9/11 conspiracy theories: time for truth

Two cheers for the University of New Hampshire for affirming the principle of academic freedom and resisting calls to dismiss, discipline, or curb the teaching of psychology professor William Woodward, an academic who believes that the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government.

Woodward’s discussion of those controversial views in his class led some prominent New Hampshire politicians, including the Governor, John Lynch (who termed Woodward’s opinions “crazy”) and U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, to call for his dismissal.

The UNH administration reviewed Woodward’s teaching practices, looked at course materials and student evaluations, and concluded it should not take action. An Iraq war veteran in Woodward’s class told reporters that Woodward had not tried to indoctrinate his students (nor, apparently, was the professor particularly successful in convincing any of students that he was right).

Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, defended Woodward (in an email to Inside Higher Ed), making the traditionalists’ case for academic freedom:

“So long as the faculty member teaches within his or her discipline and is careful to teach the truth as set by the highest standards of scholarship within their discipline, they and their universities should not be subjected to political intrusions. This rule applies even in highly charged times like today. Professors outside the classroom should speak truth to power as their conscience dictates and inside the classroom they should speak the truths of their discipline.”

Bowen has it more or less right—although you have to strain a bit to fit 9/11 conspiracy theories into the “truths of their discipline” when that discipline is psychology (unless, perhaps, you are considering the mental health of conspiracy theorists). By all accounts Woodward has made only passing references to his 9/11 opinions in the classroom, noted that they are controversial, and has not let them dominate his teaching. (Woodward has been quoted as saying he hopes to teach a new class that would explore September 11th “in psychological terms.”)

UNH would deserve a third cheer if, at the same time it backs Woodward, it confronted the 9/11 conspiracy question head-on by sponsoring lectures, seminars and teach-ins to provide students with the facts. It’s a process that would expose the entire 9/11 “inside job” argument as baseless. A campus-wide discussion could enhance student’s critical thinking skills—they would learn in short order how flimsy the claims of the conspiracy buffs are and how the evidence doesn’t support them.

An unecessary exercise? Unfortunately, no. A shockingly high number of Americans apparently do not believe the bipartisan 9/11 Commission’s conclusions that Osama bin Laden and al-Quaida bear responsibility for the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll in early August found that “more than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East.” If the poll is even directionally correct, that would suggest one in three UNH students might harbor the same beliefs.

UNH is not the only college campus where such views are held—the so-called Scholars for 9/11 Truth (of which Woodward is a member) claim some 75 of the group’s 300 members have “academic affiliations.” Kevin Barrett, an adjunct instructor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, caused a similar uproar with his desire to teach the “Truth about 9/11” to his introductory class on Islam.

What will any dispassionate review of the facts about 9/11—on campus or off—show? Rather than a conspiracy, the voluminous record suggests incompetence and miscommunication on the part of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, sloppiness and confusion by the air defense and air traffic control systems, and a false sense of invulnerability to terror attacks held at every level of government.

The notion that the World Trade Center buildings were rigged with explosives, or that the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile, are “theories” that have been throughly discredited—look no further for refutation than the Federal Emergency Management Agency or National Institute of Standards and Technology’s reports on the collapse of the WTC buildings, or the eyewitness testimony of first responders at the Pentagon.

There are, fortunately, resources and documents to help set the record straight. The U.S. State Department has posted web pages refuting most of the common conspiracy theories, and a Popular Mechanics investigation debunking the 16 most persistent conspiracy theories has been expanded into a book, Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts, which includes interviews with some 600 experts (and eyewitnesses). Two journalists, David Corn of the Nation, and Salon’s Farhad Manjoo, have been leaders in fact-based reporting on the topic.

Of course this may not matter to Scholars for 9/11 Truth or others promoting the “U.S. government false flag operation” meme—it has become a matter of faith that the attacks were “an inside job,” and any evidence to the contrary is regarded as fabricated by the conspiracists. As the historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, (a reflection prompted by the Age of McCarthy), those who fabricate convoluted conspiracy theories will not let the facts get in the way; their fantasy world becomes satisfyingly coherent, “since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities.”

I would imagine that most American university presidents and deans clearly recognize the intellectual shakiness of the 9/11 conspiracy movement, but figure that it will never take root on college campuses. They may think that engaging in debate legitimizes the conspiracy fringe. That both underestimates the staying power of “the Paranoid Style”—to date there’s been no let-up in the campaign to rewrite the history of 9/11—and cedes the field to those who shown more interest in attacking the Bush administration than in finding the truth.

When a third of American adults question whether their government has been involved in a massive conspiracy and cover-up—a notion unsupported by any credible evidence—it’s clear that dignified silence or ignoring the question isn’t going to work. America’s higher education leadership share in the duty to, in George Orwell’s words, “restate the obvious.” Those in the academy should take every opportunity to capitalize on this “teachable moment” on their campuses and encourage truth-telling about 9/11 sooner rather than later.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Reconsidering “On the Waterfront”

Another figure from post-war New York, from those golden years of the late 1940s and early 1950s, has slipped away: former middleweight prize fighter Roger Donoghue, Marlon Brando’s coach for his role as the washed-up boxer Terry Malloy in the remarkable film On the Waterfront, died this past week at the age of 75.

Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for the 1954 film credited Donoghue for inspiring the now-classic line from Malloy: “I could have been a contender.”

According to the New York Times, Donaghue saw athletic promise in Brando as he tutored the young actor in the sweet science:

To hear Mr. Donoghue tell it, Marlon Brando just might have been a contender himself. “I’ve got him shooting straight jabs, and he’s already learned to hook off the jab,” he said after the first lesson, according to Mr. Schulberg in a widely syndicated article. “I can make a hell of a middleweight out of this kid.”

“Roger,” Mr. Schulberg replied, “just let us get through this movie with him in it. Then you can have him back and take it from there.”

(Had Brando tried his hand at boxing, however, it’s unlikely he would have had the discipline to stay in the middleweight class—at least not judging from his massive weight swings later in his career.)

Donoghue knew his boxing. Before he was hired to train Brando, he had a brief career as a middleweight fighter. His one appearance at Madison Square Garden, in August 1951, ended in tragedy: Donoghue knocked out 20-year-old George Flores (a boxer he had defeated, also by KO, two weeks earlier) in the eighth round—and Flores died some five days later.

Donoghue donated his purse to the Flores family and stopped boxing shortly thereafter. He was promoting Rheingold Beer when he was recruited to coach Brando.

The best of the 20th century?

Director Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is a marvelous film and, it can be argued, the best American motion picture of the 20th century. The film was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning series by New York Sun investigative reporter Malcolm Johnson which exposed the control of organized crime over New York’s waterfront. It is a testament to New York’s post-war Golden Age in journalism, literature, music, and theater, an amazing period of creativity and artistic innovation in the decade after the end of World War II.

On the Waterfront tells the story of an average man, Terry Malloy, an ex-boxer and longshoreman who slowly realizes that he must stand up to the corrupt and brutal union bosses who rule the docks through fear, intimidation and violence. Kazan captures Malloy’s struggle of conscience and follows his difficult path to redemption; Malloy knows that telling the truth means not only being branded a “snitch,” but also putting his own life and future at risk. While the movie closes with Malloy publicly defying the mobsters, despite a savage beating, and gaining the support of his fellow dockworkers, there is nothing triumphal about the ending, no sense that Malloy has won a permanent victory.

On the Waterfront‘s themes—of loyalty and betrayal, of courage and of compromise, of the morally ambiguous role of the informer—carried deep personal resonance for its director. In 1952 Kazan had renounced his Communist Party past and “named names,” identifying eight of his colleagues from the Group Theater in the 1930s as Communists, in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Kazan’s decision to testify, rather than plead the Fifth Amendment, outraged many in Hollywood, including playwright Arthur Miller, once a close friend.

It’s been argued that Kazan (and Schulberg, who was also a friendly witness before HUAC) sought to justify their actions in On the Waterfront, to show that an informer could be acting out of integrity, and that it took courage to testify against former friends, to “name names.” That may be so, but what ends up on the screen isn’t much of an advertisement for whistle-blowing, but rather a sobering consideration of the harsh consquences of informing.

Moreover, On the Waterfront deserves to be considered—or reconsidered—on its merits, not as propaganda or polemics, but as an artistic work.

Reconsidering the movie

One reason On the Waterfront remains vital today is because it is film-making at its best: the movie offers a blend of brilliant acting, sensitive cinematography and a complementary score coupled with a restrained direction that allows individual performances to emerge and dazzle.

The collection of talent employed in this low-budget black-and-white film, shot on location in Hoboken over some 36 days, was stunning. Many of the actors were alumni of the legendary New York Actors Studio. Kazan assembled a cast that included Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Pat Henning and James Westerfield (and Fred Gwynne and Martin Balsam in small roles). Three ex-heavyweight boxers, Abe Simon, Tony Galento, and Tami Mauriello played union thugs, and many of the extras were real life dockworkers.

The cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, worked wonders; he used the shabby Hoboken cityscape and the constrast between the cramped apartments and open roof-top skylines to give a sense of place and time. Kaufman proved to be a master at employing the winter afternoon light (helped by the judicious use of trash fires) to soften the look of the film. And composer Leonard Bernstein’s haunting themes, recurring throughout the film, provided additional emotional depth to the story.

Kazan was lucky just to get the movie made—the screenplay was initially turned down by the major studios (Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox dismissed the project with this memorable comment: “All you’ve got is a lot of sweaty longshoremen. Exactly what the American public doesn’t want to see.”) and the financing came from producer Sam Spiegel, a relative Hollywood outsider, who eventually persuaded Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures to take on the project.

Assembling the cast wasn’t easy, either. Brando supposedly balked at working with Kazan because of his HUAC testimony. Frank Sinatra was recruited for the part of Terry Malloy before (with Spiegel’s prodding) Brando relented and joined the project. Lee J. Cobb, who played the thuggish union boss Johnny Friendly, had no such problems—he had also testified before HUAC.

Eva Marie Saint was selected after Grace Kelly passed on the part of Edie Doyle in order to appear in the The Country Girl (for which Kelly won an Oscar). Kazan saw in Eva Marie Saint what audiences did: a beautiful young woman radiating innocence and an appealing gentleness, perfect for the part of the idealistic, yet passionate, Edie.

Rod Steiger was cast as Charlie “the Gent” Malloy, Terry’s older brother, because a better-known actor, Lawrence Tierney, had demanded too much money. Steiger later claimed he would not have participated if he had known about Kazan’s testimony (a claim that is hard to believe), and he proved to be particularly nasty over the years about what he saw as Kazan’s connection (however strained) to the Hollywood blacklist.

Kazan clearly got lucky, I think, with the cast, especially with his two leads. It’s hard to envision On the Waterfront with Frank Sinatra as Terry Malloy and Grace Kelly as Edie Doyle: Sinatra is too sharp, too self-aware for the role, and Kelly seems too elegantly upper-class to be believable as the sheltered Edie. Brando and Eva Marie Saint seem to have been born to play their parts.

Quiet scenes

What makes On the Waterfront such a marvel, I would argue, is not only the acting, but the restraint in Kazan’s direction.

Take the scene where Terry Malloy walks Edie Doyle home through the park. When she drops one of her gloves, Malloy picks it up, and (an action Brando improvised in rehearsal) plays with it, eventually slipping his hand into it. Kazan kept the improvisation in the scene—and it works on several levels: it foreshadows Terry’s sexual interest in Edie, and also, some have argued, his “trying on” Edie’s “white glove” morality.

Kazan also left untouched a risky scene written by Schulberg. When Terry confesses his role in the death of Edie’s brother, he unburdens himself to her by the waterfront. As Terry begins to explain to Edie, we can not hear his words—they are drowned out by the blast of a whistle from a departing ship—and the camera shows us only Edie’s horrified reaction. Instead of being distracted by Terry’s dialog we focus solely on the crushing impact of the news on the sensitive Edie.

These two quiet scenes are part of what gives On the Waterfront some of its lasting power. They connect us to the story in personal, not political, ways.

That is not to say that there isn’t some message-heavy clumsiness in the film. Kazan and Schulberg lay on the Christian symbolism of sacrifice a bit too thick at the end of the film—but they can be forgiven that lapse, for the movie as a whole has a unity rarely found in American film.

Taking stock

On the Waterfront received critical acclaim in its own time—eight Academy Awards including best picture, best actor, best supporting actress, best art directon, best cinematography, directing, film editing, and screenplay for 1954. There were also nominations for Bernstein’s score and for best supporting actor for Cobb, Malden, and Steiger.

Beyond its sheer technical excellence, I think the reason the movie remains compelling more than half-a-century after its initial release is that it deals with questions that time has not (can not) neatly resolve. When is informing the morally correct choice? What are the costs of compromising in the face of wrongdoing? What loyalties must we honor? What sacrifices must we make? (Sometimes overlooked is the moral decision Charlie Malloy makes at the end of On the Waterfront: he can not betray his brother to Johnny Friendly, and that loyalty costs him his life).

To inform, to become a whistleblower, is to challenge often unspoken assumptions. Our uneasiness with the idea is illustrated by the harsh words used to describe an informer: tattle-tell, rat, fink, snitch, pigeon, cheese-eater, stool pigeon, stoolie. Much of the world looks askance at those who “drop a dime” or “sell out” their buddies, their comrades. In On the Waterfront, the dockworkers credo is “D and D”—deaf and dumb.

What culture, corporate or political, doesn’t prize loyalty? The roots of loyalty are tribal; from a time when unquestioning obedience, unity, and “closing the ranks” had life-or-death ramifications. The informer rejects those bonds of comradeship and cohesiveness.

Ideally, the whistleblower answers to individual conscience and the more abstract call of justice for the larger community—which often means justice for strangers—although in practice he or she may also be motivated by baser motives of ambition or revenge, or a desire to avoid prosecution.

Some of our ambivalence may be traced to our suspicions about the mixed motives of informers, especially those who seek anonymity. To recite the names of famous (or infamous) American political whistleblowers—W. Mark Felt, John Dean, Daniel Ellsberg, Whittaker Chambers, Scooter Libby—is to illuminate the problem. They may not be completely free of culpability themselves. They may be plagued by a guilty conscience. They may be out for revenge or vindication.

What gives On the Waterfront its timelessness is that Kazan understood this ambivalence. How could he not? The movie reflects this moral ambiguity—for those who testify against former friends and colleagues, and for those who will judge them—through the awakening of Terry Malloy, a reluctant hero, one with no appetite for what he is driven to do. There is no “cheap grace” (to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term) for those who inform, whatever the reason and no matter how virtuous their cause may seem, a truth that Kazan knew only too well.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

The week (August 25th): Nobody asked me, but…

To borrow from that great columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WAS THERE A FULL MOON this week? World wide? Why would any passenger on an intercontinental flight (even an American college student) check in baggage that contained dynamite?

THE NEW “PERFUME CRITIC” for the New York Times is a writer named Chandler Burr. I wish this story represented an elaborate hoax, but I am afraid it is for real.

The Guardian quotes Diane McNulty, a Times spokesperson: “Perfume is an art form just like other art forms from theatre to painting to music, so we’re excited to be the first to cover perfume in this way.”

This from a newspaper that recently trimmed news staff! When many American newspapers and magazines are reducing staffs and skimping on international news coverage, why would the Times so publicly squander resources on critiques of the “art form” of perfume. What on earth can they be thinking on West 43rd Street?

NEW ORLEANS MAYOR RAY NAGIN will never be mistaken for a diplomat. Responding to criticism of the pace of clean-up in his Katrina-damaged city on television’s “60 Minutes”, Nagin responded: “You guys in New York can’t get a hole in the ground fixed, and it’s five years later. So let’s be fair.”

Count me in as a Ray Nagin fan. Not a lot of impulse-control with the Big Easy’s mayor. But what would editorial page cartoonists and late night talk show comics do without characters like Nagin?

CHRIS CUOMO, newly named ABC news anchor for “Good Morning America” appears to be confused about the role of a journalist (if that is how he sees himself). Cuomo told the New York Times that he would have to reveal more about himself in his new role: “You have to be willing to give yourself to the audience…There’s an expectation of intimacy.” Cuomo added that the audience needs to “understand that I really care about what happens in their lives.”

Huh? What does “intimacy” and “caring” have to do with reporting the news? Nothing. But it has a lot to do with high “Q” ratings, and Cuomo understands that if the viewers don’t “like him,” then he won’t last very long. Makes one long for a truly expressive anchor, like Max Headroom.

“DEAD PIG DANCE faces criticism” reads the BBC News headline. “Naked performance with dead pig branded ‘sick'” exclaims Reuters and adds:

Animal rights activists have described as “sick” a live art performance involving a naked woman cradling a dead pig for four hours.

Kira O’Reilly’s show, called “Inthewrongplaceness” will be performed at the Newlyn Art Gallery in Penzance, southwest England, later on Friday.

James Green, the gallery’s director, defended the show, saying that the audience would be controlled, with one person at a time watching the performance for up to 10 minutes each.

Of course Ms. O’Reilly is being subsidized by the taxpayer, the show put on “with the help of £30,000 from Arts Council England,” according to the Sun newspaper.

No, it’s also not a hoax, although I’ve often wondered whether performance art could exist without government subsidies. Who would actually pay for it? By the way, (courtesy of the Sun) here’s O’Reilly’s view of here performance:

“It left me with an undercurrent of pigginess, unexpected fantasies of emergence and interspecies metamorphoses began to flicker into my consciousness; making fiercely tender and ferocious identifications with the pig as stand in, double, twin, doll, imaginary self.”

Interspecies metamorphoses?” O’Reilly clearly missed her calling—a fully tenured professorship in literary criticism at a major American university would be a fitting reward for this sort of intellectual acuity.

THE RELATIVE SILENCE OF the Boston Globe about Big Dig critic John J. Keaveney the unanswered questions about his background, credentials and credibility is disturbing. The Globe‘s decision to rush a front-page story into print based on an alleged 1999 memo by Keaveney questioning safety practices on the massive highway project now appears to have been a major journalistic mistake.

MUSIC FANS CAN BE TOUGH: just ask Texas alt-country singer Pat Green. His latest album “Cannonball” is taking flak from some Lone Star loyalists who, according to Apple Music Store postings, think Green has “sold out” to Nashville in embracing mainstream country.

They’re too picky: true, Green’s latest offering is a bit more produced, but it still retains his distinctive sound.

LOOK FOR THE U.S. NATIONAL BASKETBALL team to win the FIBA world championship. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has the three best young players in the world (Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James) and enough former Dukies (Elton Brand, Shane Battier) and role players to make his team-oriented style stick.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (August 18th): Nobody asked me, but…

Nobody asked me, but*…

BILL CLINTON turns 60 years old on Saturday. It’s had to believe that the Baby Boomer’s President is now approaching, well, old age (even if 60 is supposedly the new 40). Clinton is benefiting from what could be called the Eisenhower effect: Americans remember the eight years of relative peace and prosperity during his two terms (and not the personal scandal or foreign policy missteps).

And, no surprise, Clinton (46 when he was elected to the White House) is open about his dismay at growing old.

“BRING IT ON HOME” by the country group Little Big Town sounds just like a song by the Eagles, proving that Nashville is the only place you’ll find anything close to the country rock of the 1970s.

9/11 CONSPIRACY THEORISTS have to be disappointed by the recently released report from the inspector general of the Defense Department which found “no evidence defense officials intentionally misled the Sept. 11 commission when they gave mistaken accounts about actions at the time of the terror attacks.”

The New York Times editorial board looked at the inspector general’s report, a Vanity Fair article on U.S. air defenses on 9/11 and a recent book by the chairman of the 9/11 Commission and concluded that they painted:”… a picture of confusion as civilian and military authorities struggled to grasp and respond to what was happening. There was absolutely no evidence that any air defenders deliberately stood aside to let the terrorists have their way or that the military itself fired a cruise missile into the Pentagon, as conspiracy theories have suggested.”

WHEN I INTERVIEWED CHAIM RAMON in Jerusalem in 1991, he was a rising star in the Labor party; he struck me then as an intelligent moderate—one of Israel’s potential leaders when it came time for compromise and reconciliation. An ally of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and a leading member of the Kadima party, Ramon had been serving as Justice Minister until his resignation Friday, “clearing the way for him to stand trial on accusations he forcibly kissed an 18-year-old female soldier.”

It’s the sort of strange twist that no journalist (or for that matter, a novelist) could anticipate: Ramon’s troubles couldn’t come at a worse time for Olmert’s beleagured government.

A DOUBLE-HEADER Friday (and early Saturday) between the Yankees and Red Sox provides stark evidence that effective pitching is hard to find this season in Major League baseball; 41 runs were scored in the two games combined (both New York wins, 12-4 and 14-11). And there is no joy in Beantown.

CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER ANDREW YOUNG, is the latest public figure to apologize for making racially and religiously offensive remarks. Young, a former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador, who had been hired to help Wal-Mart with its image, was asked in a newspaper interview whether he was concerned that the giant retailer causes smaller, mom-and-pop stores to close. Young proceeded to lash out at Jewish, Korean and Arab store-owners in black neighborhoods who, he said have “ripped off our communities enough,” adding “very few black people own these stores.”

Young later apologized and resigned from his Wal-Mart role, proving once again that thick-headed prejudice is an equal opportunity employer.

A THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK, from Irish writer Brendan Behan (1923-1964):

“I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.”


*with full credit to Jimmy Cannon

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Election 2006: two races to savor

As the late, great comedian George Burns once joked, it’s too bad that all the people who really know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair.

So we’re left with the politicians.

If you like your politics colorful and unpredictable (I plead guilty), the U.S. Senate races in Connecticut and Virginia this fall should offer all of that and more: name calling, unintentional humor, twists and turns, and perhaps even a few moments of serious debate over the country’s foreign policy and future direction. And these races have some national implications.

Lieberman’s Independent Bid

Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman may have narrowly lost his party’s primary to anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, but he’s staying in as an independent. Sure, some prominent national Democrats, like Howard Dean, want him to drop out, and the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) have volunteered to campaign for Lamont, but Lieberman can now cast himself as the anti-Establishment underdog and Americans love underdogs (see, Bill “Comeback Kid” Clinton).

The latest Quinnipiac Poll finds Lieberman enjoying a 53%-41% lead over Lamont in a three-way race. The Republican candidate, Alan Schlesinger is polling at 4% and must, as the saying goes, feel like chopped liver: President Bush and other GOP heavies are dancing away from any support.

Can Lieberman hold onto his lead? One veteran observer thinks so:

“Sen. Lieberman’s support among Republicans is nothing short of amazing. It more than offsets what he has lost among Democrats. As long as Lieberman maintains this kind of support among Republicans, while holding onto a significant number of Democratic votes, the veteran Senator will be hard to beat,” said Quinnipiac University Poll Director Douglas Schwartz, Ph.D.

Lamont faces a classic Democratic political challenge—it makes sense to veer to the left in a Democratic primary, since left-of-center activists turn out heavily, but the problem is tacking back to the middle when the general election arrives. Having black leaders Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson flanking you during your primary victory speech may excite the liberal faithful, but it links you to two of the more controversial and divisive figures in Democratic politics. What’s more, Lieberman has shown a willingness to paint Lamont as squishy on terrorism—and it will be hard for the soft-spoken Lamont to convince independents and Republicans that he would match Lieberman’s conviction on the question.

It also doesn’t help when your campaign manager (Tom Swan) describes a pro-Lieberman city, Waterbury, as a place “where the forces of slime meet the forces of evil.” Lamont called the comments unfortunate and apologized to the city. Swan’s explanation? He wasn’t slurring Waterbury per se, but was referring to former Mayor Philip A. Giordano (serving a prison sentence on child sex charges) and former Gov. John G. Rowland (also in prison, for corruption). Don’t expect Lamont’s vote count to rise in Waterbury anytime soon.

George Allen’s Troubles

George Allen, Republican Senator from Virginia and a Presidential possible for 2008 would be well served to seek treatment for Potomac Fever, because even if he holds off Democratic challenger James Webb (former Reagan-era Secretary of the Navy) in November, his hopes for higher office are looking shakier every day.

Allen’s now infamous off-the-cuff comments about a Webb campaign worker (calling the college student of Indian descent “Macaca” and adding: “Welcome to America”) are more than problematic. Allen has offered a number of apologies and lame explanations for using the word “macaca,” which the Washington Post tells us, is not a word a Presidential wannabe should be using:

Depending on how it is spelled, the word macaca could mean either a monkey that inhabits the Eastern Hemisphere or a town in South Africa. In some European cultures, macaca is also considered a racial slur against African immigrants, according to several Web sites that track ethnic slurs.

It gets worse: some journalists are noting that Allen’s mother was raised in French Tunisia, where the word macaca is used as a racial slur, and wondering out loud if Allen was repeating something he heard as a child. And Allen has been dogged by stories of his teen-age fascination with the Confederate flag (and growing up in Southern California, as Allen did, means you can’t frame it as a matter of local culture) and other disturbing hints of what is called by some, kindly, “racial insensitivity.”

That’s where Allen is in trouble. The “macaca episode” seems to highlight Allen’s problems with race (just as the “Dean Scream” surfaced Democratic concerns about the Vermont governor’s stability and electability) and what many see as Allen’s tendency to off-the-cuff “frat-boy” comments.

Can James Webb, who is also running as an anti-war candidate, pick up ground on Allen? The most recent Mason-Dixon poll shows Allen with a 16-percentage-point lead over Webb—but that was before the “macaca incident” and, as USA Today noted, the poll also revealed that Allen’s support was “under 50%, a sign of potential trouble for a well-known incumbent.”

What’s Ahead

Both of these races will tighten after Labor Day.

Look for the “netroots,” Hollywood liberals, and anti-war Democrats to step up funding for Ned Lamont’s campaign against Lieberman. Further, expect a spirited debate on terrorism and the war in Iraq—a debate that Lieberman will win if he can convince voters that they are connected.

In Virginia, Webb will start to close the gap with Allen in mid-September. As Larry Sabato, University of Virginia political science professor, has noted, Allen has “never run against the tide,” and now must do so this in election as President Bush remains deeply unpopular in the state. And it will be hard for Allen characterize combat veteran and former Navy Secretary Webb as “weak on defense.”

My guess is that voters will turn to the candidate in these races they see as more serious, having more gravitas. It won’t be a matter of who supported Bush on the war in Iraq, in the end, but who is seen as better equipped to “advise and consent” on foreign policy.

That’s why I think that pro-war Joe Lieberman and anti-war James Webb will find themselves as Democratic colleagues in the U.S. Senate.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (August 11th): Nobody asked me, but…

With full credit to newspaperman extraordinaire Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

IF I HAD TO PUT MONEY ON IT, I’d guess that the primary-day crash of the Joe Lieberman campaign web site (www.Joe2006.com) was caused by hackers in the Left “netroots community,” and not by the Connecticut Senator’s staff choosing a cheap Internet provider. As long as we’ve had homo politicus, we’ve had dirty tricks. Despite the high tech angle, it’s nothing new. Whether the traditional disappearance of campaign signs from front yards, or the nasty phone-jamming of New Hampshire Democrats on election day 2002 (with a Republican operative convicted in the case) or the Lieberman “service denial” attack, it’s what my father, the political reporter, would have called “gutter ball” tactics.

Meanwhile Senator Lieberman raised some eyebrows with his linkage of Iraq and the 8/10 terror plot in an attack on his Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont, which echoed comments from Vice President Dick Cheney. (Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal‘s Opinion.com suggested that the exposure of the plot came at a very bad time for Lamont Democrats, who have been staking all on a rigid and unyielding anti-war position). The New York Times reported thusly:

“If we just pick up like Ned Lamont wants us to do, get out by a date certain, it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England,” Mr. Lieberman said at a campaign event in Waterbury, Conn. “It will strengthen them, and they will strike again.”

Tough stuff. Ned Lamont is learning what happens to one-issue candidates–their opponents will try what political operative Dick Morris calls jujitsu politics, turning a perceived strength on its head. The Times editorial board slapped back at Cheney and Lieberman on “The London Plot,” opining: “It comes like a punch to the gut, at times like these, when our leaders blatantly use the nation’s trauma for political gain.”

The question becomes: how linked are Iranian attempts to gain regional power, the civil strife in Iraq, the standoff between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, unrest in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Al Queda campaign against the West? How much of the tension can be traced to Islamic fundamentalism? How much to American policy since 9/11?

Many political observers, including Adam Nagourney, argue that these questions of national security strengthen the hand of Republicans in the upcoming Congressional elections. Some contrarians see a potential edge for the Democrats. I think conventional wisdom is correct: the GOP does better with voters when homeland security is the issue. But all bets are off if we experience another terror attack in the U.S.

SPEAKING OF INTERNET WEIRDNESS, AOL’s accidental publication of the search histories of more than 650,000 of its users, has as C/net reports, “exposed an innumerable number of life stories ranging from the mundane to the illicit and bizarre.” Some of it is plain creepy. The giant in search, Google, says it will continue to store searches, despite concerns by privacy advocates. What if the database of human intentions–what John Battelle has called the billions of aggregated searches–turns out to be quite dark in nature? A confirmation of Original Sin? Or unedited human nature in plain view?

KUDOS TO ALLAN M. SIEGAL, recently retired assistant managing editor for the New York Times, for his well-deserved Ethics in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, recognizing his career-long fight for higher journalistic standards.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’ ECCENTRIC BRILLIANCE is on full display in his biting review in the Weekly Standard of A.C. Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the World War II Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan. Hitchens has nothing but scorn for Grayling’s attempt to link Hamburg, Hiroshima and 9/11 as examples of “a surprise attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption and terror,” chastising him for joining “today’s other ‘moral equivalence’ ratbags.”

GIVE ME A PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL TEAM to manage and first choice of any field player in the game and (despite living in Boston) I would take Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees. (Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners would be my second pick). Jeter’s durability, fierce competitiveness, natural talent and sportsmanship make him the obvious choice.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Silver bullets

The strange, sad meltdown of Mel Gibson—his drunken anti-Semitic tirade; his admission of alcoholism and pledge to seek treatment; his second apology imploring forgiveness and asking Jewish leaders to help him “find the appropriate path for healing’”—has prompted an intriguing, public discussion of the episode, along with the obligatory celebrity scandal media hype.

Gibson’s ugly rant (“Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”) has been widely covered and soundly condemned. Some of the actor/director’s Hollywood friends (including Jodie Foster and Patrick Swayze) have blamed Gibson’s alcohol consumption for the outburst and argued that the actor/director is no anti-Semite.

The commentary on Gibson has ranged from banal to fascinating. Some of the more interesting columns have focused on ancillary issues. Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post hammered Hollywood for cowardice for not more aggressively confronting and denouncing Gibson. She argued that it reflected “the cult of celebrity, sheer avarice, the modern notion that moral failings are a disease to be recovered from” and “Hollywood’s historically uneasy relationship with its own Jewishness.”

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe asked why the media obsessed over the Gibson tirade while downplaying the murder of one woman and the wounding of six others at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle by, police say, a Muslim American who said he was “angry at Israel.”

And Rabbi Marc Gellman in Newsweek sarcastically suggested a pause from “the trivial issues of the moment like the war in Israel and Lebanon, the slaughter in Darfur and the sectarian violence in Iraq” so that “the defining moral issue of the moment“—Gibson’s “anti-Semitic and sexist and belligerent comments”—could be considered.

Gellman added:

I am now prepared to believe that the actor’s upbringing and his nature have nurtured a poisonous bigotry in his soul. But in the spectrum that includes the head of Iran and Hizbullah and Hamas and the KKK and the Aryan Nation, Gibson is a small anti-Semitic fish.

This is not exculpation, just a simple plea for perspective, and Mel Gibson’s case deserves perspective first of all because the world is filled with really dangerous anti-Semites, and Mel Gibson is not one of them.

Gellman concluded that Gibson is not dangerous but still placed him in the category of anti-Semite. That raises some interesting questions. If you make anti-Semitic remarks—and then express remorse and apologize—does that alter how you should be regarded? Or to put it another way: are you a full-strength anti-Semite if, as with Mel Gibson, you publicly acknowledge your sickness? (Does this establish a new category: recovering anti-Semite?)

What about “casual anti-Semitism,” the lazy acceptance of stereotypes about Jews, or retelling the occasional bigoted joke? The Anti-Defamation League recently sent Keith Olbermann of MSNBC a letter asking him to stop giving the Nazi salute as part of his mockery of Bill O’Reilly. The ADL added: “We are especially concerned that young people viewing your program might take their cues from your free use of the “Sieg Heil” salute.” Is Olbermann over the line? Encouraging anti-Semitism by trivializing the gesture?

And in a consideration of the entire person—do words or deeds matter more? Richard Nixon, for example, whose anti-Semitic paranoia was captured for posterity on audiotape, also came to Israel’s rescue in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, personally intervening to speed the transfer of arms to the Israelis after the Arab attack. Would an anti-Semite have approved “the airlift that saved Israel,” the world’s only Jewish state? Israeli president Chaim Herzog later said: “He supplied arms and unflinching support when our very existence would have been in danger without them. Let his comments be set against his actions. And I`ll choose actions over words any day of the week.”

Or for that matter, what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor executed for his role in an assassination plot against Hitler? When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum honored Bonhoeffer in 1996 for helping to save Jews during the Third Reich, the following sentence was included in the invitation: “Although repudiating Nazism, Bonhoeffer also expressed the anti-Jewish bias of centuries-old Christian teaching.”

Deeds not words?

As a Gentile, I step somewhat lightly here. After all, arguing for restraint is a lot easier when the slurs and hatred are not directed at you or your beliefs.

So to be clear: anti-Semitic speech should be immediately and unequivocably condemned.

Passing judgment on the speaker is another matter. I can not claim to see into another’s heart; my religious tradition, shared with the People of the Book, suggests that remains divine knowledge. People say stupid things; they struggle with their prejudices; they can be hurtful and yet not intend to hurt. And as Chaim Herzog argued: “actions over words.”

Moreover, there is the silver bullet question: do you want to waste your silver bullets on the chipmunks, or use them on the werewolves?

The werewolves—those dangerous anti-Semites Rabbi Geller mentions who have guns and bombs—not only speak, but they act on their threats.

Count me in with those who think we should worry about the werewolves. I haven’t heard any apologies or expressions of regret coming from Naveed Afzal Haq, the accused gunman in Seattle, or from Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, a terror group launching hundreds of missiles against Israel every day. History teaches us that we shouldn’t expect any.


*How should we view those in the recent past—especially writers and poets—who have expressed anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic thoughts? Should it define them?

In some cases (Ezra Pound for example, or Celine), it has and should. But what of those who reflected the prevailing prejudices of their time: the many authors of the pre-World War II era and their acceptance of “genteel anti-Semitism” (T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, William Faulkner)?

What of those more recently tagged by some as anti-Semitic (Imamu Amiri Baraka, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote)? What if the evidence is ambiguous? Should the writer get the benefit of the doubt?


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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