December 2009: Decade’s end and other observations

A tip of the New Year’s party hat to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

WAS IT REALLY SUCH A “LOW, DISHONEST” DECADE? That’s been a popular Anglo-American media meme adopted by writers commenting on the past ten years. The phrase comes from W.H Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” (“As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade”) and it was recycled by a number of commentators on both sides of the Pond for year-end use.

Harvard’s Joseph Nye (“Here’s to the 2010s”) cited the Auden phrase in his brief comments on Huffington Post, adding that optimism at the start of the century had been dashed by “the great recession, huge deficits and two wars.” In the Wall Street Journal Thomas Frank’s op-ed (“Low, Dishonest Decade”) bashed advocates of de-regulated markets, bankers, “preposterous populists,” lobbyists, and an asleep-at-the-wheel media for ”disfiguring” our country.

GlobalPost’s Michael Goldfarb (“Opinion: Low dishonest decade in review”) focused on British politics in attacking former Prime Minister Tony Blair (and the Bush administration) for the Iraqi war and for, in Goldfarb’s words, discrediting the idea of intervention in places like the Sudan, Zimbabwe and Iran. (Yet that reluctance to intervene could be a good thing—if you believe in a more restrained and realistic use of American force.)

There are two things wrong with all this. First, it’s absurd to turn to Auden for political wisdom of any sort. The Anglo-American poet wrote “September 1, 1939” during his “Oxford Communist” phase, and later “rejected” (Auden’s term) the poem, along with “Spain”—in which the poet countenanced “[t]he conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.” Auden was a leftist dilettante at best: he fled to the U.S. in 1939 at the start of World War II and was, consequently, dogged with charges of cowardice and betrayal; later he was suspected of helping the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring.

Auden’s “low, dishonest decade” referred, in part, to his supposed disgust over western democracies’ unwillingness to confront Fascism during the 1930s. But if Frank, Nye and Goldfarb are going to borrow from Auden, to be intellectually consistent they should applaud George W. Bush’s adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq—certainly not Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement when facing threats to the West.

Secondly, it’s surprising that internationalists like Nye and Goldfarb (and I think that’s a fair characterization of their views) would judge the past decade solely on the American and British experience. What about the rest of world? As George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen noted in the New York Times (“For Much of the World, A Fruitful Decade“), there has been “raging economic growth” in China and India and “in economic terms, at least, the decade was a remarkably good one for many people around the globe.”

Cowen added: “Ideals of prosperity, freedom and the rule of law have probably never been more resonant globally than they’ve been over the last years, even if practice often falls short.”

DO RUSSIAN WOMEN PREFER CHINESE MEN? At least in Russian Far East border towns they may, according to Joshua Kucera’s fascinating piece in Slate, “Why Are Siberian Russians Drawn to China?” Kucera writes: “Much of this has to do with demographics—Russia has a surplus of women, while China has too many men. But as one Russian woman told me, ‘Chinese men are kinder and more attentive to their wives. And they usually have more money.’” File under: Nature abhors a romantic vacuum.

THE STATE DEPARTMENT’S CONSULAR SERVICE APPROVED THE UNDERWEAR BOMBER’S VISA TO THE U.S., and failed to rescind it even after concerns were raised about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s ties to Islamic extremists. Former Bush Administration official Elliott Abrams makes a compelling argument for moving the function to the Department of Homeland Security. Pointing to the British model, where U.K. Border Agency handles visas (not the Foreign Office) and cancelled Abdulmutallab’s visa earlier in 2009, Abrams writes: “Members of Congress seeking to react to the Detroit near-calamity in a useful way should hold hearings right after New Year’s and get a move on. No more visas for State.”

MORE EVIDENCE THAT STRICT VEGETARIANISM DOESN’T SQUARE WITH NATURE’S DESIGN. The British newspaper The Independent has reported (“The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes“) that researchers at Royal Botanical Gardens Kew “now believe there are hundreds more plants that catch and eat insects and other small animals than they previously realized. Among them are species of petunia, ornamental tobacco plants, potatoes and tomatoes and shepherd’s purse, a relative of cabbages.”

This, of course, represents an intellectual challenge to those who advocate vegetarianism on moral grounds—if petunias crave the nutrients found in insects, then why can’t humans eat a protein-filled steak without guilt?

BLACKLIST OR DEATH LIST? Screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg died in 2009 at the age of 95. Schulberg, best known for scripting the marvelous 1954 movie “On the Waterfront,” testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, “naming names” of Hollywood figures he knew were Communists.

Schulberg broke with the CPUSA when party officials tried to dictate what he should write. In the New York Times Sunday Magazine special section “The Lives They Lived,” Anthony Giardina provided more on the context for Schulberg’s actions:

His former colleagues were slow to accept the sins of Stalin, turning a blind eye to the suspicious deaths of the Russian artists Schulberg met and admired. “They think I support the blacklist,” he said of his accusers. “I think they support the death list.”

In a 2004 profile of Schulberg (“Unrepentant“) in the Canadian magazine The Walrus, former Nation editor Victor Navasky, author of Naming Names, told journalist Gare Joyce that he had “sympathy and empathy” for Schulberg. “He believed that Stalinism was a greater sin than McCarthyism. Am I persuaded by his argument? No, ultimately, I’m not.”

The HUAC investigation of Hollywood was a shabby political circus, and the blacklist was fundamentally un-American in its singling out of writers, actors, directors, musicians and others for economic retribution solely because of their political beliefs. But Schulberg’s broader point deserves consideration: from a historical perspective, the blacklist pales in comparison to Stalin’s death list, and American CPUSA apologists for the Soviet regime are no different morally than those in the German American Bund who excused (or applauded) Adolf Hitler’s crimes.

A PEARL HARBOR MYSTERY SOLVED? Researchers have found the remains of a Japanese mini-submarine, one of five believed that participated in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, according to the Los Angeles Times. The midget submarine apparently fired its torpedoes at Battleship Row, probably hitting and capsizing the battleship Oklahoma. The sub crew later scuttled it, and it was found in an underwater wreckage yard outside the harbor.

Marine historian and former Navy submariner Parks Stephenson told the Times the discovery had modern implications: “The capsizing of the Oklahoma is the second most iconic event of the attack. If one submarine could get in in 1941 and hit a battleship, who knows what a midget sub could do today. Iran and North Korea are both building them. It’s very worrying.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM AUTHOR RUDYARD KIPLING (1865-1936): “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
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