Monthly Archives: December 2005

If You Start With an Ax to Grind…

Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal print edition provides some answers to the question of why the “pro-Israel crowd” hates Munich.

Here’s one among many:

Steven Spielberg wants you to know one thing about “Munich,” his just-released, semi-historical, instantly controversial account of Israel’s efforts to avenge the massacre of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics: “I worked very hard,” he says, “so this film was not in any way, shape or form going to be an attack on Israel.” So why is his movie raising such hackles among Israelis and those generally known as the “pro-Israel” crowd?

Maybe it has something to do with his choice of a screenwriter, Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright brought in by Mr. Spielberg to rework the original screenplay by Eric Roth. Mr. Kushner (who, like Mr. Spielberg, is Jewish) believes that the creation of the state of Israel was “a historical, moral, political calamity” for the Jewish people. He believes the policy of the government of Israel has been “a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people.” He believes that responsibility for making peace between Israelis and Palestinians lies primarily with the Israelis, “inasmuch as they are far more mighty.” He believes Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is an “unindicted war criminal.”

Stephens quotes Kushner:

“If you start with an ax to grind,” Mr. Kushner recently told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, “then you write a bad play or movie.” To watch “Munich” is to recognize the truth of that statement.

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Munich: Hated It!

I went to see Munich the other night. I feel about it the way I feel about most all of Stephen Spielberg’s movies: rarely has so much money, technology, and labor been mobilized to promote such spectacularly fatuous ideas. This fatuous idea is that violence only leads to more violence or in the current phrase beloved of liberals everywhere, a “cycle of violence.”

Of course the cycle of violence theory depends on belief in moral equivalence, that is, that the Arab terrorists are victims of injustice who resort to murdering innocent people out of desperation. Edward Rothstein examined this reasoning in a recent New York Times article about Munich:

The theory asserts that terrorism is a violent and extreme reaction to injustice – the last resort of the oppressed.

…Accepting the theory also leads to other convictions. If terrorism is solely the result of injustice, then without the injustice there would be no terrorism. So the best response is to work for justice. Threats, vengeance, security strictures – anything other than the addressing of legitimate grievances is ultimately futile. In particular, since killing terrorists does nothing to alter injustice, it will do nothing to alter terror. Instead, it only leads to more injustice, turning the victims of terrorism into mirror images of the terrorists themselves.

Another phrase for this is “root causes” or in the words of Mark Steyn: there are no bad guys, only victims whose grievances have yet to be accommodated.

But interestingly, Rothstein also notes:

Typically, this injustice theory is used to explain left-wing terrorism. It not only coincides with the justifications offered by terrorists themselves, but it also accompanies a belief that a just cause lies behind the terrorist attack. The theory is never applied to right-wing terrorism – whether of the brown-shirt or Timothy McVeigh variety – and thus pre-selects its proofs.

It is impossible to imagine that Spielberg or any of the other Hollywood moralists would make a picture about, say, the 1963 Birmingham church bombing in which the murderers’ grievances are morally equivalent to those of the 4 girls who died and the black community of which they were a part.

Perhaps the reason for this contradiction is, as an Israeli acquaintance said to me recently, that guilt and self-doubt are apart of the Israeli character. I know that Israel has its share of foolish liberals, but I believed they were a small minority.I always thought those traits afflicted diaspora Jews, not Israelis.

Moral equivalence is a luxury only rich, pampered and secure Jews like Spielberg can afford.

A Hill of Beans

The moral world of Spielberg and Kushner.

A Nose For Spurious Idealism

Roger Kimball reflects on the wisdom of Malcolm Muggeridge on his centenary:

In his heyday, which stretched from the 1930s through the 1960s and into the 1970s, Muggeridge was a formidable figure. He commanded prodigious literary and rhetorical gifts. He knew everyone: the infamous as well as the famous. He traveled everywhere: teaching in India and Egypt as a young man, on assignment in Moscow, Washington, New York, Berlin, Tokyo … In World War II, Muggeridge was a spy with MI6, stationed in Mozambique. He was, according to one biographer, an “outstanding secret agent,” through whose ministrations a German U-boat was captured. Muggeridge was also a nimble public performer, quick with a comeback, heedless of sacred cows. His enemies (never in short supply) belabored his inconsistencies, his “contradictions”; he gloried in them.

…It is worth noting that in suggesting that “all forms of authority should be treated with a certain reservation,” Muggeridge is not denying the legitimacy of authority—what we might call the authority of authority. On the contrary, he hoped that constructive criticism would help bolster the claims of authority. He knew too well what happened when authority collapsed. It is one of the main themes of The Thirties (1940), perhaps his most comprehensive piece of social observation. Reviewing the book, George Orwell described this tart moral and political portrait of the decade as “brilliant and depressing.” Like many readers, Orwell thought the book too negative—a sobering judgment from the author of 1984—but he subscribed to its main lesson, that “We are living a nightmare precisely because we have tried to set up an earthly paradise.”

Muggeridge was weaned on well-scrubbed attempts to set up an earthly paradise. It was a main plank of the Fabian creed: to dispense with the burdensome scaffolding of the past, its selfish institutions, its superstitions, its allegiance to outmoded vices like competition and greed. Love, harmony, brotherhood—an end to the depredations of inherited wealth, inherited … anything. Onwards, upwards, unfettered progress forever and ever. Not only was Muggeridge raised in that creed, he also married into it. Kitty Dobbs was the beautiful, freethinking niece of Sidney and Beatrice Webb; in marrying her, he noted many years later, he was marrying into “a sort of aristocracy of the Left.”

Muggeridge’s great gift as a political commentator was a nose for spurious idealism. Like nearly every right-thinking (which meant left-leaning) person, the young Muggeridge regarded the Soviet Union as the first chapter of the new utopia. When he went there as Moscow correspondent for The Manchester Guardian in the early 1930s, disabusement was almost immediate. As a leader writer, Muggeridge had tapped out “Many an uplifting sentence … expressing the hope that moderate men of all shades of opinion would draw together, and that wiser counsels might yet prevail.” In Moscow, he discovered that “moderate men of all shades of opinion had a way of disappearing into Lubinka Prison, never to be seen again.” Muggeridge saw the future, and—unlike Lincoln Steffens a decade earlier—he saw that it was hell on earth. Russia, he understood, was in the process of becoming “a huge and centrally organised slave state.” It wasn’t long before he was writing to his aunt-by-marriage Beatrice about his overwhelming conviction that the [Soviet] Government and all it stands for, its crude philosophy (religion if you like) is evil and a denial of everything I care for in life… .

Why should uncle Sidney say … “I indignantly repudiate the slander that there is forced labour in the Soviet Union” when every single person in Russia knows there is forced labour …?

A glimpse of Stalin’s Russia spurred Muggeridge’s political awakening. It is to his everlasting credit that he had the wit to see through his Fabian “ideals” and the courage to broadcast the horrors going on around him. In the beginning, at least, he was almost alone. Western intellectuals flocked to the workers’ paradise that Stalin had created and “they were one and all utterly delighted and excited by what they saw there.”

Clergymen walked serenely and happily through the anti-god museums, politicians claimed that no system of society could possibly be more equitable and just, lawyers admired Soviet justice, and economists praised the Soviet economy.

As for the Webbs and their starry-eyed ideal of universal brotherhood, Muggeridge summed it up in a dismissive BBC broadcast after their deaths. Comparing Beatrice to Don Quixote, he wrote that “she finished up enmeshed in her own self-deception, adulating a regime [the USSR] which bore as little relation to the Fabian Good Life as Dulcinea del Toboso to the Mistress of Don Quixote’s dreams.”

Muggeridge was one of the first—perhaps he was the first—Western journalist to expose the awful brutality of Soviet totalitarianism. He was equally prescient about Hitler, early on warning against the British policy of appeasement. In addition, Muggeridge had the rare perspicacity to understand that left-wing tyranny is no less murderous than the right-wing variety. Reporting from Berlin in 1933, he wrote that “It’s silly to say that the Brown terror is worse than the Red Terror. They’re both horrible.”

It is one thing—an important thing—to proclaim the bestiality of Communism or Nazism. It is quite another to discern the ways in which liberalism itself nurtures unfreedom. By the 1950s, Muggeridge had come to believe that liberalism is “the destructive force of the age.” In part, his criticism was reminiscent of Tocqueville’s. Unchecked, the impulse to equality became an impulse to homogeneity: the drive for democracy involved a democratic despotism that did not, as Tocqueville put it, so much tyrannize as infantilize. “The welfare state,” Muggeridge observed, “is a kind of zoo which provides its inmates with ease and comfort and unfits them for life in their natural habitat.”

But Muggeridge’s brief against liberalism went deeper. Liberalism, he thought, illustrated the paradox of good intentions, whereby the opposite of what was intended comes to pass. Consider education. Scratch a liberal, and he shouts “Education!” Whatever social or political problem society confronts, good liberals huddle together and decide “What’s needed is more and better education.” (Obligatory codicil: “And the money—i.e., your money—to pay for it.”) Is crime a problem? Education is the answer. Poverty? Education is the answer. War, violence, sickness, unkindness, death? Education, education, education. If only, the liberal muses, everyone were awakened to his or her own true interests, all the world’s problems could be solved. But this notion, Muggeridge saw, is an illusion. Liberalism proposes what is unattainable:

that we little men and women should live in amity together on our minute corner of the universe for the few score years vouchsafed us, of our own volition seeking one another’s good and sharing equitably in the material things which satisfy our needs and desires. This is a fantasy. This, in human terms, cannot be. Therefore, the effect of believing in it is constantly tearing the world to pieces.

On the question of liberalism, as indeed on much else, Muggeridge’s thinking was close to that of Dostoevsky, one of his favorite authors. He understood that some men (and women) do nasty things not because they are ill-informed but because they are nasty. Evil is not something an especially plush government program is going to eliminate. Evil is irremediable. The liberal’s cheery vision of universal brotherhood is false because it is based on an abbreviated view of human nature. “If,” Muggeridge wrote, “you envisage men as being only men, you are bound to see human society … as a factory farm in which the only consideration that matters is the well-being of the livestock and the prosperity or productivity of the enterprise.” Liberalism is like utilitarianism in proposing to superintend happiness. But the happiness on offer is the blunt palliative of animal satisfaction: satiety, not joy.

Thanks to Robert Cherry

The Democratic Party With Holidays

Good for the Jews or good for liberalism?

No Torturers Here

Not much outrage from the anti-torture activists over the release by the Germans of one Mohammad Ali Hamadi after serving 19 years of a life sentence for the murder of Navy diver Robbie Stethem. Hamadi was among the Hezbollah hijackers who seized TWA Flight 847 and held its passengers hostage for 16 days.

From a Wall Street Journal editorial available in the print edition and to online subscribers, here’s the description of what Hamadi did to Stethem:

… the word “murder” doesn’t adequately describe what Hamadi and his crew did to Stethem. “They singled him out because he was American and a soldier,” said one eyewitness. “They dragged him out of his seat, tied his hands and then beat him up. . . . They kicked him in the face and knee caps and kept kicking him until they had broken all his ribs. Then they tried to knock him out with the butt of a pistol — they kept hitting him over the head but he was very strong and they couldn’t knock him out. . . . Later, they dragged him away and I believe shot him.”

Merry C___________

Government approved holiday greetings.

Mark Steyn writes:

One December a few years back, I was in Santa Claus, Indiana, and went to the Post Office – a popular destination thanks to its seasonal postmark. “Merry Christmas!” I said provocatively.

But Postmistress Sandy Colyon was ready for me. “A week ago,” she said, “I’d have had to say ‘Happy Holidays’, but we’ve been given a special dispensation from the Postmaster-General allowing us to say ‘Merry Christmas’. So Merry Christmas!”

That’s “Christmas” at the dawn of the third millennium – a word you have to get a special memo from head office authorizing the use thereof. In America, most executive honchos would rather not take the risk, instructing the staff to eschew any mention of the C-word in favour of “Happy Holidays!” – the all-purpose inoffensive greeting that covers Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Eid, the Third Wednesday after Ramadan, hippy-dippy solstice worship, West Bank Suicide Bomber Appreciation Day and any other festive occasion you’ve lined up for the general vicinity of late 2005/early 2006.

A Fellow Named Mohammed

Mark Steyn on “racism” down under.

An excerpt:

These days, whenever something goofy turns up on the news, chances are it involves a fellow called Mohammed. A plane flies into the World Trade Centre? Mohammed Atta. A gunman shoots up the El Al counter at Los Angeles airport? Hesham Mohamed Hedayet. A sniper starts killing petrol station customers around Washington, DC? John Allen Muhammed. A guy fatally stabs a Dutch movie director? Mohammed Bouyeri. A terrorist slaughters dozens in Bali? Noordin Mohamed. A gang-rapist in Sydney? Mohammed Skaf.

Maybe all these Mohammeds are victims of Australian white racists and American white racists and Dutch white racists and Balinese white racists and Beslan schoolgirl white racists.

But the eagerness of the Aussie and British and Canadian and European media, week in, week out, to attribute each outbreak of an apparently universal phenomenon to strictly local factors is starting to look pathological. “Violence and racism are bad”, but so is self-delusion.

Warrantless Searches: Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Now Bush

Not only did Jimmy Carter reserve the right to conduct warrantless searches under the FISA Act (see yesterday’s post), but Bill Clinton did as well.

Byron York quotes then Assistant Attorney General and later 9/11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on July 14, 1994:

“The Department of Justice believes, and the case law supports, that the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes, and that the President may, as has been done, delegate this authority to the Attorney General.”

“It is important to understand,” Gorelick continued, “that the rules and methodology for criminal searches are inconsistent with the collection of foreign intelligence and would unduly frustrate the president in carrying out his foreign intelligence responsibilities.

York also notes that, Executive Order 12333, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1981, provides for such warrantless searches directed against “a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.”

More about the president’s national security powers versus that of “535 talking heads.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial points out:

The allegation of Presidential law-breaking rests solely on the fact that Mr. Bush authorized wiretaps without first getting the approval of the court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. But no Administration then or since has ever conceded that that Act trumped a President’s power to make exceptions to FISA if national security required it. FISA established a process by which certain wiretaps in the context of the Cold War could be approved, not a limit on what wiretaps could ever be allowed.

The courts have been explicit on this point, most recently in In Re: Sealed Case, the 2002 opinion by the special panel of appellate judges established to hear FISA appeals. In its per curiam opinion, the court noted that in a previous FISA case (U.S. v. Truong), a federal “court, as did all the other courts to have decided the issue …, held that the President did have inherent authority to conduct warrantless searches to obtain foreign intelligence information.” And further that “we take for granted that the President does have that authority and, assuming that is so, FISA could not encroach on the President’s constitutional power.”

Contrary To What You May Read In Some Newspapers

A New York Sun editorial cites the laws under which the president may engage in warrantless eavesdropping:

Reasonable people may differ over the correct place to draw the line between civil liberties and national security in wartime, but this strikes us as a pretty clear-cut case. The Fourth Amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

At issue is whether the listening in on overseas phone conversations is, in a time of war, “unreasonable.” A person is now subject to a warrantless search when boarding an airplane, entering the New York subway system, or even entering the building that houses the office of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Why should an international phone call be inviolate?

Beyond the Fourth Amendment, the law that is said to restrict the Bush administration’s activities is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. But, contrary to what you may read in some other newspapers, that law does not require that all such surveillance be authorized by a court. The law provides at least two special exceptions to the requirement of a court order. As FISA has been integrated into Title 50 of the U.S. Code, Chapter 36, Subchapter I, Section 1802, one such provision is helpfully headed, “Electronic surveillance authorization without court order.”

This “without court order” was so clear that even President Carter, a Democrat not known for his vigilance in the war on terror, issued an executive order on May 23, 1979, stating, “Pursuant to Section 102(a)(1) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1802(a)), the Attorney General is authorized to approve electronic surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence information without a court order.” He said, “without a court order.”

Now, Section 1802 does impose some conditions, including that “there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party.” But the law defines “United States person” somewhat narrowly, so that it would not include illegal aliens or, arguably, those who fraudulently obtained legal status.

And if Section 1802 isn’t enough, regard section 1811 of the same subchapter of the United States Code, “Authorization during time of war.” It states, “Notwithstanding any other law, the President, through the Attorney General, may authorize electronic surveillance without a court order under this subchapter to acquire foreign intelligence information for a period not to exceed fifteen calendar days following a declaration of war by the Congress.” Again, mark the phrase, “without a court order.”

…It certainly is the president’s view, and ours, that Congress’s declarations following September 11 formalized the state of war that was brought to us by our enemies. It will no doubt be debated whether the 15-day period is renewable. It is clear, though, that under the definitions included in the Act, “Foreign intelligence information” may include information concerning a United States person that is necessary not only to “the national defense or the security of the United States,” but even merely to “the conduct of the foreign affairs of the United States.”