Monday, September 29, 2008

Running Out Of Time

There is an innocent moment in Animal Farm that leads to the fable's most chilling one. Adorable new puppies are born; Napoleon Pig gathers up the litter and takes them into his quarters. Then, a year later, they emerge: fierce, snarling dogs, utterly loyal to their spiritual father, ready (even eager) to be unleashed on any opponent.

Here, in this shocking little clip, is a settler-pup turning into a beast before our eyes. One can only imagine the dinner table conversation this benighted youth has been exposed to, and not exposed to, over the past ten years. Arthur Koestler, Orwell's friend, once warned about Jewish "claustrophilia." This boy is a very hard case. One can also imagine the officer he will turn into when he is conscripted in the coming years.

The most pathetic thing he says comes almost as an aside. Apparently, another settler youth passes by while the filming is going on, and shouts from afar: "shabbat shalom," "good Sabbath." Our pup interrupts his drunken curses to fling back, almost without thinking, "shabbat shalom."

I know, so don't tell me, that all faith traditions can produce children like this--that civilized tolerance is a kind of miracle, or certainly an achievement. I know about
Christopher Hitchens' notebook. But as Jews the world over gather tonight to observe Rosh Hashanah, and hence our own faults, uppermost on our famously skeptical minds should be the production of this youth and, worse, what his "Sabbath" could possibly mean. We should also have a look at Ehud Olmert's exit interview. He has much to account for. But we are running out of time.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Worth A Second Look

By the end I was demoralized. I thought Obama had allowed himself to be patronized, of all things, regarding America's Middle Eastern wars, diplomacy (or at least, Dr. Kissinger's view of it), "Russia." It was McCain who spoke of building an "alliance of democracies," for God sake, not Obama, who had told 200,000 in Berlin that he was a citizen of the world

A friend sent me this lament by Nora Ephron, with which, at first, I sadly agreed: 

I was, by the way, the least pessimistic person in the room where we watched the debate, a room full of blue-state pinkos, and our hearts had collectively sunk as we watched Obama miss opportunity after opportunity to score a knockout punch -- as the men in the room tended to put it.

But then I heard surprising snap polls showing Obama had (narrowly) "won." Without quite meaning to, I actually watched the debate all over again, from the beginning, saw how much better Obama came off than what I had feared--and realized my problem.

THE FIRST TIME around, I was actually debating McCain myself. Every time he spoke, I answered him in my mind's eye, and with a righteous anger much like McCain's own. I did not try to see Obama the way an undecided suburban mother in Colorado, without time for MSNBC, might: the people who, along with young people, will actually decide this thing. 

I was seeing McCain the way the people in Nora Ephron's room did, passionate intellectuals, finding openings, driving imaginary punches, as if this brilliance is what every one's waiting for. If Obama missed the "opening" I saw, I felt disappointed in him, sorry for him, and us. I did not credit (indeed, I can still hardly understand) his cool, his patient engagement, his stand-up decency.

This may not have been Obama's best night. But then, I wanted McCain to look ridiculous. He did not--and is not. Neither is Obama Jon Stewart--and cannot be if he wants to govern this country.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Generation O

So many have already circulated this wacky but uncannily profound piece by Sarah Silverman that Kmer Rouge bloggers have probably already started showcasing it. I want to use it to make a sober, hopeful point in advance of tonight's debate and while Obama is slightly ahead in most polls. In my piece "Obama's Jews" (in the current Harper's), I report that Obama is leading among young people in general (18-29 years old) by some 25 percent. The various pollsters I've talked with put it simply to me: if young people come out in large numbers, Obama can't lose; if not, he may not win, for all the "cultural" reasons and divisions we have analyzed to death since 2000.

Silverman's gag, in other words, is not merely about Jews in Boca. It identifies the hinge of this election and a sweeping generational shift. Young people, Toto, are not in Kansas anymore. The polls also suggests why we should assume good news no matter what happens in November. For the Obama campaign has all the trappings of a movement: progressive domestically, multi-lateral internationally, and truthful, not truthy, in its organization. If he loses in 2008, he will win in 2012. The country's problems will, in any case, take a generation to get serious about.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Lost Tribes of Israel

The conflict between Israel and Judea has turned violent yet again. If you have never read anything by Zeev Sternhell, who escaped with his life yet again, start with this interview. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Moral Hazard

Three years ago, my brother-in-law Ira, an accomplished blacksmith in North Carolina, called to ask my advice regarding a home equity loan. He was considering buying an adjacent property and needed about twenty-five thousand dollars. Ira owned his own small house and forge, which were free of any mortgages or liens, and he was old enough to be pretty much on a fixed income. Now, equity lines go up and down with the prime. So I figured, why not a 30-year fixed mortgage? Then he would know precisely what he'd be obligated for, month-in, month-out, and might even pay off his credit cards.

Ira's local bank, Wachovia, was not willing to hold this kind of paper anymore, which did not exactly surprise me. I had been an editor at the Harvard Business Review in the late 1980s when the securitization of debt, including (after the S&L crisis) mortgage debt, was first being touted as the next big thing for retail banking and the word "global" began to mean something serious. So--purposefully, and with a certain pleasant curiosity about a maturing financial product I had seen at its conception--I started calling around to various mortgage companies: 800-numbers that got me to offices (with the background noise of call-centers) in Texas or Minnesota or Hawaii.

I seemed always to be talking to "senior associates" (mostly named Mike, for some reason) who sounded more like ingratiating Direct TV salesmen than the laconic mortgage brokers I had filled out stacks of pages for when I bought my first home in Brooklyn back in 1979. Would Ira need a home inspection (I thought I should tip him off to tidy up some)? Not necessary. Would he need to bring proof of income? No, he owned the home outright, right? Could the points be added to the loan amount? Of course. Oh, but the mortgage company would not consider a loan of less than seventy thousand. (The commissions and transaction fees would not be worth the trouble, one of the Mikes confessed. Was I sure Ira could not use the extra money?)

This cheerful offer, of course, got my attention. There was no way Ira could afford such payments and no reason, given his circumstances, for the loan to have been entertained. I was skeptical, but not greatly alarmed--not the way I was when, say, West Bank settlers went to the hills above Nablus in 1976. This offer seemed to me just another way for the Mikes of the world to cash in on a boom, you know, like the real estate agents in LA a few years before. I felt vaguely happy for them. Now, of course, I see this was the DNA of the monster that ate Wall Street and is still hungry. (Ira took the smaller equity loan.) 

MY POINT, WHICH is not terribly original, is that Mike had no incentive to judge Ira's capacity to repay because he was not exposed to what economists (pretentiously) call "moral hazard": he had no stake in the risk of a default, only a positive benefit from the size of the loan. As with the managers and share-holders of Fannie Mae et al, he profited from the upside, while the downside was, in effect, insured by all of us.

Then again, I am writing this (quietly) from my wife's bedside at Mass General, where she is recovering from knee-replacement surgery, funded in large measure by Medicare. If the hospital suggests discharge on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, will I say no? The extra five grand is, shall we say, insured by us all; there is a moralizing hazard, too, which I would feel a little odd indulging in just at the moment. By the way, thirty-percent of what we pay to medical providers during our lifetimes comes in our last year of life. Imagine the size of Medicare's "bail-out" when boomer spouses have to decide on when to pull the plug, with others (that is, "us all") footing the bill?

LET ME BE clear. I am not upset that the bail-out is happening. It had to, just like the S&L bail-out did. The commonwealth is, among other things, a kind of insurer of last resort, the enabler (writes Adam Smith) of "commerce in general." I am not even upset that our Mikes made a buck. I am vaguely sorry, of course, for the people who, unlike Ira, recklessly took easy mortgages, or put "extra" money into mutual funds. But these people are now creating a good day for young home buyers (like my children), bankruptcy lawyers, etc. Nor am I particularly nervous about global capital not flowing back to our shores again, and fairly soon. What will the freshly-minted MBAs--the Mikes of the Kuwaiti or Chinese sovereign wealth funds--do with ten trillion dollars over the next decade? Invest in Ghana?

What I would be upset about is five foot leaps over seven foot pits, the continuing (mostly Republican) pretense that the prerogatives of commonwealth are temporary or do not legitimately exist: that the insurance the commonwealth provides comes along with dumb freedoms parading as market freedom. (Imagine a bail-out for car insurance companies in a roads system without traffic lights.) Paul Krugman shrewdly observes that the commonwealth has a right to own and manage a good part of what it invests in. People arguing for accountability should not fatuously be accused of socialism.

If insurance is a good thing, and government is a legitimate insurer, then we must end (to the extent that we can) triangular relations where the gainers of service have no stake in the cost of service; where people profit without moral hazard. This means more than new, harsh financial regulations for mortgage buying or rules for banking. It means, also (finally), single-payer health insurance, as in Canada, for example, where the buyers of health care negotiate with providers of health care in behalf of patients. It means government funded high speed train systems funded by gas taxes, so we are not all stuck with the catastrophes from global warming. It means more public universities, so we don't face an unemployment catastrophe in a generation. It means, in short, citizenship and social contract.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Tzipi's Choice

My friend Naomi Chazan has put the case brilliantly in the new Forward. If Tzipi Livni thinks she can place the peace process on a back-burner or, to put things more cruelly, that an Israeli majority will choose her to lead the country into a fight-to-the-finish with Palestinians, she is mistaken. As Michael Corleone told Tom Hagen, "You are not a war-time Consigliori."

Much like Mahmoud Abbas, Livni's only hope to form a stable government, or to gain popularity in advance of new elections, is to prove that she can renew the promise of an agreement under American-European auspices, that is, advance the interests of Israelis over Judeans. She must show that diplomacy is the problem and she is the solution. Her side is the majority and creates most of the wealth. She must choose to inspire. The fact that Haim Oron, the head of the Meretz peace party, is claiming that Livni has offered him a place in a new government is a sign that Livni gets it. One hopes the next American president will get it, too.   

Incidentally, the same issue of the  Forward includes a very thoughtful review of The Hebrew Republic. The reviewer, Joel Streicker, chides me gently, however, for implying (in the book's subtitle) that peace is inevitable. I am not sure I do imply this--anyway, I have never made a buck betting against tragedy. But the book places its hopes mainly in the rising professional class of Israel, people who know the opportunities of globalization, and opportunity costs of war. If there is a poster child for this rising group, it may well be Livni.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Obama's Jews

Barack Obama is still leading among Jews 2 to 1, and pundits are still telling us that this is a sign of weakness: that historic levels of support among Jews, 3 (or even 4) to 1, are needed to win Florida and Pennsylvania; and that Obama's not going to get there unless he's willing to be as "Zionist" as McCain.

There are too many misconceptions in this analysis to be dealt with here. (I try to lay them out more fully in the current Harper's.)   But it is meanwhile worth having another look at this penetrating Gerstein-Agne poll, conducted for the rising J Street Lobby. It suggests that Jews are seriously divided: that the vast majority, around 70%, are more or less liberal, opposed the Iraq war, and want to see the US pressure Israelis and Palestinians into a peace deal; while our most prominent Jewish leaders, in AIPAC, the Council of Presidents, and the World Jewish Congress, tend to promote the agenda of the 20-25% who identify with conservative politics, and would never vote for Obama no matter what he does.

THE POLL SUGGESTS, in other words, that Jews will have less of an impact on the Obama campaign than it will have on them. For it raises the question of why, and how long, American Jews will continue to tolerate its own leadership.
And the question is the more intriguing since the most progressive Jews seem most generous to both Jewish community organizations and political campaigns. I asked Jim Gerstein, who conducted the J Street poll, to run the relevant numbers. He wrote me back, generously: "Among 'liberals,' 51% contribute to Jewish organizations and charities no different from the overall sample; 50% contribute to political campaigns, 8 pts. higher than the overall sample. Among 'progressives,' however, 56% contribute to Jewish organizations and charities (4 pts. higher than the overall sample); while 63 percent contribute to political campaigns, a remarkable 21 pts. higher than the overall sample."

Jews, I need not add, have means: over a third earn $100,000 or more.   So if you assume that the Obama campaign has the trappings of a liberal movement, you have to wonder if the Jewish majority is not on a collision course with the organizational leaders who purport to represent Jewish interests. This collision seems imminent if Obama wins, but seems the more inevitable if he loses--and loses in part because of the solidarity between McCain's forces and a deceptively prominent Jewish right.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

US Policy, Obama, and The Hebrew Republic

Today, 9/11, seems the right day to ask how American foreign policy, and the Middle East conflict particularly, are playing out in the presidential campaign. What, if anything, can Barack Obama do to frame the conversation and, not coincidentally, get himself elected? 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may seem a side issue here. It is not. Obama himself made the case when he returned from the region in July that any US advance toward diplomatic normalization with Iran, or toward a regional alliance to help out inIraq, would be tied-up in large measure with Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is a matter of hearts and minds in the greater Arab world. 

Moreover, many of us have argued that, given the strength of the Israeli right (and the vendetta culture of Israelis and Palestinians more generally), we cannot expect any Israeli leader to rally the Israeli majority to an actual deal, that is, risk undermining national solidarity for a while--not unless an American administration and Europe together force the issue, offering a larger, plausible vision, boots on the ground, new investment, and so forth. 

Besides, rightist notions like “the global war on terror” have shown how Israel’s conflicts are consonant with America’s. The Israeli government’s ambivalence about ending its occupation, its default to military force, its tensions with Iran, etc., have seemed a kind of U.S. policy agenda in microcosm. And if America approaches its Middle East problems, as Obama insists it must, not with military preemption but with an emphasis on collective security, patient alliances, containment, the power of the global economy, and so forth, how can this not imply a verdict on Israeli occupation?

John McCain seems to think the status quo just needs more effort: he's unscrewed Brent Scowcroft from his brain and screwed in Joe Lieberman.  But has Obama really made the case that McCain is wrong? Yes and no, as Tom Friedman complained yesterday. This is a serious danger not only to Obama's prospects, but to a region that more Manichean talk and military stalemate can blow up.   

WHEN MCCAIN SPEAKS of Obama’s lack of experience (the main line of attack from an otherwise vulnerable campaign), this is code for something like the following argument: 

The world is dangerous, with fanatic forces challenging the US (and, by implication, the West) at every turn.  We need a Commander-in-Chief who will not flinch from using force, if necessary; someone whose toughness is clear to all, and so deters attack; someone who can tell right from wrong, and rally the right against the wrong; somebody who, if he had been president, would have run the Iraq war (and by implication, maybe even the Vietnam war) more successfully; somebody whose life experience makes him plausibly the custodian of American patriotism and so deserves our trust. 

Granted, this argument is vexingly simple-minded.  But the debate it invites is a permanent feature of the American landscape (and everybody’s psyche since high-school) and Obama can neither avoid it nor win it.  He can say, assertively, that Iraq was a strategic failure.  He can promise to refocus on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  He can say that he cares more about veterans, because he will really fund VA hospitals and a new GI Bill.  He can insist he is not really “young,” that he is older now than, for example, Kennedy was when he took office.  He can say, like Kennedy, that he represents a “new generation” against the old.  None of this is enough.  It is begging the question and playing into McCain’s hands.  

For if it is true that the world reduces to a place where outlaws need our posses, Obama cannot be a more plausible John Wayne than McCain.  Indeed, what President Kennedy meant by “new generation” in 1960 was vaguely like what McCain implies now about himself, that (unlike the skittish Nixon) Kennedy represented a generation of chastened war veterans who saw how the country must be mobilized around democratic principles, etc., to defeat the Soviets: a big, inchoate enemy with the worldwide capacity to threaten us.  (McCain has reassigned this role to Islamists; and Obama may focus on Al-Qaeda’s resurgence because of Iraq, or gamely try to refocus us on the economy.  But leave the foreign policy debate as it is stands, and any new terror attack between now and November could sweep McCain into the presidency.)    

Indeed, the Obama campaign must assume, if only as a thought experiment, that there will be a serious attack on America between now and the election, and that Obama will have offered ordinary citizens a strategy, a vision, that allows them to feel that they are working toward security in the face of the uncertainty attacks evoke.  

To win the election, in other words, Obama must convincingly win the foreign policy debate; and to do that he must change the terms of debate.  He must redefine the world’s challenges in a way that demands what he is uniquely equipped to become: a president with, not just the power to deter, but the power to attract.  He must, that is, show how terrorism is but a piece of a larger, complex challenge; that in the face of this challenge, we need the ability to 1) build out a system of collective security with other countries, 2) develop regional alliances in all parts of the world based on the common interest of regional players, Middle East, Asia, and Africa, 3) build global institutions for a patently global economy, and 4) win the hearts and minds of young people from Rio to Jakarta. 

And to get here, he can show that he is, say, picking up where President Kennedy left off in his famous American University speech, while acknowledging changes in the world people of Kennedy’s generation and temperament would have wished for but never lived to see. 

OBAMA MUST PROVE, in short, that he is the new face of this globalization.  He needs to show, in speech after speech, that America cannot simply aspire to securing our own national interest with military hegemony, but rather that America’s interests are inextricably bound with the new world system implied by the world “globalization”; that we can use our (still) unrivaled economic power, and indispensable military power, to turn America into the world’s leading global citizen. He must turn his crowd in Berlin from a queer embarrassment into the triumph it was.

Citizenship implies many things, and Kennedy actually listed several that can still be borrowed, from collective security, to nuclear disarmament, to increasing cooperation on the information infrastructure.  Obama might culminate with an agenda that carries high symbolic value, which could be initiated in the first 100 days.  Here are some ideas, other than those Obama has offered on Iraq: Strengthening and updating the UN Security Council, by adding permanent members like Germany and Brazil; ordering a radical reduction in nuclear stockpiles, and using projected savings over time to build high-speed rail in major air corridors now fouling the atmosphere; hosting a Kyoto-style conference on climate change, to be led by Al Gore; creating a commission on national service that will revive the Peace Corps. 

And, yes, Obama should announce that he will appoint a special negotiator to the Israel-Palestinian talks, perhaps Bill Clinton, and in any case announce that he sees the “Clinton Bridging Parameters” of January 2001 as the basis for American policy in reaching a compromise.        

McCain and Republicans will accuse him of ignoring people back home, or caring too much about what the world says.  Let them. Voters should see how he excites the world, and how he is raising hopes—and reviving the love of America—everywhere.

Monday, September 8, 2008

TPM Cafe Book Club

The Hebrew Republic is being batted about in this week's "TPM Cafe Book Club."  You can pick up the thread here.  And please feel free to add a comment.  

Friday, September 5, 2008

On King Hussein, The London Review, And Prerogative

Avi Shlaim's biography of King Hussein, which I review at length in the current issue of The Nation, is about to be published in the United States.  The book should stimulate, not only a reevaluation of what advocates of "peace process" have (and have not) accomplished during the past 40 years, but the generally underappreciated role of Jordan in Israel's and Palestine's future.

The king was an advocate of peace and dignified compromise for more than a generation. Jordan, meanwhile, has itself become a kind of miracle in the desert, a commercial hub of regional business, an early example of the kind of economic development that the globalization of intellectual capital makes possible.  Dubai, now, is the poster-child of this kind of development, but Hussein is among its pioneers.  This economic development is far more consequential to the slow process of democratizing the Arab Middle East than neocon-inspired military adventures. 
Anyway, Jordan remains the place where many of the real leaders of a future Palestinian state are building the business and political connections Palestine will need.  They will be natural partners with both Israeli entrepreneurs and Ramallah's and East Jerusalem's leaders. The king's determination to use his prerogatives to secure a moderate, Western-leaning regime is responsible for this bourgeois revolution.  He doesn't get enough credit for it.
ONE REASON HE doesn't, by the way, is that the idea of a bourgeois revolution seems ugly to certain Western intellectuals (you know, the kind who think Fredrick Engels's version of Manchester cotton mills was pretty much the last word on capitalism), who are often the same people who think that appreciation of Jordan means a betrayal of some anti-imperialist Palestinian nationalism, which the very existence of Jordan would seem to contradict.
We are supposed to believe the half-truths that keep our thoughts and loyalties from getting messy: e.g., that Hussein's was just a police state left over by Churchill, which colluded with Israel to repress the Palestinians; that the problem is Israel, the solution, one-state for all, and that we could get there, presumably, if not for Israel's occupation-regime, the Jewish lobby, Republicans, and, yes, backward, repressive Arab monarchs.  
And you find many purveyors of this wisdom in Britain especially, which is why when the London Review of Books originally asked me to review Shlaim's book for them I jumped at the chance.  It seemed to me that this magazine's audience in particular needed to hear a more complex view.  So I delivered the piece you now see before you, which "the editors" (yes, an editorial "collective," with one email address for all) received with apparent gratitude, fussed with a bit, put into galleys and proofs, then scheduled.  On the Wednesday before the Friday it was to be published, I got a note asking to finalize my bio.  

In any case, that was the last thing I heard from "the editors." The next communication I received was from Mary Kay Wilmers, the editor-in-chief, a letter of apology with a cheque and the claim that the piece "does not work--or at least not for us."  No explanation, no request for revisions.  The article that replaced mine, I soon learned, was a last minute report about how Israelis were shooting up Gaza.

This was not the first time that Wilmers has used her prerogatives to treat authors with less than the graciousness of, say, King Hussein.  Or, I am grateful to report, the open-spirited respect for nuanced views about the conflict--and professionalism--of The Nation.  No doubt, her vigilance leaves London readers better off.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dark Winter

A week before 9/11, I thought I'd share this song, "Dark Winter," written and performed by Ellie Avishai.  Ellie was an aspiring singer, song-writer in 2001 and wrote "Dark Winter," almost in one sitting, during the week following the attack.  Performing one's music is an aspiration one never really gives up (she'll be releasing her first CD this fall), but she is now also an MBA with designs on reforming high-school education.  In case this isn't obvious, Ellie is my daughter, now 31, and making her way in the world as she knows it.  And in case this isn't obvious, I love the sound of her voice.

W.'s Fourth and Fifth Terms

Charming. Plain spoken. Good looking. Earnest. Angry.  Sort of a wild youth, but settled-down, family.  University, but no intellectual, thank God.  Early career in sports. Knows how to cheer.  TV dinners, when necessary.

What the Bible prohibits (well, what the New Testament prohibits) are sins. "Choice" is a liberal's way of dressing up what's immoral. Thinks government should prohibit what's immoral.  Yet sees government as too big, intrusive, and tending toward corruption.  Thinks only an intellectual could notice a contradiction.

Never really traveled abroad. Thinks foreign policy means standing up for freedom. Thinks freedom means standing against (and killing as many of the) evil people who attack our way of life, control our oil, etc. Thinks this is God's work.  Reveres military people. (Runs for higher office in the reflected prestige of a war hero).  Loves Israel, while preached to by ministers who think Jews are punished for rejecting Christianity. 

Comes from an oil state.  Thinks energy policy means building (or giving tax breaks for building) infrastructure to further the ways oil companies bring supplies to market.  Silent about climate change. Knows how to mock elitists, with their policy papers, difficult math and dirty books.  Suggests the free-wheeling culture of "pundits" serves Democrats, but counting on cable news, right-wing talk shows, etc., to whip up enthusiasm and organize.  

Counting, especially, on television "dream teams" defining their job as scoring how political gambits play, rather than reporting whether claims are true

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It's Not Just The Economy, Stupid

My friend Sam Bahour, one of Ramallah's grittiest entrepreneurs and consultants, a Palestinian-American man-of-the-world (who got his Kellogg School MBA at Tel-Aviv University), knows more than most how important economic reciprocity and development will be to building peace. But he also knows their limitations.  Israelis or Americans who think economic advance will be a substitute for a political process that changes borders and governance and makes room for refugees--that Palestinians will be silenced by the hope of material gain--do not understand their future.

On the economic front, they point to grand plans to establish a handful of industrial mega-zones, the majority being located on the unilaterally-defined (illegal) Israeli border between the West Bank and Israel.  These industrial zones are meant to absorb the over 150,000 Palestinian laborers that Israel has prohibited from working in Israel. Moreover, as I was recently told by an Israeli promoting these industrial zones, for every job created in such a zone, three will be created for Palestinians outside the industrial zones -- thus, in essence, creating an entire artificial economy built around Palestinian and foreign-owned, but Israeli-controlled economic bubbles.

What the international community fails to mention is that the dynamic on the ground is explosive. The Israeli military occupation is alive and well and causing structural, possibly irrevocable damage to Palestinian lands and persons. The Jewish-only Israeli settlement enterprise is off the leash and building more and more illegal settlements as if there were no tomorrow, not to mention the increasing tides of settler violence which remains unpunished.  All this settlement activity is happening with full approval of the Israeli government and in full view of the international community. The failing (or failed) health care and education systems in Palestine are producing a generation of Palestinians with much less to lose and little hope for the future.

Read Sam's entire argument here.      

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Society Of Choices

In my last post I asked, only half-rhetorically, if any decent candidate could be elected in a campaign dominated by what we call, out of habit, "coverage," especially the chatter of cable and network news. I'm not the first to ask this question, or dread the answer, or be accused of elitism regarding political life, or defeatism regarding Obama's campaign. But my fears are not, as he would say, about him. They are about us. So I'll pursue the point one step more.

Spiro Agnew once said that the press was infected by liberalism. The problem, I think, is that it is infected by behaviorism. Day-in, day-out, we are talked about as bundles of "socialized" appetites, our freedom a matter of "preferences." So what we think is either the product of "ideology" (i.e., of our "demographic") or a kind of impulse buy. Our claims of fact (about history, society, etc.) are, by extension, seen as an expression of our material "interests" or, if we are deeply socialized, "values." You get the idea.

What Frank Rich calls "the bloviators" may have been trumped by Obama last week, but they still manufacture the air. They are not, as he says, just regularly wrong (about the threat of the Clintons' speeches, say), and not all have been skeptical about Obama. They are often right (as about the Biden pick), and some networks, like MSNBC, are nakedly sympathetic to Obama's election. Rather, the press's effect is more subtle, barely visible, like the ambient products of internal combustion engines. Good is what most believe; personal ambition is what's real. An "objective" reporter is someone who uses "scientific methods," that is, impersonal survey research (polling, etc.) or privileged "access," to gauge--how does Cokie put it?--"the perception out there." More and more, reporters are nattering nabobs of narcissism.

LET'S LOOK AT one of last week's least egregious examples, Sunday's "Meet The Press," the program whose former host's tragically premature death received a network tribute lasting longer than the Democratic National Convention itself. Out of a 48-minute broadcast, only about the first 13 minutes were actually devoted to some public figure--in this case, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty--meeting the press. The rest of the time, the press were meeting each other, and debating how they were being swayed.

The host, Tom Brokaw, began his line of questioning of Pawlenty reasonably enough, asking about the Republican National Convention, challenging McCain's choice of Sarah Palin and even parrying Pawlenty's fatuous comparison of Palin's experience to Obama's. There were obvious, but bearable, brand management questions about Palin's views: how her sex, pro-life position, NRA membership, etc., "complemented McCain's message of reform" (though any reporter who gave it a moment's thought would have realized that she sounded eerily like a female George W. Bush in 1996).

But then the interview turned to "creationism," which Palin believes should be taught "side-by-side with evolution" in public schools. "If there are two competing theories and they are credible," Pawlenty responded (with the look of sincerity that's no doubt served him well since his sophomore year), "allow them both to be presented, so that students could be exposed to...both...and make up their own minds."

Forgive me if I consider this a moment of, well, truth for any reporter. Brokaw responded in a way that seemed to defend evolution and challenge Pawlenty: "In the vast scientific community, do you think creationism has the same weight as evolution...?" (Brokaw even spoke about the "crisis" in education.) But look more carefully at his words--at the faux-quantitative language, the implication that "intelligent design" is wrong because some overwhelming consensus among scientists declares it to be, like denying the link between smoking and lung cancer--as if we were not talking about ascribing to a divine intelligence the power to reject science and inquiry itself.

If Brokaw took his profession seriously--if he were indeed a liberal in the classical sense (you know, like the framers of the constitution)--he would have forcefully, even proudly, followed-up:

"Sir, a scientist, like a journalist, for that matter, begins with the premise that we doubt everything, and applies rules of evidence to establish facts, which are subject to empirical test. A theory is therefore provisional in principle. But creationism is not a theory in this sense. It looks at things it pronounces too complex to be explained, and insists, not on doubt, or even mystery, but that these be explained with reference to a divine book, which, by the way, only a small part of the human race considers divine. This is not science. It is religion--and childish religion at that."

Any journalist who cannot say something like this (OK, more succinctly) at the drop of a hat cannot understand why, for example, a free press should exist at all; why we should not be ruled, say, by a despot claiming a revelation that the majority--afraid to be Left Behind--happens to want.

From there, "Meet The Press" went into the "round table," to experts identified by "partisan" ideology, or reporters claiming the authority of polls and insider gossip. Reporters at the table had no real facts to report, since the truth is relative (isn't that what Einstein said, ha-ha?), and they would not want to privilege one side's values over another's. Rather, they prove themselves competent by anticipating better or earlier than other reporters the ways campaigns "play." It's a democracy, right? So smart means predicting what most will come to believe, right? The talk was interrupted only by the scoop of Maria Bartiromo, a stock exchange "analyst" who had interviewed Palin. She lauded Palin's "expertise" in "energy," but if you were paying attention depicted that expertise as something you'd expect from a member of OPEC.

I URGE YOU to compare the Bartimoro segment to, say, Elizabeth Kolbert's recent "Comment" on energy policy in the New Yorker. Does the comparison in tone and substance not prompt a sickening feeling? (Can any "crisis" in education be allayed when Bartimoro's is the television journalism engulfing our teenage children?) Ask yourself, as Kolbert does, the only important question that speaks to a political journalist's real mission: "How important is it for candidates to tell the truth?"

The naïve (and, yes, partly elitist) answer is that the truth should be very important, since a liberal press should be there to embarrass candidates if they don't tell it; then, presumably, an educated citizenry will reject them (and, by the way, any electorate that can follow whether Mark Fuhrman planted OJ's bloody sock, or follow Al Gore's climbing graphs, can follow just about any public policy presented with rigor and common sense).

But the answer, it turns out, is that the truth is not at all important--not if you have a press that thinks, in principle, that truth is impossible, or special pleading, or subject to flocking behavior, or just for suckers. Let's not kid ourselves that a couple of terms of even a great presidency will make a difference.