Friday, December 31, 2010

In Defence of Marty Peretz

In defense of Peretz: Who in blog land is like him today with such a warts and all sensibility? The mistake is not to take him all in all and so not see the good and great for the bad and worse.

The good: smart, widely read, widely studied and learned, widely lived, widely associated with so many of so much deserved eminence, a spit in the eye of political correctness, asking no quarter in the giving of no quarter, in your face fearless in stating without equivocation what he thinks and feels for better and for worse, a lightning rod of provocativeness, bellicose but engaging in a larger than life way, passionate, stimulating and never tedious, marked by liberal and compassionate impulses and widely, wildly diverse interests, getting what you see and hear, beloved and feted by his students, outsized generosity, now teaching kids in Israel, alarmed by the right wing trends there as evident in last pieces on Jonathan Pollard and before on Avigdor Lieberman.

Know him by his accomplishments. Know by his modest self-deference in the better interest of TNR. Know him by the mighty careers he helped launch. Know him by his friends. Know him by knowing that you won’t soon see his like again. Not to enfold his warts, which he wears like a badge of honor, into the wholeness of the man, not to see past his political incorrectness, is to miss a sum that is so much greater than sum of its bad and worse parts.

I rest my case

From Richard 111

The Duke of Clarence's hauntingly lyrical dream about the horrors of drowning:

O Lord, methought what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in my ears!
What sights of ugly death within my eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wracks;
A thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatt'red in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls, and in the holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept
(As 'twere in scorn of eyes) reflecting gems,
That woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatt'red by.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jeff Bridges, Mickey Rourke, Robert Duvall, Crazy Heart, The Wrestler, Tender Mercies

I think Jeff Bridges is great in Crazy Heart but that Mickey Rourke is even better in The Wrestler. It's tough to say why exactly but it doesn’t have to do with a "narrow, unchallenging role" I don't think. After all why is it more complex and challenging playing a battered professional wrestler trying to get back former glory than a self destructive battered, alcoholic country singer songwriter with real genius who has given up on any chance of former glory?

(Sidebar-- but when lately has there been a braver, more affecting performance by an actress than Marissa Tomei's in The Wrestler?)

I think it has to do with Rourke's sheer emotional resonance. In fact a case could be made for the more challenging and wider role to be Bridge's. His character has some things the Rourke character didn't have: self destructiveness, creative genius, acute intelligence, his song writing, and real artistic talent, his performing expertise. The way these things keep shining through even in his most drunken performances in the lowliest of dives--I've seen dozens of such wiped out, forceful, great talents in my lifetime of going to grungy blues clubs--is a marvel of great and subtle acting. So too is the understated and believable relationship between him and Colin Farrell, which steers so wide of clichés about Nashville ersatz country misappropriating real country.

Also I'm not sure that Duvall in Tender Mercies--my all time favourite "small movie"--is so superior to Bridges in Crazy Heart. I'd prefer to say they were both superb and different for all their similarities. Duvall was about gaining redemption; Bridges was about gaining equilibrium.

And in the same way I'm not so sure that Tender Mercies is so superior to Crazy Heart. But this I can say: even more than Tender Mercies, Crazy Heart--through Bridges himself, part of the greatness of his performance in fact--reminds us and illuminates the prosaic, heart breaking genius of the greatest country music.

A Spritely Note on the Impressive, Larger han Life, Hail Fellow Well Met, Ed Rendell

Wussy White House Needs Rendell the Plower:

Margaret Carlson - Dec 29, 2010 //Bloomberg Opinion

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s romp through the media following the cancellation of the Philadelphia Eagles-Minnesota Vikings football game shows why he is often mentioned as just the person to bring the rarefied West Wing of the White House down to Earth.

Having trouble connecting with real people over there in the Oval Office? Rendell’s a human switchboard -- and he’s available starting next month, when his term as governor ends.

His latest pronouncement came on Sunday after the National Football League’s rare postponement of a game due to a forecast of snow. In Rendell’s world, real men live to make a touchdown in the snow.

“This is football. Football’s played in bad weather,” Rendell said before the storm struck his city on Sunday but after the NFL had postponed the Sunday-night game. He predicted the major roads would stay open throughout the storm.

In a welter of other interviews, he waxed nostalgic over great games played under the worst conditions, from the 1967 NFL Championship game (the “Ice Bowl” in Green Bay) to the 2002 New England Patriots-Oakland Raiders “Tuck Rule” game to this month’s match between the Patriots and the Bears in Chicago.

Rendell is one of the few unmanaged politicians left. If he hadn’t been Philadelphia district attorney, then mayor for two terms, then Pennsylvania governor since 2003, Rendell might well have been a sports broadcaster. Oh, wait a minute! He is a sportscaster, giving commentary on Comcast SportsNet following Eagles games for years.

Snowing, Crowing

As the snow continued on Sunday, he didn’t stop at gloating that every roadway had been “treated, plowed and passable.” Grandmothers in Buicks could have handled the Schuylkill Expressway. “Not one accident,” Rendell crowed.

By Monday, the NFL’s decision to postpone the Eagles- Vikings game stood for, well, everything that ails us.

“We’ve become a nation of wusses,” Rendell declared. “The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.”

Though his football remarks got the most attention in our sports-crazed culture, the throw-away line about China provided the legs that carried the story to “NBC Nightly News” and the BBC. Just this month, U.S. education officials were surprised by a report that showed students in China outperforming American kids by a wide margin in reading, math and science.

Trophies for All

Pre-wussification, we were an economic powerhouse, and our children were the best-educated in the world, until we decided to sheathe our little princes and princesses in bubble wrap. We give them graduation ceremonies for getting through nursery school, a trophy just for showing up at soccer. We’ve removed play from the playground to keep them from scraping a knee. We intervene like lawyers in every dispute.

At school, where the teacher should always be right, parents quibble over grades and behavior and prefer longer summer vacations to a longer school year, the norm in other countries.

In Shanghai’s schools, which topped the international test results, neatly dressed and engaged students work long hours on a curriculum that is creative and intellectually rich. Take no comfort in the belief that they study to the test; that’s what we do now, to try to get accountability into a broken system.

Americans-as-wusses was a disturbing thought to drop on a holiday-dazed country, but Rendell is known for going rogue, even on himself.
Conceding 2000

Despite loving sports, he isn’t always a team player. He bucked his party’s establishment and their handpicked candidate when he ran for governor. He happened to be on television when the Supreme Court ruled in Bush v. Gore and said immediately that Al Gore should concede the 2000 presidential election.

During the 2008 campaign, referring to the space between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh -- known locally as Alabama -- Rendell blurted out that his state was full of “conservative whites” who were “probably not ready to vote for an African- American candidate.”

He became an enthusiastic supporter of that African- American candidate, Barack Obama, helping to deliver his swing state. But when Obama appointed Rendell’s good friend, former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, as Homeland Security secretary, he delivered this observation: “Janet’s perfect for that job. Because for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect.”

He meant it as a compliment. Really.

Not Connecting

The criticism of Obama’s West Wing is that it is an elite, inbred crowd -- a little wussy, perhaps -- that fails to connect with people even when it delivers the goods, as it did in the final days of the lame-duck Congress. Rendell, a cross between a steelworker and a linebacker, could be a one-man corrective.

After he moves his sports memorabilia and his two golden retrievers out of the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg, the only job he tells friends he’s really interested in is commissioner of Major League Baseball.

When asked on TV about whether he might fill Rahm Emanuel’s shoes as White House chief of staff, Rendell’s reply is always that the best man for the job is Colin Powell. When Colin Powell is asked about it, he says the perfect choice would be Ed Rendell.

Gentlemen, let’s toss a coin and decide.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Marty Peretz Taking His Leave: Portrait of a Growing Loner

Peretz in Exile

For decades, Martin Peretz taught at Harvard and presided over The New Republic a fierce, if controversial, lion among American intellectuals and Zionists. Now, having been labeled a bigot, taunted at his alma mater, and stripped of his magazine, he has found peace in a place where there is little: Israel.

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells//Published Dec 26, 2010

The part of Israel that remains perfect to Martin Peretz is vanishingly small. But it does still exist, tangibly enough that you could trace its perimeter on a map of Tel Aviv: the ethnically mixed neighborhoods of Jaffa, the impeccably preserved Bauhaus downtown, the symphony halls and dance theaters, the intersections that still hold traffic, tense and honking, at 2:30 in the morning, the cosmopolitan sidewalk cafés that make real the old liberal dream. Peretz, the longtime owner and editor-in-chief of The New Republic, has been living here since October, and he reported recently that he has seen performances by the progressive dance company Pilobolus, the Cape Town Opera, and a Malian jazz group, which drew a very hip crowd. The sections of Tel Aviv he inhabits are so secular, Peretz says with relish, that in his first six weeks he saw exactly �eleven guys with Orthodox clothes. That’s it.

Peretz is a fervent believer in Israel, but he always found the country a little small and so has often kept his trips short. Now he is here for seven months, teaching English writing to a class of eight 15-year-olds�immigrants, many of them, and poor. Peretz’s curriculum begins with autobiography, a kind of first enrollment in the intellectual traditions of the West: Amos Oz, full of the fractious heat of family life, then Charles Darwin, circumspect, exacting. Peretz has been particularly taken with a young girl from Congo, who spoke of her homeland’s undisciplined tyranny. The word caught Peretz’s attention, and he asked her what she meant. A disciplined tyranny, she said, would never have permitted the rapes and the wanton violence. Her father, a Christian pastor, brought the family to the Holy Land, an escape to something better. �That was kind of touching, Peretz says, adding wonderingly: She has younger siblings whose first language is Hebrew. Peretz has this capacity for awe. He saw in her a more modern Israel; he saw something to defend.

Peretz is a born belligerent. He was anti-Stalin by the age of 7; spent half a century defending a controversial brand of Zionism in the obscure, fratricidal fights of the ideological left; and retains a decisive eye for an enemy. Now, at 71, Peretz has a broad trunk and very narrow hips, and he leaves the impression of having been stuffed into his own skin, kicking and screaming. His extraordinary capacity for charm is matched by an extraordinary capacity for anger, only partly diminished by years of therapy. His anger has always been so much a part of him,� says Anne Peretz, to whom he was married for 42 years, that perhaps he doesn’t even realize he’s scaring people.

The fight, for Peretz, has always been about Israel first, and it has become particularly wrenching recently. As the Palestinian Authority began its first halting steps toward modernization, Israeli politics and society have pivoted to the right. The country’s refusal to stop construction of new settlements; its growing hostility toward the international community and the Obama administration; its storming of an aid flotilla off the Gaza Strip in May these postures and incidents have led some of the liberal intellectuals who have historically defended Israel to begin to edge away. This summer, Peter Beinart once a protégé of Peretz’s published an influential essay in The New York Review of Books arguing that liberalism and Zionism were becoming incompatible and noting that fewer and fewer secular, progressive American Jews feel a stake in Israel at all.

Throughout, Peretz has seemed to grow only more resolute, his constitutional truculence more evident. In September, writing on his New Republic blog The Spine, Peretz homed in on a familiar villain: Islamic terrorists who target other Muslims. Frankly, he wrote, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.� He got himself wound up: I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.

Nicholas Kristof began his Sunday New York Times column by denouncing the post; Peretz’s sentiments, he wrote, showed how venomous and debased the discourse about Islam has become.� The Atlantic’s James Fallows, arguably the most reasonable man in liberal American letters, reviewed the evidence and concluded that Peretz is broadly considered a bigot. Peretz had published many similar slanders in the past, but suddenly there were protests bent on a reckoning: a loud demonstration at Harvard, public letters demanding his condemnation, profound indignation across the left. The day after Kristof’s column, Peretz apologized for suggesting First Amendment privileges be revoked for Muslims. It was a stupid sentence, he now says. The rest he defended; it was what he believed.

Peretz’s beef with the world is broad. He is grumpy about modernity�there is an oldness about him, says Fouad Ajami, the conservative Middle East scholar at the Hoover Institute at Stanford and a close friend of Peretz’s. The two have traveled together in the Middle East Israel, yes, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Ajami says the Arab world, unexpectedly, suits Peretz. Arabs understand Marty. He has that Middle Eastern quality: me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the world.

Even Israel worries him now. There are very many ways, Peretz admits, in which Israel is getting worse. The early leaders of Israel, he says, were all kibbutzniks and ascetics; now he sees a gaudy oligarchy, with twenty business groups, many of them built from single families, that control a quarter of the country’s large companies. When he visits Jerusalem a very poor cityhe notices ultra-Orthodox boys running everywhere, and he disdains the sanctimony of the very religious and the superpatriotism of the Russian immigrants. And yet set against these growing groups is only a tiny liberal society. Peretz participates now and then in a vigil in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah, in solidarity with Palestinians threatened with eviction. The demonstration has drawn great attention in Israel, but there are at best 120 people there, he says. Take away my friends, and there would be 115.

But Peretz isn’t just defending a state, with its flaws. He is defending an idea, of Israel and of himself. Marty regards himself as a watchman, says Leon Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of The New Republic, one of the people who stands on the wall and makes sure nobody who intends to harm what he loves is approaching.

On Israel, the watchtower has become a very lonely place�TheAtlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg is on it with him, Peretz says, but there aren’t too many others. Even at The New Republic, there are only four people who Peretz believes really understand what is at stake in Israel: Franklin Foer, who has just departed as editor; Richard Just, who is now the magazine’s editor; Peretz; and Wieseltier. (John Judis another, more left-wing writer knows zero.) Among this small group, Peretz is closest to Wieseltier (one of my two or three closest friends), but he finds he no longer calls to talk to Wieseltier about Israel. �It always has to be more complicated with Leon, Peretz says. He always has to have this extra piece.

There is an old Dwight Macdonald story about the fragmentation of the Trotskyist left in which�after many, many factional splits the fate of the masses eventually rests in the hands of a lone married couple with a mimeograph machine: the Weisbords, heroes of the Passaic textile strike. Then, Macdonald writes, there was a divorce, and the advance-guard of the revolution was concentrated like a bouillon cube in the person of Albert Weisbord, who sat for years at his secondhand desk writing his party organ and cranking it out on the mimeograph machine. Like Weisbord, Peretz is divorced. And in place of a mimeograph machine, he has a blog.

My thesis adviser used to say to me, You’re the last guard at Thermopylae,’  Peretz tells me. He likes the image. Although the last guard died, didn’t he? He was slaughtered. Peretz thinks again. So maybe I don’t like the comparison.

Here is Marty Peretz in crisis. It is September 25, several weeks before he is scheduled to depart for Israel, and he has just parked his Prius at Harvard, on his way to a set of receptions that have been designed, in part, to honor him. It is the 50th anniversary of Harvard’s social-studies program, a radical’s redoubt where Peretz spent four decades, first as the program’s director and later as a lecturer. Peretz is fifteen minutes late to the ceremony, and he passes a crowd of about 25 protesters facing the lecture hall. He notices one sign in particular: MARTY PERETZ IS A RACIST RAT. But the protesters have their backs turned to him, and he manages to slide through unnoticed. He has that momentary, juvenile feeling of escape, of having gotten away with something.

The night before�a dinner in his honor at the Cambridge restaurant Harvest had been spectacular. Peretz’s career had not been a conventional academic’s. Having married into wealth in his twenties, Peretz had never needed a professor’s paycheck, and he never had a scholar’s instinct for the esoteric. But he was a superb teacher, close to his students, and a mentor outside the classroom, too: He began lasting friendships with Al Gore, Yo-Yo Ma, James Cramer, and dozens of powerful lawyers and Wall Street types.

His former students had endowed a research fund in his honor, with more than half a million dollars, and at the restaurant they all said the loveliest, most intimate things: how he had taught them what it meant to be a friend. How you could go a career without seeing someone inspire such affection. His children Jesse, a filmmaker, and Evgenia, a writer for Vanity Fair�were at the dinner, too. This was Peretz as he wanted to be seen. I’m a pretty vain guy, but it never occurred to me that my students were going to raise some money, Peretz says. I felt very touched.

1974: Purchased by Peretz.1977-1981: Michael Kinsley1981-1985: Hendrik Hertzberg1985-1989: Kinsley1989-1991: Hertzberg1991-1996: Andrew Sullivan1996-1997: Michael Kelly1997-1999: Charles Lane1999-2006: Peter Beinart2006: Peretz’s blog, The Spine, launches.2006-2010: Franklin FoerSeptember 2010: Protests over Peretz at Harvard.2010-2011: Richard Just January 2011: Peretz steps down as editor-in-chief; The Spine is discontinued.

It had been just two weeks since Kristof’s column, and some of Peretz’s friends made passing reference to the controversy. But Peretz is famously generous it is a quality as extreme as his partisanship. He has paid for medical treatments, found houses, coached careers. His close friend Michael Kinsley once told him, jokingly, that he should publish his collected letters of recommendation. Peretz has remained devoted to tarnished, even imprisoned friends, and he commands an outsize loyalty in return.

Eleven years ago, at his 60th birthday, a blowout under the Brooklyn Bridge, the attendees included two guests who were submerged in separate arguments with Peretz so furious that neither had spoken to him in months, and each felt like just about killing him. And yet skipping the event seemed impossible. So they both came to New York, angrily nursing their respective grievances, prepared to sit amid the revelry for the party’s duration in furious silence, slowly realizing the terms of their allegiance.

But in Cambridge these loyalties were no longer enough to keep Peretz insulated; his long published record of provocations spoke for itself, and the social-studies alumni many of them aging radicals were angry. In the lecture hall that morning, Peretz found his old friend Michael Walzer, the left-wing political theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and longtime co-editor of Dissent. Something nasty seemed to be starting, Walzer said.

His blog posts were being discussed from the stage. When it came time to go to lunch, Peretz and Walzer tried to leave via a side entrance, figuring they might escape the protesters outside a second time. No luck. There were 40 people now, and there were chants: Harvard, Harvard, shame on you, honoring a racist fool! Peretz looked waxy, distracted, unsure whether to laugh it off or attempt a sneer. He felt like a defendant leaving a courthouse; he worried he was embarrassing his friends. Peretz found himself wondering who these people were: not students, he thought, and not faculty. He settled on the usual intellectual detritus that collects around the university.

But some of them were students, and they held signs, each with a printed Peretz quote offering a sweeping ethnic generalization: The stark fact is that the educated black middle- and upper-middle classes do not go to museums, and they do not go to concerts either. Terrorism is about the sum total of what the Palestinians have bestowed on our civilization during the last five decades. Some of Marty’s friends were surprised that he would make those statements, says Henry Rosovsky, a close friend of Peretz’s and the retired dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. I wasn’t, because I had been reading his blog.

I don’t know whether it was an instance of cruel justice or cruel injustice, says Hendrik Hertzberg, a former New Republic editor. It was certainly hugely sad. Once Peretz had organized Vietnam War protests; now, says a friend, he was McNamara. He suffered through lunch, where he noticed a murmuring all around and listened to the keynote speaker implore the program not to take money from Peretz’s friends. He spoke only briefly and skipped the afternoon sessions altogether. As the child of immigrants, Peretz says, Harvard was my Americanization. And so I got a little bit kicked in the groin. The Harvard cops drove him home. Only later did he realize that he had left his car on campus, where it had collected a ticket.

When I met Peretz ten weeks later, he still seemed on edge. The bigotry charge was what lingered. I mean, it hurts, he said. We were in the dining room of the Loews Regency Hotel in midtown Manhattan, where the waiters greet him as Dr. Peretz. At a basic level, he said, he can’t be a bigot; he mentioned two close, personal black friends, one who is so fucking smart, and then a third, a black student whom he had plucked from Harvard and made the circulation director of The New Republic. I hired MuslimsI hired Fareed Zakaria, he added. The litany provoked a flash of self-consciousness. I’m really demeaning myself here, he said miserably, before continuing. Peretz is enough of a liberal to realize that any scene in which a man sits in the dining room of the Regency with a reporter, listing all of his friends and associates who are black or Muslim, is a scene in which that man is drowning. And yet here he was.

What you have to understand about Marty, says Roger Rosenblatt, the author and a friend of Peretz’s, is that his nature came first, and the politics followed. Search the ruling passion. With Marty, the ruling passion is passion itself.

Peretz is nine years older than the state of Israel, and before independence, he was already dreaming of it, singing ditties for Jewish Palestine. He was raised in a family that was not religious each Yom Kippur, his father would dance a ludicrous jig outside the synagogue, mocking the faithful but which was deeply Yiddish. He had a difficult home life and a terrible relationship with his father, a very belligerent man.

Peretz swore that he would be less awful to his children than his father had been to him, and he left home as soon as he could, graduating Bronx Science at 15, heading to Brandeis and then to graduate school at Harvard and a brief first marriage. Still, he held fast to a vision of home not his parents’, at 176th Street and Grand Concourse, but Israel. My father was a member of one Zionist party, my mother was a member of another, Peretz says. They had a terrible marriage, but their terrible marriage was fought over where the lines of Israel should be.

In his twenties, Peretz’s world was the organized left. He and Anne Farnsworth became close while working on a doomed insurgent congressional campaign in Cambridge and married in 1967, each for the second time. She was a painter who would become a family therapist; she also happened to be enormously wealthy.

While there were many reasons that someone with no agenda would find Anne winning, one of Peretz’s friends says, for the man in question, the partner had to be rich. Anne Peretz’s money gave the couple access rare for their age they were, in their twenties, among the leading donors to Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. For Peretz in particular, it allowed him the opportunity to conjure a world. They turned their house into a constant salon and gave the intellectuals who clustered around Harvard a social home.

Arabs understand Marty: me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the world.

Peretz’s ideological commitment to the left, though fervent on civil rights, had always been a little thin. By 1967, it was near total collapse. The problem was Israel. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, some leftists had begun to see Israel as an imperial power. The black youth group SNCC circulated a pamphlet depicting the Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan with dollar signs covering his epaulets.

Peretz and Walzer wrote an essay in Ramparts, the radical magazine, trying to convince the left that it was a just war, not another Vietnam, but they could feel themselves losing the argument. The Peretzes helped fund, that year, a 5,000-person convocation in Chicago of civil-rights and antiwar activists, designed to generate a third-party ticket to the left of the Democrats. It was a disaster. A black-nationalist caucus introduced a set of proposals not only condemning the imperialistic Zionist war but also proposing committees to reform the nation’s beastlike white communities. Some delegates ordered lavish dinners, charged them to the conference, and left Peretz to pick up the tab. I just saw a black-Jewish conflagration coming, Peretz says.

By 1974, Peretz had found a more effective way to shape the future of liberalism: He bought The New Republic. The magazine had an august if faded history, with a politics well to the left of his own. For nearly all of the 36 years since, Peretz has kept it roughly that way, hiring editors more liberal than he and punctuating the magazine with neoconservative ideas. Marty always wanted the magazine to be left of where he was, Kinsley says. He felt he owed that to the institution and his audience.

The New Republic also served another purpose. Peretz adores collecting people. Even early in his career, at Harvard, he had assiduously cultivated the role of mentor, and his friendships with younger men were sometimes so intense that they could seem to border on the erotic. Every so often, we’d talk about how he would sometimes grow obsessed with young men, says one of his friends from that time. He had an equally fierce compulsion to promote them, and The New Republic soon becamea platform to turn graduate students into public intellectuals. From Harvard he brought E. J. Dionne Jr., Kinsley, Hertzberg, Wieseltier, and Andrew Sullivan. His joy in their ascent was palpable: When he hired Hertzberg the second time, Peretz impulsively took him to his own tailor and paid for a bespoke suit.

At its best, the magazine was an ideologically contentious mixture that prodded liberalism and cultural criticism forward. At its worst, it could be a self-indulgent enterprise, prone to scandal, its young editors alienating its long-term subscribers. Peretz assigned stories about Israel and foreign policy. Otherwise, he gave his editors broad latitude. I’m perfectly comfortable,� he likes to say, with people smarter than me.

But as the magazine, in its own irregular way, grew more modern, Peretz seemed each year to grow more ancient, more fixated on his core loyalties: Israel against the Arabs, the United States against communism, and his friends against the world. In the eighties, he was for the Contras so intensely that during a furious staff meeting, an editor, according to Peretz, accused him of being a CIA agent. (The editor in question remembers it differently; he accused Peretz only of peddling CIA talking points.) The most vivid disagreements were on foreign policy. As the Cold War ended, his staff sometimes urged restraint. I was comfortable with America running amok, he says.

These are not the obvious commitments of a Eugene McCarthy supporter. But the most powerful elements of Peretz’s politics have always been his loyalties. Everything with him is personal, one former New Republic staffer told me. Aside from Israel, he has no meaningful policy views at all. Peretz maintained a long campaign against John Kerry a grudge he regrets in large part because he distrusted his preppiness.

Earlier this month, he defended Henry Kissinger after newly released tapes of the Nixon White House revealed that the secretary of State had suggested the U.S. not intervene in the event of a Soviet genocide against the Jews. Peretz had detested Jimmy Carter and was not fond of Bill Clinton. But he believed in his former student Al Gore very deeply. The two did not precisely share views on the Middle East; Gore trusts the international system more than I do. But he had traveled with Gore to Israel�Gore loved the Israeli wilderness, he says. I think Al basically understands Israel’s problem.

Beyond Israel, he loved that Gore loved him back. When the former vice-president conceded the 2000 presidential election, the Peretzes were at home, watching on television. To them the speech was beautiful, as sober and dignified as Gore himself. The cameras lingered, eventually following Gore outside, down the steps, and into a waiting Town Car. A minute later, the phone rang in Cambridge. It was Al, calling for Marty.

Peretz has lived in the same huge house in Cambridge for more than 40 years. But now he lives there alone, and it can seem less like a home than an art gallery. In the public spaces, Peretz has hung three works by Degas, a Cézanne, and a Flinck. But in the library where he spends most of his time a stunning, open, two-story space there is a display case of Middle Eastern archaeological artifacts. One day earlier this month, while on a brief visit home before returning to Tel Aviv, he showed me the objects and pulled out one in particular, a stunning, 2,000-year-old blue vase. His favorite art in the whole world, Peretz said, is from ancient Cambodia, particularly the elemental sculptures of the human form.

There are also two paintings of Anne’s hanging nearby, artifacts of a different sort. Peretz still wears his wedding ring. I like old things, he says, by way of explanation. Anne and I were together for four years before our marrige and for 42 years in our marriage. I still love her in ways. But our values and our lifestyles�sundered us apart. Theirs was a complicated union. I think for Marty there’s a difference between loyalty to a cause and a place on the one hand and loyalty to people on the other, Anne says. When it comes to people, it’s more about generosity than loyalty. It doesn’t mean that he’s going to stay loyal to a person forever.

The Peretzes have been separated since 2005 and divorced since 2009, and in the long aftermath of the breakup, Marty has seemed to some of his friends less rooted. He spends more time away from Cambridge, having bought an apartment in New York and rented one in Tel Aviv. He appears, to those closest to him, more compartmentalized than ever open, almost to a fault, and yet also hidden. Even his children, who are very hip and very much in the stream of modern life, haven’t been able to drag Marty out of this world he inhabits, which is the history of Zionism, the history of Jews, McCarthyism, says Ajami. Which explains why he sometimes says things in a way that sounds off-key.

Peretz’s attachment to The New Republic has diminished, too having lost much of his fortune, he has been forced to sell off most of his ownership of the magazine, and he has visited its headquarters in Washington, by his own estimation, no more than ten times in three years. He began his blog shortly after Anne moved out. The separation was the removal of pillow talk, he says, and while my pillow talk was much gentler than the blog, it served as a kind of unloading.

It often reads as a particularly pained unloading. There are some isolated moments of levity and self-awareness, such as when he referred to the Salahisthe White House party-crashers as Palestinian agitators. But much of The Spine has been limited to grim reports on the intransigence of Arab or Muslim culture. One week before my visit to Cambridge, Peretz had posted a quote he called an Arab maxim: A black face begins a black day.

One of the commenters on his site had searched and could find no record of this maxim, other than previous instances in which Peretz himself had cited it. Peretz told me he is not guilty on this small charge of fabulism: Years earlier, in the Arabian desert, he had been watching the Clarence Thomas hearings with a Saudi prince who was always scratching his balls I imagine he had lice, when the prince uttered those words.

Over this past year, Peretz’s distance from the magazine has been extreme. Even to many within The New Republic, where he has been known mostly as a bullying voice on the phone, Peretz has come to be seen increasingly through the lens of The Spine. When Marty’s name came up at TNR, it was more often than not in a mocking context, says one former staffer. People made fun of his blog items for being bigoted and for being incoherent. After the controversy over his September blog post, some on the staff started pushing for Peretz to give it up.

Perhaps understanding the threat to Israel’s security requires an especially fixed lens. The depth of the issue is Look, Ben-Gurion airport is two miles from the West Bank, Peretz says. The Jordan Valley he region separating Jordan from Israel is a dividing line between two Palestinian populations. What happens when there is no longer a king in Jordan? Obama has committed himself to a contiguous Palestine: Gaza and the West Bank. That means a discontiguous Israel.
Peretz supported Obama in the election, but he has come to see him as a foreign-policy disaster. I think he has set his major emotional goal to make peace between America and the Muslims, says Peretz. I think the American conflict with the Muslims is too complicated to make peace with in a three-point program.

For Israel, Peretz believes in a two-state solution. But this is complicated by the fact that he also believes, and says loudly and repeatedly, that Palestine is not a real state an utter fiction, a fraudulent nation-state. The Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has embarked on a state-building program highways, an airport, police, a stock market that has inspired some cautious confidence. I am of course skeptical, says Peretz. Fayyad is a very modernizing person, but I would doubt that he commands loyalty. I ask whether there is anything Fayyad can do to convince him that Palestine is a nation. It is a very justified question, he says. I’m too quick to be content with the denial of being a state.

He thinks for a minute. Do you think that the hatred which has been polled again and again and again can be dissolved? I don’t have an answer. Maybe. Maybe. There is another long pause. And you have Hezbollah, I think, about to attack. Could you assume that established Palestine would not help Hezbollah? This is a question. Maybe. Maybe they would be so thrilled by having a state. But since there is really no one voice in Palestine Peretz’s voice trails off. He shrugs a couple of times. Then he considers the shrugs. I mean, he says, a little too much of my argument is a shrug.

There is a level of generalization that is just wild, says a friend of his, shaking his head. And a certain degree of ignorance. The Druze, a Middle Eastern people, are congenitally untrustworthy; Arab society is, well how do I say this? hidebound and backward. But these divisions, to Peretz, matter very much. The trouble with the progressivism of his children’s generation, he says, is that it believes in diversity but doesn’t believe that people are really different. I believe that people are very, very different.

A few weeks ago, Peretz agreed to give up his title as editor-in-chief of The New Republic. He will hold the title of editor emeritus and will continue to write for the magazine occasionally, but The Spine will be discontinued. He finds this abdication a relief. I am, he says, exhausted. Peretz has never belonged to any synagogue. I don’t know that world, he says.

His children like the liberal congregation B’nai Jeshurun, on 88th Street and Broadway, and so Peretz goes now and then. He went for Yom Kippur this year and found that during the Al Chet prayerthe traditional confession of sins the congregation had added some of its own. I lie, I cheat, I steal this part is standard. They added, I’m homophobic. I’m lookist.’ Do you know lookist’? We look at good-looking people. I am ageist.’ And here was the breaking point for Peretz we crawl to peace and rush to war. He shook his head. �I mean, fuck these fancy Upper West Side rabbis.

In his seventies, Peretz’s most tangible attachments to Harvard, to The New Republic, to Anne�have frayed, and so his primal loyalties have resettled a bit, back toward Israel, a familiar abstraction. He distrusts some of the stories his father told him, but there is one he believes in every detail. In the late fifties, when his father, Julius, was just about the age Peretz is now, the elder Peretz had an apartment in Tel Aviv. He used to walk a lot, Peretz says. One day, while sitting in a park, he found himself in conversation with another old man who also spoke Yiddish. The man invited Julius Peretz back to his apartment. His wife, he said, would make tei und lekach cake and tea. So he went.

Julius Peretz had eight siblings, but all of them had died in Poland. He had emigrated to New York in 1922. On this stranger’s piano, he saw a class photo. So there’s a picture on the piano of a group of girls, says Peretz. And he recognizes someone second row, third from the left. It looks like his sister. But it couldn’t be, because the generation is a generation of younger people. The stranger’s daughter is in the class photo, too, and they phone her. The name of the girl Marty’s father thought he recognized is Anja, and she lives�the daughter says in a kibbutz on Israel’s edge, right up against the Jordan River.

Julius Peretz takes a taxi there three hours, winding roads and asks the guard to summon Anja. He does; she looks nothing like his sister. She says, There’s another Anja,’  says Peretz. He brings Anja who looks like his sister, and there is the one survivor of his family. She was Julius’s niece. She left Poland in the summer of 1939, with two friends from a socialist youth group, and they made it to Palestine a few months latershe was 15 as their families were being annihilated. Peretz now has Israeli cousins.

In Israel, says Anne, the acts of ordinary life have a special meaning for Peretz: He will watch families playing in the park and marvel. He takes an interest in waiters, in kids on the street whom at home he might ignore. Israel, he says, has been very welcoming to me.


Itz, I just read the entire article. A sad, near tragic story. You and Jack both know that I am not fond of MP and haven't been for over almost 30 years. I must admit that I am happy that he is leaving tnr and discontinuing The Spine. That bl...og was toxic and attracted too many angry, mean posters, people just like Marty. It is almost beyond belief that I won't have to make excused for tnr because of Peretz. That will be a great relief. As of the man, no one should take joy in how he has turned out: a gnarled, embittered, lonely, uncomprehending recluse. The guy had it all in his hand: money, brains, connections, an expansive better nature and he let his demons, obsessions, and hatreds take it all. I won't dance on the poor bastard's figurative grave but I cannot muster any tears for his plight. You reap what you sow...


Ken, I started commenting on the Spine just at the time I began reading TNR--about 5 years ago or so. So I came very late to TNR. Having started, it's still unreal to me how cosnuming it all became. It became a particular part of my life. With the Spine ending, although my attendances there over the last few months have dwindled, I feel like a certain part of my life is ending. I keep wondering where all the Spine's adherents will go to next.

I won't comment too much on Peretz just now as I want to give the news of his leaving some time to marinate. But I found the entire article compelling, just as I find him compelling, for better or worse. I will say there is something decent and expansive and generous inside him that still has a chance of getting out. There is/was also something magnetic about his blog, that attracts some people to it, like moths to the flame. It is, as I note, as if something extraordinary, for better or worse, is taking our leave, leaving some very intriguing and talented people scratching their heads as to where next, if at all anywhere, to hang their cyber hats.

Some Comments on Barney's Version--the Movie-- and Mordecai Richler

Richler did satire and black humour right up until Cocksure. Therefore, he had in his fiction a mordant world view. St. Urbain’s Horseman through to Barney’s Version saw him returning to verisimilitude and to, too, a view of the world leavened by possibility particularly by way of love and family. But essential to that view of the world is a kind of modernist negative capability: we are, he says, necessarily morally flawed, inhabiting at best a world of moral gray, rife with compromise, ambiguity and personal ambivalence. We are, ultimately, delimited by decline, withering away and death.

So who makes out in such a world by Richler’s lights: those with some decency, more or less true to themselves, who see things for what they are, but who also see what is great and worthwhile—love and human excellence when that latter can be found such as in great art--who reject inauthenticity and phoniness, and are engaging. To be scorned: the up tight, the phonies, the sanctimonious and holier than thou, the arrivistes, the crass and money grubbing, the ideological, the xenophobic and identity enslaved, the essentially cruel and unkind and those unable to see what is great and worthwhile.

Richler long ago wrote a short account of his travels in Israel. He described bargaining for something with a shrewd Arab merchant, who, at the end of their bargaining—I’m remembering this from decades ago—winked or smiled knowingly to Richler in a firm and common understanding of men’s folly. In the merchant, in what they both understood about folly, Richler saw the best hope for Israeli and Arab alike.

Barney for Richler is a deeply flawed character who makes out, sort of. His “Version” isn’t just his falsified account of the death of Boogie, or even just his own iteration of his life. It is, rather, more largely, his version of life itself, life according to how he lives it. With all his raunchy, funny cruelty at the expense of Blair, with all his cruelty and emotional infidelity to Minnie Driver, for all his inattentiveness and selfishness in the face of Miriam’s trying to make a life for herself beyond him—but including him, for all his compromises with the great and worthwhile, the compromises completely captured by Totally Unnecessary Productions, despite his son calling him a “selfish prick,” he is, I argue, in the novel and the movie undoubtedly redeemable and indeed redeemed in Richler’s eyes.

That is evident in Miriam, after being away for a week, resolving that she loves him and wants to continue with him and wants immediately to make love with him until tshtf. And he is redeemed as set out in the very apt words of a Toronto critic that caught and captured my eye, Liam Lacey:

…What really sells it as a story is star Paul Giamatti's boisterous, wide-ranging and seductive performance. As a screen presence, Giamatti has a secret weapon beyond the obvious balding pate, paunch and bugged-out eyes: His voice, a mellifluously elegant instrument, suggests an inner refinement and contradicts what meets the eye. He’s the soul of a poet trapped in the shape of a clown, and to that extent a perfect Barney…

It's also evident in the high quality of his raffish friends, in his selfless generosities such as to Boogie and to Soulange, and in his capacious sensibility, so world-engaging.

There is a Mad Men aspect to the movie. Barney is a version of a sensibility of two generations ago: man the sole provider; man the world weary whiskey drinker and relentless cigar smoker finding truth and sanctuary in his own bonhomie, drinking with the boys, women as accessory to such men, being housewives, raising the children, being there to be nurturing all as against a more modern sensibility of women having the respect of their “partners” in their self fulfillment, of more sensitive, quiche eating, vegan, politically correct men such as Blair, who is both ludicrous and attractive—even if he is a a member of Al-Qaeda

I could go on about this movie, but, perversely, I’ll note what I didn’t like so much:

1. it at times drags;

2. it is often too synoptic, with too much stuff crammed in, although it's wonderful in the way it covers a lifetime of living from, in Barney’s case, his bohemian youth to the onset of his old age;

3. I don’t buy the whole courtship of Miriam, the falling for her, the wooing of her, the getting of her love. I find all that forced and not to be believed, lacking the simulation of life's real rythms. But the movie is wonderful in presenting their marriage over the decades. And I thinkt Rosamund Pike, after my initial concerns over the contrived soul mate attraction and courtship, is excellent as Barney’s long suffering, loving and always lovely wife, aging with subtle beauty, gravity and depth.

4. Wife 2 is way too broad, a caricature counting as attempted emotional theft, trying to steal emotions the movie has no right to. We’re meant to despise her as a crass, stupid, materially obsessed woman and reject her as does Barney. But she's not given a fighting chance in her uni-dimensionality. That’s cheap, facile movie making.

5. I don’t believe the break up with Miriam. After a marriage that long and that complicated, things just don’t turn on such a small, thin dime --one understandable, desperation-driven bout of meaningless sex--from love to separation and divorce. I know the movie sets it up in the courtship by Barney's promise never to cheat on Miriam as her father did on her mother, driving her to death, but I just don’t buy it when it happens. It, too, feetls forced and unbelievable.

6. Finally, maybe most irritating and exasperating, I think the whole scene leading to Boogie’s death too long and wholly unconvincing, resting on a psychologically unpersuasive foundation of events. And I think that Giamatti and Speedman are playing at being drunk and drunks in that scene. I don’t believe in their drunkenness. They can’t, for me, there, transcend their acting, so untypical for the overall terrific acting in the movie.

Some Accessible SCOTUS Notes: SCOTUS as Hockey: The Teams' Enforcers

December 27, 2010

Sotomayor Guides Court’s Liberal Wing

Adam Liptak//NYT

At her confirmation hearings last year, Sonia Sotomayor spent a lot of time assuring senators that empathy would play no part in her work on the Supreme Court.

That was a sort of rebuke to President Obama, who had said that empathy was precisely the quality that separated legal technicians like Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. from great justices.
Justice Sotomayor would have none of it.

“We apply law to facts,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. “We don’t apply feelings to facts.”

We are now three months into Justice Sotomayor’s second term on the court. That is awfully early in a justice’s career to draw any general conclusions. But some things are becoming tolerably clear.

Justice Sotomayor has completely dispelled the fear on the left that her background as a prosecutor would align her with the court’s more conservative members on criminal justice issues. And she has displayed a quality — call it what you will — that is alert to the humanity of the people whose cases make their way to the Supreme Court.

So far this term, the court has issued two signed decisions in argued cases. Both were unanimous, and both were insignificant.

But for anyone looking for insight into the justices, there was much more information to be gleaned from another genre of judicial writing. In the last three months, the court has turned down thousands of appeals, almost always without comment. On seven occasions, though, at least one justice had something to say about the court’s decision not to hear a case.

Such writings are completely discretionary, and they open a window onto the author’s passions. They are also a good way to keep track of the divisions on the court.

An ideological fault line ran through those seven opinions. Not a single member of the court’s four-member liberal wing joined any of the three opinions written by a conservative justice. And not a single member of the court’s four-member conservative wing joined any of the four opinions written by a liberal justice.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, was the only justice to join none of the seven opinions, which simplified the analysis.

Justice Sotomayor wrote three of the opinions, more than any other justice, and all concerned the rights of criminal defendants or prisoners. The most telling one involved a Louisiana prisoner infected with H.I.V. No other justice chose to join it.

The prisoner, Anthony C. Pitre, had stopped taking his H.I.V. medicine to protest his transfer from one facility to another. Prison officials responded by forcing him to perform hard labor in 100-degree heat. That punishment twice sent Mr. Pitre to the emergency room.

The lower courts had no sympathy for Mr. Pitre’s complaints, saying he had brought his troubles on himself.

Justice Sotomayor saw things differently.

“Pitre’s decision to refuse medication may have been foolish and likely caused a significant part of his pain,” she wrote. “But that decision does not give prison officials license to exacerbate Pitre’s condition further as a means of punishing or coercing him — just as a prisoner’s disruptive conduct does not permit prison officials to punish the prisoner by handcuffing him to a hitching post.”

In the courtroom, she was no less outraged at the argument in a case concerning prison conditions in California, peppering a lawyer for the state with heated questions.

“When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record?” she asked. “When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their feces for days in a dazed state?”

At that same argument, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., who is in some ways Justice Sotomayor’s ideological and temperamental counterpart, reserved his sympathy for people who might be harmed after prisoners were released to ease overcrowding.

He recalled what happened when prisoners were released under a court order in Philadelphia. The upshot, according to a supporting brief filed by 18 states, was “an extraordinary crime wave” that included 79 murders, 90 rapes and 1,113 assaults over a year and a half in 1993 and 1994.

“That’s not going to happen in California?” Justice Alito asked, incredulous.

In an amusing and astute post on his legal blog, Mike Sacks said the two justices had become “their sides’ enforcers.”

The seven opinions about decisions not to hear cases support this theory. Justice Sotomayor wrote or joined all four from the liberal justices, and Justice Alito did the same for the ones from the conservative side.

“Appearing rough around the edges, they send clear, aggressive messages, often on behalf of their comrades, but sometimes alone on principle,” Mr. Sacks wrote.

By contrast, he added, Chief Justice Roberts and the court’s newest member, Justice Elena Kagan, are all polish and charm. They wrote none of the seven decisions and joined one each. At arguments, their questions are wry and sly.

They are, Mr. Sacks wrote, “suave assassins, devastating advocates without compromising their gentility.”

Monday, December 27, 2010

Obama and Income Inequality These Days: One Man's View

Obama's War on Inequality and How he's losing it.

Jacob Weisberg/Dec. 26, 2010,/Slate

Wasn't reversing the decades-long trend toward income inequality supposed to be the big theme of the Obama administration? The new president sounded it strongly in his inaugural address, stating that "a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous." He followed up with a 2010 budget proposal that sought, in the words of the New York Times' David Leonhardt, "to reverse the rapid increase in economic inequality over the last 30 years." Obama has raised the issue at major occasions since, including his first State of the Union address in 2010, when he noted, "We cannot afford another so-called economic 'expansion' like the one from last decade … where the income of the average American household declined."

But if Obama has declared war on inequality, inequality seems to be winning. In the deal he just cut with congressional Republicans, the president not only agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for the highest earners but also to eliminate the estate tax for all but the microscopic percentage of people passing down more than $5 million—causing inheritance tax proponent Ray Madoff to declare the battle lost for good.

And despite the role skewed financial rewards played in cratering the global economy, the Obama administration's policy response has failed to address outsized Wall Street and CEO compensation in any meaningful way. Bonus season is upon us, and with the big banks now liberated from their TARP obligations, the general attitude seems to be, "What financial crisis?" Class war, prosecuted from above, is depicted as a threat from below. A few months ago, billionaire private equity manager Steve Schwarzman had the gall to compare the Obama administration's attempt to tax "carried interest" at the same rate as other forms of income to "when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939."

When it comes to raising working-class incomes, Obama has been similarly ineffective. As it is implemented over time (and assuming it survives legal challenge), Obama's health care reform may become a significant factor both in reducing the burden of medical costs on middle-class families and in promoting social equality. From 2008 to 2009, however, the number of people without health insurance rose from 46.3 million to 50.7 million. In the longer term, the key to combating inequality is upgrading the education and skills of American workers. But with the Republicans now in charge of the House, Obama's hopes for major new investments in worker skills seem more elusive than ever. In particular, his goal of every American receiving some higher education is going nowhere. In the coming year, the president will be lucky to protect pro-egalitarian programs that already exist.

Statistics show the problem is getting worse. According to a study by Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley, the top 1 percent of earners captured two-thirds of all income growth between 2002 and 2007. The most recent census statistics show a continued march in the same unbalanced direction. The bottom 20 percent of the population—which earned 5.4 percent of national income in 1967—earned just 3.4 percent of it in 2009. The highest 20 percent went from 41.5 to 49.4 over the same period. The Gini Index—the standard measure of income inequality—ticked up again between 2008 and 2009, from .451 to .458. According to the CIA World Factbook, this figure puts the United States ahead of Russia and Turkey in inequality, and on par with Mexico and the Philippines.

Why is income inequality proving so intractable a problem? If you haven't already, you should read my colleague Tim Noah's excellent series exploring the reasons for the Great Divergence, which began sometime in the mid-'70s. It was around that time, as Malcolm Gladwell described in this New Yorker piece, that stars and professionals across a range of fields simply began to demand a bigger piece of the pie. How much you blame Obama for his lack of success in taking on this trend will depend on whether you see him as a victim of circumstances or of his own mistakes.

On one hand, Obama is up against macro forces like globalization and a system that has grown highly effective at transmuting economic privilege into political power. Somehow, wide majorities have come to support tax law changes that benefit only tiny minorities. While I was writing this column, a press release arrived in my inbox from a New York estate lawyer telling me about the goodies hidden in the new bill: "For the first time, wealthy individuals can make gifts of up to $5 million during their lifetime to anyone, including grandchildren, and pay no tax."

It's like the old Steve Martin routine about how to be a millionaire and never pay taxes—except that instead of "I forgot!" you now say, "I'm allowed!" It is an American peculiarity that rich people want to be thought of as middle class, while those in the middle class identify with the economic interests of an upper class they have only a remote chance of joining. The United States, the land of opportunity, now boasts the world's second-lowest level of intergenerational income mobility.

Meanwhile, the people most alarmed about the rise of new economic dynasties seem to be the enlightened superrich themselves, people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Obama deserves fault for failing to articulate this abstract threat in a way ordinary people can appreciate. Like the deficit, income inequality never killed anybody—it merely has the potential to sap the entire country's health and spirit. Moving toward an income distribution like Brazil's threatens individual happiness, social peace, and American values. But so far, the president hasn't figured out how to get the public to relate to the issue. In April, Obama told a group of frowning bankers at Cooper Union, "There is no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street." But there is, and it is growing deeper every year

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Some Plain Speaking About the Civil War

Top of Form

Bottom of Form

December 27, 2010

E.J. Dionne/WAPO

Let's Not Spin the Civil War

WASHINGTON -- The Civil War is about to loom very large in the popular memory. We would do well to be candid about its causes and not allow the distortions of contemporary politics or long-standing myths to cloud our understanding of why the nation fell apart.

The coming year will mark the 150th anniversary of the onset of the conflict, which is usually dated to April 12, 1861, when Confederate batteries opened fire at 4:30 a.m. on federal troops occupying Fort Sumter. Union forces surrendered the next day, after 34 hours of shelling.The Civil War has forever captured the American imagination (witness the popularity of re-enactments) for the gallantry and heroism of those who fought and died, but also for the sheer carnage and destruction it left in its wake. Anniversaries heighten that engagement, and I still recall the centennial of the war in 1961 as a time when kids with no previous interest in American history were exchanging Civil War trading cards along with baseball cards.

My neighborhood friend Jon Udis got a subscription to Civil War Times Illustrated, and our regular discussions of sports heroes Bill Russell, Johnny Unitas and Carl Yastrzemski were briefly interrupted by talk about Grant and Lee, Sherman and "Stonewall" Jackson.

But our conversations, like so many about the war, focused on people and battles, not on why the confrontation happened in the first place. There remains enormous denial over the fact that the central cause of the war was our national disagreement over race and slavery, not states' rights or anything else.

When the war started, leaders of the Southern rebellion were entirely straightforward about this. On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy's vice president, gave what came to be known as the "Cornerstone speech" in which he declared that the "proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization" was "the immediate cause of the late rupture."

Thomas Jefferson, Stephens said, had been wrong in believing "that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature."

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea," Stephens insisted. "Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth."

Our greatest contemporary historian of the Civil War, James McPherson, has noted that Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a major slaveholder, "justified secession in 1861 as an act of self-defense against the incoming Lincoln administration." Abraham Lincoln's policy of excluding slavery from the territories, Davis said, would make "property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless ... thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars."

South Carolina's 1860 declaration on the cause of secession mentioned slavery, slaves or slaveholding 18 separate times. And as the historian Douglas Egerton points out in "Year of Meteors," his superb recent book how the 1860 election precipitated the Civil War, the South split the Democratic Party and later the country not in the name of states' rights but because it sought federal government guarantees that slavery would prevail in new states. "Slaveholders," Egerton notes, "routinely shifted their ideological ground in the name of protecting unfree labor."

After the war, in one of the great efforts of spin control in our history, both Davis and Stephens, despite their own words, insisted that the war was not about slavery after all, but about state sovereignty. By then, of course, slavery was "a dead and discredited institution," McPherson wrote, and "(to) concede that the Confederacy had broken up the United States and launched a war that killed 620,000 Americans in a vain attempt to keep 4 million people in slavery would not confer honor on their lost cause."

Why does getting the story right matter? As Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's recent difficulty with the history of the civil rights years demonstrates, there is to this day too much evasion of how integral race, racism and racial conflict are to our national story. We can take pride in our struggles to overcome the legacies of slavery and segregation. But we should not sanitize how contested and bloody the road to justice has been. We will dishonor the Civil War if we refuse to face up to the reason it was fought.