Friday, August 3, 2012
Monday, January 23, 2012
If a man’s legacy were to be gauged by the immediate response to his death, then Gore Vidal’s is very much in danger of being reduced to a succession of pithy and caustic sentences that will forever rattle round the internet, and cheapened by the descent into hysteria that warped his political views in his final years. As quotable as he was—for good and for ill—it’s worth remembering Vidal the novelist, whose writing helped define the postwar American novel because his subject—whether he was writing about religious strife in ancient Rome or middle America as a gaudy soap opera—was always the United States itself.
Vidal’s most substantial body of work is his seven-book series “Narratives of Empire,” a chronicle of the United States tinged with the Vidalian view that the nation has morphed since its inception from republic to empire. Often, Vidal’s heterodoxy affected the quality of his work; as Christopher Hitchens noted in his attack on Vidal in Vanity Fair, by the time The Golden Age was published in 2000, Vidal’s obsession with conspiracy pertaining to Pearl Harbor had overtaken him.
But Burr—his novel on the founding of the republic—and Lincoln are unsurpassed in the field of American historical fiction. Ever the contrarian, Vidal made his Lincoln a leader with dictatorial tendencies who would suspend habeas corpus and lead the North into sanguinary conflict to keep the republic together. Vidal deployed verifiable quotations to make his case that the Great Emancipator did not care much for emancipation at all: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Read more: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/08/01/gore_vidal_s_greatest_novels_gore_vidal_was_a_great_character_but_you_shouldn_t_forget_his_work_.html
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Who is Saul Alinsky, and why does he matter?
Who is Saul Alinsky? is the question I asked myself after watching Newt Gingrich’s victory speech in South Carolina Saturday night. He evokes Alinsky’s name frequently, and always with that awfully unattractive sneer, as in — “The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky” — from said celebratory address. Or — “Obama believes in a Saul Alinsky radicalism which the press corps was never willing to look at. When he said he was a community organizer, it wasn’t Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. It was radicalism taught on the south side of Chicago by Saul Alinsky” — from a campaign stop in South Carolina prior to the primary.
Well, in brief, Saul Alinsky was a Chicago-born community organiser (an outside figure who joins neighbourhood residents together so that they may campaign collectively for their common good) who worked initially in the labor movement in the 1930s, before operating in the city’s ghettos in the 1940s and 50s.
Labelled “one of the great American leaders of the non-socialist left”, Alinsky published Rules for Radicals in 1971, which outlines the processes and machinations of community organising to the next generations, influenced by the struggles of the late-1960s. Alinsky advocated a confrontational method for curing economic inequality, stating: “Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take [power] away.”
This tome, according to Politico, is “said to have influenced Barack Obama’s thinking as a young community organiser”. Obama and Alinsky never met: the latter died in 1972, over ten years before Obama would move to Chicago to direct the Developing Communities Project.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
by Gershom Gorenberg, Slate, November 8, 2011
Today’s haredim are known for marrying early and having many children, even as men spend much or all of their adult lives studying Talmud rather than working. When the state was established, haredi society “was entirely different,” says sociologist Menachem Friedman . “It was a normal working society,” similar to the rest of the Jewish population. The fertility rate was about the same. So was the average marriage age, though sometimes haredi men married relatively late if they wanted to extend their religious studies. To get married, a man had to leave Talmudic studies in a yeshiva and find work.
Rather than being a diorama of traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, as many Israelis and visitors believe, Israel’s present-day version of ultra-Orthodoxy is a creation of the Jewish state. Policies with unexpected effects fostered this new form of Judaism, at once cloistered and militant. So did successful measures by haredi leaders to revive a community that was shrunken by modernity and then devastated by the Holocaust.
While a similar revival has taken place in haredi communities in the United States and other western countries since World War II, their dependence on government funding is necessarily more limited. In turn, the extent to which adult men can engage in full-time religious study rather than working is also more restricted.
In economic terms, the haredi revival in Israel has been disastrous. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community is ever more dependent on the state and, through it, on other people’s labor. Exploiting political patronage, ultra-Orthodox clerics have largely taken over the state’s religious bureaucracy, imposing extreme interpretations of Jewish law on other Jews. By exempting the ultra-Orthodox from basic general educational requirements, the democratic state fosters a burgeoning sector of society that neither understands nor values democracy. And to protect their own growing settlements, haredi parties are now essential partners in the pro-settlement coalitions of the right.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Breaking down American aid to Pakistan
As joy and jubilation turns to anger and the search for answers, the political discussion in Washington has shifted from the death of Osama bin Laden to the nation where he was hiding (if you can call it that). A Washington Post/Pew Research Centre poll indicates that only 8pc of those questioned believe Pakistan aided as opposed to hindered American efforts to capture or kill the world’s most wanted terrorist.
In Congress, not wishing to miss out on this particular passing bandwagon, Rep. Ted Poe has told ABC News that he will table legislation that would cut off all aid to Pakistan “until it verified to U.S. satisfaction that it was not knowingly harbouring bin Laden for the past five or six years”. Perhaps we could label this part of the Trump Doctrine: when a nation isn’t quite acting as you’d like, shout louder and threaten them with a diplomatic knee-capping.
From the way the hawks are talking, you’d think that at present, all aid to Pakistan is funnelled straight into the back pockets of the ISI or the army’s top brass. Rather, in FY2009, the vast majority of the funds Pakistan received came from USAID, some $1.35 billion, in addition around $900 million in disbursements and $429 million in military aid, a sum far less than that which was granted each year to Hosni Mubarak’s pharocracy in Egypt.
Of the obligatory funding, around three quarters of USAID monies - $950 million – is channelled through the Economic Support Fund, a body designed to promote the very kinds of institutions and values we’d hope to see take root in Pakistan: stable, free markets; the rule of law; transparent and fair elections; the participation of women in public life; social mobility.
The remainder is directed towards programmes that are essential to the Pakistani people: $105 million was allocated through USAID to disaster and famine relief; $58 million via the Department of Agriculture for food aid in the form of Public Law 480 Title II grants; almost $20 million was granted for global health and child survival.
To cut off such funding, even during such a great recession as this, would be callous and counterproductive. Benazir Bhutto, in her final tome Reconciliation, argued powerfully that defeating religious radicalism in Pakistan could not be achieved solely through the barrel of a gun. Rather, democracy must be fostered to replace authoritarianism, since it is freedom that “weakens the forces of extremism and militancy”.
Pakistan can not do the things that need to be done to achieve a stable, prosperous condition – construct a middle class, build a sound secular education system; achieve gender equality; kick-start economic empowerment – if the United States yanks the rug from underneath them. The War on Terror will not be won by cutting off funding which assists women in gaining credit to start a small business, or helps farmers turn over their fields from narcotics to nourishment.
Speaker Boehner was correct in his assessment of bilateral relations. There needs to occur an “eyeball-to-eyeball conversation about where this relationship is going”, but at a time when al-Qaeda and other terrorist gangs have made Pakistan both a target and in parts a safe haven, the United States needs “more engagement, not less”.
In his Slate column on Monday, Christopher Hitchens stated that President Obama’s words and deeds since the getting of bin Laden “will be entirely worthless if he expects us to go on arming and financing the very people who made this trackdown into such a needlessly long, arduous and costly one”. For sure, part of our review must include the question of whether military aid to this current clutch of Pakistani leaders is worth the cost, but the United States is in too deep to simply cut and run in toto.
A closer examination of U.S. aid demonstrates that to endorse the Poe Plan would not only endanger Western civilians in the immediate, by allowing a fragile nation of 170 million with a nuclear stockpile to slip into the hands of armed Islamists, but also damage the lives of millions of ordinary Pakistani farmhands, labourers and schoolchildren whose very futures depend on the continuation of American largesse.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
by David Weigel, Slate, April 15, 2011
How far can this schtick take you? In 2000, not very far. That was when a lonely nation cried out for blandness, and demanded candidates with smart ideas of how to spend budget surpluses. There was none of the anger and immediacy that there was in 1992 or 2010. And Trump’s success, such as it is, is coming because he will say anything that fed-up people are thinking.
Here’s an example that’s more recent than his book. In 2008, after George W. Bush lost, Trump made a critique of the Iraq war predicated on the idea that Bush was a lousy president. “He’d go into a country,” said Trump, “attack Iraq, which had nothing to do with the World Trade Center, and just do it because he wanted to do it.” When he said that, that’s what people thought about Bush and Iraq.
Smash-cut to this month, when Trump sat down with the Wall Street Journal for one of many interviews with baffled reporters. He went at Iraq from another direction. “I always heard that when we went into Iraq,” he said, “we went in for the oil. I said, ‘Eh, that sounds smart.’ “
Different rationales, different solutions different times—the only thing connecting them is the degree of anger out there in that 18 percent or so of the country that hates and mistrusts both parties, and for the moment is still with the GOP. They like successful businessmen, or they at least like people who can sell themselves that way. They hate anything that sounds like political double-talk. They think Obama is wrecking the country. They can be sold snake oil, as long as the person selling it is brimming with confidence about the recipe. Enter, once again, Donald Trump.
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
by David Weigel, Slate, April 4, 2011
That brings Kern to the topic of sharia law. In 2010, Oklahoma voters passed a ballot measure—the first of its kind—prohibiting any judge or court from making decisions based on the teachings of the Koran. It won in a 70-30 landslide, then was immediately bogged down in court on First Amendment grounds.
So it was left up to Kern, who represents the western part of Oklahoma City in the House of Representatives, to introduce new legislation which can ban sharia without tripping on the First Amendment. Last week her bill, HR 1552, made its way to the Senate. It bans “any law, rule, legal code or system” not rooted in the Constitution of Oklahoma or the United States. Kern, a former history teacher, says she has no problem whatsoever with Muslims moving to Oklahoma and that the bill would protect them, too.
“When I see things that are happening that I think will weaken our American way of life, I don’t like that,” she says. “I don’t have a problem with people coming over here—why wouldn’t people want to come to America, the greatest nation in the world where you have the most opportunities and freedoms? Why wouldn’t they want to come over here? But if they’re going to come over here, let them become Americans. If they want to hold on to their own cultures, then why—and I hope I don’t get in trouble here—why not live in their own countries?”
Sunday, March 27, 2011
by Christopher Hitchens, Slate, March 28, 2011
I admit that Egyptian and Tunisian and other demonstrators did not take to the streets waving Iraqi flags, as if in emulation. (Though Saad-Eddin Ibrahim, intellectual godfather of the Egyptian democracy movement, did publicly hail the fall of Saddam as an inspiration, and many leaders of the early Lebanese “spring” spoke openly in similar terms.) This reticence is quite understandable since, apart from the northern Kurdish region of Iraq from which Foreign Minister Zebari hails, the liberation of the country was not entirely the work of its own people. But this point has become a more arguable one since the Arab League itself admitted that there are certain regimes that are impervious to unassisted overthrow from within. Qaddafi’s is pre-eminently one of these, and Saddam’s was notoriously so, as the repeated terror-bombings and gassings of the Shiite and Kurdish populations amply proved. Meanwhile, Iraq already has, albeit in rudimentary and tenuous form, the free press, the written constitution, and the parliamentary election system that is the minimum demand of Arab civil society. It has also passed through a test of fire in which the Bin Ladenists threw everything they had against an emergent democracy and were largely defeated and discredited. These are lessons and experiences that are useful not just for Mesopotamia.
As for the Iraq effect on Libya: Here is what I was told in confidence by the British diplomat who helped negotiate the surrender of Qaddafi’s stockpile of WMD. Not by any means a neoconservative (a breed in any case rare in her majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office), he emphasized three factors. First, and on this occasion at least, the West had extremely good intelligence and was able to astonish and demoralize Qaddafi by the amount it knew about his secret programs. Added to this, and acting cumulatively over time, was the adamant persistence of the Scottish courts in the matter of the Lockerbie atrocity. (Don’t mess with Scottish law, a maxim imperfectly understood by the sort of people who style themselves “king of kings.”) Third, and very important in the timing, was Qaddafi’s abject fear at watching the fate of Saddam Hussein. This has been amply reconfirmed by many Libyan officials in the hearing of many of my friends. He did, after all, approach George W. Bush and Tony Blair, not the United Nations. So now Qaddafi’s stockpiles are under lock and key in Oak Ridge, Tenn. —their trace elements having successfully incriminated the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan—and who can conceivably wish it had been otherwise?
Thursday, March 24, 2011
by Elizabeth Weingarten, Slate, March 25, 2011
Unlike its oil-rich neighbor Bahrain, Qatar—a majority Sunni Muslim country led by Sunni Muslims—doesn’t struggle with sectarian violence. Qatar can be most aptly compared to the United Arab Emirates, which is also majority Sunni and flush with oil money. But Qatar’s population is less diverse and much smaller than that of the UAE, which has recently seen some unrest: There were small protests from migrant laborers in January, and a Facebook page promises protests in the region on March 25. A cadre of intellectuals has also petitioned the government to hold open elections.
There are no similar stirrings in Qatar, which is ruled by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. (He overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1995.) Its comparably small, docile population allows Sheikh al-Thani to operate a rentier state: Qataris don’t pay income tax, and they’re provided with free utilities and health care. Education is also heavily subsidized, with Qatari students often receiving full scholarships to attend universities. In exchange for these perks, Qataris allow Sheikh al-Thani to rule unopposed.
While most Qataris seem content, one group does suffer from significant injustices. The country’s migrant laborers, primarily from Southeast Asia, are frequently underpaid and abused. The controversial Sponsorship Law, which other Gulf countries have recently abolished, prohibits them from leaving the country without permission from their sponsor, essentially dictating a relationship of indentured servitude. Southeast Asian laborers have virtually no political voice in Qatar. If they were to take to the streets and protest, they’d be deported.
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
by Nooren Malone, Slate, March 23, 2011.
In many ways, Rania’s appearance also meshes perfectly with Western ideas of what an enlightened Arab woman might look like: Not only does she speak her mind, she’s unveiled, and she wears pretty much whatever she wants. The writer of the Vogue profile half-acknowledged this part of her appeal, writing: “I can look at Rania … and not make assumptions. But, as a Western woman, I do make assumptions when a faceless woman is hidden under a niqab or burka.”
Rania’s image doesn’t play as well at home, however. Muslimah Media Watch blogger Sana Saeed put the problem this way in an email: “Rather than speaking to the very people she seeks to represent, Rania speaks beyond them.” Nor do they like her spendthrift ways: The lavish clothes that land her on best-dressed lists rankle in a country where an estimated 25 percent of people live in poverty. During the recent Jordanian protests, a group of the country’s Bedouin tribesmen wrote an unpredecented open letter criticizing the monarchy and accusing Rania of corruption and extravagant spending. (For an example of which, see the queen’s 40th birthday party, which the Spectator describedthus: “Six hundred guests were flown in from all over the world. Two giant figure ‘40’s were beamed on to mountainous outcrops – although the neighbouring villages don’t even have electricity. Locals still speak of the water used to dampen down the sand so that the guests could walk more easily, though there were desperate water shortages nearby.”) The tribesmen’s letter went on to compare Rania to the unapologetically spendy Leila Trabelsi, wife of deposed Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and so-called “Imelda Marcos of the Arab world.” Whether or not there is merit to the comparison, or to the corruption charges more broadly, even the suggestion draws attention to the contrast between her personal habits and the values she advocates publicly.
by Christopher Hitchens, Slate, March 14, 2011.
As to the feasibility of a no-fly zone, I pointed out several weeks ago what I couldn’t avoid noticing on two brief visits to Libya: The entire country is in effect a long strip of coastline, with a vast hinterland of desert, bordering a sea, where the strongest force by far is the Sixth Fleet. This elementary point has been taken up and elaborated in a very considered—one might almost call it realist—Wall Street Journal article by James Thomas and Zachary Cooper. These two experts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments emphasize that “[u]nlike in the Balkans and Iraq, Libya’s most populated cities and airbases are situated near its coastline, with most situated less than 10 miles from the shore” (my italics). This sheer geographical fact gives us the option of using ship- and aircraft-based missiles without sending any planes into Libyan airspace, what the authors call a “stand-off no-fly zone.”
…If the other side in this argument is correct, or even to the extent that it is correct, then we are being warned that a maimed and traumatized Libya is in our future, no matter what. That being the case, a piecemeal and improvised policy is the least pragmatic one. Even if Qaddafi temporarily turns the tide, as seems thinkable, and covers us all with shame for doing so, we will still have it all to do again. Let us at least hope that certain excuses will not be available next time.