Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog) (5-31-10)
Wire services are reporting that Israeli commandos killed as many as 16 peace activists and wounded over 50 others as they boarded and commandeered the six ships of the Gaza aid flotilla. Among the ships boarded, on which Israeli troops killed aid activists, was a Turkish vessel, the Marmara, on which there were casualties....
There are two possible reasons for the violence. One is that the Israeli troops boarding the vessels met some sort of resistance and over-reacted. Aid volunteers are unlikely, however, to have posed much real challenge to trained special forces operatives.
The other possible reason is that the far rightwing government of Binyamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman gave a green light to the commandos to respond with excessive force. That is, the deaths and woundings may have been a brutally frank warning to any future Gaza aid activists that they are taking their lives in their hands if they plan any more flotillas to help the Palestinians. The Israeli far right may have felt that there was otherwise a danger that in a few months there would be an even bigger flotilla and that eventually the blockade of Gaza would be broken.
Although we outsiders would welcome this development because we are concerned about the health and well-being of Palestinian children under blockade, the Israeli Right views all Gazans as terrorists and sees besieging them as the only way to safeguard Israelis from attack. The Israeli Right is being paranoid and inhumane in this belief. There is no reason to think that denying Palestinians enough food or medical supplies or concrete will actually deter the small number directly involved in violence....
Posted on: Monday, May 31, 2010 - 23:21
SOURCE: NYT (5-28-10)
FORTY-FIVE years ago this month, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan began quietly circulating a report he had recently completed about the “tangle of pathology” — out-of-wedlock births, fatherless households — damaging low-income black families. The title said it all: “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”
It proved enormously controversial and established its author’s reputation as an iconoclast, yet today the Moynihan Report is largely forgotten. Sadly, its predictions about the decline of the black family have proven largely correct....
...In 1963, a quarter of nonwhite births in the United States were out of wedlock, eight times the proportion among whites. Today the proportion of nonmarital births among non-Hispanic blacks exceeds 72 percent, compared with a proportion among non-Hispanic whites of around 28 percent....
There are no magic bullets for the rise of out-of-wedlock births, a trend rooted in the decline in marriage rates and one that has affected other western nations as well. But as Moynihan recommended, we can expand employment programs to help young black people find work....
None of this is cheap, or a guaranteed success. But if we do not act, the “tangle of pathology” that Moynihan described in 1965, having grown far worse, will be impossible to unravel, and America will become more deeply divided than ever along class and racial lines.
Posted on: Monday, May 31, 2010 - 12:35
SOURCE: BBC News (5-28-10)
On a recent flight from Britain to the United States, my plane took a circuitous route to avoid the by-now-all-too-familiar volcanic ash, with the paradoxical result that we flew much nearer to Iceland, and much nearer to the volcano, than we otherwise would've done.
It was certainly worth the detour, as my fellow passengers and I were treated to a grandstand view of one of nature's most extraordinary and terrifying spectacles: billowing smoke, pillars of fire, and molten lava.
Even when glimpsed from the safe distance of 30,000 feet, this was "shock and awe" with a vengeance, reminiscent of the scenes so vividly described in the letters written by Pliny the Younger to Tacitus when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79.
No wonder the ancient world was so fascinated by volcanoes: the Greeks thought that eruptions were a sign of divine disapproval; and the word volcano derives from the small Mediterranean island of Vulcano, named after Vulcan, who was the Roman god of fire.
The travel arrangements of many people have been seriously disrupted in recent months by the ash which has spewed forth from the Icelandic volcano which has a completely unpronounceable name.
And it seems highly unlikely that any of these grounded passengers would've been much comforted by the knowledge that this is not the first time that volcanic eruptions in Iceland have caused such serious inconvenience - and, indeed, much more than mere inconvenience.
In 1783, one such eruption killed about a fifth of Iceland's population, and it sent a huge cloud of toxic ash and sulphurous gases across Western Europe, with the result that in Britain alone, 23,000 people were thought to have died from the poisoning....
Posted on: Monday, May 31, 2010 - 12:22
SOURCE: NY Post (5-31-10)
At a Memorial Day parade in Milford, Conn., three years ago, Richard Blumenthal re called his return from the war in Vietnam: "We had to endure taunts and insults, and no one said, 'Welcome home,' " the Connecticut attorney general told crowd, which included relatives of a soldier killed in Iraq. "I say, 'Welcome home.' "
As we now know, Blumenthal never went to Vietnam. Indeed, he actually got five military deferments and then got a spot in the Marine Reserve, which pretty much guaranteed that he wouldn't see combat....
The myths start with the disillusioned soldier, wounded physically and psychologically by the war, who faces yet more hostility when he gets home.
Almost every reported Blumenthal comment about his fictitious role in Vietnam echoed this theme. "I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse," he asserted at a veterans' ceremony in 2008. All the more reason, he added, that present-day vets should receive a warmer welcome. "When we returned, we saw nothing like this," he told a 2003 rally for military families. "Let us do better by this generation of men and women."
But the Vietnam comparison rests on a set of falsehoods. Despite what you might have read, Americans who served in Vietnam did not come disproportionately from poor or minority communities; most did not report abuse or alienation upon their return -- and they have not suffered abnormal rates of mental illness, addiction, incarceration or homelessness since then....
Posted on: Monday, May 31, 2010 - 12:01
SOURCE: CS Monitor (5-31-10)
The USS Olympia was best known for serving as the flagship for Commodore George Dewey and the little squadron of warships that resoundingly defeated the Spanish Navy at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898....
Philadelphia has been Olympia’s home since she was decommissioned in 1922, the year after she brought home the body of The Unknown Soldier in state from France.
Not for long, though.
The museum recently declared that it “can no longer afford the ship’s upkeep.” Repairs to the ship’s corroding steel hull are estimated at $20 million. Instead, the museum is leaning toward having her towed to Cape May, and sunk – yes, sunk – as an artificial reef.
There’s something slightly unsettling in these times to talk about lavishing resources on an artifact of war – especially a war which launched the United States toward acquiring a colonial empire in Asia and creating a corrupt client-state in Cuba. Saving the Olympia simply strikes us as too much like saving your great-great-grandmother’s hoop-skirt – too irrelevant to be interesting, or else too suggestive of a lifestyle we’ve junked.
But by that logic, we might as well junk Memorial Day, too, and all that goes with it....
Posted on: Monday, May 31, 2010 - 11:56
SOURCE: LA Times (5-31-10)
Where I grew up in the Midwest during the 1950s and early '60s, Memorial Day was no more about remembering the nation's war dead than Labor Day was about honoring working stiffs. It was a "free day." Falling on a Monday, Memorial Day made possible that great innovation, "the long weekend." As a family, we gathered in backyards for barbecues and to celebrate the informal beginning of summer. We did not gather in cemeteries to pay homage.
During my years as a serving soldier, Memorial Day connoted something quite different: It meant no scheduled training. It no longer implied a "free day," however. In the outfits where I served, holidays were the days we officers wore civvies to work, trying to catch up on everything left undone (usually paperwork) during the duty week. In retrospect it seems odd and more than a little embarrassing: Girding ourselves to fight the Red hordes, we Cold Warriors could spare no time to contemplate the sacrifices made by the real warriors who had preceded us.
Three years ago this month, my son was killed while serving in Iraq. His death changed many things, among them my own hitherto casual attitude toward Memorial Day.
Here in New England, where we now make our home, deejays and local news anchors still proclaim Memorial Day weekend the unofficial start of summer, as if unearthing some fresh discovery. Folks with cottages to open up take to the highways, pushing through traffic toward seashore or mountains. Our trek will be considerably shorter and simpler: We will make the five-minute drive to our son's gravesite.
For us, personal loss has rendered the last Monday in May into the day of remembrance that it was originally intended to be. Yet loss has also invested Memorial Day with political significance, posing uncomfortable questions....
Posted on: Monday, May 31, 2010 - 11:54
SOURCE: LA Times (5-31-10)
Much nonsense has been written in recent years about the prospects of American decline and the inevitable rise of China. But it was not a declining power that I saw in recent weeks as I jetted from the Middle East to the Far East through two of America's pivotal geographic commands — Central Command and Pacific Command.
The very fact that the entire world is divided up into American military commands is significant. There is no French, Indian or Brazilian equivalent — not yet even a Chinese counterpart. It is simply assumed without much comment that American soldiers will be central players in the affairs of the entire world. It is also taken for granted that a vast network of American bases will stretch from Germany to Japan — more than 700 in all, depending on how you count. They constitute a virtual American empire of Wal-Mart-style PXs, fast-food restaurants, golf courses and gyms.
There is an especially large American presence in the Middle East, one of the world's most crisis-prone regions. For all the anti-Americanism in the Arab world, almost all the states bordering what they call the Arabian Gulf support substantial American bases. These governments are worried about the looming Iranian threat and know that only the United States can offer them protection. They are happy to deal with China, but it would never occur to a single sultan or sheik that the People's Liberation Army will protect them from Iranian intimidation.
In the Far East, a similar dynamic prevails. All of China's neighbors happily trade with it, but all are wary of the Middle Kingdom's pretensions to regional hegemony. Even Vietnam, a country that handed America its worst military defeat ever, is eager to establish close ties with Washington as a counter to Beijing.
What of America's two most important allies in Northeast Asia — South Korea and Japan? Not long ago, relations with Seoul were frosty because it was pursuing a "sunshine policy" of outreach to North Korea that the George W. Bush administration (rightly) viewed as one of the world's most dangerous rogue states. More recently, relations with Japan became strained after the election of the Liberal Democratic Party in 2009 on a platform of cozying up to China, rethinking the 50-year-old alliance between the U.S. and Japan, and moving U.S. bases out of Okinawa. Now Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has had to undertake an embarrassing U-turn by agreeing to an earlier plan that would move a U.S. Marine Corps air base from one part of Okinawa to another but keep it on the island.
In justifying his reversal, Hatoyama said that "we cannot afford to reduce the U.S. military deterrence" because of "political uncertainties remaining in East Asia."..
Posted on: Monday, May 31, 2010 - 09:58
SOURCE: LA Times (5-29-10)
The idea has taken hold that Americans have become more conservative on abortion. Sarah Palin put this new conventional wisdom to political work in a speech two weeks ago when she claimed polls showed "more Americans proudly proclaiming themselves as pro-life . . . and that's a huge victory."
She's not entirely wrong, but that doesn't mean she's right. You might be surprised to learn that only about 15% of Americans agree with the particulars of the "pro-life" policy of Palin's Republican Party. Or that, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 59% of Americans want Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, if she is confirmed, to uphold Roe vs. Wade.
So what's the source of this new conventional wisdom?
Most of it stems from misleading media reporting abetted by partisan hype. Palin was specifically citing a Gallup poll released May 14 titled "The New Normal on Abortion: Americans More 'Pro-Life.' " When Americans surveyed were asked, "With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life," a plurality of 47% responded pro-life, 2 percentage points more than answered pro-choice. Indeed, it was the release a year ago this month of this same poll that launched the now accepted idea that public opinion on abortion was trending conservative. For the first time ever, Gallup reported, more Americans (51%) identified themselves as pro-life than as pro-choice (42%)....
Posted on: Sunday, May 30, 2010 - 13:04
SOURCE: DanielPipes.org (5-24-10)
[Mr. Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.]While working on documents at the Carter Center, a researcher from the Menachem Begin Heritage Center came across a declassified action memorandum from William Quandt, Middle East specialist on the National Security Council, to his boss, Zbigniew Brzezinski. (Click here for the document in full.) Dated May 18, 1977, it was written just one day after Begin's breakthrough victory over Labor, the first time any other party had beaten Labor since the State of Israel had been founded 29 years earlier.
The memo makes for deliciously instructive reading. Count the mistakes in Quandt's opening analysis:
Much of our strategy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict has been predicated on the assumption that a strong and moderate Israeli government would at some point be able to make difficult decisions on territory and on the Palestinians. Now we face the prospect of a very weak coalition, a prolonged period of uncertainty, and an Israeli leadership which may be significantly more assertive in its policies concerning the West Bank, Palestinians, settlements, and nuclear weapons.
The Arabs will no doubt read the Israeli election results as signifying an end to the chance of getting to Geneva this year, and possibly the end of any hope for a political settlement, and we may see them begin to take out insurance by patching up quarrels with the Soviets, digging in their heels on peace terms, and acting more belligerently on oil prices.
In fact, Begin's government made the difficult decisions Labor had not taken, his coalition endured, the Egyptians became more forthcoming, their rift from the Soviets deepened, and oil prices were not affected (until the fall of the shah shot them up).
The rest of the memo consists mainly of five bullet points in which Quandt outlines tactics by which to weaken Begin, with this passage the key to the approach:
Begin should be allowed to make his own mistakes. If he takes positions in his talks with us that preclude the continuation of our peace initiative, we should not hesitate to explain what has happened. Israelis can then draw their own conclusions, and perhaps the next election in 1978 or 1979 will produce different results.
In fact, Begin won reelection in June 1981 and his successors went on to dominate Israeli politics for 27 out of the next 33 years. But by 1981, of course, American voters had thrown Jimmy Carter out of office, meaning that Brzezinski no longer needed Quandt's sage advice.
(1) Asked to comment on these documents, the director-general of the Begin Heritage Center, Herzl Makov, noted their relevance to current U.S.-Israel relations: "It's interesting to see history repeat itself. Just like now, we see that the Carter administration made every mistake possible about the political situation in Israel, I think that in 30 years, studies will show that the Obama administration made the same mistakes. History will tell which administration was worse for Israel."
(2) In this memo, Quandt – who has a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and went on to become president of the Middle East Studies Association as well as the Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. professor of politics at the University of Virginia – neatly encapsulates the incompetence of academically trained Middle East specialists. (May 24, 2010)
Posted on: Sunday, May 30, 2010 - 11:58
SOURCE: HuffPo (5-27-10)
Almost every day I get a message from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele denouncing President Obama's "radical socialist" policies. Fox News relentlessly sounds this chorus, and some Americans agree, rallying with posters featuring hammer-and-sickle drawings and pictures of Stalin next to our elected leader.
For the rest of the world, this sounds pretty silly: they know what socialism looks like, and we have nothing like it. When Britain's then-socialist Labor Party won the 1945 general election, they created a cradle-to-grave free National Health Service and nationalized their leading industries. Cuba in the 1960s abolished all private businesses, and guaranteed a job, health care and education to all its citizens. Here at home, Eugene V. Debs, our most influential Socialist politician, took 6 percent of the vote for president in 1912 and called for a government takeover of our entire capitalist system, "expropriating the expropriators" in the language of Marx.
To compare George W. Bush's blank check for "too big to fail" banks or Obama's propping up Ford and General Motors and modest health-care legislation to any form of socialism makes little sense historically. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal went considerably farther in the direction of socialism than Obama has attempted, with jobs programs like the Works Progress Administration that kept one-third of American families from destitution. By these standards, President Obama governs not from the left but from the moderate center-right; to historians of global politics, calling him a "socialist" is so much demagoguery.
And yet, if we understand socialism as more than government control of industry (just as capitalism is much more than "markets"), we have to acknowledge that some emphatically capitalist countries, like France and Germany, have many socialistic features. Socialistic, in this definition, means publicly controlled economic institutions, and the democratic distribution of what economists call "goods," by making them public rather than private. A system of low-cost health care under state direction, government control of labor markets to ensure long-term employment, or free universities all qualify as socialistic. Just as here in the U.S. our free public school system (the first in the world), marvelous public libraries and massive government takeover of forests (the National Parks) to bar their exploitation for profit are also socialistic.
This is why Grover Norquist, a principal leader of the libertarian right, identifies "Teddy Roosevelt and his socialists" in the Progressive Era as the principal culprits in undermining laissez-faire capitalism in America. He's right, in a sense: the first Roosevelt (a Progressive Republican) initiated large-scale government regulation of private businesses in the name of what he called "social justice." And he did it when the American Socialist Party was steadily rising in influence, pulling both major parties to the left. A generation later, his Democratic cousin Franklin took it one step further with Social Security and his call for "Four Freedoms," including "Freedom From Want," which to conservative ears sounds a lot like Marx's argument that we should seek a society where we get "from each according to his (or her) ability" and give "to each, according to his (or her) need."
American conservatives invoke the insights of Friedrich Hayek (The Road to Serfdom, 1944) and Milton Friedman (Capitalism and Freedom, 1962) to suggest that any strong government role in the economy, or the guarantee of a social safety net, leads toward "statism" and thus eventually socialism. But these arguments fly in the face of history. It wasn't Marx's Social Democratic Party that introduced the world's first free health-care system in Germany in the 1880s, but "Iron Chancellor" Otto Bismarck, the epitome of the European conservative, hostile to socialism. Similarly, after World War II, anti-communist Christian Democrats built the European welfare states with their extensively socialistic features. Guess what: people of all ideological stripes like "socialism" when it provides for a stable, secure society with high consumption and social peace.
From this perspective, President Obama may indeed have socialist tendencies, if we consider guaranteed employment, free health care, free education at all levels and strong government participation in the economy as steps in that direction. Given the disorder, rapacity and corruption of what passes for capitalism in this country, many Americans who have never considered themselves "on the left" may end up thinking "bring it on."
Posted on: Friday, May 28, 2010 - 13:02
SOURCE: The Nation (5-27-10)
When I joined the administration of George H.W. Bush in 1991, I had no preconceived ideas about choice and accountability. "Choice" meant vouchers, a cause that had been rebuffed repeatedly in state referendums and by the courts; the issue had never gotten my attention. "Accountability" was one of those platitudinous terms that everyone used admiringly but no one did anything about. My abiding interest, then and now, was curriculum—that is, the knowledge that is purposefully taught in subjects like history, geography, the arts, literature, civics, science and mathematics. I believed that American schools should have a coherent curriculum so that teachers would know what they are expected to teach and children would have continuity of instruction, no matter where they lived.
However, after I left the administration in 1993, I supported the nascent charter school movement, even going to Albany, New York, to urge legislators to adopt a law permitting such schools to be created in the state. I supported merit pay as a form of accountability, on the assumption that teachers whose students are more successful should be paid more than their peers. I supported testing, expecting that better information would help to pinpoint where improvement was needed. I was affiliated with conservative think tanks, including the Manhattan Institute, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Hoover Institution. When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation in 2001 and President George W. Bush signed it in 2002, I applauded.
In my new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, I describe how I came to repudiate my support for choice and accountability, though not for curriculum reform, which I still believe is necessary and valuable. Some news accounts have said I did a U-turn, but in fact I was really reverting to the time before I jumped on the bandwagon of organizational change and accountability, the time when I knew that the only changes that matter are in the classroom and in children's lives. Reaching this conclusion was not an overnight conversion but rather the result of watching how the policies of choice and accountability played out in reality. I began to re-evaluate my views as early as 2004, as I watched the implementation of mayoral control in New York City, with its heavy emphasis on accountability and choice.
Many people have told me that I should have known better, and they are right: I should have. But I didn't, and I am trying to make up for it now....
Posted on: Friday, May 28, 2010 - 11:09
SOURCE: National Review (5-27-10)
The first duty of national leaders is to worry about the interests of their own countries; utopian internationalism can come later. German chancellor Angela Merkel, despite her soaring European Union rhetoric, is relearning that lesson.
German voters in a recent parliamentary election rebuked her for bailing out the spendthrift Greeks with hard-earned German money.
Barack Obama should take note.
Last year, Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize not for what he did, but for what he represented to the European judges — a new post-national American president. His subsequent apology tours abroad have emphasized American sins without much discussion of the context of the times.
In Cairo last year, the president inaccurately claimed that Islam helped to foster Western achievements like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
In such moments, Obama sounds as if he thinks America has to be perfect to be good, while other nations merely need to be okay....
Posted on: Friday, May 28, 2010 - 11:03
SOURCE: The Claremont Institute (5-26-10)
[Fred Siegel is professor of history and humanities at The Cooper Union. He also taught at Columbia University, Queens College, Empire State College.]
President Obama's vertiginous fall from political grace, and the corresponding ascent of the Tea Party movement, have been the subject of extensive discussion. Strikingly, the account that sheds the most light on these developments mentions neither. William Voegeli's new book, Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State, was written just before Obama's outsized liberal aspirations provoked the Tea Parties to emerge. But it provides far and away the most substantial explanation to date of our current political condition.
Liberalism's most acute critics such as University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser emphasize the centrality of crises, real or manufactured, in expanding the size and reach of the liberal state (as in the recent case of the supposedly imminent global warming catastrophe). In Never Enough, Voegeli, a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College's Henry Salvatori Center and a contributing editor of this journal, points to a complementary concept: liberalism, he argues, "lacks a limiting principle." This boundlessness, as it might be described, is familiar to Americans across the country who have watched, for instance, secondary school costs and college tuitions grow at roughly twice the rate of inflation for a quarter-century now. This boundlessness generates some of the apprehension that animates the Tea Parties. As a friend asked me rhetorically—referring to the fact that the failing schools in Washington, D.C., spend $28,000 a year per pupil while Harvard tuition costs $34,000 a year—"When will enough be enough?" The same question could be asked regarding federal and state spending. Liberals, Voegeli explains, sometimes avoid trying to answer these sorts of questions by execrating as greedy racists those who ask them.
Liberals found a warrant for expansive government in their reconceptualization of the American republic. The Federalist had grounded government and rights in the imperfections of human nature. The proto-liberals of the Progressive era, who had drunk deeply of Darwinism, disposed of the notion of an inherent human nature. Like Woodrow Wilson, they were done with "blind" worship of the Constitution. Their concept of rights flowed from the felt necessities of history as it unfolded. History required, as Wilson argued, that "[t]he government of a country so vast and various must be strong, prompt, wieldy and efficient." Highly trained, disinterested experts, the products of university education, were to wield this powerful instrument untethered from Madisonian restraints and guided by visionary insight into the direction of history. Of course, notes Voegeli, "the dubious authority asserted by those who claim they can see farther over the horizon than the rest of us is, among other things, a way to make their own political preferences cast a bigger shadow."
* * *
Those exercising the new science of government would (the Progressives argued) break with tradition through social experiments. And they would be bound, as a matter of disinterested intellectual honesty, by the outcomes of those experiments. In his 1932 Oglethorpe University Address, Franklin Roosevelt famously called for "bold, persistent experimentation" as a matter of "common sense." He promised that he would try one method and "if it fails, admit it frankly and try another." But when the corporatist program he adopted with the National Recovery Administration (NRA) failed to stimulate the Depression economy, it was ended not by an administration willing to acknowledge its errors, but by the Supreme Court. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait still peddles this shopworn argument, insisting that because liberalism is "rooted in experimentation and the rejection of ideological certainty" "everything works on a case-by-case basis." But as Voegeli notes, there is from the NRA to AFDC no known example of this adherence to the experimental method.
If the outcomes disappointed, Progressives could always claim good intentions. This now hoary claim received its classic formulation in FDR's 1936 "Rendezvous with Destiny" speech to the Democratic National Convention. "Divine justice," he insisted, "weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." But as the writers of The Federalist clearly understood, self-interest so overwhelms evidence that no program will be deemed an unambiguous failure as long as it provides employment for those who work in it. That last category—those who work in government—has proved crucial for the Progressive project.
Neoliberals such as Charles Peters of the Washington Monthly tried in the 1980s and '90s to provide liberalism with a limiting principle. For Peters, neoliberals were Democrats who were "against a fat, sloppy and smug bureaucracy." "We want a government," he insisted, "that can fire people who can't or won't do the job." For a time President Clinton straddled the line between neoliberals and statist liberals, explaining that "more government is not an aim in itself." But the Clinton presidency, for all his electoral success, was for liberals merely an interregnum. Clintonism was denounced for failing to expand the welfare state, which was deemed the true purpose of an increasingly liberal Democratic Party. After Clinton, Voegeli explains, liberalism returned to the belief that "every genuine need corresponds to a right to have that need addressed." Or in other words, "every problem deserves a program," and since there is no end of problems, there must be an ever expanding public-sector work force. In the first decade of the 21st century, public-sector workers, with their propensity to expand the state out of their own self-interest, became central players in the Democratic Party.
After John Kerry's defeat in 2004, Michael Tomasky, then-editor of the liberal monthly the American Prospect, tried to introduce the limiting principle of "the common good" into liberalism. As a writer for the Village Voice and New York magazine, Tomasky had observed firsthand the self-destruction of David Dinkins's liberal mayoralty (1989-93) in New York, and he was disturbed by the tendency of rights claims to trump all other considerations. The rights of criminals and welfare recipients, he noted, flourished even as the city declined. Putting a more positive face on his call for the politics of "the common good" in the American Prospect, Tomasky argued that Democrats have "a more than respectable roster of policy proposals" but they lack "a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society." But Tomasky's efforts to promote a "common good" liberalism were overwhelmed by the interest-group energies unleashed by the 2004 Howard Dean presidential bid, energies which in turn helped propel Barack Obama to the White House....
Posted on: Thursday, May 27, 2010 - 21:22
SOURCE: Asia Times (5-27-10)
...Despite the official stance, an Islamist insurgency continues to rage in the North Caucasus region, particularly in Dagestan, Ingushetia and neighboring Chechnya, site of two separatist wars with Moscow since the mid-1990s.
An indication of this was an unlikely visit that [Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov recently made to Israel, while several high-positioned representatives of the North Caucasian elite visited Israel or engaged in personal contacts with the Israelis.
There could be several reasons for these visits. Israel is home to a substantial number of Jewish and non-Jewish residents from the Caucasus and the visitors could be providing their ethnic and cultural kin the opportunity for business deals. The trips could also have been for recreational purposes or for medical treatment in Israel.
For some, such as Kadyrov, there are other reasons. He has become increasingly assertive, behaving as if he were, indeed, a fully independent ruler. He has visited countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Jordan and patronizing the Israelis provided him with a good opportunity to demonstrate that he is, in fact, his own man, although not in name, and he can engage in foreign policy without having to defer to Moscow.
There is another twist. Kadyrov, despite his dedication to Islam, is foremost a Chechen nationalist who sees the jihadis who emerged as a major force in 2007 in the Caucasus as his and his country's mortal enemy. In this sense, he is a natural ally of Israel, which now faces a new form of anti-Semitism....
Posted on: Thursday, May 27, 2010 - 15:13
SOURCE: The American Conservative (7-1-10)
At the very center of the town common here in Walpole, Massachusetts, as throughout much of New England, stands a very imposing flagpole. Just below Old Glory flies the POW/MIA flag, an artifact of the Vietnam War. The inscription declares “You Are Not Forgotten.” For the citizens of Walpole, what does that banner signify?
As a practical matter, most of us—myself included—have long since ceased to hold in memory those who never returned, whether from Vietnam or prior American wars. For families left to ponder the fate of loved ones who remain unaccounted for, that is not the case, of course. Yet such families are relatively few in number. The rest of us, our lives filled to the brim with challenge and difficulty, each of us apportioned our own share of pain and heartbreak, have long since moved on....
What prompts these observations is my conviction that Americans are even today repeating this process of forgetting while pretending to remember.
This time around Iraq stands in for Vietnam....
Will Washington succeed in perpetrating this fraud? The answer is almost certainly yes. No doubt the Congress will soon take up the business of commissioning an Iraq War memorial to be erected somewhere on the Mall amidst all the other memorials commemorating past American wars. What Congress will not do, however, is demand a full accounting of all that our long misadventure in Iraq has wrought. Nor will the American people insist on such an accounting. Truth will remain unwelcome. Our preference for sanitized history will persist.
Perhaps we need another flag. The text on this one should read, “Suckered Again—and We Let It Happen.”
Posted on: Thursday, May 27, 2010 - 14:43
SOURCE: Ynet (5-26-10)
"No," says Robert Serry, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, speaking recently at the Hebrew University's Truman Institute. "I don't know of any alternatives," he added. Nor does he seem interested in exploring other possibilities.
Myopic thinking is at the root of the problem. Without a "Plan B," critical thinking is frozen, locked into a disaster model, regardless of the consequences.
This is exactly what happened in planning the Oslo Accords. According to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor, when he asked one of the architects of the Oslo Accords why the issue of Palestinian refugees was not brought up in negotiations, he was told that this would have prevented an agreement; form was more important than substance.
The result was an implosion within the Palestinian Authority, a civil war between Fatah and Hamas, and an explosion of terrorism against Israel.
Unwillingness to think about "Plan B," lack of critical thinking, led to disasters following Israeli withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and south Lebanon.
Without thinking strategically, Israeli politicians and the international community tried to fix tactical breakdowns, pouring vast sums into PA coffers and hoping that reason would prevail. Instead, it encouraged irresponsibility and dependency.
Serry's role is not as innovator, but as program facilitator – even as success remains distant. He likes to point to PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as a leader whose projects, like building new towns and infrastructure, offer hope. But Fayyad does not possess political power, organizational backing, or popularity....
Posted on: Thursday, May 27, 2010 - 13:33
SOURCE: Talking Points Memo (5-26-10)
Dissent magazine has just posted a revelatory assessment, by Andrew F. March -- a liberal, non-Muslim scholar of Islam -- of the liberal war hawk Paul Berman's untiring efforts to unmask Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan as an insidious apologist for murderous Islamicism. March also casts a skeptical eye on Berman's efforts to discredit Western intellectuals who've indulged Ramadan as a mediator between liberalism and Islam.
March isn't out to vindicate or celebrate Ramadan, but, because March knows Islam's texts and internal conversations better than almost any other non-Muslim in America, he shows that Ramadan -- an internal critic of Islam who needs to be heard by its most important clerics and scholars -- must at times adopt the tradition's reverential tones and skirt confrontations over specific embarrassments, precisely in order to criticize them.
Ramadan's exhibitions of deference to some infamous Islamicist leaders give Berman some "scare quotes" and other excuses to cast doubt on his intentions. But March shows that Berman -- who is comparatively ignorant of Islamic discourse but is hot with his mission to save the West from Ramadan's supposed perfidy and from left-liberals' naïve delight in it -- is merely "skipping stones" across the surfaces of the deep waters of Ramadan's family ties and of the texts and traditions he references.
Berman's touchy, sneering reply largely proves March's point. You may believe that Islam is too vulnerable to the fascist virus for its differences with liberalism to be bridged, but if it's liberalism you want to save, beware its noisy champions like Berman, who do not often exhibit its deepest strengths.
March is a quieter but firmer champion of liberalism. Again, he isn't promoting Ramadan; he's advancing intelligent liberal discussion of Islam against a breathless rush to closure by Berman and other liberal hawks (like Peter Beinart in The Good Fight in 2006). Although Berman has shifted from leftish to neo-connish in his foreign policy intellection, and Beinart the reverse, neither has outgrown romanticist-moralist inclinations that compromise his arguments.
I haven't proved this, of course. Andrew March's warning -- not just to Berman but to all of us journalists and bloggers -- is that even when our best-informed intuitions are right, we should resist the temptation to announce them by skipping stones across deep waters (as I did in my last post). That won't bring us either the critics or the celebrants we imagine we deserve. They have to be earned, the hard way.
Posted on: Thursday, May 27, 2010 - 09:07
SOURCE: Dissent (5-25-10)
PAUL BERMAN has written an odd book. It is not intellectual history–he rightly does not claim for himself any expertise in Islamic legal, theological and political thought, and he makes no effort to fully explicate Ramadan’s own doctrines in light of those traditions. It is not political biography–he is not telling Ramadan’s personal story except in select snippets. It is not quite political argument–he is not giving an analysis of the social and cultural situation of Muslims in the West and telling us What is to Be Done. It is not even a plea for vigilance–he insists in numerous places that Ramadan is not an Islamist extremist and certainly no threat to anyone.
What is Berman’s book about, in the end? It is an attempt to arrive at a judgment about a very important public intellectual while admonishing educated Westerners about how we treat Muslim dissidents. In doing so, the book discusses Ramadan’s thought and the wider phenomenon of Islamic militancy, but it takes a skipping-stone approach to the subject: glancing off many various surfaces and edges rather than patiently probing the depths. Berman is aiming at a profile-cum-exposé of Ramadan, but he is entangled in an awkward set of questions which he thinks need to be raised about Muslim intellectuals: Should we trust him? Should we like him? Should we praise him? Should we support him? Berman never explicitly discusses what kind of judgment we need to make about a figure like Ramadan, but my feeling (a standard Berman uses often in his own appraisal of Ramadan) is that Berman wishes he could prove to us that we shouldn’t trust him and that we are permitted to condemn him, but since he can’t prove that, he has to settle with showing us that we should not like him....
Berman’s Ramadan is part French philosopher-intellectual, part politician. Berman’s Ramadan has ideas, but he is also presumed to have motives and judgments. Berman acknowledges the conceptual distinction between these two activities, but he does not disentangle them. At times, Berman’s call is to pay closer attention to “the nature of [Ramadan’s] philosophy and its meaning for France or Europe or the world” (FI, 20, 130), but he himself has not done this. His probing of Ramadan all pertains to his family origins and his failure to make the right public denunciations at the right time....
Berman would probably be the first to admit that he is out of his depth on internal Islamic legal and moral reasoning. Thus, we need to untangle some of his themes and claims to get back on dry ground.
As noted, Berman portrays Ramadan as a man with genuinely reformist and liberal instincts, but whose utterances are filled with caveats and silences. This is certainly true, but there are two problems here. First, Berman never gives an account of what Ramadan’s reformist project actually consists of–its concerns and anxieties, its opponents, its modes of argument and persuasion, its doctrines. Given that this is almost the entirety of what Ramadan does, that is troubling for anyone who rejects Berman’s implicit assumption that a Muslim public intellectual is defined negatively in terms of what he or she has or has not denounced. Berman mentions that Ramadan’s reformist ideas exist, and occasionally quotes a favorable statement, but the reader of this book will come away with no idea of what Ramadan actually stands for and why people take an interest in him. Rather, they will think that the reformist statements are scattered and random, and the equivocations on Islamist violence are his main contribution....
Ramadan’s views have gradually become less conservative, less indebted to Muslim Brotherhood ideology, over the years. But two features are present from the beginning. The first is an effort to dissolve the psychological antagonism toward non-Muslims and the West on the part of believing Muslims. In fairness, Berman does report and appreciate this, although the extent to which Ramadan has sought to bring about a mental and attitudinal shift amongst Muslims away from Qutbism and Qaradawism cannot be exaggerated. What is ironic about this in the context of Berman’s approach is that Ramadan’s focus has always been on telling Muslims that they should define themselves in terms of their positive values and contributions and not in terms of what they oppose or denounce in Western values and practices. Berman’s insistence on defining Ramadan in terms of what he does or does not denounce is thus particularly misguided and tone-deaf and the perfect mirror image of Ramadan’s Salafi and Brotherhood opponents.
The second theme in his work has been the reformation of Islamic law. But instead of beginning with its details, particularly its most odious features like the criminal punishments, Ramadan has sought to get Muslims to rethink their general attitudes towards the Law and their assumptions about what it is. There are many Muslim scholars who have sought to reform Islamic positive law in its details with the aim of ending up with a new Islamic family law or criminal law (Abdullahi An-Na’im in his early work and Mohammad Hashim Kamali are two authors who write on this in English). But while this is what Berman seems to want from Ramadan, it is actually a more conservative strategy than Ramadan’s own....
I would like to conclude with some thoughts on how we non-Muslim left-liberals talk about Islam and Muslim public intellectuals. We’re not good at this.
We are not good at posing the right questions to Muslim intellectuals. They are often asked to answer for all Muslims and the entire Muslim world. They must submit to constant inquisition and second-guessing as a precondition for speaking for themselves, and often in place of speaking for themselves. We want perfect clarity, transparency and the erasing of all ambiguity. We assume that Muslim reform must not only lead them towards us, but do so in the shortest path possible and in a very specific language. We insist on choosing figures to support and tout, but then get outraged when others suggest that some Muslims may be more authentic and authoritative for fellow believers than others. Worst of all, Muslim intellectuals are defined and judged not in terms of what they have done or said or thought, but in terms of what and whom they have denounced.
We are not good at posing questions to ourselves. We assume a certain power and prerogative for ourselves. This often results in considerable narcissism when we talk about Islamic debates. “Whom should we support? Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq or Tariq Ramadan?” “What can we do to help the dissidents and the reformers?” We assume that too much curiosity, too much humility, is not a virtue but a weakness in need of an alibi.
Posted on: Thursday, May 27, 2010 - 08:56
SOURCE: NY Review of Books (5-27-10)
A little over a decade ago I published an article in these pages titled “A Tale of Two Reactions” (May 14, 1998). It struck me then that American society was changing in ways conservative and liberal commentators just hadn’t noticed. Conservatives were too busy harping on the cultural revolution of the Sixties, liberals on the Reagan revolution’s “culture of greed,” and all they could agree on was that America was beyond repair.
The American public, meanwhile, was having no trouble accepting both revolutions and reconciling them in everyday life. This made sense, given that they were inspired by the same political principle: radical individualism. During the Clinton years the country edged left on issues of private autonomy (sex, divorce, casual drug use) while continuing to move right on economic autonomy (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation). As I wrote then, Americans saw “no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace…and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties.” Democrats were day-trading, Republicans were divorcing. We were all individualists now.
What happened? People who remember the article sometimes ask me this, and I understand why. George W. Bush, who ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” seemed attuned to the recent social changes. The President Bush who emerged after September 11 took his party and the country back to the divisive politics of earlier decades, giving us seven years of ideological recrimination. By the time of the last presidential campaign, millions were transfixed not by the wisdom or folly of Barack Obama’s policy agenda, but by absurd rumors about his birth certificate and his “socialism.” Now he has been elected president by a healthy majority and is grappling with a wounded economy and two foreign wars he inherited—and what are we talking about? A makeshift Tea Party movement whose activists rage against “government” and “the media,” while the hotheads of talk radio and cable news declare that the conservative counterrevolution has begun.
It hasn’t. We know that the country is divided today, because people say it is divided. In politics, thinking makes it so. Just as obviously, though, the angry demonstrations and organizing campaigns have nothing to do with the archaic right–left battles that dragged on from the Sixties to the Nineties. The populist insurgency is being choreographed as an upsurge from below against just about anyone thought to be above, Democrats and Republicans alike. It was galvanized by three things: a financial collapse that robbed millions of their homes, jobs, and savings; the Obama administration’s decision to pursue health care reform despite the crisis; and personal animosity toward the President himself (racially tinged in some regions) stoked by the right-wing media.1 But the populist mood has been brewing for decades for reasons unrelated to all this.
Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink…the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.
Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that “the people” can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.
A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.
Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob....
Posted on: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 - 21:33
SOURCE: Wilson Quarterly (4-1-10)
Western entrepreneurship and technological progress go back centuries and have changed the world for the better. That, at least, is one assessment of the historical record—one with which not everyone would agree. There are some scholars who, disapproving of Western triumphalism or solicitous of Asian (mostly Chinese) pride and prowess, would date the Industrial Revolution as a late phenomenon in the history of entrepreneurship and treat it as lucky accident (or unlucky, depend ing on one’s sense of values). It could have happened anywhere, they say; it just fell to Europe or Britain, in large part owing to political fortune, reinforced by overseas dominion. And globalization, in the sense of worldwide diffusion of trade, industry, and technology, came even later, after World War II.
Yet newer research and reflection on comparative world history make it clear that global trade goes back more than a millennium, back to Asian and then European economic development in the later Middle Ages, back to the opening of the world with the turning of Africa, and the penetration of European vessels into Asian wa ters and the contemporaneous European invasion of the Americas. The centuries that followed saw the West grow richer than other regions of the world, pull away from the onetime leaders, establish empire in distant lands—all on the basis of superior scientific knowledge, industrial technique, and business enterprise. Much of subsequent history has been profoundly influenced by this gap and the reaction to it of lagging areas—these last resentful of patronizing, condescending, charitable and uncharitable, advantageous, and predatory Western dominion.
Poorer areas see the gap between rich and poor as the fault of the rich; they see their own weaknesses and shortcomings as someone else’s doing. In particular, they feel that advanced industrial nations have used their power not to help, but to exploit and plunder the weak. In this scenario, success and empire are forces for evil.
Nonetheless, the gains made by the more precocious industrializing countries incited other, slower nations to imitate and emulate. There was money to be made by these new ways. But wanting was not necessarily doing. Emulation required knowledge, the ability to organize and rationalize production, intelligent and active entrepreneurship, and laws protective of property and change. The countries best equipped to undertake the task were to be found in parts of the West, such as Ireland, Scandinavia, pieces of central and eastern Europe, Canada, and some bits of Latin America—places that had earlier been barred from the pursuit of new ways by political misfortune and cultural impediments.
In general, the countries and regions that have done best are precisely those that have taken advantage of the opportunities offered by active trade and entrepreneur ial freedom, often in the face of official constraints. These are the countries that have most attracted foreign advances and investment. But they have not done so by fol lowing the formulas proffered or imposed by experts from richer lands. The essence of successful enterprise lies in creative imagination and initiative....
Posted on: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 - 21:08