The Ethnic Future TO THE EDITOR: Readers of COMMEN- TARY who are not knowl- edgeable about the events surrounding the passage of three important ballot init- iatives in California-Pro- position 187 in 1994, Propo- sition 209 in 1996, and Proposition 227 in 1998- should not be taken in by Ron Unz’s dishonest and self-serving misrepresenta- tion of them in his article, “California and the End of White America” [Novem- ber 1999].
In the guise of a warning about the supposed rise of “white nationalism,” Mr.
Unz not only insults the people of California but im- pugns the character and integrity of former Gover- nor Pete Wilson, whom he plainly cannot forgive for trouncing him so effortlessly in the 1994 Republican gu- bernatorial primary. Mr.
Unz has consistently sought to distort Wilson’s record- a record with which I am in- timately familiar, having served as the governor’s press secretary for the en- tire period covered by Mr.
Unz and as his deputy chief of staff for some of it.
With respect to Propo- sition 187-which banned all nonemergency govern- ment services for illegal im- migrants–Mr. Unz, accept- ing the view propounded by liberal politicians and the media, attributes the propo- sition’s landslide victory to the votes of privileged, frightened, nativist whites eager to “scapegoat” Lati- nos for the 1992 Los Ange- les riots and for the state’s economic woes. In doing so, he demonizes the people of California.
But the real focus of those who supported 187-and not just those white voters whom Mr. Unz describes as “aging suburbanites”-was the problem of illegal im- migration. More precisely, it was the manifest unfair- ness of the federal govern- ment, which, having failed in its exclusive duty to con- trol the U.S. border with Mexico, proceeded to stick California taxpayers with the huge and growing cost of federally mandated ser- vices for illegal immigrants.
The people of California understood very well that Proposition 187 was exact- ly what Governor Wilson called it at the time: “the loudest, clearest protest by taxpayers against their na- tional government since the Boston Tea Party.” They understood be- cause the issue was not new to them, thanks in large part to Wilson’s long record of activism in pursuit of feder- al reform. As mayor of San Diego, he had tried to get President Carter to address the problems that were al- ready resulting from our porous southern border. In the U.S. Senate, he had protested the rising crime and health costs of local governments in California because of illegal immigra- tion. And as early as 1991, in his first year as govern- or, he had told Time that though Californians took pride in their immigrant his- tory and welcomed new cit- izens from other states and nations, there was a limit to how much the state’s tax- payers could be asked to pay to support newcomers.
As Wilson said at a news conference that year, the heavy burden placed on the state budget by federally- mandated services for ille- gal immigrants-over $2 billion annually (now over $3 billion)-would preempt funds needed to provide ser- vices to legal residents. That is why he formally request- ed federal reimbursement for these costs and finally, frustrated by the total lack of a response, sued the fed- eral government.
This is hardly the histo- ry of the cynical Johnny- come-lately whom Mr. Unz portrays. Rather, it is a clear record of sustained, princi- pled, and vigorous demands for federal acceptance of federal responsibilities and for federal fairness to the taxpayers of California. ICOMMENTARY FEBRUARY 2000 Mr. Unz shrugs off the clear distinction between le- gal and illegal immigration, and, in order to paint Pete Wilson as anti-immigrant and racist, engages in out- right falsehood and shame- ful innuendo. Consider the following passage from his article: [T]he common white ste- reotype of darker-skinned peoples as especially prone to government depend- ency proved irresistible.
“Stopping welfare for ille- gal immigrants” became a powerful slogan…. The results were immediate.
Wilson . . . saw his ap- proval rating shoot up al- most overnight.
The clear implication is that Governor Wilson adop- ted this slogan and shared those attitudes, and did so to boost his chances for re- election. But not only did Wilson never use such a slo- gan, he contradicted it re- peatedly, explaining that illegal immigrants, though eligible under federal law for healthcare and educa- tion, could not receive wel- fare. Needless to say, Wil- son never claimed, as Mr.
Unz further asserts, that “California’s generous wel- fare arrangements served as a magnet to impoverished foreigners.” The ugliest of Mr. Unz’s false charges is that Wilson, in supporting Proposition 187, gave “implicit sanction …
to far more extreme words and deeds.” But Mr. Unz- like others who have en- gaged in character assassi- nation over Proposition 187-offers no evidence that Wilson ever gave any sort of sanction to any extreme word or deed.
In the absence of such evidence, Mr. Unz resorts to criticizing the very effec- tive television ad that Wil- son aired in support of the proposition. As Mr. Unz puts it, the ad “featured grit- ty black-and-white footage of illegal aliens scurrying across the Mexican border like an army of subhuman invaders, but then balanced this harsh image with rev- erent shots of the Statue of Liberty and of legal Latino residents taking the oath of U.S. citizenship.” He omits to mention that this “gritty black-and-white” film is of- ficial Immigration and Nat- uralization Service footage, recording the reality of il- legal immigration. Nor does he explain why a politic- ian who is supposedly anti- immigrant would associate himself with pictures of le- gal immigrants experienc- ing the pride and joy of be- coming American citizens.
As for the implication that the governor’s support of 187 was prompted by a cynical concern for his own reelection, Wilson did not become involved with the proposition until after the June 1994 Republican pri- mary, by which time he was already enjoying a steadily growing lead over the De- mocratic challenger Kath- leen Brown. (This, inciden- tally, shows the falsity of Mr.
Unz’s claim, made to a re- porter in 1998, that he him- self entered the Republican primary in 1994 in response to the governor’s support for Proposition 187.) Mr. Unz does no better in recounting Wilson’s role in the victory of Proposition 209, which ended racial and gender preferences in pub- lic employment, contract- ing, and university admis- sions. He describes Wilson’s participation in the initia- tive as a “strategic calami- ty,” but it was Wilson and Ward Connerlv-a Wilson appointee to the Universi- ty of California Regents- who directed the successful campaign, raising the nec- essary funds with only mi- nor assistance from the Re- publican party. Obviously, Connerly was the driving force behind Proposition 209, but as he himself has acknowledged, it was Pete Wilson who helped and en- couraged him to take the lead.
Concerning his own role in Proposition 209, Mr. Unz adds that, having hoped to involve himself “heavily” in the initiative, he “was under- standably rejected once Wil- son’s operatives gained influ- ence in the effort.” Strangely, no one on the campaign can recall that Mr. Unz volun- teered his services.
Pete Wilson has publicly given Mr. Unz high marks for his leadership of Prop- osition 227, the successful effort to end the destruc- tiveness and wasted oppor- tunity of bilingual educa- tion. Typically, in describing one of the major financial backers of the opposition to Proposition 227 as a “close ally of Governor Wilson,” Mr. Unz neglects to men- tion that the same Gover- nor Wilson was the only major political figure in ei- ther party to endorse 227.
Finally, Mr. Unz reports that in 1994, Governor Wil- son was “the most unpopu- lar incumbent in California history.” What he fails to say is that by the time Pete Wilson left office in Janu- ary 1999, 80 percent of Cal- ifornians felt that the state was headed in the right di- rection, and Wilson’s high approval rating matched that of Governor Ronald Reagan when he left office.
In this grossly unfair and mean-spirited article, Mr.
Unz engages in the worst kind of revisionism. Pete Wilson-and the readers of COMMENTARY-deserve better.
SEAN WALSH Oakland, California To THE EDITOR: Ron Unz’s piece on the tragedy of ethnic politics in California is quite correct.
The ill-starred campaign for Proposition 187-which banned most government services for illegal immi- grants-was a moral error and a political blunder. I am grateful that a few promin- ent conservatives, such as William J. Bennett and Jack Kemp, spoke out against it.
Mr. Unz also deserves our praise for helping bring an end to bilingual education in California, a change that has already begun to help immigrant children learn English.
But I would ask Mr. Unz to recognize that though America is an assimilationist nation, the flow of illegal im- migrants poses a problem that deserves careful atten- tion. The goal is not to end immigration but to control its flow; to select, to the ex- tent that we can, people who can bring some special skill to the country; and to facili- tate the entry into citizenship of illegals who have been here for many years and have remained free of criminal charges and welfare abuses.
This is especially important in California, which is vul- nerable to more mindless anti-immigrant posturing if the economy turns sour or a clever politician inflames our sentiments.
This is not an easy mat- ter. Controls at the border have become much tighter, but they are only partially effective. About half of all illegals enter with tourist visas and then overstay their  I v vLETTERS FROM READERS limits. I have no easy solu- tion, other than to ask the anti-immigrant activists and the pro-assimilation critics to talk sensibly about ways of moderating the flow of illegals and giving regular- ized status to those trouble- free illegals who have been here for several years.
JAMES Q. WILSON Pepperdine University Malibu, California To THE EDITOR: Ron Unz sheds some needed light on an impor- tant element of our coun- try’s immigration/assimila- tion problem. Statements like Patrick Buchanan’s call for affirmative action in higher education for non- Jewish whites are simply a logical extension of the mul- ticulturalism and racial pref- erences we have endured for the past generation, and more “European American” agitation is inevitable if we do not change course.
Unfortunately, Mr. Unz’s prescription for reform is incomplete. With multicul- turalism so firmly rooted in every institution-schools, day-care centers, corpora- tions, churches, fraternal organizations, unions, li- braries, local governments- the process of rooting it out will be protracted and pain- ful, if it is possible at all.
Nevertheless, Mr. Unz rejects as illegitimate any re- consideration of an immi- gration policy that admits more than one million legal and illegal immigrants each year. He squares this circle in his own mind by holding to the belief that “the real- ity of the melting pot re- mains as powerful as ever,” even though “the ideology behind it has almost disap- peared.” But if the ideolog- ical and political foundation of Americanization no long- er exists, how can the melt- ing pot be “as powerful as ever”? Americanization is more than learning English, getting a job, and buying a house-it involves the de- velopment in an immigrant (and, more importantly, in his children) of a visceral love of country and emo- tional attachment to Amer- ica’s history as something “we” did, rather than some- thing “they” did.
There is no question that the ethnic conflict and civic discord of multiculturalism have been generated by Americans rather than im- migrants, and would have been present even had there been no immigration over the past generation. There is also no question that the im- migrants already here must be embraced and American- ized. But to exacerbate the intractable problem of eth- nic separatism and grievance politics by continuing high levels of immigration is sim- ply irresponsible.
Prudence demands that we limit the annual inflow to genuine refugees with no chance of ever settling any- where else, the spouses and minor children of citizens, and a handful of people with extraordinary and unique talents. This would still yield more immigration than any other country al- lows, but it would be of great help to the efforts of Mr. Unz and others in re- versing our country’s frag- mentation.
MARK KRIKORIAN Center for Immigration Studies Washington, D.C.
To THE EDITOR: Ron Unz’s profound and somber warning about the political danger from Amer- ica’s continuing demograph- ic transformation deserves to be taken seriously. Though he perhaps exaggerates the importance of whites becom- ing a numerical minority, he is surely right to worry about the splintering of America should whites begin to feel and act like apolitical minor- ity, with their own grievances and separatist agenda. His success with “English for the Children” (Proposition 227) may help to avert this cata- strophe, but, alas, it is insuf- ficient.
The American melting pot on which Mr. Unz rightly places great stress has a limited capacity. If the inflow of families who must be acculturated becomes too large and too rapid, these newcomers will coalesce into ghettos and reconsti- tute their own societies. The COMMENTARY FEBRUARY 2000 “left-liberal ethnic activists,” as Mr. Unz aptly calls them, will see to that. Eventually, the road back to the Ameri- can melting pot will become permanently blocked by the powerful business interests, like the owners of minority- language television stations, that thrive on perpetuating this “diversity.” And our short-sighted politicians, who seek to win elections by propitiating the politics of grievance, will cement into federal law the damage done by the activists.
It is puzzling that Mr.
Unz, who convincingly de- scribes this danger, recoils from thinking his insight through to the end. Let us not obfuscate the trouble- some bottom line: the dem- ographic changes at work here are largely an unintend- ed consequence of the 1965 Immigration Act and of Congress’s inability to re- pair this legislation.
I have recently joined the advisory board of the Feder- ation for American Immi- gration Reform (FAIR), an organization that Mr. Unz calls “America’s premier anti- immigration lobby.” From what I have seen of FAIR, its efforts are focused on keep- ing the immigration laws from becoming yet more in- effectual, making it possible for America’s melting pot to function again, and thus averting the disaster Mr. Unz so presciently warns us of.
Instead of calling each other “xenophobes”-or “xeno- philes”-it behooves us to make common cause to keep the United States united.
FRED C. IKLE Bethesda, Maryland To THE EDITOR: Ron Unz is especially insightful in his analysis of the cynically late embrace of the California Civil Rights Initiative (Proposition 209) by Bob Dole and other em- battled Republicans during the 1996 campaign. To judge by the legislation passed by Congress since then, the leaders of the GOP have decided to dis- tance the party from the vi- tal cause of overturning af- firmative action. They have shortsightedly dismissed the results of a 1998 referen- dum in Washington State to end racial preferences in education, contracting, and employment, even though it passed by a margin of nineteen points.
Mr. Unz’s discussion of America’s racial destiny is less persuasive, however.
Here he presents two di- chotomous futures: a new American melting pot, on the one hand, and white na- tionalism, on the other. This is overly simplistic, as the lines among the various competing ideologies are of- ten blurred. Consider that supporters of Propositions 209 and 227, the melting- pot initiatives in Mr. Unz’s eyes, were also for the most part supporters of Proposi- tion 187, the initiative that he connects to white na- tionalism. Ending state-sup- ported benefits to illegal aliens and ending a failed system of bilingual educa- tion and racial preferences apparently squared in the minds of millions of Cali- fornia voters.
EDWARD BLUM Houston, Texas To THE EDITOR: Ron Unz correctly high- lights the undesirable as- pects of multiculturalism as practiced in California. A system of education that denies its students literacy in the dominant language and familiarity with the cul- ture they live in is a cause for concern. It not only cheats the students involved but, if done on a large scale, threatens the cohesion of society.
But Mr. Unz goes well beyond this legitimate con- cern. Rather than arguing for the acculturation of immi- grants, he demands total as- similation. He not only wants Hispanics to learn English and the history and culture of America; he also insists that they surrender their own language and culture.
It does not seem to occur to Mr. Unz that it is possi- ble to satisfy his concerns without also demanding the homogenization of society.
Schools can acculturate stu- dents while permitting them to retain their own cultural heritages. The graduates of our best Catholic and Jew- ish day schools are literate in English and familiar with American history and cul- ture, but they are also proud- ly aware of their own iden- tity and history.
California could have cre- ated curricula designed to achieve a similar goal for its large Hispanic population.
Bicultural schools that teach English and Spanish, Amer- ican and Latin American history, could produce grad- uates capable of living suc- cessfully in two cultures-to their own benefit and to the enrichment of our society.
ARTHUR KRUGER Touro College New York City To THE EDITOR: Ron Unz fears that the United States teeters so close to the edge of Balkans-like ethnic violence that distinct identities are inherently dan- gerous and must be quashed by the government. But as even he acknowledges, “the reality of the melting pot re- mains as powerful as ever.” The intermarriage rate is nearly as high for the chil- dren and grandchildren of Latino and Asian immigrants as it is for American Jews, and the acquisition of Eng- lish by immigrants is as rapid today as it was for immi- grants of the past. With the pervasive influence of televi- sion and the shopping mall, the forces of assimilation are probably more powerful now than ever before.
To be sure, grievance- based politics and self-ap- pointed ethnic group lead- ers can be irritating, but they pose no real threat to the health of our republic.
And bilingual education in public schools is often a mess-but this is a problem having to do with monopo- listic big-city public schools, not with native-language in- struction per se.
Ever the assimilationist, Mr. Unz recently wrote an opinion piece in the Sacra- mento Bee that opposed school choice because “our most vulnerable popula- tions” might choose schools “preaching a range of eth- nic-nationalist ideologies, which could have a lethal ef- fect on our already fraying social cohesion.” This is un- necessary alarmism. Just as the Know-Nothings of the 19th century attempted to ban private education to protect “vulnerable” Cath- olic and Jewish children from the backward ideas of their parents, Mr. Unz would like to limit the ac- cess of poor blacks, Latinos, and Asians to private schools to protect them from the dangerous ideas of their par- ents. As the experience of Jews and Catholics in the United States suggests, the obliteration of ethnic iden- tity is a greater danger than the country’s splintering along ethnic lines. I vLETTERS FROM READERS While appearing moder- ate, Mr. Unz’s views are ac- tually quite extreme. He is so afraid of national disintegra- tion that he gives every pri- ority to the need for assimi- lation and no priority to the need for ethnic preservation.
To persuade his audience of this view, he focuses upon ex- amples that highlight un- popular or somewhat men- acing ethnic groups when the logic of his assimilationist agenda applies to all.
JAY P. GREENE Manhattan Institute New York City To THE EDITOR: Ron Unz decries as false and demagogic the belief that California’s generous welfare arrangements serve as a magnet to impoverished foreigners. He states un- equivocally that “nearly all immigrants come for jobs, not welfare.” This is a naive conjecture on his part.
There is a virtual “hot- line” from illegals living in the U.S. to their friends and relatives back home, in- forming them about the public benefits to which they will be entitled if they come to this country. In- tensifying this pull is the highly profitable Mexican cartel engaged in the illicit smuggling of immigrants.
Recruiters travel to villages throughout Mexico offering themselves as guides to the “good life” that awaits in the U.S., including jobs, welfare, and free medical care. Best of all, men and women are told that if they have a baby in the U.S., the child auto- matically becomes an Amer- ican citizen, which entitles them to still more benefits.
As far as education goes, the crisis of the Los Ange- les Unified School District can only worsen as long as it continues its well-inten- tioned but disastrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” admissions policy. Statistics show that a school a day will have to be built in California to keep up with the student- population explosion due to illegal immigration.
HAL NETKIN Van Nuys, California To THE EDITOR: Ron Unz worries that white nationalism is a dan- gerous force that could break up the country. He suggests that if nonwhite immigrants can be more skillfully inte- grated and assimilated, racial nationalism can be defused and whites can be shep- herded gently into perma- nent minority status.
But if Mr. Unz is con- cerned about keeping the country together, why is white nationalism the vil- lain, rather than the immi- gration of nonwhites that gives rise to it? Mr. Unz is asking white Americans to do something without pre- cedent in the history of the world: voluntarily permit themselves to be displaced by people unlike themselves.
The absurdity and, yes, the immorality of this are ob- vious if we imagine the shoe on the other foot. What if millions of white Americans were pouring across the bor- der into Mexico, and pre- ferred to speak English rather than Spanish, celebrate the Fourth of July rather than Cinco de Mayo? They would fundamentally change the texture of life in those parts of Mexico in which they lived. Can we imagine Mexi- cans trying to persuade them- selves that this demographic transformation was “cultur- al enrichment,” even as it threatened to reduce them to a minority in their own country? People are tribal, and their nature will not be changed by exhortation. Mr. Unz is right: as whites become a minori- ty, more and more will rec- ognize massive third-world immigration as an intolera- ble assault on their culture and peoplehood. And, indeed, the country could break up as a result But do not blame white nationalism. Blame the fool- ish and suicidal policy of pre- tending that differences of race, language, and culture are somehow sources of strength rather than sources of con- flict.
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New York, NY 10010 212-475-4320 Fax (212) 505-0535 i Out of state call toll-free: A u a i 1-800-221-4083 II, I  . ~I~~-“LI~G I i lls tCOMMENTARY FEBRUARY 2000 RON UNZ writes: Major political leaders who have chosen to sacri- fice their place in history for momentary political advan- tage often come to regret their Faustian bargain, as do their retainers; it is in this context that Sean Walsh’s apologia for his employer, former Governor Pete Wil- son of California, should be understood. Although Mr.
Walsh’s letter is far too long for me to respond to all of its points, I shall try to dis- cuss the overall sense and a few major issues.
First, my intent in “Cali- fornia and the End of White America” was to provide as accurate and factual an ac- count as possible of recent and important political events in the state; as readers of my article are surely aware, any discussion of Governor Wilson was mere- ly a byproduct of that inten- tion. Although elements of the media have portrayed Wilson as a racist and xeno- phobe, the flaws I implied were hypocrisy and oppor- tunism, traits found to a greater or lesser degree in all politicians. In fact, I showed that most of California’s oth- er leading political figures, including Democratic Sena- tors Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, exhibited sim- ilar behavior but have un- fairly escaped criticism for it.
As for the accuracy of my portrayal, consider that in 1986 Wilson sponsored leg- islation to provide amnesty to three million illegal im- migrants and, on behalf of growers, bitterly resisted ef- forts by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to investigate the legal sta- tus of migrant farmworkers.
But once the political and economic climate changed in the early 1990’s, he com- menced regularly to de- nounce the terrible threat of illegal immigration, ulti- mately embracing an un- constitutional proposal (Pro- position 187) to expel 300,000 young immigrant children from school because of their parents’ legal status. Simi- larly with affirmative action: in late 1994, Wilson pub- licly reaffirmed his decades- long support for minority set-aside programs in Cali- fornia, yet by early 1995 he was promising to repeal those same programs im- mediately as part of a cru- sade to “undo the corrosive unfairness of reverse dis- crimination,” which he soon made a central theme of his abortive presidential bid.
Governor Wilson and his spokesman are today almost alone in failing to recognize the political consequences of his harsh stands on eth- nic issues. For example, in 1998 the Republican gu- bernatorial candidate, Dan Lungren, refused to cam- paign with the incumbent governor and made every effort to avoid any visual record of the two even meet- ing; when the Democrats fi- nally managed to obtain such a photograph, they re- portedly used it in targeted advertisements to Latino and Asian voters, helping to drive Lungren’s vote down to 20 percent in those com- munities. Presidential can- didate George W. Bush has similarly avoided Wilson like the plague, and in his California campaign has of- fered no role whatsoever to the state’s most prominent active Republican.
In our own Proposition 227 effort, I actually sought and received assurances from Governor Wilson’s chief of staff that the governor would not endorse the initiative.
When he nonetheless em- braced it shortly before the vote, our Latino support col- lapsed in just two weeks from 62 to 37 percent. Among California Latinos, to “wil- son” someone has become a slang term for “attack.” As for Proposition 209 (affirmative action), I did contact its authors, did en- dorse it, and did offer my support of it nearly a full year before either Gover- nor Wilson or Ward Con- nerly. I credit my attacks on affirmative action, as con- trasted with Wilson’s then- support for that unfair pol- icy, as the major reason I received over one-third of the vote in my challenge to the incumbent Wilson in the 1994 California Re- publican primary-despite my having started as a com- plete unknown, being mas- sively outspent, and run- ning as a pro-immigrant opponent of Proposition 187. Immediately after my COMMENTARY article ap- peared, Glynn Custred, the co-author of Proposition 209, called to thank me for having finally set the his- torical record straight on the terrible damage done to that campaign by Republi- can party leaders.
Despite Mr. Walsh’s pro- testations, Governor Wil- son’s sad legacy will be Proposition 187 and per- haps the long-term de- struction of the California Republican party.
MY THANKS to James Q.
Wilson, with whom I agree on most of these issues. His point about the need to re- duce illegal immigration is a valid one, though the numbers have already fall- en recently, to the point where California’s agricul- tural industry is short of farm labor and has begun lobbying the federal gov- ernment for help. One pro- posed solution to these la- bor shortages, and to illegal immigration generally, is a guest-worker program, but this has always been politi- cally quite controversial.
Mark Krikorian and Fred Ikl share my opposition to multiculturalism and the ethnic fragmentation it pro- duces. Whereas I would fo- cus my efforts on rooting out that pernicious-and quite unpopular-dogma from our schools and pub- lic institutions and restor- ing our melting-pot tradi- tion, they would work to reduce immigrant numbers.
But their recent efforts to do so have notably failed, and anyway, as they them- selves admit, the total annu- al flow of legal and illegal immigrants is just one-third of one percent of the Amer- ican population. Those of us seeking to avert the “dis- uniting of America” (to use Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s phrase) should therefore concentrate on the other 99.6 percent of the popu- lation. Above all else, we must restore the assimila- tionist tradition to our pub- lic schools, replacing native- language instruction and diversity-mongering with the teaching of English and of our common American cultural traditions.
This battle will not be an easy one-the forces of the multiculturalist status quo are well entrenched in all our public institutions-but it can be won, and our allies will include an overwhelm- ing majority of immigrants themselves and their chil- dren. To those who despair of victory, remember that nearly one million California schoolchildren who in 1998 were being taught in Span- ish are being taught in Eng- lish today.
Edward Blum is correct  v vCOMMENTARY FEBRUARY 2000 to point out the huge over- lap among the supporters of Propositions 187, 209, and 227; few voters may have understood all the details as they cast their ballot. Nev- ertheless, a measure expel- ling hundreds of thousands of immigrant children from school is very different from a measure promising to teach them English, and the parents of those children were well aware of the dif- ference.
Coming at my article from the opposite perspective, Ar- thur Kruger andJay P. Greene fault me as an extreme as- similationist, claiming that I seek to establish complete cultural uniformity among all Americans. They are mis- taken. I firmly believe that family traditions, family cul- tures, and family languages should be retained-or dis- carded-by the individual families concerned, but I be- lieve no less firmly that their maintenance should not be made the responsibility of the state or public institutions.
Our public schools should teach our English language and our common cultural and historical traditions, and assist the children of immi- grants and nonimmigrants alike in becoming function- ing, assimilated, productive members of our society. If parents choose to send their children to private religious academies, or to after-school programs to maintain their heritage, that is well and good; but this is not our gov- ernment’s concern.
Mr. Kruger’s hope that California schools might have been able to produce students biliterate and bi- cultural in both English and Spanish is utopian. The problem California faced was graduates who were not literate in any language. Be- sides, with 140 languages spoken in the public schools, it is presumptuous to ele- vate Spanish above Chinese or Russian.
Mr. Greene’s obvious en- thusiasm for vouchers blinds him to a few simple facts.
The overwhelming desire of so many Asian and Lati- no immigrant parents to send their children to pri- vate (almost always Cath- olic) schools represents a flight to assimilationism, not away from it. Whereas pub- lic schools teach the Span- ish language and multicul- turalism, Catholic schools teach the English language, American culture, and tra- ditional academic subjects.
During the Know-Nothing era, Catholic schools may have fostered sectarianism; today, they represent the melting pot and assimila- tionism, which our public schools have largely aban- doned.
The danger of vouchers in my judgment is that not all private schools are run by a leadership as benign as that of today’s Catholic Church.
There are already indications that a number of inner-city voucher programs and char- ter schools are operated by nefarious characters; a full- fledged school-choice sys- tem might well result in 5 or 10 percent of America’s black children attending Louis Farrakhan schools, a fright- ening prospect.
Hal Netkin’s concerns about California as a “wel- fare magnet” for illegal im- migrants strike me as exag- gerated: nearly all the stories that have come to my at- tention emphasize jobs and economic opportunity, not welfare, as the lure. But let us assume for the sake of ar- gument that he is right: the solution, obviously, is to roll back our failed welfare sys- tem, thereby also alleviat- ing some of the harm it has inflicted over the past three decades not just on immi- grants but on our native- born population.
In his defense of “white nationalism,” Jared Taylor protests too much. As whites become a minority, and to the extent that we continue our support for ethnic-sep- aratist policies, the growth of white tribalism is perfect- ly understandable and in- evitable; the increased ex- plicitness of Mr. Taylor and others in expressing their views is a sure sign of this.
But Mr. Taylor’s fear of white displacement is misguided, and based on an overly rigid definition of “white.” A cen- tury ago, many, perhaps most, Americans regarded Polish Jews and southern Italians as members of foreign “races,” and not really white. A gen- eration before that, the Irish were similarly regarded.
Perhaps an earlier Jared Taylor would have been horrified to learn that the Wasp “whites” of his day had already been swamped by waves of such foreigners and were now reduced to a small, powerless minority; but to- day, fortunately, relatively few Americans see their so- ciety in that light-although our anti-assimilationist pol- icies continue to encourage all of us in precisely that dis- astrous direction.
Given a healthier politi- cal culture, and in light of today’s extremely high rates of intermarriage among whites, Asians, and Latinos, the term “white” could be further expanded within a generation or two or could perhaps be replaced by an- other and more accurate word. If we return to the as- similationist tradition in our schools and public institu- tions, our national culture and our national unity will survive and prosper. Among all modern nations, Ameri- ca has the strongest tradi- tion of a melting pot. All we lack is the strength of cour- age to restore it.
Day Schools TO THE EDITOR: Jack Wertheimer sharply criticizes the Jewish Coun- cil for Public Affairs (JCPA) for its opposition to vouch- ers, saying that this stance reveals an “almost palpable aversion to promoting so narrowly Jewish an interest as day schools” [“Who’s Af- raid of Jewish Day Schools?,” December 1999]. But even a cursory reading of JCPA documents over the last 25 years would demonstrate the inaccuracy of this charge. In fact, in its 1998 study on school vouchers, the JCPA concluded: “The Jewish community must ensure that all of its children, re- gardless of family income or denominational affiliation, have the opportunity to re- ceive quality Jewish educa- tion, whether it be at day school, summer camps, af- ter-school programs, or Is- rael experiences.” Unlike Mr. Wertheimer, the JCPA sees no contradiction in supporting Jewish education while opposing its funding with public dollars.
The JCPA network, com- prised of 122 local commu- nity-relations councils and thirteen national member agencies, overwhelmingly believes that vouchers for private, sectarian schools are (a) an unconstitutional vio- lation of the separation of church and state and (b) a dangerous public policy that would result in the with- drawal of vitally needed re-  ICOMMENTARY FEBRUARY 2000 call the general feeling that these institutions were not only undeserving of com- munal support but also faint- ly un-American. Happily, that attitude has largely dis- appeared, and day schools are now, as he writes, “universal- ly recognized” as a powerful force for transmitting Jewish identity.
Mr. Wertheimer’s real ire is reserved for today’s orga- nized Jewish community, because it opposes school vouchers and remains strict on the question of church- state separation. As a staff member of the JCPA’s pre- decessor organization, I used to argue with my colleagues that they were too rigid on these issues, and that we were no longer facing the immi- nent danger of an “estab- lished” religion. Nonetheless, the Jewish community’s com- mitment to the separation of church and state has served it well. There are many thou- sands of American Jews who remember painful public- school experiences before this principle was so strong, and we should be wary of changing it.
DONALD FELDSTEIN Teaneck, New Jersey To THE EDITOR: Jack Wertheimer cites the continuing resistance within the JCPA to any public-policy measure- from vouchers to tuition tax-credits to state subsidies for purchasing computers- that might benefit Jewish day schools. But when it comes to Jewish education, this is hardly the only evi- dence of the misguided views of much of organized Jewry.
Consider this as a com- munal bellwether: at the JCPA’s last biennial meet- ing, the Orthodox Union, joined by representatives of the Reform and Conserva- tive movements, proposed a resolution that endorsed increased communal sup- port, through local federa- tions and other private mech- anisms, forJewish schools of all denominations. This proposal-advocating not government aid to Jewish education but a commitment of more of the Jewish com- munity’s own resources- failed to pass.
Mr. Wertheimer con- cludes by characterizing the organized Jewish commu- nity’s attitude toward day schools as “indifference and neglect.” But at least in some precincts of our communi- ty’s leadership, there seems to be a much more trou- bling attitude-antipathy.
One can only hope that the views and activities of rank- and-file American Jews will overwhelm the views of these elites, and thatJewish education will receive the level of communal solicitude it deserves.
NATHANJ. DIAMENT Institute for Public Affairs Orthodox Union Washington, D.C.
TO THE EDITOR: Kudos to Jack Werthei- mer for his thorough exam- ination of the evolution and importance of Jewish day schools. He sorely misses the mark, however, in sug- gesting that vouchers can solve the financial problems of these schools.
Even if vouchers were constitutional and made good public policy, they would not be a panacea for Jewish day-school funding.
With tuition, books, trips, and meals, the average Jew- ish day school costs nearly $10,000. A voucher of $250 or even $500 would not make an appreciable impact on whether a family could afford this expense.
Mr. Wertheimer is ab- solutely correct to conclude that access to Jewish day schools should not be lim- ited to the well-to-do. But the answer lies in financial support from the Jewish community, not in the illu- sory promise of government vouchers.
DAVID A. BARAM Bloomfield, Connecticut To THE EDITOR: Jack Wertheimer cor- rectly identifies “ongoing fi- nancial worries” as a shared concern of all Jewish day schools, but he fails to men- tion other, equally critical concerns. For example, many day-school principals are now in the unusual situation of having to spend more time recruitingJewish-stud- ies teachers than recruiting students. There is no insti- tution in the U.S. or Can- ada graduating significant numbers of teachers quali- fied for such posts.
And this problem can only get worse. In the last several years, some fifteen newJew- ish high schools have opened in North America. Four or five additional schools are scheduled to open next fall, and even more are planned.
At present, most of these schools are still very small, and seem to be finding staff from within their own com- munities. But as soon as they grow to appreciable size, they will face intense competition for teachers.
Another problem facing Jewish high schools is the lack of teaching materials.
Jewish-studies teachers do not have access to the basic professional tools available to teachers of all other sub- jects-commercially pro- duced textbooks and course materials as well as oppor- tunities for in-service train- ing and conferences. As a result, these teachers are of- ten required to write their own material and design their own curricula.
These problems are wel- come to a degree because- as Mr. Wertheimer points out-they are problems of success. But they also dem- onstrate the need to streng- then drastically the profes- sionalism of Jewish high- school education.
PAUL SHAVIV Community Hebrew Academy Toronto, Ontario, Canada JACK WERTHEIMER writes: In their defense of the implacable antivoucher po- sition espoused by the Jew- ish Council for Public Af- fairs, Lawrence Rubin, Jor- dan C. Band, and Judah I.
Labovitz fail to address the question I posed-namely, are the policies supported by the JCPA congruent with the larger communal agen- da of strengthening Jewish “continuity” through day schools and other programs of intensive Jewish educa- tion? What we learn from their letters is that, where- as the JCPA is deeply com- mitted to certain policies when it comes to the needs of public schools, it is pre- pared only to express the pi- ous wish that somehow someone in the Jewish com- munity will support Jewish day schools. As Nathan J.
Diament attests, when rep- resentatives from the three major movements of Amer- ican Judaism brought for- ward a resolution strongly endorsing more communal spending on day schools, the JCPA voted it down.
Apparently, the public-af- fairs arm of the Jewish com- munity cannot bestir itself in behalf of the communi- ty’s most vital internal needs.
These letters show that it is unhealthy for the Jew- You deserve afactual look at…
The Arabs of Israel Are they a persecuted minority?” The world is much focused on the developments in Judea/Samaria (the “West Bank”) and the Gaza Strip, in which, for the most part, Israel has relinquished sovereignty and authority to the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). Ninety-eight percent of the Arabs in these territories live now under the rule of the P.A. There is some question whether or not they are better off than before. But there are many who believe that the Arabs in Israel itself are a “persecuted minority.” What are the facts? the highest ratio of any Arab population anywhere. Israeli uni- Israel is a Democratic Country. Israel is an open, plu- versities and technical institutions are freely available to the ralistic, and egalitarian society. Different religions, cul- Arabs. About 5,000 Arab students attend such schools.
tures, and social traditions co-exist. Protection of such Israeli Arabs Enjoy Full Equality in Law and in Fact.
diversity is embedded in Israel’s traditions and confirmed All religious communities in Israel enjoy the full protection of the by the government. About 20% of the population (over one State. Israeli Arabs-Moslems, as well as many Christian denom- million people) are non-Jews, most of them Arabs, and inations-are free to exercise their faiths, to observe their own some Druze. Like all other Israeli citizens, they have full weekly day of rest and holidays, and to administer their own rights to vote and to hold elective office. Both Arabs and internal affairs. Each community has its own religious councils Druze hold seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. and courts, and has full jurisdiction over religious affairs, includ- Every Knesset, since the ing matters of personal sta- founding of the State in “Contrary to propaganda…the Arabs in Israel tus, such as marriage and 1948, has had Arab and enjoy every civil right and have the same status divorce. The holy sites of all Druze members. All trans- religions are administered by actions in the Knesset are under law as Jewish Israelis” their own authorities and simultaneously translated protected by the government.
into Arabic, and Arab members may address the Knesset in Arabic. In contrast to the non-Israeli Arab world, Arab women in It is official policy of the Israeli government to foster the lan- Israel enjoy the same status as men. Israeli law grants guage, culture, and traditions of the Arab minority, in the women equal rights, including the right to vote and to be educational system and in daily life. Arabic is an official lan- elected to public office, prohibits polygamy, child marriage, guage in Israel, together with Hebrew. Israers Arabic press is and the barbarity of female sexual mutilation. It has thus the most vibrant and independent of any country in the vastly changed the status of women, to far above that of any region. There are more than 20 Arabic periodicals. They pub- country in the region. Israeli health standards are by far the lish what they please, subject only to the same military cen- highest in the Middle East. Israeli health institutions are sorship as Jewish publications. There are daily TV and radio freely open to all Arabs, on the same basis as they are to Jews.
programs in Arabic. Arabic is taught in Jewish secondary There is, however, one difference between the rights” of schools. Israeli universities are renowned centers of learning Arabs and Jews in Israel. Israeli and Druze men are required to in the history and literature of the Arab Middle East. do three years of military service and then serve one month Education and literacy of the Arab population in Israel is as every year until they are 50. Arabs are exempted from military high as and probably higher than in any Arab country. The lit- duty and are not required to perform any compensating civil- eracy rate among Israeli Arabs is 95%, virtually the same as ian service. Since the surrounding Arab states, with the excep- for Israeli Jews. There are close to 1,000 Arab educational tions of Egypt and recently of Jordan, are the avowed enemies institutions in Israel, with about 300,000 students-just about of Israel and are dedicated to its destruction, this exemption 25 times as many as in 1948, when the State of Israel was cre- is granted by the Israeli government to its Arab citizens, so ated, Ninety percent of Arab children attend school, probably as to spare them conflicts of loyalty and conscience.
Contrary to propaganda and to what many believe, the Arabs in Israel are full-fledged citizens, enjoy every civil right, and have the same status in law as Jewish Israelis. In summary, they enjoy the highest standards of living and liberty of any Arabs in the Middle East. It is instructive and sobering to compare the condition of the approximately one million Arabs in Israel with that of the pitiful remnants of Jewry in Arab countries. Jews have been living in Arab countries for almost 2,000 years. Under Arab domi- nance, they were always third-class citizens and subject to harassment and persecution. There were about 900,000 Jews in Arab countries in 1946-now there are fewer than 25,000. But there are now over one million Arabs in Israel, as against 150,000 in 1948-an almost seven-fold increase. These figures alone would seem to prove that things can’t be all that bad for Arabs in Israel.
This ad has been published and paid for by FLAME Facts and Logic about the Middle East PO. Box 590359 San Francisco, CA 94159 FLAME is a tax-exempt, non-profit educational 501(c)(3) organization. Its purpose is the research and publication of the facts regarding developments in the Middle East and exposing false propaganda that night harmn the interests of the United States and its allies in that area of the world.Your ax-deductible conmributions are welcome. Theyr enable us to pursue these goals and to publish these messages in national newspapers and magazines. We have virtually no overhead. Almost all of our revenue pays for our educational work, for these clarifying messages, and for related direct mail.
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Mynameis I live at In State Zip I Mail to: FLAME, P.O. Box 590359, San Francisco, CA 94159COMMENTARY FEBRUARY 2000 ish community to have its position on such questions formulated by extremists on the issue of church-state separation. Mr. Rubin flat- ly declares school vouchers “unconstitutional.” Fortu- nately, our nation’s courts have not generally taken this view,* and according to Mr.
Rubin’s own survey research, between a quarter and a third of the American Jews in whose name he claims to speak do not share it, either.
In truth, despite the rhetoric of the JCPA and its sup- porters, for much of Amer- ican history Jews enthusias- tically supported some breaches in the “wall of sep- aration”-including prayer in the public schools. It is precisely because Jewish communal policy on these issues has been formulated in the knee-jerk fashion de- scribed by Donald Feldstein that I cannot share his pos- itive assessment of it.
As things stand now, many states already mandate some types of support for students in religious schools, including funds for remed- ial education, food for the neediest, transportation, and textbooks. Why should they not be able to extend such support to the general-stidies portion of the Jewish day- school curriculum? David Baram dismisses this suggestion because cur- rent voucher plans would put too little money into the hands of parents. But his recognition that the afford- ability of Jewish education is a central issue in Jewish life today brings us closer to a serious discussion about the plight of families that pay steep taxes to support the public education of their neighbors’ children while also paying an average of $10,000 for each child who attends a Jewish day school.
I am grateful to Paul Shaviv for focusing atten- tion on the dire personnel crisis in the field of Jewish education and the related problems of inadequate course materials and in-ser- vice training for teachers.
ForJewish communities in North America that now speak of creating a “renais- sance” of Jewish living, these are some of the most seri- ous challenges ahead.
Israel’s Law TO THE EDITOR: It is important to remind Hillel Neuer [“Israel’s Im- perial Judiciary,” October 1999] that in Israel “the rule of law” refers to the laws passed by the secular par- liament (Knesset) and not to Jewish religious law (ha- lakhah). The Sabbath is Is- rael’s official day of rest be- cause the Knesset passed a law to that effect. Since Is- rael is aJewish state, many of its laws are based on Jew- ish tradition, but all of them are passed by the secular legislature. Unfortunately, the ultra-Orthodox (haredO community, which has al- ways been against the polit- ical aspirations of the Zion- ist movement and objected strongly to the establish- ment of the state of Israel, continues to this day to try to impose halakhah on the secular majority of Israelis.
In a country like Israel, where the very existence of the state depends on the strength of its army, there is no justification for allow- ing the haredi community to avoid military service. Thou- sands of non-haredi religious Israelis, including yeshiva students, serve in the army with distinction and with- out feeling any conflict with their religion. The Israeli Supreme Court was there- fore fully justified in ruling on this point, and as a result of its ruling, the govern- ment will now have to ex- plain why the haredim are exempt from military ser- vice. The so-called com- promise reached by David Ben-Gurion and the haredi community in 1948-49 was never debated in the Knes- set and there is no law cod- ifying it. The majority of Is- raelis strongly object to this obvious injustice and sup- port the drafting of yeshiva students.
The closing of major streets to automobile traf- fic on the Sabbath has been another point of continuous friction between the hared- im and secular Israelis. The vast majority of Israelis drive on the Sabbath, and the Court was fully justified in forbidding the closure of those streets.
No one should be forced to transgress his religion. By the same token, however, no one should impose his in- terpretation of religious law on others. There is a grow- ing movement in Israel for a written constitution. I hope it succeeds. In the meantime, the Supreme Court should remain vigilant in protecting the rule of law-as passed by the Knesset.
JACOB AMIR Netanya, Israel To THE EDITOR: Hillel Neuer deserves special appreciation for his sophisticated analysis of the jurisprudential history that has produced the current tense relations between the Israeli Supreme Court and the nation’s religious com- munity. News coverage in the United States has tend- ed to present the dispute as a simple matter of “black hats versus black robes,” with the role of villain con- veniently assigned to the re- ligious opponents of the Court. As Mr. Neuer con- vincingly demonstrates, the current dissatisfaction of the Orthodox is a direct reac- tion to the Supreme Court’s rampant interference in the prerogatives of the Knesset and the executive branch.
But Mr. Neuer presents only the symptoms of Is- rael’s juridical malaise and ignores its etiology. The li- cense taken by Israeli judges to remake public policy in accordance with the princi- ples and values of the “en- lightened segment of soci- ety” (in the words of Chief Justice Aharon Barak) is a direct symptom of the com- plete lack in Israel of de- mocratic control over judi- cial appointments.
In Israel, judges are ap- pointed and advanced by a selection committee com- posed of two members of the Knesset, two cabinet minis- ters, two representatives of the Israeli bar-and three justices of the Supreme Court. In other words, the controlling majority on the committee is held by five members-the justices and the representatives of the Is- raeli bar-who are neither elected by nor accountable to the public. Still more troubling is the fact that since the early 1950’s no can- didate for the Israeli bench has been appointed without the unanimous agreement of the three justices on the committee.
For half a century, then, Israeli judges have been placed on the bench by their senior brethren on the Su- preme Court. As Professor Ruth Gavison of the He- brew University, an out-  * For more on these questions, see Gary Rosen’s “Are School Vouch- ers Un-American?,” p. 26-ED.LETTERS FROM READERS spoken liberal and president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, stated in a recent interview in Ha’aretz: “Nowhere else in the world is there a situation in which judges have control over the process of appointing jud- ges …. It gives those who head the system too much power, and it turns the sys- tem into a kind of closed sect, which is too uniform and which effectively per- petuates itself.” The absence in Israel of any mechanism of demo- cratic control over the se- lection of judges has de- stroyed any expectation of judicial accountability. The Israeli public has by and large concluded that it lacks not only the ability but even the right to ensure that the judiciary shares its funda- mental beliefs and aspira- tions. For their part, many judges have come to disdain the basic democratic prin- ciple of popular sovereign- ty, and view themselves as legitimately entitled to in- struct the Israeli public in matters of morality and values.
MORDECHAI HALLER Jerusalem, Israel HILLEL NEUER writes: Jacob Amir’s reasoning in support of the activism of the Supreme Court of Israel is a good illustration of what plagues the outlook of Is- raeli liberals toward their ju- diciary. In demanding agree- able results from the high court, those on the Israeli Left typically demonstrate little interest in legal prece- dent and no patience for de- mocratic politics.
Mr. Amir graciously “re- minds” me that the founda- tion of Israel’s legal system is secular and not halakhic.
Yet this truism, nowhere doubted in the article that I wrote, is irrelevant to the question of whether the Supreme Court should to- day arrogate to itself the power to alter entrenched political compromises ap- proved by courts past. Ex- empting certain yeshiva stu- dents from military service, or blocking traffic on a few streets over the Sabbath, may not be to the liking of Mr. Amir, or to that of a number of other Israelis. Yet by arguing that this alone suffices to render judicial ac- tivism on these issues “fully justified,” Mr. Amir ignores the very “rule of law” that he claims to cherish-and hence conveniently avoids confronting judicial rulings that once allowed these is- sues to be resolved in the po- litical arena.
Regrettably, I can only conclude that Mr. Amir’s wish for a formal, written constitution is motivated, as is the case with virtually every other Israeli who has simi- larly pronounced himself on the issue, more by an animus toward things religious–on the false assumption that a modern constitution neces- sarily mandates complete separation of church and state-than by any concern for the broader values of con- stitutionalism.
I am grateful for Mor- dechai Haller’s kind words, and I agree that improve- ments are in order in the area of judicial appoint- ments. But he exaggerates the problems with the pro- cess-with four political  , COMMENTARY FEBRUARY 2000 committee members, there is certainly not a “complete lack” of democratic control.
Mr. Haller is also mislead- ing himself if he thinks that adopting a more political appointment process-say, a Canadian-style system in which the Prime Minister makes the decision-would necessarily prevent a situa- tion like today’s. Had such a system been in place in 1978, when Israel’s current ChiefJustice, Aharon Barak, was appointed, the result would probably have been the same: Prime Minister Menachem Begin, however religiously traditional and politically conservative, hap- pened to be among then- Attorney General Barak’s greatest admirers.
Up from Elitism To THE EDITOR: I thank David Schoen- brod for the riveting story of his break with the ranks of the liberal regulatory state [“Confessions of an Ex- Elitist,” November 1999].
Although I agree that the delegation of government to regulatory agencies and courts results in usurpation of democracy, I believe he is wrong about the impor- tance of health risks in ex- plaining the success of en- vironmentalism.
Mr. Schoenbrod states that one consequence of the political pressure exerted by industries to delay imple- mentation of the Clean Air Act was that “the bulk of the lead was left in gasoline for many additional years and millions of children were harmed.” But even though lead concentrations in the air dropped by 97 percent from 1970 to 1990, there has been no significant im- provement in the childhood maladies-asthma, lower IQ scores and school achieve- ment-purported to result from high lead concentra- tions in the air.
What appears to get the public behind measures like the Clean Air Act is aesthetics, not a reduction in threats to health. Americans want to preserve ocean and mountain views around their homes and to eliminate any perceived taint on property values from nearby but benign “toxic waste sites.” Environmental regulation is about wealth protection. not health Dro- tection-a fact that is seem- ingly not apparent to an ex- liberal like Mr. Schoenbrod.
WAYNE C. LUSVARDI Pasadena, California To THE EDITOR: It was fascinating to read about David Schoenbrod’s family history along with his own experiences. Because my own parents and grand- parents passed away when I was young, I felt jealous of his paternal reminiscences.
As for his professional set- backs, all I can say is that I felt his frustrations. I cannot recall ever having read an ar- ticle like his–one I did not want to end.
HAROLD I. SUSSMAN New York City DAVID SCHOENBROD writes: Contrary to Wayne Lus- vardi’s contentions, no one claims that lead causes asth- ma, but lead in gasoline did harm the intelligence of children.
Numerous studies have concluded that an increase of lead levels in young chil- dren from ten to twenty mi- crograms per deciliter of blood produces a loss of from two to three IO points.
As lead was taken out of gas- oline, the mean lead levels in American children de- clined from sixteen to three micrograms, about the same as for children in the Hima- layas.
Mr. Lusvardi is correct in his general point that con- cern for health fails fully to explain the success of puri- tanical environmentalism.
But in his eagerness to blame the rich, he is looking in the wrong direction. In regulat- ing ozone (which it believes causes asthma), the Environ- mental Protection Agency refused to consider that ozone also helps to protect health by screening us from cancer-causing solar rays.
Concerns about health took second place to augmenting the agency’s power.
I thank Harold I. Suss- man for his generous com- ments.
Correction In William E Buckley,Jr.’s contribution to the sympos- ium, “American Power-For What?” [January], the term afortiori, which occurs once on page 23 and again on page 24, should in each in- stance read a posteriori-ED.
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The ethnic future; Jewish day schools; elitism; etc.
Must-Reads from Magazine
Sex and Work in an Age Without Norms
In the Beginning Was the ‘Hostile Work Environment’
In 1979, the feminist legal thinker Catharine MacKinnon published a book called Sexual Harassment of Working Women. Her goal was to convince the public (especially the courts) that harassment was a serious problem affecting all women whether or not they had been harassed, and that it was discriminatory. “The factors that explain and comprise the experience of sexual harassment characterize all women’s situation in one way or another, not only that of direct victims of the practice,” MacKinnon wrote. “It is this level of commonality that makes sexual harassment a women’s experience, not merely an experience of a series of individuals who happen to be of the female sex.” MacKinnon was not only making a case against clear-cut instances of harassment, but also arguing that the ordinary social dynamic between men and women itself created what she called “hostile work environments.”
The culture was ripe for such arguments. Bourgeois norms of sexual behavior had been eroding for at least a decade, a fact many on the left hailed as evidence of the dawn of a new age of sexual and social freedom. At the same time, however, a Redbook magazine survey published a few years before MacKinnon’s book found that nearly 90 percent of the female respondents had experienced some form of harassment on the job.
MacKinnon’s views might have been radical—she argued for a Marxist feminist jurisprudence reflecting her belief that sexual relations are hopelessly mired in male dominance and female submission—but she wasn’t entirely wrong. The postwar America in which women like MacKinnon came of age offered few opportunities for female agency, and the popular culture of the day reinforced the idea that women were all but incapable of it.
It wasn’t just the perfect housewives in the midcentury mold of Donna Reed and June Cleaver who “donned their domestic harness,” as the historian Elaine Tyler May wrote in her social history Homeward Bound. Popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Redbook reinforced the message; so did their advertisers. A 1955 issue of Family Circle featured an advertisement for Tide detergent that depicted a woman with a rapturous expression on her face actually hugging a box of Tide under the line: “No wonder you women buy more Tide than any other washday product! Tide’s got what women want!” Other advertisements infantilized women by suggesting they were incapable of making basic decisions. “You mean a -woman can open it?” ran one for Alcoa aluminum bottle caps. It is almost impossible to read the articles or view the ads without thinking they were some kind of put-on.
The competing view of women in the postwar era was equally pernicious: the objectified pinup or sexpot. Marilyn Monroe’s hypersexualized character in The Seven Year Itch from 1955 doesn’t even have a name—she’s simply called The Girl. The 1956 film introducing the pulchritudinous Jayne Mansfield to the world was called The Girl Can’t Help It. The behavior of Rat Pack–era men has now been so airbrushed and glamorized that we’ve forgotten just how thoroughly debased their treatment of women was. Even as we thrill to Frank Sinatra’s “nice ’n’ easy” style, we overlook the classic Sinatra movie character’s enjoying an endless stream of showgirls and (barely disguised) prostitutes until forced to settle down with a killjoy ball-and-chain girlfriend. The depiction of women either as childish wives living under the protection of their husbands or brainless sirens sexually available to the first taker was undoubtedly vulgar, but it reflected a reality about the domestic arrangements of Americans after 1945 that was due for a profound revision when the 1960s came along.
And change they did, with a vengeance. The sexual revolution broke down the barriers between the sexes as the women’s-liberation movement insisted that bourgeois domesticity was a prison. The rules melted away, but attitudes don’t melt so readily; Sinatra’s ball-and-chain may have disappeared by common consent, but for a long time it seemed that the kooky sexpot of the most chauvinistic fantasy had simply become the ideal American woman. The distinction between the workplaces of the upper middle class and the singles bars where they sought companionship was pretty blurred.
Which is where MacKinnon came in—although if we look back at it, her objection seems not Marxist in orientation but almost Victorian. She described a workplace in which women were unprotected by old-fashioned social norms against adultery and general caddishness and found themselves mired in a “hostile environment.” She named the problem; it fell to the feminist movement as a whole to enshrine protections against it. They had some success. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court embraced elements of MacKinnon’s reasoning when it ruled unanimously in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that harassment that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” enough to create “a hostile or abusive work environment” was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued rules advising employers to create procedures to combat harassment, and employers followed suit by establishing sexual-harassment policies. Human-resource departments spent countless hours and many millions of dollars on sexual-harassment-awareness training for employees.
With new regulations and enforcement mechanisms, the argument went, the final, fusty traces of patriarchal, protective norms and bad behavior would be swept away in favor of rational legal rules that would ensure equal protection for women in the workplace. The culture might still objectify women, but our legal and employment systems would, in fits and starts, erect scaffolding upon which women who were harassed could seek justice.
But as the growing list of present-day harassers and predators attests—Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes, Glenn Thrush, Mark Halperin, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, et al.—the system appears to have failed the people it was meant to protect. There were searing moments that raised popular awareness about sexual harassment: (Anita Hill’s testimony about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991; Senator Bob Packwood’s ouster for serial groping in 1995). There was, however, still plenty of space for men who harassed and assaulted women (and, in Kevin Spacey’s case, men) to shelter in place.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Why did it?
Sex and Training
What makes sexual harassment so unnerving is not the harassment. It’s the sex—a subject, even a half-century into our so-called sexual revolution, about which we remain deeply confused.
The challenge going forward, now that the Hollywood honcho Weinstein and other notoriously lascivious beneficiaries of the liberation era have been removed, is how to negotiate the rules of attraction and punish predators in a culture that no longer embraces accepted norms for sexual behavior. Who sets the rules, and how do we enforce them? The self-appointed guardians of that galaxy used to be the feminist movement, but it is in no position to play that role today as it reckons not only with the gropers in its midst (Franken) but the ghosts of gropers past (Bill Clinton).
The feminist movement long ago traded MacKinnon’s radical feminism for political expedience. In 1992 and 1998, when her husband was a presidential candidate and then president, Hillary Clinton covered for Bill, enthusiastically slut-shaming his accusers. Her sin was and is at least understandable, if not excusable, given that the two are married. But what about America’s most glamorous early feminist, Gloria Steinem? In 1998, Steinem wrote of Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey: “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” As for Monica Lewinsky, Steinem didn’t even consider the president’s behavior with a young intern to be harassment: “Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one.”
The consequences of applying to Clinton what Steinem herself called the “one-free-grope” rule are only now becoming fully visible. Even in the case of a predator as malevolent as Weinstein, it’s clear that feminists no longer have a shared moral language or the credibility with which to condemn such behavior. Having tied their movement’s fortunes to political power, especially the Democratic Party, it is difficult to take seriously their injunctions about male behavior on either side of the aisle now (just as it was difficult to take seriously partisans on the right who defended the Alabama Senate candidate and credibly accused child sexual predator Roy Moore). Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s initial hemming and hawing about denouncing accused sexual harasser Representative John Conyers was disappointing but not surprising. As for Steinem, she’s gone from posing undercover as a Playboy bunny in order to expose male vice to sitting on the board of Playboy’s true heir, VICE Media, an organization whose bro-culture has spawned many sexual-harassment complaints. She’s been honored by Rutgers University, which created the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. One of the chair’s major endowers? Harvey Weinstein.
In place of older accepted norms or trusted moral arbiters, we have weaponized gossip. “S—-y Media Men” is a Google spreadsheet created by a woman who works in media and who, in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, wanted to encourage other women to name the gropers among us. At first a well-intentioned effort to warn women informally about men who had behaved badly, it quickly devolved into an anonymous unverified online litany of horribles devoid of context. The men named on the list were accused of everything from sending clumsy text messages to rape; Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker confessed that she didn’t believe the charges lodged against a male friend of hers who appeared on the list.
Others have found sisterhood and catharsis on social media, where, on Twitter, the phrase #MeToo quickly became the symbol for women’s shared experiences of harassment or assault. Like the consciousness-raising sessions of earlier eras, the hashtag supposedly demonstrated the strength of women supporting other women. But unlike in earlier eras, it led not to group hugs over readings of The Feminine Mystique, but to a brutally efficient form of insta-justice meted out on an almost daily basis against the accused. Writing in the Guardian, Jessica Valenti praised #MeToo for encouraging women to tell their stories but added, “Why have a list of victims when a list of perpetrators could be so much more useful?” Valenti encouraged women to start using the hashtag as a way to out predators, not merely to bond with one another. Even the New York Times has gone all-in on the assumption that the reckoning will continue: The newspaper’s “gender editor,” Jessica Bennett, launched a newsletter, The #MeToo Moment, described as “the latest news and insights on the sexual harassment and misconduct scandals roiling our society.”
As the also-popular hashtag #OpenSecret suggests, this #MeToo moment has brought with it troubling questions about who knew what and when—and a great deal of anger at gatekeepers and institutions that might have turned a blind eye to predators. The backlash against the Metropolitan Opera in New York is only the most recent example. Reports of conductor James Levine’s molestation of teenagers have evidently been widespread in the classical-music world for decades. And, as many social-media users hinted with their use of the hashtag #itscoming, Levine is not the only one who will face a reckoning.
To be sure, questioning and catharsis are welcome if they spark reforms such as crackdowns on the court-approved payoffs and nondisclosure agreements that allowed sexual predators like Weinstein to roam free for so long. And they have also brought a long-overdue recognition of the ineffectiveness of so much of what passes for sexual-harassment-prevention training in the workplace. As the law professor Lauren Edelman noted in the Washington Post, “There have been only a handful of empirical studies of sexual-harassment training, and the research has not established that such training is effective. Some studies suggest that training may in fact backfire, reinforcing gendered stereotypes that place women at a disadvantage.” One specific survey at a university found that “men who participated in the training were less likely to view coercion of a subordinate as sexual harassment, less willing to report harassment and more inclined to blame the victim than were women or men who had not gone through the training.”
Realistic Change vs. Impossible Revolution
Because harassment lies at the intersection of law, politics, ideology, and culture, attempts to re-regulate behavior, either by returning to older, more traditional norms, or by weaponizing women’s potential victimhood via Twitter, won’t work. America is throwing the book at foul old violators like Weinstein and Levine, but aside from warning future violators that they may be subject to horrible public humiliation and ruination, how is all this going to fix the problem?
We are a long way from Phyllis Schlafly’s ridiculous remark, made years ago during a U.S. Senate committee hearing, that “virtuous women are seldom accosted,” but Vice President Mike Pence’s rule about avoiding one-on-one social interactions with women who aren’t his wife doesn’t really scale up in terms of effective policy in the workplace, either. The Pence Rule, like corporate H.R. policies about sexual harassment, really exists to protect Pence from liability, not to protect women.
Indeed, the possibility of realistic change is made almost moot by the hysterical ambitions of those who believe they are on the verge of bringing down the edifice of American masculinity the way the Germans brought down the Berlin wall. Bennett of the Times spoke for many when she wrote in her description of the #MeToo newsletter: “The new conversation goes way beyond the workplace to sweep in street harassment, rape culture, and ‘toxic masculinity’—terminology that would have been confined to gender studies classes, not found in mainstream newspapers, not so long ago.”
Do women need protection? Since the rise of the feminist movement, it has been considered unacceptable to declare that women are weaker than men (even physically), yet, as many of these recent assault cases make clear, this is a plain fact. Men are, on average, physically larger and more aggressive than women; this is why for centuries social codes existed to protect women who were, by and large, less powerful, more vulnerable members of society.
MacKinnon’s definition of harassment at first seemed to acknowledge such differences; she described harassment as “dominance eroticized.” But like all good feminist theorists, she claimed this dominance was socially constructed rather than biological—“the legally relevant content of the term sex, understood as gender difference, should focus upon its social meaning more than upon any biological givens,” she wrote. As such, the reasoning went, men’s socially constructed dominance could be socially deconstructed through reeducation, training, and the like.
Culturally, this is the view that now prevails, which is why we pinball between arguing that women can do anything men can do and worrying that women are all the potential victims of predatory, toxic men. So which is it? Girl Power or the Fainting Couch?
Regardless, when harassment or assault claims arise, the cultural assumptions that feminism has successfully cultivated demand we accept that women are right and men are wrong (hence the insistence that we must believe every woman’s claim about harassment and assault, and the calling out of those who question a woman’s accusation). This gives women—who are, after all, flawed human beings just like men—too much accusatory power in situations where context is often crucial for understanding what transpired. Feminists with a historical memory should recall how they embraced this view after mandatory-arrest laws for partner violence that were passed in the 1990s netted many women for physically assaulting their partners. Many feminist legal scholars at the time argued that such laws were unfair to women precisely because they neglected context. (“By following the letter of the law… law enforcement officers often disregard the context in which victims of violence resort to using violence themselves,” wrote Susan L. Miller in the Violence Against Women journal in 2001.)
Worse, the unquestioned valorization of women’s claims leaves men in the position of being presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Consider a recent tweet by Washington Post reporter and young-adult author Monica Hesse in response to New York Times reporter Farhad Manjoo’s self-indulgent lament. Manjoo: “I am at the point where i seriously, sincerely wonder how all women don’t regard all men as monsters to be constantly feared. the real world turns out to be a legit horror movie that I inhabited and knew nothing about.”
Hesse’s answer: “Surprise! The answer is that we do, and we must, regard all men as potential monsters to be feared. That’s why we cross to the other side of the street at night, and why we sometimes obey when men say ‘Smile, honey!’ We are always aware the alternative could be death.” This isn’t hyperbole in her case; Hesse has so thoroughly internalized the message that men are to be feared, not trusted, that she thinks one might kill her on the street if she doesn’t smile at him. Such illogic makes the Victorian neurasthenics look like the Valkyrie.
But while most reasonable people agree that women and men both need to take responsibility for themselves and exercise good judgment, what this looks like in practice is not going to be perfectly fair, given the differences between men and women when it comes to sexual behavior. In her book, MacKinnon observed of sexual harassment, “Tacitly, it has been both acceptable and taboo; acceptable for men to do, taboo for women to confront, even to themselves.”
That’s one thing we can say for certain is no longer true. Nevertheless, if you begin with the assumption that every sexual invitation is a power play or the prelude to an assault, you are likely to find enemies lurking everywhere. As Hesse wrote in the Washington Post about male behavior: “It’s about the rot that we didn’t want to see, that we shoveled into the garbage disposal of America for years. Some of the rot might have once been a carrot and some it might have once been a moldy piece of rape-steak, but it’s all fetid and horrific and now, and it’s all coming up at once. How do we deal with it? Prison for everyone? Firing for some? …We’re only asking for the entire universe to change. That’s all.”
But women are part of that “entire universe,” too, and it is incumbent on them to make it clear when someone has crossed the line. Both women and men would be better served if they adopted the same rule—“If you see something, say something”—when it comes to harassment. Among the many details that emerged from the recent exposé at Vox about New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush was the setting for the supposedly egregious behavior: It was always after work and after several drinks at a bar. In all of the interactions described, one or usually both of the parties was tipsy or drunk; the women always agreed to go with Thrush to another location. The women also stayed on good terms with Thrush after he made his often-sloppy passes at them, in one case sending friendly text messages and ensuring him he didn’t need to apologize for his behavior. The Vox writer, who herself claims to have been victimized by Thrush, argues, “Thrush, just by his stature, put women in a position of feeling they had to suck up and move on from an uncomfortable encounter.” Perhaps. But he didn’t put them in the position of getting drunk after work with him. They put themselves in that position.
Also, as the Thrush story reveals, women sometimes use sexual appeal and banter for their own benefit in the workplace. If we want to clarify the blurred lines that exist around workplace relationships, then we will have to reckon with the women who have successfully exploited them for their own advantage.
None of this means women should be held responsible when men behave badly or illegally. But it puts male behavior in the proper context. Sometimes, things really are just about sex, not power. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat bluntly noted in a recent debate in New York magazine with feminist Rebecca Traister, “I think women shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which male sexual desire is distinctive and strange and (to women) irrational-seeming. Saying ‘It’s power, not sex’ excludes too much.”
Social-Media Justice or Restorative Justice?
What do we want to happen? Do we want social-media justice or restorative justice for harassers and predators? The first is immediate, cathartic, and brutal, with little consideration for nuance or presumed innocence for the accused. The second is more painstaking because it requires reaching some kind of consensus about the allegations, but it is also ultimately less destructive of the community and culture as a whole.
Social-media justice deploys the powerful force of shame at the mere whiff of transgression, so as to create a regime of prevention. The thing is, Americans don’t really like shame (the sexual revolution taught us that). Our therapeutic age doesn’t think that suppressing emotions and inhibiting feelings—especially about sex—is “healthy.” So either we will have to embrace the instant and unreflective emotiveness of #MeToo culture and accept that its rough justice is better than no justice at all—or we will have to stop overreacting every time a man does something that is untoward—like sending a single, creepy text message—but not actually illegal (like assault or constant harassment).
After all, it’s not all bad news from the land of masculinity. Rates of sexual violence have fallen 63 percent since 1993, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, and as scholar Steven Pinker recently observed: “Despite recent attention, workplace sexual harassment has declined over time: from 6.1 percent of GSS [General Social Survey] respondents in 2002 to 3.6 percent in 2014. Too high, but there’s been progress, which can continue.”
Still, many men have taken this cultural moment as an opportunity to reflect on their own understanding of masculinity. In the New York Times, essayist Stephen Marche fretted about the “unexamined brutality of the male libido” and echoed Catharine MacKinnon when he asked, “How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions in which men and women are not equal?” He would have done better to ask how we can raise boys who will become men who behave honorably toward women. And how do we even raise boys to become honorable men in a culture that no longer recognizes and rewards honor?
The answers to those questions aren’t immediately clear. But one thing that will make answering them even harder is the promotion of the idea of “toxic masculinity.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently argued that “we have to re-examine our toxic, privileged, encroaching masculinity itself. And yes, that also means on some level reimagining the rules of attraction.” But the whole point of the phrase “rules of attraction” is to highlight that there aren’t any and never have been (if you have any doubts, read the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel that popularized the phrase). Blow’s lectures about “toxic masculinity” are meant to sow self-doubt in men and thus encourage some enlightened form of masculinity, but that won’t end sexual harassment any more than Lysistrata-style refusal by women to have sex will end war.
Parents should be teaching their sons about personal boundaries and consent from a young age, just as they teach their daughters, and unequivocally condemn raunchy and threatening remarks about women, whether they are uttered by a talk-radio host or by the president of the United States. The phrase “that isn’t how decent men behave” should be something every parent utters.
But such efforts are made more difficult by a liberal culture that has decided to equate caddish behavior with assault precisely because it has rejected the strict norms that used to hold sway—the old conservative norms that regarded any transgression against them as a seriousviolation and punished it accordingly. Instead, in an effort to be a kinder, gentler, more “woke” society that’s understanding of everyone’s differences, we’ve ended up arbitrarily picking and choosing among the various forms of questionable behavior for which we will have no tolerance, all the while failing to come to terms with the costs of living in such a society. A culture that hangs the accused first and asks questions later might have its virtues, but psychological understanding is not one of them.
And so we come back to sex and our muddled understanding of its place in society. Is it a meaningless pleasure you’re supposed to enjoy with as many people as possible before settling down and marrying? Or is it something more important than that? Is it something that you feel empowered to handle in Riot Grrrl fashion, or is getting groped once by a pervy co-worker something that prompts decades of nightmares and declarations that you will “never be the same”? How can we condemn people like Senator Al Franken, whose implicit self-defense is that it’s no big deal to cop a feel every so often, when our culture constantly offers up women like comedian Amy Schumer or Abbi and Ilana of the sketch show Broad City, who argue that women can and should be as filthy and degenerate as the most degenerate guy?
Perhaps it’s progress that the downfall of powerful men who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior is no longer called a “bimbo eruption,” as it was in the days of Bill Clinton, and that the men who harassed or assaulted women are facing the end of their careers and, in some cases, prison. But this is not the great awakening that so many observers have claimed it is. Awakenings need tent preachers to inspire and eager audiences to participate; our #MeToo moment has plenty of those. What it doesn’t have, unless we can agree on new norms for sexual behavior both inside and outside the workplace, is a functional theology that might cultivate believers who will actually practice what they preach.
That functional theology is out of our reach. Which means this moment is just that—a moment. It will die down, impossible though it seems at present. And every 10 or 15 years a new harassment scandal will spark widespread outrage, and we will declare that a new moment of reckoning and realization has emerged. After which the stories will again die down and very little will have changed.
No one wants to admit this. It’s much more satisfying to see the felling of so many powerful men as a tectonic cultural shift, another great leap forward toward equality between the sexes. But it isn’t, because the kind of asexual equality between the genders imagined by those most eager to celebrate our #MeToo moment has never been one most people embrace. It’s one that willfully overlooks significant differences between the sexes and assumes that thoughtful people can still agree on norms of sexual behavior.
They can’t. And they won’t.
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The U.S. will endanger itself if it accedes to Russian and Chinese efforts to change the international system to their liking
A “sphere of influence” is traditionally understood as a geographical zone within which the most powerful actor can impose its will. And nearly three decades after the close of the superpower struggle that Churchill’s speech heralded, spheres of influence are back. At both ends of the Eurasian landmass, the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are carving out areas of privileged influence—geographic buffer zones in which they exercise diplomatic, economic, and military primacy. China and Russia are seeking to coerce and overawe their neighbors. They are endeavoring to weaken the international rules and norms—and the influence of opposing powers—that stand athwart their ambitions in their respective “near abroads.” Chinese island-building and maritime expansionism in the South China Sea and Russian aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of the Baltic states are part and parcel of the quasi-imperial projects these revisionist regional powers are now pursuing.
Historically speaking, a world made up of rival spheres is more the norm than the exception. Yet such a world is in sharp tension with many of the key tenets of the American foreign-policy tradition—and with the international order that the United States has labored to construct and maintain since the end of World War II.
To be sure, Washington carved out its own spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere beginning in the 19th century, and America’s myriad alliance blocs in key overseas regions are effectively spheres by another name. And today, some international-relations observers have welcomed the return of what the foreign-policy analyst Michael Lind has recently called “blocpolitik,” hoping that it might lead to a more peaceful age of multilateral equilibrium.
But for more than two centuries, American leaders have generally opposed the idea of a world divided into rival spheres of influence and have worked hard to deny other powers their own. And a reversion to a world dominated by great powers and their spheres of influence would thus undo some of the strongest traditions in American foreign policy and take the international system back to a darker, more dangerous era.I n an extreme form, a sphere of influence can take the shape of direct imperial or colonial control. Yet there are also versions in which a leading power forgoes direct military or administrative domination of its neighbors but nonetheless exerts geopolitical, economic, and ideological influence. Whatever their form, spheres of influence reflect two dominant imperatives of great-power politics in an anarchic world: the need for security vis-à-vis rival powers and the desire to shape a nation’s immediate environment to its benefit. Indeed, great powers have throughout history pursued spheres of influence to provide a buffer against the encroachment of other hostile actors and to foster the conditions conducive to their own security and well-being.
The Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta, and Rome all carved out domains of dominance. The Chinese tribute system—which combined geopolitical control with the spread of Chinese norms and ideas—profoundly shaped the trajectory of East Asia for hundreds of years. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the British Empire, Japan’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the Soviet bloc.
America, too, has played the spheres-of-influence game. From the early-19th century onward, American officials strove for preeminence in the Western Hemisphere—first by running other European powers off much of the North American continent and then by pushing them out of Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823, America staked its claim to geopolitical primacy from Canada to the Southern Cone. Over the succeeding generations, Washington worked to achieve military dominance in that area, to tie the countries of the Western Hemisphere to America geopolitically and economically, and even to help pick the rulers of countries from Mexico to Brazil.
If this wasn’t a sphere of influence, nothing was. In 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney declared that “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” After World War II, moreover, a globally predominant United States steadily expanded its influence into Europe through NATO, into East Asia through various military alliances, and into the Middle East through a web of defense, diplomatic, and political arrangements. The story of global politics over the past 200 years has, in large part, been the story of expanding U.S. influence.
Nonetheless, there has always been something ambivalent—critics would say hypocritical—about American views of this matter. For as energetic as Washington has been in constructing its geopolitical domain, a “spheres-of-influence world” is in perpetual tension with four strong intellectual traditions in U.S. strategy. These are hegemony, liberty, openness, and exceptionalism.
First, hegemony. The myth of America as an innocent isolationist country during its first 170 years is powerful and enduring; it’s also wrong. From the outset, American statesmen understood that the country’s favorable geography, expanding population, and enviable resource endowments gave it the potential to rival, and ultimately overtake, the European states that dominated world politics. America might be a fledgling republic, George Washington said, but it would one day attain “the strength of a giant.” From the revolution onward, American officials worried, with good reason, that France, Spain, and the United Kingdom would use their North American territories to strangle or contain the young republic. Much of early American diplomacy was therefore geared toward depriving the European powers of their North American possessions, using measures from coercive diplomacy to outright wars of conquest. “The world shall have to be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America,” wrote John Quincy Adams in 1819. The only regional sphere of influence that Americans would accept as legitimate was their own.
By the late-19th century, the same considerations were pushing Americans to target spheres of influence further abroad. As the industrial revolution progressed, it became clear that geography alone might not protect the nation. Aggressive powers could now generate sufficient military strength to dominate large swaths of Europe or East Asia and then harness the accumulated resources to threaten the United States. Moreover, as America itself became an increasingly mighty country that sought to project its influence overseas, its leaders naturally objected to its rivals’ efforts to establish their own preserves from which Washington would be excluded. If much of America’s 19th-century diplomacy was dedicated to denying other powers spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere, much of the country’s 20th-century diplomacy was an effort to break up or deny rival spheres of influence in Europe and East Asia.
From the Open Door policy, which sought to prevent imperial powers from carving up China, to U.S. intervention in the world wars, to the confrontation with the Soviet Empire in the Cold War, the United States repeatedly acted on the belief that it could be neither as secure nor influential as it desired in a world divided up and dominated by rival nations. The American geopolitical tradition, in other words, has long contained a built-in hostility to other countries’ spheres of influence.
The American ideological tradition shares this sense of preeminence, as reflected in the second key tenet: liberty. America’s founding generation did not see the revolution merely as the birth of a future superpower; they saw it as a catalyst for spreading political liberty far and wide. Thomas Paine proclaimed in 1775 that Americans could “begin the world anew”; John Quincy Adams predicted, several decades later, that America’s liberal ideology was “destined to cover the surface of the globe.” Here, too, the new nation was not cursed with excessive modesty—and here, too, the existence of rival spheres of influence threatened this ambition.
Rival spheres of influence—particularly within the Western Hemisphere—imperiled the survival of liberty at home. If the United States were merely one great power among many on the North American continent, the founding generation worried, it would be forced to maintain a large standing military establishment and erect a sort of 18th-century “garrison state.” Living in perpetual conflict and vigilance, in turn, would corrode the very freedoms for which the revolution had been fought. “No nation,” wrote James Madison, “can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Just as Madison argued, in Federalist No. 10, that “extending the sphere”—expanding the republic—was a way of safeguarding republicanism at home, expanding America’s geopolitical domain was essential to providing the external security that a liberal polity required to survive.
Rival spheres of influence also constrained the prospects for liberty abroad. Although the question of whether the United States should actively support democratic revolutions overseas has been a source of unending controversy, virtually all American strategists have agreed that the country would be more secure and influential in a world where democracy was widespread. Given this mindset, Americans could hardly be desirous of foreign powers—particularly authoritarian powers—establishing formidable spheres of influence that would allow them to dominate the international system or suppress liberal ideals. The Monroe Doctrine was a response to the geopolitical dangers inherent in renewed imperial control of South America; it was also a response to the ideological danger posed by European nations that would “extend the political system to any portion” of the Western Hemisphere. Similar concerns have been at the heart of American opposition to the British Empire and the Soviet bloc.
Economic openness, the third core dynamic of American policy, has long served as a commercial counterpart to America’s ideological proselytism. Influenced as much by Adam Smith as by Alexander Hamilton, early American statecraft promoted free trade, neutral rights, and open markets, both to safeguard liberty and enrich a growing nation. This mission has depended on access to the world’s seas and markets. When that access was circumscribed—by the British in 1812 and by the Germans in 1917—Americans went to war to preserve it. It is unsurprising, then, that Americans also looked askance at efforts by other powers to establish areas that might be walled off from U.S. trade and investment—and from the spread of America’s capitalist ideology.
A brief list of robust policy endeavors underscores the persistent U.S. hostility to an economically closed, spheres-of-influence world: the Model Treaty of 1776, designed to promote free and reciprocal trade; John Hay’s Open Door policy of 1899, designed to prevent any outside power from dominating trade with China; Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy in his “14 Points” speech of 1918 for the removal “of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all nations”; and the focus of the 1941 Atlantic Charter on reducing trade restrictions while promoting international economic cooperation (assuming the allies would emerge triumphant from World War II).
Fourth and finally, there’s exceptionalism. Americans have long believed that their nation was created not simply to replicate the practices of the Old World, but to revolutionize how states and peoples interact with one another. The United States, in this view, was not merely another great power out for its own self-interest. It was a country that, by virtue of its republican ideals, stood for the advancement of universal rights, and one that rejected the back-alley methods of monarchical diplomacy in favor of a more principled statecraft. When Abraham Lincoln said America represented “the last best hope of earth,” or when Woodrow Wilson scorned secret agreements in favor of “open covenants arrived at openly,” they demonstrated this exceptionalist strain in American thinking. There is some hypocrisy here, of course, for the United States has often acted in precisely the self-interested, cutthroat manner its statesmen deplored. Nonetheless, American exceptionalism has had a pronounced effect on American conduct.
Compare how Washington led its Western European allies during the Cold War—the extent to which NATO rested on the authentic consent of its members, the way the United States consistently sought to empower rather than dominate its partners—with how Moscow managed its empire in Eastern Europe. In the same way, Americans have often recoiled from arrangements that reeked of the old diplomacy. Franklin Roosevelt might have tolerated a Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe after World War II, for instance, but he knew he could not admit this publicly. Likewise, the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which required Washington to acknowledge the diplomatic legitimacy of the Soviet sphere, proved controversial inside the United States because they seemed to represent just the sort of cynical, old-school geopolitics that American exceptionalism abhors.
To be clear, U.S. hostility to a spheres-of-influence world has always been leavened with a dose of pragmatism; American leaders have pursued that hostility only so far as power and prudence allowed. The Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to stay out of the Americas, but the quid pro quo was that a young and relatively weak United States would accept, for a time, a sphere of monarchical dominance within Europe. Even during the Cold War, U.S. policymakers generally accepted that Washington could not break up the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe without risking nuclear war.
But these were concessions to expediency. As America gained greater global power, it more actively resisted the acquisition or preservation of spheres by others. From gradually pushing the Old World out of the New, to helping vanquish the German and Japanese Empires by force of arms, to assisting the liquidation of the British Empire after World War II, to containing and ultimately defeating the Soviet bloc, the United States was present at the destruction of spheres of influence possessed by adversaries and allies alike.
The acme of this project came in the quarter-century that followed the Cold War. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself, it was possible to envision a world in which what Thomas Jefferson called America’s “empire of liberty” could attain global dimensions, and traditional spheres of influence would be consigned to history. The goal, as George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy proclaimed, was to “create a balance of power that favors human freedom.” This meant an international environment in which the United States and its values were dominant and there was no balance of power whatsoever.
Under presidents from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, this project entailed working to spread democracy and economic liberalism farther than ever before. It involved pushing American influence and U.S.-led institutions into regions—such as Eastern Europe—that were previously dominated by other powers. It meant maintaining the military primacy necessary to stop regional powers from establishing new spheres of influence, as Washington did by rolling back Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait in 1990 and by deterring China from coercing Taiwan in 1995–96. Not least, this American project involved seeking to integrate potential rivals—foremost Russia and China—into the post–Cold War order, in hopes of depriving them of even the desire to challenge it. This multifaceted effort reflected the optimism of the post-Cold War era, as well as the influence of tendencies with deep roots in the American past. Yet try as Washington might to permanently leave behind a spheres-of-influence world, that prospect is once again upon us.B egin with China’s actions in the Asia-Pacific region. The sources of Chinese conduct are diverse, ranging from domestic insecurity to the country’s confidence as a rising power to its sense of historical destiny as “the Middle Kingdom.” All these influences animate China’s bid to establish regional mastery. China is working, first, to create a power vacuum by driving the United States out of the Western Pacific, and second, to fill that vacuum with its own influence. A Chinese admiral made this ambition clear when he remarked—supposedly in jest—to an American counterpart that, in the future, the two powers should simply split the Pacific with Hawaii as the dividing line. Yang Jiechi, then China’s foreign minister, echoed this sentiment in a moment of frustration by lecturing the nations of Southeast Asia. “China is a big country,” he said, “and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Policy has followed rhetoric. To undercut America’s position, Beijing has harassed American ships and planes operating in international waters and airspace. The Chinese have warned U.S. allies they may be caught in the crossfire of a Sino-American war unless Washington accommodates China or the allies cut loose from the United States. China has simultaneously worked to undermine the credibility of U.S. alliance guarantees by using strategies designed to shift the regional status quo in ways even the mighty U.S. Navy finds difficult to counter. Through a mixture of economic aid and diplomatic coercion, Beijing has also successfully divided international bodies, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, through which the United States has sought to rally opposition to Chinese assertiveness. And in the background, China has been steadily building, over the course of more than two decades, formidable military tools designed to keep the United States out of the region and give Beijing a free hand in dealing with its weaker neighbors. As America’s sun sets in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese leaders calculate, the shadow China casts over the region will only grow longer.
To that end, China has claimed, dubiously, nearly all of the South China Sea as its own and constructed artificial islands as staging points for the projection of military power. Military and paramilitary forces have teased, confronted, and violated the sovereignty of countries from Vietnam to the Philippines; China is likewise intensifying the pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. Economically, Beijing uses its muscle to reward those who comply with China’s policies and punish those not willing to bow to its demands. It is simultaneously advancing geoeconomic projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Project (RCEP) that are designed to bring the region into its orbit.
Strikingly, China has also moved away from its long-professed principle of noninterference in other countries’ domestic politics by extending the reach of Chinese propaganda organs and using investment and even bribery to co-opt regional elites. Payoffs to Australian politicians are as critical to China’s regional project as development of “carrier-killer” missiles. Finally, far from subscribing to liberal concepts of democracy and human rights, Beijing emphasizes its rejection of these values and its desire to create “Asia for Asians.” In sum, China is pursuing a classic spheres-of-influence project. By blending intimidation with inducement, Beijing aims to sunder its neighbors’ bonds with America and force them to accept a Sino-centric order—a new Chinese tribute system for the 21st century.A t the other end of Eurasia, Russia is playing geopolitical hardball of a different sort. The idea that Moscow should dominate its “near abroad” is as natural to many Russians as American regional primacy is to Americans. The loss of the Kremlin’s traditional buffer zone was, therefore, one of the most painful legacies of the Cold War’s end. And so it is hardly surprising that, as Russia has regained a degree of strength in recent years, it has sought to reassert its supremacy.
It has done so, in fact, through more overtly aggressive means than those employed by China. Moscow has twice seized opportunities to humiliate and dismember former Soviet republics that committed the sin of tilting toward the West or throwing out pro-Russian leaders, first in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014. It has regularly reminded its neighbors that they live on Russia’s doorstep, through coercive activities such as conducting cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 and holding aggressive military exercises on the frontiers of the Baltic states. In the same vein, the Kremlin has essentially claimed a veto over the geopolitical alignments of neighbors from the Caucasus to Scandinavia, whether by creating frozen conflicts on their territory or threatening to target them militarily—perhaps with nuclear weapons—should they join NATO.
Military muscle is not Moscow’s only tool. Russia has simultaneously used energy exports to keep the states on its periphery economically dependent, and it has exported corruption and illiberalism to non-aligned states in the former Warsaw Pact area to prevent further encroachment of liberal values. Not least, the Kremlin has worked to undermine NATO and the European Union through political subversion and intervention in Western electoral processes. And while Russia’s activities are most concentrated in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it’s also projecting its influence farther afield. Russian forces intervened successfully in Syria in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad, preserve access to warm-water ports on the Mediterranean, and demonstrate the improved accuracy and lethality of Russian arms. Moscow continues to make inroads in the Middle East, often in cooperation with another American adversary: Iran.
To be sure, the projects that China and Russia are pursuing today are vastly different from each other, but the core logic is indisputably the same. Authoritarian powers are re-staking their claim to privileged influence in key geostrategic areas.S o what does this mean for American interests? Some observers have argued that the United States should make a virtue of necessity and accept the return of such arrangements. By this logic, spheres of influence create buffer zones between contending great powers; they diffuse responsibility for enforcing order in key areas. Indeed, for those who think that U.S. policy has left the country exhausted and overextended, a return to a world in which America no longer has the burden of being the dominant power in every region may seem attractive. The great sin of American policy after the Cold War, many realist scholars argue, was the failure to recognize that even a weakened Russia would demand privileged influence along its frontiers and thus be unalterably opposed to NATO expansion. Similarly, they lament the failure to understand that China would not forever tolerate U.S. dominance along its own periphery. It is not surprising, then, to hear analysts such as Australia’s Hugh White or America’s John Mearsheimer argue that the United States should learn to “share power” with China in the Pacific, or that it must yield ground in Eastern Europe in order to avoid war with Russia.
Such claims are not meritless; there are instances in which spheres of influence led to a degree of stability. The division of Europe into rival blocs fostered an ugly sort of stasis during the Cold War; closer to home, America’s dominance in the Western Hemisphere has long muted geopolitical competition in our own neighborhood. For all the problems associated with European empires, they often partially succeeded in limiting scourges such as communal violence.
And yet the allure of a spheres-of-influence world is largely an illusion, for such a world would threaten U.S. interests, traditions, and values in several ways.
First, basic human rights and democratic values would be less respected. China and Russia are not liberal democracies; they are illiberal autocracies that see the spread of democratic values as profoundly corrosive to their own authority and security. Just as the United States has long sought to create a world congenial to its own ideological predilections, Beijing and Moscow would certainly do likewise within their spheres of dominance.
They would, presumably, bring their influence to bear in support of friendly authoritarian regimes. And they would surely undermine democratic governments seen to pose a threat of ideological contagion or insubordination to Russian or Chinese prerogatives. Russia has taken steps to prevent the emergence of a Western-facing democracy in Ukraine and to undermine liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere; China is snuffing out political freedoms in Hong Kong. Such actions offer a preview of what we will see when these countries are indisputably dominant along their peripheries. Further aggressions, in turn, would not simply be offensive to America’s ideological sensibilities. For given that the spread of democracy has been central to the absence of major interstate war in recent decades, and that the spread of American values has made the U.S. more secure and influential, a less democratic world will also be a more dangerous world.
Second, a spheres-of-influence world would be less open to American commerce and investment. After all, the United States itself saw geoeconomic dominance in Latin America as the necessary counterpart to geopolitical dominance. Why would China take a less self-interested approach? China already reaps the advantages of an open global economy even as it embraces protectionism and mercantilism. In a Chinese-dominated East Asia, all economic roads will surely lead to Beijing, as Chinese officials will be able to use their leverage to ensure that trade and investment flows are oriented toward China and geopolitical competitors like the United States are left on the outside. Beijing’s current geoeconomic projects—namely, RCEP and the Belt and Road Initiative—offer insight into a regional economic future in which flows of commerce and investment are subject to heavy Chinese influence.
Third, as spheres of influence reemerge, the United States will be less able to shape critical geopolitical events in crucial regions. The reason Washington has long taken an interest in events in faraway places is that East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East are the areas from which major security challenges have emerged in the past. Since World War II, America’s forward military presence has been intended to suppress incipient threats and instability; that presence has gone hand in glove with energetic diplomacy that amplifies America’s voice and protects U.S. interests. In a spheres-of-influence world, Washington would no longer enjoy the ability to act with decisive effect in these regions; it would find itself reacting to global events rather than molding them.
This leads to a final, and crucial, issue. America would be more likely to find its core security interests challenged because world orders based on rival spheres of influence have rarely been as peaceful and settled as one might imagine.
To see this, just work backward from the present. During the Cold War, a bipolar balance did help avert actual war between Moscow and Washington. But even in Europe—where the spheres of influence were best defined—there were continual tensions and crises as Moscow tested the Western bloc. And outside Europe, violence and proxy wars were common as the superpowers competed to extend their reach into the Third World. In the 1930s, the emergence of German and Japanese spheres of influence led to the most catastrophic war in global history. The empires of the 19th century—spheres of influence in their own right—continually jostled one another, leading to wars and near-wars over the course of decades; the Peace of Amiens between England and Napoleonic France lasted a mere 14 months. And looking back to the ancient world, there were not one, but three Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage as two expanding empires came into conflict. A world defined by spheres of influence is often a world characterized by tensions, wars, and competition.
The reasons for this are simple. As the political scientist William Wohlforth observed, unipolar systems—such as the U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order—are anchored by a hegemonic power that can act decisively to maintain the peace. In a unipolar system, Wohlforth writes, there are few incentives for revisionist powers to incur the “focused enmity” of the leading state. Truly multipolar systems, by contrast, have often been volatile. When the major powers are more evenly matched, there is a greater temptation to aggression by those who seek to change the existing order of things. And seek to change things they undoubtedly will.
The idea that spheres of influence are stabilizing holds only if one assumes that the major powers are motivated only by insecurity and that concessions to the revisionists will therefore lead to peace. Churchill described this as the idea that if one “feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”
Unfortunately, today’s rising or resurgent powers are also motivated—as is America—by honor, ambition, and the timeless desire to make their international habitats reflect their own interests and ideals. It is a risky gamble indeed, then, to think that ceding Russia or China an uncontested sphere of influence would turn a revisionist authoritarian regime into a satisfied power. The result, as Robert Kagan has noted, might be to embolden those actors all the more, by giving them freer rein to bring their near-abroads under control, greater latitude and resources to pursue their ambitions, and enhanced confidence that the U.S.-led order is fracturing at its foundations. For China, dominance over the first island chain might simply intensify desires to achieve primacy in the second island chain and beyond; for Russia, renewed mastery in the former Soviet space could lead to desires to bring parts of the former Warsaw Pact to heel, as well. To observe how China is developing ever longer-range anti-access/area denial capabilities, or how Russia has been projecting military power ever farther afield, is to see this process in action.T he reemergence of a spheres-of-influence world would thus undercut one of the great historical achievements of U.S. foreign policy: the creation of a system in which America is the dominant power in each major geopolitical region and can act decisively to shape events and protect its interests. It would foster an environment in which democratic values are less prominent, authoritarian models are ascendant, and mercantilism advances as economic openness recedes. And rather than leading to multipolar stability, this change could simply encourage greater revisionism on the part of powers whose appetite grows with the eating. This would lead the world away from the relative stability of the post–Cold War era and back into the darker environment it seemed to have relegated to history a quarter-century ago. The phrase “spheres of influence” may sound vaguely theoretical and benign, but its real-world effects are likely to be tangible and pernicious.
Fortunately, the return of a spheres-of-influence world is not yet inevitable. Even as some nations will accept incorporation into a Chinese or Russian sphere of influence as the price of avoiding conflict, or maintaining access to critical markets and resources, others will resist because they see their own well-being as dependent on the preservation of the world order that Washington has long worked to create. The Philippines and Cambodia seem increasingly to fall into the former group; Poland and Japan, among many others, make up the latter. The willingness of even this latter group to take actions that risk incurring Beijing and Moscow’s wrath, however, will be constantly calibrated against an assessment of America’s own ability to continue leading the resistance to a spheres-of-influence world. Averting that outcome is becoming steadily harder, as the relative power and ambition of America’s authoritarian rivals rise and U.S. leadership seems to falter.
Harder, but not impossible. The United States and its allies still command a significant preponderance of global wealth and power. And the political, economic, and military weaknesses of its challengers are legion. It is far from fated, then, that the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe will slip into China’s and Russia’s respective orbits. With sufficient creativity and determination, Washington and its partners might still be able to resist the return of a dangerous global system. Doing so will require difficult policy work in the military, economic, and diplomatic realms. But ideas precede policy, and so simply rediscovering the venerable tradition of American hostility to spheres of influence—and no less, the powerful logic on which that tradition is based—would be a good start.
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What does the man with the baton actually do?
Why, then, are virtually all modern professional orchestras led by well-paid conductors instead of performing on their own? It’s an interesting question. After all, while many celebrity conductors are highly trained and knowledgeable, there have been others, some of them legendary, whose musical abilities were and are far more limited. It was no secret in the world of classical music that Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949, found it difficult to read full orchestral scores and sometimes learned how to lead them in public by first practicing with a pair of rehearsal pianists whom he “conducted” in private.
Yet recordings show that Koussevitzky’s interpretations of such complicated pieces of music as Aaron Copland’s El Salón México and Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (both of which he premiered and championed) were immensely characterful and distinctive. What made them so? Was it the virtuosic playing of the Boston Symphony alone? Or did Koussevitzky also bring something special to these performances—and if so, what was it?
Part of what makes this question so tricky to answer is that scarcely any well-known conductors have spoken or written in detail about what they do. Only two conductors of the first rank, Thomas Beecham and Bruno Walter, have left behind full-length autobiographies, and neither one features a discussion of its author’s technical methods. For this reason, the publication of John Mauceri’s Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting will be of special interest to those who, like my friend, wonder exactly what it is that conductors contribute to the performances that they lead.1
An impeccable musical journeyman best known for his lively performances of film music with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Mauceri has led most of the world’s top orchestras. He writes illuminatingly about his work in Maestros and Their Music, leavening his discussions of such matters as the foibles of opera directors and music critics with sharply pointed, sometimes gossipy anecdotes. Most interesting of all, though, are the chapters in which he talks about what conductors do on the podium. To read Maestros and Their Music is to come away with a much clearer understanding of what its author calls the “strange and lawless world” of conducting—and to understand how conductors whose technique is deficient to the point of seeming incompetence can still give exciting performances.P rior to the 19th century, conductors of the modern kind did not exist. Orchestras were smaller then—most of the ensembles that performed Mozart’s symphonies and operas contained anywhere from two to three dozen players—and their concerts were “conducted” either by the leader of the first violins or by the orchestra’s keyboard player.
As orchestras grew larger in response to the increasing complexity of 19th-century music, however, it became necessary for a full-time conductor both to rehearse them and to control their public performances, normally by standing on a podium placed in front of the musicians and beating time in the air with a baton. Most of the first men to do so were composers, including Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. By the end of the century, however, it was becoming increasingly common for musicians to specialize in conducting, and some of them, notably Arthur Nikisch and Arturo Toscanini, came to be regarded as virtuosos in their own right. Since then, only three important composers—Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez—have also pursued parallel careers as world-class conductors. Every other major conductor of the 20th century was a specialist.
What did these men do in front of an orchestra? Mauceri’s description of the basic physical process of conducting is admirably straightforward:
The right hand beats time; that is, it sets the tempo or pulse of the music. It can hold a baton. The left hand turns pages [in the orchestral score], cues instrumentalists with an invitational or pointing gesture, and generally indicates the quality of the notes (percussive, smoothly linked, sustained, etc.).
Beyond these elements, though, all bets are off. Most of the major conductors of the 20th century were filmed in performance, and what one sees in these films is so widely varied that it is impossible to generalize about what constitutes a good conducting technique.2 Most of them used batons, but several, including Boulez and Leopold Stokowski, conducted with their bare hands. Bernstein and Beecham gestured extravagantly, even wildly, while others, most famously Fritz Reiner, restricted themselves to tightly controlled hand movements. Toscanini beat time in a flowing, beautifully expressive way that made his musical intentions self-evident, but Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan often conducted so unclearly that it is hard to see how the orchestras they led were able to follow them. (One exasperated member of the London Philharmonic claimed, partly in jest, that Furtwängler’s baton signaled the start of a piece “only after the thirteenth preliminary wiggle.”) Conductors of the Furtwängler sort tend to be at their best in front of orchestras with which they have worked for many years and whose members have learned from experience to “speak” their gestural language fluently.
Nevertheless, all of these men were pursuing the same musical goals. Beyond stopping and starting a given piece, it is the job of a conductor to decide how it will be interpreted. How loud should the middle section of the first movement be—and ought the violins to be playing a bit softer so as not to drown out the flutes? Someone must answer questions such as these if a performance is not to sound indecisive or chaotic, and it is far easier for one person to do so than for 100 people to vote on each decision.
Above all, a conductor controls the tempo of a performance, varying it from moment to moment as he sees fit. It is impossible for a full-sized symphony orchestra to play a piece with any degree of rhythmic flexibility unless a conductor is controlling the performance from the podium. Bernstein put it well when he observed in a 1955 TV special that “the conductor is a kind of sculptor whose element is time instead of marble.” These “sculptural” decisions are subjective, since traditional musical notation cannot be matched with exactitude. As Mauceri reminds us, Toscanini and Beecham both recorded La Bohème, having previously discussed their interpretations with Giacomo Puccini, the opera’s composer, and Toscanini conducted its 1896 premiere. Yet Beecham’s performance is 14 minutes longer than Toscanini’s. Who is “right”? It is purely a matter of individual taste, since both interpretations are powerfully persuasive.
Beyond the not-so-basic task of setting, maintaining, and varying tempos, it is the job of a conductor to inspire an orchestra—to make its members play with a charged precision that transcends mere unanimity. The first step in doing so is to persuade the players of his musical competence. If he cannot run a rehearsal efficiently, they will soon grow bored and lose interest; if he does not know the score in detail, they will not take him seriously. This requires extensive preparation on the part of the conductor, and an orchestra can tell within seconds of the downbeat whether he is adequately prepared—a fact that every conductor knows. “I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do,” Bernstein once told an interviewer. “I work extremely hard and all the time.”
All things being equal, it is better than not for a conductor to have a clear technique, if only because it simplifies and streamlines the process of rehearsing an orchestra. Fritz Reiner, who taught Bernstein among others, did not exaggerate when he claimed that he and his pupils could “stand up [in front of] an orchestra they have never seen before and conduct correctly a new piece at first sight without verbal explanation and by means only of manual technique.”
While orchestra players prefer this kind of conducting, a conductor need not have a technique as fully developed as that of a Reiner or Bernstein if he knows how to rehearse effectively. Given sufficient rehearsal time, decisive and unambiguous verbal instructions will produce the same results as a virtuoso stick technique. This was how Willem Mengelberg and George Szell distinguished themselves on the podium. Their techniques were no better than adequate, but they rehearsed so meticulously that their performances were always brilliant and exact.
It also helps to supply the members of the orchestra with carefully marked orchestra parts. Beecham’s manual technique was notoriously messy, but he marked his musical intentions into each player’s part so clearly and precisely that simply reading the music on the stand would produce most of the effects that he desired.
What players do not like is to be lectured. They want to be told what to do and, if absolutely necessary, how to do it, at which point the wise conductor will stop talking and start conducting. Mauceri recalls the advice given to a group of student conductors by Joseph Silverstein, the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony: “Don’t talk to us about blue skies. Just tell us ‘longer-shorter,’ ‘faster-slower,’ ‘higher-lower.’” Professional musicians cannot abide flowery speeches about the inner meaning of a piece of music, though they will readily respond to a well-turned metaphor. Mauceri makes this point with a Toscanini anecdote:
One of Toscanini’s musicians told me of a moment in a rehearsal when the sound the NBC Symphony was giving him was too heavy. … In this case, without saying a word, he reached into his pocket and took out his silk handkerchief, tossed it into the air, and everyone watched it slowly glide to earth. After seeing that, the orchestra played the same passage exactly as Toscanini wanted.
Conducting, like all acts of leadership, is in large part a function of character. The violinist Carl Flesch went so far as to call it “the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary.” While that is putting it too cynically, Flesch was on to something. I did a fair amount of conducting in college, but even though I practiced endlessly in front of a mirror and spent hours poring over my scores, I lacked the personal magnetism without which no conductor can hope to be more than merely competent at best.
On the other hand, a talented musician with a sufficiently compelling personality can turn himself into a conductor more or less overnight. Toscanini had never conducted an orchestra before making his unrehearsed debut in a performance of Verdi’s Aida at the age of 19, yet the players hastened to do his musical bidding. I once saw the modern-dance choreographer Mark Morris, whose knowledge of classical music is profound, lead a chorus and orchestra in the score to Gloria, a dance he had made in 1981 to a piece by Vivaldi. It was no stunt: Morris used a baton and a score and controlled the performance with the assurance of a seasoned pro. Not only did he have a strong personality, but he had also done his musical homework, and he knew that one was as important as the other.
The reverse, however, is no less true: The success of conductors like Serge Koussevitzky is at least as much a function of their personalities as of their preparation. To be sure, Koussevitzky had been an instrumental virtuoso (he played the double bass) before taking up conducting, but everyone who worked with him in later years was aware of his musical limitations. Yet he was still capable of imposing his larger-than-life personality on players who might well have responded indifferently to his conducting had he been less charismatic. Leopold Stokowski functioned in much the same way. He was widely thought by his peers to have been far more a showman than an artist, to the point that Toscanini contemptuously dismissed him as a “clown.” But he had, like Koussevitzky, a richly romantic musical imagination coupled with the showmanship of a stage actor, and so the orchestras that he led, however skeptical they might be about his musical seriousness, did whatever he wanted.
All great conductors share this same ability to impose their will on an orchestra—and that, after all, is the heart of the matter. A conductor can be effective only if the orchestra does what he wants. It is not like a piano, whose notes automatically sound when the keys are pressed, but a living organism with a will of its own. Conducting, then, is first and foremost an act of persuasion, as Mauceri acknowledges:
The person who stands before a symphony orchestra is charged with something both impossible and improbable. The impossible part is herding a hundred musicians to agree on something, and the improbable part is that one does it by waving one’s hands in the air.
This is why so many famous conductors have claimed that the art of conducting cannot be taught. In the deepest sense, they are right. To be sure, it is perfectly possible, as Reiner did, to teach the rudiments of clear stick technique and effective rehearsal practice. But the mystery at the heart of conducting is, indeed, unteachable: One cannot tell a budding young conductor how to cultivate a magnetic personality, any more than an actor can be taught how to have star quality. What sets the Bernsteins and Bogarts of the world apart from the rest of us is very much like what James M. Barrie said of feminine charm in What Every Woman Knows: “If you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have.”
2 Excerpts from many of these films were woven together into a two-part BBC documentary, The Art of Conducting, which is available on home video and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube
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Not that he tries. What was remarkable about the condescension in this instance was that Franken directed it at women who accused him of behaving “inappropriately” toward them. (In an era of strictly enforced relativism, we struggle to find our footing in judging misbehavior, so we borrow words from the prissy language of etiquette. The mildest and most common rebuke is unfortunate, followed by the slightly more serious inappropriate, followed by the ultimate reproach: unacceptable, which, depending on the context, can include both attempted rape and blowing your nose into your dinner napkin.) Franken’s inappropriateness entailed, so to speak, squeezing the bottoms of complete strangers, and cupping the occasional breast.
Franken himself did not use the word “inappropriate.” By his account, he had done nothing to earn the title. His earlier vague denials of the allegations, he told his fellow senators, “gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done.” How could he have confused people about such an important matter? Doggone it, it’s that damn sensitivity of his. The nation was beginning a conversation about sexual harassment—squeezing strangers’ bottoms, stuff like that—and “I wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”
Well, not all women. The women with those bottoms and breasts he supposedly manhandled, for example—their experiences don’t deserve to be taken seriously. We’ve got Al’s word on it. “Some of the allegations against me are not true,” he said. “Others, I remember very differently.” His accusers, in other words, fall into one of two camps: the liars and the befuddled. You know how women can be sometimes. It might be a hormonal thing.
But enough about them, Al seemed to be saying: Let’s get back to Al. “I know the work I’ve been able to do has improved people’s lives,” Franken said, but he didn’t want to get into any specifics. “I have used my power to be a champion of women.” He has faith in his “proud legacy of progressive advocacy.” He’s been passionate and worked hard—not for himself, mind you, but for his home state of Minnesota, by which he’s “blown away.” And yes, he would get tired or discouraged or frustrated once in a while. But then that big heart of his would well up: “I would think about the people I was doing this for, and it would get me back on my feet.” Franken recently published a book about himself: Giant of the Senate. I had assumed the title was ironic. Now I’m not sure.
Yet even in his flights of self-love, the problem that has ever attended Senator Franken was still there. You can’t take him seriously. He looks as though God made him to be a figure of fun. Try as he might, his aspect is that of a man who is going to try to make you laugh, and who is built for that purpose and no other—a close cousin to Bert Lahr or Chris Farley. And for years, of course, that’s the part he played in public life, as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. When he announced nine years ago that he would return to Minnesota and run for the Senate—when he came out of the closet and tried to present himself as a man of substance—the effect was so disorienting that I, and probably many others, never quite recovered. As a comedian-turned-politician, he was no longer the one and could never quite become the other.
The chubby cheeks and the perpetual pucker, the slightly crossed eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses, the rounded, diminutive torso straining to stay upright under the weight of an enormous head—he was the very picture of Comedy Boy, and suddenly he wanted to be something else: Politics Boy. I have never seen the famously tasteless tearjerker The Day the Clown Cried, in which Jerry Lewis stars as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, but I’m sure watching it would be a lot like watching the ex-funnyman Franken deliver a speech about farm price supports.
Then he came to Washington and slipped right into place. His career is testament to a dreary fact of life here: Taken in the mass, senators are pretty much interchangeable. Party discipline determines nearly every vote they cast. Only at the margins is one Democrat or Republican different in a practical sense from another Democrat or Republican. Some of us held out hope, despite the premonitory evidence, that Franken might use his professional gifts in service of his new job. Yet so desperate was he to be taken seriously that he quickly passed serious and swung straight into obnoxious. It was a natural fit. In no time at all, he mastered the senatorial art of asking pointless or showy questions in committee hearings, looming from his riser over fumbling witnesses and hollering “Answer the question!” when they didn’t respond properly.
It’s not hard to be a good senator, if you have the kind of personality that frees you to simulate chumminess with people you scarcely know or have never met and will probably never see again. There’s not much to it. A senator has a huge staff to satisfy his every need. There are experts to give him brief, personal tutorials on any subject he will be asked about, writers to write his questions for his committee hearings and an occasional op-ed if an idea strikes him, staffers to arrange his travel and drive him here or there, political aides to guard his reputation with the folks back home, press aides to regulate his dealings with reporters, and legislative aides to write the bills should he ever want to introduce any. The rest is show biz.
Oddly, Franken was at his worst precisely when he was handling the show-biz aspects of his job. While his inquisitions in committee hearings often showed the obligatory ferocity and indignation, he could also appear baffled and aimless. His speeches weren’t much good, and he didn’t deliver them well. As if to prove the point, he published a collection of them earlier this year, Speaking Franken. Until Pearl Harbor, he’d been showing signs of wanting to run for president. Liberal pundits were talking him up as a national candidate. Speaking Franken was likely intended to do for him what Profiles in Courage did for John Kennedy, another middling senator with presidential longings. Unfortunately for Franken, Ted Sorensen is still dead.
The final question raised by Franken’s resignation is why so many fellow Democrats urged him to give up his seat so suddenly, once his last accuser came forward. The consensus view involved Roy Moore, in those dark days when he was favored to win Alabama’s special election. With the impending arrival of an accused pedophile on the Republican side of the aisle, Democrats didn’t want an accused sexual harasser in their own ranks to deflect what promised to be a relentless focus on the GOP’s newest senator. This is bad news for any legacy Franken once hoped for himself. None of his work as a senator will commend him to history. He will be remembered instead for two things: as a minor TV star, and as Roy Moore’s oldest victim.
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Review of 'Lioness' By Francine Klagsbrun
Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, moved to Palestine from America in 1921, at the age of 22, to pursue Socialist Zionism. She was instrumental in transforming the Jewish people into a state; signed that state’s Declaration of Independence; served as its first ambassador to the Soviet Union, as labor minister for seven years, and as foreign minister for a decade. In 1969, she became the first female head of state in the Western world, serving from the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and through the nearly catastrophic but ultimately victorious 1973 Yom Kippur War. She resigned in 1974 at the age of 76, after five years as prime minister. Her involvement at the forefront of Zionism and the leadership of Israel thus extended more than half a century.
This is the second major biography of Golda Meir in the last decade, after Elinor Burkett’s excellent Golda in 2008. Klagsbrun’s portrait is even grander in scope. Her epigraph comes from Ezekiel’s lamentation for Israel: What a lioness was your mother / Among the lions! / Crouching among the great beasts / She reared her cubs. The “mother” was Israel; the “cubs,” her many ancient kings; the “great beasts,” the hostile nations surrounding her. One finishes Klagsbrun’s monumental volume, which is both a biography of Golda and a biography of Israel in her time, with a deepened sense that modern Israel, its prime ministers, and its survival is a story of biblical proportions.Golda Meir’s story spans three countries—Russia, America, and Israel. Before she was Golda Meir, she was Golda Meyerson; and before that, she was Golda Mabovitch, born in 1898 in Kiev in the Russian Empire. Her father left for America after the horrific Kishinev pogrom in 1903, found work in Milwaukee as a carpenter, and in 1906 sent for his wife and three daughters, who escaped using false identities and border bribes. Golda said later that what she took from Russia was “fear, hunger and fear.” It was an existential fear that she never forgot.
In Milwaukee, Golda found socialism in the air: The city had both a socialist mayor and a socialist congressman, and she was enthralled by news from Palestine, where Jews were living out socialist ideals in kibbutzim. She immersed herself in Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), a movement synthesizing Zionism and socialism, and in 1917 married a fellow socialist, Morris Meyerson. As soon as conditions permitted, they moved to Palestine, where the marriage ultimately failed—a casualty of the extended periods she spent away from home working for Socialist Zionism and her admission that the cause was more important to her than her husband and children. Klagsbrun writes that Meir might appear to be the consummate feminist: She asserted her independence from her husband, traveled continually and extensively on her own, left her husband and children for months to pursue her work, and demanded respect as an individual rather than on special standards based on her gender. But she never considered herself a feminist and indeed denigrated women’s organizations as reducing issues to women’s interests only, and she gave minimal assistance to other women. Klagsbrun concludes that questions about Meir as a feminist figure ultimately “hang in the air.”
Her American connection and her unaccented American English became strategic assets for Zionism. She understood American Jews, spoke their language, and conducted many fundraising trips to the United States, tirelessly raising tens of millions of dollars of critically needed funds. David Ben-Gurion called her the “woman who got the money which made the state possible.” Klagsbrun provides the schedule of her 1932 trip as an example of her efforts: Over the course of a single month, the 34-year-old Zionist pioneer traveled to Kansas City, Tulsa, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and three cities in Canada. She became the face of Zionism in America—“The First Lady,” in the words of a huge banner at a later Chicago event, “of the Jewish People.” She connected with American Jews in a way no other Zionist leader had done before her.
In her own straightforward way, she mobilized the English language and sent it into battle for Zionism. While Abba Eban denigrated her poor Hebrew—“She has a vocabulary of two thousand words, okay, but why doesn’t she use them?”—she had a way of crystallizing issues in plainspoken English. Of British attempts to prevent the growth of the Jewish community in Palestine, she said Britain “should remember that Jews were here 2,000 years before the British came.” Of expressions of sympathy for Israel: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.” And perhaps her most famous saying: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”
Once she moved to the Israeli foreign ministry, she changed her name from Meyerson to Meir, in response to Ben-Gurion’s insistence that ministers assume Israeli names. She began a decade-long tenure there as the voice and face of Israel in the world. At a Madison Square Garden rally after the 1967 Six-Day War, she observed sardonically that the world called Israelis “a wonderful people,” complimented them for having prevailed “against such odds,” and yet wanted Israel to give up what it needed for its self-defense:
“Now that they have won this battle, let them go back where they came from, so that the hills of Syria will again be open for Syrian guns; so that Jordanian Legionnaires, who shoot and shell at will, can again stand on the towers of the Old City of Jerusalem; so that the Gaza Strip will again become a place from which infiltrators are sent to kill and ambush.” … Is there anybody who has the boldness to say to the Israelis: “Go home! Begin preparing your nine and ten year olds for the next war, perhaps in ten years.”
The next war would come not in ten years, but in six, and while Meir was prime minister.
Klagsbrun’s extended discussion of Meir’s leadership before, during, and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War is one of the most valuable parts of her book, enabling readers to make informed judgments about that war and assess Meir’s ultimate place in Israeli history. The book makes a convincing case that there was no pre-war “peace option” that could have prevented the conflict. Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, was insisting on a complete Israeli withdrawal before negotiations could even begin, and Meir’s view was, “We had no peace with the old boundaries. How can we have peace by returning to them?” She considered the demand part of a plan to push Israel back to the ’67 lines “and then bring the Palestinians back, which means no more Israel.”
A half-century later, after three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state on substantially all the disputed territories—with the Palestinians rejecting each offer, insisting instead on an Israeli retreat to indefensible lines and recognition of an alleged Palestinian “right of return”—Meir’s view looks prescient.
Klagsbrun’s day-by-day description of the ensuing war is largely favorable to Meir, who relied on assurances from her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, that the Arabs would not attack, and assurances from her intelligence community that, even if they did, Israel would have a 48-hour notice—enough time to mobilize the reserves that constituted more than 75 percent of its military force. Both sets of assurances proved false, and the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack took virtually everyone in Israel by surprise. Dayan had something close to a mental breakdown, but Meir remained calm and in control after the initial shock, making key military decisions. She was able to rely on the excellent personal relationships she had established with President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and the critical resupply of American arms that enabled Israel—once its reserves were called into action—to take the war into Egyptian and Syrian territories, with Israeli forces camped in both countries by its end.
Meir had resisted the option of a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria when it suddenly became clear, 12 hours before the war started, that coordinated Egyptian and Syrian attacks were coming. On the second day of the war, she told her war cabinet that she regretted not having authorized the IDF to act, and she sent a message to Kissinger that Israel’s “failure to take such action is the reason for our situation now.” After the war, however, she testified that, had Israel begun the war, the U.S. would not have sent the crucial assistance that Israel needed (a point on which Kissinger agreed), and that she therefore believed she had done the right thing. A preemptive response, however, or a massive call-up of the reserves in the days before the attacks, might have avoided a war in which Israel lost 2,600 soldiers—the demographic equivalent of all the American losses in the Vietnam War.
It is hard to fault Meir’s decision, given the erroneous information and advice she was uniformly receiving from all her defense and intelligence subordinates, but it is a reminder that for Israeli prime ministers (such as Levi Eshkol in the Six-Day War, Menachem Begin with the Iraq nuclear reactor in 1981, and Ehud Olmert with the Syrian one in 2007), the potential necessity of taking preemptive action always hangs in the air. Klagsbrun’s extensive discussion of the Yom Kippur War is a case study of that question, and an Israeli prime minister may yet again face that situation.
The Meir story is also a tale of the limits of socialism as an organizing principle for the modern state. Klagsbrun writes about “Golda’s persistent—and hopelessly utopian—vision of how a socialist society should be conducted,” exemplified by her dream of instituting commune-like living arrangements for urban families, comparable to those in the kibbutzim, where all adults would share common kitchens and all the children would eat at school. She also tried to institute a family wage system, in which people would be paid according to their needs rather than their talents, a battle she lost when the unionized nurses insisted on being paid as professionals, based on their education and experience, and not the sizes of their families.
Socialism foundered not only on the laws of economics and human nature but also in the realm of foreign relations. In 1973, enraged that the socialist governments and leaders in Europe had refused to come to Israel’s aid during the Yom Kippur War, Meir convened a special London conference of the Socialist International, attended by eight heads of state and a dozen other socialist-party leaders. Before the conference, she told Willy Brandt, Germany’s socialist chancellor, that she wanted “to hear for myself, with my own ears, what it was that kept the heads of these socialist governments from helping us.”
In her speech at the conference, she criticized the Europeans for not even permitting “refueling the [American] planes that saved us from destruction.” Then she told them, “I just want to understand …what socialism is really about today”:
We are all old comrades, long-standing friends. … Believe me, I am the last person to belittle the fact that we are only one tiny Jewish state and that there are over twenty Arab states with vast territories, endless oil, and billions of dollars. But what I want to know from you today is whether these things are the decisive factors in Socialist thinking, too?
After she concluded her speech, the chairman asked whether anyone wanted to reply. No one did, and she thus effectively received her answer.
One wonders what Meir would think of the Socialist International today. On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration last year, the World Socialist website called it “a sordid deal” that launched “a nakedly colonial project.” Socialism was part of the cause for which she went to Palestine in 1921, and it has not fared well in history’s judgment. But the other half—
Zionism—became one of the great successes of the 20th century, in significant part because of the lifelong efforts of individuals such as she.
Golda Meir has long been a popular figure in the American imagination, particularly among American Jews. Her ghostwritten autobiography was a bestseller; Ingrid Bergman played her in a well-received TV film; Anne Bancroft played her on the Broadway stage. But her image as the “71-year old grandmother,” as the press frequently referred to her when she became prime minister, has always obscured the historic leader beneath that façade. She was a woman with strengths and weaknesses who willed herself into half a century of history. Francine Klagsbrun has given us a magisterial portrait of a lioness in full.
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Back in 2016, then–deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes gave an extraordinary interview to the New York Times Magazine in which he revealed how President Obama exploited a clueless and deracinated press to steamroll opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes told journalist David Samuels. “They”—writers and bloggers and pundits—“were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Rhodes went on to explain that his job was made easier by structural changes in the media, such as the closing of foreign bureaus, the retirement of experienced editors and correspondents, and the shift from investigative reporting to aggregation. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” he said. “That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
And they haven’t learned much. It was dispiriting to watch in December as journalists repeated arguments against the Jerusalem decision presented by Rhodes on Twitter. On December 5, quoting Mahmoud Abbas’s threat that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would have “dangerous consequences,” Rhodes tweeted, “Trump seems to view all foreign policy as an extension of a patchwork of domestic policy positions, with no regard for the consequences of his actions.” He seemed blissfully unaware that the same could be said of his old boss.
The following day, Rhodes tweeted, “In addition to making goal of peace even less possible, Trump is risking huge blowback against the U.S. and Americans. For no reason other than a political promise he doesn’t even understand.” On December 8, quoting from a report that the construction of a new American Embassy would take some time, Rhodes asked, “Then why cause an international crisis by announcing it?”
Rhodes made clear his talking points for the millions of people inclined to criticize President Trump: Acknowledging Israel’s right to name its own capital is unnecessary and self-destructive. Rhodes’s former assistant, Ned Price, condensed the potential lines of attack in a single tweet on December 5. “In order to cater to his political base,” Price wrote, “Trump appears willing to: put U.S. personnel at great risk; risk C-ISIL [counter-ISIL] momentum; destabilize a regional ally; strain global alliances; put Israeli-Palestinian peace farther out of reach.”
Prominent media figures happily reprised their roles in the echo chamber. Susan Glasser of Politico: “Just got this in my in box from Ayman Odeh, leading Arab Israeli member of parliament: ‘Trump is a pyromaniac who could set the entire region on fire with his madness.’” BBC reporter Julia Merryfarlane: “Whether related or not, everything that happens from now on in Israel and the Pal territories will be examined in the context of Trump signaling to move the embassy to Jerusalem.” Neither Rhodes nor Price could have asked for more.
Network news broadcasts described the president’s decision as “controversial” but only reported on the views of one side in the controversy. Guess which one. “There have already been some demonstrations,” reported NBC’s Richard Engel. “They are expected to intensify, with Palestinians calling for three days of rage if President Trump goes through with it.” Left unmentioned was the fact that Hamas calls for days of rage like you and I call for pizza.
Throughout Engel’s segment, the chyron read: “Controversial decision could lead to upheaval.” On ABC, George Stephanopoulos said, “World leaders call the decision dangerous.” On CBS, Gayle King chimed in: “U.S. allies and leaders around the world say it’s a big mistake that will torpedo any chance of Middle East peace.” Oh? What were the chances of Middle East peace prior to Trump’s speech?
On CNN, longtime peace processor Aaron David Miller likened recognizing Jerusalem to hitting “somebody over the head with a hammer.” On MSNBC, Chris Matthews fumed: “Deaths are coming.” That same network featured foreign-policy gadfly Steven Clemons of the Atlantic, who said Trump “stuck a knife in the back of the two-state process.” Price and former Obama official Joel Rubin also appeared on the network to denounce Trump. “American credibility is shot, and in diplomacy, credibility relies on your word, and our word is, at this moment, not to be trusted from a peace-process perspective, certainly,” Rubin said. This from the administration that gave new meaning to the words “red line.”
Some journalists were so devoted to Rhodes’s tendentious narrative of Trump’s selfishness and heedlessness that they mangled the actual story. “He had promised this day would come, but to hear these words from the White House was jaw-dropping,” said Martha Raddatz of ABC. “Not only signing a proclamation reversing nearly 70 years of U.S. policy, but starting plans to move the embassy to Jerusalem. No one else on earth has an embassy there!” How dare America take a brave stand for a small and threatened democracy!
In fact, Trump was following U.S. policy as legislated by the Congress in 1995, reaffirmed in the Senate by a 90–0 vote just last June, and supported (in word if not in deed) by his three most recent predecessors as well as the last four Democratic party platforms. Most remarkable, the debate surrounding the Jerusalem policy ignored a crucial section of the president’s address. “We are not taking a position on any final-status issues,” he said, “including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” What we did then was simply accept the reality that the city that houses the Knesset and where the head of government receives foreign dignitaries is the capital of Israel.
However, just as had happened during the debate over the Iran deal, the facts were far less important to Rhodes than the overarching strategic goal. In this case, the objective was to discredit and undermine President Trump’s policy while isolating the conservative government of Israel. Yet there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical toward the disingenuous duo of Rhodes and Price. Trump’s announcement was bold, for sure, but the tepid protests from Arab capitals more worried about the rise of Iran, which Rhodes and Price facilitated, than the Palestinian issue suggested that the “Arab street” would sit this one out.
Which is what happened. Moreover, verbal disagreement aside, there is no evidence that the Atlantic alliance is in jeopardy. Nor has the war on ISIS lost momentum. As for putting “Israeli–Palestinian peace farther out of reach,” if third-party recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital forecloses a deal, perhaps no deal was ever possible. Rhodes and Price would like us to overlook the fact that the two sides weren’t even negotiating during the Obama administration—an administration that did as much as possible to harm relations between Israel and the United States.
This most recent episode of the Trump show was a reminder that some things never change. Jerusalem was, is, and will be the capital of the Jewish state. President Trump routinely ignores conventional wisdom and expert opinion. And whatever nonsense President Obama and his allies say today, the press will echo tomorrow.