience is utterly unlike the average voter’s. On his journey from Hawaii to Indonesia to Hawaii to Harvard, he probably ran into a lot of critiques of American culture and not very much bowling. He hasn’t, it looks like, developed an internal compass that warns him when something may be offensive or off-putting to ordinary Americans.

So while Clinton has morphed from a former First Lady and Yale-educated feminist lawyer to a champion of working class voters (“her ‘Rocky’ doggedness has grabbed the sympathy of people so unlike her yet drawn by what looks like a hard-luck story”), Obama is still grasping for a connection to the people whose votes will be critical in November.

That is the downside of continually criticizing your country and fellow countrymen. It makes it that much harder to turn around and tell them you’re one of them.

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Re: Blair’s a Yale Man Now

Ted Bromund’s analysis of the benefits that Tony Blair will bring to Yale is well taken.  However, the former British Prime Minister’s sudden retreat to New Haven might represent something far more politically significant.  After all, Blair is currently serving as envoy for the Quartet on the Middle East, which means his official purpose is to promote the Road Map for Israeli-Palestinian peace—a job that could probably keep one employed forever.  By serving notice after barely eight months on the job, is the once-optimistic Blair signaling that Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects are nil?          

If so, this pessimism might be gaining traction within the Bush administration.  Today, the White House announced that, next week, Vice President Dick Cheney will visit Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the West Bank to discuss “issues of mutual interest.”  Just as Blair will soon be conspicuously absent from the Middle East, the word “peace” was conspicuously absent from Cheney’s press release . . .

Ted Bromund’s analysis of the benefits that Tony Blair will bring to Yale is well taken.  However, the former British Prime Minister’s sudden retreat to New Haven might represent something far more politically significant.  After all, Blair is currently serving as envoy for the Quartet on the Middle East, which means his official purpose is to promote the Road Map for Israeli-Palestinian peace—a job that could probably keep one employed forever.  By serving notice after barely eight months on the job, is the once-optimistic Blair signaling that Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects are nil?          

If so, this pessimism might be gaining traction within the Bush administration.  Today, the White House announced that, next week, Vice President Dick Cheney will visit Oman, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the West Bank to discuss “issues of mutual interest.”  Just as Blair will soon be conspicuously absent from the Middle East, the word “peace” was conspicuously absent from Cheney’s press release . . .

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Blair’s a Yale Man Now

Frankly, my initial reaction, as a Yale lecturer, on hearing that Tony Blair will spend 2008-09 at Yale as the Howland Distinguished Fellow (he’ll be teaching a seminar on “faith and globalization”) was that it puts us one up on Harvard. My second was to predict to myself that while Blair will receive a rapturous reception from the students, a few of his faculty colleagues will likely be no more than civil. This new position will not make Blair any better liked by his enemies at home, among whom his interest in matters of faith was almost as unpopular as his friendship with President Bush. Indeed, the two were often linked. The comment forums of the various British newspapers are already lighting up with predictable abuse, and the tinfoil hat brigade is asserting various implausible connections between the university, assorted multinationals, President Bush, Blair, and, inevitably, the Iraq War.

Blair’s choice of seminar subject must be seen in light of the fact that, later in the year, he will launch the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which will promote interfaith dialogue and understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But it’s possible to doubt his thesis that the central problem in the Middle East is the relationship between the “Abrahamic religions,” as he prefers to call them. The real problem, I’d say, is that the Middle East is largely ruled by dictators who see no law larger than themselves.

But Blair’s arrival is a contribution nonetheless. Over fifty years ago, William F. Buckley decried the retreat of faith at Yale. By the late 1990′s, it was no longer discussed here in any serious way: indeed, it was simply never mentioned. Since 9/11, interest in faith as a force in human affairs has begun to return at Yale. Blair’s seminar marks a further, higher-profile reinforcement of that vital trend. Even if you disagree with his diagnosis of the Middle East, he will be teaching the young and eager about things that truly matter.

Welcome to Yale, Mr. Prime Minister.

Frankly, my initial reaction, as a Yale lecturer, on hearing that Tony Blair will spend 2008-09 at Yale as the Howland Distinguished Fellow (he’ll be teaching a seminar on “faith and globalization”) was that it puts us one up on Harvard. My second was to predict to myself that while Blair will receive a rapturous reception from the students, a few of his faculty colleagues will likely be no more than civil. This new position will not make Blair any better liked by his enemies at home, among whom his interest in matters of faith was almost as unpopular as his friendship with President Bush. Indeed, the two were often linked. The comment forums of the various British newspapers are already lighting up with predictable abuse, and the tinfoil hat brigade is asserting various implausible connections between the university, assorted multinationals, President Bush, Blair, and, inevitably, the Iraq War.

Blair’s choice of seminar subject must be seen in light of the fact that, later in the year, he will launch the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which will promote interfaith dialogue and understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But it’s possible to doubt his thesis that the central problem in the Middle East is the relationship between the “Abrahamic religions,” as he prefers to call them. The real problem, I’d say, is that the Middle East is largely ruled by dictators who see no law larger than themselves.

But Blair’s arrival is a contribution nonetheless. Over fifty years ago, William F. Buckley decried the retreat of faith at Yale. By the late 1990′s, it was no longer discussed here in any serious way: indeed, it was simply never mentioned. Since 9/11, interest in faith as a force in human affairs has begun to return at Yale. Blair’s seminar marks a further, higher-profile reinforcement of that vital trend. Even if you disagree with his diagnosis of the Middle East, he will be teaching the young and eager about things that truly matter.

Welcome to Yale, Mr. Prime Minister.

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Bookshelf

• Why are so many Americans unaware that Joseph Stalin was as brutal, systematic and effective a killer as Adolf Hitler? One reason is because so much of the Old Left looked the other way at Stalin’s nefarious activities, and was unwilling later on to admit that it had done so. Another is that the Soviet Union remained a closed society long after the killing stopped, making it vastly more difficult for interested Westerners to study the Great Terror in the way that the Holocaust became a subject of detailed historical inquiry. As a result, we know far more about the individual innocents who died in the Holocaust than about those who were murdered at Stalin’s command.

Will this situation continue? Now that the Old Left is dying out, it has become somewhat more acceptable for American academics to study the Great Terror and report on it in a straightforward way, which doubtless explains the publication of The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s (Yale, 295 pp., $30), a new book by Hiroaki Kuromiya, a professor of history at Indiana University. For the past several years, Kuromiya has been examining the files of the secret police in Kiev, which in the 30’s was the Soviet Union’s third-largest city. (Now it is part of the independent state of Ukraine, whose rulers are more willing than their opposite numbers in Moscow to let outsiders study what Stalin wrought.) Like all bureaucrats, the killers of Kiev kept detailed records of their activities, right down to the late-night death warrants that were signed minutes before their prisoners were hustled out of their cells, shot in the nape of the neck and dumped into mass graves. In order to write The Voices of the Dead, Kuromiya examined the surviving dossiers of several dozen victims of the Great Terror, paying special attention to the handwritten notes in which official interrogators recorded the results of their attempts to extract confessions out of their prisoners prior to having them executed. The result is a book whose deliberate flatness of tone does not make it any less sickening.

Kuromiya’s own description of The Voices of the Dead is no less eloquent in its plainness:

The present book is a modest attempt to allow some of those executed in 1937-38 a voice. The focus is on individuals, in particular those whose lives meant absolutely nothing to Stalin: innocent people who were swept up in the maelstrom of political terror he unleashed. Most of the people discussed here are “unremarkable”: they left no conspicuous imprint on history. . . . Stalin was certain that no one would remember them. The “all-conquering power of Bolshevism” condemned them to oblivion, but it could not suppress their voices completely. Ironically, Stalin’s efforts to extinguish their voices helped preserve them, in the depths of their case files.

The people we meet in The Voices of the Dead are indeed “utterly unknown, ‘ordinary’ Soviet citizens: workers, peasants, homemakers, teachers, priests, musicians, soldiers, pensioners, ballerinas, beggars.” All they had in common was that they ran afoul of Stalin’s killing machine. Many appear to have been tortured before being sent to the execution chamber. Some confessed to crimes that they may or may not have committed, while others went to their graves swearing that they had done nothing wrong. To read about them is a jolting experience, no matter how much you may already know about the regime that sentenced them to die.

The Voices of the Dead is illustrated with reproductions of some of the documents examined by Kuromiya, including two harrowing “mug shots” of a pair of victims that appear to have been taken not long before they were executed. The book also contains contemporary photographs taken at the site of the mass graves on the outskirts of Kiev where tens of thousands of Stalin’s victims are buried. It is now a memorial park dotted with crosses, though few go there: “Except on commemorative occasions…the graves are deserted—dark, serene and eerie. History weighs on visitors here.” The main grave is marked with a monument inscribed with just two words: Vechnaya pamyat—eternal memory. It is a devastatingly simple reminder of the evil that men do in the name of ideas. So is this disturbing, invaluable book.

• Why are so many Americans unaware that Joseph Stalin was as brutal, systematic and effective a killer as Adolf Hitler? One reason is because so much of the Old Left looked the other way at Stalin’s nefarious activities, and was unwilling later on to admit that it had done so. Another is that the Soviet Union remained a closed society long after the killing stopped, making it vastly more difficult for interested Westerners to study the Great Terror in the way that the Holocaust became a subject of detailed historical inquiry. As a result, we know far more about the individual innocents who died in the Holocaust than about those who were murdered at Stalin’s command.

Will this situation continue? Now that the Old Left is dying out, it has become somewhat more acceptable for American academics to study the Great Terror and report on it in a straightforward way, which doubtless explains the publication of The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s (Yale, 295 pp., $30), a new book by Hiroaki Kuromiya, a professor of history at Indiana University. For the past several years, Kuromiya has been examining the files of the secret police in Kiev, which in the 30’s was the Soviet Union’s third-largest city. (Now it is part of the independent state of Ukraine, whose rulers are more willing than their opposite numbers in Moscow to let outsiders study what Stalin wrought.) Like all bureaucrats, the killers of Kiev kept detailed records of their activities, right down to the late-night death warrants that were signed minutes before their prisoners were hustled out of their cells, shot in the nape of the neck and dumped into mass graves. In order to write The Voices of the Dead, Kuromiya examined the surviving dossiers of several dozen victims of the Great Terror, paying special attention to the handwritten notes in which official interrogators recorded the results of their attempts to extract confessions out of their prisoners prior to having them executed. The result is a book whose deliberate flatness of tone does not make it any less sickening.

Kuromiya’s own description of The Voices of the Dead is no less eloquent in its plainness:

The present book is a modest attempt to allow some of those executed in 1937-38 a voice. The focus is on individuals, in particular those whose lives meant absolutely nothing to Stalin: innocent people who were swept up in the maelstrom of political terror he unleashed. Most of the people discussed here are “unremarkable”: they left no conspicuous imprint on history. . . . Stalin was certain that no one would remember them. The “all-conquering power of Bolshevism” condemned them to oblivion, but it could not suppress their voices completely. Ironically, Stalin’s efforts to extinguish their voices helped preserve them, in the depths of their case files.

The people we meet in The Voices of the Dead are indeed “utterly unknown, ‘ordinary’ Soviet citizens: workers, peasants, homemakers, teachers, priests, musicians, soldiers, pensioners, ballerinas, beggars.” All they had in common was that they ran afoul of Stalin’s killing machine. Many appear to have been tortured before being sent to the execution chamber. Some confessed to crimes that they may or may not have committed, while others went to their graves swearing that they had done nothing wrong. To read about them is a jolting experience, no matter how much you may already know about the regime that sentenced them to die.

The Voices of the Dead is illustrated with reproductions of some of the documents examined by Kuromiya, including two harrowing “mug shots” of a pair of victims that appear to have been taken not long before they were executed. The book also contains contemporary photographs taken at the site of the mass graves on the outskirts of Kiev where tens of thousands of Stalin’s victims are buried. It is now a memorial park dotted with crosses, though few go there: “Except on commemorative occasions…the graves are deserted—dark, serene and eerie. History weighs on visitors here.” The main grave is marked with a monument inscribed with just two words: Vechnaya pamyat—eternal memory. It is a devastatingly simple reminder of the evil that men do in the name of ideas. So is this disturbing, invaluable book.

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Bookshelf

• Distrust of eloquence has long been a chronic condition among Americans—or maybe it’s just that we’ve forgotten how to be eloquent. A land whose political leaders were capable once upon a time of unblinkingly uttering phrases like “the mystic chords of memory” and “a date which will live in infamy” can surely do better than Mike Huckabee. On the other hand, as Denis Donoghue, the author of On Eloquence (Yale, 199 pp., $27.50), points out, there are good reasons why we tend to distrust eloquent politicians: “The standard argument against eloquence is that it is morally indifferent, it shows one’s determination to speak vividly, whether what one is saying is true or false.” But Donoghue, whose new book is a brief in defense of literary eloquence, makes a further point worthy of careful consideration:

A speech or an essay may be eloquent, but if it is, the eloquence is incidental to its aim. Eloquence, as distinct from rhetoric, has no aim: it is a play of words or other expressive means. It is a gift to be enjoyed in appreciation and practice. The main attribute of eloquence is gratuitousness: its place in the world is to be without place or function, its mode is to be intrinsic. Like beauty, it claims only the privilege of being a grace note in the culture that permits it . . . . Eloquence therefore is exempt—or should be—from the imputations that hang over rhetorical acts and consequences. It puts rhetoric to shame—persuasion, propaganda, nudging, forcing—for its vulgarity of purpose, its forensic disgusts. Eloquence does not kill people.

Of such elegantly drawn distinctions is this fetchingly written essay made.

That it should be necessary to defend eloquence is, of course, a sign of the times. Though Donoghue is a professor of literature, he clearly despairs for his profession, having noted in recent years that most of his colleagues now care more for ideology (“The politics of Yeats’s last poems—was he a Fascist?”) than such lesser qualities as “aesthetic finesse, beauty, eloquence, style, form, imagination, fiction, the architecture of a sentence, the bearing of rhyme, pleasure.” In On Eloquence, by contrast, he revels in all these things, demonstrating how great literature acquires much of its force from the beauty of its expression.

Though Donoghue is an unabashed highbrow, he is quick to point out that eloquence does not inhere solely in aristocratic utterance. In a list of “eloquent moments” that have stuck permanently in his mind, he cites I coulda bin a contender and You talkin’ to me alongside Those are pearls that were his eyes and Thou art indeed just, Lord if I contend with thee. Eloquence, he further points out, is not merely a matter of honeyed words but of well-calculated silences, of crisply pointed understatement as well as operatic expansiveness.

In between these trenchant observations, Donoghue dishes up more than enough memorable passages from the masters to make us long for him to edit a dictionary of quotations. Rarely have I read a more charming teaser for an unwritten book than the end of the second chapter of On Eloquence:

Some years ago I thought of compiling an anthology, a commonplace book, in which every chosen item would drive readers into an altitudo of pleasure—to think that there could be such eloquence, sentences, cadences, in what seems otherwise an ordinary world . . . . Some of the items I quote with delight in the present book would have found a place in that one.

Get to it, man!

• Distrust of eloquence has long been a chronic condition among Americans—or maybe it’s just that we’ve forgotten how to be eloquent. A land whose political leaders were capable once upon a time of unblinkingly uttering phrases like “the mystic chords of memory” and “a date which will live in infamy” can surely do better than Mike Huckabee. On the other hand, as Denis Donoghue, the author of On Eloquence (Yale, 199 pp., $27.50), points out, there are good reasons why we tend to distrust eloquent politicians: “The standard argument against eloquence is that it is morally indifferent, it shows one’s determination to speak vividly, whether what one is saying is true or false.” But Donoghue, whose new book is a brief in defense of literary eloquence, makes a further point worthy of careful consideration:

A speech or an essay may be eloquent, but if it is, the eloquence is incidental to its aim. Eloquence, as distinct from rhetoric, has no aim: it is a play of words or other expressive means. It is a gift to be enjoyed in appreciation and practice. The main attribute of eloquence is gratuitousness: its place in the world is to be without place or function, its mode is to be intrinsic. Like beauty, it claims only the privilege of being a grace note in the culture that permits it . . . . Eloquence therefore is exempt—or should be—from the imputations that hang over rhetorical acts and consequences. It puts rhetoric to shame—persuasion, propaganda, nudging, forcing—for its vulgarity of purpose, its forensic disgusts. Eloquence does not kill people.

Of such elegantly drawn distinctions is this fetchingly written essay made.

That it should be necessary to defend eloquence is, of course, a sign of the times. Though Donoghue is a professor of literature, he clearly despairs for his profession, having noted in recent years that most of his colleagues now care more for ideology (“The politics of Yeats’s last poems—was he a Fascist?”) than such lesser qualities as “aesthetic finesse, beauty, eloquence, style, form, imagination, fiction, the architecture of a sentence, the bearing of rhyme, pleasure.” In On Eloquence, by contrast, he revels in all these things, demonstrating how great literature acquires much of its force from the beauty of its expression.

Though Donoghue is an unabashed highbrow, he is quick to point out that eloquence does not inhere solely in aristocratic utterance. In a list of “eloquent moments” that have stuck permanently in his mind, he cites I coulda bin a contender and You talkin’ to me alongside Those are pearls that were his eyes and Thou art indeed just, Lord if I contend with thee. Eloquence, he further points out, is not merely a matter of honeyed words but of well-calculated silences, of crisply pointed understatement as well as operatic expansiveness.

In between these trenchant observations, Donoghue dishes up more than enough memorable passages from the masters to make us long for him to edit a dictionary of quotations. Rarely have I read a more charming teaser for an unwritten book than the end of the second chapter of On Eloquence:

Some years ago I thought of compiling an anthology, a commonplace book, in which every chosen item would drive readers into an altitudo of pleasure—to think that there could be such eloquence, sentences, cadences, in what seems otherwise an ordinary world . . . . Some of the items I quote with delight in the present book would have found a place in that one.

Get to it, man!

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Does This Presidential Election Matter?

The British prime minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what represented the greatest challenge to a statesman. His famous answer: “events, my dear boy, events.”

We’ve seen some events over the past decade and we are likely to see more. Who is better poised to handle them: John McCain (to whom I am giving the Republican nomination) or Hillary Clinton (to whom I am handing the Democratic nod)?

Or does it matter; are we inexorably following a path predicted by de Tocqueville? Here are pertinent reflections from the memoirs of Michael Howard, formerly of King’s College and Yale, now retired:

for a generation, under the dingy leadership of Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, Britain simply ceased to try in foreign affairs; abandoning its global responsibilities, following in the wake of an erratic American leadership, scrabbling belatedly to join the European enterprise, and getting the worst of every possible world. The ‘flip-side’, it must be said, was the creation of a standard of living for the bulk of its citizens beyond the wildest dreams of their grandfathers, if not indeed their fathers. Perhaps de Tocqueville was right in doubting the capacity of democracies to pursue consistent and successful foreign policies; but his countryman Raymond Aron was equally right when he remarked ruefully, when I met him at a conference in Italy, that the English people had regressed from being Romans to Italians in a single generation. My generation, I thought bitterly.

From Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace, 2006.

The British prime minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what represented the greatest challenge to a statesman. His famous answer: “events, my dear boy, events.”

We’ve seen some events over the past decade and we are likely to see more. Who is better poised to handle them: John McCain (to whom I am giving the Republican nomination) or Hillary Clinton (to whom I am handing the Democratic nod)?

Or does it matter; are we inexorably following a path predicted by de Tocqueville? Here are pertinent reflections from the memoirs of Michael Howard, formerly of King’s College and Yale, now retired:

for a generation, under the dingy leadership of Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, Britain simply ceased to try in foreign affairs; abandoning its global responsibilities, following in the wake of an erratic American leadership, scrabbling belatedly to join the European enterprise, and getting the worst of every possible world. The ‘flip-side’, it must be said, was the creation of a standard of living for the bulk of its citizens beyond the wildest dreams of their grandfathers, if not indeed their fathers. Perhaps de Tocqueville was right in doubting the capacity of democracies to pursue consistent and successful foreign policies; but his countryman Raymond Aron was equally right when he remarked ruefully, when I met him at a conference in Italy, that the English people had regressed from being Romans to Italians in a single generation. My generation, I thought bitterly.

From Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace, 2006.

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Bookshelf

• Gertrude Himmelfarb, who apparently knows everything there is to know about Victorian England, has been publishing invaluable books about the Victorians for longer than it would be polite for me to disclose. I prune my shelves ruthlessly, but five of her books have found permanent places there. Now I’ll be making room for a sixth.

The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays (Yale, 327 pp., $35) is one of those anthologies that somebody should have edited years ago, a book of such self-evident value that I can’t think why it’s only now being published. In it, Himmelfarb brings together essays by seventeen of the key figures in Victorian thought, among them Lord Acton, Matthew Arnold, Walter Bagehot, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Cardinal Newman, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde. To this glittering assemblage of literary and intellectual luminaries she appends an introduction that not only supplies a historical context for their work but considers “the essay as genre” and its special significance in Victorian intellectual life:

The essay, even a substantial one, conveyed its ideas with an immediacy and vigor lacking in a book. In that shorter form, arguments were sharpened and controversy was heightened, so that the reader entered more readily into the mind and spirit of an author more knowledgeable and thoughtful than himself…. They were serious and learned, even scholarly, without being pedantic or abstruse. They were accessible to a relatively large audience because they were written by nonacademics for nonacademics, in a common language and reflecting common values.

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• Gertrude Himmelfarb, who apparently knows everything there is to know about Victorian England, has been publishing invaluable books about the Victorians for longer than it would be polite for me to disclose. I prune my shelves ruthlessly, but five of her books have found permanent places there. Now I’ll be making room for a sixth.

The Spirit of the Age: Victorian Essays (Yale, 327 pp., $35) is one of those anthologies that somebody should have edited years ago, a book of such self-evident value that I can’t think why it’s only now being published. In it, Himmelfarb brings together essays by seventeen of the key figures in Victorian thought, among them Lord Acton, Matthew Arnold, Walter Bagehot, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Cardinal Newman, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde. To this glittering assemblage of literary and intellectual luminaries she appends an introduction that not only supplies a historical context for their work but considers “the essay as genre” and its special significance in Victorian intellectual life:

The essay, even a substantial one, conveyed its ideas with an immediacy and vigor lacking in a book. In that shorter form, arguments were sharpened and controversy was heightened, so that the reader entered more readily into the mind and spirit of an author more knowledgeable and thoughtful than himself…. They were serious and learned, even scholarly, without being pedantic or abstruse. They were accessible to a relatively large audience because they were written by nonacademics for nonacademics, in a common language and reflecting common values.

Having edited a couple of anthologies myself, I know how hard it is to assemble a truly representative selection of writings on any subject, much less to write an introduction that makes collective sense of them all. Thus it is with an indissoluble blend of admiration and humility that I declare The Spirit of the Age to be as fine a book of its kind as could possibly be published. Not only does it cover all the bases in an absolute minimum of space, but Himmelfarb’s introduction is a miracle of clarity and concision. Never has the essence of Victorian thought been summed up so pithily:

To Carlyle, the tragedy of the age was that it was “at once destitute of faith and terrified of scepticism.” To Bulwer, it was the end of the “romantic age” and the beginning of a bleak utilitarianism. To Mill it was an age of “intellectual anarchy,” when the old virtues and moral authorities had died and new ones had not yet been born. Yet there was another aspect to the age that belied these dire diagnoses. So far from being “destitute of faith,” it was buoyed up by the Evangelical spirit that was the heir of Methodism…. If there is one word that is common to the whole of the Victorian age, it is earnestness—the religious earnestness of the early period transmuted into a moral and intellectual earnestness.

I was surprised—and pleased—to see that Himmelfarb has abridged some of the essays reprinted in The Spirit of the Age. Victorian earnestness and Victorian longwindedness (by our standards, not theirs) often went hand in hand, and by discreetly applying the blue pencil to certain of these pieces, they have been made significantly more readable. Himmelfarb apologizes in the introduction for her “temerity in doing what a Victorian editor might not have done,” but I applaud her for it. So, I suspect, will you.

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The (Moderately) Rich Get Richer

Harvard’s financial aid “reforms,” announced Monday, are great news for anyone who thinks that what Harvard needs is not a revived core curriculum, but more students from the upper class. Under Harvard’s new policy, families with incomes between $60,000 and $180,000 will have to pay no more than 10 percent of their incomes in tuition. Since the 2006 median income in the U.S. was about $48,000, the benefits of these “reforms” will go to the rich.

Yes, $180,000 isn’t as much as it seems if you live in New York City. But Harvard already has lots of kids from New York City: that’s not the kind of diversity it’s lacking. And yes, Harvard is “need-blind,” and it gives generous support to students from families below the median. But there are only so many spots to go around. Making it easier for the rich to accept an offer from Harvard will increase their matriculation rate. To compensate, Harvard will have to make fewer offers to the poor.

By coincidence, Harvard’s announcement came less than three months after the Senate Finance Committee expressed interest in forcing large university endowments to pay out 5 percent per year. But then the entire question of financial aid at Harvard (and Yale) is a farce: it would cost only $238 million—about 1 percent of an endowment that gained $5 billion in fiscal 2007—to pay tuition, room, and board for all Yale College students this year. Financial aid is about increasing the size of the applicant pool so you can turn more of them down, and win the prestige that comes with enhanced selectivity.

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Harvard’s financial aid “reforms,” announced Monday, are great news for anyone who thinks that what Harvard needs is not a revived core curriculum, but more students from the upper class. Under Harvard’s new policy, families with incomes between $60,000 and $180,000 will have to pay no more than 10 percent of their incomes in tuition. Since the 2006 median income in the U.S. was about $48,000, the benefits of these “reforms” will go to the rich.

Yes, $180,000 isn’t as much as it seems if you live in New York City. But Harvard already has lots of kids from New York City: that’s not the kind of diversity it’s lacking. And yes, Harvard is “need-blind,” and it gives generous support to students from families below the median. But there are only so many spots to go around. Making it easier for the rich to accept an offer from Harvard will increase their matriculation rate. To compensate, Harvard will have to make fewer offers to the poor.

By coincidence, Harvard’s announcement came less than three months after the Senate Finance Committee expressed interest in forcing large university endowments to pay out 5 percent per year. But then the entire question of financial aid at Harvard (and Yale) is a farce: it would cost only $238 million—about 1 percent of an endowment that gained $5 billion in fiscal 2007—to pay tuition, room, and board for all Yale College students this year. Financial aid is about increasing the size of the applicant pool so you can turn more of them down, and win the prestige that comes with enhanced selectivity.

By design, what stops students from attending Harvard isn’t the cost: it’s Harvard’s Admissions Office, which, like Yale’s, turns down nine out of ten applicants. And here those on the fringes of the system—which is not quite the same thing as being poor—are at a serious disadvantage, because simply being smart is not enough to get in. You need to demonstrate your social conscience, and to develop as many weird interests as possible. The latest fad, Alex Williams reported in the New York Times over the weekend, is squash, which, as one parent put it, “just helps your admissions chances.”

The last thing the Senate should do is to try to fix Harvard: the unintended consequences are bound to be catastrophic. But Harvard’s “reforms,” and its admissions policies, are of a piece with our national obsession: helping the well-off. From preserving Social Security, which transfers wealth from the young to the old; to expanding SCHIP into the upper-middle class by raising taxes on tobacco, a vice of the poor; to providing relief for homeowners who sought out the loans that got them into the subprime mortgage “crisis,” the Left (and all too frequently the Right) panders to the rich while arguing that what it seeks is social justice for the poor.

There are lots of good arguments for small government. But the best one is that the bigger government gets, the more favors it does for the elite, and the more harm it does to the American promise of opportunity and equal treatment under law. In a recent opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Like the rest of us, Harvard needs to remember that the best way to help the poor is to stop helping the rich.

Bookshelf

• I can’t think of an art critic whom I admire more, or read more attentively, than Karen Wilkin. Not only does she write about modern art with stylish, jargon-free clarity, but she is immune to the trendiness that is the driving force behind the “thinking” of so many American critics. Her essays and reviews invariably help me to see the painters about whom she writes with an enhanced clarity that owes nothing to the factitious charms of fashion. Her name figures prominently on the very short list of critics whose books I will buy and read regardless of their subject.

As it happens, Wilkin has just published two new books, though one of them is not “new” in the usual sense of the word. Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews (Ediciones Polígrafa, 160 pp., $45) is an exceedingly well-made folio based in substantial part on a Morandi monograph published by Wilkin nine years ago in Rizzoli’s Twentieth-Century Masters series. Not only has the text of the earlier volume been reprinted here without change, but so have most of the illustrations (I assume that the same plates were used). The main difference is that the new book also includes a selection of the Italian painter’s writings, including four letters, two interviews and a 1928 autobiographical statement, all of which shed much light on his artistic thinking:

I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.

I’m sorry that Wilkin was (apparently) not given the opportunity to update what she wrote about Morandi in light of the important revelations about his life in wartime Italy included in Janet Abramowicz’s Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, which was published virtually without notice three years ago. Nevertheless, her 1998 essay remains the most perceptive criticism of Morandi to have appeared in English, and those who don’t already own the Rizzoli volume in which it was originally published will want to acquire it in this format in order to have access to Morandi’s own writings. Though his work is comparatively little known in the United States, he is an artist of near-inscrutable power whose still lifes have the power to silence the grinding racket of everyday urban life and spirit the harried viewer away to a place of intense stillness. Wilkin has done more than any other American critic to spread the word about Morandi in this country, and I hope that Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews will do still more to advance his cause.

Another of Wilkin’s critical causes is the “color-field” abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and their contemporaries and followers, which was widely admired in the days of Clement Greenberg’s ascendancy but has long since come to be regarded as passé. Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 (Yale, 128 pp., $45) is the catalogue of a retrospective curated by Wilkin that just opened at the Denver Art Museum (it closes on Feb. 3) and will travel from there to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Feb. 29-May 26) and Nashville’s Frist Center for Visual Arts (June 20-Sept. 21). Rarely has a catalogue made a more powerful case for the revaluation of a now-disdained style, not least because of Wilkin’s pithy, characteristically straight-talking introductory essay:

Modish critics and art historians, reared on a diet of art that insists on elaborate verbal explication, and deeply mistrustful of anything that doesn’t come fully bolstered with words, have decried Color Field painting as merely decorative . . . Unfortunately, the minds of many spectators, who include makers of art, as well as art historians, critics, and curators, have been carried so far into regions so purely literary that they seem to have forgotten that the visual is as much a cerebral function as the verbal.

I can’t wait to see the show.

• I can’t think of an art critic whom I admire more, or read more attentively, than Karen Wilkin. Not only does she write about modern art with stylish, jargon-free clarity, but she is immune to the trendiness that is the driving force behind the “thinking” of so many American critics. Her essays and reviews invariably help me to see the painters about whom she writes with an enhanced clarity that owes nothing to the factitious charms of fashion. Her name figures prominently on the very short list of critics whose books I will buy and read regardless of their subject.

As it happens, Wilkin has just published two new books, though one of them is not “new” in the usual sense of the word. Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews (Ediciones Polígrafa, 160 pp., $45) is an exceedingly well-made folio based in substantial part on a Morandi monograph published by Wilkin nine years ago in Rizzoli’s Twentieth-Century Masters series. Not only has the text of the earlier volume been reprinted here without change, but so have most of the illustrations (I assume that the same plates were used). The main difference is that the new book also includes a selection of the Italian painter’s writings, including four letters, two interviews and a 1928 autobiographical statement, all of which shed much light on his artistic thinking:

I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.

I’m sorry that Wilkin was (apparently) not given the opportunity to update what she wrote about Morandi in light of the important revelations about his life in wartime Italy included in Janet Abramowicz’s Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence, which was published virtually without notice three years ago. Nevertheless, her 1998 essay remains the most perceptive criticism of Morandi to have appeared in English, and those who don’t already own the Rizzoli volume in which it was originally published will want to acquire it in this format in order to have access to Morandi’s own writings. Though his work is comparatively little known in the United States, he is an artist of near-inscrutable power whose still lifes have the power to silence the grinding racket of everyday urban life and spirit the harried viewer away to a place of intense stillness. Wilkin has done more than any other American critic to spread the word about Morandi in this country, and I hope that Giorgio Morandi: Works, Writings and Interviews will do still more to advance his cause.

Another of Wilkin’s critical causes is the “color-field” abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and their contemporaries and followers, which was widely admired in the days of Clement Greenberg’s ascendancy but has long since come to be regarded as passé. Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 (Yale, 128 pp., $45) is the catalogue of a retrospective curated by Wilkin that just opened at the Denver Art Museum (it closes on Feb. 3) and will travel from there to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Feb. 29-May 26) and Nashville’s Frist Center for Visual Arts (June 20-Sept. 21). Rarely has a catalogue made a more powerful case for the revaluation of a now-disdained style, not least because of Wilkin’s pithy, characteristically straight-talking introductory essay:

Modish critics and art historians, reared on a diet of art that insists on elaborate verbal explication, and deeply mistrustful of anything that doesn’t come fully bolstered with words, have decried Color Field painting as merely decorative . . . Unfortunately, the minds of many spectators, who include makers of art, as well as art historians, critics, and curators, have been carried so far into regions so purely literary that they seem to have forgotten that the visual is as much a cerebral function as the verbal.

I can’t wait to see the show.

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Norman Mailer, Architecture Critic?

What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?

There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.

Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

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What aspect of the life of the late Norman Mailer last week has not been examined, from his revolting pattern of violence against women, to his boxing and penchant for speaking in comic accents, to the strange décor of his Brooklyn apartment, with its apparatus of “ship’s rigging and nets”?

There is one: a brief but explosive public campaign against modern architecture in 1963 and 1964. The story is told by Neil Levine in Modern Architecture and Other Essays, an anthology of writings by Vincent Scully, the celebrated Yale professor who inadvertently became Mailer’s foil in that campaign.

Modern architecture was still at its summit of prestige and cultural authority in 1963, although the grumbling over Frank Lloyd Wright’s recent Guggenheim Museum and Walter Gropius’s Pan Am Building, which closed off Park Avenue’s long vista, was an indication of latent but unfocused public unhappiness. Mailer used his monthly column, “The Big Bite,” in Esquire magazine to rail against these and other buildings. His prose was characteristically bombastic: modern architecture was “totalitarian” and thrust us alone into “the empty landscapes of psychosis, precisely that inner landscape of voice and dread which we flee by turning to totalitarian styles of life.”

What Mailer proposed as an alternative to modernism was not made clear, and one was not sure what to make of his perverse praise for the “Gothic knots and Romanesque oppressions” of his childhood schoolhouses. But it scarcely mattered; the essay drew a storm of public attention and was reprinted in both the Architectural Forum and the Village Voice. For a rebuttal, the Forum enlisted Scully, a historian of unusual eloquence, who took Mailer to task for his “lazy, potboiling paragraphs.” Scully pointed out that modern architecture invariably was opposed to totalitarianism, that both the Soviet and the Nazi state suppressed it, and that Mailer himself was suffering from a vestigial affection for “representationalist” architecture.

Mailer’s rejoinder was memorable. It was not political totalitarianism that he meant but the cultural totalitarianism that arises when architects subordinate the visual character of neighborhoods and cities to their own insatiable egos:

modern architecture . . . tends to excite the Faustian and empty appetites of the architect’s ego rather than reveal an artist’s vision of our collective desire for shelter which is pleasurable, substantial, intricate, intimate, delicate, detailed, foibled, rich in gargoyle, guignol, false closet, secret stair, witch’s hearth, attic, grandeur, kitsch, a world of buildings as diverse as the need within the eye for stimulus and variation. For beware: the ultimate promise of modern architecture is collective sightlessness for the species. Blindness is the fruit of your design.

Such a sentiment is now a commonplace. But in 1964 it was rather unusual, even prescient. For a brief moment, Mailer perceived with clarity (and a surfeit of passion) that something had gone awry with modernism, and he expressed it with extraordinary force.

Mailer’s foray into criticism would be a one-shot affair, not a serious endeavor but simply an opportunity to play the Bad Boy in yet another sphere of human activity. More’s the pity; for Mailer—to judge from this one exchange—clearly had more natural ability as an architecture critic than a boxer.

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Columbia’s Tenured Thugs

We are called upon, ladies and gentlemen, to join the arts and sciences faculty of Columbia University in being aghast at the depredations of Lee Bollinger, who has not sufficiently expressed his intolerance for critics of the arts and sciences faculty, and who forced the entire university into lockstep with the Bush administration by saying mean things to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These are truly dark days for the sensitive souls of the sociology department.

More than 100 faculty members issued a declaration yesterday stating that “President Bollinger has failed to make a vigorous defense of the core principles on which the university is founded, especially academic freedom.” They note in particular that 1) the Bollinger administration has not made “unequivocally clear” that attempts by “outside groups…to vilify members of the faculty and determine how controversial issues are taught” will not be tolerated (whatever that entails). 2) That the faculty has not been sufficiently consulted before making “decisions on key issues.” Point three bears reprinting in full:

The president’s address on the occasion of President Ahmadinejad’s visit has sullied the reputation of the University with its strident tone, and has abetted a climate in which incendiary speech prevails over open debate. The president’s introductory remarks were not only uncivil and bad pedagogy, they allied the University with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, a position anathema to many in the University community.”

And finally, Bollinger “has publicly taken partisan political positions concerning the politics of the Middle East in particular, without apparent expertise in this area or consultation with faculty who teach and undertake research in this area. His conflation of his own political position with that of the University is unacceptable.”

In case you didn’t get the message, Professor Eric Foner told the New York Times, regarding Bollinger’s treatment of Ahmadinejad: “This is the language of warfare at a time when the administration of our country is trying to whip up Iran.” Isn’t it clear to you now that Bollinger is just a Bush stooge? This letter, coming after the ouster of Larry Summers at Harvard largely by the humanities faculty, has caused a stir on campus, and the most eloquent response happily has come from a dissenting group of Columbia professors, from the quantitative fields. Responding to point 1, they write that

When nonacademics and outsiders encounter or hear about what they consider inappropriate forms of teaching, allegations of intimidation or harassment, or the distortion of basic historical or scientific facts, they are justified in expressing, and entitled by the First Amendment to express, their objections. No university administration has the power to prevent such expression.

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We are called upon, ladies and gentlemen, to join the arts and sciences faculty of Columbia University in being aghast at the depredations of Lee Bollinger, who has not sufficiently expressed his intolerance for critics of the arts and sciences faculty, and who forced the entire university into lockstep with the Bush administration by saying mean things to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These are truly dark days for the sensitive souls of the sociology department.

More than 100 faculty members issued a declaration yesterday stating that “President Bollinger has failed to make a vigorous defense of the core principles on which the university is founded, especially academic freedom.” They note in particular that 1) the Bollinger administration has not made “unequivocally clear” that attempts by “outside groups…to vilify members of the faculty and determine how controversial issues are taught” will not be tolerated (whatever that entails). 2) That the faculty has not been sufficiently consulted before making “decisions on key issues.” Point three bears reprinting in full:

The president’s address on the occasion of President Ahmadinejad’s visit has sullied the reputation of the University with its strident tone, and has abetted a climate in which incendiary speech prevails over open debate. The president’s introductory remarks were not only uncivil and bad pedagogy, they allied the University with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, a position anathema to many in the University community.”

And finally, Bollinger “has publicly taken partisan political positions concerning the politics of the Middle East in particular, without apparent expertise in this area or consultation with faculty who teach and undertake research in this area. His conflation of his own political position with that of the University is unacceptable.”

In case you didn’t get the message, Professor Eric Foner told the New York Times, regarding Bollinger’s treatment of Ahmadinejad: “This is the language of warfare at a time when the administration of our country is trying to whip up Iran.” Isn’t it clear to you now that Bollinger is just a Bush stooge? This letter, coming after the ouster of Larry Summers at Harvard largely by the humanities faculty, has caused a stir on campus, and the most eloquent response happily has come from a dissenting group of Columbia professors, from the quantitative fields. Responding to point 1, they write that

When nonacademics and outsiders encounter or hear about what they consider inappropriate forms of teaching, allegations of intimidation or harassment, or the distortion of basic historical or scientific facts, they are justified in expressing, and entitled by the First Amendment to express, their objections. No university administration has the power to prevent such expression.

Isn’t it curious that it has fallen to a group of scientists to explain to the university’s humanities professors what the First Amendment means? The rest of the letter is similarly devastating, as it starkly exposes the mendacity and bad faith of the humanities professors:

That President Bollinger’s introductory remarks to Ahmadinejad “allied the university with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq”: As the publicly available transcript confirms, these remarks addressed sequentially: 1) Holocaust denial; 2) Ahmadinejad’s stated intent to destroy Israel; 3) Iran’s funding of terrorism; 4) Iran’s proxy war against US troops in Iraq; and 5) Iran’s nuclear program. Only the fourth item refers to the war in Iraq, and only in the context of Iran’s role in financing and arming terrorist attacks against our troops.

And:

That “the President has publicly taken partisan political positions concerning the politics of the Middle East, without apparent expertise in this area or consultation with faculty who teach and undertake research in this area”: We follow President Bollinger’s public statements closely. The only one that may be characterized as concerning the politics of the Middle East is his denunciation of the British University and College Union’s proposed boycott of Israeli academics, which he described as “antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy.” This statement is actually not about the political problems of the Middle East; it is precisely what President Bollinger is accused of not providing: a vigorous defense of academic freedom, based on his recognition that denying such freedom to any individual or group endangers the entire academic enterprise.

This group of 62 professors should be congratulated for thoroughly humiliating a larger faction of professors who are signatories to a shameful—and actually Orwellian—invocation of free speech and academic freedom for the express purpose of undermining exactly those things. The thugs in Columbia’s humanities departments have made false accusations against the university president; they have demanded exemption from being criticized for their scholarship and campus behavior; they seek political litmus tests for speech; and they have proffered a standard of acceptability to the “university community”—meaning, acceptability to themselves—for speech on the part of the university president. And all of this is put forth explicitly as a requirement of fidelity to open debate, academic freedom, and a salubrious university environment. Cynical doesn’t even begin to describe it.

There is something more to be said about this controversy, because it represents more than just the latest bit of silliness from an American campus. Like Larry Summers’s expulsion from the Harvard presidency before it, the Columbia controversy is exemplary of a new era in campus radicalism in which the radicals who now so thoroughly dominate the academy are engaging in the next act in consolidating their power: the intimidation or expulsion of internal enemies. The lexicon of the previous era continues to be employed, but now its use becomes even more awkward and incongruous than it always was: In demanding control over the content of campus debate, Columbia’s thugs talk about the imperatives of open dialogue and the founding principles of the university.

In 1963, several years after the publication of God and Man at Yale brought him onto the national stage, William F. Buckley wrote another critique of the university entitled “The Aimlessness of American Education,” in which he said that:

Under academic freedom, the modern university is supposed to take a position of “neutrality” as among competing ideas. “A university does not take sides on the questions that are discussed in its halls,” a committee of scholars and alumni of Yale reported in 1952. “In the ideal university all sides of any issue are presented as impartially as possible.” To do otherwise, they are saying, is to violate the neutrality of a teaching institution, to give advantage to one idea over against another, thus prejudicing the race which, if all the contestants were let strictly alone, truth is bound to win…. Academic freedom is conceived as a permanent instrument of doctrinal egalitarianism; it is always there to remind us that we can never know anything for sure: which I view as another way of saying we cannot really know what are the aims of education.

How far down the road have universities such as Columbia traveled since Buckley wrote those words. It is not enough today to allow that Larry Summers deviated from campus orthodoxy, or that Lee Bollinger wasn’t nice enough to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Such acts of dissension strike at the very core of the campus power structure (to appropriate some familiar rhetoric), and to allow them to go unpunished is to deny the incumbency of the radicals and their need to impose intellectual homogeneity. This faction has succeeded in becoming a supermajority in the humanities departments, and now their campaign is hewing to a predictable course: the setting of ideological boundaries by purging and intimidating those who would ignore them. American education is no longer characterized, as in Buckley’s era, by the aimlessness of doctrinal egalitarianism. Today’s campus is characterized by the thuggery of doctrinal totalitarianism.

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American Yiddish Poetry

Readers who think that Yiddish literature in America began and ended with Nobel-prizewinner Isaac Bashevis Singer will find a new book from Stanford University Press to be a revelation. American Yiddish Poetry: a Bilingual Anthology by Benjamin Harshav and Barbara Harshav is a virtuoso production, 813 pages of essays, original texts, and deft translations of seven worthy, yet often overlooked, early 20th century poets like A. Leyeles and Jacob Glatshteyn.

Benjamin Harshav, a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Yale, has published prolifically on the painter Marc Chagall. This vast new tome, in collaboration with his wife Barbara Harshav, who teaches translation at Yale, underlines the influence of many writers on these erudite poets.

A. Leyeles (born Aaron Glantz, 1889-1966), a poet and journalist, was a multilingual master of prosody who translated Whitman, Verlaine, Goethe, Keats, and Pushkin into Yiddish. In a Whitman-like way, Leyeles buttonholes readers, addressing us in poems of formal beauty. An example is Leyeles’s Villanelle of the Mystical Cycle:

Mystical cycle of seven times five,
Five times seven, a ring in a ring.
Shell swept away, the core will survive.

Ground by the years, and in years revived.
Young when a man, and gray in young spring.
Mystical cycle of seven times five . . .

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Readers who think that Yiddish literature in America began and ended with Nobel-prizewinner Isaac Bashevis Singer will find a new book from Stanford University Press to be a revelation. American Yiddish Poetry: a Bilingual Anthology by Benjamin Harshav and Barbara Harshav is a virtuoso production, 813 pages of essays, original texts, and deft translations of seven worthy, yet often overlooked, early 20th century poets like A. Leyeles and Jacob Glatshteyn.

Benjamin Harshav, a Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Yale, has published prolifically on the painter Marc Chagall. This vast new tome, in collaboration with his wife Barbara Harshav, who teaches translation at Yale, underlines the influence of many writers on these erudite poets.

A. Leyeles (born Aaron Glantz, 1889-1966), a poet and journalist, was a multilingual master of prosody who translated Whitman, Verlaine, Goethe, Keats, and Pushkin into Yiddish. In a Whitman-like way, Leyeles buttonholes readers, addressing us in poems of formal beauty. An example is Leyeles’s Villanelle of the Mystical Cycle:

Mystical cycle of seven times five,
Five times seven, a ring in a ring.
Shell swept away, the core will survive.

Ground by the years, and in years revived.
Young when a man, and gray in young spring.
Mystical cycle of seven times five . . .

In Night, Leyeles offers a hypnotic cityscape of 1920’s Manhattan:

Now all is calm. The window-lights spent.
Lanterns slip silently into the pavement.
Towers stand watching like monsters of stone.

Massive Flatiron: imposing, gray, cold.
Then Metropolitan: heavier, grayer.
Others hang gloomily, crowd like a forest. . .

In Storms and Towers, inspired by New York architecture, Leyeles invokes admired poets like the medieval Frenchman François Villon:

Villon my brother, Maître Villon,
You did not see
The Tower of Woolworth
In a storm of snow . . .

Leyeles’s friend and colleague Moyshe-Leyb Halpern (1886–1932) was more concerned with self-exploration and self-definition, as in his ardently questing My Restlessness is of a Wolf (which prefigures later introspective Jewish poets like Delmore Schwartz):

My restlessness is of a wolf, and of a bear my rest,
Riot shouts in me, and boredom listens.
I am not what I want, I am not what I think,
I am the magician and I’m the magic-trick.
I am an ancient riddle that ponders on its own,
Swifter than the wind, bound tightly to a stone . . .

Somewhere between these extremes of landscape and introspection are the poems of Jacob Glatshteyn (1896-1971), an avant-gardist who speaks of personal relationships, sometimes with violence, as in A Song:

In summer I shall slice little tomatoes and think of your lips,
And you will stroll over the roads and sing to every passer-by.
And I shall regret that I didn’t mark your face with a scar,
Or that I didn’t burden your walk with a child . . .

In 1978, when Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel, he declared, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word.” He was right, as the remarkable labors of the Harshavs demonstrate.

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Like Mother, Like Son

The New Yorker carried a piece last week in its “Talk of the Town” section about a gathering of graying (and not so graying) leftists at a West Village bar, celebrating and commiserating over the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death. Among the luminaries was Tariq Ali, an editor of the New Left Review, the cover of whose book Clash of Fundamentalisms is a case study in the Left’s post-September 11 moral equivalence.

Other such lions of the modern far-Left abounded at this kaffeeklatsch, prominent among them my old Yale chum Chesa Boudin, class of 2003 and “radical chic Rhodes Scholar.” He’s the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, Weathermen terrorists responsible for the deaths of two police officers and a Brinks Security guard killed during a botched 1981 bank heist. Kathy Boudin is herself the daughter of Leonard Boudin, the famous leftist defense lawyer who represented Castro’s Cuba, Paul Robeson, and was a leading member of the fellow-traveling National Lawyers Guild. Chesa’s genealogy would be of little concern were it not for his obnoxious penchant for invoking his parents in the name of his own radical ideology. As he told the New York Times upon winning the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship:

“We have a different name for the war we’re fighting now—now we call it the war on terrorism, then they called it the war on Communism,” Mr. Boudin said. ”My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world. I’m dedicated to the same thing.”

”I don’t know that much about my parents’ tactics; I’ll talk about my tactics,” he added. ”The historical moment we find ourselves in determines what is most appropriate for social change.”

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The New Yorker carried a piece last week in its “Talk of the Town” section about a gathering of graying (and not so graying) leftists at a West Village bar, celebrating and commiserating over the 40th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death. Among the luminaries was Tariq Ali, an editor of the New Left Review, the cover of whose book Clash of Fundamentalisms is a case study in the Left’s post-September 11 moral equivalence.

Other such lions of the modern far-Left abounded at this kaffeeklatsch, prominent among them my old Yale chum Chesa Boudin, class of 2003 and “radical chic Rhodes Scholar.” He’s the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, Weathermen terrorists responsible for the deaths of two police officers and a Brinks Security guard killed during a botched 1981 bank heist. Kathy Boudin is herself the daughter of Leonard Boudin, the famous leftist defense lawyer who represented Castro’s Cuba, Paul Robeson, and was a leading member of the fellow-traveling National Lawyers Guild. Chesa’s genealogy would be of little concern were it not for his obnoxious penchant for invoking his parents in the name of his own radical ideology. As he told the New York Times upon winning the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship:

“We have a different name for the war we’re fighting now—now we call it the war on terrorism, then they called it the war on Communism,” Mr. Boudin said. ”My parents were all dedicated to fighting U.S. imperialism around the world. I’m dedicated to the same thing.”

”I don’t know that much about my parents’ tactics; I’ll talk about my tactics,” he added. ”The historical moment we find ourselves in determines what is most appropriate for social change.”

Only in the mind of a closet totalitarian could killing a black police officer be construed as “fighting U.S. imperialism around the world.” This is to say nothing of Boudin’s dishonesty in claiming not to “know that much” about his parent’s tactics, which are a matter of public and legal record. The Boudin family legacy has been one of defending and propagandizing on behalf of despots who rob and murder their own people in the name of “progressive ideals,” and Boudin is doing a bang-up job of carrying forward that tradition. The New Yorker reports on his homilies for Che Guevara:

At seven-thirty, the partygoers gathered in an auditorium to hear from the new guard of Che admirers, including Chesa Boudin, the twenty-seven-year-old son of Kathy Boudin, who was jailed after serving as an accomplice in the 1981 Brink’s robbery. Boudin, a Rhodes scholar, author, and political consultant, had a neat, buzzed haircut and wore a pink lattice-patterned shirt and gray pants. He said that he had to make a 6:30 A.M. flight to Caracas (“I was in twenty-six countries last year”), and he spoke to the crowd about Che’s legacy: “Most of us don’t remember when he was killed. But all of us have seen Che Guevara T-shirts.”

I wrote a piece for the Yale Daily News several years ago about Boudin, after he was quoted in a New York Times story about credulous Westerners traveling to Chavez’s Venezuela in hopes of finding the New Jerusalem.

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The Poet and the Nazi

Today, the New York Times reports that five members of the board of the Poetry Society of America, including its president, have resigned. Their resignations stem from “accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.”

The blood went bad when, earlier this year, John Hollander, the poet, critic, and retired Yale professor, was awarded the Society’s Frost Medal, a kind of lifetime achievement award.

A rough time-line: Professor Hollander, in the past, made some remarks that were insensitive. For instance, according to the New York Times, Hollander noted on NPR that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.” Poetry Society board members balked when, a few years ago, Hollander was put up as a contender for the Frost Medal. When, earlier this year, Hollander was announced as the recipient of the medal, novelist Walter Mosley, a board member, resigned in protest. In response, PSA board president William Louis-Dreyfus, a commodities trader, accused Mosley of McCarthyism in using Hollander’s politics against him. Angered at Louis-Dreyfus’s reaction, three other board members, including well-regarded poets Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter, tendered their own resignations.

Mr. Mosley deemed Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s invocation of Senator Joe McCarthy “ridiculous hyperbole.” Unfortunately, in describing the events at the PSA, Motoko Rich, the reporter for the New York Times, has committed her own act of egregious exaggeration. In discussing whether one can praise an artist’s work while criticizing the artist as a human, Ms. Rich compares John Hollander to Günter Grass. The former is a Jewish professor who has displayed ignorance and tactlessness. Günter Grass is a German who was a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS.

If emotions on the PSA’s board run high, it seems that even reporting on the matter severely impairs one’s sense of proportion.

Today, the New York Times reports that five members of the board of the Poetry Society of America, including its president, have resigned. Their resignations stem from “accusations of McCarthyism, conservatism, and simple bad management.”

The blood went bad when, earlier this year, John Hollander, the poet, critic, and retired Yale professor, was awarded the Society’s Frost Medal, a kind of lifetime achievement award.

A rough time-line: Professor Hollander, in the past, made some remarks that were insensitive. For instance, according to the New York Times, Hollander noted on NPR that “there isn’t much quality work coming from nonwhite poets today.” Poetry Society board members balked when, a few years ago, Hollander was put up as a contender for the Frost Medal. When, earlier this year, Hollander was announced as the recipient of the medal, novelist Walter Mosley, a board member, resigned in protest. In response, PSA board president William Louis-Dreyfus, a commodities trader, accused Mosley of McCarthyism in using Hollander’s politics against him. Angered at Louis-Dreyfus’s reaction, three other board members, including well-regarded poets Elizabeth Alexander and Mary Jo Salter, tendered their own resignations.

Mr. Mosley deemed Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s invocation of Senator Joe McCarthy “ridiculous hyperbole.” Unfortunately, in describing the events at the PSA, Motoko Rich, the reporter for the New York Times, has committed her own act of egregious exaggeration. In discussing whether one can praise an artist’s work while criticizing the artist as a human, Ms. Rich compares John Hollander to Günter Grass. The former is a Jewish professor who has displayed ignorance and tactlessness. Günter Grass is a German who was a soldier in Hitler’s Waffen SS.

If emotions on the PSA’s board run high, it seems that even reporting on the matter severely impairs one’s sense of proportion.

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A Soprano Rediscovered

All too often a singer’s fame does not correspond with his or her actual musical mastery. The Clarksburg, West Virginia-born soprano Phyllis Curtin (born 1921) is a case in point. Although she enjoys legendary status at Yale and Boston Universities, where she taught for many years, Curtin’s lengthy singing career was hampered, (as Peter G. Davis recounts in his well-documented American Opera Singer) by being forced out of a promised starring role in a New York City Opera production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” after the more influential Beverly Sills twisted arms to obtain it. However, posterity is offering some belated rewards to Curtin in the form of a series of fascinating reissues on CD and DVD, which show her artistry at its peak.

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All too often a singer’s fame does not correspond with his or her actual musical mastery. The Clarksburg, West Virginia-born soprano Phyllis Curtin (born 1921) is a case in point. Although she enjoys legendary status at Yale and Boston Universities, where she taught for many years, Curtin’s lengthy singing career was hampered, (as Peter G. Davis recounts in his well-documented American Opera Singer) by being forced out of a promised starring role in a New York City Opera production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” after the more influential Beverly Sills twisted arms to obtain it. However, posterity is offering some belated rewards to Curtin in the form of a series of fascinating reissues on CD and DVD, which show her artistry at its peak.

The most recent of these is VAI’s release of a 1963 televised performance of Britten’s “War Requiem” from Tanglewood, in which the statuesque Curtin sings the Latin portions of the Requiem with womanly warmth and dignity. As the soprano soloist in Britten’s “Requiem,” Curtin is vastly better than the unbridled Slavic-accented yowlings of Galina Vishnevskaya as conducted by the composer himself on Decca. On Phyllis Curtin in Recital, another recently issued live recording from VAI, also from 1963, the soprano performs a variety of songs and arias by European and Latin American composers, from Gluck and Tchaikovsky to Alberto Ginastera. Her utter directness and conviction is wholly admirable, while her ability to communicate emotion in foreign languages is exemplary. Her English diction is no less fine in VAI’s CD Phyllis Curtin Sings Copland & Rorem, although the characterful Aaron Copland songs on this CD necessarily overshadow the weak-as-water banalities of the ever-puerile Ned Rorem. VAI has also cobbled together a CD of previously unreleased material, Phyllis Curtin—Opera Arias (1960-1968) including music by Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini.

Taken together, these interpretations construct the image of a singer of great poise and even majesty, of gleaming intelligence and devotion. Two years ago, as part of a convocation address which she delivered at the Northwestern University School of Music, Curtin observed: “Working with composers on new music I learned how to look at Bach freshly and at all music as newly alive, and, as well, much about my own time I never dreamed of!” She advised the listening students: “Serve your composers. Don’t present only the dead ones to your audiences.” She added as an example of her longtime generosity of spirit: “At Tanglewood, I have insisted that my classes be open to anyone walking by. Visitors have to sit in the back of the hall, and I direct nothing at all to them. Some stay a little while. Some come back, and often, year after year…. Some, I learn, have even made financial contributions to the vocal program.” New York’s movers and shakers in the classical world (especially at pricey locales like Carnegie Hall) would do well to imitate this kind of openness.

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Against the Boycott

The presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Brown, conspicuously absent from the original list of signatories, have since posted assurances that they join the almost 300 American college and university presidents who signed a statement earlier this month protesting the vote of Britain’s University and College Union to impose a boycott against Israeli academic institutions. “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!” read the American counter-declaration, composed by Columbia University’s President Lee Bollinger. “[We] do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish.”

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The presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Brown, conspicuously absent from the original list of signatories, have since posted assurances that they join the almost 300 American college and university presidents who signed a statement earlier this month protesting the vote of Britain’s University and College Union to impose a boycott against Israeli academic institutions. “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!” read the American counter-declaration, composed by Columbia University’s President Lee Bollinger. “[We] do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish.”

It is heartening to see such unanimity among academic leaders who normally shun group protests or statements; still, it is less heartening when one considers that these leaders may have found it easier to denounce an outrage overseas than to tackle prejudice in their own institutions. President Bollinger and his colleagues know that anti-Israel venom is widespread on American campuses. The real test of their resolve to preserve academic integrity will occur here, at home.

Anti-Israel sentiment penetrates American campuses at both the student and professorial levels. Every year the average campus welcomes Arab and Muslim students for whom Israel’s illegitimacy is a matter of faith, conjoined in most instances with plain anti-Semitism. The Pew Research Center finds that Muslims hold unfavorable views of Jews at astonishing levels: Jordan, 100 percent; Lebanon, 99 percent; Morocco, 88 percent. Arab and Muslim students inculcated with these prejudices from birth see no harm in promoting them. To the contrary, since they regard Israel as the root of evil, agitation against it is for them often a matter of cultural self-expression. Dissenters from this norm are often afraid of being ostracized—or, worse, of not being able to return to their native communities should they stray from an ideology that unites the Arab world.

The campus ethos of all-embracing multiculturalism aggravates the problem by refraining from distinguishing between a culture of aggression and a culture of accommodation—two opposites trapped in a philosophy of equivalence. Ignored are the radically divergent histories of Arabs and Jews that produced today’s preposterous global imbalance between 1 billion-plus Muslims on the one hand, and 13 million Jews (4 million fewer than in 1939) on the other. Historically, Jews have been the no-fail target of innumerable aggressors; since the 1870′s they have been the ideological butt of anti-liberal movements everywhere.

Indeed, Middle East-style anti-Semitism plays a larger role in the international arena today than its European-style equivalent did a century ago. But our universities provide almost no academic or extra-curricular opportunities to discuss the issue. If anything, as the scholar Martin Kramer has shown, the hate-ridden attitudes within the Arab world find a natural reflection in the highly prejudicial bias of the academic discipline known as Middle East Studies. The current director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard, as well as a number of others who teach in the field, were among the signatories of a Harvard-MIT petition urging divestment from Israel—a petition meant to echo and give a highbrow patina to the currently fashionable calumny of the Jewish state as an “apartheid” regime. Sami al-Arian may be the only U.S. professor convicted of conspiracy to help Islamic Jihad, but others support Arab antagonism in their own ways.

The protest against the British academic boycott published in the New York Times was framed strictly as a defense of academic freedom and solidarity with Israeli colleagues. It avoided any mention of the ideology of hate that fuels this boycott. One might as well condemn cancer without investigating its cause or doing what one can to prevent its spread. Having once joined in symbolic action, these presidents of American colleges and universities would do well to appoint a committee from within their midst to investigate the spread of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel prejudices on their own campuses and within their own curricula, where it does the most damage. As in medicine, prevention is the best cure.

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What Ivory Tower?

The public image of the college professor has certainly changed since 1941. That year, Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire featured Gary Cooper as an academic so completely insulated from life that the slangy patter of a gangster’s moll, played by Barbara Stanwyck, baffled him. Since then, the cinematic professor has become more worldly. He is likely to be a womanizing alcoholic (One True Thing), a suicidal Proust scholar* (Little Miss Sunshine), or a womanizing failed writer (both Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale). William Deresiewicz dissects these and other examples in a provocative essay in the American Scholar, which looks at the public image of the contemporary college professor—and its underlying reality.

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The public image of the college professor has certainly changed since 1941. That year, Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire featured Gary Cooper as an academic so completely insulated from life that the slangy patter of a gangster’s moll, played by Barbara Stanwyck, baffled him. Since then, the cinematic professor has become more worldly. He is likely to be a womanizing alcoholic (One True Thing), a suicidal Proust scholar* (Little Miss Sunshine), or a womanizing failed writer (both Wonder Boys and The Squid and the Whale). William Deresiewicz dissects these and other examples in a provocative essay in the American Scholar, which looks at the public image of the contemporary college professor—and its underlying reality.

Deresiewicz, himself a professor at Yale, concedes that the modern professor is often a “careerist parvenu.” But if so, it is because he has no other choice; the old-boy network that once allocated teaching jobs among a small elite no longer exists. “[T]he old gentility rested on exclusion,” he explains, “and the new rat race is meritocracy in motion.” And he concedes that today’s professor is far more likely to sleep with his students than his pre-1960’s predecessors, but not with the freewheeling abandon that Hollywood imagines.

Deresiewicz is more interesting when he moves from the sociology of the professor to the sociology of the American public—and why Americans seem so hostile to academics. His proposed explanation is fascinating:

Americans’ traditional resentment of hierarchy and hostility toward intellect have intensified since World War II and particularly since the 1960s. Elites have been discredited, the notion of high culture dethroned, the means of communication decentralized. Public discourse has become more demotic; families, churches, and other institutions more democratic. The existence of academia, an institution predicated on intellectual hierarchy, irritates Americans’ insistence on equality, their feeling that intellect constitutes a contemptible kind of advantage. At the same time, as American society has become more meritocratic, its economy more technocratic, people want that advantage for themselves or their children. With the U.S. News rankings and the annual admissions frenzy, universities are playing an ever-more conspicuous role in creating the larger social hierarchy that no one acknowledges but everyone wants to climb. It’s no wonder that people resent the gatekeepers and enjoy seeing them symbolically humiliated.

Deresiewicz may well be right about this, but one element is missing from his spacious essay: the extent to which college professors have been complicit in their own loss of public prestige, particularly in the humanities, where Hollywood’s academic rogues are invariably found. Two generations ago they were respected for subordinating their lives to scholarship, and much of the prestige of their academic subjects—whether Shakespeare or Descartes or George Washington—accrued to them. Today, Shakespeare, Descartes, and Washington don’t seem to count as much as they once did. Now whose fault might that be?

*This character was originally misidentified as “womanizing;” the character is, in fact, gay.

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