Liz Lochhead’s selective boycott

The poet Liz Lochhead, known to a generation of Scottish schoolchildren as “the one that’s not Carol Ann Duffy”, has joined calls for a boycott of Batsheva Dance Company.

Batsheva is an Israeli troupe which – unless Lochhead gets her way – will be performing at the Playhouse on Thursday as part of the Edinburgh Festival, Scotland’s biggest arts and culture extravaganza.

Lochhead joined a line-up of lefty luvvies demanding that director Jonathan Mills revoke Batsheva’s invitation to perform at the festival and send them packing. Their protest, they claim, is against “Israel’s three-tiered system of occupation, colonisation and apartheid [that] ruthlessly suffocates the livelihoods of Palestinian communities”.

The Middle East conflict, and the rights and wrongs of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), provokes intense passions but the call for a boycott of Batsheva is wrongheaded and contemptible.

Let’s get some of the politics out of the way first. To accuse Israel of “colonisation” is risible and suggests that Lochhead and co. have drunk from a heady brew of ignorance and zealotry. Israel dragged 9,000 of its citizens out of Gaza in 2005 and handed over the territory to the Palestinians, who in turn handed it over to the genocidal Jew-killers of Hamas. Over in Judea and Samaria, 98% of Palestinians now live under the administration of the Palestinian Authority, with only 2% living under Israeli control. If this is colonisation, the Israelis aren’t very good at it.

The apartheid libel is as fatuous as it is ugly. Arabs constitute 20% of Israel’s population, 14% of the country’s electorate and 14% of its parliament, and serve in the military, on the supreme court, and at all levels of Israeli society. They enjoy full legal and political parity with Israel’s Jewish population. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an ancient dispute, wrapped in layers of religious animus and political complexity, but Lochhead reduces it to a morality play of Good and Evil, barbaric Israelis versus Palestinian victims; 3,000 years in a soundbite.

Lochhead’s gravest sin, though, is artistic rather than political. She has called for the silencing of artists simply because she doesn’t much like their country. This attempt to stifle creative expression, to abort a work of art before it can take to the stage to entertain and inspire and enlighten, is made all the worse by Lochhead’s position as Scotland’s makar, our poet laureate.

She is aware of the contradiction, and strains to justify it, saying: “Obviously in principle I am against the censorship of ideas. But having visited Palestine in June this year, and having seen how Palestinians are treated like non-humans, I believe we must use sanctions in the way they were used to bring apartheid to an end in South Africa.”

She is against censorship in principle, obviously, but she’ll make an exception for Israelis. When artists clamour for censorship while congratulating themselves on their anti-censorship credentials, it’s time for irony to start sorting out its affairs and make arrangements for a decent burial.

The Batsheva Dance Company is not a political organisation. It does not speak for the Israeli government and it is not responsible for that government’s policies. Indeed, although I’m not familiar with the company, I’d imagine the political culture of this group of Tel Aviv-based performance artists is pretty left-wing.

Batsheva is recognised around the world for its artistic accomplishments and contributions to the field of performance art. The company’s choreographer Ohad Naharin has been named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honour an artist can receive in France, and has been awarded his own country’s highest honour, the Israel Prize, for his contributions to dance. Snuffing out Batsheva’s performance of Hora would not change a single fact on the ground in the Palestinian territories. Of course, that’s not the point of the boycott call, which is more to do with making Lochhead and her fellow Letters Page Warriors feel brave and righteous. Theirs is the petty politics of petty minds.

And their proposed boycott is a very specific one. There is no call to cancel China Red or e-Station, in protest at the Chinese dictatorship’s brutal repression of its own people, its suppression of religious minorities, or its occupation of Tibet. Lochhead is similarly silent on Zimbabwe’s offerings Africa Calling! and Zambezi Express, cultural products of a regime where, according to Amnesty International, “Human rights defenders continued to face arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, politically motivated charges, and even torture in police custody”.

Hunger may go ahead, for Lochhead is raising no objections to the Kremlin’s stifling of opposition parties, framing of pro-democracy activists, or to the arrests and murders of journalists who write critically about Putin or his cronies. Ghana – where homosexuality is a criminal offence, where the security services round up gay men and lesbians, and where a government minister recently called on landlords to report tenants they suspected of being gay – need not worry about its Africa Arts and Crafts Exhibition being cancelled.

Why Israel alone? Lochhead must answer this question or accept that others will draw their own conclusions.

Art is how a civilisation grapples with that big fuzzy mess that is the human condition; it’s a translation of experience into ideas, a process of enlightenment and understanding. Lochhead’s call to shut down artists because of their country of origin, a demand based on outlandish claims and injudicious analogies, is an attack on the very principles upon which art is based. Cultural boycotts are the repudiation of ideas, of enlightenment, of understanding, a genteel form of book-burning for a left-liberal intelligentsia that prides itself on tolerance and broad-mindedness.

Liz Lochhead writes like an adolescent; she doesn’t have to think like one too.

The Batsheva Dance Company will perform Hora at the Edinburgh Playhouse from 30th August to 1st September. Tickets are available here and you can watch a short clip of this talented troupe in action here. The company’s website is here

Feature image © David Shankbone by Creative Commons 3.0.

Unkind to mankind on screen

“There is a greater good, and for that you must be sacrificed,” explains the Director (played by Sigourney Weaver), the figurehead of a mysterious organization with the cheery corporate goal of staving off the end times.

We are in the dying moments of The Cabin in the Woods, a campy horror movie written by Joss Whedon (the writer and director of The Avengers) that has attracted laudatory notices for its clever rewriting of the teenagers-in-peril genre. The Cabin in the Woods has its college-age protagonists, cutting loose for the weekend at the titular retreat, terrorized by a sinister institute that monitors their every move on hidden cameras and unleashes myriad monsters to maul them.

The five friends are picked off one by one until the two survivors penetrate the underground facility and learn that the corporation is motivated by more than simple malice; it is seeking to propitiate ancient gods who live below Earth’s surface and demand blood sacrifice to delay their annihilatory return. The friends have stirred the subterranean idols by denying them their offerings, and now the final two must choose: give their own lives or let the world perish. Jaded by humanity’s cynicism, the pair decides the world is not worth it. They kick back, light up a joint, exchange some witticisms, and settle down to watch Armageddon let rip. Up through the ground, the corrupt soil of our corrupt world, shoot the gnarled mandibles of pagan deities, and the credits roll. It is intended as a happy ending.

This is all wrong. Apocalypse movies are about saving the world, or at least feeling bad if we can’t. That is the raison d’être of the superhero genre and why we put up a fight as recently as the 1990s disaster cycle, in movies such as Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), and Men in Black (1997). Thankfully, we’ve wised up and realized we are the problem. We overpopulate the planet, wage needless wars, deplete the environment, and place grubby profit above natural resources. It’s the world that needs saving—from us. “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” cautioned Arnold J. Toynbee. The Cabin in the Woods is up there with us on the ledge, whispering in our ear: “Go on, do it. No one will miss you.”

Civilizational fatigue is a growing trend at the movies. Avatar (2009), the movie that made it socially acceptable to cheer the deaths of American soldiers, said something similar to The Cabin in the Woods. Both are pitched to a post-American audience for whom the United States, or the West in general, is an obvious antagonist. When the U.S. military of the 22nd century in Avatar occupies a distant planet and abuses its indigenous people to exploit their natural resources, the audience is cued to holler with bloodlust when the natives fight back and the Americans finally get theirs. Superman Returns (2006) could not even bring itself to speak of the American Way and so had the Man of Steel fight for “truth, justice, all that stuff.”

We can see this elsewhere: in the comic-book mutant Magneto’s eminently logical reasons for his attempt to destroy the human race, particularly the American part of it, in X-Men: The Last Stand (2009); and in the fact that a new ice age is upon us in The Day After Tomorrow (2004) for our rapacious despoiling of the planet. The 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s The Fog dispensed with the gutsy survivalism of the 1980 original, which saw the leads—descendants of settlers who plundered a ship’s gold to build their town—resist the ghostly mariners who rose a century later to exact revenge. Their town had been founded in infamy, to be sure, but they had enough self-belief to fight to preserve it. The teeny television stars of the remake intone solemnly about “injustice” and how they’re “the children of murderers.” The attack of the ghouls had become less a struggle for survival than a welcome teachable moment on the evils of colonialism.

This come-on-baby-let-the-bad-times-roll enthusiasm for American decline and the wholesale prosecution of mankind for its loathsome behavior are the logical extensions of a culture willing itself into extinction. The idea that the world would in general be better off without all these people has become a central tenet of environmentalist thinking. More specifically, the conception of America as a racist, imperialist, polluting malignancy without which the world could get some relief is not much of a stretch from campus curricula. The Cabin in the Woods is where giddy self-loathing leads. Perhaps we should go down and let someone more deserving lead the world. You’ve been here long, too long, America.

The superstition that corrupt America must be destroyed to restore the nation’s true destiny is not new. This romantic Schumpeterism seethed in the poetry of Langston Hughes:

Out of the rack and ruin of our
gangster death

The rape and rot of graft, and
stealth, and lies

We, the people, must redeem…
And make America again!

But Hughes and like-minded radicals agitated for a return to founding ideals from which the country had supposedly drifted. The Cabin in the Woods has no interest in making America again; all it wants is to be rid of this wretched vulgar civilization. Bordering on religious fanaticism, this secular eschatology inverts Christianity’s redemption narrative: America must die so that man can live. We’ve come a long way from establishment Hollywood’s sneering at the Left Behind series, whose characters live through the Armageddon envisioned in Revelation and by certain evangelical Christians. Now liberals want in on the rapture industry, too.

“You know, this used to be a hell of a good country,” Jack Nicholson mused in Easy Rider in 1969. “I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” Now the movies say it was never a good country. It was always rotten. Let’s be done with it. It appears the hemped-up hippies of the counterculture had a sharper perspective than do the stone-cold sober nihilists of today’s anti-culture. Joss Whedon, who has strived to articulate an intelligent popular culture through his television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, designed an astute meta-horror intended to offer a way forward for a genre mired in mean-spirited torture-porn and fatuous remakes. But a pornography of decline, featuring pulp politics for a left-liberal elite eyeing its best chance in decades to smash American exceptionalism, is hardly an improvement. It’s self-hatred passing for self-criticism.

Originally published in Commentary

Dayan’s lesson

Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon once said, “would wake up with a hundred ideas. Of them 95 were dangerous; three more were bad; the remaining two, however, were brilliant.”

The historian Mordechai Bar-On, who has published a new book on his former boss Moshe Dayan: Israel’s Controversial Hero (Yale, £18.99), would argue that the late Israeli defence minister’s strike rate was a little better. The tribute to the Labour politician from a staunch rival like Sharon, however, underscores the high regard in which the war hero is held. Whenever Israelis are polled, they consistently list Dayan as one of their greatest countrymen.

He was a deeply flawed man, politically and personally. The shine was taken off his capture of East Jerusalem in the Six Day War in 1967 by his perceived incompetence as defence minister during the Yom Kippur War six years later. Nonetheless, he was, along with Yitzhak Rabin, one of the last figures on the Israeli Left to command the respect of a broad section of the country. He combined the steel of a soldier with the wisdom of a man weary of war and became a powerful advocate for peace, helping to craft the Camp David accords.

Today’s Israeli Left could learn a great deal from Dayan. Shattered electorally by the Hamas — boosting disengagement from Gaza, the humiliating second Lebanon war, and the unspoken failure of the Oslo agreements, the Left continues to prefer infighting to political success. Shaul Mofaz’s decision to take his centrist Kadima party into Benjamin Netanyahu’s grand coalition has left Shelly Yachimovich’s Labour and Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid to scrabble for the left-wing vote. Former TV hosts Yachimovich and Lapid were colleagues at Israel’s Channel Two. Even the television personality wing of the Israeli Left can’t get together.

European commentators cite Likud’s strength as evidence of a rightwards lurch in Israel. They fail to understand that Netanyahu’s party sells itself to the electorate as the pragmatic choice. Rak ha-Likud yachol, its perennial slogan boasts, “Only the Likud can” — safeguard the nation, bring peace and create prosperity. Likud is the can-do party of Israeli politics, while the peace camp congregates in seminar rooms to debate the ethics of boycotting products from Judea and Samaria.

Moshe Dayan understood that the Israeli Left had to reassure people of its commitment to their security and sympathy for their aspirations before pursuing grand peace agreements with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has another year before he must call elections but even the gloomiest polls give the national camp a working majority in the Knesset. In its long road back to credibility, Left-Zionism will have to unite around a common platform and win back the confidence of Israelis. They will achieve neither if they do not look to the example of people like Moshe Dayan.

Originally published in Standpoint. Feature image © Nationaal Archief by Creative Commons 3.0.

A love letter with laughs

Screwball, the most American subgenre of comedy, is satirical but gentle-satirical. It pulls its punches.

Not about its leads, whom it skewers mercilessly, but about bigger social questions. There is no political consciousness to be found in a screwball comedy, or at least not one with the edge of a critique. Even the Depression-era ribbing of the indolent upper classes in It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey is innocuous, big yucks for the hardhats in the audience who wanted to see their bosses and the big shots on Wall Street who caused The Crash brought down a peg or two. The audience hooted at candy floss socialites and bumbling billionaires and delighted in torn dresses, ruined banquets, and expensive foul-ups but they didn’t want to change anything. To get into a screwball comedy and get along with it, you have to buy into the serene apolitical view of America buzzing around in the background.

For those of us who love America – and I am the subject of restraining orders from the stars, the stripes, and the bald eagle – this is an added appeal of the screwball comedy. It reaffirms our belief in the basic goodness and justness of American life while never quite managing to alienate the cynics. Screwball is the genre anti-Americans can enjoy without self-disgust.

I saw Bringing up Baby on the big screen over the weekend, the first time I’d watched the Howard Hawks picture where movies are made to be seen or at least where they were made to be seen when Bringing up Baby was made in 1938. Sitting behind me in the small arthouse cinema was a middle-aged couple – the husband dyspeptic, the wife just unpleasant – who sniped at every commercial and trailer before the main feature. A cute little ad describing an android phone from the perspective of a child drew the snark, “Typical Americans. They can’t just let their children be children. They have to make them be so… American”. The husband took a particular dislike to a faux indie-short that ended with the proud parents presenting their daughter with a new car on the day she leaves home for university. “Commercialist bullshit. I hope she crashes.”

The wife, instead of squirming at her husband’s nasty prejudices, outdid him. “It would’ve been worse if we’d gone to see Jaws,” he had observed, referring to the other classic movie being screened at the cinema that day. “Then it would’ve been all that sugar-coated American propaganda.” His wife said coolly, “What do you expect? Spielberg’s a Zionist.” (Anti-Americanism and antisemitism are distinct but co-dependent prejudices. I’ve never met an America-hater who didn’t also have a hang up about Jews or Israel.)

Then the movie started and – nothing. All of a sudden, laughter, hoots, cackles, and approving noises for the absurdist set-ups and their irresistible pay-offs. These cynics of the American experience, on guard for anything that smelled of glamorisation or co-option, showed no resistance to a movie that says life is all country getaways and million-dollar cheques. They loved Cary Grant as the affable palaeontologist, Katharine Hepburn as the flirty-forceful spoiled heiress, and her redoubtable maiden aunt (May Robson) forever rebuking unbecoming behaviour. Even the stereotypical Irish drunk – ethnic typing is a sin of the highest order for liberal European audiences – had the couple trilling with laughter.

American pop culture at its most appealing can sway the mind of even the sternest ideologue. Because anti-Americans frequently confuse Americans with America they can be taken in by movies that seem to be mocking the American Dream but which are in fact merely poking fun at American character types (many of which, in fact, come from the movies). Screwball comedies like Bringing up Baby and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House might jab at the petit bourgeois neuroses of their on-the-up New Yorker archetypes but they have nothing to say about the capitalist system in which those characters live and work and build extravagant houses. Even Frank Capra’s output, the closest screwball came to a social conscience, was reluctant to pin the blame for its protagonists’ failings and disillusionments on America. The system was flawed and sometimes good men were done down but this was America, where hard work and decency could propel any man to the top.

Given that screwball coincided with and to some extent sprang from the Great Depression, the genre can seem perversely escapist but in many ways that is the point. Screwball comedies show America not as it was but as it wanted to be: secure, prosperous, and at ease with itself. The cinema of improvement was always a European affectation, imported only by Stanley Kramer and other wearisome Hollywood moralisers, whereas screwball said things were bad but let’s have a drink, a dance, and laugh our troubles away.

Bringing up Baby is as light and fluffy as a cheesecake but with a tart aftertaste of intelligence. It achieves a pitch-perfect interplay between the humour of misunderstanding and the frustration at being misunderstood. Screwball mocks logic because it earns its laughs through wit, sentiment, and absurdity, an aesthetic of the ridiculous that confounds attempts at deconstruction and the imposition of higher meaning. That acerbic overeducated couple behind me might have taken Bringing up Baby for a satire of America but it is nothing of the sort. It’s a love letter to the American way of life; a love letter with laughs.

Reign of ignorance

America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats)
By David Gelernter
Encounter, 185 pages

Why is the American academy so monolithically left-wing?

David Gelernter, himself a tenured professor of computer science at Yale, attempts an answer in his new book America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats). For Gelernter, a postwar cultural revolution saw America’s elite colleges laid low by the double punch of the “Great Reform” and the rise of “Imperial Academia.” Institutions that had served the WASP elite found themselves transformed into pseudo-intellectual salons, the pipe-smoking pedants who (as Yeats wrote) “cough in ink” replaced with amazing speed by modish dilettantes. The old establishment, through a combination of naïveté and upper-class manners, stood aside and made way for the revolutionaries storming the gates. The change agents hacked away at the idea of college as an inculcator of knowledge and virtue and asserted instead the primacy of theory, “substituting for the intractable bloody mess called reality a seamless, silken tapestry of pure ideas.”

History departments were seized by the ideologues of post-colonialism and anti-Occidentalism, political-science courses by antagonists of the United States and Israel, and law schools by activist theorists for whom the Constitution was to be understood through its emanations rather than its plain meaning. The principled opposition to bigotry was diverted into radical victimologies: critical race theory, gender studies, and sexual identity politics. Empiricism was deposed in favor of the epistemic dead end of post-structuralism and its showy progeny, postmodernism. Critical thinking, which is to say thinking critical of America, was encouraged. Ideas that had been orthodoxy became heretical ciphers for racism, sexism, and homophobia and were dissuaded, forcefully. Hiring practices and speech codes formalized the boundaries of this new closed-shop of left-liberalism.

The result is the replacement of the WASPs by the PORGIs—post-religious globalist intellectuals. Gelernter says they have remade universities into production lines churning out an army of leftist drones trained on the battlefield of ideology and now occupying the newsrooms, classrooms, and social institutions and saluting one of their number who made it all the way to commander in chief. He writes:

Everyone agrees that President Obama is not only a man but a symbol. He is a symbol of America’s decisive victory over bigotry. But he is also a symbol, a living embodiment, of the failure of American education and its on-going replacement by political indoctrination. He is a symbol of the new American elite, the new establishment, where left-liberal politics is no longer a conviction, no longer a way of thinking: It is built-in mind furniture you take for granted without needing to think.

There is no conspiracy, no collusion, merely a new politics of vacuity: “All former leftist movements were driven by ideology. Obama’s is driven by ignorance.” If that seems harsh, remember that Obama, the Harvard-educated law professor, said there was no precedent for the Supreme Court to strike down unconstitutional statutes. The closing of the American mind has been followed by the opening of the post-American mind, a process whose first concrete political achievement was the election of a post-American president.

Gelernter contends that Obama’s reign of ignorance portends implications far beyond the current president’s term (or two). Those who care about the future of the academy, the culture, and the country cannot claim they haven’t been warned. Obama is not a blip but a blueprint for the future direction of the American left, and he could also be the trajectory of America for the next generation. Where the old-style Democrats won power by dominating labor unions and immigrant organizations, the Obamacrat ascendency will be guaranteed by their monopoly over the education cartels, chief among them the universities and graduate schools.

What is to be done?

“The true university of these days is a collection of books,” Thomas Carlyle believed. Gelernter’s “one-point plan” updates this. Given that the Internet represents the world’s largest “collection of books,” Gelernter says our salvation from Imperial Academia is to move the American educational system onto broadband networks as a remedy for political indoctrination. How this would work in practice is a little fuzzy, but there is no question that the ability of digital media and socially networked individuals and organizations to challenge establishment universities should not be dismissed. It could succeed, however, only within a framework of higher-education reform that prized rigor and merit while creating real disincentives for faculty-lounge radicalism and soft-focus, easy-A degrees.

Gelernter’s critique is in the great tradition of William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. This succinct book is as streamlined as a dart—and as precise. Far from harking back to a chimerical past, America-Lite bristles with frustration that America is not moving forward to meet her potential. The United States is a supercomputer that has slowed down. Gelernter, like a systems analyst, tears through the hard drive deleting without pity every superfluous and corrupt file. The starkness of his admonition is matched by an unfashionably American optimism that the academy’s course can be corrected and that the nation, by extension, can be made great once more.

Gelernter, who has contributed articles and reviews and stories to Commentary, writes with the precision of a technologist and the range of an artist. His citations run from statistics to philosophy to history, and you can almost hear the sucking of teeth from social scientists when he turns to novels and movies for evidence (a brief detour on silver-screen intellectuals, from Cary Grant’s bumbling professor in Bringing Up Baby to Fred Astaire’s tap-dancing psychiatrist in Carefree, is insightful and entertaining). Gelernter is an intellectual in the truest sense of the term: He is an educated man but also a lettered one, boasting a frame of reference far beyond his professional field
of expertise.

America-Lite is lean, incisive, convincing, delightfully indelicate, and, in a break from the conventions of the literature on education, honest. It is a fine dissection—deconstruction, if you must—of the corruption of higher education and the resulting debasement of political culture. If it makes its way onto a single college reading list, Hell will have frozen over.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © Doc Searls by Creative Commons 2.0.

Tzipi Livni resigns, Newsweek list-compilers hardest hit

The announcement brought a hush to the faculty lounges.

In the newsroom of Haaretz, tambourines fell silent; the morning rendition of Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu cut off mid-chorus. Over at the New Israel Fund, filing of petitions to demand the Supreme Court demolish yet another home in Judea and Samaria was put on hold. There was grieving to be done, and eulogising.

Tzipi Livni, recently defenestrated leader of Israel’s opposition Kadima party, had announced her resignation from the Knesset.

Many had been expecting Livni to turn tail and defect to Yair Lapid’s new faction Yesh Atid but when the statement came on Tuesday morning, it was an exit not a sidestep. Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister perpetually touted as the next prime minister by people who know little about Israel and even less about Tzipi Livni, was out altogether.

Livni will be remembered as the most ineffectual opposition leader in Israeli history. She was a compulsive screw-up who fashioned the political misfire into an art-form. The most stunning was her eleventh-hour victory in the 2009 Knesset elections, after languishing in the polls for weeks, only to alienate almost every potential coalition partner and send them flying into the arms of Benjamin Netanyahu. He came second in the voters’ estimation but Livni pushed him over the finish line.

She was a reluctant hero for the Israeli peace camp. The daughter of two Irgun officers, Livni was raised to believe in Jabotinsky’s dictum “Shtei gadot la Yarden; zo shelanu, zo gam ken”. She joined the Likud and was a proud defender of Eretz Yisrael but by the early 2000s she had undergone a change of heart, or of political calculation. She began to drift leftwards, culminating in her joining Ariel Sharon in abandoning Likud to form Kadima as a platform for pushing the disengagement from Gaza. Leftists who had viewed her with disdain now took a second look and if they didn’t quite like what they saw they figured she could deliver their radical goals in moderate swaddling.

The Left was right not to trust her. Livni’s ideology swayed with even the mildest breeze – or polling report. She was what British right-wingers mistakenly accused Tony Blair of being: a triangulator with no foundational principles. While Blair did have principles (if not the old socialist ones dear to his party), Livni had no discernible belief system. And, crucially, Blair was an electoral prizefighter. Livni lost even when she won. If her career teaches us anything, and it is generous to assign it any value beyond political history or tragedy or comedy, it is surely a rebuke to cynics who decry modern politics as a marketplace of chancers and PR smoothies. Livni stood for nothing and refreshingly the voters wouldn’t stand for it.

After conceding to Bibi, she became leader of the opposition and embarked upon a series of miscalculations that made her coalition negotiations look like the work of a Machiavelli or a Clausewitz. She took to the Knesset podium to issue shrill denunciations of the Netanyahu government’s policies but stumbled when asked to outline her alternatives. She was slow to appreciate the opportunity provided by the social protests and by the time she got herself clued up her attempts to co-opt the movement looked hollowly political. Her favourite cliché – that she hated politics and was only in it to do her patriotic duty – registered as flippant and self-aggrandising with voters. Fatally, her leadership was overshadowed by growing corruption scandals engulfing Kadima, a party which had touted, if not squawked, its clean-hands credentials to the country. So when she was forced into holding leadership primaries in March, her rival Shaul Mofaz – a human form of Ambien – trounced her by 25 points.

During the vicious 2009 campaign, Likud tagged its attack ads with a coda (voiced by a female actor to distract from the blatant sexism at play) that questioned Livni’s suitability to be Prime Minister. “Tzipi Livni: Ze Gadol Aleya,” the voice claimed. “It’s too big for her”. Livni was championed by the international Left and the media for her commitment to the peace process, which is to say her commitment to the process of making yet more concessions in return for no peace. She was feted regularly by Newsweek, which frequently placed her on its lists of the world’s most powerful women. Of course, she was no such thing but presumably her American media sympathisers hoped that if they said ‘Livni’ and ‘next Prime Minister’ often enough it would come true.

She carried the hopes – and agenda – of many, confidence placed in her that bore no relation to her abilities as a politician or a leader. She was the worst kind of opportunist: one who misses every opportunity.

In the end, Tzipi Livni proved her critics right. It was too big for her.

Feature image © Sandy Teperson by Creative Commons 2.0

Attacking Ann Romney

And so it begins.

With Rick Santorum out of the race Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican nominee.

The Democrat smear machine has begun in earnest.

Most seasoned observers predicted class warfare rhetoric would play a critical role in the Obama campaign’s case against Romney.

What no one predicted was how quickly Democrats would target Romney’s wife.

Speaking on CNN this evening, Democrat strategist Hilary Rosen had this to say about Romney: “His wife has never worked a day in her life.”

The attempt to cast Ann Romney as a workshy lunch lady is cruel and vicious. She has raised five children and battled multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. While the liberal sneer that homemaking isn’t a ‘real job’ – translation: homemakers aren’t real women – is contemptible when applied to any wife and mother, it is particularly nasty when applied to someone who has gone through what Ann Romney has gone through.

At least now we know the tenor of the Democrats’ campaign. Nothing and no one will be off limits.

Republicans must not follow the President and his party down this low road. There must be no personal attacks on President Obama, the First Lady, or, God forbid, the First Daughters. Conservatism is a philosophy but it’s also a temperament, one anchored in modesty and tradition and grace. It is not meet to assail the character of our fellow man, and certainly not that of our fellow lady.

Let the Democrats be drawn to the temptations of vulgarity. Let the party of ‘civility’ degrade and defame. Let them mug for the cable news cameras.

Republicans should stick to their message – the economy – and work to elect to the White House a man who does not send out his apparatchiks to attack another man’s wife.

Feature image © Gage Skidmore by Creative Commons 2.0

Santorum’s exit

So I’ve been pretty mean about Rick Santorum.

I’ve made fun of his interview tantrums and his weird obsession with the possibility that, somewhere, right now, in Vermont, two guys called Bruce and Bernard could be picking out matching his’n’his dressing gowns at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I mocked his condomnation (trademark pending) of birth control and expressed disdain for his Bill Donahue Catholicism. The phrase “sweater-vested dinosaur-denier” might have come up once or twice.

But now is a good time to remember what Santorum brought to the primary process. And it wasn’t all bad. True, his social conservatism could be fire-and-brimstone-y – uncharacteristically so for an American Catholic – and his constant whining about attack ads and media bias was wearying. But he brought to the race a human quality that none of the other candidates, with the exception of Rep. Michele Bachmann, could mimic let alone embody. He’s a husband and a father to seven children, including the brave little fighter Bella who has defied every doctor and specialist to go on living despite suffering from Trisomy 18. When he spoke about how the Obama economy was putting the squeeze on middle class families, his words carried the authenticity of a family man.

Every politician promises to run “a campaign of ideas” but it’s fair to say Santorum held fast to that pledge, to his detriment. He talked about issues written off in this ‘economy election’. Broken families, absent fathers, abortion, and a suburban and rural America that feels its values are under heavy artillery from the courts, the White House, and the culture. These are all worthy issues, they all cost him more votes than they won him, and yet he stuck with them. I’ll leave readers to decide whether he was principled or stubborn.

Whichever it was, Santorum’s campaign was a platform for a variety of forgotten causes and issues that dominated as recently as 2004 but have been edged aside in favour of jobs, the economy, and taxes. These issues won’t get much play from here on in, so he deserves credit for forcing them onto the national agenda.

He was similarly strong-willed on foreign and security policy. He articulated a staunch case for the Republican Party to be the pro-Israel party, at a time when the Democrats are lurching towards the fashionable anti-Zionism of the European left, and was never shy about his belief that Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria were sovereign Israeli territory. Whenever he could, he would steer a foreign policy debate to the question of Iran and its burgeoning nuclear programme. Like no other candidate, he refused to concede that the American people were suffering war on terror fatigue and pressed for America’s defences to be sturdier and her role in the world more, not less assertive.

Another point about Santorum: For all his claims to the mantle, he was not a conservative and didn’t run a conservative campaign. He was a long-time Washington insider with a record of voting to increase spending as often as he voted to cut it. He had an FDR Democrat’s fetish for the manufacturing industry and his attachment to the small-town hard-hat led him into protectionist and corporatist territory hitherto occupied by the old socialists at The Nation and the latter-day Lindbergh Pat Buchanan. If you strip away his foreign policy, Santorum is a Catholic statist-populist in the vein of Buchanan but without the latter’s attachment to blood and soil.

Santorum’s concession to the inevitability of Mitt Romney will not sit well with the Anyone But Romneys; those right-wingers who detest (not an overstatement) Mitt for his centrism, his flip-flopping, his wealth, his Mormonism, his hair, or all of these things and more. They have no one to turn to now. With Santorum gone, Mitt’s only rivals are Newt Gingrich, whose campaign increasingly seems like an excuse not to find a real job, and Ron Paul, who’s plain nuts. So Romney’s the guy and the shrill chorus of diehards pledging to stay at home rather than vote for, horror of horrors, a moderate Republican, had better get used to it.

Defeating Barack Obama is an epic challenge, and likely an insurmountable one, but if it is to be done the GOP has to learn to love Romney the way Democrats loved their moderate, Bill Clinton. As lefties outraged at Clinton’s rightwards tilts would often remind themselves, in the words of an old Texas saying, “You gotta dance with the one that brung ya.”

Feature image © Gage Skidmore by Creative Commons 2.0

Lost for words

You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an age of freedom
By Nick Cohen
Fourth Estate

I raised the subject of Nick Cohen – who has written an incisive, depressing, and wonderful new book on censorship – over supper with some friends on Sunday evening. The topic of conversation had drifted from crappy remuneration – mine was the crappiest – to current reading habits. I supposed dropping the name of the impeccably progressive Observer columnist would score some acceptable-face-of-conservatism points from leftish friends who find my centre-rightish views eccentric.

This mild-mannered group – two journalists; a PR; a teacher; Paul, who does something in finance that I still don’t understand – responded with a cacophony of hooting derision punctuated by fitful denunciations largely populated by the terms “neocon”, “WMD”, “war-monger”, and “it’s all about Israel”. Cohen may not be an “Islamophobe” but he was “the kind of writer Islamophobes enjoy reading”. He was an “apologist for Bush’s war for oil” who was “almost as shrill as Melanie Phillips”. Paul, whose job, whatever it is, presumably doesn’t involve managing hedge funds on behalf of orphanages, deployed the most stinging insult in the liberal armoury: “Cohen should go write for the Daily Mail”.

Sensing that the conversation was exposing me to even greater opprobrium than a previous gathering when I brought a bottle of Judean Hills red hastily selected from the shelves of a wine store en route to dinner (a crime of expediency, not a statement of politics), I was relieved when our host announced the arrival of dessert and talk turned to politics of a more congenial nature – the Scandinavian sweater-clad socialism of Borgen.

It’s a pity my friends have already made up their minds about Cohen because his new book, You Can’t Read This Book, should be the manifesto for an insurrection that wrests control of contemporary liberalism from the relativists and the apologists and reasserts the Enlightenment values that underscore genuine progressive politics. He tears through “offence”, “respecting religion”, “non-judgementalism”, “hate speech”, “sensitivity”, and the whole wretched lexicon of suffocating euphemisms deployed by ruler-tapping schoolmarms when they counsel us to still our pens or hold our tongues. (The old, “conservative” censorship was justified on plain-spoken grounds of morality and order; only liberals could devise a form of censorship that sounds like a management studies textbook crossed with an Amnesty International spokesperson.)

Cohen’s book attends, broadly speaking, to five types of censorship: political, legal, economic, violent, and self-imposed. There is a lot covered but Cohen never lets it run on; he gives us breadth and depth in just the right ratio. All the same, some chapters stand out. In particular, he expertly contrasts the hunting of Salman Rushdie with the tumult over the Danish cartoons, and reflects on how the liberals in politics, academia, publishing, and media who stood with the death-sentenced novelist had lost their nerve or their principles or both a generation later when baying mobs firebombed embassies and called for murder and mayhem on the quaint streets of Denmark over a dozen satirical cartoons. The lesson Cohen draws from this is that free speech is not just under threat from those offence-seekers who “go through The Satanic Verses with the squinting eye of a censor searching for thought crimes” but from timid and complacent citizens who assume that their liberties will endure by tradition or convention. “National and political differences,” he cautions, “are no protection against the universal emotion of fear.” And the fear is very real when religious fanatics can storm your home or workplace or make you pay for your unwelcome ideas with your life or the lives of others. Per Voltaire: “What to say to a man who tells you he prefers to obey God than to obey men, and who is consequently sure of entering the gates of Heaven by slitting your throat?”

If this analysis is the sort that has convinced my dining companions that Cohen harbours bias towards Muslims – and the liberal-Left’s superstition that decent Muslims will be affronted by condemnation of violent, reactionary Islamism is ‘Islamophobia’ in its rawest manifestation – they might be more impressed by his take on the banking crash and the role of censorship in preventing whistleblowers from coming forward in time to stop it. “Every whistleblower I have ever known,” writes Cohen, “has ended up on the dole”, and he summons in support the story of Paul Moore, the risk manager of Halifax whose job was “made redundant” after he objected one too many times to excessive risk-taking. Despite his expertise, Moore was not snapped up by a rival bank because, Cohen maintains, to challenge practices at one bank is to challenge them all. Do it, and you’ll never work in this City again. Cohen’s broader assault on corporate censorship and “the cramped, fearful ideologies of the managerial economy” is necessary and welcome. As anyone who has worked in a corporate environment will attest, the “creativity” hollowly championed by middle management jargon is not to be confused with independent thinking or, worse, independent speaking.

The English judiciary’s preference that we not speak at all is most forcefully conveyed in the super injunction, “a court order so secret it is a contempt of court to reveal that it even exists”. Super injunctions are popular with the super rich, the super powerful, the super famous and anyone else who wants to shut up a troublesome journalist. Their potency and their cynicism lies in banning speech while also banning reference to the fact that speech has been banned. It’s like burning a book while insisting there was no fire. Cohen covers one of the most noxious – so to speak – uses of these orders. The Dutch raw materials corporation Trafigura slapped The Guardian with a super injunction to prevent the paper running a story about the dumping of toxic waste in Côte d’Ivoire. Labour MP Paul Farrelly, protected by parliamentary privilege, asked a question about the story in Parliament, thus allowing journalists to write about it. Not so fast, said Trafigura, whose lawyers maintained that to report on Farrelly’s question would breach the super injunction. In one of the better days for British democracy, the story leaked onto Twitter and citizens outraged at the attempt to gag Parliament and the Press furiously retweeted the scandal until it became a trending topic and an international news story. If that little free speech insurgency warms your heart, remember we have no way of knowing how many other super injunctions are in place and what they’re covering up.

Even if you fail to ban a journalist from writing about you, you can always punish him afterwards. Aromatherapists make unlikely assailants against press freedom but the attempt by a group of homeopathy enthusiasts to sue a science journalist into silence illustrates the dangers of our libel laws. The herb and crystal merchants of “alternative medicine” (an inadvertantly honest locution since the quack cures are an alternative to real, effective, scientically-tested medicine) tried to ruin Simon Singh, a celebrated scientist, for pointing out that their potions were pure hocus pocus. They pursued him through the courts, threatening his reputation and his pocketbook, demanding at every turn that he recant what he knew to be fact, a modern-day Galileo inquisition. And while Singh’s case had a rare happy ending, Cohen provides us with more than enough instances of the litigious bully boys triumphing to recognise that our libel laws are a censors’ charter.

Those laws are so sweeping that those who have an interest in censorship flock from far and wide to take advantage of British justice. Saudi bankers and Russian billionaires use England’s courts like a be-wigged PR agency to manage their reputations and silence critics of their dubious practices. A critic need not live in England, work in England, or even have published the offending material in England; one copy of one book bought from Amazon by one reader in England is sufficient to give standing. We manufacture less and less in Britain but we have found a way to export censorship.

Cohen returns often to his frustration that progressive people have not taken up this fight. He pleads for a resurrection of the solidarity that died bitterly with the fall of Marxism and was buried in the debris of Ground Zero. He frequently fires off his roster of the righteous – socialistsfeministstradeunionistsIraqiKurdishcommunists – but one suspects these talismans no longer carry the same mystical hold over Western intellectuals hostile to any alliance that might give succour to the hated regimes in Washington and Jerusalem. He warns:

If you believe that Western democracies are the sole or prime source of oppression, then you are wide open to the seduction of fascistic ideologies, because they come from a radical anti-democratic tradition that echoes your own.

Cohen speaks the vocabulary of liberalism with the weary, dejected timbre of a man who suspects his audience has already made its mind up.

The flaws in Cohen’s book originate, ironically, in his own left-wing worldview. He is contemptuous of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United – his rendering of American constitutional law is dubious in parts – while championing the virtues of the Fairness Doctrine. As a man of the Left, Cohen sees corporate speech and right-wing political speech as embodied by Fox News (whose viewers are “beer-swilling bigots”) as somehow less worthy of protection. He fails to grasp that this is self-defeating. When corporations’ speech options for promoting their interests are limited, they seek to limit the speech options of those who would damage their brand. Elsewhere, silly demagoguery creeps in – he advances, in all solemnity, a list of “the similarities between yesterday’s white supremacists and today’s super-rich” – and there’s a touch of high-church Fabianism: “At their best, journalists expose the crimes of the powerful”, as if the crimes of the “powerless” are intrinsically less evil than those of the “powerful”, even if we could agree on a definition of the two terms.

Aside from that, there is little on film censorship, a critical battle ground for political and artistic expression (ask the Canadian-Indian feminist film-maker Deepa Mehta, who has had her film sets besieged by Hindu nationalist mobs, just how critical), and he omits one of the greatest affronts to free speech in a generation – the Human Rights Commissions that scar Canadian intellectual freedom. Speech codes, a tyrannical tool for silencing (usually conservative) speech on American college campuses, are mentioned only in passing.

The book’s overarching achievement is to shift the debate from the methods of suppression to the underlying ideology. Censorship isn’t so much silencing ideas – it is the new idea. Say nothing that will offend, that will discomfort the powerful, that will enrage the extreme. Originality and provocation are cardinal sins, insipidity and asininity social virtues. Trashy TV, inane YouTube videos, silly hashtags; pilled up, boozed out, brain dead: Britain is becoming like Brave New World by way of Money. We have censorship and call it consensus, acquisence and we call it freedom. Cohen closes his book with simple but true words: “The Net cannot set you free. Only politics can do that.” A world that has lost Christopher Hitchens (see my obituary here: “Let us now praise an infamous man”) needs people like Cohen to argue for the primacy of politics.

You Can’t Read This Book is the finest long-form writing Cohen has published to date, surpassing even the righteous fury of What’s Left?, and explores ideas that can only be hinted at within the confines of his Observer columns and Standpoint essays. Far from becoming a right-winger – we would have him; he wouldn’t have us – Cohen is tilling away at the old values of freedom, justice, and solidarity that once bound together the soil of progressivism. It is true that his defence of Western values and contempt for moral relativism finds him in common cause with neoconservatives but Cohen would argue, with some justification, that it is his former comrades, not he, who have strayed. A good writer, Orwell admonished, must choose between truth and partisanship. Cohen has chosen, wants us to know it, and won’t let anyone shut him up.

You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an age of freedom by Nick Cohen is published by Fourth Estate and is available from Amazon.

Feature image © Mutant669 by Creative Commons 3.0

Barack Obama, Derrick Bell, and the politics of hugging

Let’s dispense with a few misconceptions, shall we?

No, of course it’s not racist to object to the late Professor Derrick Bell’s contributions to critical race theory. It’s not racist to object to the protest – essentially for racial hiring quotas at the Harvard Law faculty – depicted in the video released by Nor is it racist to say then-student Barack Obama shouldn’t have lent his support to the protest or to Professor Bell.

While we’re at it, a few more points.

Yes, we can all imagine what would happen if a Republican embraced a controversial right-wing scholar on questions of race and ethnicity. Wait, we don’t have to imagine. ThinkProgress, the blog of the Center for American Progress, as recently as February attacked Rick Santorum for citing Charles Murray in a debate, calling Murray a “racist” and heavily implying that Santorum was one too.

We know the liberal media holds Democrats and Republicans to different standards. This is nothing new.

Moreover, there is a legitimate case that the news media was insufficiently rigorous in vetting Candidate Obama. Enchanted by his good looks, left-wing politics, rhetorical ease, and all-round coolness, Washington correspondents forgot that their job is to act as watchdogs, not lapdogs. Teams of investigative journalists were dropped into Wasilla, Alaska to dig dirt on Sarah Palin while the non-Fox media was initially reluctant to cover the Jeremiah Wright issue or ask any questions of Obama that didn’t begin, “How do you think the Republicans are going to attack you for…?”

Candidate Obama should have been vetted as thoroughly as every other candidate.

All that said, my immediate reaction to the Derrick Bell video is: Is that it?

For days, the people over at the Breitbart sites have been promising footage that would devastate President Obama’s re-election bid. Maybe they have more videos yet to be released but if this is it, I don’t think the White House need be too troubled. In the words of Sean Hannity, who promoted the video on his Fox News show, “this is not a smoking gun”.

Critical race theory is of course controversial and I would rather its divisive assumptions were left behind in favour of a post-racial politics that focusses on the value of individuals as individuals rather than representatives or embodiments of larger identity groups. I have an intellectual interest in critical race theory – I much prefer bell hooks to Professor Bell – and found it fascinating when I studied it as an undergraduate. But while its questions were compelling, I found its answers untenable, stuck in a past that most modern societies are glad to have escaped. Nor do I cut it any slack over its manifestations of antisemitism – well documented by the liberal academics Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry in their incisive critique Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law – which sometimes saw Jews attacked for their supposed failure to join the struggle against white European hegemony.

So I understand why some might be alarmed at Barack Obama, as a student in 1991, embracing and praising the father of this political critique. To argue, however, that this video proves that President Obama shares some or all of the late professor’s radical ideas is to make a leap as untenable as many of Bell’s theories. When Obama enjoined his fellow students to “Open up your hearts and your minds” to Bell, can we really be certain that he meant, “I agree with every word this man has ever committed to paper and think every one of you should think like him and take up his cause”? Or is it more likely that Obama was offering up some boiler plate platitudes – even as a student, he was a polished politician – about a well-liked teacher who was leaving the university?

Are we to read into the hug Obama gave Bell an ideological embrace, where the future president betrothed himself to the academic as an unquestioning adherent? If anything, we should congratulate the two men on being sufficiently free of homophobia, in the less enlightened days of 1991, to meet in a physical embrace without fearing a compromise of their masculinity.

One of the supreme joys of university is taking a class taught by a charming, charismatic, intellectually stimulating professor. As a passionate young idealist, you are drawn to his/her ideas and soon decide they are your own. It’s a heady experience, meeting a grown-up who doesn’t agree with other grown-ups and compels you to think differently about things you’ve always accepted without question. It’s easy to fall under the spell of such people. But then you finish their class and you encounter other instructors with different ideas and you learn from them too until, one day, you find yourself piecing together your own perspective on the world. It’s usually a collage of ideas you picked up along the way but you’ve made the moral choice to claim these beliefs as your own. They’re now yours as much as anyone else’s.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Barack Obama fell under the sway of the eloquent Professor Bell but I doubt very much if he still cleaves to many of the ideas that fill the pages of the late scholar’s published works. I say this because Obama has already broken the cardinal rule of critical race theory by choosing to work within the “white heteropatriarchal capitalist order” instead of attacking it from the outside. I say this also because President Obama so rarely talks about race. He’s an economics man, with a side interest in the culture wars. Race might once have stirred his heart; it does not sway his philosophy or steer his administration’s policies. President Obama is a social democrat; he believes in collectivism, welfarism, and redistributivism. He is a student of European democratic socialism, not American race theory. And therein lies his weak spot. The president wishes to graft onto the American system of limited government and checks and balances the hulking, illiberal, opportunity-squelching dead hand of Western European statism – at the very time that we in Europe are trying to make a break for it.

If conservatives hope to defeat Barack Obama – either for the White House or for the future direction of American politics – they have to understand that Obama is motivated by economics and ultimately can be undone only by economics.

Feature image © I, DavidShankbone by Creative Commons 3.0