Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Great Essay by Franklin Foer in Guise of a Review of a Book on the Lawsuit Between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman

Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America

By Alan Ackerman

(Yale University Press, 361 pp., $35)


Mary McCarthy preferred the old-fashioned way. You might not know this from her three divorces and the anatomical precision of her bedroom scenes, but she had a strong streak of cultural conservatism. She rejected feminism and lamented the disappearance of Latin from the schoolhouse. The modern fascination with technology annoyed her. Until her death, she pecked away on a Hermes (non-electric) typewriter and ground her coffee using a physically demanding hand crank. And when, in the fall of 1979, she slowly mounted the set of the Dick Cavett show, it was fairly obvious that she did not own a television or have a deep grasp of the conventions of the medium. “I hate to talk on the television,” she stiffly announced to the rolling cameras.

The 1970s had been a hermetic decade for her. After covering the Watergate hearings for the London Observer, she disappeared into her Paris flat, editing the lectures of her dearest friend Hannah Arendt for posthumous publication. If you were young, you likely did not know about her scathing criticism or satiric fiction—what Esquire termed “Mary McCarthyism” and what Alfred Kazin hyperbolically tagged her “wholly destructive critical mind.” But Dick Cavett remembered that Mary McCarthy, and asked leading questions to draw her out.

At the time, the intelligentsia might not have wished to be caught too loudly praising Cavett. But from the vantage of the present, his show looks like the televised version of Partisan Review. He didn’t just feature the likes of S.J. Perelman, Orson Welles, and John Updike, he also gave them the time to make robust arguments. Rather than trim his interview with McCarthy, he presented it over two evenings. Those were the days.

There were two sides to Cavett—a clever imp and a jovial bore. His open-ended questions, in that flattened prairie murmur, could act like a glass of warm milk on the way to bed. Indeed, on the night that the McCarthy interview aired, the ailing playwright Lillian Hellman had returned to her Upper East Side townhouse from dinner with her nurse and turned on Cavett, despite her creeping blindness, hoping that his voice would induce sleep.

But Cavett’s occasionally numbing manner masked a gift for instigating literary skirmishes that attracted tabloid attention. He seeded fights by orchestrating Dada pairings of guests (Truman Capote with the running back Jim Brown and the segregationist Lester Maddox) and by cajoling rivals to sit across from one another (most famously Norman Mailer’s berserk assault on Gore Vidal). Despite McCarthy’s advancing age, or perhaps because of it, Cavett knew she would be easy to bait into an outburst. And so he asked her to name “overrated” contemporary writers.

McCarthy gently deflected the troublemaking question, suggesting that over-praise was no longer a cultural plague. But Cavett persisted: “We don’t have the overpraised writer anymore?” “At least I’m not aware of it,” McCarthy replied. Since hedging was profoundly out of character for her, she proceeded to add, “The only one I can think of is a holdover like Lillian Hellman, who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past.” Cavett knew that he had stumbled onto good television. “What is dishonest about her?” he asked. “Everything,” McCarthy replied. “But I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” When Lillian Hellman heard the quip in her bed, she laughed. By the time her assistant arrived for work the next morning, Hellman had called her lawyer, and set in motion a $2.25 million libel suit against McCarthy.

That Hellman and McCarthy would despise one another is not surprising. Each had good reason to view the other as her evil twin. Hellman wrote plays for Broadway; McCarthy reviewed theater for Partisan Review. They were both celebrated memoirists, whose legends stemmed, in some measure, from the frankness with which they discussed their sex lives. Where McCarthy cast her lot with the Trotskyists and remained with them as they morphed into liberal cold warriors (until she broke with them over Vietnam), Hellman was a Stalinist, invited to meet Uncle Joe in Moscow. Their politics reflected their literary sensibilities. McCarthy was a tough-minded realist and unstinting in pointing out the ugly flaws in herself and in her characters. Hellman wrote melodrama, erecting villains and heroes, none of the latter larger than herself, and depicting the moral choices of the world as a series of easy answers to epic questions.

In other words, Hellman’s libel suit against McCarthy came freighted with world-historical issues. Alan Ackerman has reminded us of these stakes in his interesting and somewhat overwrought book. He rightly suggests that McCarthy’s suit against Hellman was the culmination of the irreconcilable arguments about liberalism that were implicit in their collected works and biographies. That is what lifts the story of this squabble out of the realm of gossip and into the realm of ideas.

NEITHER MCCARTHY NOR Hellman was adept at obscuring her true feelings about the libel suit: both of them perversely loved it. McCarthy sent her lawyer long memos filled with the ample evidence of Hellman’s fraudulence that she had uncovered. Even though the legal fees nearly bankrupted her—and they would have done so if not for an emergency infusion of cash from Deborah Pease, the publisher of The Paris Review—she considered confrontation central to her professional bona fides and her mission as an intellectual.

McCarthy’s tendency to fling herself into a quarrel, the more adversaries the better, was already present in her earliest writing. Two years out of Vassar, she invested herself with the authority to pillage the entire publishing establishment. In 1935, she co-wrote a series of essays for The Nation called “Our Critics, Right or Wrong.” Dead wrong, as it turned out. And McCarthy had no problem naming names—The New York Times columnist J. Donald Adams, the proletariat-chic reviewers of the New Masses, and a long list of other eminences. They were charged with nothing less than the “debasement of taste,” for publishing reviews that failed to judge fiction rigorously. While brushing aside the achievements of modern literature with “oracular certainty,” they reduced criticism “to a quivering jelly of uncritical emotion.” The Times dubbed the series “a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of reviewers and critics.”

This series disclosed the sensibility that would undergird all of McCarthy’s criticism, fiction, and politics. She abhorred opinions that were withheld, or were reshaped in order to please their audience or to serve some unstated agenda. Her writing was a kind of intellectual’s muckraking, calling out the hypocrites and shaming the overrated. She venerated factuality and precision, stuffing her novels full of detailed descriptions. “The fetishism of fact” is a “splendid sickness,” she exulted.

To her critics, McCarthy’s instinct to expose and denounce seemed cruel. Even her friend Dwight Macdonald, who often defended her against those attacks, anxiously quipped, “When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific. When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open.” Indeed, like many of McCarthy’s friends, Macdonald made several veiled appearances in her fiction, although he never registered any complaints with her. To complain would have required admitting that he provided the basis for her characters, and such an admission would be far too crushing a confession of his own blemishes. McCarthy had a gift for compressing acute psychological assessments into a damning detail—for uncovering the most painful and, therefore, most telling character flaw. In the case of Macdonald, she perfectly mimicked his anxieties about his failure to write a Big Book, the way he carried around his notes for a project that everybody knew he would never finish.

When her friends and acquaintances identified themselves in McCarthy’s fiction, a task that usually required little straining, they sometimes found themselves joining Hellman in placing irate calls to their lawyers. Philip Rahv, the remarkable editor of Partisan Review, initiated (and then quickly withdrew) a suit alleging 132 violations of his rights after his thinly veiled appearance as the imperious editor Will Taub in McCarthy’s early novel The Oasis. Almost fifteen years later, the Herald Tribune quoted McCarthy’s Vassar classmates griping about how she had barely disguised them in The Group.

THEIR IRE IS not difficult to comprehend. Using fiction—where artifice provides the grounds for denying any intention of specific targeting—to point out the flaws of friends smacks of cowardice. But McCarthy applied the same tough-mindedness in her memoirs, where she often reserved the roughest treatment for herself. Her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood provides both a distillation of her factualism and the psychological explanation for why she clung so tightly to it. Although the book is set against her time with the Ladies of the Sacred Heart and Sundays spent at mass, it is really about her helpless navigation of orphanhood. Born in 1912, McCarthy spent her earliest and happiest years in Seattle. Her family lived off an allowance, provided by her Catholic grandfather in Minnesota. But her grandfather accused her father of spending the allowance too freely. Mary’s whole family was instructed to move to Minnesota, where they could be observed more closely. They unwisely made their long train trip to the Midwest in the summer of the Spanish influenza. By the time they reached North Dakota, her mother could hardly breathe. A few days after they reached Minneapolis, both her parents were dead.

The fact of her parents’ deaths was kept from her, a discovery that she proudly made many months later. Her grandparents then placed her with a childless aunt and her terrifying husband, Uncle Myers. Mary and her siblings were deprived of toys, except for the few hours when the grandparents who had given them as gifts came to visit. For a time, they were forced to stand outside for three hours every morning and once again in the afternoon, regardless of how low the Minnesota thermometer dropped. When she won an essay contest at age ten, Myers rewarded her with a razor-strop beating, lest she become too full of herself. “It was as though these ignorant people, at sea with four frightened children, had taken a Dickens novel—Oliver Twist, perhaps, or Nicholas Nickleby—for a navigation chart.” But to the outside world, there was little sign of these depraved conditions; many years passed before anyone intervened on her behalf. It is here that we can see why McCarthy became such an aggressive whistleblower, why her fiction and many volumes of memoir dwell on the dark moments that occur in private life, why she worked so fervently to expose liars.

She had published the recollections in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood over nearly a decade as essays in The New Yorker and elsewhere. By the time she assembled them into a book, she had begun to doubt some of her own memories. Many of these doubts originated in letters she had received from another uncle, contesting her recollections. McCarthy didn’t respond defensively to the questions. She clinically investigated them in italicized epilogues that follow each chapter. These brutal post-mortems analyze the failings of her memory with utter detachment. (“There are cases where I am not sure myself whether I am making something up.”) It is as if she has entered the confessional box, just as she did as a girl, only the sins that now gnawed at her were sins against the God of Fact.

Mary McCarthy was never a sustained or systematic political thinker, although you could always count on her to join a symposium or attend a congress of intellectuals. When she issued her political opinions, she did so with the same spirit that guided her criticism and fiction—the same zeal for transparency. She turned against Stalinism as a young woman because she abhorred the mendacity of the Communist Party and its acolytes, the front groups and the underground pretensions. When Lillian Hellman helped organize the fellow-traveling Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1949, McCarthy registered as a delegate and confronted the fellow-traveling critic F.O. Matthiessen, who had described Emerson as a forefather of American communism. If Emerson were a Soviet citizen, she asked, would he be permitted to write?

By thrusting herself into controversy, McCarthy guaranteed that she would become a subject of attack herself. Some of these attacks were fair. Even her son conceded her “possibly exhibitionist tendency.” This description did not contradict her account of herself in her memoirs, in which she describes how her thirst for attention led her to stage childhood stunts and dream of a career in theater. Others, such as Kazin, saw her as a self-righteous pedant who set out to remind readers “of the classical learning they had despised, the social lapses they could no longer overlook.” Not an attractive personal quality, perhaps, and not necessarily the temperament of a great novelist—but this quality fortified her as a critic and a thinker, and reflected an unwillingness to relax her standards and muster anything less than outrage at mediocrity.

After she devastatingly reviewed a collection of Kenneth Tynan’s bouncy celebrity profiles—“such journalism can be produced by automation, with the reader’s chuckles built in”—her like-minded friend Elizabeth Hardwick asked, “Isn’t it awful to be in your forties and still find yourself attacking people?” McCarthy replied, “Oh Lord yes, I know just what you mean. I don’t want to do it. It’s something for young people to do. But they don’t do it!”

FOR ANYONE WHO shared McCarthy’s concern for precision, Lillian Hellman was a particularly infuriating figure of popular veneration. She was a spectacular liar. Her biographers have thoroughly documented her mendacity; her closest friends testified to it. Memoir, to state the obvious, is not an ideal genre for a writer with this particular pathology. But Hellman’s first book of recollections, An Unfinished Woman, received more adulation than any of her plays. She never wrote for the theater again, publishing instead two further memoiristic volumes. In its raw form, her life had all the makings of a great narrative—a chaotic childhood set, in part, in carnivalesque New Orleans; early success in a field that did not often reward women; a life of political commitment that included cavorting with Hemingway in war-torn Barcelona; a thirty-year affair with the noir novelist (and, for that matter, noir character) Dashiell Hammett. Hellman was hardly a conventional beauty, but she leveraged her wit and her charisma to attract a legion of lovers. In sum: she invented herself, and in her memoirs kept right on inventing.

Reading Mary McCarthy’s memoirs can occasionally require great effort—her self-flagellation can become tedious; her terrible honesty can feel, well, just terrible. Hellman, by comparison, is popcorn entertainment, unburdened by doubts or self-consciousness, packaged in perfectly crafted scenes. If you approach Hellman’s books with any knowledge of her mendacity, nearly every episode begins to smell of contrivance. As one of her biographers shrewdly pointed out: the more Hellman packed a scene with detail, the greater the likelihood of fabrication. The most famous instance of this is the “Julia” chapter of Pentimento, her final memoir, later adapted into a Jane Fonda movie. She tells the story of how she aided the Austrian resistance in the 1930s, an episode that almost certainly never happened to her and was filched from the experience of a medical student named Muriel Gardiner, with whom she later shared a lawyer.

There is a certain pathos to the improving touches that Hellman added to her life story. Despite everything, she did not consider herself interesting enough to leave herself unembroidered. She felt compelled to keep pumping out new volumes of memoir, further burnishing her own myth, even after she had thoroughly exhausted her supply of anecdotes. But it was not just Hellman’s general proclivity toward untruths that bothered McCarthy. She was most appalled by Hellman’s book Scoundrel Time, her most outrageous memoir of all.

SCOUNDREL TIME, WHICH appeared in 1976, recounts Hellman’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952. It was indeed a terrible time. Hellman had watched Hammett land in jail for refusing to answer the committee’s questions. Since she was unwilling to follow him to the slammer, she worked with her lawyer Joseph Rauh to carve out a risky strategy. She told the committee that she would consent to answer any questions about herself, while asserting (rather dubiously) the Fifth Amendment to avoid questions about anyone else. At the hearing Rauh distributed a headline-grabbing letter explaining this position, written in a far feistier tone than her actual testimony: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

Hellman’s version of these events had several fundamental problems. In the book, she flatly denies ever having been a member of the Communist Party—a lie blatantly contradicted by an initial draft of her letter to the committee, uncovered by her biographer Carl Rollyson, in which she concedes that she had officially joined for the years 1938-1940, the time of Stalin’s pact with Hitler. Her testimony before HUAC was plenty dramatic, but she was not content with events as they had actually happened. She added an anonymous voice shouting to her as she testifies, “Thank God somebody finally had the guts to do it”—a voice that no one, including Rauh, can remember. Rauh also accused her of inventing a phone call from the Washington power lawyer Thurman Arnold, supposedly advising her to ditch her risky strategy at the last moment before her testimony.

But the strangest part of the book is its distribution of moral approbation. Hellman has nothing negative to say about communism, really: “Most of the communists I had met seemed to me people who wanted to make a better world.” What’s more, she has almost nothing bad to say about her right-wing accusers, whom she largely absolves. “I do not think they believed much, if anything, of what they said.” Instead, she hoards her ire for the liberal intellectuals who she claims failed to rush to her defense. “Only a very few raised a finger.” They used the sins of Stalinism as an “excuse to join those who should have been their hereditary enemies.” As Irving Howe pointed out, in a wonderfully white-hot essay rebutting Hellman, this charge was absurd. Her own lawyer was a founder of Americans for Democratic Action and the quintessential cold war liberal. Partisan Review published its own critique of the Red Scare—and Mary McCarthy had condemned it in speeches. Perhaps they could have shouted their complaints louder, but that was hardly Hellman’s argument. What really upset her was that liberals viewed the matter with greater complexity: the shameful treatment of American Communists by HUAC did not make them innocent.

MCCARTHY AND HELLMAN never had a personal relationship. But their first encounter sent them down a path of enmity. It came at a dinner party in 1948, hosted by the president of Sarah Lawrence College. Before they had been introduced to each other, McCarthy strolled into a sunroom and overheard Hellman denouncing John Dos Passos to a group of students. Hellman accused him of having “sold out” in the Spanish Civil War because “[when] he got to Madrid he didn’t like the food.” (She claims in An Unfinished Woman that he did not bring any of his own provisions and ungratefully consumed everyone else’s.) Even though McCarthy disliked the rightward turn in Dos Passos’s politics, she despised Hellman’s glib assault on the novelist’s honor. A bad paella wasn’t the reason for his disillusionment with the Loyalists, she insisted; he reversed his allegiance after watching the communists murder his friends, along with many other Trotskyists and anarchists.

The idea that Hellman’s opponents might be motivated by high ideals offended her. In a passage in An Unfinished Woman, a dinner companion in London admits to being confused about the Spanish Civil War, and his unbothered neutrality launches her into a fit of apoplexy. She storms out of the party and returns to her hotel, where she flops angrily onto the bed with such force that she bounces to the floor and sprains her ankle. Her capacity for ignoring any evidence that complicated or contradicted her beloved causes is so great that even though (or maybe because) she spent five months in Moscow in 1937 at the height of Stalin’s terror, she refused to believe the regime was presiding over purges and show trials. “I saw a number of diplomats and journalists,” she recalled many years later, “but they talked such gobbledygook, with the exception of Walter Duranty and Joseph Barnes, one couldn’t pick the true charges from the wild hatred.” Duranty and Barnes: her favored sources, therefore, were the two Westerners who arguably did the most to obstruct the full view of Stalin’s worst crimes.

This is the dark side of Hellman’s melodramatic mind. She disdained liberalism’s self-conscious gestures toward complexity and pragmatism. In 1964, she slapped Arthur Miller for precisely this sin: “a little breast beating and little apology.... Two sides to every question and all that rot.” The other side to this question, of course, is that Miller took a far bolder stand in the HUAC hearings than Hellman, when he invoked the First Amendment and refused to answer a single question. She was not one for breast-beating.

ALAN ACKERMAN REPRESENTS the sort of analytical complexity that Hellman found so contemptible. He sees merit in both sides of the Hellman v. McCarthy question. Of course, he cannot deny that Hellman lied, and about consequential matters. Still, he feels that she did not deserve to be mauled by McCarthy with what he regards as indecency—a “hyperbolic talking point.” And he strains to find reasons for sympathizing with Hellman and her “elliptical” style of autobiography. Ackerman seems to believe that she should have a right to edit her own story for public consumption. In his view, the right to control the presentation of one’s self is central to any meaningful concept of privacy. “Public conversation,” he argues, with an eye on our own combative time, “requires not only a measure of transparency but also selectivity.”

Ackerman mounts this tepid (and somewhat confusing) defense of Hellman in order to more convincingly inflate the libel suit into a parable of clashing values—transparency versus privacy; full-throated argument versus mutual respect. The fact that their disagreement escalated into a legal dispute is the ultimate example, he argues, of “the failure of public conversation in America.” But this interpretation, however generous in spirit, gives Hellman too much credit. She was not at all interested in preserving mutual respect in discourse. What she wanted was to see McCarthy bleed—a sadistic course that she, unlike McCarthy, could afford to take, given her personal wealth and her pro bono lawyer. When her friend Roger Straus tried to convince her to drop the suit, Hellman replied, “No, I’m gonna teach her a thing or two.”

What made her suit particularly diabolical was that Hellman had emerged from the 1950s as a great champion of civil liberties, even starting a group called the Committee for Public Justice, which was formed in part to protect “basic rights of speech.” (To sidestep the charge of hypocrisy, she closed the committee.) And McCarthy was not the first instance of her attempting to silence her critics. When Diana Trilling was about to publish a collection of essays that included a stinging critique of Scoundrel Time, Hellman called Little, Brown, Trilling’s publisher, and demanded that they pull the book. And the house callowly yanked it. But Hellman wasn’t finished. Norman Mailer had contributed an effusive blurb to Trilling’s dust jacket—and after Hellman gave “Normie” the treatment, he edited his blurb into an unprintable garble.

With her lawsuit, Hellman lucked into a sympathetic judge. Presented with a myriad of opportunities to dismiss the case-McCarthy’s statement was clearly intended as a joke; it was an act of literary criticism; Hellman was a public figure—he declined to reject it. If Hellman had prevailed, she would have succeeded in turning harsh literary criticism into a legally punishable offense. But she did not prevail. Four years into the suit, she died, which ended the matter. This fact did little to becalm McCarthy, who told The New York Times that “I’m absolutely unregenerate ... I didn’t want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that.”

Ackerman does an admirable job of tying this case to the great issues of the mid-twentieth century. He uses Hellman and McCarthy as a pretext for fascinating digressions about John Dewey’s commission on Leon Trotsky, the history of Latin instruction in America, and the culture’s attitude toward abortion in the 1930s. But finally he is too eager to wring his hands about their mutual nastiness, which he views as a harbinger of cultural apocalypse. The case, he writes, “heralded the age in which we find ourselves with James Frey, Oprah Winfrey, Rush Limbaugh, and dysfunctional governments on local, state, and national levels.”

While anyone who has spent ten minutes flipping cable channels will agree with his grim assessment of our own “national conversation,” Ackerman does not come close to making the case that this dispute prefigured the coming profusion of dreck. In fact, he unintentionally proves the opposite: the Hellman-McCarthy saga was evidence of cultural vibrancy, where a popular television show gave voice to real intellectuals, and tabloid contretemps were grounded in urgent political and historical issues, and a writer was willing to risk her life savings and her reputation for the sake of defending a good one-liner. The Hellman-McCarthy fight may have been entertaining, but it was not conceived as entertainment. We may be as nasty as they were in those days, but we are also more trivial and more shallow.


I loved the review and the extremely knowledgeable and exceedingly well written essay that surrounds it. I haven't read a long piece by Foer before and am mightily impressed. He has a great sensibility. No wonder Peretz once wrote of him that "he's the smartest guy I know."

What a couple of doozies these two women were! Only intellectuals and belle lettrists totally socked into their own insular versions of "groves of academe" could have engaged for so long in such a cat fight law suit and thrived on it. They also, it strikes me, deserved each other. They both seemed to have suffered from the syndromes of literapathy and of litigapathy. Common to both syndromes is the unbalanced substitution of art, in the former, and litigation, in the latter, for life.

I haven't read Ackerman's book but as presented by Foer I get the sense, as says Foer, that he hasn't at all made the case for the law suit as the harbinger of today's trash television in all its stripes.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Donal Og

Courtesy of J. Rice

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday
and myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother has said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith's forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Some Preliminary Thoughts on David Milch's Deadwood


This article is ultimately soporific.

The argument tries to make moral relativism and moral diversity or moral pluralism synonymous but in the process hopelessly garbles the meaning of moral relativism. The argument also doesn't understand itself as it sits on the brink of an insight it fails to think through: it says Deadwood at its core measures the distance between conventional pieties and political moral self certainty (see my last sentence) as modes of a moral absolutism and the absolute inversion of those pieties and self certainties in its representations of evil and depravity as the way things are.

What the true application of the insight should be-and it's alluded to but not finally made out in the article--is the distance between the clinging to the illusions of a beneficent God and sheer self righteousness on the one hand and on the other unassailable evil and depravity as the conditions of existence, under which conditions man must make himself morally whole as best he can. That effort at wholesness can only be dimly realized and occurs in occasional flashes of secular revelation and kindness.

These are evident in Swearengen murdering the ever-suffering reverend to put him out of his misery while at the same time Cochran berates in Job like intensity a God that would allow the reverend so to suffer and that would allow the wretched suffering and human decimation the doctor witnesses in the civil war. It is an essential thematic paradox that Swearengen's act of kindness must come from murder and from his utter cynicism over, and utter disregard for, the value of any particular human life at odds with his own self interested ends.

Finally, the article, in some unintended irony, is itself pious in its jejune argument that at its essence in Deadwood Milch pitches human interconnectedness, the collapsing of self and other, as the route out of the the evil and depravity seeming to mark existence. For the truth of Deadwood is that there is no such way out--these depravities are as indelible on us as the mark of Cain; there is no possibility of the collapsing of self and other. Amelioration, such as it will come, resides only in a tamping down derived from a kind of civic evolution, manifest in law and order, and in the occasional synthesis of interest and goodness in some of the civically powerful--essentially Swearengen--guiding community life and existence.

In this, Deadwood posits the fundamental difference between the evil rooted in, and modified by, pragmatic interest of Swearengen, who can see that what lies in his interest will spring from Deadwood's own civic betterment and the sheer evil for its own sake of Tolliver. For Tolliver can see no such connection and will facilitate the true "cocksuckers"--Hearst and Wolcott--who will themselves try to victimize and corrupt the camp to gain their ends, ends which ultimately comprise detached power and wealth for their own sakes as modes of evil for its own sake.

(Part of the article's deluded piety shows in the stretch of it that sees Deadwood as a critique, in part, of the moral absolutism of George W. Bush.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Inspired Review of an Inspired Movies Based on an Inspired Book


BY ROGER EBERT / October 6, 2010/Chicago Sun-Times

When Secretariat died at 19, my friend Bill Nack told me the autopsy revealed that the animal's heart was 2 and a half times the size of an average horse's. Bill had followed the horse for its entire life and wrote the book Secretariat, which inspired this film.

Bill and I became good friends at the University of Illinois in 1962. I remember him telling me in the 1970s about a racehorse he admired with great passion. I thought it was curious that Nack, who could recite long passages from Fitzgerald and Eliot by heart, had been lured away from literature by a racehorse.

Now I understand. He found literature in a racehorse.

Bill has been the close friend of a lifetime. I would call that not a conflict of interest in writing this review, but more of a declaration. I have no fear in suggesting that his 20 years as Secretariat's biographer and his daily presence on the set contributed materially to this film. "Secretariat" just knows all sorts of things, and many of them I knew from Bill telling me over the years. They also grow from his love of horses, which began when he was a stable boy.

Let me tell you a story.

When Bill was a reporter at Newsday, he climbed on a desk at an office party and recited the names of every Derby winner, correctly, in order. When he climbed down, the editor quietly called him aside and said, "How do you know that?" Then he made Bill the paper's turf writer, in some way setting this movie in motion.You don't need me to tell you Secretariat was the crowning glory of the Sport of Kings. In 1973, he became the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years. Though more than 37 years have passed since he set records in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, those records stand today.

It was said by some he was better over shorter distances, and that at the Belmont, he would fade against his great rival Sham, who would show more endurance. Secretariat won the Belmont by 31 lengths. I knew that. Everybody knows that. Bill has shown me video of that race, with the astonishing gap between Secretariat and the rest of the field.

So why, when I saw the race in the film, did I have tears in my eyes?

It was because "Secretariat" is a movie that allows us to understand what it really meant. This isn't some cornball formula film. It doesn't have a contrived romance. It's certainly not about an underdog: At the Belmont, Secretariat only paid $2.20 on a $2 bet, and 5,617 holders of winning tickets held onto them as souvenirs (a wise investment; those tickets go on eBay for as much as $1,000). "Secretariat" takes none of those mundane paths. It is a great film about greatness, the story of the horse and the no less brave woman who had faith in him.

Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) was the daughter of a Virginia horse farm owner. Her father (Scott Glenn) was ill, and his family thought they should sell the farm. But she could read lineages. She flipped a coin with a millionaire and "lost" but won the mare she wanted — and she was there in the stable when the mare gave birth. The groom said he'd never before seen a horse stand up on its legs that soon after birth.There was something about Secretariat.

Bill, who was a regular visitor at Meadow Farm in Virginia throughout the horse's life, tried to get me to understand: The people around the horse felt it was blessed. Penny Chenery refused to sell the farm, turned down an offer of $7 million for the still-untested horse, and left her husband and family behind in Colorado to commute to Virginia.

She had faith. So did he groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), who was with Secretariat more than any other human being during the horse's life. And so did Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), the trainer who had been trying to retire when Penny hauled him away from his golf clubs. The movie focuses closely on the owner, the trainer and the groom.

It has no time for foolishness. When the time for the coin flip comes with millionaire Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), we understand why Mrs. Chenery wants the mare she does, and director Randall Wallace underlines that with admirable economy, using a closeup of Malkovich studying a breeding chart that works better than five minutes of dialogue.Gene Siskel used to say his favorite movies were about what people actually do all day.

That's what "Secretariat" is. It pays us the compliment of really caring about thoroughbred racing. In a low-key way, it conveys an enormous amount of information. And it creates characters who, because of spot-on casting, are vivid, human and complex. Consider how it deals with the relationship between Penny and her husband, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh). They became estranged because of her decisions, Nack says, but the movie only implies that rather than getting mired in a soap opera. As a woman, Penny is closed out of racing's all-boy club. If a man neglected his family for a race horse, that might be common. But a woman is committing some sin against nature. And when she refused to sell, her whole family — husband, brother, everyone — put enormous pressure on her.

They were sure her decision was taking money out of their pockets. How she raises money to keep the farm is ingenious lateral thinking, and best of all, it's accurate.This whole movie feels authentic. Diane Lane, who is so good in so many kinds of roles, makes Penny a smart woman with great faith in her own judgment and the courage to bet the farm on it. Every hair in place, always smartly turned out, she labors in the trenches with Lucien and Eddie, negotiates unflinchingly with the Old Boys, eats the stomach-churning meals at the diners where the track crowd hangs out.

She looked at the greatest racehorse in the world and knew she was right, when all about her were losing their heads and blaming it on her.Of the actors, I especially enjoyed John Malkovich. He has a way of conveying his reasoning by shorthand and implication. He creates a portrait of horse trainer who's slow to tip his hand, which is correct. No role in Mike Rich's screenplay is overwritten, or tries to explain too much. Like "The Social Network," another contender for year-end awards, it has supreme confidence in its story and faith that we will find it fascinating.

This is one of the year's best films.

To my shame, I used to kid Bill that he wrote stuff like, "Big Red knew it was an important day," as if he could read Secretariat's mind. He wrote nothing of the sort. We would speculate about what a horse does know. W.G. Sebald once wrote, "Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension." Yes, I think so. But between Secretariat and his human family something was comprehended. There's a scene here when Penny Chenery and her horse look each other in the eye for a long time on an important morning. You can't tell me they weren't both thinking the same thing.


I was surprised by so many reviews calling this movie mediocre or sentimental or insipid or manipulative. It's a certain kind of wholesome movie about greatness and what it takes in talent and true grit for exaltation. Roger Ebert is right on the money with his wonderful review of a wonderful movie. I think he took particular and loving care in writing this review to pay tribute to his friend's love of Secretariat and to a lovingly made movie, which seems to get everything extremely right.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

John McWhorter on Two Parent Families During Slavery

July 13, 2011/TNR

Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum may have a number of things to be embarrassed about. However, supporting an observation that there were more two-parent black families during slavery than there are today is not one of them.

This observation was found in “The Marriage Vow,” a conservative pledge produced by The Family Leader, a Christian group. It was signed, notably, by Bachmann and Santorum. “Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families,” the pledge said, “yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.” The Family Leader removed the passage after a public outcry. But, while the comparison to slavery might seem crude—and the full pledge, generally speaking, is bigoted and wrongheaded—there was an important truth in the now-erased sentence. It is a truth about the oft-forgotten toughness of black families during slavery and in the difficult decades after emancipation.

IT ONCE WAS fashionable to suppose that slavery had made the conventional family difficult to sustain because of spouses so often being sold away from one another and children being separated from their parents. A natural conclusion was that, after slavery, the old patterns persisted, especially given how difficult conditions continued to be for black people, and that this was an understandable precursor to the fatherless norm in inner-city black communities after the 1960s. There is, indeed, sociological literature showing that it was hardly unknown for black people to be raised by single mothers during slavery and afterward. In fact, over the last 150 years, there have always been proportionately more single-parent black homes than white ones.

However, as classic work by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman has shown, despite the horrors of slavery, overall, during the pre-emancipation era, about two-thirds of enslaved families had two parents—far more than today. More recent revisionist work has stressed that, while forced separations were always an important part of the picture, the two-thirds figure remained dominant (Wilma Dunaway is especially handy on this). And this tendency continued into the Jim Crow era, contrary to a false sense one might have of daily life in a black ghetto of the 1930s and ’40s—think Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices or Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land. Namely, it is wrong to suppose that, amid the misery of those neighborhoods, all but a sliver of children grew up without a dad. That is a modern phenomenon, whose current extent—fewer than one in three black children are raised by two parents—would shock even the poorest black folk 100 or even 50 years ago.

A standard reference on the subject by University of Minnesota historian Steven Ruggles in 1994 is most often taken as evidence of the uninteresting—that, gosh, in the old days poor black people didn’t find single parenthood unusual. What is actually more important in its findings is that, from 1880 to 1960, fewer than one in three black children nationwide didn’t grow up with two parents. Another key statistic, from Barbara Agresti in 1978, is that, just past emancipation, in 1870 in Walton County, Florida, about 57 percent of black children lived with two parents; just 15 years later, 89 percent did. Or, as St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton told us in Black Metropolis, in Chicago in the 1920s, it was considered a problem that just one in seven black children were born to single mothers. What’s more, that number went down during the Depression, not up.

Data like this are important because they show that the reason so few black children grow up without fathers today is not a mere matter of economics or, more graphically, because black men without college degrees find it so hard to get decent work that they abandon their children. After all, black people living under the vicious racism of 100 years ago nevertheless tended, very strongly, to form two-parent families.

Rather, what happens today is more a matter of what people in inner-city neighborhoods grow up seeing as normal (note my evasion of the loaded word culture, although for those who can stomach it, it is precisely what I mean). Plus, there is the sheer fact that, from the 1960s until 1996, expanded welfare policies made it possible to stay on welfare as a mother indefinitely without job training—impossible before the ’60s, and much less common today in most states than it was before 1996. This is why a man could so easily leave kids he fathered to be raised alone—and unsurprisingly, starting in the 1970s, an unprecedented number did.

While maintaining all openness to nontraditional types of family, and while hardly pretending that being raised by one parent is itself a condemnation to despair, we can all admit that neighborhoods where fatherlessness is a norm will not do. That is, there remain neighborhoods today where, if a naive person said something assuming that a young mother she met had a husband at home helping her raise her children, it would seem almost amusing.

Let’s try this: A neighborhood where every child had two parents would be a little odd and almost ominous. Except if it were a highly traditional religious community, one would suspect strangely stringent notions regarding compatibility and even sexuality. We don’t need to go back to shotgun marriages. But the other extreme, where, in many neighborhoods, often nine in ten children’s fathers have not been at home helping raise them, is just as bad. After all, evidence shows that, in general, a child is better off raised by two people, especially if poor.

AND THAT BRINGS us back to the Family Leader pledge, and the much-maligned passage. (Again, I’m not endorsing the pledge, which, among other things, opposes gay marriage; I’m speaking only of the slavery passage that has caused such a stir.) If the aim of the sentence was to foster more two-parent families in black America, then there is not a single black person who could say this is anything less than a humane goal. Many will be put off by the conservative Christian aspect of Family Leader—but then, we must recall that a great many black people would not be, as black Americans are a deeply Christian people. Others will be put off by the fact that Republicans were the signers—but then, one might ask why Democrats supposedly interested in black concerns would be so much less interested in there being more black kids raised by two parents.

Of course, part of the problem with the slavery passage is its location of the present specifically under President Obama. But, in general, this is just boilerplate anti-Democratic rhetoric. Although one could question how pro-black-family the Obama administration is, with its cavalier attitude toward funding for vocational school and community colleges, despite initial promises to step up the latter in particular, the president certainly has not actively set back the cause of two-parent black families. As president, for instance, he has launched a fatherhood initiative.

One also senses that many see in the passage an implication that slavery was somehow good. This interpretation, however, is hasty and mistaken: The purpose of the passage is to show that, despite slavery being the horror that it was, for those enduring it, the two-parent family was a norm. If one feels that the modern media debate is short on intellectual substance and nuance, then one only becomes part of the problem in reading the passage as simply praising slavery.

The factual essence, then, of the now-infamous line in The Family Leader’s pledge represents a truth that all should take to heart: Black people, like all human beings, are capable of great resilience in the face of difficulty; and culture—there, I said it—is not just a lockstep response to the GDP or racism. This is the lesson we should learn from how uncommon single parenthood was among black people familiar with slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow.


... “Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families,” the pledge said, “yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President....

I don't get the point of mentioning slavery here except to be pernicious (and possibly racist.) I don't see the point of an incredibly hedging--ya' think?--"semi defence" of this statement except to be safely provocative for its own sake, an essential McWhorterism.

Which isn't to say there isn't a crisis in the social dysfunction evident in the black underclass with its alarming, comparatively preponderant statistics of black on black crime, crime generally, incarceration, family breakdown, school failure, out of wedlock children and absentee fathers, the scourge of "acting white," other things, all inverting the verities evident in bourgeois values. See Amy Wax: Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century.

But to attempt to address this crisis as the infamous statement does is a pernicous, tendentious distraction.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Spritely Defence of Rupert Murdoch From an Unlikely Source

Roger Cohen/NYT/July 11, 2011

Fair warning: This column is a defense of Rupert Murdoch. If you add everything up, he’s been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant. Without him, the British newspaper industry might have disappeared entirely.

This defense is prompted in part by seeing everyone piling in on the British hacking scandal, as if such abuses were confined to News International (we shall see) and as if significant swathes of the British establishment had not been complicit. It is also prompted by having spent time with Murdoch 21 years ago when writing a profile for The New York Times Magazine and coming away impressed.

Before I get to why, a few caveats. First, the hacking is of course indefensible as well as illegal. Second, Fox News, the U.S. TV network started by Murdoch, has with its shrill right-wing demagoguery masquerading as news made a significant contribution to the polarization of American politics, the erosion of reasoned debate, the debunking of reason itself, and the ensuing Washington paralysis. Third, I disagree with Murdoch’s views on a range of issues — from climate change to the Middle East — where his influence has been unhelpful.

So why do I still admire the guy? The first reason is his evident loathing for elites, for cozy establishments, for cartels, for what he’s called “strangulated English accents” — in fact for anything standing in the way of gutsy endeavor and churn. His love of no-holds-barred journalism is one reason Britain’s press is one of the most aggressive anywhere. That’s good for free societies.

Murdoch once told me: “When I came to Britain in 1968, I found it was damn hard to get a day’s work out of the people at the top of the social scale. As an Australian, I only had to work 8 or 10 hours a day, 48 weeks of the year, and everything came to you.”

So it was easy enough, from 1969 onward, to rake in the media heirlooms. Along the way he’s often shown fierce loyalty to his people — as now with Rebekah Brooks, the embattled head of News International — and piled money into important newspapers like The Times that would otherwise have vanished.

The second thing I admire is the visionary, risk-taking determination that has placed him ahead of the game as the media business has been transformed through globalization and digitization. It’s been the ability to see around corners that has ushered him from two modest papers inherited from his father in Adelaide to the head of a company with about $33 billion in annual revenues.

Yes, there have been mistakes — MySpace, the social media site just sold for a fraction of its purchase price is one. But I’d take Murdoch’s batting average. He’s gambled big on satellite TV, on global media opportunities in sports, and on the conflation of television, publishing, entertainment, newspapers and the Internet. British Sky Broadcasting and Fox alone represent big businesses created from nothing against significant odds.

A favorite Murdoch saying is: “We don’t deal in market share. We create the market.”

Of course, his success makes plenty of people envious, one reason the Citizen Kane ogre image has attached to him. (He would have endorsed Kane who, when asked in the movie how he found business conditions in Europe, responded: “With great difficulty!”) His success has caused redoubled envy in Britain because there he is ever the outsider from Down Under. (America doesn’t really do outsiders.)

The Times, which I’ve found a good read since moving to London last summer, has impressed me with its continued investment in foreign coverage, its bold move to put up a pay wall for the online edition (yes, people should pay for the work of journalists), and with the way the paper plays it pretty straight under editor James Harding. The Telegraph to the right and Guardian to the left play it less straight.

British Sky Broadcasting is emphatically not Fox. It’s a varied channel with some serious news shows. Overall, the British media scene without Murdoch would be pretty impoverished. His breaking of the unions at Wapping in 1986 was decisive for the vitality of newspapering. He took The Times tabloid when everyone said he was crazy. He was right. He loves a scoop, loves a scrap, and both the Wall Street Journal and The Times show serious journalists can thrive under him.

But Murdoch’s in trouble now. An important deal for all of British Sky Broadcasting hangs on his being able to convince British authorities News Corp management is in fact reputable. He’ll probably have to sacrifice Brooks for that. Politicians who fawned now fulminate. Prime Minister David Cameron is embarrassed. Both Murdoch and his savvy son James Murdoch (of more centrist views than his father) are scrambling.

I’d bet on them to prevail. When I asked Murdoch the secret of TV, he told me “Bury your mistakes.” The guy’s a force of nature and his restless innovations have, on balance and with caveats, been good for the media and a more open world.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Judicial Activism: Something I Once Wrote in the Context of a Maine Court Holding Gay Marriage Legal

It is a misconception that judges interpreting equality under law to include gay marriage are being activist and anti democratic. Why is it activist to so read the ambit of equality under law? I would have thought that conventional equality reasoning is well equipped to include gay marriage. And I would turn that argument around: a judge who refused this reading of equality is being activist in distorting precedential analysis to conform to his or her own biases. Surely this is a kind of bad activism. Further, I do not understand activism as something equatable with deciding differently from what the majority might want in any particular case. What the majority or convention might want in any particular case might amount to the denial of protected rights and liberties and it would be no activism to hold against the majority. So holding would come square within the judging job description. And this too is correct: "... Those of us who favor an active role for courts hardly see them as the only, or the primary, way of pushing liberal goals. We simply argue that progress in a liberal democracy is a complicated enterprise involving multiple players and multiple branches of government..." Which is to say, courts, a third coequal branch of American government, have their role to play in construing and applying the law. There is nothing *overarchingly* anti democratic about that, even if judges are not elected. When judges err they are not being anti democratic as such; they are just being mistaken in any particular instance.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fouad Ajami on Hayek (Presumably) on the Arab Spring

The late great Austrian economist F.A. Hayek would have seen the Arab Spring for the economic revolt it was right from the start. For generations the Arab populations had bartered away their political freedom for economic protection. They rose in rebellion when it dawned on them that the bargain had not worked, that the system of subsidies, and the promise of equality held out by the autocrats, had proven a colossal failure.

What Hayek would call the Arab world's "road to serfdom" began when the old order of merchants and landholders was upended in the 1950s and '60s by a political and military class that assumed supreme power. The officers and ideologues who came to rule Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Yemen were men contemptuous of the marketplace and of economic freedom. As a rule, they hailed from the underclass and had no regard for the sanctity of wealth and property. They had come to level the economic order, and they put the merchant classes, and those who were the mainstay of the free market, to flight.

It was in the 1950s that the foreign minorities who had figured prominently in the economic life of Egypt after the cotton boom of the 1860s, and who had drawn that country into the web of the world economy, would be sent packing. The Jews and the Greeks and the Italians would take with them their skills and habits. The military class, and the Fabian socialists around them, distrusted free trade and the marketplace and were determined to rule over them or without them.

The Egyptian way would help tilt the balance against the private sector in other Arab lands as well. In Iraq, the Jews of the country, on its soil for well over two millennia, were dispossessed and banished in 1950-51. They had mastered the retail trade and were the most active community in the commerce of Baghdad. Some Shiite merchants stepped into their role, but this was short-lived. Military officers and ideologues of the Baath Party from the "Sunni triangle"—men with little going for them save their lust for wealth and power—came into possession of the country and its oil wealth. They, like their counterparts in Egypt, were believers in central planning and "social equality." By the 1980s, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni thug born from crushing poverty, would come to think of the wealth of the country as his own.

In Libya, a deranged Moammar Gadhafi did Saddam one better. After his 1969 military coup, he demolished the private sector in 1973 and established what he called "Islamic Socialism." Gadhafi's so-called popular democracy basically nationalized the entire economy, rendering the Libyan people superfluous by denying them the skills and the social capital necessary for a viable life.

In his 1944 masterpiece, "The Road to Serfdom," Hayek wrote that in freedom-crushing totalitarian societies "the worst get on top." In words that described the Europe of his time but also capture the contemporary Arab condition, he wrote:

..."To be a useful assistant in the running of a totalitarian state, it is not enough that a man should be prepared to accept specious justification of vile deeds; he must himself be prepared actively to break every moral rule he has ever known if this seems necessary to achieve the end set for him. Since it is the supreme leader who alone determines the ends, his instruments must have no moral convictions of their own." ...

This well describes the decades-long brutal dictatorship of Syria's Hafez al-Assad, and now his son Bashar's rule. It is said that Hafez began his dynasty with little more than a modest officer's salary. His dominion would beget a family of enormous wealth: The Makhloufs, the in-laws of the House of Assad, came to control crucial sectors of the Syrian economy.

The Alawites, the religious sect to which the Assad clan belongs, had been poor peasants and sharecroppers, but political and military power raised them to new heights. The merchants of Damascus and Aleppo, and the landholders in Homs and Hama, were forced to submit to the new order. They could make their peace with the economy of extortion, cut Alawite officers into long-established businesses, or be swept aside.

But a decade or so ago this ruling bargain—subsidies and economic redistribution in return for popular quiescence—began to unravel. The populations in Arab lands had swelled and it had become virtually impossible to guarantee jobs for the young and poorly educated. Economic nationalism, and the war on the marketplace, had betrayed the Arabs.

They had the highest unemployment levels among developing nations, the highest jobless rate among the young, and the lowest rates of economic participation among women. The Arab political order was living on borrowed time, and on fear of official terror.

Attempts at "reform" were made. But in the arc of the Arab economies, the public sector of one regime became the private sector of the next. Sons, sons-in-law and nephews of the rulers made a seamless transition into the rigged marketplace when "privatization" was forced onto stagnant enterprises.

Of course, this bore no resemblance to market-driven economics in a transparent system. This was crony capitalism of the worst kind, and it was recognized as such by Arab populations. Indeed, this economic plunder was what finally severed the bond between Hosni Mubarak and an Egyptian population known for its timeless patience and stoicism.

The sad truth of Arab social and economic development is that the free-market reforms and economic liberalization that remade East Asia and Latin America bypassed the Arab world. This is the great challenge of the Arab Spring and of the forces that brought it about. The marketplace has had few, if any, Arab defenders. If the tremendous upheaval at play in Arab lands is driven by a desire to capture state power—and the economic prerogatives that come with political power—the revolution will reproduce the failures of the past.

In Yemen, a schoolteacher named Amani Ali, worn out by the poverty and anarchy of that poorest of Arab states, recently gave voice to a sentiment that has been the autocrats' prop: "We don't want change," he said. "We don't want freedom. We want food and safety." True wisdom, and an end to their road to serfdom, will only come w

Arab people make the connection between economic and political liberty.

Mr. Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, is co-chairman of Hoover's Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

Me to some people I know:

Ajami’s lines of reasoning (understanding his is a short op ed) are these: the Arab Spring was an essentially economic revolt; an economic revolt against what?; a grand bargain struck decades ago--masses exchanging political freedom for economic protection in the form of autocracies providing for, and protecting, them; so, in the 50s and 60s in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Algeria a political and military class came to power ideologically hateful of markets, earned wealth and property; they sundered their country’s market economies such as they were, driving away the merchant class including enterprising Jews; Hayek’s overarching thesis bears relation to this general historical arc—in Ajami’s closing words, “the (“necessary,” my word) connection between economic and political liberty.”; Hayek argued that in totalitarian societies “the worst get on top,” writing as quoted by Ajami:

…"To be a useful assistant in the running of a totalitarian state, it is not enough that a man should be prepared to accept specious justification of vile deeds; he must himself be prepared actively to break every moral rule he has ever known if this seems necessary to achieve the end set for him. Since it is the supreme leader who alone determines the ends, his instruments must have no moral convictions of their own." …

Ajami says these words apply tellingly to Syria in particular and traces briefly why; but what happened over time was a demographic explosion making the grand bargain’s taking care and protection, (“a peculiar Hobbesian bargain,” my words) impossible; anti market centralization, of the kind Hayek inveighed against, proved a disaster—with, for two, world class unemployment and lack of female economic participation on a world scale; all this led to state terror as a mode of social control and led to rulers' "borrowed time;" overarching nepotism, self preserving and self sustaining oligarchy and true crony capitalism flayed attempts at reform; all of this was a reverse Hayekian dystopia, (my words).

Liberalized free market capitalism bypassed the Arab world and forms a great challenge to the Arab Spring.

If state power comes to the fore again, Ajami argues, it will replicate past failures. In the end, to quote Ajami, “True wisdom, and an end to their road to serfdom, will only come when the Arab people make the connection between economic and political liberty.”

Given your critique Bone, and your briefer one Jill, the question emerges whether Ajami’s analysis is too general and therefore flawed in not adequately describing the “grand bargain” occuring in the countries he specifies, before listed. (I’m whistling in the dark here because I don’t know enough to say whether the line you quote of him--"But a decade or so ago this ruling bargain—subsidies and economic redistribution in return for popular quiescence—began to unravel" (in your words) “is kind of nuts.” So let me do what I do best—niggle a bit. )

It seems to me that if Ajamai in his brief op ed is imprecise and less nuanced than he might be about the various timings of the bargains’ declines, and, if, as you say, “I think there is some of that” in his described grand bargain in the countries he listed, then I argue that “reductive” isn’t perhaps le mot juste. Sure, Ajami flattened and corralled an abundance of specifics in aid of a thesis. But the next question is, to my mind, whether he’s flogging--in your, and, more so, in Jill’s critiques--his preferred ideology and ignoring the necessary hard particulars of history in service of his flogging or whether Hayek supplies Ajami with an applicable and telling insight become an illuminating prism through which to see the Arab Spring.

I gotta’ say, no surprise, I vote for the latter alternative.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Paul Campos on Casey Anthony Trial and American Criminal Justice

TNR/July 7, 2011

One of the most obnoxious habits of reflexive defenders of the American legal system is their tendency to respond to any and every outcome of that system with the claim that “the system worked.” After all, as long as you never define what you mean by that claim, there’s literally no outcome that can refute it.

Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to argue that the acquittal of Casey Anthony and the apparently imminent dismissal of charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn both represent examples of the system working as it should. But accepting that argument requires acknowledging deep imperfections that our legal system must tolerate, even when it does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

The most disturbing of these inevitable imperfections is a product of our supposed commitment to the principle that we prefer a large number—whether it’s 10, 50, or 100, the precise number is never clearly stated—of guilty people going free to the conviction of an innocent defendant. That is the practical significance of requiring the state to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”—a standard that, interestingly, the system always avoids defining in any but the most general, non-statistical terms.

Our commitment to this principle is tested most severely in cases involving a heinous crime, an unsympathetic defendant, and a body of evidence that strongly suggests the defendant’s guilt, while still featuring gaps that make the prosecution’s case less than completely compelling. And that is a fair description of what the jury deciding Casey Anthony’s fate had to deal with.

The state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that a two-year-old child was murdered, and that her mother was, at the least, a deeply irresponsible parent with a propensity to lie to authorities. The prosecution also demonstrated, in my view, that it is far more likely than not that Anthony committed the crime.

But I also believe the jury’s verdict was correct.

Since our system more or less leaves it up to each of us to decide what “reasonable doubt” ought to mean, my own standard is this: Would I be shocked to discover that in fact Casey Anthony was innocent? Not surprised, not startled, but shocked—in the way, for example, that I would be genuinely shocked to learn that O.J. Simpson did not murder his ex-wife. That, it seems to me, is a reasonable interpretation of what “beyond a reasonable doubt” should mean, if we are serious about the idea that mistaken acquittals are vastly preferable to wrongful convictions.

The case against Anthony was largely circumstantial, buttressed by arguably—yet only arguably—strong forensic evidence. But the prosecution was hampered by its inability to provide a compelling narrative explaining either how Caylee Anthony was killed or why her mother purportedly murdered her. This failure was not, as far as we know, a product of prosecutorial incompetence.

The hard truth is that it is extremely difficult to successfully prosecute a murder under these kinds of circumstances—and the harder truth is that we are supposedly committed to the principle that this is, on the whole, a good thing.

The case against Strauss-Kahn presents its own collection of hard truths. Foremost among them is that sexual assault is a particularly difficult crime to prosecute—for both good and very bad reasons.

The good reason it’s difficult to convict defendants accused of rape is that, as a general matter, we should be reluctant to conclude, in cases that turn exclusively on conflicting testimony, that we are certain beyond a reasonable doubt which person is telling the truth and which one is lying (social scientists have demonstrated that people tend to greatly overestimate their ability to accurately assess such things).

The bad reasons are many: As feminists have been pointing out for decades, sexual assault is a crime that is often normalized to the point of rendering it practically invisible, and one that is especially prone to generate victim-blaming. But given the circumstances, it’s hard to criticize either the NYPD or the district attorney’s office for how they handled the case.

Faced with an apparently credible sexual assault accusation and a defendant who appeared to be fleeing the country, the authorities moved quickly—and when problems arose with the prosecution, they moved just as quickly to reveal them to DSK’s defense. That, after all, is how the system is supposed to work.

None of this is to deny that the outcome of both cases is not in many ways deeply disturbing. It is much more likely than not that Casey Anthony has gotten away with murder. And while we cannot be sure that a crime was committed in the DSK matter, the sight of a rich white man who has now been the subject of multiple sexual assault accusations walking away from a poor black woman’s claim that he raped her is something that should always disturb us.

Yet in the end, the unsatisfactory nature of these outcomes is the price we are supposed to be willing to pay to avoid travesties such as the state of Texas engaging in something resembling outright judicial (and gubernatorial) murder. It is indeed a high price—but the price of not paying it is even higher.

Paul Campos is professor of law at the University of Colorado.


The paradox: it's more likely than not that Casey Anthony killed her daughter but it's right that she was acquitted. It's right because one can have a reasonable doubt but still believe such and such was the case on the balance of probabilities. Reasonable doubt is the criminal standard of proof that has to be met. The balance of probabilities is the civil standard of proof a plaintiff needs to satisfy to win his case.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

David Brooks on Republican Party Circa July 4, 2011

NYT/July 4, 2011

The Republicans have changed American politics since they took control of the House of Representatives. They have put spending restraint and debt reduction at the top of the national agenda. They have sparked a discussion on entitlement reform. They have turned a bill to raise the debt limit into an opportunity to put the U.S. on a stable fiscal course.

Republican leaders have also proved to be effective negotiators. They have been tough and inflexible and forced the Democrats to come to them. The Democrats have agreed to tie budget cuts to the debt ceiling bill. They have agreed not to raise tax rates. They have agreed to a roughly 3-to-1 rate of spending cuts to revenue increases, an astonishing concession.
Moreover, many important Democrats are open to a truly large budget deal. President Obama has a strong incentive to reach a deal so he can campaign in 2012 as a moderate.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has talked about supporting a debt reduction measure of $3 trillion or even $4 trillion if the Republicans meet him part way. There are Democrats in the White House and elsewhere who would be willing to accept Medicare cuts if the Republicans would be willing to increase revenues.

If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases.

A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.

The party is not being asked to raise marginal tax rates in a way that might pervert incentives. On the contrary, Republicans are merely being asked to close loopholes and eliminate tax expenditures that are themselves distortionary.

This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers.

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.

The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.

The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name. Economists have identified many factors that contribute to economic growth, ranging from the productivity of the work force to the share of private savings that is available for private investment. Tax levels matter, but they are far from the only or even the most important factor.

But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.

Over the past week, Democrats have stopped making concessions. They are coming to the conclusion that if the Republicans are fanatics then they better be fanatics, too.

The struggles of the next few weeks are about what sort of party the G.O.P. is — a normal conservative party or an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation.

If the debt ceiling talks fail, independents voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.

Howard Jacobson on Alice Walker on the Flotilla, Round 2

June 26/CNN

It should not need arguing, this late in the ethical history of mankind, that good people can do great harm. One of the finest and funniest novels ever written — Don Quixote — charts the damage left in the wake of a man who would make the world a better place.

Human beings are seldom more dangerous than when they are sentimentally overcome by the goodness of their own intentions. That Alice Walker believes it is right to join the Freedom Flotilla II to Gaza I do not have the slightest doubt. But beyond associating her decision with Gandhi, Martin Luther King and very nearly, when she talks about the preciousness of children, Jesus Christ, she fails to give a single convincing reason for it.

“One child must never be set above another child,” she says. A sentiment that will find an echo in every heart. But how does it justify the flotilla? Gaza is under siege, Israelis will tell you, because weapons are fired from it into Israel, threatening the lives of Israeli children. If the blockade is lifted there is a fear that more lethal and far-reaching weapons will be acquired, and the lives of more Israeli children endangered.

You may want to argue that had Gaza been treated differently it would have responded differently, but if the aim of the flotilla is to ensure that one child will not be set above another it is hard to see how challenging the blockade will achieve it. All an Israeli parent will see is a highly charged emotionalism disguising an action that, by its very partiality, chooses the Palestinian child over the Israeli.

The boat on which Alice Walker will be traveling is called The Audacity of Hope. Forgive me for seeing a measure of self- importance in that reference. It will be carrying, Alice Walker tells us, “Letters expressing solidarity and love.” Not, presumably, for Israeli children. Perhaps it is thought that Israeli children are the recipients of enough love already. So what about solidarity? It is meant to sound innocuous. “That is all.”

Alice Walker makes plain, “its cargo will be carrying.” But what will these letters of solidarity be expressing solidarity with? Solidarity is a political term implying commonality of interest or aspiration. So what interest or aspiration do Alice Walker and her fellow travelers share with the people of Gaza? A desire for freedom? Well we all aspire to that. A longing to live in peace?

If they have such a longing we must be solid with them in that too, though the firing of rockets from Gaza is not, on the face of it, an expression of such a longing. And what about the declared hostility of Hamas to the very existence of Israel? Hamas, we are often told, is the elected government of Gaza, a government that fairly represents the wishes of its people. In which case we must assume that Hamas’s implacable hostility towards Israel fairly represents the implacable hostility felt by the people of Gaza. Are Alice Walker’s letters of love and ‘solidarity’ solid with the people of Gaza in that hostility?

Alice Walker, writer of 'The Colour Purple'

“If the Israeli military attacks us, it will be as if they attacked the mailman,” she says. Wrong on a thousand counts. As a writer, Alice Walker must understand the symbolic significance of words. The cargo is a cargo of intention. It is freighted with political sympathy and attitude. It means to blunder into where it isn’t safe, clothed in the make-believe garments of the unworldly, speaking of children and speaking like children, half inviting a violence which can then be presented as a slaughter of the innocents.

Even before the deed, Alice Walker has her language of outraged moral purity prepared — “but if they insist on attacking us, wounding us, even murdering us…” The Israeli response is thus already an act of unprovoked murder, no matter that the flotilla is by its very essence a provocation.

Whatever its cargo, by luring the Israeli military into action which can be represented as brutal, the flotilla is engaged in an entirely political act. To call it by any other name is the grossest hypocrisy.

Alice Walker might be feeling good about herself, but by giving the Palestinians the same old false comfort we’ve been doling out for more than half a century, and by allowing the Israelis to dismiss it as yet another act of misguided and uncomprehending adventurism — further evidence that its fears go unheeded – her political gesture only worsens the situation. The parties to this conflict need to be brought together not divided: but those who speak disingenuously of love will engender only further hatred.