Wednesday, March 31, 2004

I've written before about the absurdity of the notion that "soft power" is more important than the "hard" (i.e., military) kind, and the strange role of the fall of the Soviet Union in making this canard credible to certain gullible analysts. But it's hard to imagine a more perfect textbook case of this delusion than Joseph "Soft Power" Nye's op-ed in the Washington Post. See if you can detect any traces of actual history in his description of the Cold War:
Historically, Americans have been good at wielding soft power. Think of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms in Europe at the end of World War II; of young people behind the Iron Curtain listening to American music and news on Radio Free Europe; of Chinese students symbolizing their protests in Tiananmen Square with a replica of the Statue of Liberty.
For forty-four years, Eastern Europeans groaned under Soviet despotism--FDR's gift to Stalin at Yalta. Chinese freedom-lovers still suffer under heavy repression today, their hopes having been crushed under the tank treads of the PLA at Tienanmen square in 1989, just as the Iron Curtain was about to fall. But to Nye, this horrible history of uninterrupted tyranny, which America was helpless to end, was in fact a glorious demonstration of America's success at "wielding soft power"--all because of a few slogans, radio programs and effigies.

Perhaps if the period in question had ended a few centuries ago, Nye would have an excuse for his own pitiful lack of perspective. But the events about which he demonstrates such utter and complete cluelessness happened during his own adult years, within any normal person's clear living memory. That he can still be respected as a serious scholar after publishing such nonsense is simply baffling.
NYT columnist David Brooks' highly conventional advice to today's high school graduates looks harmless, as hackneyed adages are wont to do. Don't worry, he writes, about the things that seem important in high school:
Once you reach adulthood, the key to success will not be demonstrating teacher-pleasing competence across fields; it will be finding a few things you love, and then committing yourself passionately to them.

The traits you used getting good grades might actually hold you back. To get those high marks, while doing all the extracurricular activities colleges are also looking for....[y]ou could not allow yourself to be obsessed by one subject because if you did, your marks in the other subjects would suffer. You could not take outrageous risks because you might fail....You just knew that each class was a hoop you must jump through on your way to a first-class university. You learned to thrive in adult-supervised settings.....

But in adulthood, you'll find that a talent for regurgitating what superiors want to hear will take you only halfway up the ladder, and then you'll stop there. The people who succeed most spectacularly, on the other hand, often had low grades. They are not prudential. They venture out and thrive where there is no supervision, where there are no preset requirements.
Unfortunately, only highly successful people ever seem to be asked the secrets to success in life. And their answer is always the same: take risks, hold on to your dream, let nothing stand in your way, dare to be unconventional, etc., etc. Well, of course that's what they'd say, isn't it? If you interview a hundred lottery jackpot winners, at least ninety-nine of them will tell you the secret to success in life: play the lottery.

But it's entirely possible--indeed, I would say, it's highly likely--that the strategies that most often lead to spectacular success in life are, because of their associated risks, very poor choices for young people whose futures are not yet assured. If one were to ask thousands of moderately successful people the secret to their comfortable lives, on the other hand, I suspect their message would be the exact opposite of Brooks': work hard, whether you "love your work" or not; keep your passions from interfering with your duties and responsibilities, both at work and at home; respect, and learn from, your superiors; and choose safety and good sense over risk and dreams.

Granted, these principles may not get you an op-ed column in the New York Times. But they'll probably serve the average high school grad a lot better than Brooks' verbal lottery ticket.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

The stunning victory of the Spanish Socialist party in the wake of the Al Qaida bombing attacks that killed 200 in Madrid, and Spanish prime minister Zapatero's subsequent announcement that his country's troops would soon be withdrawn from Iraq, have provoked some odd reactions. Edward Luttwak, who originally opposed the US campaign in Iraq, believes nonetheless that the troop withdrawal announcement was a huge victory for Osama bin Laden, who will view it as a capitulation that invites further intimidating attacks. (In that regard, he has much company on the right-hand side of the blogosphere.) On the left, Mark Kleiman also believes that the results "aren't good news for the war on Al Qaeda", although he suspects that they are a mere electoral accident, borne of surprisingly high turnout among younger voters, rather than a metaphorical electoral white flag raised in response to terrorism.

On the other hand, Volokh Conspirator Jacob Levy believes that a Spanish pullout from Iraq would be irrelevant to the overall war on terror. Crooked Timber's John Quiggin goes even further, claiming that the Spanish reaction is actually a boon to the war on terrorism, since it helps shift attention away from the massive red herring that is Iraq, and towards direct targeting of Al Qaida. Moreover, he argues, any encouragement that Al Qaida may glean from Zapatero's decision will have absolutely no practical impact, because as a fanatical terrorist group, it simply attacks its Western enemies wherever and whenever it can, regardless of whether those enemies attempt appeasement or confrontation in response.

This last point is certainly valid; a Spanish pullout from Iraq will hardly boost the average radical Islamic terrorist's morale at all, compared with the inspiring effect of the murderous bombing that preceded it. And Levy is also correct in saying that the war in Iraq is not the same as the war on terrorism.

But all the participants in this debate are missing the real significance of Zapatero's decision: it's a strong indicator of future Spanish--and potentially future general European--attitudes towards Western assertiveness in general with respect to terrorist groups and their activities. As it happens, Zapatero did not only call Spanish troops home--he also stated that "fighting terrorism with bombs ... with Tomahawk missiles, isn't the way to defeat terrorism....Terrorism is combated by the state of law." European Commission president Romano Prodi expressed similar sentiments: "Europe applies different instruments [against terrorism], suited to help our citizens leave fear behind: using politics and not just force, which has created further fear." Regardless of one's opinion of the situation in Iraq, these comments from European leaders are not auspicious portents for the war on terrorism.
Chief Conspirator Eugene Volokh and Slate's Dahlia Lithwick seem to be having a bit of trouble with the concept of democracy. Now, I say, "having a bit of trouble with", rather than the obvious, "loathing with unbridled passion", because (a) the latter would be so completely expected as not even to be worth mentioning, and (b) the two being fairly well-respected, legally educated minds, one would not expect them to have so much difficulty mastering such a simple concept.

At issue is a bill, HR 3920, proposing to allow Congress to override (by a two-thirds vote in both houses) any Supreme Court ruling to the effect that a particular statute is unconstitutional. Now, I understand that this bill is nothing short of a heresy against America's anti-democratic judicial religion, and that any adherent of the Church of the American Judiciary would therefore reject it out of hand as completely violating the Constitution, as interpreted by the High Priests of that Church. But Volokh's and Lithwick's difficulties with the bill go beyond mere dogmatic rejection of it. In fact, they honestly can't even seem to understand it.

Volokh's problem seems to stem from being so wedded to the idea of judicial supremacy that he simply can't imagine a world beyond it. Let us suppose, he offers, that Congress overrides a ruling in some case that a particular law is unconstitutional, but a similar (though not identical) case is later brought challenging the constitutionality of the same law. "Why should the Court do anything but strike the law down?", he asks. After much rambling, he seems--just barely--to stumble upon the obvious answer: "perhaps a Congressional veto of a Court decision striking down a statute might automatically mean the statute is per se validated against all future challenges, though that would pose its own problems." What those problems are, he doesn't say. Perhaps respect for democracy poses, in his view, a whole host of problems so self-evident as not to require mentioning.

Lithwick, meanwhile, goes on and on about two competing theological visions of the Constitution: that it's a "living" document, re-interpreted by wise judges over time, and that it has a fixed meaning, requiring a "strict constructionist" interpretation by those same wise judges. The idea of allowing democratically elected authorities to have input into the constitution's interpretation is so strange to her, though, that she misunderstands it completely, summarizing it with the phrase, "anyone who interprets the Constitution using a theory that differs from one's own is simply not a judge"--a position that she equates with "arrogance and lawlessness". In other words, the decision of a two-thirds majority of both houses of the elected representative bodies of a functioning democracy is, in her view, best characterized as simply "one's own" opinion.

This confusion is strange, because, as a matter of fact, Lithwick's home country, Canada, allows just such a legislative override of a judicial ruling of unconstitutionality. The Canadian constitution's "notwithstanding" clause explicitly lays out the procedure by which a legislature may, by a supermajority vote, override the Supreme Court's decision that a given piece of legislation is unconstitutional. The clause has even been used, in the (in)famous case of Quebec's language law, which mandated that French be given prominence over English in all public signs.

Now, I certainly don't endorse the result of that particular use of the clause, but the fact is that the world didn't collapse when ultimate authority was wrested from the courts and handed to a legislature. Ms. Lithwick and Prof. Volokh may not like such an arrangement--indeed, I'm quite sure they do not--and they certainly may declare it outside the current consensus understanding of American Constitutionalism. But it's extremely strange that they should treat the established practice of their neighbor to the north as some kind of bizarre logical inconsistency or anarchistic madness, like--oh, I don't know, the wacky theories of lunatics like Copernicus and Darwin.

Monday, March 15, 2004

The other night I heard Gabriel Schoenfeld speak about his new book, "The Return of Anti-Semitism". His basic thesis is that anti-Semitism is on the rise in three areas: the Islamic world, where quotations from Muslim texts are mingled with classic European slanders to create a virulent, widely embraced brand of hatred; in Europe, where the political left has joined the alienated Muslim minority in bashing Israel and Jews with increasing fervor; and in America, where the radical left, particularly on university campuses, feels free to indulge in unprecedentedly frank expressions of animosity towards Jews.

The problem with this thesis, however, is that it doesn't stand up to a thorough consideration of the past. In the Muslim world, for example, rabid anti-Semitism has been rampant for decades. Mahathir Mohamad, the Malaysian leader who made the news last year by complaining about Jews ruling the world, set down his anti-Semitic ideas in writing a decade and a half ago. The "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" has long been a standard source of anti-Israel propaganda in the Arab world. The Hamas charter, dating back to 1988, is as slanderously anti-Semitic a document as one will see anywhere in the world today, blaming the Jews, their money and their "secret societies" for, among other things, the French and Communist revolutions and both world wars.

Europe, as well, is hardly a newcomer to anti-Semitism--even in the postwar era. The continent of Kurt Waldheim and Jean-Marie Le Pen didn't suddenly rediscover its roots a couple of years ago. Schoenfeld is correct in saying that anti-Semitism is stronger on the political left than it used to be--but then, it's also weaker than before on the political right. (Who, a few years ago, would have imagined the descendants of the Italian Fascists defending Jews and Israel?) In effect, the hatred has shifted around a bit, but it's hard to argue that it's significantly increased.

In America, moreover, there's reason to estimate that anti-Semitism has significantly decreased. In 1991, a Jew was ruthlessly murdered, and many more injured, during what can only be described as a pogrom in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. The political leadership of the city could barely muster a word of regret over the incident, for fear of antagonizing militantly anti-Jewish constituents. Black leaders like Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan openly engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric, winning massive support. Today, even minor politicians who use similar tactics soon taste resounding political defeat.

But if anti-Semitism around the world isn't noticeably more intense today than in past decades, it's certainly more intensely noticed. Schoenfeld's book is only one example of the attention that the supposed worldwide rise in anti-Semitism has lately received. Why now?

My speculation: from 1993 to 2000--the Oslo years--world Jewry were lulled into a state of unjustified complacency. Confident that Israel's future had been secured, and with it the safety of the Jewish people, a normally vigilant group came to view all signs of anti-Semitism as minor incidents of little concern. The rude awakenings of 2000 (the "Al Aqsa Intifada"), 2001 (September 11th) and 2002 (the "Jenin Massacre") have since converted the previous serenity into panic, and today's more normal perception of the anti-Semitic threat seems disproportionately worse (only) in comparison with the calm that directly preceded it.

UPDATE: Volokh Conspirator Randy Barnett seems to agree with Schoenfeld.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Did I say 2003? I meant early 2004, of course....

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

For some reason Oxblog's David Adesnik has chosen this moment to post a couple of long discussions of Robert Altman's 1972 film, M*A*S*H*. Even more strangely, Adesnik has focused primarily on the film's portrayal of the US military in wartime, as if that were the film's real topic.

It's been a while since I saw M*A*S*H*, but I still vividly remember the revulsion I felt as I watched it. Every now and then, you see, I encounter a film (Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors and Jane Campion's The Piano are two others) which evokes in me the weird sensation of discovering an imaginary world completely misunderstood by its own creator. Most often, the filmmaker's sympathies lie with a fictional inhabitant of that world whose odiousness seems self-evident to me, despite the sympathetic presentation.

But the overpraised protagonist of The Piano is merely an obnoxious, self-centered harridan, and Crimes' loathesomely conscienceless main character is only shown in an ordinary, not admirable, light. The heroes of M*A*S*H*, on the other hand--and they are presented, unambiguously, as heroes--are genuine monsters, capable of truly immense cruelty. And the filmmaker clearly embraces, even glorifies that cruelty, because it is directed at those who are on the wrong side. As clear-eyed, politically aware subversives, Hawkeye and Trapper John are, suggests Altman, capable of recognizing the true bourgeois enemy, in the form of Burns and Houlihan--and fully justified in destroying them utterly, and without remorse.

This is a recurring theme in Altman's films--at least those I've been able to stomach watching: real morality--standing up for the right and the good against the world's evil masters--requires copious reserves of self-righteous ruthlessness, and those who are not prepared to break a few eggs (to borrow Stalin's locution) are mere dupes of the powers that be. In "Secret Honor", a little-known Altman film based on the one-man play by the same name, Richard Nixon is presented as a hero who, realizing that his administration is actually controlled by a shadowy, world-dominating "committee of 300" industrialists, decides to sabotage his own presidency, by instigating the Watergate scandal, in order to save himself and his country from the clutches of his puppet-masters. In other words, even the misdeeds of an arch-enemy like Nixon (as Altman no doubt sees him) would have been justified, in Altman's view, for the sake of the great struggle against the evil conspiracy of the world's ruling villains.

There was a time, of course, when Altman's brand of manichaeism was fairly popular. That was the heyday of leftist radicalism, in the seventies and early eighties, when international terrorism (from the PLO to the Red Brigades/Baader Meinhof group to the various Latin American "rebel" groups) was, for many, a form of romantic heroism, and murder and mayhem in the name of the right cause was wholly admirable. The fall of the Soviet Union dampened that spirit considerably, by reminding its adherents of the danger--and, perhaps more important, the futility--of brutality in the name of utopianism. After a couple of decades of dormancy, however, this terrorist ethos seems to be making a bit of a comeback in some circles, among whom Islamist terrorists and their various unsavory allies are treated as understandable, even sympathetic fighters against the true evil (that is, American/Israeli/Jewish/neoconservative/capitalist) conspiracy.

For example, Tim Robbins, a longtime Altman protege, has just written a play confidently identifying the primary evil conspiracy in the world--and it's not Al Qaeda. Rather, it's the late philosophy professor Leo Strauss and his alleged neoconservative disciples, who in Robbins' drama form a powerful cabal bent on world domination. It would be interesting to learn just what measures Robbins would countenance today, for the sake of defending the world from his neoconservative foes.