Since America became a nation, four of her greatest generals have served two terms as president: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant and Dwight David Eisenhower. Not one of these generals led America into a new war.
Washington was heroic in keeping the young republic out of the wars that erupted in Europe after the French Revolution, as were his successors John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Jackson, arguably America’s greatest soldier—who won the Battle of New Orleans, which preserved the Union, and virtually annexed Florida—resisted until his final days in office recognizing the Republic of Texas, liberated by his great friend and subaltern Sam Houston.
Jackson wanted no war with Mexico.
Eisenhower came to office determined to end the war in Korea. In six months, he succeeded—and kept America out of the raging war in Indochina.
Of the men who led us into our 19th century wars—the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War—only one, William McKinley, was a soldier who had seen combat. McKinley had enlisted at 17. In 1862, he was with the Union army at Antietam, the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil.
Though derided as having “the backbone of a chocolate eclair” by the bellicose Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley confided to a friend before going to war with Spain: “I have been through one war. … I have seen the bodies piled up. I do not want to see another.”
James Madison, who took us into the War of 1812, which came close to tearing apart the Union; James Polk, who took us to war with Mexico and gave us Texas to the Rio Grande, the Southwest and California; and Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation in its bloodiest war, were politicians. Lincoln had served three months in the Illinois Militia in the Black Hawk War, but he never saw action.
America was led into the world wars by Woodrow Wilson, a professor, and Franklin Roosevelt, a politician. Harry Truman, who took us into Korea, had captained an artillery battery in France in 1918. John F. Kennedy, who led us into Vietnam, had served on a PT boat in the Solomons. George H.W. Bush, who launched Desert Storm, was one of the youngest Navy pilots to fight in the Pacific war.
While Americans this Memorial Day put flags out for all of their war dead, the arguments do not cease over the wisdom of the wars in which they fought and died.
In the grammar and high schools we attended in the 1940s and early 1950s, they were all good wars, all just wars, all necessary wars. Perhaps that is how it should be taught to America’s children.
Yet, if the Revolution was a great and good cause, men fighting for freedom and nationhood, the War of 1812, where we were a de facto ally of Napoleon, seems a less noble endeavor. For among our motives was seizing Canada while the Mother Country was diverted.
Though deplored today, the Mexican War was not an unjust war.
Far from stealing Mexican territory after our victory, we paid for it, and the Mexicans, five years later, agreed to the Gadsden Purchase and offered to sell us Baja California. The greed was in Mexico City.
As for America’s Civil War, this quarrel will never end. Did not the South have the same right to secede from the Union as the 13 colonies did to secede from England? Did Lincoln have the right to use blockade and invasion to drive Old Dixie down? His predecessor James Buchanan did not think so.
Was the Civil War essential to ending slavery, when many states had already abolished it by legislation and every nation in the hemisphere ended it without a civil war, save for Haiti?
The Spanish-American War, begun over a falsehood—that Spain blew up the USS Maine in Havana harbor—ended with American soldiers and Marines fighting for years to deny Filipinos the freedom for which our fathers fought in the Revolution. Cuba was liberated, but the Philippines, 10,000 miles from Washington, was annexed. That was an imperial war.
In 1917, we declared war on Germany “to make the world safe for democracy.” And our major allies were four of the largest empires on earth: the British, French, Russian and Japanese. We deposed the Kaiser, and got Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and World War II.
As a result of these world wars, all the Western empires fell, and Western Civilization began its inexorable advance to the grave. Impending bankruptcy aside, not one Western nation has a birth rate that will enable its native-born to survive many more generations. We did it to ourselves.
About Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—and the presidents who fought those wars, LBJ, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush—the divisions are still deep and emotions raw. Today is not the time to re-fight them, but to honor and pray for the patriots who, throughout our history, did their duty, fought and died in them. Requiescant in pace.
This Tuesday evening I attended a function arranged by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). Dr. Stephen Steinlight gave us a lucid and witty address on “Exploring Jewish Attitudes towards Immigration.” The address was a condensed version of a fine long piece Dr. Steinlight wrote up for the CIS last year, which you can read in full on their website. I urge you to do so.
Dr. Steinlight, a veteran of establishment-Jewish organizations, believes that those organizations are declining in strength, and that younger Jewish-Americans are more conservative, and more receptive to immigration restrictionism, than their elders. He quoted a wealth of surveys and studies to support his case.
It was a pleasant and instructive evening; yet I always come away from these things under a cloud of gloom, hearing in my mind’s ear the voice of Basil Fawlty: What’s the bloody point? The audience at Tuesday’s event was high quality. It included an ex-ambassador and at least two academics. The venue, a room at one of New York City’s private clubs, was well-appointed, with a nice buffet and bar. What we had in quality, though, we lacked in quantity: the audience numbered just 16, not counting CIS staff.
It’s a lonely furrow the immigration restrictionists are plowing. The thing I most often ask myself about their activism, in fact, is whether progress in this area is merely zero or actually negative—unable, that is, to keep pace with the increasing narrowness, authoritarianism, and intolerance of what one political scientist delicately refers to as “the dominant interpretation of reality.” It has been astonishing these past few weeks, following the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona, to see the strenuous efforts by ideological enforcers to de-legitimize discussion of illegal immigration. How many years, or decades, will it be before we can have a calm public debate about legal immigration?
Legal immigration is so far from being a political issue that our politicians do not even bother to inform themselves about it. I was given a striking illustration of this recently. Together with some other journalists, I was in the presence of a well-known conservative politician and commentator—one of the smarter ones, with a shelf full of books and countless TV appearances to his name. He talked much about the economy, of course. I took the opportunity to ask: “With unemployment stuck at ten percent, is it smart to be bringing in a million people a year for settlement?”
The VIP shrugged. “Immigration is very good for the economy. That’s been empirically proved.”
He had apparently never heard of the researches of George Borjas. His other responses on the topic were even more clueless.
I noted that he was on record as calling for a “guest worker program.” Surely he was aware that there are already twelve* categories of guest worker visas, covering everything from fruit pickers to brain surgeons? Why did he think we need a thirteenth? He: “Because those others are not working.” But if our government can’t make twelve programs work, why should we think they will do any better with a thirteenth? He: “I wouldn’t give the new program to the government. I’d outsource it to, oh, American Express to administer.”
I recognized what I think of privately as a Tibetan moment. This is a thing you sometimes hit when talking to a politician. I first hit it a quarter century ago when I was doing some work on behalf of the Tibet Society in London. I was also a Conservative Party activist, and in that capacity used to get occasional face time, in invited groups, with Conservative government ministers at the House of Commons. At one such with a senior Foreign Office name, I took the opportunity to get in a question about government policy on Tibet. The minister looked at me blankly for a couple of beats, then rattled off a few sentences of gibberish his politician’s brain recalled from somewhere, the content of the sentences—insofar as there was any content—ignorant and self-contradictory. A colleague remarked afterwards that: “He might as well have answered in Tibetan.”
That’s politicians for you. I’m not unsympathetic. If you’re in that line of work you need to keep a steady focus on votes and donors. For a British politician in 1984 there were no votes and no donors in the Tibet issue, so why waste time informing yourself on it? Why clutter up your brain with niche issues of zero political weight?
Just so with my VIP the other day. With even illegal immigration a fringe issue, to speak of which with any vigor puts you under suspicion of being a twitchy Birchite nutcase, there is, as professional pols see it, no chance that they will ever have to engage seriously with the topic of legal immigration. So why study up on it?
Politically speaking, legal immigration is Tibet. The deft pol need only memorize a handful of cant phrases about “guest workers” and immigrant Nobel Prize winners (oh yes, our VIP trotted out that one, too: compare and contrast, Tables 4 and 5). On the very rare occasions anyone brings up the fool topic, he can regurgitate those phrases in random order, then hasten on to Improving Our Schools! or some other well-tested vote-getter.
Hopeless, therefore, to observe that today’s immigration policy shapes the nation our children will inherit from us; that this should be a matter of consequence to us; and that a sensible nation would debate immigration policy keenly and often in its political forums. Hopeless too, probably, to engage in work like that of the CIS, pegging away year after year in the teeth of a hostile commercial, intellectual, and academic establishment whose control of the public discourse is as seamlessly total as Kim Jong Il’s.
“The truth is great, and shall prevail,” the poet assures us, “when none cares whether it prevail or not.” Let’s hope this will be some consolation to late 21st-century Americans in the nation we have left them. In the meantime, the Tibet Society can always use some volunteers.
It’s a classic, archetypal story: build somebody up, only to tear them down. Sarah, Duchess of York, has embarrassed the royal family yet again, and now the public and press are enjoying open season on the erstwhile Princess.
Upon her marriage to HRH The Prince Andrew, Duke of York in 1986, Fergie was adored, seen as a welcome breath of fresh air destined to knock the dust off those stuffy Windsors. Now? The British press despises her—too energetic, too American—and is gleefully rubbing its collective hands at this latest unseemly display, in which Sarah was secretly taped by an undercover News of the World reporter attempting to sell access to her ex-husband Andrew in exchange for cash. “Get a job!” they bray, ignoring the tireless, inventive efforts she’s displayed over the years to support herself, and unwilling to consider just how Sarah found herself in this horrifying position in the first place.
(The 500,000 pound question: Did Andrew actually know about—or even possibly suggest himself—such below-the-radar transactions for the penniless, optionless ex-wife with whom he still shares a house? Whatever the truth, the Prince has disavowed knowledge and Sarah is now left, cruelly, to fend for herself.)
When Sarah and Andrew divorced in 1996, after 10 years of marriage, not only was she stripped of her HRH title—the same embarrassing blow that befell Diana—but she was also granted a pittance of a settlement: by some accounts, 15,000 pounds per year, a lump sum of 500,000 pounds by others. Diana’s settlement, by contrast? 17 million pounds, a jet-setting existence, and the world’s endless devotion. How it is possible that a former HRH, who called the Queen of England her mother-in-law, and whose daughters are fifth and sixth in line for the throne, was expected to survive on 15,000 pounds (roughly $21,500) per year? I made more money as a twenty-one-year-old assistant in my first year at Conde Nast. What is she supposed to do? Get a job at Selfridges?
In fact, over the years, Sarah has worked—tirelessly, earnestly—using her resources as best she could to support her life while never once uttering an unkind word about her ex-husband or the Queen, either in public or in private. She’s lambasted for trading in on her name, yet one can only imagine, upon granting her such a small settlement, the crown must have expected her to do exactly that: surviving on her wits, her former connection to the Monarchy, and her overwhelming personality. Indeed, anybody who’s met Sarah can confirm that she is unlike any person on this planet. “I have the biggest heart and the biggest of everything,” she told the undercover reporter. “But I have zero money. I have nothing.”
The past 15 years have seen Sarah gainfully attempt to support herself: she became a spokesperson for Weight Watchers, Wedgwood China and Avon, wrote two series of children’s books, invested in a health food and vitamin company, conceptualized polo projects, and produced The Young Victoria, about her idol Queen Victoria, a lifelong dream. Meanwhile, she has founded and supported charities—including Children in Crisis, which was established in 1993—even as she herself struggled to make ends meet and juggled millions of pounds of debt.
Indeed, Sarah has steely reserves that are to be commended, not ridiculed. After the latest news was made public this week, she immediately took responsibility; no waffling, no excuses, simply an apology. (“I very deeply regret the situation and the embarrassment caused. It is true that my financial situation is under stress, however, that is no excuse for a serious lapse in judgment and I am very sorry that this has happened.”) Then? She appeared in public mere hours later at a children’s charity event, as scheduled.
Is Sarah perfect? No. Her mistakes are legendary and stunning. Then again, she has never pretended to be anything other than herself—she has always been this girl. Her joie de vivre, can-do spirit, and ADD-inability to conform are the very reasons she was initially so beloved—why the Queen preferred riding with her, why Charles guffawed at her practical jokes, why Andrew’s genuine love and passion for her was written all over his face.
We built her up and celebrated her differences—but then quickly excoriated her when she dared not to become a completely different person. Despising and ridiculing Sarah is a heartless, misogynistic exercise, not to mention stunningly ignorant of the realities facing those who marry into, and then are cast aside from, the Royal Family.
These are real, flesh-and-blood, ordinary people (the Queen herself eats Corn Flakes out of a Tupperware container) who have had an impossible, extraordinary situation thrust upon them as the living embodiment of 1000-plus years of history. Unless bred from Day 1 to sublimate your ego—for the good of a country that barely even wants you anymore and mostly refuses to recognize your incalculable contributions—how could someone get it right 100 percent of the time? (Neither the Queen’s husband nor her heir the Prince of Wales can be held to that standard!)
Royal watchers are, perhaps, blinded by glamour and scandals, focusing on the wrong thing and not asking the one critical question that has provided us with so many schadenfreude-worthy displays: What is it about the Monarchy that makes it impossible for outsiders to survive intact?
Kate Middleton, beware. You’ve scarcely put a foot wrong yet”but, lest you forget, neither had Fergie in 1986. Once inside the gilded cages, it seems, those who marry into The Firm can’t help but try to assert their identity and break free.
The crown would be well-served to offer Sarah some compassion, but they’re already distancing themselves (again), and it probably won’t come.They’re on tenuous ground anyway, and the citizens have been baying for blood for years. At last: an offering.
On board S/Y Bushido off St. Tropez. My book party’s best line was Claus von Bulow’s, as told to Antony Beevor, Piers Paul Read, Paul Johnson, and Sir V.S. Naipaul, among the literary worthies who took the time to attend the poor little Greek boy’s launch at Brooks’s. “The last book party I attended,” said Claus, “was that of Leni Riefenstall’s about fifteen years ago. I had with me an Israeli friend, Ronald Fuhrer, who eventually got into a spot of trouble and had to flee England overnight. Ronnie went up to Leni, told her what a great admirer he was and asked her to sign his book. ‘How do you spell your name?’ asked the author, abjuring the Hitler connection to the bitter end.”
I particularly enjoyed the attention of all the pretty girls, especially those invited by my daughter, but then my editor, Liz Anderson, gave me the bad news: My betrothed, the deputy Speccie editor, had chosen to immolate herself rather than go through the gruesome wedding ceremony awaiting her on the nearby Ritz. So I did the next best thing and got completely drunk at my dinner party following the launch. The great Paul Johnson, always looking at the bright side of things because of his Christian faith, said that she might not have done it on purpose. I know better. Even more humiliating than being left at the altar: there was a young, good-looking man wandering into the room and looking nonchalantly around. “Who are you?” I asked. “Oh, nobody in particular, my name is Fraser Nelson.” “Leave the room at once,” I told him, “you’re much too young, you’re showing me up.” Then I bent down and kissed his right shoe. I was then comforted by Lady Naipaul, the kind Nadira, who told me I could still be a contender at age 73. She made me feel well enough that I even managed to sign 100 books for Hatchard’s, something my Quartet Books publisher, Naim Attallah, really appreciated: “How wonderful it is that a man so inebriated can still sign his name.”
More humiliations were in store on the Riviera once I was flown down in Tim Hoare’s private jet. This was Pug’s Club grand regatta weekend, with four boats competing for the silver cup donated last year by Commodore Hoare. The great favorite was Bob Miller’s magnificent trans-Atlantic record holder Marie-Cha, which left Roger Taylor’s Tiger Lily, Hoare’s Alexa, and my Bushido fighting like tigers for second place. The committee boat was Mark Getty’s classic, clipper-bowed, two-funneled 180-foot 1929 cruiser Talitha, which shadowed the racers, ensuring no monkey business. For Bushido, the close-hauled point to wind leg was our finest hour. And for close to an hour the Alexa kept charging us, at times a few feet away off starboard, but we held fast, resisting her—Leopold Bismarck, Heinrich von Furstenberg, and I dressed impeccably in white ducks and blazers, showering her crew and owner with insults and hand gestures not found in any sailing manuals. Pug’s president, Nick Scott, was also staying on Bushido, but he chose to dress in an all-white uniform with a Nelson-like plumed hat that made him look like John Gielgud in the film The Charge of the Light Brigade. Our great Thermopylae-like stand ended with the downwind run, which saw the Alexa take off like the proverbial bat out of hell. After close to four hours Alexa beat Tiger Lily for second place, Bushido, yet again, coming in last. The Marie-Cha, with the owner’s son-in-law, Prince Pavlos of Greece, crewing like mad had won easily, despite a handicap that would have crippled a supersonic jet. The prize giving followed and everyone got totally plastered that night on board Talitha.
If Papa Hemingway was around he’d describe today’s Riviera as a place that has been bad longer than it was good. Forty years of building ugly houses along her coast has made the south of France into a Las Vegas sur-mer. Hence where better for Naomi Campbell’s fortieth birthday party at the Hotel du Cap, once frequented by Scott Fitzgerald, the Murphys, Errol Flynn, and a young Taki, now bursting at the seams with Hollywood types, Russian oligarchs, and their hookers. After giving DNA samples, finger prints, and our passports, we sauntered into the hotel grounds where Naomi’s billionaire boyfriend, Vlad—the impaler—Doronin, had reputedly spent five million Euros in her honor. An enormous tent below the tennis courts where I had spent my youth hitting endless backhands had been erected, and after taking a picture of the 400 guests we all sauntered in for an incredible evening of entertainment with Grace Jones and the Black Eyed Peas.
Stone panther statues covered with Swarovski crystals (black panther, get it?) were everywhere, the top table which rotated and stood two feet higher than the rest of us slobs—being in the middle with Jonathan Livingstone seagulls circulating above it. Debonnaire Bismarck had all of Pug’s invited so I shall be kind. I saw “old friends” like Mark Rich, Philip Green, Richard Caring, and other such old Etonians, but despite them I had a very good time getting back on Bushido at 6.30 a.m. (The mother of my children refused to attend once she heard what the party was costing.) Ladies of tempestuous—or was it professional libido—abounded, yet what the blast lacked in dignity, it made up with magnificent narcissism. Naomi was friendly and gracious and I thank her for having Pug’s members en masse. We are, after all, 17. Now on to London for some badly needed R&R.
If you’ve seen the poster for Queen Latifah’s latest movie, Just Wright, you know she’s the star of the film. But if you’ve seen the film itself, or even just the preview, you know that her starring role pits her as a brushed-past, boring-looking heroine against the ethereally beautiful Paula Patton—for the affections of rapper Common, who plays a star point guard on the New Jersey Nets. Hollywood would have us think that, in casting the curvaceous Latifah, they are revolutionizing the film industry’s longstanding depiction of beauty—and, by extension, the female character. Far from it: Latifah’s turn as leading lady is even more demeaning than all those “beauties” (read: Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl) who played other versions of the role before her.
Yes, Just Wright‘s story is one we’ve heard many times at the movies—one of the several go-to female-driven story-lines that exist in Hollywood. We’ve seen plenty of actresses dowdy up their onscreen look in the name of the latest ugly duckling tale. Eclipsed by another obviously beautiful woman, they stick charitably in the background for two-thirds of the movie, pining for someone—or something—their looks prevent them from. Then they take off their glasses, become beautiful, and win the clueless guy’s heart after all. Everyone learns a valuable lesson: ultimately what’s on the inside is more important than what’s on the outside.
Which is a lesson that goes down easy—when what’s on the outside of the actress in question happens to be a size-two frame. All they need is a sample-size evening gown to go from invisible woman to irresistible siren. Not so in the case of Latifah, of course, whose confident curves have become part of her marketable image. Her charm, and the fact that women relate to her, have driven Latifah to this position; the woman is bankable enough to carry a movie, romantic comedies included. So it’s frustrating that throughout Just Wright, Latifah, as she edges her way out of Patton’s shadow, has to constantly apologize for her appearance. “I’m not one of those salad-eatin’ chicks,” she quips when Common’s character finally asks her out. As moviegoers, as women, we want her presence in this movie to remind us that romance and romantic comedies do not belong exclusively to skinny white girls. Instead, we watch her get forced into cringeworthy qualifications about her dietary choices.
It’s a question that indicates Hollywood’s one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to broadening the definition of onscreen beauty. Which is an issue we’ve been lamenting for what seems like forever—along with most of the hallmarks of Hollywood movies aimed at women. There are so many flat roles (slutty friend! sassy friend!) and hackneyed plots (oh, the heroine wasn’t supposed to fall in love but did? Who saw that coming?) that you’d think by now we’d have given up on chick flicks.
Still, a preview flash of something that seems new—like Latifah playing a rom-com lead—is enough to give us hope and, more importantly, get us to the theater. But merely allowing Latifah to be cast in this type of role doesn’t cut it. Forcing a vanguard of body confidence to play against the literally fatless Patton, spouting paranoid caveats about her looks all the way, undermines whatever progress producers might have been going for. Would it have been that risky to simply let Latifah love, lose, and win it all back without constantly reminding us she weighs more than 100 pounds? Further underscoring the movie’s ridiculous parsing of the definition of ‘beauty’: Latifah looks better than ever. She’s svelte and glowing, even before her Cinderella moment—no wonder producers had to scout out someone as genetically perfect as Patton to show her up.
Now, if you think I’m reading too much into this, if you still doubt Hollywood’s pathetic treatment of women, consider this particularly ridiculous Just Wright plot turn: When Common’s character is injured, Patton’s character, now his fiancÃ©, fires a lithe, white, blonde physical therapist whom she fears will seduce him. Who does she bring in? Latifah, of course, with whom Patton is much more comfortable—because Common would never go for the normal-bodied, natural Latifah over her. This is, perhaps, the most disappointing moment of the film.
And why is that acceptable onscreen behavior? Because in Hollywood—dating back to Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina, the movie that launched a thousand takeoffs—the number-one rule of leading ladies is that they’re there to get a man, even (and often) at the expense of friendships, careers, and self-respect. Does this happen in real life? Sure. But so does a lot of other stuff. Yet this is the lame story thread we see again and again. It’s common stuff of the worst kind.
A few years ago, the French Chamber of Deputies was debating a bill to prohibit the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols in state institutions. The proposed law, drafted as the affirmation of a universal secular principle, would ban Jewish boys from wearing kippas, Christians from sporting large crucifixes, and Muslim girls from covering their heads with scarves at government schools. The anti-foulard (scarf) law, as the press called it, was clearly intended to de-Islamize those Muslim women for whom the connection between their religion and that form of piety was important. All of France’s major political parties supported the measure, as did a Muslim women’s rights group called Ni putes ni soumises. (The name means “neither prostitutes nor submissive,” although it sounds better in French. A handier version might be “not hookers, but not housewives.”) I interviewed politicians, who saw the bill as a bulwark around the secularism of the republic. The women at Ni putes ni soumises to whom I spoke had another angle: they thought the law would put a limit to the North African patriarchy that had transplanted itself to French soil more or less intact. Although they did not see the issue as Jean-Marie Le Pen and the rest of the French right did, they made common cause with those who were against their mere presence as immigrants in France on behalf of women’s rights. Politics and bedfellows.
The largest affected group was to be teenage girls in state schools, given that few Christians are given to wearing foot-long crucifixes and most kippa-wearing lads study in non-state yeshivas. So, I went out to the banlieue of Paris to ask the girls what they thought. First, a note on the banlieue—the outskirts or the suburbs. They surround Paris, having expanded in concentric circles from the old center over centuries. A recurring theme in Parisian history is the city’s fear of the sans culottes beyond the fashionable arrondissements. Originally peasants from the near countryside, followed later by those from the further provinces and latterly the former colonies, they became the industrial workforce and, now, the post-industrial proletariat. Although the good burghers of the Right Bank have always required their services, they did not much like their presence or their demands for fair treatment. From the late 19th to mid-20th century, the denizens of the banlieue constituted the Red Fringe at the gates ready to loot and pillage. There were examples: the revolution as well as the communes of 1848 and 1870. This fear of the near-outsider was so strong in June 1940 that many of France’s rulers thought the lower classes posed a greater threat to them than the Wehrmacht. The American ambassador at the time, William Bullitt, was so convinced the suburbs would rise up and take over Paris that he persuaded President Roosevelt to ship Tommy guns to protect the embassy. (Red rebellion wasn”t on the cards in 1940, because the French Communist Party, obedient to Hitler’s Soviet ally, did nothing to impede the German occupation of Paris.) Nowadays, the French police do their best to confine discontent and occasional riots to the suburbs themselves—not unlike the Los Angeles police in relation to Watts.
Back to the banlieue during the foulard debate. The young women I met in the schools of suburban Paris would have done credit to any family. They were not gum-chewing drunks like London’s street urchins, and they bore little resemblance to the girl gangs of many American urban concentrations. They were thoughtful and polite and, from their polished shoes to their sometimes-covered heads, exhibited an elegant sense of style. As I recall, the scarf-wearers were no more than twenty per cent of the total. The bareheaded girls respected the decision of the others to wear scarves and vice versa. Some were from the same families, in which each girl made her own choice of what to wear. None of them said their mothers or fathers had forced them to wear scarves, and more than a few said their mothers—whose own forms of anti-parental rebellion twenty years earlier led them to cast off the scarf—would never cover their own hair.
Most saw the proposed law as typical adult interference in the lives of the young. It was not so much an anti-Muslim law as an anti-youth slap at them by the state. One told me that her teachers were always finding ways to make them conform, and this law would give them another rule to enforce against them. Another said she would stop going to school and find a tutor at home rather than give up her right to dress as she pleased. What struck me was the lack of any need for a law that would give adults—teachers, social workers and cops—another stick with which to beat the young. The law passed, and it has been obeyed more consistently than those that prohibit smoking in restaurants, cocaine-snorting, and wife-beating. Still, it doesn”t mean it’s a good law.
While I was reporting the controversy, I did my best not to take sides. French secularism (one need recall only the cardinals of the ancien regime to understand its inspiration) and the arguments of the Muslim women in Ni putes ni soumises made sense. Then again, so did the students. A few days later, I took a train to London. At Waterloo Station, where the Eurostar stopped in those days, a British Muslim woman immigration officer was standing with her male colleagues. Her head was wrapped in a demure, white scarf. She was laughing unselfconsciously with her male colleagues, one of them a Sikh whose own head was wrapped in the long scarf of his turban. It was the most natural scene imaginable. I had to ask myself, what is wrong with the French?
Now, France is doing it again. A new law has just banned women from wearing veils. This anti-niqab law passed the legislature with ease, supported like its predecessor by the main parties of left and right. Where the earlier law banned scarves only in buildings owned by the state—schools, courts of law, government hospitals and, I assume, prisons—this one makes it illegal for a woman to cover her face anywhere outside her house. As far as anyone can tell, France has about five or six million Muslims, of whom about 1,200 women wear veils or niqabs. (I don”t know whether widows who wear veils to their husbands” funerals, as my Christian grandmothers did, are also in violation of the law.) The few Muslim women who have been quoted in the newspapers about their veils (some of them native French converts) have said they wear their niqabs over their faces in spite of their husbands. The law makes it illegal for a husband to force his wife to wear a veil, which is reasonable enough. But it gives a policeman authority to force a woman not to wear one. It seems the police do not relish this new power. It is bad enough to make the police enforce other unenforceable laws (like those against drug use and smoking in cafÃ©s) without putting them at odds with 1,200 women who are doing harm to no one.
The anti-niqab law stems from the kind of zeal for which the French used to ridicule the English. English missionaries who forced women in their tropical colonies to conceal their breasts from public view were a laughing stock in France. Here are the French doing the opposite, not letting them cover their heads. What is it in Western civilization that creates this obsession with telling women what to wear? I suppose we Americans have done both. The new American missionaries of the civil order in Afghanistan tell Afghan women to uncover, just as an earlier generation of American missionaries forced the women of Hawaii to cover up. What ever happened to live and let live?
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
That was the slogan of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, where Winston Smith worked ceaselessly revising the past to conform to the latest party line of Big Brother.
And so we come to the battle over history books in the schools of Texas. Liberals are enraged that a Republican-dominated Board of Education is rewriting the texts. But is the rewrite being done to falsify history, or to undo a liberal bias embedded for decades?
Consider a few of the issues.
The new texts will emphasize that the separation of church and state was never written into the Constitution.
Is that not right? The First Amendment prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion. But, in 1776, nine of the 13 colonies had state religions established in their constitutions.
Thomas Jefferson’s words about a “separation of church and state” were not written until 1802, when he responded to a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association. Not until after World War II did the Supreme Court begin the systematic purge of Christianity from American public life.
Barack Obama may have declared, “We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.” But Woodrow Wilson said, “America was born a Christian nation,” and Harry Truman wrote Pius XII to affirm, “This is a Christian nation.”
The Texas school board wants the U.S. economic system called “free enterprise” rather than the term Karl Marx used, “capitalism.”
Anything wrong with that?
The Christian Science Monitor cites one professor Phillip VanFossen as appalled the new history texts will put a “more positive spin on Sen. Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.”
The FDR and Truman administrations were shot through with treason. Alger Hiss, who was with FDR at Yalta and Truman in San Francisco when the U.N. was founded, was a Stalinist spy, exposed by Whittaker Chambers and Rep. Richard Nixon.
Harry Dexter White, Treasury’s No. 2, who pushed the infamous Morgenthau Plan to turn Germany into a pastureland, was a Soviet agent, as was White House aide Laughlin Currie and State’s Laurence Duggan, whose treason was confirmed by the VENONA decrypts of Soviet cables in 1995.
William Remington at Commerce was convicted of perjury for denying his ties to a spy ring. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for their role in betraying the secrets of the atom bomb.
The VENONA transcripts contained the names of scores of U.S. citizens assisting known Soviet agents during and after World War II.
By 1952, Truman, having been repudiated by his own party in New Hampshire, was down to 23 percent, and was the most unpopular president ever to leave office.
But Joe McCarthy’s approval, four years into this crusade in January 1954, stood at 50 percent, with only 29 percent disapproving.
And was that really a time of anti-communist hysteria?
Why, then, does not a single Gallup poll from 1950 to 1954 show even one percent of Americans giving anti-communist extremism or witch hunts or Joe McCarthy as an issue of concern?
Not only did Joe Kennedy Sr. admire and support Joe McCarthy, Jack Kennedy befriended him, Bobby worked for him, Teddy played touch football with him at Hyannis Port and the Kennedy girls dated him.
When, at a Harvard reunion, Jack heard a speaker say he was proud the college never produced an Alger Hiss or Joe McCarthy, JFK roared, “How dare you couple the name of a great patriot with that of a traitor?” and stormed out.
That 1954 was a year of disaster for Joe, with the Army-McCarthy hearings and censure by the Senate, is undeniable. But Joe is hated today not for what he got wrong, but for what he got right.
What is the purpose of teaching America’s children the history of their country? Few said it better than Ronald Reagan in his farewell address: “An informed patriotism is what we want … So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important … You know, four years ago, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing of her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, ‘We will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.’ Well, let’s help her keep her word.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”
Teaching American history to America’s children is done so that they will come to know and love their country. And while all nations have sins of scarlet, none has a greater, more glorious past than ours.
And if teaching that is what the Texas Board of Education is all about, ensuring that the children of Texas know both sides of every great American quarrel and come away loving their country all the more, then God bless ‘em.
Word reached these shores last week that Professor Noam Chomsky—the celebrated public intellectual, activist, linguist, philosopher and all-round “left-wing” critic of U.S. foreign policy—had been detained for five hours by border guards, and then denied entry to occupied Palestine. Chomsky was attempting to reach the West Bank on May 16 from the Allenby Bridge, spanning the river Jordan, which is the only border crossing from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to Palestine. He was scheduled to give a lecture on the wide-ranging topic of “America and the World” at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. In addition, he had an appointment to see the Palestinian Authority’s “Prime Minister”, Salam Fayyd, to discuss the current status of the two-state “peace process”.
Chomsky was informed by his interrogators that he had “written things that the Israeli government did not like.” Hence, the hold-up. Chomsky was last spotted in Israel in 1997, when he gave a talk at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion University as well as at Bir Zeit. Occupation authorities were apparently puzzled that Israel proper was not part of his itinerary this time, and Chomsky speculated that they wanted to demonstrate Israel’s right, as the military occupying power, to determine which outsiders would be allowed to speak at a Palestinian university. Is this incident important in the grand scheme of things? Probably not, but it does say something about Chomsky and the ongoing experiment of Zionism.
There is a thread of competing ideas at work in this episode. The thread runs all the way back to the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 and to the Balfour Declaration of November of the same year. The 1920 article by Winston Churchill in the Illustrated Sunday Herald entitled “Zionism versus Bolshevism” noted the forces in play at that moment in time. We are living in a postscript. This incident at the Allenby Bridge can be viewed, in the aftermath of the 20th century, as a residual confrontation of Right versus Left.
I’m no leftist, so I have spent little time reading Chomsky. From the material I have seen, he appears to follow the garden variety narrative of left-wing intellectualism, coming out of a Jewish environment and upbringing. I was overexposed to species of it—from “liberalism” to Maoism—at Columbia University some time ago, in the midst of the Cold War. It posited an explanation of human activity as viewed through the prism of “imperialism” and “empire”—all offshoots of “capitalism”. It is a variation on a theme by Karl Marx. In retrospect, it was banal and largely irrelevant, but it did provide a moyen de vivre, an attempt to make sense of the world, mostly for individuals in their salad days.
This narrative was more about those preoccupied with it than the content. In days gone by, some of these advanced thinkers—I won’t name names—graduated from being self-proclaimed Trotskyites to unabashed Neocons and roustabouts. They followed their ego where it led them. Although America is still agog with party politics—the pointless contest between Republicans and Democrats—the era of Leftist ideologies is over, or should be. We in the West no longer have the time or the luxury. We should be getting down to brass tacks. Chinese Communists and those in Russia and Eastern Europe did that when they abandoned Communism, to face the real world. Moreover, you do not need to be an expert to see that everything is out of kilter in Europe and America. There is no Right or Left, there is only right and wrong, the authentic and the bogus. It is not terribly difficult to recognize one from the other. Take, for instance, modern-day Israel.
Chomsky has addressed that thorny subject many times, most recently on April 27, in an essay entitled “A Middle East Peace That Could Happen (But Won’t)”. I could barely disagree with a single sentence in it, and this could be the reason why Chomsky is regarded as a troublemaker by Tel Aviv’s security forces. From their point of view, he is. All resistance constitutes a security threat. Every sane individual is a potential target. You can find Chomsky’s essay on a liberal website, TomDispatch.com, but please note that Chomsky does little more than point out what is obvious to any observer of U.S. policy in the Middle East who has not drunk the White House-Capitol Hill-Neocon Kool-Aid. His essay is a description of recent human tragedies in the Middle East—most notably the IDF assaults on Gaza—orchestrated by Tel Aviv and Washington, all of which have been counter-productive to truth, justice, international law, sanity, and common sense.
Such an accounting is important, of course, because these events have been routinely distorted, camouflaged, and misrepresented by Tel Aviv and Washington, working in tandem, to suit themselves. But Chomsky gives no real insight which would inform lesser mortals why such outrageous things are happening, aside from his default assumption, to wit, that Washington’s geopolitical antics are part and parcel of its evil empire, with Tel Aviv acting as a surrogate for made-in-Washington policy, largely based on oil and corporate interests. That explanation, alas, is no longer credible. In effect, Chomsky gives Zionism or Israel a pass, because he assigns it the role of a dutiful nephew of Uncle Sam.
More sophisticated scholars of the U.S. Mideast policy have pointed out another explanation, one which is self-evident. At the forefront of these is the dynamic duo of Professors John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, both of whom are refreshingly apolitical and non-ideological. They are self-styled “realists” dealing with the nuts and bolts of what passes for contemporary U.S. foreign policy. It is a thankless task. Their blockbuster 2006 essay “The Israel Lobby” in the London Review of Books was expanded into a book in 2007 entitled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. They have concluded that the U.S. “has set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state” and that “the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the Israel Lobby.”
In sum, it’s not oil or empire. It’s politics and influence-peddling. Something we can relate to. M + W blame our hyper-expensive Iraq fiasco squarely upon the Lobby, not upon oil or the exigencies of empire. Perhaps the best single essay backing up the M + W thesis is “The Power of the Israel Lobby”, written by former senior analysts at the CIA, Bill and Kathleen Christison, for CounterPunch in May 2006, a few months after the original LRB article appeared. The Christison’s analysis is simply devastating. In passing, it deconstructs Chomsky and other “left-wing” American critics of Israel.
What are we to make of Chomsky’s reply in a 1997 interview with the German writer Ludwig Watzal? It can be found on Chomsky’s website. It’s there. “Question: Does Zionism have anything to do with the fate of the Palestinians? Chomsky: This is a very complex problem. It depends on what you mean by Zionism. I was a Zionist activist in my youth. For me, Zionism meant opposition to a Jewish state. (sic) The Zionist movement did not come out officially in favor of a Jewish state until 1942. Before this it was merely the intent of the Zionist leadership. The Zionist movement for a long time stood against the establishment of a Jewish state because such a state would be discriminatory and racist.”
Excuse me? Can you believe it? What is Chomsky talking about? Complex problem, indeed. Is he suggesting that he is for the disestablishment of Israel because it is discriminatory and racist? That would be a logical conclusion, because he claims that he was against the establishment of a “Jewish state” to begin with. But, insofar as I am aware, Chomsky advocates no such thing. In fact, Chomsky avoids fundamental issues with respect to Israel, preferring instead to emphasize the American empire aspects of the problem.
Contrast this with the straightforward conclusions of a fellow progressive with impressive credentials, the late Justin Keating, former Labor Minister of the Irish Republic and President of the Humanist Association of Ireland. These were expressed in his much-maligned 2005 op-ed piece in The Dubliner. “…like many young Europeans with left-wing views, as the full horrors of Nazi genocide became known, I supported the new state. But now I have totally changed my mind. I have reached the conclusion that the Zionists have absolutely no right in what they call Israel, that they have built their state not beside but on top of the Palestinian people, and that there can be no peace as long as contemporary Israel retains its present form.” I do not recall if Keating subsequently tried to cross the Allenby Bridge, but if he did you can be certain he would have been turned back in five minutes, not five hours.
Lastly and still in the realm of history and ideas, let’s note the passing of Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, a longstanding confident of Yasir Arafat, who appointed Hirsch his adviser on Jewish affairs in 1993. Hirsch died this month in Jerusalem, where he was the leader of something called Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist sect. He never became a citizen of Israel. From the Neturei Karta website, as quoted in the NY Times obit of May 4: “Neturei Karta opposes the so-called ‘State of Israel’ not because it operates secularly, but because the entire concept of a sovereign Jewish state is contrary to Jewish Law. The true Jews are against dispossessing the Arabs of their land and homes. According to the Torah, the land should be returned to them.”
Admittedly, the Rabbi Hirsch position is a minority viewpoint, since it is based on common sense and doing what is right. One wonders what Noam Chomsky thinks about it. Perhaps he and his interrogators covered that ground last week. We would need a transcript of the interrogation. You can be certain, however, that such sentiments of equity and restitution have found no place in U.S. Mideast policy, as executed at present and heretofore, because they are not based upon American domestic politics.
Hollywood’s clean little secret is that many people in the industry are not, at least by natural inclination, the utter shlockmeisters that their output would suggest. They are often cultivated, tasteful, hard-working craftsmen sometimes pained by the trashiness the public demands from them.
Over the last decade, the animated Shrek franchise about a green ogre in a tawdry fairy tale land has offered perhaps the most flagrant example of What the People Want (and Deserve to Get, Good and Hard). Yet, in Shrek Forever After, its latest (and likely last) installment, the filmmakers have moved in a surprising new direction.
The typical billion-dollar box office property, such as the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Spider-Man series, is based on an elaborate preexisting work whose integrity is jealously guarded by fanboys. In contrast, the 2001 Shrek was a surprise hit derived merely from a 32-page bedtime book by William Steig, allowing the franchise to become a tabula rasa pandering to median 21st century tastes.
The first Shrek had evolved into a poison pen letter from DreamWorks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney studio head during its Beauty and the Beast silver age, to his ex-boss Michael Eisner. Shrek‘s villain, Lord Farquaad, was modeled on Eisner, who had tried to cheat Katzenberg out of his share of Disney profits (eventually settling for, reportedly, $280 million).
You might have expected that the audience for a family film would have either been oblivious to or alienated by this backstory of Hollywood venality. Instead, they were galvanized.
The meta-joke of Shrek was how DreamWorks” crudely animated versions of public domain Disney characters (such as three small pigs or a wooden boy) tiptoed right up to but didn”t quite violate Disney’s notoriously well-defended copyrights. It’s remarkable that the public now gets intellectual property humor, but also a little depressing.
Katzenberg had previously overseen the revitalization of Disney feature cartoons. His key decision had been to follow the suggestion of lyricist Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS in 1991, that they envision The Little Mermaid as an animated Broadway musical.
Disney subsequently made billions off the daddy’s little princess market, but alienated older boys in the process. (Although modern Americans love to congratulate themselves on their urbane tolerance, elementary school children have come to use “gay” as an all-purpose insult.) Katzenberg strove to occupy the boys’ animated feature niche by positioning Shrek as the anti-princess movie.
The original Shrek was good, nasty fun, with Eddie Murphy’s performance as a talking donkey one of the funniest instances of comic relief in the history of animated features. But Cameron Diaz (Charlie’s Angels) was cast as the princess merely because she was the blonde of the moment, and Mike Myers (Austin Powers)—who is a sketch comedian, not a leading man—was dull as the title monster.
Using movie stars as voice actors ought to be a waste of money because there are superlative voice talents available who can”t be screen stars because they don”t look like their voices sound. For example, the great cartoon slob Homer Simpson is wonderfully voiced by Dan Castellaneta, a trim, prim yuppie.
Moreover, this cartoon fairy tale’s abhorrence for all that girly stuff, like singing and dancing, meant that to fill up the time that would be taken up by songs in a classic Disney feature, the filmmakers deployed a lot of crud: fart jokes, disposable pop-culture references, and industry insider snark.
With no further source material to draw upon for the 2004 sequel Shrek 2, the DreamWorks team tapped the collective id of the American public, concocting one of the most noxious movies of the decade: a stew of sex jokes for nine-year-olds, Rodeo Drive consumer cravings, and Inside Hollywood shtick. Meanwhile, the three stars formed a cartel who demanded (and received) $10 million each for the easy gig of voice acting, even though Myers and Diaz were eminently replaceable.
Not surprisingly, the public adored all this hoo-ha. 2004’s Shrek 2 was a colossal four-quadrant smash with young and old, male and female, taking in $441 million at the domestic box office.
Shrek the Third grossed a mere $323 million, however. The inevitability of the demise of the franchise appears to have liberated the filmmakers in their last trip to the well to make a movie they won”t be ashamed to someday show their grandchildren. Thus, Shrek Forever After is an unexpectedly sweet little film.
There’s nothing original in it, but it borrows from the best: It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, and Back to the Future. And, instead of hiring, say, Adam Sandler to voice the new villain Rumpelstiltskin, they just let animator Walt Dohrn play his own character. He’s better than Sandler would have been.
Of course, the public is not pleased. Despite inflated 3D ticket prices, Shrek Forever After opened with a first weekend haul of $71 million, down more than $50 million from the forgettable third installment.
If there is one thing the ultra-Left likes better than stories about fascism, it is stories about police brutality. The very best modern morality tales conjoin fascism and the fuzz/filth/flocs in an axis of awfulness, against which all other sins fade into insignificance. A classic of this sub-genre is the tale of Blair Peach—back in the headlines after a decades-long hiatus, like a PC coda to the New Labour era.
At the end of April, the Metropolitan Police released a 31-year-old report into the death of Peach, who died on St. George’s Day in 1979 during a riot in the west London suburb of Southall. In his spare time, schoolteacher Peach was a member of the Anti-Nazi League (mischievously nicknamed ANAL by their National Front equivalents), which was demonstrating against a 20-strong NF rally, in what was even then a predominantly Indian area.
As so often with ANAL activities, the demo got the littlest bit out of hand, with 5,000 attacking the police, 40 injured, and 300 arrested in what the police averred was the most violent riot they had ever had to deal with (21 police officers were hurt). Peach was hit on the head during the melÃ©e and died that night.
His death gave rise to a kind of cult dedicated to the ChÃ©-look-alike and a rhetorical question which became a clichÃ©—“Who Killed Blair Peach?” As Labour MP Diane Abbott wrote wistfully in the Guardian on April 28, the question “…evokes the anti-racist campaigning of the late 1970s like no other. If you had not been on the demonstration, you had the poster.”
Eyewitnesses had maintained that Peach was hit on the head by officers from the now-disbanded Special Patrol Group. The report confirms this, hints at the identity of the officer most likely to have delivered the blow, and concludes that other officers lied to protect the culprit. No prosecution ensued, and the matter was forgotten by everyone except a few zealots and Peach’s family members.
The just-released report’s conclusion of overreaction and “worrying culture” will have confirmed the ultra-Left’s pathological hatred of the police. For such, Peach is a marker on a martyrology timeline—another idealist ground down by the combined fascisms of ‘racism’ and ‘reaction’. Peach is a simulacrum of every “victim of the establishment,” from Tolpuddle and Peterloo all the way via the Spanish Republicans, Allende and Joy Gardner, to Stephen Lawrence and Ian Tomlinson.
Such myth making over-systematizes. Poor Stephen Lawrence was the victim of apolitical savagery, while passer-by Ian Tomlinson had zero interest in politics but was unlucky enough to get ensnared in the G20 rioting. Nonetheless, they have been co-opted into a Trotskyite parallel reality, where everyone in uniform is a fascist in collusion with a “rightwing establishment”, and all mistakes are conservative cover-ups.
Central to this view is the idea that the error and evil were all on one side of the equation. It is temptingly easy to sit in a quiet room months or years after an event sifting slowly through evidence, and then blame a police officer for doing, or not doing, something. Absent is any concept of what it must have been like to have been there on the frontline, needing to make instantaneous decisions, seeing your friends spat at or injured with iron bars or petrol bombs. Even human rights lawyers might become overly enthusiastic in such circumstances.
Those who observed Peach being beaten neglected to mention what he and his comrades had been doing immediately beforehand. Perhaps he was blameless, but then again perhaps not. The ANAL was a notoriously excitable organization, with as bad a reputation for violence as the National Front, which did not deter ostensible democrats like Peter Hain from supporting them—just as one Rt Hon David Cameron MP supports ANAL’s successor organization, Unite Against Fascism.
What happened to Peach that rainy seventies evening was tragic for his family, but it only occurred because he condoned an unnecessarily confrontational organization and its grossly irresponsible tactics. Had he moderated his stance and modified his methods, we would probably not now know his name—but he would almost certainly still be alive. Pace all the recently renewed propaganda, Peach’s death proves nothing—except the randomness of things, and the injustice and unreason of the world.