Monday, February 28, 2011

Benny Morris on Kadaffy and Recent Middle East Change

Benny Morris//February 28, 2011//The National Interest

I have always believed that the Islamic Arab world was peculiarly resistant to Western ideas and the winds of change that blew in, over the centuries, from France, Britain and the United States. After World War II, Japan and Germany – admittedly conquered – changed; other countries – South Korea, Siam, much of Latin America – gradually bowed before what the West had to offer.

But not the Arab world. Building blocks, social, political, ideological and psychological, of that world – the grip of an absolutist Islam, the desert of vast, uneducated masses, the weight of unreformed tradition, tribal hierarchies and affiliations – all somehow conspired to bar the penetration of all those good ideas that the West has given the rest of the world since the Renaissance or, at least, since the French Revolution: democracy, liberalism, tolerance, individual worth, human rights, egalitarianism (including equality for women and homosexuals), etc.

But Western technological advances – expressed in the spread of television, internet, cheap travel – have at last succeeded, it seems, in carrying these ideas across seas and mountains and breaking down the opaque walls surrounding the Muslim Arab world. Maybe the biblical metaphor of Jericho is apt, of trumpets proclaiming ideas circumambulating the walls and gradually cracking them, until they have tumbled. At least some of the Arabs, the better educated, middle class youngsters, seem to have bought into the message from the West.

But there is a paradox embedded at the heart of the past months' revolutions around the Arab world. Until now, it has been exclusively pro-Western regimes being felled by these Western ideas and technologies. And this is both good and bad. Yes, the voice of the people should be heard and should carry the day; vox populi, vox dei. But one wonders what the masses in each of the affected countries are actually saying and what they will say afterwards, after the dust settles, and beyond the mere fact of the toppling of the dictators.

And as an Israeli, let me put the cards on the table, face up, this question mark deeply worries me. The early omens from Egypt, the flagship of the Arab world, have not been encouraging, with the interim military regime unwilling to commit itself explicitly to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel; with the continued severance of the gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel, which in recent years has supplied Israel with a substantial amount of its energy needs; and with loud voices, Islamist and secular, proclaiming in Egypt the need to review the relations with Israel. Not least among these voices is that of the Muslim preacher, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has just returned to Egypt. He is a traditional foe of Israel and the West, an anti-Semite and supporter of suicide bombings in the vast land mass between Iraq and Palestine.

Nonetheless, there are also one or two positive signs. At last, one thing unquestionably, unambivalently good is coming out of the Arab world, something praiseworthy and marvellous. At last, the Libyan people, after forty years of tyranny by their mad, bad leader, Muammar Qaddafi, he of Lockerbie fame and a dozen other acts of mass terrorism and belligerency, have risen and are busy ousting his regime. Needless to say, the Obama Administration has been hesitant in the extreme when it came to this particular dictatorship (in complete contrast with Obama's personal forwardness and forthrightness a few weeks earlier in demanding the removal of America's longtime ally, Mubarak of Egypt. It is unclear what motivated Washington's enduring passivity in face of the Libyan turmoil.)

And, of course, the US was not alone. The Arab world – as embodied in the Arab League – for decades, perhaps not happily, covered and apologised for this bizarre creature, pardoning his barbarism and ignoring his laughable, and sometimes deadly, quirks. Of course, his fellow Arab leaders, to a man, had all tortured and jailed and murdered their opponents. Still, in many ways Qaddafi outdid them. His Green Book was full of gibberish, rivalled in nonsense only by Mao's Red Book; he wore weird hats and large dark sunglasses and had a constant three-day bristle (in this he seems to have consciously aped Yasser Arafat). And, of course, Qaddafi – of beduin extraction - made a point of living (or at least appearing to live) in a tent in the backyard of one of his palaces (and in New York City and other places; tents have the virtue of travelling well).

Which reminds me of a story a fine, young journalist once told me about her experiences in Tripoli. It was in the 1980s, I think. She had come to interview Qaddafi. She was ushered into the famous tent. Qaddafi sent his aides away and the two of them shared lunch. And then Qaddafi tried to caress her. Flustered, she got up to leave. He then chased her around the table, bent on rape. She was brave and apparently fit; she outran him, at least long enough for his aides to rush in at the sound of her screams. Rape averted.

It is a shame journalists did not usually publish their impressions of and experiences with Qaddafi. This no doubt facilitated Western and Arab acceptance of cooperation with this almost unique, base specimen of humanity (perhaps Saddam Hussein came closest).

Where Have The Good Men Gone?

Kay Hymowitz//WSJ/2,19,2011

Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This "pre-adulthood" has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it's time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn't bring out the best in men.

Between his lack of responsibilities and an entertainment media devoted to his every pleasure, today's young man has no reason to grow up, says author Kay Hymowitz. She discusses her book, "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys."

"We are sick of hooking up with guys," writes the comedian Julie Klausner, author of a touchingly funny 2010 book, "I Don't Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters and Other Guys I've Dated." What Ms. Klausner means by "guys" is males who are not boys or men but something in between. "Guys talk about 'Star Wars' like it's not a movie made for people half their age; a guy's idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends.... They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home." One female reviewer of Ms. Kausner's book wrote, "I had to stop several times while reading and think: Wait, did I date this same guy?"

For most of us, the cultural habitat of pre-adulthood no longer seems noteworthy. After all, popular culture has been crowded with pre-adults for almost two decades. Hollywood started the affair in the early 1990s with movies like "Singles," "Reality Bites," "Single White Female" and "Swingers." Television soon deepened the relationship, giving us the agreeable company of Monica, Joey, Rachel and Ross; Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer; Carrie, Miranda, et al. But for all its familiarity, pre-adulthood represents a momentous sociological development. It's no exaggeration to say that having large numbers of single young men and women living independently, while also having enough disposable income to avoid ever messing up their kitchens, is something entirely new in human experience. Yes, at other points in Western history young people have waited well into their 20s to marry, and yes, office girls and bachelor lawyers have been working and finding amusement in cities for more than a century. But their numbers and their money supply were always relatively small. Today's pre-adults are a different matter. They are a major demographic event.

What also makes pre-adulthood something new is its radical reversal of the sexual hierarchy. Among pre-adults, women are the first sex. They graduate from college in greater numbers (among Americans ages 25 to 34, 34% of women now have a bachelor's degree but just 27% of men), and they have higher GPAs. As most professors tell it, they also have more confidence and drive. These strengths carry women through their 20s, when they are more likely than men to be in grad school and making strides in the workplace. In a number of cities, they are even out-earning their brothers and boyfriends.

WHY GROW UP? Men in their 20s now have an array of toys and distractions at their disposal, from videogames and sports bars to 'lad' magazines like Maxim, which makes Playboy look like Camus.

Still, for these women, one key question won't go away: Where have the good men gone? Their male peers often come across as aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers—a gender gap neatly crystallized by the director Judd Apatow in his hit 2007 movie "Knocked Up." The story's hero is 23-year-old Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), who has a drunken fling with Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl) and gets her pregnant. Ben lives in a Los Angeles crash pad with a group of grubby friends who spend their days playing videogames, smoking pot and unsuccessfully planning to launch a porn website. Allison, by contrast, is on her way up as a television reporter and lives in a neatly kept apartment with what appear to be clean sheets and towels. Once she decides to have the baby, she figures out what needs to be done and does it. Ben can only stumble his way toward being a responsible grownup.

So where did these pre-adults come from? You might assume that their appearance is a result of spoiled 24-year-olds trying to prolong the campus drinking and hook-up scene while exploiting the largesse of mom and dad. But the causes run deeper than that. Beginning in the 1980s, the economic advantage of higher education—the "college premium"—began to increase dramatically. Between 1960 and 2000, the percentage of younger adults enrolled in college or graduate school more than doubled. In the "knowledge economy," good jobs go to those with degrees. And degrees take years.

Another factor in the lengthening of the road to adulthood is our increasingly labyrinthine labor market. The past decades' economic expansion and the digital revolution have transformed the high-end labor market into a fierce competition for the most stimulating, creative and glamorous jobs. Fields that attract ambitious young men and women often require years of moving between school and internships, between internships and jobs, laterally and horizontally between jobs, and between cities in the U.S. and abroad. The knowledge economy gives the educated young an unprecedented opportunity to think about work in personal terms. They are looking not just for jobs but for "careers," work in which they can exercise their talents and express their deepest passions. They expect their careers to give shape to their identity. For today's pre-adults, "what you do" is almost synonymous with "who you are," and starting a family is seldom part of the picture.

Pre-adulthood can be compared to adolescence, an idea invented in the mid-20th century as American teenagers were herded away from the fields and the workplace and into that new institution, the high school. For a long time, the poor and recent immigrants were not part of adolescent life; they went straight to work, since their families couldn't afford the lost labor and income. But the country had grown rich enough to carve out space and time to create a more highly educated citizenry and work force. Teenagers quickly became a marketing and cultural phenomenon. They also earned their own psychological profile. One of the most influential of the psychologists of adolescence was Erik Erikson, who described the stage as a "moratorium," a limbo between childhood and adulthood characterized by role confusion, emotional turmoil and identity conflict.

Marketers and culture creators help to promote pre-adulthood as a lifestyle. And like adolescence, pre-adulthood is a class-based social phenomenon, reserved for the relatively well-to-do. Those who don't get a four-year college degree are not in a position to compete for the more satisfying jobs of the knowledge economy.

But pre-adults differ in one major respect from adolescents. They write their own biographies, and they do it from scratch. Sociologists use the term "life script" to describe a particular society's ordering of life's large events and stages. Though such scripts vary across cultures, the archetypal plot is deeply rooted in our biological nature. The invention of adolescence did not change the large Roman numerals of the American script. Adults continued to be those who took over the primary tasks of the economy and culture. For women, the central task usually involved the day-to-day rearing of the next generation; for men, it involved protecting and providing for their wives and children. If you followed the script, you became an adult, a temporary custodian of the social order until your own old age and demise.

Unlike adolescents, however, pre-adults don't know what is supposed to come next. For them, marriage and parenthood come in many forms, or can be skipped altogether. In 1970, just 16% of Americans ages 25 to 29 had never been married; today that's true of an astonishing 55% of the age group. In the U.S., the mean age at first marriage has been climbing toward 30 (a point past which it has already gone in much of Europe). It is no wonder that so many young Americans suffer through a "quarter-life crisis," a period of depression and worry over their future.

Given the rigors of contemporary career-building, pre-adults who do marry and start families do so later than ever before in human history. Husbands, wives and children are a drag on the footloose life required for the early career track and identity search. Pre-adulthood has also confounded the primordial search for a mate. It has delayed a stable sense of identity, dramatically expanded the pool of possible spouses, mystified courtship routines and helped to throw into doubt the very meaning of marriage. In 1970, to cite just one of many numbers proving the point, nearly seven in 10 25-year-olds were married; by 2000, only one-third had reached that milestone.

After a drunken affair makes the immature Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) a father-to-be, he makes a go, slowly, of becoming a grownup. American men have been struggling with finding an acceptable adult identity since at least the mid-19th century. We often hear about the miseries of women confined to the domestic sphere once men began to work in offices and factories away from home. But it seems that men didn't much like the arrangement either. They balked at the stuffy propriety of the bourgeois parlor, as they did later at the banal activities of the suburban living room. They turned to hobbies and adventures, like hunting and fishing. At midcentury, fathers who at first had refused to put down the money to buy those newfangled televisions changed their minds when the networks began broadcasting boxing matches and baseball games. The arrival of Playboy in the 1950s seemed like the ultimate protest against male domestication; think of the refusal implied by the magazine's title alone.

In his disregard for domestic life, the playboy was prologue for today's pre-adult male. Unlike the playboy with his jazz and art-filled pad, however, our boy rebel is a creature of the animal house. In the 1990s, Maxim, the rude, lewd and hugely popular "lad" magazine arrived from England. Its philosophy and tone were so juvenile, so entirely undomesticated, that it made Playboy look like Camus.

At the same time, young men were tuning in to cable channels like Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network and Spike, whose shows reflected the adolescent male preferences of its targeted male audiences. They watched movies with overgrown boy actors like Steve Carell, Luke and Owen Wilson, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Will Farrell and Seth Rogen, cheering their awesome car crashes, fart jokes, breast and crotch shots, beer pong competitions and other frat-boy pranks. Americans had always struck foreigners as youthful, even childlike, in their energy and optimism. But this was too much.

What explains this puerile shallowness? I see it as an expression of our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men. It's been an almost universal rule of civilization that girls became women simply by reaching physical maturity, but boys had to pass a test. They needed to demonstrate courage, physical prowess or mastery of the necessary skills. The goal was to prove their competence as protectors and providers. Today, however, with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional, and the qualities of character men once needed to play their roles—fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity—are obsolete, even a little embarrassing.

Today's pre-adult male is like an actor in a drama in which he only knows what he shouldn't say. He has to compete in a fierce job market, but he can't act too bossy or self-confident. He should be sensitive but not paternalistic, smart but not cocky. To deepen his predicament, because he is single, his advisers and confidants are generally undomesticated guys just like him.

Single men have never been civilization's most responsible actors; they continue to be more troubled and less successful than men who deliberately choose to become husbands and fathers. So we can be disgusted if some of them continue to live in rooms decorated with "Star Wars" posters and crushed beer cans and to treat women like disposable estrogen toys, but we shouldn't be surprised.

Relatively affluent, free of family responsibilities, and entertained by an array of media devoted to his every pleasure, the single young man can live in pig heaven—and often does. Women put up with him for a while, but then in fear and disgust either give up on any idea of a husband and kids or just go to a sperm bank and get the DNA without the troublesome man. But these rational choices on the part of women only serve to legitimize men's attachment to the sand box. Why should they grow up? No one needs them anyway. There's nothing they have to do.

They might as well just have another beer.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Obama Waiting History Out?

Standing On the Sidelines of History

Rick Richman/Contentions/ 2, 27, 11

In one sense, Barack Obama is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Famous for his eloquence, he has nothing to say about world historical events, emerging after a week in the latest one to announce he instructed his administration to provide “options.” Elected as a clarion for change, he issues a let-me-be-clear statement that the United States has had nothing to do with change sweeping the Middle East. A prior Democratic president wanted every nation to know we would bear any burden to assure the success of liberty in the world; the current president can hardly bear the burden of speaking up about it.

It is a portrait of a president who wants nothing to do with foreign affairs if he can help it. He will stay silent unless forced to say something and do only what the world agrees to do with “one voice.” He appeases adversaries (giving China a pass on human rights, Russia a reset, Iran an outstretched hand, and Syria an ambassador) in the hope the world will leave him alone while he concentrates on domestic affairs, where his real enthusiasms lie.

In this sense, Obama is not a mystery but the logical extension of George McGovern’s “Come home, America” theme in his 1972 presidential campaign and John Kerry’s “Let America Be America Again” one in 2004. They sought to throw off wars in Vietnam and Iraq to concentrate on domestic issues, asserting that using American power to advance freedom abroad was a mistake. Obama made withdrawal from Iraq the center of his own campaign, and emphasized in his West Point speech — finally accepting, after weeks of indecision, his general’s recommendation to send more soldiers to Afghanistan — that “the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”

It is, of course, preferable to build fire stations in Ohio rather than Iraq, but the world does not always permit a holiday from history; what happens abroad does not necessarily stay abroad. Obama’s mindset appears the same as Peter Beinart’s in “Mideast Policy: The Case for Sitting on Our Hands,” which argues that the last decade of American foreign policy has been “a terrible waste” because “time was on our side.” Beinart criticizes George W. Bush’s statement in his 2002 State of the Union address that he would “not wait on events.”

Bush removed a terrorist haven in Afghanistan from which an attack on America had been planned; his removal of Saddam Hussein resulted in Iran’s suspending its nuclear program and Libya giving up its own. It is doubtful that would have happened while the United States “waited.” And what we are witnessing in the Middle East today is something that may have started with Internet pictures of Iraqis voting with purple fingers in real elections.

The arc of history does not bend itself: it is people who bend it — and not those standing on the sidelines drinking slurpees

A Note on The King's Speech

George VI was not born great. He desperately shunned centre stage and came to be king only on Edward’s abdication to marry Wallis Simpson. Regnancy was thrust upon him.

The King's Speech avoids sentimentality, triumphalism and being inspirational. It avoids them and gets its excellence by confining itself to the story which it tells adroitly and vibrantly, the story's arc clear and predictible, but its many touches along the way of marvellous subtlety.

The movie opens with the humiliating failure of George's perspiration-soaked, self-paralyzing attempt to give a speech; his failures multiply. Misguided treatments make things worse. No one thinks to get at his stammer‘s underlying source. But the film itself, only partially through Logue’s idiosyncratic penetration, drills down to the difficulties in forging and maintaining intimacy given the psychological, cultural and class ridden social obstacles arrayed against it, as, for examples, when George Vth berates his son, when Edward mocks him, and when George’s own children (after his coronation) suppress their natural easiness around him and must needs adopt befitting formality.

Logue must overcome the prejudice directed at him as an uncredentialled Australian. He must confront his own conflicted feelings towards a royalty and the class distinctions that tend to reject him out of hand. In fact, Logue, for all his idiosyncrasy, acts from duty, as does his patient. Duty itself is scathingly inverted in the pernicious, outrageous dilettantism ( "Hiltler will sort it out") of Edward and of Wallis Simpson who, before marriage to Edward, is fucking a car salesman and getting daily flowers from Von Ribbentrop.

Logue’s work is necessitated by the onset of war. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Logue, finally questioned about being uncredentialled, speaks eloquently about how his techniques have grown out of his witnessing soldiers' trauma in the last war.

The King's Speech traces how Logue succeeds with George—he's a genuinely caring professional, albeit idiosyncratic, wanting to help others relieve their suffering. But the war keeps, as noted, the movie from being triumphal or inspirational. We know in fact that George never overcame his stammer. Success is a relative thing, and, as depicted in this movie, is not insulating from further hardship, further efforts, further sacrifice and from causes greater than one's self, the very ground of duty.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Robert Kaplan on Democracy in the Middle East and the Mediterranean World

Arab democracy and the return of the Mediterranean world

Robert D. Kaplan/February 27, 2011/Washington Post

With the toppling of autocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia - and other Arab dictators, such as Libya's, on the ropes - some have euphorically announced the arrival of democracy in the Middle East. But something more subtle may develop. The regimes that emerge may call themselves democracies and the world may go along with the lie, but the test of a system is how the power relationships work behind the scenes.

In states with relatively strong institutional traditions, such as Tunisia and Egypt, a form of democracy may in fact develop. But places that are less states than geographical expressions, such as Libya and Yemen, are more likely to produce hybrid regimes. Within such systems - with which history is very familiar - militaries, internal security services, tribes and inexperienced political parties compete for influence. The process produces incoherence and instability even as it combines attributes of authoritarianism and democracy. This is not anarchy so much as a groping toward true modernity.

Another obstacle to full-bore democracies emerging quickly across the Middle East is simply that young people, while savvy in the ways of social media and willing to defy bullets, can bring down a system, but they cannot necessarily govern. Hierarchical organizations are required to govern. And as those develop we will see various mixed systems - various grays instead of democracy vs. dictatorship in black-and-white terms.

When Christianity spread around the Mediterranean basin in late antiquity, it did not unify the ancient world or make it morally purer; rather, Christianity split up into various rites, sects and heresies all battling against each other. Power politics continued very much as before. Something similar may ensue with the spread of democracy.

Each Arab country's evolving system will unleash a familiar scenario: The United States had a relatively low-maintenance relationship with Mexico when it was a one-party dictatorship. But as Mexico evolved into a multiparty democracy, relations got far harder and more complex. No longer was there one man or one phone number to dial when crises arose; Washington had to lobby a host of Mexican personalities simultaneously. An era of similar complexity is about to emerge with the Arab world - and it won't be just a matter of getting things done but also of knowing who really is in charge.

The uprisings in the Middle East will have a more profound effect on Europe than on the United States. Just as Europe moved eastward to encompass the former satellite states of the Soviet Union after 1989, Europe will now expand to the south. For decades North Africa was effectively cut off from the northern rim of the Mediterranean because of autocratic regimes that stifled economic and social development while also facilitating extremist politics. North Africa gave Europe economic migrants but little else. But as its states evolve into hybrid regimes, the degree of political and economic interactions with nearby Europe will multiply. Some of those Arab migrants may return home as opportunities are created by reformist policies. The Mediterranean will become a connector, rather than the divider it has been during most of the post-colonial era.

Of course, Tunisia and Egypt are not about to join the European Union. But they will become shadow zones of deepening E.U. involvement. The European Union itself will become an even more ambitious and unwieldy project.

The true beneficiary of these uprisings in a historical and geographical sense is Turkey. Ottoman Turkey ruled North Africa and the Levant for hundreds of years in the modern era. While this rule was despotic, it was not so oppressive as to leave a lasting scar on today's Arabs. Turkey is an exemplar of Islamic democracy that can serve as a role model for these newly liberated states, especially as its democracy evolved from a hybrid regime - with generals and politicians sharing power until recently. With 75 million people and a 10 percent economic growth rate, Turkey is also a demographic and economic juggernaut that can project soft power throughout the Mediterranean.

The Middle East's march away from authoritarianism will ironically inhibit the projection of American power. Because of the complexity of hybrid regimes, American influence in each capital will be limited; Turkey is more likely to be the avatar toward which newly liberated Arabs look. America's influence is likely to be maintained less by the emergence of democracy than by continued military assistance to many Arab states and by the divisions that will continue to plague the region, especially the threat of a nuclearized, Shiite Iran.

Mitigating the loss of American power will be the geopolitical weakening of the Arab world itself. As Arab societies turn inward to rectify long-ignored social and economic grievances and their leaders in hybrid systems battle each other to consolidate power domestically, they will have less energy for foreign policy concerns.

The political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that the United States essentially inherited its political system from England and, thus, America's periodic political upheavals had to do with taming authority rather than creating it from scratch. The Arab world now has the opposite challenge: It must create from the dust of tyrannies legitimate political orders. It is less democracy than the crisis of central authority that will dominate the next phase of Middle Eastern history.

Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a correspondent for the Atlantic. He is the author of "Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power."

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Hitch on Obama on Libya

Is Barack Obama Secretly Swiss?

The administration's pathetic, dithering response to the Arab uprisings has been both cynical and naive.

Christopher Hitchens/Slate/ Feb. 25, 2011,

President Obama makes a statement on Libya, Feb. 23, 2011However meanly and grudgingly, even the new Republican speaker has now conceded that the president is Hawaiian-born and some kind of Christian. So let's hope that's the end of all that. A more pressing question now obtrudes itself: Is Barack Obama secretly Swiss?A despot now knows for sure when his time in power is well and truly up. He knows it when his bankers in Zurich or Geneva cease accepting his transfers and responding to his confidential communications and instead begin the process of "freezing" his assets and disclosing their extent and their whereabouts to investigators in his long-exploited country.

And, at precisely that moment, the U.S. government also announces that it no longer recognizes the said depositor as the duly constituted head of state. Occasionally, there is a little bit of "raggedness" in the coordination. CIA Director Leon Panetta testified to Congress that Hosni Mubarak would "step down" a day before he actually did so. But the whole charm of the CIA is that its intelligence-gathering is always a few beats off when compared with widespread general knowledge. Generally, though, the White House and the State Department have their timepieces and reactions set to Swiss coordinates.

This is not merely a matter of the synchronizing of announcements. The Obama administration also behaves as if the weight of the United States in world affairs is approximately the same as that of Switzerland. We await developments. We urge caution, even restraint. We hope for the formation of an international consensus. And, just as there is something despicable about the way in which Swiss bankers change horses, so there is something contemptible about the way in which Washington has been affecting—and perhaps helping to bring about—American impotence. Except that, whereas at least the Swiss have the excuse of cynicism, American policy manages to be both cynical and naive.

This has been especially evident in the case of Libya. For weeks, the administration dithered over Egypt and calibrated its actions to the lowest and slowest common denominators, on the grounds that it was difficult to deal with a rancid old friend and ally who had outlived his usefulness. But then it became the turn of Muammar Qaddafi—an all-round stinking nuisance and moreover a long-term enemy—and the dithering began all over again. Until Wednesday Feb. 23, when the president made a few anodyne remarks that condemned "violence" in general but failed to cite Qaddafi in particular—every important statesman and stateswoman in the world had been heard from, with the exception of Obama. And his silence was hardly worth breaking.

Echoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had managed a few words of her own, he stressed only that the need was for a unanimous international opinion, as if in the absence of complete unity nothing could be done, or even attempted. This would hand an automatic veto to any of Qaddafi's remaining allies. It also underscored the impression that the opinion of the United States was no more worth hearing than that of, say, Switzerland. Secretary Clinton was then dispatched to no other destination than Geneva, where she will meet with the U.N. Human Rights Council—an absurd body that is already hopelessly tainted with Qaddafi's membership.

By the time of Obama's empty speech, even the notoriously lenient
Arab League had suspended Libya's participation, and several of Qaddafi's senior diplomatic envoys had bravely defected. One of them, based in New York, had warned of the use of warplanes against civilians and called for a "no-fly zone." Others have pointed out the planes that are bringing fresh mercenaries to Qaddafi's side. In the Mediterranean, the United States maintains its Sixth Fleet, which could ground Qaddafi's air force without breaking a sweat. But wait! We have not yet heard from the Swiss admiralty, without whose input it would surely be imprudent to proceed.

Evidently a little sensitive to the related charges of being a) taken yet again completely by surprise, b) apparently without a policy of its own, and c) morally neuter, the Obama administration contrived to come up with an argument that maximized every form of feebleness. Were we to have taken a more robust or discernible position, it was argued, our diplomatic staff in Libya might have been endangered. In other words, we decided to behave as if they were already hostages!

The governments of much less powerful nations, many with large expatriate populations as well as embassies in Libya, had already condemned Qaddafi's criminal behavior, and the European Union had considered sanctions, but the United States (which didn't even charter a boat for the removal of staff until Tuesday) felt obliged to act as if it were the colonel's unwilling prisoner. I can't immediately think of any precedent for this pathetic "doctrine," but I can easily see what a useful precedent it sets for any future rogue regime attempting to buy time.

Leave us alone—don't even raise your voice against us—or we cannot guarantee the security of your embassy. (It wouldn't be too soon, even now, for the NATO alliance to make it plain to Qaddafi that if he even tried such a thing, he would lose his throne, and his ramshackle armed forces, and perhaps his worthless life, all in the course of one afternoon.)

Unless the administration seriously envisages a future that includes the continued private ownership of Libya and its people by Qaddafi and his terrible offspring, it's a sheer matter of prudence and realpolitik, to say nothing of principle, to adopt a policy that makes the opposite assumption. Libya is—in point of population and geography—mainly a coastline. The United States, with or without allies, has unchallengeable power in the air and on the adjacent waters.

It can produce great air lifts and sea lifts of humanitarian and medical aid, which will soon be needed anyway along the Egyptian and Tunisian borders, and which would purchase undreamed-of goodwill. It has the chance to make up for its pointless, discredited tardiness with respect to events in Cairo and Tunis. It also has a president who has shown at least the capacity to deliver great speeches on grand themes. Instead, and in the crucial and formative days in which revolutions are decided, we have had to endure the futile squawkings of a cuckoo clock.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kerstein on Beinart on Israel on Recent Matters Egyptian

Peter Beinart’s Liberal Fantasies

They're delusions Israel can't afford.

February 24, 2011/Benjamin Kerstein/Pyjamas Media

It is a difficult thing to keep one’s head when the world is in a state of euphoria. This is probably why so much of the coverage of recent events in Egypt, including the recent resignation of Hosni Mubarak and the installation of a military government, has lacked the kind of elementary skepticism that ought to be applied to any event of such potential magnitude.

To a certain extent, this is understandable. The intoxicating power of revolutionary change is very real, and can overwhelm even the most cynical personality. It becomes problematic, however, when people become so addicted to it that, like any run-of-the-mill alcoholic, the suggestion that they might have a problem throws them into a defensive rage. The reaction toward Israel’s cautious skepticism in regard to the Egyptian revolution provides a case study in the phenomenon, with many apparently intelligent and worldly journalists throwing themselves into spasms of inchoate fear and loathing at the Israelis’ refusal to jump on the happy bandwagon. What this has revealed is not so much the childlike naïveté lurking beneath the sophisticated exterior of many commentators, but also their tendency to abandon their own intelligence whenever Israel is involved.

An extraordinary example of this was published in The Daily Beast on February 7, several days before Mubarak’s resignation, titled “What Israel is Afraid of After the Egyptian Uprising.” It was penned by Peter Beinart, a former member in good standing of the American pro-Israel camp who has recently become one of its more violent critics. Beinart’s take on the situation — and I do not think it is an unusual one among American Jewish leftists and American leftists in general — is equal parts wishful thinking and willful self-deception. His thesis, to the extent that one can be gleaned from Beinart’s grab-bag of homilies, is that Israel is opposed to the Egyptian revolution because it is opposed to Arab democracy.

The reason Israel is opposed to Arab democracy is that a democratic Arab world would make it much harder for Israel to do evil unto the Palestinians. Beinart presents no evidence whatsoever that this is actually the case, and it should be noted that the Israeli government has thus far declared no opposition to democracy in Egypt, though it has expressed strong concerns about where the current upheaval in that country may be leading.

In Beinart’s eyes, however, even this elementary skepticism is simply incomprehensible and unconscionable. While he admits that “a theocracy that abrogated Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state would be bad for Israel,” he informs us that this is “unlikely” because Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood “abandoned violence decades ago, and declared that it would pursue its Islamist vision through the democratic process.” He asks, “Might the Brotherhood act differently if it gained absolute power? Sure, but it’s hard to foresee a scenario in which that happens,” and reassures us that “Mohammed ElBaradei, the closest thing the Egyptian protest movement has to a leader, has called the peace treaty with Israel ‘rock solid.’”

Indeed, Beinart appears to believe that Israel’s concerns about radical Islam are caused by nothing more than paranoia and craven self-interest. He illustrates this by drawing a rather tenuous connection between the unrest in Egypt and the Hamas regime in Gaza. In fact, Beinart appears to hold Hamas — which is nothing more than the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — in special affection.

He reminds us that the group “won the freest election in Palestinian history,” and “the organization has been basically observing a de-facto cease-fire for two years now, and in the last year its two top leaders, Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniya, have both said Hamas would accept a two-state deal if the Palestinian people endorse it in a referendum.” Any opposition to the Hamas regime meets with Beinart’s violent disapproval: “Ever since 2006,” he notes angrily, “Hamas, Egypt, Israel and the United States have colluded to enforce a blockade meant to undermine the group’s control of the Gaza Strip.” While he admits Hamas is “vile in many ways,” he nonetheless asserts that “a shift in U.S. and Israeli policy towards Hamas is long overdue.”

In his opinion, “Israel and America are better off allowing the Palestinians to create a democratically legitimate, national unity government that includes Hamas than continuing their current, immoral, failed policy.” Beinart’s obsession with Islamic theocracy in Gaza leads him back to Egypt; since a democratic Egyptian government would not, he believes, help Israel and America contain that theocracy, “partly because Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, but mostly because a policy of impoverishing the people of Gaza has little appeal among Egyptian voters.” In fact, he says, a democratic Egypt that refuses to “collude” against Hamas “may be doing Israel a favor.”According to Beinart, this somewhat counterintuitive claim is justified because “the Middle East’s tectonic plates are shifting.

For a long time, countries like Turkey and Egypt were ruled by men more interested in pleasing the United States than their own people, and as a result, they shielded Israel from their people’s anger. Now more of that anger will find its way into the corridors of power.” This is, apparently, a good thing, if only the Jews were not too stupid to realize it: “The Israeli and American Jewish right,” claims Beinart, “will see this as further evidence that all the world hates Jews, and that Israel has no choice but to turn further in on itself.

But that would be a terrible mistake. More than ever in the months and years to come, Israelis and American Jews must distinguish hatred of Israel’s policies from hatred of Israel’s very existence.” As an alternate approach, Beinart suggests, “Instead of trying to prop up a dying autocratic order, what Israel desperately needs is to begin competing for Middle Eastern public opinion, something American power and Arab tyranny have kept it from having to do.”
It must be said that Beinart is undoubtedly sincere in his opinions. Unfortunately, his article repeats almost every mistake and willful illusion the Jewish left has been indulging in since Egypt began to explode two weeks ago.

At certain points, in fact, he appears to misread even himself: He states, for example, that an Islamic regime in Egypt would be bad, but then proceeds to whitewash an organization which has advocated precisely that for the better part of a century. He claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is non-violent and democratic without bothering to wonder for a moment or two if this is a tactic adopted in the face of the threat of violent suppression by the Egyptian security forces. Even more absurdly, he dismisses the possibility that the Brotherhood could claim absolute power, even though we have an excellent historical example of a supposedly non-violent and democratic Islamic movement doing precisely that in the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Beinart is equally disingenuous regarding Hamas, and here his obfuscations come disturbingly close to deliberate lies: He claims that Hamas won a free election in 2006 without bothering to mention its seizure of absolute power in a violent coup d’etat a few months later; which would seem to undermine his rather sanguine predictions about including them in a unity government. He also admits that Hamas is “vile” but never bothers to mention why; possibly because to do so would involve admitting that Hamas is, according to its own charter, a racist, genocidal, imperialist, anti-Semitic, and anti-democratic movement. One cannot help thinking that Beinart left this out because it might lead his readers to view his claim that Israeli, American, and Egyptian resistance to such a movement is “immoral” with a certain amount of skepticism.

Beinart isn’t much better on the subject of Israel. He is — or pretends to be — completely unable to think of a single reason why Israel might be slightly nervous about events in Egypt, so he puts the whole thing down to issues which are clearly personal obsessions of his own: Gaza, the Palestinian question, etc. In fact, these issues are largely peripheral to Israel’s concerns. There is actually a very simple reason why Israel is concerned about the Egyptian revolution: absolutely nobody knows how it is going to end. A liberal democratic regime could emerge in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation, but a totalitarian theocracy is equally possible, as is a new variation on the old military regime, or simply a long descent into chaos and civil war.

Almost anything could happen at the moment, and for a small and vulnerable country like Israel, that kind of uncertainty is inherently frightening. Many Israelis, and I am one of them, hope that the liberal wing of the protest movement will win out in the end, but this is by no means a foregone conclusion. It is possible that Beinart does not understand this because he has bought, at least partially, into certain conspiratorial fantasies about Israeli power. He accuses Israel of trying to “prop up a dying autocratic order,” for example; when in fact Israel has nothing like the power to do so, even if it wanted to.

In addition, he advises Israel to fight for “Middle Eastern public opinion,” as though Israel had the extraordinary persuasive capacities required to undo the century’s worth of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda that pervades much of the Arab world. Such fantasies may be ironically reassuring to those of Beinart’s political persuasion; but they are fantasies nonetheless; and Israel does not have the luxury of fantasies.

It does seem reasonably clear, however, that Beinart’s real concern is not Israel or Egypt but America. His remark about the “American Jewish right” who cannot or will not “distinguish hatred of Israel’s policies from hatred of Israel’s very existence” is quite telling in this regard. Having recently become a critic (sometimes vitriolic) of the pro-Israel community in America — which he identifies entirely, and erroneously, with the political right — Beinart is not so much commenting on Israel’s attitude toward Egypt as he is trying to score points and settle scores with those he considers his domestic political opponents.

One imagines that this is how he manages to dismiss any possible threat to Israel’s peace with Egypt so easily; how he calls ElBaradei the leader of a movement which prides itself on being leaderless; how he describes not one but two totalitarian Islamic movements in desperately rosy terms; and how he convinces himself that the very real popular hatred of both Israel and the Jews in the Arab world does not exist.

To believe such things, moreover, is the only way Beinart can justify, to himself and others, his obvious hatred and contempt for his political rivals.

The fact that his claims are at best wishful thinking and at worst deliberately false is beside the point. This kind of thinking is pathetically narcissistic, of course, but it is a narcissism shared by many on the Jewish left who consider themselves opposed and oppressed by a monolithic, semi-fascist, pro-Israel establishment. Such fantasies, unfortunately — as Beinart unintentionally reveals — do not aid the cause of Israel or Egypt; nor do they make one a particularly perceptive, or even competent, observer of momentous events in the Middle East.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor who lives in Tel Aviv.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Joyce Carol Oates on The Fighter

The Camera at Ringside

March 10, 2011/NYRB

The Fighter a film directed by David O. Russell

The Fighter might more accurately have been titled The Fighter and His Family: it’s a boisterous, brilliantly orchestrated ensemble piece at the paradoxically near-still center of which is an Irish-American boxer (Mark Wahlberg), whose once-promising career, like his grim hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, is on what appears to be an inevitable downward spiral.

Just nominated for seven Academy Awards—including best picture and Christian Bale as best supporting actor, the current favorite in that category—the film is based on the life and career of former junior welterweight champion Micky Ward,* most famous for his three brutally hard-fought bouts with Arturo Gatti in 2002–2003.

It is also a group portrait of working-class Irish-Americans in a blighted, postindustrial landscape: the brawling, clannish, emotionally combustible Ward-Eklund family for whom Micky is the great hope and from whom, if he wants to survive, let alone prevail as a boxer of ambition, he must separate himself.

In a sequence of sharply realized scenes, not unlike the rounds of a boxing match, The Fighter pits the Ward-Eklund matriarch Alice (Melissa Leo) and her favored son, ex-boxer Dicky (Christian Bale), the half-brother of Micky, against Micky and his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams).

The film traces a highly contentious, often darkly funny tug-of-war for Micky’s soul, which is to say his career. Like Micky, the viewer is made to experience the almost literally suffocating and coercive “love” of a family for its own—the heroic, if desperate, effort that an essentially nonrebellious son like Micky must make simply to be allowed to be an adult; though he’s at least thirty years old, divorced, with a young daughter from whom he’s separated, and, in his own words, he’s “not getting any younger.” (In professional boxing, most boxers are burned out by thirty and at risk of serious injury.)

Dramatizing the actual Micky Ward’s life, but only to a degree, The Fighter follows the archetypal pattern of the generic boxing film—see Cinderella Man (2005) as a recent example, as well as the cruder, more slickly produced Rocky films—in its modestly uplifting ending. The subjects of these films are not boxers of the quality of the young, dazzling Mike Tyson or the legendary Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, or Joe Louis but journeyman fighters who’ve managed through sheer effort to win just a little more often than they’ve lost.

Poor Micky isn’t even, by nature, aggressive; he’s far from the “raging bull” counterpuncher Jake LaMotta of Martin Scorsese’s film, so desperate in his ring stratagems that even his victories have an air of the haphazard and the tentative.

By default, since he’s losing a crucial fight with the British boxer Shea Neary, Micky falls back upon the notorious strategy that brought Ali victory against George Foreman in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire: the “rope-a-dope” ploy in which the weaker boxer allows the stronger to literally punch himself out on the weaker boxer’s body through round after devastating round, until, as in an astonishing fairy-tale reversal of fortune, the “weaker” boxer knocks out the “stronger.” It’s a strategy that gave the thirty-two-year-old Ali an unexpected, historic victory against his twenty-five-year-old opponent, but certainly contributed to Ali’s physical deterioration, including the Parkinsonian condition that has afflicted him now for decades.

The effect of such a beating on the physically weaker Micky Ward may lie sometime in the future—The Fighter doesn’t come near suggesting the physical consequences of Micky’s fighting style. We never see a doctor examining poor Micky though, in fact, following even his victory against Gatti in 2002, he’d had to be hospitalized, as he was again following the punishing rematch fights with Gatti, both of which he lost. It’s a relief to the viewer to learn at the film’s end that Micky has retired from boxing—not a moment too soon.

In his portrayal of the talented but unexceptional athlete who makes of himself through dogged, diligent training a “champion”—if only junior welterweight—Mark Wahlberg is quietly convincing, the film’s anchor as he is the film’s core; his is a steady, stolid performance, subtly nuanced in the way of the young Al Pacino—a kind of “acting” indistinguishable from “real life.”

By contrast—and the contrast is considerable—Christian Bale as Dicky Eklund, Micky’s half-brother and trainer, gives a tour de force performance, not unlike Joe Pesci’s in his first major film role as LaMotta’s manic brother Joey in Raging Bull. Dicky is a former boxer himself, whose single moment of glory is his having “knocked down” Sugar Ray Leonard years before in a match that Leonard won. Dicky is Micky’s trainer, when he manages to show up at the gym, clearly intelligent, shrewd, self-destructive, and unreliable—a crack addict, yet charismatic—with the gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes of the doomed.

It’s a measure of Christian Bale’s brilliant performance that the viewer can’t look anywhere else when Dicky is on screen, even if our feeling for him verges upon revulsion: there’s a perverse heroism about Dicky, who is deluded into believing that an HBO film (Crack Addiction in America), in which his problems are the subject of clinical pathos, is somehow a film about him. Another vibrantly kinetic performance is that of Amy Adams as Charlene,

Micky’s tough, tenderly protective bartender girlfriend who, it’s revealed, has been to college and was once a champion high jumper: Charlene scarcely hesitates before flinging herself into the Ward-Eklund fray, taking on not only Micky’s harridan-mother and manipulative half-brother, but Micky’s seven harpie-sisters, irresistibly awful on the screen, yet strangely touching, clearly their mother’s offspring and as frightening in the aggregate as figures in a Hogarthian allegory.

And then there is Melissa Leo in the role of her career as the nightmare mother-manager Alice, as determined to exploit her boxer-son as she’s sublimely indifferent to the terrible danger she places him in by matching him with opponents who outweigh him by as much as twenty pounds—the demonic mother who sincerely believes that she’s doing the right thing, her witchy face contorted with disbelief that anyone should doubt her good intentions. Bouffant-haired, improbably slim after having borne nine children (!), Leo’s Alice reminded me of James Joyce’s description of Ireland—”The old sow that eats her farrow.”

Despite its stellar performances, The Fighter is a curious film—mysteriously incomplete in essential ways, over- determined and repetitive in more predictable ways. So sharply reminiscent of Scorsese’s Raging Bull that one might expect to see Scorsese’s name among the credits, The Fighter is, like the earlier film, a portrayal of boxing as the public, professional, and singularly ugly face of what might be called the primal pathology of the human condition—the compulsion to fight, to subject oneself to injury and humiliation, matched with the hardly less perverse compulsion to witness such extremes of human endurance in a brutalized public place.

(Both The Fighter and Raging Bull depict ringside observers reminiscent of those quasi- bestial figures in George Bellows’s early, highly unromantic boxing paintings Both Members of This Club and Stag at Sharkey’s.)

Unlike Raging Bull—which suggests, in the nightmare-surreal scenes of the dogged, flailing “bull” middleweight LaMotta being defeated by the superior boxing skills of Sugar Ray Robinson, that there is a transcendent, bitter beauty to this grim sport—The Fighter never suggests that boxing allows superior athletes to perform brilliantly and memorably.

Micky Ward and his opponents are not athletes of distinction but brawlers in the mode of earlier boxers like LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, and Rocky Marciano, working-class heroes of the 1950s, fighting for money, all offense and little defense, as if the crude, coarse, savage desire of the crowd were manifest in the ring, never mind how even the winning boxer might be seriously, irrevocably injured. Such matches are not boxing, with its myriad skills and particular, cherished histories, but mere fighting.

It’s traditional for boxers, especially young boxers in training, to study films of great fights under the tutelage of their trainers, and in this study, they acquire a reverence for past champions, as well as exemplary models to follow: yet we don’t have a glimpse of Micky Ward in such a setting, as if, for him and his entourage, boxing had no history and were essentially a brainless endeavor. There is not even an excited awareness of the reigning welterweight/light-middleweight champion and crowd-pleaser of the era—the spectacular Oscar De La Hoya.

The only glimpse we have of a superior boxer, the wily and ingenious Sugar Ray Leonard, is refracted through the coke-blurred memory of Dicky Eklund, whose delusion is that, for a split-second at least, he was the equal of one of the great middleweight boxers of the second half of the twentieth century; what pathos, then, when Dicky meets Leonard at a boxing match and tries to engage him in conversation, while the celebrity boxer, barely polite, tries to discourage him before turning and walking away even as, undeterred, Dicky calls happily after him.

The most puzzling omission in The Fighter is the trilogy of fights with Arturo Gatti in 2002–2003 that made both Ward and Gatti famous. At least in the netherworld of contemporary boxing, both men are enshrined in the same way, not exactly condescending but qualified, that LaMotta and Graziano are enshrined in boxing history: boxers who fought heedlessly, desperately, with few defensive skills and much “heart,” to please voracious and unforgiving boxing audiences with a taste for blood.

The Gatti–Ward fights far better display Micky Ward’s boxing skills and his indomitable spirit than the abbreviated bouts portrayed in The Fighter, for, in Gatti, an Italian-born Canadian with a fierce and seemingly unstoppable ring personality, Ward met his just slightly more talented doppelgänger. (Gatti supposedly said, “I always wondered what would happen if I met my twin—now I have.”) Ending The Fighter before the great brawling fights with Gatti is equivalent to ending King Lear before the blinding of Gloucester and the murder of Cordelia: one might do it, and still have a moving story, but why?

Since its release in 1980, when it received mixed critical reviews, Raging Bull has attained the status of a genuine American classic, not merely a cult film. Admirers of the Scorsese film may see in The Fighter a work of directorial homage that compares respectably with its distinguished predecessor.

As Raging Bull begins with the middle-aged, overweight, ex-middleweight champion doing his painfully unfunny nightclub comedy routine, then flashes back to 1941 when LaMotta was a young, undisciplined, and audacious fighter, so The Fighter begins with film footage of Dicky Eklund being interviewed for an HBO documentary—only later do we learn the nature of the documentary, having been led to believe, at the outset, that it’s a documentary about the “comeback” of Dicky Eklund, Micky’s half-brother.

(These crude-rhyming nicknames are quintessentially working-class Irish, suggesting the playful camaraderie of a pub society in which men remain adolescent and “unattached” through their lives, so long as they don’t return to their homes where wives and mothers exert authority.)

As Raging Bull ends with LaMotta as a retired boxer, a figure of pathos whose marriage to a beautiful, much-younger woman (played by a first-time actress named Cathy Moriarty) has ended in divorce, and whose life has careened downward since, so The Fighter ends with a return to the Ward-Eklund half-brothers and, in a cinematic sleight of hand that arouses a stirring of pity and terror, a brief film clip of the “real” Micky and Dicky of 2010—the former looking like a slightly older and thicker-bodied Mark Wahlberg, and the latter looking much older than the mercurial Christian Bale, his Irish boy’s face now ravaged and pale as a corpse’s.

One would have liked to see the entire Ward-Eklund clan—the ferocious mother Alice and her seven ferociously loyal daughters—and, not least, Micky Ward’s real-life wife Charlene.

Like Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004), a similar amalgam of gritty pathos, unabashed sentiment, and very good boxing footage that earned accolades for its principal actors, Eastwood and Hilary Swank, The Fighter is, if not a champion film for all time, a very good, poignant, and commendable expression of its era—postindustrial working-class urban America, bereft of history as it is bereft of jobs, strong unions, pride in one’s work.

Lowell, Massachusetts, is the ideal setting for this modest fairy tale of an underdog who finally comes out on top—if but temporarily, and with what cost to him, no one quite knows or seems to care. Boxing may be cruel and pitiless to its most ardent practitioners, but bountiful to its gifted chroniclers.

Me: ( from a note to a friend)

Okay Ken, I read the essay and I liked it a lot overall. It's humane in being accessible and well written but also crisply intelligent.

I'm interested in your take on the essay since you are yourself very knowing in the ways of boxing. Joyce Carol Oates is no slouch in this department of course, having written about, thought about and enthused about boxing for decades. She writes her review from the ground of her expertise about boxing. And it shows, mostly to the good.

I saw her lecture on boxing and literature at the Toronto Annual Festival of Authors and was taken by her noting how boxing translates fighting into a highly skilled martial art.

Anyway, my own thought is that for as much as I like her review, which is a lot, and for much as I agree with her well analyzed plaudits for the movie, I part company with her at the point of her criticism of it. I think running through her criticism is her wish that The Fighter be, to the extent that she notes what it lacks, a different movie than it is. The clearest example of this, to me, is her critique that the movie didn't show any of boxing's glory, its transcendent artfulness. My answer to this is that the movie didn’t intend to show boxing in that light, nor did it need to: no diktats as to how movies treat their subjects here allowed.

But as to the overall excellence of her review, I am reminded why she is Joyce Carol Oates and I’m not, to steal an old line.


Itzik, I essentially agree with both you and Joyce Carol. I think that boxing particularly on the screen can resonate allegorically or realistically.

I agree that Raging Bull hit the mark on both counts which is why it is hailed as such a great movie. The Fighter seemed to me to convey the banal, working class, almost dull and drab side of the sport. Believe me, boxing, especially with bad or under talented fighters is hardly uplifting as a soul searching reading of The Odyssey. I've done both and even in my best fights, experientially it never came near to reading Homer.

I have seen and experienced a boxing that is near desperate and cruel in its false promise of social and economic elevation. That kind of boxing is crude, mean, and artless. But, nonetheless, it still hurts like hell even when a bad fighter hits you and whether you're at the Garden or a local dive, it still is hard to hold up your arms for 3 minutes at a time while trying to hit your opponent, and more to the point, when someone else is trying to hit you...I think this is the milieu that The Fighter tried to capture and I think it accomplished this task.

Most of the fighters competing are closer to the artless and unspectacular Mickey than they are to the Ali, Leonard, or Louis anomalies. Still, Joyce Carol Oates knows her boxing and I sure would like to buy her drink of preference, ask her if my pal Itzik can join in and talk some serious pugilism with someone who knows and cares.