President Obama’s magical first pitch

President Barack Obama’s awkward ceremonial first pitch at the 2009 All Star baseball game last night was saved from bouncing in the dirt by Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols.

It was a shaky toss (Obama, known for his talent on the basketball court, admitted to the Fox Sports: “I did not play organized baseball when I was a kid and so, you know, I think some of these natural moves aren’t so natural to me”) but you wouldn’t have known that from many of the media accounts.

Barack Obama’s first pitch is a success” was the headline for Carol E. Lee’s piece in Politico, although her lead did admit: “It was low, and didn’t quite reach home plate.” Jack Curry’s New York Times blog post (“Obama to Pujols, Without a Bounce“) and ESPN.com’s coverage (“Obama gets first pitch to home plate“) reflected the generally positive spin in the mainstream media. You would have to turn to Fox News or, surprisingly, to the left-of-center British newspaper, the Guardian ( “Obama’s first pitch as president falls flat“) for a more clear-eyed account.

White House aides were apparently worried about the symbolic nature of Obama’s performance. They had to be happy with the  sympathetic media’s pro-Obama spin. Of course it didn’t really matter—so what if Obama looked uncomfortable throwing? President George H.W. Bush bounced a first pitch at an All-Star game, as did former Vice President Dick Cheney at the opening of the Washington National’s home season in 2006.  And George W. Bush demonstrated he could reach the plate, as he did at the 2001 World Series. In short, whether a politician’s throw reaches home plate or not shouldn’t be a symbol of anything (certainly not “manliness” or leadership). The losers in this silly episode: any journalist who bought into applauding Obama’s magical first pitch.

(Ted Guthrie, general manager of the minor league Charlotte Rangers, gave me this priceless tip for ceremonial first pitch throwing back in the mid-1990s: throw the ball high, aiming for a spot several feet over the catcher’s head. This compensates for the tendency to short-arm the ball, and the difficulty in gauging the distance from the pitching mound. The advice worked!)

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

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The Vassiliev notebooks, American elites, and Cold War espionage

Since the end of the Cold War we have learned a great deal more about how American and British elites—government officials, diplomats, journalists, scientists, academics, engineers—spied for the Soviets, and how surprisingly widespread this activity was. Nearly twenty years after the collapse of Communism, revelations about espionage by well-placed Westerners on behalf of the KGB* or Soviet military intelligence continue to emerge.

A rich source for Cold War historians on this Soviet penetration has been once-secret intelligence files copied by two former KGB officers: Vasili Mitrokhin (who left for the West in 1992) and Alexander Vassiliev, who was provided access to the agency’s archives in the pre-Putin era. Vassiliev’s notebooks have served as a foundation for two books, The Haunted Wood, authored by Allen Weinstein and Vassiliev, and the just published Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by Vassiliev and two leading scholars of American Communism, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. (A full review of Spies can be found here.)

The donation of the Vassiliev notebooks to the Library of Congress, and a consideration of the findings in Spies and other recent research on Soviet intelligence operations in the U.S., prompted a May 21-22 conference sponsored by the Cold War International History Project held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The conference attracted leading Cold War historians, including experts on the Alger Hiss case (R. Bruce Craig, Eduard Mark, G. Edward White), the extended Rosenberg spy ring (Ron Radosh, Steve Usdin), and Soviet atomic espionage (Gregg Herken, Robert S. Norris).

Some in the revisionist camp also attended, including Hiss defender Jeff Kisseloff, who critiqued the conference on Blogging Hisstory, and two biographers of the radical journalist I.F. Stone—D.D. Guttenplan, author of the just released American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, and Myra MacPherson (All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone )—who challenged the assertion in Spies (first broached in an excerpt in Commentary magazine) that Stone had been an active Soviet agent in the 1930s, with the code-name “Blin” (Russian for “Pancake”), acting as a courier and talent spotter.

I.F. Stone and the KGB

The question of Stone’s relationship with the KGB provoked the most heated exchanges at the conference. (In one of the more humorous moments, Vassiliev pronounced himself “bewildered by the interest in I.F. Stone.”) Was the radical journalist simply exchanging gossip and information with sources who happened to be Soviet intelligence officers, as his defenders claim? Or was he consciously working under the direction of the KGB? Journalists such as Kim Philby, Whittaker Chambers, and Hede Massing stood at the center of several 20th century espionage cases, and this was not by chance. Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev note in Spies that the KGB targeted journalists for recruitment—an internal report listed 22 journalists working for the agency in the 1930s, with only engineers/scientists (49) providing more agents. The authors add:

The KGB recruited journalists in part for their access to inside information and sources on politics and policy, insights into personalities, and confidential and non-public information that never made it into published stories.

Spies asserts that Stone worked for the KGB from 1936-1938, and cites a key passage from a May 1936 letter to Moscow as proof: “Relations with Pancake have entered the channel of normal operational work.” In a presentation on the second day of the conference, journalist Max Holland summarized his Journal of Cold War Studies essay on Stone’s encounters with Soviet intelligence, and concluded that Stone had indeed performed intelligence functions for the KGB in the late 1930s. As for Stone’s career post-1938, Holland reviewed the few references to Blin/Pancake in intercepted Soviet cables (decrypted as part of the U.S. Venona counterintelligence effort), and comments made in 1992 by KGB operative Oleg Kalugin that appeared to implicate Stone. Holland’s conclusion: there is no hard evidence suggesting further KGB operational control of the radical journalist after 1938.

Holland also considered a different, and somewhat provocative, question. To what extent did Stone’s contact with Soviet intelligence, both covert and overt, influence his writing over the course of his life? At given points in his career, did he consciously retail KGB disinformation? Or did Stone’s radical views simply, and naturally, correspond to the Stalinist line?

It is a complex question: Holland found that Stone embraced doctrinaire Comintern positions on the Spanish Civil War and the Great Terror, but remained doggedly independent in calling for American intervention against the Nazis (even during the Hitler-Stalin pact). Yet Stone’s 1952 The Hidden History of the Korean War, which parroted Soviet propaganda in blaming a U.S. conspiracy for starting the Korean conflict, seems suspect in light of what we now know. Did the KGB encourage Stone to write The Hidden History of the Korean War? The book’s obvious bias led Richard Rovere of The New Yorker to categorize Stone as “a man who thinks up good arguments for poor Communist positions.” After Stone’s public break with Stalinism in 1956, however, Holland found Stone pursuing an anti-establishment journalism with no signs of outside influence.

Yet Stone remained remarkably quiet about the high-profile espionage cases of the late 1940s and 1950s, according to Holland. Stone was notably silent about the Hiss case (“perhaps it cut too close”) and Stone confined his commentary on the Rosenbergs to questioning the fairness of their death sentence (never directly addressing their guilt or innocence). Had he not been conflicted about his own past, what might have Stone contributed to the discussion about the extent of Soviet control of the American Communist Party and its implications for national security?

Stone’s reputation has been badly damaged by the revelations in Spies; Holland’s essay raises further questions about the nature of Stone’s relationship with Soviet intelligence after 1938. Concealing a secret past hardly fits Stone’s iconic public image of an independent journalist committed to openness and transparency, but it would have been natural for Stone to want his association with Soviet intelligence to remain hidden. One Venona intercept highlighted Blin/Pancake’s fear of exposure—while he was open to collaboration, he didn’t want to “spoil his career.” What was the psychic cost of Stone’s decades-long deception? How may it have shaped Stone’s journalism? These intriguing questions may never be answered.

Alger Hiss and “Ales”

If some ambiguity remains about the depth and breadth of Stone’s involvement with the KGB, it’s hard to find any remaining ambiguity in the case of American diplomat Alger Hiss. As Spies notes, the Vassiliev notebooks provide additional confirmation of what Whittaker Chambers long maintained and Allen Weinstein’s book Perjury confirmed: despite his protestations of innocence, Hiss spied for the GRU during the 1930s and 1940s. (A prominent New Deal liberal, Hiss was accused in 1948 by Chambers of spying for the Soviets, and convicted on a related perjury charge in 1950.)

In his presentation to the conference, historian Eduard Marks knocked down a theory advanced by Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya in The American Scholar and embraced by die-hard Hiss defenders: that former journalist Wilder Foote—not Alger Hiss—was “Ales,” the code name for an American State Department official spying for the Soviets. (I’ve previously written about the holes in the Bird/Chervonnaya thesis in “Wilder Foote and ‘The Mystery of Ales’.“)

Mark drew on the Vassiliev notebooks and other research to conclude (as does Spies) that Hiss alone fit the profile of Ales drawn from cables sent on March 5 and 30, 1945 by the KGB station chief in Washington, Anatoly Gorsky. Gorsky had informed Moscow on March 5 that Ales was in Mexico City with a State Department delegation. Bird and Chervonnaya documented that Hiss was in Washington that day, therefore, they maintained, eliminating him as a candidate for Ales. They argued that Foote, who had remained in the Mexican capital, had to be the Soviet agent.

The Bird/Chervonnaya theory presumed that Gorsky was relaying information he knew to be accurate. Yet in his remarks Mark pointed to Gorsky’s confusion about the whereabouts of Hiss’ handler (“Ruble”/Harold Glasser) as proof that the Russian was not particularly well-informed. Mark added that Hiss had been listed by the State Department as part of the Mexico City delegation on March 5. Gorsky was mistaken: he was reporting about GRU agents, not KGB-controlled ones, so his information was second-hand, and faulty. Finally, Mark found no facts during his research to support the Foote-as-Ales theory, which, it is fair to say, resembles magical thinking more than it does serious historical inquiry.

The question of closure

Many previously unanswered questions about Cold War KGB espionage have been resolved by the Vassiliev notebooks and subsequent research. Spies has “outed” a number of Soviet agents and has provided greater specificity in the Hiss and Rosenberg cases.

Yet there remains much we don’t know. Revelations about Soviet spying have continued to emerge. In 2007, Russian intelligence officials honored George Koval, “the spy who came in from the cornfields,” a previously unknown GRU agent who had infiltrated the Manhattan Project. In 2008, 91-year-old Morton Sobell admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg had been Soviet agents during the 1940s. Near the end of 2008, an American scientist at the Los Alamos weapons lab who had betrayed the secrets of the hydrogen bomb to the Soviets in the 1950s was identified by Robert S. Norris as Darol Froman.

In May, Germans learned that the West German policeman, Karl-Heinz Kurras, who killed a left-wing demonstrator in 1967 with “the shot that changed Germany” and ignited violent radicalism, was actually an East German Stasi agent. While Kurras has denied he acted as a provocateur, some have suggested that the history of German extremism in the late 1960s and 1970s may need to be rewritten. Further, the head of the Stasi archives reports that there are many East German secret police files yet to be examined.

The history of Cold War espionage is incomplete. There are questions still to be resolved. What do the full KGB and GRU archives contain? What further connections might historians make if granted access to the files? Are there other members of the British or American elite who betrayed their country? Are there covert agents yet to be identified? Have the GRU’s files on Walter Krivitsky, George Koval, Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss and other agents been preserved? What might that information add to our knowledge of Soviet espionage in the 20th century?

Unfettered access to the Soviet archives would, no doubt, give us a clearer picture of the extent of betrayal of the Western democracies by some of its elites. As the Vassiliev notebooks have demonstrated, some of what we learn will cause a rethinking and reappraisal of Cold War history. With a resurgent Russia, that is as it should be, for as G.K. Chesterton once observed, we can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past.


*For the purposes of this essay, I use “KGB” to describe the Soviet foreign intelligence service and “GRU” for Soviet military intelligence, although both had several name changes during the 20th century.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Critiquing Campaign 2008’s coverage

When Americans cast their votes for president in November, how well informed will they be about the candidates and the issues? Their level of knowledge will reflect, in some measure, the performance of news organizations and journalists covering the Long Campaign of 2008.

Here, from this observer’s vantage point, is a brief critique of Campaign 2008’s news coverage so far, with the positive, the negative, and yet to be addressed coverage questions.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE POSITIVES:

Coverage of the issues. Academics, media critics, and public interest groups have long attacked mainstream news organizations for sacrificing coverage of public policy issues (the broccoli of the political process) in favor of horse-race or personality coverage (the sugary, unhealthy dessert). That hasn’t been the case in this campaign. Along with the reporting of candidate gaffes and campaign tactics, the mainstream media has more than adequately covered the positions of the presidential candidates on key issues.

The nation’s elite newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) have explored the candidate’s policy positions in depth, and their websites offer even more detailed comparisons. While the broadcast and cable networks have served up less issues coverage, the websites of CNN and Fox News do carry pertinent information on the candidates’ positions.

And prospective voters who don’t know by now that Senators Obama and Clinton plan a rapid American withdrawal from Iraq and Senator McCain favors staying the course, or that the Democrats endorse greater government intervention in health care and Republicans counter with market-driven solutions, aren’t paying attention.

The reality, however, as Steven Stark of the Boston Phoenix recently pointed out, is that most American presidential elections aren’t “big issue” driven, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Those surprisingly informative debates. While it’s true that a skilled debater may or may not make a proficient president (as Daniel Boorstin argued in The Image in 1961 after the Kennedy-Nixon Great Debate), debates can help voters looking for a better sense of a candidate. The numerous 2008 primary season debates, organized and moderated by major news organizations, contributed positively to the winnowing-out process.

Mike Huckabee’s folksy debate performances spurred his surprising rise early in the Republican campaign. The debates highlighted the kookiness of Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, and Alan Keyes (although Keyes’ inclusion by the Des Moines Register in its GOP Iowa debate was questionable.)

The two most interesting debates, both on the Democratic side, were held in Philadelphia. In the first, Hillary Clinton’s waffling on the question of then New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to grant driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants raised questions about her inevitability. In the second, held just before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama looked ill-at-ease as he struggled with tough questions from Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos over Bittergate and his connections with his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Weather Underground figure William Ayers. Obama’s faltering performance caused some wags to ask if the Illinois Senator struggles with the Gibson-Stephanopoulos duo, how he will respond to the Ahmadinejads and Hugo Chavezs of the world? Not surprisingly, Obama ducked any further one-on-one debates with Clinton.

Questions of character and vetting the candidate’s past. Yes, a presidential candidate’s past, including his or her associations, and character, should matter and to the extent their past touches on those questions, it’s journalistic fair game. That John McCain is surrounded by former and current lobbyists while declaring his independence from special interests matters; thanks largely to reporting from the New York Times, voters have learned about this contradiction. That Barack Obama spent 20 years in a church whose pastor espoused black liberation theology and spouted anti-American rhetoric matters; thanks largely to initial reporting from Brian Ross at ABC News, voters know about it.

CAMPAIGN COVERAGE NEGATIVES:

Journalistic Obamania. Campaign 2008 has also featured the unprecedented spectacle of journalists openly favoring a candidate, Sen. Obama, a phenomenon aptly mocked by Saturday Night Live. There’s NBC reporter Lee Cowan who admitted “it’s almost hard to remain objective” and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews confessing to “a thrill up my leg” after an Obama speech. Clinton supporters Lanny Davis and Terry McAuliffe even lauded Fox News, the cable news network detested by the Democratic Left, as the most “fair and balanced” in its primary coverage; McAuliffe claimed the media was “in the tank for Obama”, adding that “every independent study has said that this is the most biased coverage they’ve ever seen in a presidential campaign.”

It actually hasn’t been that bad. A recent survey by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University suggests that “the dominant personal narratives in the media about Obama and Clinton were almost identical in tone, and were both twice as positive as negative, according to the study, which examined the coverage of the candidates’ character, history, leadership and appeal—apart from the electoral results and the tactics of their campaigns.” Of course this study covered the first months of 2008, where much of the most over-the-top Obama media-fawning took place in late 2007 and early 2008. The Pew researchers concede: “The year 2008 started off extremely well for Obama. Positive assertions commanded 77% of the narrative studied about him from January 1 -13.” That, of course, Clinton supporters would note, is when such cheerleading mattered most in the run-up to Iowa and New Hampshire.

Misleading polls. Why news organizations place any credence in opinion polling remains a mystery. This campaign season has exposed the weakness of relying on polling, especially exit polls, as they were consistently wrong in projecting the winner’s margin in the Democratic primaries, most likely because of the Shy Tory Factor (voters refusing to participate in the exit polling). Further, the appeal of Obama for younger and African-American voters, and Clinton for older, working-class women—groups with spotty voter participation histories—has wreaked havoc with turnout models.

Predicting, not reporting. Who hasn’t been annoyed by the “talking heads” need to predict? In the fall of 2007, we were told that Clinton and former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani were the inevitable nominees, that Senators McCain and Obama were long-shots. Then, after pronouncing Clinton dead, conventional media wisdom was proved wrong when the New York Senator ran off a string of primary victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky. NBC’s Tom Brokaw had it right on the night of the New Hampshire primary when he warned: “I think that the people out there are going to begin to make judgments about us if we don’t begin to temper that temptation to constantly try to get ahead of what the voters are deciding….”

UNADDRESSED COVERAGE QUESTIONS:

How will coverage of Campaign 2008 change in the months ahead? The race between Senators Obama and McCain will be hailed as an historic one: the first time an African-American has been a major party’s nominee for the presidency. There is the danger that the mainstream media’s coverage will focus on race (“Will Americans vote for a black candidate? Is America ready for diversity in the White House?”) and that will represent a journalistic failure.

There are sharp distinctions between the candidates on the major issues (foreign policy, Iraq, the economy, health care, judicial philosophy, social issues); voters have plenty of reasons to vote for, or against, the candidates without any reference to race. The question should not be whether Americans are ready to vote for a black presidential candidate, but rather whether they are ready to vote for a charismatic presidential candidate whose philosophy and positions are further to the left than any Democratic standard-bearer since George McGovern. If it is true that the political center has shifted leftward, then they may very well elect the Senator from Illinois.

A wildcard for the remainder of Campaign 2008: the impact of quasi-news coverage from comedians, bloggers, YouTubers, Huffington Puffers, and other alternate media sources. Political historians will have their hands full trying to figure out whether, or how much, voters were swayed by the sudden blooming of a thousand alternative media flowers (and a few media weeds) in this 2008 election season.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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April 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

The Moyers-Wright interview, military justice on trial at Gitmo, and other observations

With a tip of the baseball brim to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SHOULDN’T BILL MOYERS BROADCAST MORE OF HIS JEREMIAH WRIGHT JR. INTERVIEW aired last week on PBS? Based on comments made by Barack Obama’s former pastor in his National Press Club appearance in Washington on Monday, some of Wright’s more controversial comments may have been edited out of the program, Bill Moyers Journal. (Transcript of the Moyers-Wright interview .)

It’s rare that a public figure will complain so repeatedly about an inteview having been edited, but Wright returned to the subject three times when answering questions following his prepared remarks.

First, Wright complained that some of his praise of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, had been clipped from the PBS interview:

So what I think about him, as I’ve said on Bill Moyers and it got edited out, how many other African-Americans or European-Americans do you know that can get one million people together on the mall? He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. That’s what I think about him.

Then, Wright mentioned his criticism of the way “corporate media channels” handled his controversial sermons and suggested that Moyers had truncated his response:

As I said to Bill Moyers — and he also edited this one out — because of my mother’s advice to me. My mother’s advice was being seen all over the corporate media channels, and it’s a paraphrase of the Book of Proverbs, where it is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Finally, Wright complained about the editing of his explanation of his “God damn America” sermon:

And if you saw the Bill Moyers show, I was talking about — although it got edited out — you know, that’s biblical. God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns something — and d-e-m-n, “demn,” is where we get the word “damn.” God damns some practices.

Moyers took criticism from some media critics for the “softball” nature of his Bill Moyers Journal interview with Wright. Wright’s complaints raise further questions about whether Moyers sought to soften the Chicago pastor’s often divisive rhetoric by editing out controversial answers. The best way for Moyers to address any criticism, and to clear up any doubts about his journalistic practices, is to show these edited segments on Bill Moyers Journal on Friday. Let’s see more.

THE TESTIMONY OF A FORMER DEFENSE DEPARTMENT PROSECUTOR has surfaced disturbing and troubling questions about the way the military commissions system may prosecute terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Air Force Col. Morris Davis testified under oath that “he felt undue pressure to hurry cases along so that the Bush administration could claim before political elections that the system was working.” Further, Davis said called unethical “a decision by top military officials to allow the use of evidence obtained by coercive interrogation techniques.” The Defense Department has denied Davis’ charges in the past.

What makes Davis’ testimony so devastating is that he was former chief prosecutor for terrorism cases before he resigned last fall. Particularly troubling was Davis quoting Defense Department general counsel William J. Haynes II as saying that there shouldn’t be any acquittals of the terror suspects because “we’ve been holding these guys for years.”

The Defense Department legal establishment is presumably aware of the notion that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. If the Gitmo process isn’t founded on that legal bedrock, then the Bush Administration will prove its harshest critics correct in arguing that the military commissions—created to try terror suspects—offer nothing more than kangaroo justice.

WHAT WAS INDIANA SENATOR EVAN BAYH THINKING WHEN HE PRAISED HIS HOME STATE FOR RACIAL PROGRESS, BUT referred to it as part of the “Old Confederacy”? Bayh’s historical aside came in an interview with Tavis Smiley:

Number two, it does show that our state has made a lot of progress in this regard, and in my lifetime, matter of fact, when I was governor, we became the first state out of the old Confederacy to elect two African Americans to statewide office. Wonderful woman, Pam Carter, became our first female attorney general, and Dwayne Brown became the clerk of the courts.

Indiana remained in the Union during the Civil War, and Indiana’s governor Oliver Perry Morton battled a hostile Democratic majority in the State House to keep troops in the field. While it is claimed that Sugar Creek Township in Shelby County “seceded” from the United States, the Hoosier State played a major role in helping the Union to victory, contributing more than 200,000 troops.

SPEAKING OF HISTORICAL FANTASY, THE TELEVISION SOAP OPERA “DALLAS” DIDN’T WIN THE COLD WAR FOR THE WEST, despite a tongue-in-cheek argument for that theory by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch in the Washington Post. It was Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan— not the feuding Ewings of South Fork—who were pivotal in the fall of the Soviet Union.

FROM CRAIG FERGUSON, COMEDIAN AND NEW AMERICAN CITIZEN, COMES THIS month’s closing words of wisdom, from Ferguson’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner appearance: “Please, never, ever, ever agree with each other. Never stop arguing, never stop fighting. You cranky, magnificent bastards.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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March 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Mamet unchained, Shin Bet bloggers, the New York Times discovers vegan strippers, and other observations

With a tip of the fedora to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WAS THAT REALLY DAVID MAMET, PLAYWRIGHT OF THE PROFANE, ANNOUNCING IN THE Village Voice, of all places, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal“? Apparently so. Mamet’s political epiphany came, he has announced, as he wrote his recent play “November” and found himself contrasting the conservative tragic view of life with liberal perfectionism and deciding: “I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.”

Mamet unchained goes further, arguing “that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.”

Count on the author of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” for macho provocation: Mamet terms National Public Radio (NPR) “National Palestinian Radio,” sees similarities between George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy, and pronounces: “I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.”

Yet this transformation isn’t completely a surprise as Mamet has never been a doctrinaire Man of the Left: he has displayed little patience with political correctness (vide “Oleanna”), and in some of his recent work (the movies Ronin and Spartan, the television series “The Unit,” and his book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews,) Mamet has moved right-of-center on national security issues.

Mamet has picked an awkward time, however, to sing the praises of laissez-faire capitalism (calling Thomas Sowell “our greatest contemporary philosopher”); anemic regulatory checks-and-balances on Wall Street greed have contributed to the recent subprime mortgage meltdown. That, of course, may be the point: Mamet likes nothing better than to shock, and what better way to shock than to embrace free markets in the middle of a financial crisis?

SHIN BET, ISRAEL’S SECURITY AGENCY, HAS EMPLOYEES BLOGGING about their office routines. The Associated Press reports: “The new project is part of an attempt by the organization to attract more high-tech workers to its ranks, and the bloggers work on the technological side of the Shin Bet’s operations rather than in the field. Identified only by the first letter of their names, they appear in black silhouette on the site’s home page.” The blogs, however, are “pretty boring,” according to the AP, proving that the mind-numbing curse of the cubicle extends even to Spyworld.

IT’S COMFORTING TO KNOW THAT THE NEW YORK TIMES TAKES ITS JOURNALISTIC RESPONSIBILITIES SERIOUSLY: otherwise we might never have learned about the vegan strip club trend.

That’s right, clubs with vegan strippers serving authentic vegan food, according to Kara Jesella’s story “The Carrot Some Vegans Deplore” carried in the Gray Lady’s Fashion & Style section. Well, actually it’s only one strip club in Portland, Oregon—Casa Diablo Gentleman’s Club—one that is failing, but reporting “All the News That’s Fit to Print” demands comprehensive coverage, including a photo of a young tattooed Goth-looking lass in a black halter top gazing forlornly at a sign which proclaims: “Please Do Not Wear Fur, Feathers, Silk, Wool, or Leather on the Stage.” The strippers apparently must resort to donning and undonning pleather. (But wouldn’t silk produced in the wild be acceptable? Or feathers that naturally molted from a bird?)

Our intrepid Times reporter pursues the story further, discovering a Southern California girl group called the Vegan Vixens (“a kind of animal-loving Pussycat Dolls”) who perform at animal rights events. The nation’s newspaper of record happily provides a photo of the five Vegan Vixens in very short skirts so our First Amendment rights are fully observed.

SPEAKING OF JOURNALISM 101, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES HAS APOLOGIZED FOR ITS BOGUS STORY ON THE 1994 wounding of rapper Tupac Shakur. The newspaper was duped by a con man who had provided false FBI documents implicating associates of another rapper, Sean “Puffy” Combs, in the shooting. The author, Chuck Phillips, admitted that he never directly asked FBI officials about the authenticity of the documents, and the paper was apparently told by Combs’ lawyer that the story was false. Defamation lawsuits to follow?

THE CORNELL MATHEMATICIANS WHO CONCLUDED THAT JOE DIMAGGIO’S 56-GAME HITTING STREAK wasn’t all that remarkable (after computer-simulations of parallel baseball universes) couldn’t have ever experienced a 99-mile-per hour fastball from the vantage point of the batter’s box. If they did, they would know better.

FROM OGDEN NASH, 20TH CENTURY MASTER OF DOGGEREL, COMES THIS month’s closing sentiment (proving April wasn’t always IRS time): “Indoors or out, no one relaxes in March, that month of wind and taxes, the wind will presently disappear, the taxes last us all the year.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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Those troublesome Danes

The headline of the letter to the editor in the Boston Globe—Danish papers stir up trouble“— neatly reflected a certain “progressive” world view about the conflict between Western secular values and Islamic extremism.

The letter-writer, Boston University associate professor of religion Michael Zank, objected to 17 Danish newspapers reprinting a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad “wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse.” The newspapers, including the country’s three national newspapers, republished Kurt Westergaard’s satirical caricature as a gesture of solidarity after Danish police arrested several Islamic extremists on charges of plotting to murder Westergaard.

Professor Zank found “disingenuous” the newspapers’ claim that they acted in support of freedom of speech. Zank questioned whether “this include[s] the freedom to stir up fear by publishing a drawing that has already proved incendiary?” (The original publication of a series of Danish cartoons of Muhammad including the Westergaard drawing, led to riots in the Muslim world in early 2006. One interpretation of Islamic law holds that any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemous).

Zank suggested adhering to a different value, “that of treating one’s neighbor as one would like to be treated oneself,” and then closed his letter by writing:

Inciting hatred against Muslims plays into the hand of radicals on both sides, and it embarrasses the moderates. We don’t need any more of this, especially not in the guise of supporting free speech.

Zank’s views reflect those of many in academic and religious circles, in Europe and in the United States, who have embraced a credo of multicultural tolerance. What is wrong with those Danes, they ask; why do they go out of their way to insult the faith of others? Why embolden the forces of intolerance “on both sides” by reprinting Westergaard’s cartoon? Why must they “stir up trouble”?

But the troublesome Danes have it right: a violent attack on one individual’s freedom of expression (however distasteful to some or “incendiary” that expression may be) represents a threat to all expression. The Danish newspaper publishers and editors who reprinted Westergaard’s caricature are publicly saying that they will not be intimidated or, fearing retaliation, be cowed into self-censorship. They also understand that, as Flemming Rose of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper observed in 2006,if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission.” Such an arrangement, Rose added, is “incompatible with a secular democracy.”

Suggesting that the Danish papers were “stirring up trouble” or “inciting hatred against Muslims” is a classic case of blaming the victim. Danish journalists were not seeking to offend or provoke, but responding to a clear assault on the principle of freedom of speech in their own country. Some of the Danish newspapers had not published the first series of Muhammad cartoons in 2005, regarding them as offensive. Yet they reprinted Westergaard’s cartoon, recognizing that the attempt to silence him—permanently—was also aimed at suppressing any future “anti-Muslim” speech.

The Danish newspaper publishers and editors consciously chose the harder path—it would have been far easier, and safer, to denounce the plot against Westergaard in editorials and columns and not republish his controversial drawing. Printing the Muhammad cartoon makes all of the participating newspapers potential targets for retaliation. (It should be noted that only two large city American newspapers, the New York Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer, reprinted the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2006.)

Danish courage in the face of threats and terror shouldn’t come as a surprise; the Danes, after all, rescued most of the country’s Jews during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Denmark. They are quietly stubborn. So it is unlikely that they will be swayed by any angry response from Islamist radicals. For that, advocates of freedom of expression should be thankful.


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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