Good for the Jews?
To the Editor: Jack Wertheimer has made major contributions to our understanding of the American Jewish condition and is one of the cannier observers of American Jewish life, but his critique of the current state of the communal agenda is both wrongheaded and just plain wrong [“Jewish Security & Jewish Interests,” October 2004].
Contrary to what Mr. Wertheimer suggests, Jewish groups have not, through some kind of anachronistic and misguided liberalism, “formulated ‘positions’ on every conceivable matter of public interest,” matters that are “far removed from the defense of Jewish security.” American Jews have always chosen their priorities with Jewish security in mind. Not even the most unreconstructed 1950’s liberal would deny pride of place on the communal agenda to support for Israel, combating anti-Semitism, and the separation of church and state.
But Mr. Wertheimer’s conception of Jewish security is too narrow. In America, it does not mean just the absence of persecution. Jewish security is ensured by the health of society across a range of parameters. Civil rights and church-state separation have been supported by American Jews not because of the community’s liberalism or because we are “nice guys,” but out of Jewish self-interest.
Mr. Wertheimer’s idea that elements of the communal agenda have been arrived at “without any debate”—as though there were some kind of liberal cabal pulling the strings—is absurd. Each agency has its own procedures, and some, to be sure, consult less with their membership than others. But with very few exceptions, the official stances of Jewish agencies generally reflect the views of the Jewish populace. There is no end to the polls of American Jews that consistently confirm this. There is a healthy debate within and among the agencies about what is central to Jewish security and should therefore top the agenda. Mr. Wertheimer just does not like the outcome.
Jerome A. Chanes
Stern and Barnard Colleges
New York City
To the Editor:
Jack Wertheimer’s well-reasoned and thoughtful article on “Jewish Security & Jewish Interests” should evoke serious self-questioning by the leaders of American Jewish organizations. Mr. Wertheimer is correct to observe that the positions of many Jewish agencies on a plethora of issues have had more to do with their vision of what America should be than with defending Jewish interests, narrowly defined. Their rationale is that a liberal, pluralistic, tolerant America that safeguards individual rights to privacy and separates church and state is best for Jews.
As a past president of the American Jewish Committee, I, for one, subscribe to this vision. But I also wonder whether, in its quest to create “a more perfect union,” the organized Jewish community has at times lost sight of where Jewish interests lie. For example, it was shortsighted of Jewish organizations to support the Voting Rights Act of 1982 to ensure minority representation in Congress. The result was a loss of safe Jewish seats. Is gay marriage a Jewish issue? I doubt it. Even the sacred cow of liberal immigration policies needs to be looked at realistically by American Jewish organizations.
Jews also need to be sensitive to the moral concerns of other groups in our society—including the Christian Right, which is legitimately troubled about things like pornography and efforts to eliminate prayer or any mention of God from the few public spaces where it is still permitted. We need to ask ourselves whether we are driving a wedge between ourselves and our fellow Americans when we spend political capital on issues of marginal or no real concern to us.
But Mr. Wertheimer’s article raises a more fundamental issue that he does not squarely address. To what extent should the defense of Israel overshadow other Jewish interests? There is an understandable reluctance on the part of most American Jewish organizations to think of themselves as concerned primarily with Israel. Contrary to what many think, Jews do not decide their vote in presidential elections based on which candidate is perceived to be better for Israel. (Historically, in any case, there has been little space between presidential candidates on this issue.) This year, an overwhelming majority of American Jews voted for John Kerry despite the Bush administration’s support for Prime Minister Sharon and its portrayal of Yasir Arafat as part of the problem, not the solution. Jews vote on the basis of a “comfort” index that includes Israel but also a lot of other concerns. The body language of the candidates often counts as much as their words.
This explains why most American Jews do not view evangelicals and born-again Christians as natural allies, despite their support for Israel. Nativism, with its history of rigid intolerance, is perceived to be a greater threat to Jewish interests than the criticisms of Israel by some on the Left. American Jews are aware that the Christian Right’s support for Israel is largely driven by theology, not empathy. Mr. Wertheimer may shrug off the millenarian motives of the Christian Right, but on almost every issue other than support of Israel, American Jews and the Christian Right share little.
With the exception of some disturbing incidents on our campuses, anti-Semitism from Europe, where it is spearheaded by radical Muslims, has not spilled over into the United States—a concern raised by Mr. Wertheimer at the end of his article. Most American Jews do not feel endangered by anti-Semitism at home, and clearly most do not regard the growing number of Americans who identify as evangelicals or born-again Christians as a bulwark against future anti-Semitism.
Ambassador Alfred H. Moses
To the Editor:
Jack Wertheimer has written a cogent and dispassionate analysis of how the Jewish community’s leaders, by championing every item on the liberal agenda irrespective of the interests of the Jewish community at large, have compromised their mission to protect Jewish security. He perfectly describes Jewish leaders and agencies still bound by ancient allegiances in a world that has changed enormously under their feet.
Many of us who share Mr. Wertheimer’s views can testify to the difficulty of being heard when we speak of the need to husband limited resources toward matters of compelling Jewish interest in an age that has seen an alarming increase in anti-Israel sentiment and overt anti-Semitism abroad and in many of our elite institutions at home. Yet, we can also attest to discreet murmurs of approval from those who, for fear of being thought illiberal, are reluctant or too abashed to express full-throated agreement.
Mr. Wertheimer’s essay should be required reading for leaders and active members of the American Jewish community. It provides ample food for thought for anyone who may be troubled about the growing rift between the bien-pensants and those who still believe that pikuah nefesh, the obligation to preserve life, is the primary duty of us all.
New York City
To the Editor:
As a politically conservative American Jew who is struggling to “enlighten” the majority of his co-religionists that Jewish principles are no longer represented by modern liberalism, I welcome Jack Wertheimer’s article. Seldom does one hear or read that the leading Jewish organizations are making any attempt to promote, with their unthinking allegiance to liberal ideas, basic Jewish values—monotheism, human freedom, accepting responsibility for one’s actions, respecting the traditional family. It is indeed time for serious reconsideration.
Larry F. Sternberg
Santa Ana, California
To the Editor:
Jack Wertheimer is correct to assert that Jewish organizations have spent years focusing on the wrong causes and meddling in the weighty affairs of others. The Jews were commanded to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” not to be a secular champion of liberal causes.
Supporting Israel is certainly a priority that should continue to claim our efforts, but equal time should be devoted to promoting Judaism. The job of our leaders is to figure out how to explain the significance of Judaism in the modern world. Without that effort, we will lose a war of attrition with or without the aid of anti-Semitism.
Daniel B. Gelman
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
One point from Jack Wertheimer’s article was driven home to me a little over a year ago when I moved to a small town in Indiana. My next-door neighbor came over to offer a welcome, and asked if I belonged to a church. When I replied that I was Jewish, he told me how much he admired Israel and asked if he could give me copies of a magazine, to which I have since subscribed, called Friends of Israel. I read the magazine with utter amazement. Such a positive view of Israel and Judaism! Prudence suggests that Jews ought to embrace the support of friends, especially those, like evangelical Christians, whose value system is more in tune with Jewish tradition than the wildly leftist, self-destructive mainstream of the Jewish establishment.
Albert H. Fink
To the Editor:
Jack Wertheimer’s article refers to “the allegedly quietistic posture adopted by American Jewish groups during the Holocaust years, a posture that in retrospect is said to have issued in even greater harm being done to European Jews.” But it is not merely in retrospect that this point has been made. In August 1943, Ben Halpern, soon to emerge as one of the most prominent American Jewish historians, wrote that while the Allies were to blame for doing so little to rescue Jews from the Nazis,
shame and contrition, because we have not done enough, weigh even more heavily upon the Jews of the free countries. Not only do we have the greater responsibility of kinsmen, but our own weakness may be one of the causes why so little has been done. The history of our times will one day make bitter reading, when it records that some Jews were so morally uncertain that they denied they were obligated to risk their own safety in order to save other Jews who were being done to death abroad.
One important exception to Halpern’s lament was the small but determined group of student activists at the institution where Mr. Wertheimer is provost and professor, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS). In early 1943, a group there led by Noah Golinkin, Jerome Lipnick, and Moshe Sachs organized an unprecedented Jewish-Christian conference at which hundreds of attendees learned about the plight of European Jewry and discussed possibilities for rescue. The JTS students also successfully lobbied national organizations to launch a publicity campaign about the Nazi genocide. Synagogues around the country adopted the proposals to recite special prayers for European Jewry, limit “occasions of amusement,” observe partial fast days and moments of silence, write letters to political officials and Christian religious leaders, and hold memorial protest rallies.
The fact that these efforts owe their origins to the initiative of a handful of JTS students makes one wonder how much more might have been accomplished if major Jewish organizations had shown similar spirit and energy.
David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies
Melrose Park, Pennsylvania
Jack Wertheimer writes:
Jerome A. Chanes rebuts points I did not make while ignoring the overall argument of my article.
First, he accuses me of not noticing the priority placed by “the communal agenda” on support for Israel and combating anti-Semitism. In fact I acknowledged and discussed these efforts at length. But I also criticized the diversion of energies and resources to matters far removed from these core issues of Jewish self-interest. To read Mr. Chanes’s letter, one would never know that “the communal agenda” gives great weight to such burning Jewish “interests” as the status of immigrants infected with AIDS, gun-safety legislation, flag burning, and term limits. Whether or not such causes are supported by “the Jewish populace,” they are marginal to core Jewish concerns and are already addressed by a panoply of non-sectarian groups.
In this connection, Mr. Chanes wrenches out of context my remark about the absence of debate. What I wrote was that there was little or no discussion “about whether it was good for Jewish groups to be taking vocal stances on a wide spectrum of issues, still less about whether the positions taken might not create as many foes as they would win friends.” Mr. Chanes offers no evidence of a debate about such strategic questions affecting the “communal agenda,” and indeed his letter altogether ignores my central contention—that times have changed, American society has been transformed, and the place of Jews is no longer the same as it was when that agenda was first formulated in such expansive terms. Instead, he simply defends the business-as-usual approach that my article set out to challenge.
Symptomatic is Mr. Chanes’s repeated and unqualified invocation of “church-state separation” as a Jewish interest. Given that the First Amendment requires such separation, the real issue is not whether Jews ought to support it but how they should understand its meaning. To take an example recently in the news: in France, where church-state separation is also the law of the land, the state has banned religious head-coverings in public institutions like schools. In the French understanding, such a ban is implicit in church-state separation. Yet the organizations of the Jewish community in the United States, basing themselves on the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment, support legislation protecting the right of Americans to wear religious garb in the workplace. The debate in the United States, then, is not over the principle of church-state separation but over its proper application.
Regrettably, Jewish leaders, even as they favor certain accommodations, fuel the current hysteria over separationism when they suggest that the “wall” will crumble if it is not impermeable. Some 50 years ago, as Jewish organizations were first embracing the separationist faith, they at least acknowledged that no “frontal attack” was imminent on a principle “so deeply ingrained in our tradition.” The danger, nevertheless, lay in “watering down, evasion, circumvention, and compromise.” It is evident today that so rigidly uncompromising an approach does not work—even for Jewish groups.
I am grateful to Alfred H. Moses for his own “serious self-questioning” of positions once supported by institutions he has led. Some Jewish organizations themselves do seem prepared to rethink, while others remain mired in the past even as they celebrate their “progressive” ideals.
I wish to stress that my article did not address the voting preferences of American Jews, but rather institutional strategies and alliances. Fortunately, it is rarely the case that Jewish organizations must weigh the interests of Israel against those of American Jews. Rather, the central question, as Ambassador Moses puts it well, is “whether we are driving a wedge between ourselves and our fellow Americans when we spend political capital on issues of marginal or no real concern to us” as a group.
I agree that evangelical support for Israel is confusing to many American Jews. I also agree that most American Jews seem to share little with adherents of the Christian Right. As a traditional Jew, I lament the closed minds of many of my coreligionists toward Jewish teachings and values that in fact converge at some points with evangelical teachings. Simply put, if more American Jews were animated by their own religious traditions, they might find certain areas of common ground with evangelicals. On a pragmatic level, I also wonder how Jews expect to forge successful alliances when they ignore or antagonize a group that is estimated to form between 33 and 40 percent of American voters.
Apparently, large percentages of American Jews are not as sanguine as Ambassador Moses about the future intensity of anti-Semitism on these shores. In the latest survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee, at the end of August 2004, 43 percent of respondents anticipated that anti-Semitism here will increase over the next several years. One might expect so pessimistic an assessment to prompt Jewish organizations to re-examine their strategies for insuring Jewish security.
Rafael Medoff reminds us of the activism of young Jews at a time when the organized community was divided and often passive. I too admire the energetic efforts of such activists. Mr. Medoff’s example, however, reinforces my larger contention that responses to the destruction of European Jewry in World War II can hardly serve as a useful template for today’s concerns, which include the impact on American Christian attitudes of Mel Gibson’s Hollywood extravaganza. Not every provocation requires, or deserves, the same type of response.
I am grateful for the letters of Henry Sherman, Larry F. Sternberg, Daniel B. Gelman, and Albert H. Fink. I certainly agree with Mr. Gelman that Jewish organizations cannot afford to ignore internal attrition, even as they combat external threats.
To the Editor:
Leon Aron has long been an outstanding analyst of developments in Russia, and I largely agree with his assessment of Vladimir Putin’s first term as president of Russia [“Is Russia Going Backward?,” October 2004]. From 2000 to 2003, Putin balanced elegantly between his own rising circle of former KGB men from St. Petersburg and the declining oligarchs. A few liberal technocrats were even able to carry out impressive market reforms. Although the political trend was authoritarian, it was very gradual, with checks and balances prevailing.
As for Putin’s second term, Mr. Aron sees continuity with the first, but I see quite a new course. Mr. Aron burdens the critics of Putin with the strawman of a “Soviet restoration,” but the more immediate threat to Russia is a dysfunctional authoritarian regime. In the last few years, an extreme centralization of power to the president has taken place. Though jealous of his power, Putin now has more of it than he can manage, and is not very decisive. He has also deprived himself of strong executives, replacing his formidable chief of staff and prime minister with men famous for never making decisions. This power vacuum was obvious in the Beslan school-hostage drama. Because Putin acts as the only authoritative spokesman of his government, he is overexposed. And since his words are not always substantiated by actions, his authority may dwindle.
By depriving Parliament, the Council of Ministers, and the regional governors of much of their power, Putin also has emptied formal institutions of real content. In their place he has set up informal advisory institutions, such as the State Council and the Public Chamber, which are of little or no consequence. As the regime has changed, so too have its interests. Putin’s KGB friends dominate not only the state administration but also the state-run enterprises, which are thus unlikely to see any further reform.
Mr. Aron describes how the Putin regime has skillfully manipulated the media and civil society, but Putin can only manipulate them so much before he loses credibility and authority, and that threshold has probably been crossed. The system he has created is impervious to feedback.
Mr. Aron is right to argue that Russia is not that authoritarian, but his prediction of “a political and economic arrangement that is more enduring, more stable, and more organic than what has gone before” is not very plausible. What worries me more than Russia’s current authoritarian tendencies is the possibility of destabilization. Putin could have won free and fair presidential elections, but he chose not to—and therefore does not benefit from democratic legitimacy. Moreover, he has deprived of legitimacy all the institutions that could have defended him, from Parliament to regional governors.
The world has seen many excellent first-term presidents descend into authoritarianism and corruption in their second terms. Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Carlos Menem of Argentina come to mind, and Vladimir Putin may join the list.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
To the Editor:
Leon Aron’s article is to be commended for its sober tone and balanced analysis. Too often, Western observers are tempted to underestimate Russia’s virtues or overestimate its vices while discarding inconvenient facts that conflict with their preconceived notions of how things in Russia “really are.” It is refreshing to find a piece that deals frankly with the positive and negative trends in today’s Russia.
It is important to dispel the myth that Vladimir Putin “stole” victories in Russia’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Mr. Aron is quite right to note that “manipulation of the media and other electoral shenanigans were hardly required in order to secure his lopsided triumph at the polls.” Opinion surveys confirm that most Russians endorse Putin’s vision of state-directed reform. And they agree that the first order of business is not the establishment of a liberal democracy but the continuation of orderly reform. Americans might have hoped that Russians would choose a different course, but what is now unfolding does reflect popular preferences.
Like Mr. Aron, I would take issue with those who believe that Russia is “going backward.” Russia is not regressing from an idyllic democracy; the perception that the country was “freer” under Boris Yeltsin came about because the state was weak, not liberal. Currently, we are seeing the consolidation of a system best described as “managed pluralism,” the outlines of which were already clear by the second Yeltsin administration. There is some room for free enterprise and choice, but the Kremlin consciously regulates the available social, political, and economic options. Leaders can be replaced—it bears remembering that more than half the Duma turned over in the 2003 elections—but the center controls access to the public square and sets the limits of debate. Putin’s vision for the future of Russian society is “state capitalism” married with “controlled democracy.”
Mr. Aron’s reminder that Russia’s “epochal experiment in liberty” is “far from over” is often forgotten in the rush to recast Russia as a KGB dictatorship bent on subverting freedom at home and abroad. Americans who are unhappy with the restricted zone of civil, political, and economic liberties under Putin should not shy away from saying so, but the emergence of a Singapore-style regime in Russia would not be a catastrophic defeat for freedom. There are hopeful signs that the groundwork is being laid for the rise of a prosperous middle class, without which no sustainable democracy can be built. Let us not write off Russia just yet.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev
The National Interest
Leon Aron writes:
I am grateful to both Anders Åslund and Nikolas K. Gvosdev for taking the time to produce such thorough and stimulating comments. Yet, while there is much that is valuable in its own right in the critique of my article by Mr. Åslund and the endorsement of it by Mr. Gvosdev, both, like my article itself, have been largely overtaken by events.
In revolutions, Leon Trotsky wrote somewhere, life moves fast—and revolution-watchers must try to catch up with it, the imperatives of publication cycles notwithstanding. My article bore a dateline of August 27, 2004. A “tipping point” came a short while later, first in the horrific terrorism of Beslan and then in Putin’s speech of September 13, in which he proposed appointing rather than electing governors. In one fell swoop, the Russian president took the country twenty years backward, casting aside perhaps the key historic achievement of Russian democracy under Yeltsin: a Russia free and whole for the first time in its history.
In a painful-to-watch Greek tragedy with the characters speaking in Russian, Putin seems determined to subvert a relatively stable transitional democracy and undermine a flourishing economy. By putting both under enormous stress, he risks not only destabilization but perhaps the country’s territorial integrity as well. Until his September speech, Putin’s statist impulses and policies could be weighed against Russia’s steady progress in economic liberalization and privatization, which were critical not only for the economy but for the continuing declawing of the state’s power over society. Both contradictory trends unfolded in parallel; in the absence of a clear public endorsement of one or the other by Putin, it was a matter of intuition and judgment as to which one would prevail in a clash. After September 13, Putin’s choice is now almost certain.
As an avid reader of everything written by Mr. Åslund, who like myself had been firmly within the “optimist” camp of Russia-watchers over the past decade-and-a-half, I am reasonably confident that until quite recently he would have agreed with every word of my piece. Today, I would gladly say the same about his letter.
Although I am grateful to Mr. Gvosdev for his generous words, I take issue with his conclusion that Russians prefer order to liberal democracy. A number of polls over many years appear to contradict this view. Still, despite this caveat, Mr. Gvosdev’s letter remains a valid antidote to the near-hysteria about Russia’s triumphant dictatorship that has been brewing in the pages of our elite newspapers and which, pace Anders Åslund, is not a “strawman”—one need only read, for instance, some of the recent editorials in the Washington Post.
What, then, of the road ahead? As the upheaval in the Ukraine shows, one should never underestimate a people’s innate thirst for self-rule. Given the enormous risks of the policies that Putin seems to be adopting, and the virtually certain deterioration of his popularity (which is his regime’s sole reliable resource), major crises and destabilization, provoked perhaps by further acts of terrorism, are at least as plausible a scenario for Russia’s near future as renewed authoritarianism.
To the Editor:
Arthur Waldron’s conclusion that the U.S. should support Taiwan is appealing, but the way he arrives at it is misleading [“Our Stake in Taiwan,” October 2004]. Taiwan is deeply divided over its national identity and over whether it should ultimately unite with mainland China. In a controversial presidential election last March that is still being disputed, the pro-independence camp beat the pro-unification camp by a mere 2-percent margin. It is difficult for even a mature democratic system to handle such a fundamental social schism, let alone for a nascent democracy. That Taiwan is struggling to overcome its internal divisions through orderly, legal procedures demonstrates that its democratic system works and that it is worthy of U.S. support.
But Mr. Waldron’s argument relies too heavily on Taiwan’s right to self-determination as a non-Chinese nation. This is not the population’s consensus, and only represents a half-truth. Taiwanese nationalism is not a natural growth from the island’s historical roots. It has been manufactured in a highly charged political environment, and is as artificial and state-manipulated as the old Chinese nationalism advocated by the Kuomintang. In many nascent democracies, notably in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states, election-driven nationalism has acted to ignite ethnic strife and break up nations. One cannot be too careful in seconding such nationalistic movements, including in Taiwan.
Mr. Waldron also errs in depicting the U.S. as siding with mainland China to suppress Taiwan. On the contrary, U.S. support has been the single most important factor in Taiwan’s stance against pressure from China. No U.S. administration fails to understand that the status quo best serves American interests. This means that Beijing should abstain from using force and Taiwan should refrain from attempting to separate permanently from the mainland. Poll after poll suggests that mainstream opinion in Taiwan agrees.
The most intelligent strategy that Washington can pursue is to suppress nationalistic moves on both sides. It would be unwise to endorse Taiwanese nationalism and inadvertently precipitate a showdown in the Taiwan Strait.
To the Editor:
Few would argue with Arthur Waldron’s assertion that Washington should maintain a close relationship with Taipei. But one must not underestimate Taiwan’s historical and cultural links to China, trivialize America’s steadfast support for Taiwan to date, or misjudge Washington’s need for a constructive relationship with Beijing.
The Manchu Qing dynasty’s two centuries of influence in Taiwan, from 1687 until 1895, facilitated migration and the gradual spread of Chinese settlement on the island. The aboriginal inhabitants of Taiwan now constitute only 2 percent of its population. China lost Taiwan to the Empire of Japan in the first Sino-Japanese war, but following Japan’s defeat by the Allies in World War II, the island was returned to the Republic of China (ROC). When China was split by civil war in 1949 and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) occupied the mainland, the ROC government retreated to Taiwan. Thus, while the ROC’s territory had changed, the state remained essentially intact. As one Taiwanese governmental study concluded, “that the ROC has been an independent sovereign state since its establishment in 1912 is an incontrovertible historical fact.”
In 1987, Taipei lifted the ban on travel, trade, and investment with the PRC. Today, the Taiwanese have invested over $100 billion in the PRC, and several hundred thousand Taiwanese live on the mainland. Links between the two societies continue to grow. It is true that many ROC citizens now consider themselves exclusively “Taiwanese,” but polls reveal that if China were to undertake political and economic reforms, support for unification would rise. If, on the other hand, China continues to engage in hostile behavior, it will succeed only in stirring up passions that could lead to a disastrous confrontation between the two sides.
One cannot overstate how strongly the Chinese people feel about Taiwan. They believe it to be, like Hong Kong, a Chinese territory that must be returned to the motherland. Moreover, China’s leaders fear that Taiwan’s independence would encourage other restive territories to push for separation. As the late General Chiang Wei-kuo, son of President Chiang Kai-shek, explained, “if Taiwan can be independent, Tibet can be independent, Xinjiang can be independent, Inner Mongolia can be independent—the whole country could fall apart.” China will not tolerate the establishment of a new Republic of Taiwan.
For decades, the U.S. recognized the ROC as the legitimate government of all China. Due to a shift in global alignments, Washington broke diplomatic relations with Taipei and established relations with Beijing in 1979. But America’s informal relations with Taiwan are stronger than ever. On April 25, 2001 President Bush even indicated that the U.S. had an obligation to defend Taiwan against attack by China. Contrary to what Mr. Waldron suggests, the U.S. is not pushing for unification. The Taiwan Relations Act and all of the U.S.-PRC communiqués state clearly that the U.S. favors a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question. But, as one U.S. government study concluded, the U.S. “has not expressed any opinion on the form the ultimate resolution might take.” Furthermore, in a condition introduced during the Clinton administration, U.S. policy now stresses that any resolution must be acceptable to the Taiwanese people.
Like its predecessors, the Bush administration realizes that it is in America’s interest to maintain a strong, constructive relationship with Taiwan and China. There is more than trade at stake. Beijing’s cooperation is essential if the international community hopes to address global problems like terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. To its credit, the Bush administration has somehow managed to upgrade relations with Taipei while simultaneously deepening the U.S. relationship with Beijing. Inviting the Taiwanese president to a dinner at the White House (something Mr. Waldron proposes) is not a way to achieve peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. To reach that goal, the U.S. must somehow convince the two sides to display more flexibility in their relations with each other and work together to resolve their differences peacefully.
Dennis V. Hickey
Southwest Missouri State University
To the Editor:
Arthur Waldron is one of a handful of historians of Chinese geopolitics brave enough to confront the bad habits of Washington’s China policy. His discussion of Henry Kissinger’s overtures to China 35 years ago should stimulate readers to revisit how we became virtual allies with China in the first place, and what has changed since.
In his memoir, White House Years, Kissinger recounts his concern in 1969 that a Soviet preemptive nuclear strike on China —a real possibility then—would “upset the global balance of power; it would create around the world an impression of approaching Soviet dominance.” A U.S.-China entente emerged, as Kissinger explains, because “history suggested that it was usually more advantageous to align oneself with the weaker of two antagonistic partners, because this acted as a restraint on the stronger.”
The relationship incubated during the 1970’s as both powers tacitly shared an interest in constraining the USSR. The normalization of relations in 1979 launched a decade of active intelligence and military cooperation against Soviet expansion. Not coincidentally, this new strategic partnership was accompanied by an unprecedented period of economic reform and political liberalization in China through the 1980’s. Americans reasonably believed that China was evolving into a country that not only shared U.S. security interests but potentially was open to our political values as well. This belief climaxed during the six weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, but it was shattered on June 4 of that year by the government’s brutal suppression of the democracy movement.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the basic organizing principle of the U.S.-China strategic partnership vanished. While the U.S. reaped a post-cold war “peace dividend” in reduced defense spending, China’s military modernization went into overdrive. By 1996, a Chinese general had threatened Los Angeles with nuclear destruction should America aid Taiwan in a cross-strait conflict. But instead of rethinking the fundamentals of America’s national interests, Washington’s foreign-policy bureaucracy continued on autopilot. China was “big”, Taiwan was “small”; ergo, China was “important” and Taiwan was not.
Mr. Waldron rightly asks why American policy-makers discount our stake in Taiwan. It has the world’s seventeenth-largest economy (on a par with Russia’s) and is America’s tenth-largest export market. It has East Asia’s fifth-largest military and Asia’s second-largest merchant-marine fleet (after China’s). It has nearly twice the population of Australia. It has been one of America’s staunchest allies and is perennially a top customer for U.S. defense equipment. With the Pentagon’s recent approval of long-range radar systems for Taiwan’s army, the island could be a vital link in America’s global missile-defense architecture.
Instead of “China big, Taiwan small,” the guiding principle of America’s strategy should be that “Taiwan is a democracy, China is not.” Any halfway intelligent China-Taiwan calculus would also ask where U.S. interests in the Pacific lie. In a China that has successfully cowed Taiwan into submission, or in a Taiwan that can successfully resist Anschluss with China?
Arthur Waldron deserves our thanks for putting these questions into strategic and historical perspective.
Arthur Waldron writes:
Discussion of the Taiwan-China relationship has become so clouded over the past thirty years, including by vast quantities of doubletalk from Washington and Beijing, that in preparing my article I felt my first duty was simply to tell the truth as well as I could. Three commonplace opinions struck me as being factually unsustainable.
The first unsustainable opinion was that the American policy of cutting all diplomatic and military relations with Taiwan, carried out by President Carter in 1979, had been a success. It most certainly was not that, not even in its own terms. Carter sought to deliver a fatal blow to the island, expecting that, after a decent interval, its dictatorial government, dominated by Chinese, would reach over the heads of its disenfranchised people to embrace “peaceful reunification”—and thus eliminate the troublesome issue from Washington-Beijing relations. Wherever else the Carter administration’s ill-thought-out policy may have led, it did not lead to this objective, and thus must be said to have failed.
Second, the Carter policy is never going to lead to its objective. The people of now democratic Taiwan seem most unlikely to vote to join the People’s Republic of China in any sort of genuinely free democratic procedure. All parties understand this fact: hence China’s immense military build-up against Taiwan and regular threats to use force.
But, third, China’s repeated threats to use force, while dangerous and necessary to counter, are also not persuasive. With China’s economy utterly dependent upon American markets, which would be closed in event of conflict, and with any such war certain to be costly, highly destructive, and most likely inconclusive, and with the Olympics looming, Beijing will likely find reasons to postpone.
So the 1970’s scenario by which the two sides reach a mutually acceptable settlement through negotiation is dead. It is simply not going to happen, probably not even if China should become a fully constitutional, free, and democratic state.
What is worse, in the 1970’s the United States burned nearly every bridge that might have led to other outcomes. We retained no official diplomatic presence in Taipei. By failing to insist on continuing representation for Taiwan in the United Nations, we provided crucial help to Beijing in ostracizing the island from the international community. Worst of all, perhaps, the Nixon administration agreed more than three decades ago that the U.S. would not support “two Chinas; one China, one Taiwan; or an independent Taiwan”—thus effectively ruling out all possible solutions save integration with China.
The result was to confront Taiwan with a future, written by others, that offered its people no democratically acceptable option. This started a search for exits that polarized politics in the island, destabilizing the situation in the Taiwan Strait and potentially in Asia more widely. Oddly, we have blamed the Taiwanese for this, when of course it was our policy change (of which they were informed without warning by a phone call in the small hours) that threw things into disarray.
Such, I think, are the facts. Certainly none of my correspondents challenges this basic narrative. Rather, they are concerned with what to do now.
I owe Yu-shan Wu an apology if I have conveyed the impression that I do not appreciate the “Chinese” aspects of Taiwan. Far from it. I began my study of Chinese there more than 30 years ago and now, as a professor, I cannot but be aware of the superb quality of Sinological and other research being produced by his Academia Sinica. My own university has recently hired a Taiwan University graduate to teach Chinese history. China certainly has many brilliant and creative scholars, but the knowledge loss owing to Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the continuing close political control of education have taken their toll. Following on this, I am of course well aware of the deep feeling of many in Taiwan that they are “Chinese,” though not subjects of Beijing.
A word about Mr. Wu’s generous observation that “U.S. support has been the single most important factor in Taiwan’s stance against pressure from China”: this is certainly true, but it was not what Kissinger, Nixon, or Carter hoped for. Rather, it is due to the cunning of history. Soon after President Carter signed what he thought was Taiwan’s death warrant, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which, manifesting the strong views of the American people, guaranteed a far more robust degree of support than the then President wanted. That legislation, not the Carter policy, is what (along with Taipei’s decision to democratize) saved the island.
As for the present moment, I agree with Mr. Wu that the wisest approach is to focus on tasks like perfecting the island’s democracy and judiciary, eliminating criminal activities in government, improving infrastructure, education, defense, and so forth, until the point where a consensus is reached in Taiwan. Washington might then be persuaded to signal, privately at first, that the 1970’s attempt to do away with Taiwan has failed and that a new approach is required, while China might be simultaneously persuaded to give up its expectation that Washington will somehow force Taiwan to terms and instead begin to talk seriously to the elected government in Taipei. I made these points forcefully in an address late last year to the World Taiwanese Congress, a largely pro-independence organization, meeting in Washington. The full text can be found at www.strategycenter.net.
I have one caveat, however, aimed more at Washington and Beijing than at the people of Taiwan. This is that the processes of history cannot be stopped, and maintaining the status quo can be at best a transitional phase. Taiwan is a dynamic society that will not tolerate limbo forever, and so is China. Instead of attempting the impossible, which is to stop change on both sides of the strait, we should be looking for a genuine solution that will restore to Taiwan much of what was so unwisely stripped away in the 1970’s. It is a state and a power and a player. Some in America argue that our Taiwan policy is based on “necessary myths.” How about instead a diplomacy based on confronting reality?
Dennis V. Hickey is one of our country’s genuine authorities on this topic, and I agree broadly with his well-informed comments, but with some reservations.
First, the United States, which became, in effect, the fiduciary responsible for Taiwan by virtue of Japan’s defeat and loss of its erstwhile colony, has never recognized Chinese sovereignty over the island. Our position, made clear both in Kissin- ger’s secret conversations with Zhou Enlai and President Reagan’s “six assurances” in 1982, is that the sovereignty of the island under international law remains to be determined. Thus, we recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s government as having administrative control but not sovereignty, and the same is true for the democratically elected government of Chen Shuibian today, as Secretary of State Colin Powell recently made clear. In the 1970’s we thought the question of sovereignty would become moot when Taiwan joined China. In other cases, such as East Timor or Ukraine, plebiscites are the standard under international law. For now, China simply will not accept this.
Second, I wonder whether it really is impossible to “overstate how strongly the Chinese people feel about Taiwan.” Last August, when I visited China as part of a semi-official delegation, I was lectured in Beijing by two very high-ranking officials on just this point—which prompted me to ask for polling data to support the contention. My Chinese interlocutors could produce none, and urged me simply to go out and “talk to people.” I pointed out that to do so would be illegal, for Chinese law forbids any opinion-polling on the Taiwan question specifically. In the absence of free debate and accurate opinion surveys, we have no way of knowing what the Chinese people, as opposed to their rulers, think.
I do not believe the current hard line would survive a genuine democratic transition. We got those lectures only in Beijing—where one high official had to be reminded to say her bit after she thought she had finished. In Shanghai, official comments were quite different, while in other cities Taiwan was not even mentioned.
Finally, the remark by Chiang Wei-kuo, the less gifted of Chiang Kai-shek’s two sons, is true: “If Taiwan can be independent, Tibet can be independent, Xinjiang can be independent, Inner Mongolia can be independent—the whole country could fall apart.” It is not only true, but likely. Beijing today claims not the territory of the indubitably Chinese Ming dynasty but rather the empire—including Tibet, Xinjiang, and so forth—that was assembled by the non-Chinese Manchus, and of which China itself was a component part. I see no way of keeping this archaic structure together while modernizing and liberalizing at the same time. China has already let go of Mongolia: why not begin the inevitable process of devolution now?
I can only thank John Tkacik, one of the tiny handful of Americans who really know Taiwan, for his kind remarks and useful additions to what I wrote. Our interest in Asia lies in an entente of democracies able to balance China so long as it remains a dictatorship and military threat, and also to serve as an example of how it might move forward.
Just such an entente would appear to be developing. The overseas Chinese press noted in November that a Chinese nuclear submarine, whose cruise through Japanese territorial waters has no doubt provoked a thorough reexamination of Tokyo’s security policy, was spotted first by a U.S. satellite and then by a Taiwan patrol aircraft, with both countries immediately informing Japan. Through such cooperation, peace and security in Asia will be assured, and pressure brought on China to change. Perhaps this is the insight from which Washington’s necessary new China-Taiwan policy can take its cue.
To the Editor:
Having been morbidly fascinated with Noam Chomsky for decades and having written about him on several occasions, (and even engaged in some private correspondence with him), I appreciate Arch Puddington’s assessment of his newfound popularity [“Chomsky’s Universe,” October 2004]. But there remain puzzling aspects of Chomsky’s beliefs and influence that need to be addressed, especially given his highly unoriginal and endlessly repeated views.
What sets Chomsky apart from other critics of the United States and Israel? How to explain his global appeal? How can he persist so tirelessly in his monomaniacal denunciations?
I suggest that it is the combination of his impregnable self-righteousness with the purity and intensity of his hatreds that makes Chomsky irresistible to all those who are similarly disposed but incapable of articulating corresponding sentiments. The truly extreme and unrestrained character of his pronouncements is what gives the greatest pleasure to his audiences.
Chomsky’s appeal is also likely to be related to the manner of his delivery: he conveys his outlandish statements casually and matter-of-factly, as if they were indisputable verities that only the most obtuse could fail to grasp. Characteristically, he immerses his vitriolic denunciations in a rationalistic or quasi-rational polemical style, larded with expressions such as “it is surely not in doubt,” “assuming that facts matter,” “evidence from sources that seem to deserve a hearing,” “the available facts lead to one clear conclusion,” “informed opinion ranges over quite a wide spectrum” (the latter referring to the massacres of Pol Pot). Authors he disagrees with are “observers of evident bias and low credibility.”
The deepest mystery remains the source of Chomsky’s consuming, lifelong hatred. It has yet to be thoroughly examined by qualified students of the human mind and psyche.
To the Editor:
Arch Puddington suggests some slight distinction between Noam Chomsky’s defamations of America and of its Jews. In fact, in the depths of Chomsky’s febrile brain, there is no real distinction between the two. Take, for example, the following observation in his address of October 11, 2002 to the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign: “Anti-Semitism [in the U.S.] is no longer a problem, fortunately. It’s raised, but it’s raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98 percent control. That’s why anti-Semitism is becoming an issue.” This is meat and drink for the tenured tigers in American universities and for witless Europeans who not only resent America but deeply regret that the Holocaust gave anti-Semitism a bad name.
To the Editor:
Many years ago, Noam Chomsky wrote an attack on Sidney Hook that opened by declaring, “As usual, Professor Hook begins with a lie.” I turned to the beginnings of several books by Hook and found no lies, never mind “usual” ones. Chomsky cited not one book by Hook.
Abbotsford, British Columbia
To the Editor:
If Noam Chomsky lived under the political systems he admires—Castro’s Cuba, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China—he would be executed for his opposition. Our open society allows him to live and flourish.
Why would Chomsky and others like him have such violently anti-American views? Perhaps to make money and receive honors, which the capitalism they despise allows them to do. If they extolled America, they would be ignored.
Dennis C. Barry
To the Editor:
Arch Puddington’s onslaught takes Chomsky’s politics far more seriously than Chomsky himself does. Chomsky’s opinion is that all genuine human thinking is scientific. For him, there are no other modes or styles of rational inquiry. He accepts the consequence that his political polemics must therefore be accounted solipsistic: “My political views are my own,” which “is not to say that questions about community, culture, and language are unimportant. They are extremely important. . . . [I]t is just that we have little scientific understanding of them.”
It is a nicer question why, in that case, Chomsky’s political pronouncements are of any interest to Chomsky himself. But the last thing he claims is the intellectual rigor for which Arch Puddington reports Chomsky’s political writings are renowned among his followers.
Although in my view Chomsky is profoundly wrong about the nature of human thinking, I do not see why we should not take him at his word and refrain from treating his politicking with a seriousness he cannot himself grant to it.
To the Editor:
Where does one begin? Arch Puddington’s article is the worst pack of lies that I have ever encountered by so-called critics of Noam Chomsky. How you can justify publishing outright slander is beyond me.
Arch Puddington writes:
I have no definitive answer to Paul Hollander’s question about the source of Chomsky’s appeal. Perhaps part of the answer lies in Chomsky’s ability to remain “on message”—the message, of course, being that the United States is the source of all evil in the world. This is not the main theme of Chomsky’s political writings; it is the only theme. And it is a theme ideally suited to the global Left in the post-Soviet era, when anti-Americanism has replaced socialism as the reigning idea of progressive thought. The fact that Chomsky avoids Marxist categories or vocabulary in his writings has also enabled him to reach a broader audience than more orthodox radicals. That Chomsky seems not to care whether his ideas are taken seriously by the press or policy-makers enhances his appeal to his core supporters.
I must respectfully disagree with Ian Robinson regarding Chomsky’s attitude toward his own writings. Chomsky has been writing political polemics for the past forty years. He obviously takes his opinions and his writings with the utmost seriousness, as he does his role as the intellectual leader of the anti-globalist movement.
To the Editor:
Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art, reviewed by Steven C. Munson [Books in Review, October 2004], attacks me at length for a book I published twenty years ago in which I put forward the remarkable thesis that the Victorians were sexually repressed and that one of them, the painter John Singer Sargent, made a series of apparently “Freudian slips” in his group portrait of the daughters of a fellow artist. In eighteen pages of ad hominem assault, Kimball mentions me by name no fewer than 70 times. Yet Mr. Munson, in his review, refers to me as David “Rubin” instead of Lubin. Could this too have been a slip, perhaps revealing something about Mr. Munson?
Mr. Munson, it appears, has read none of my work apart from the polemically chosen quotations in the book under review. He seems not even to realize that my rumination on Sargent appeared in a 1985 publication that has long been out of print, and thus is not exactly representative of current endeavors in art history, as Kimball’s book misleadingly maintains.
Mr. Munson concludes his review by suggesting that today’s revisionist art historians are worse than Nazis: “the current revisionism is more insidious, since it is not enforced or sponsored by state power but is rather the result of a voluntary exercise of academic freedom.” Does he really stand behind the claim that academic freedom, one of the hallmarks of democracy, is more insidious than scholarship restricted under totalitarianism?
David M. Lubin
Wake Forest University
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
To the Editor:
An exposé of what has been passing for art history in recent times is certainly worthwhile, but it is not something that just anyone can undertake. At the very least, the author should be able to distinguish between a Marxist hack like Albert Boime and a genuinely original scholar like Michael Fried.
Fried’s purpose in Courbet’s Realism was to explicate Courbet’s greatness. In the section of Fried’s book used by Roger Kimball, and discussed in Steven C. Munson’s review, Fried was trying to rescue Courbet from the dull-witted sledgehammer tactics of the very ideologues whom Kimball attacks in The Rape of the Masters. Fried conceded that a feminist perspective might indeed shed some light on the history of art. But with regard to Courbet, he argued, it had brought nothing but jargon to the table. His point was that the usual fuming about the “masculine gaze” and “women as objects of masculine sexual possession” did violence to the complexity, many-layeredness, and “strangeness” of Courbet’s genius.
Mr. Munson’s review makes it clear that he too probably thinks Kimball a little too simpleminded for the job at hand. This makes me wonder even more whether Mr. Munson has actually read Courbet’s Realism.
New York City
Steven C. Munson writes:
Whether the misspelling of David M. Lubin’s name was the result of failing eyesight or careless typing, I hope he will accept my apology. His justified anger at the mistake is a reminder that the man who said, “I don’t care what you print about me as long as you spell my name right,” was making an important point.
As for Mr. Lubin’s other points: first, the fact that what he wrote twenty years ago has now apparently come back to haunt him is nothing to be ashamed of. Who among those of us who write for publication has not wished, upon reflection in the fullness of time, that he had said something better, or differently, or not at all? Unfortunately, with writing—as opposed to, say, certain types of felony—there is no statute of limitations. What Mr. Lubin wrote two decades ago “still counts”—unless he has decided to disavow it, but I see no sign of that. And if Roger Kimball has not misquoted him or taken what he wrote out of context—and Mr. Lubin offers no evidence to indicate that this is the case, either—he has no legitimate grounds for complaint.
Second, the word “insidious” means subtle, and in the context in which I used it I think it is exactly right. The effort to impose a politically correct ideology in an environment of academic freedom is by its very nature a far more subtle enterprise than straightforward state censorship. For Mr. Lubin to conclude from this that I think today’s PC art historians are “worse than Nazis” is both silly and obtuse.
Like Mr. Lubin, Philip Leider offers no evidence to show that the quotations in Roger Kimball’s book, in this case pertaining to Michael Fried, are inaccurate or have been removed from their proper context. Moreover, Mr. Leider’s contention that, “with regard to Courbet,” Fried argued that “a feminist perspective” had “brought nothing but jargon to the table” makes me wonder how closely he has read Fried’s book.
Let me quote again what Fried had to say about Courbet’s painting, Young Women on the Banks of the Seine:
My argument can be summed up by saying that in the Young Women, what appears at first to be simply or exclusively a strongly oppositional thematics of sexual difference (the women as objects of masculine sexual possession) gives way to or at the very least coexists with a more embracing metaphorics of gender (a pervasive feminization of the pictorial field through an imagery of flowers). . . .
If that is not jargon, and feminist-inspired doubletalk to boot, I don’t know what is. Nor is it the only example cited in Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters. As Kimball writes, Fried’s “discussion is full of meditations on ‘the metaphorics of phallicism, menstrual bleeding, pregnancy, and flowers,’” including the statement that the scattering of grain in Courbet’s painting The Wheat Sifters “‘can also be seen as a downpour of menstrual blood—not red but warm-hued and sticky-seeming, flooding outward from the sifter’s rose-draped thighs.’”
How such positively gross meanderings could be part of an effort to “explicate Courbet’s greatness,” or even his realism, frankly eludes me. Mr. Leider may see a qualitative intellectual difference between Fried’s writings and those of “a Marxist hack like Albert Boime,” but, on the basis of what I have read, I’m afraid I do not.
And this of course is the main point of Kimball’s book: that what now passes for art scholarship is often little more than politically colored personal weirdness decked out in suitably esoteric academic terminology.
Interestingly enough, Mr. Leider’s assertion that Michael Fried “was trying to rescue” Courbet from his more heavyhanded colleagues actually confirms one of the main points of my review: namely, that the revisionist art historians, animated by an ideological imperative (whether acknowledged or not) to discredit traditional and sensible ways of understanding the cultural products of the West, often end up shying away from the ultimate logic of their analysis and seeking to save their subjects from the depredations they have just visited on them. Whether this occurs within the boundaries of a single author’s essay or book, or whether it is the result of intramural critique, is beside the point. In both cases, the intellectual process—a highly questionable one, in my view—is essentially the same.
Finally, whatever disagreements I might have with Roger Kimball, there is no doubt that he is a gifted, indeed indispensable, critic, editor, and polemicist, and, as I said in my review, his book deserves the widest audience possible.
To the Editor:
I have just read the last sentences of “Perfection” [October 2004] and am rushing to congratulate you for publishing it and thus enabling me to read this wildly funny and heartbreaking fantasy. The story’s amazing originality can be matched only by Mark Helprin’s extreme courage in approaching the unanswerable question raised by the Holocaust, and doing so through the mind of a survivor of Majdanek who, at thirteen, in Yankee Stadium with a baseball bat in his weak child’s hands, proves to himself and to—to whom, really?—that “tsadik Adonai bekhol derakhav,” the Lord is righteous in all His ways; in other words, there is perfection. As a fantastic treatment of that unsolvable riddle, it is one of the most original stories on the inner workings of a haunted survivor I have ever read. Thank you.
Ramat Aviv, Israel
To the Editor:
Mark Helprin, with all his hyperbolic force of hilarious metaphor, has made us see, through his concoction named Roger, who we are as people in protest against death, in the everlasting praise of His name and the love of that name in its absolute facelessness. Thank you for its publication.
Dunkirk, New York
To the Editor:
A short comment on Mark Helprin’s story, “Perfection,” in Commentary: story perfection in Commentary.
To the Editor:
Thank you, Mr. Helprin, for a delightfully wise story.
Mary Jo and Jim Reading
Grants, New Mexico
To the Editor:
I am a long-time reader of Commentary, and a passionate fan, but what were you thinking? Mark Helprin’s story was pompous, bloated, incoherent, and embarrassing. Please use better judgment.