Entries from February 2009

The Nyu Clown Show

February 20th, 2009 at 12:00 pm 2 Comments

If history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, NYU is looking like a clown college right now.

A group that calls itself Students for Radical Change has barricaded itself in the third cafeteria of the campus student center in a lame attempt to update the far-left’s “glory days” of 1968 campus occupations.  Even the campus Democrats have disavowed their overheated hysteria, which is perfectly illustrated in their list of demands, passed out on a Xeroxed pamphlet and viewable here.

This is a classic text of cluelessness and cultural myopia.  From the first “demands” – essentially asking for amnesty and payment for the employees they have displaced – to the larger geopolitical aims (excess supplies sent to the University of Gaza, a “reassessment of the recently lifted ban on Coca-Cola products”) – this is an impotent entitlement mentality run amuck.  

It’s a reminder of why the PC-excesses of the campus left has always been the unwitting ally and best recruiter for campus conservatives.

On The Afghan Front Line

February 20th, 2009 at 11:59 am 3 Comments

Benjamin Collins served three tours in Afghanistan rising to the rank of Captain with US Special Forces. He has since left the army to launch a new business. Ben will be writing a regular series about his memories of his Afghan service. The Obama administration is dramatically increasing the US commitment to this long war. Ben’s disturbing observations and insights into the American experience in Afghanistan should be must reading for all citizens and policymakers. – David Frum

The phone rang just past 1 am. My troops and I had settled down to watch another episode of The Sopranos. Tony Soprano would have to wait. One of our Afghan National Army checkpoints was receiving fire, and we were ordered to respond. Obscenities and groans greeted the news as soldiers pulled themselves off the couches and moved towards their rooms to pull on their uniforms and body armor.

I looked through the window of our compound, which overlooked the snow-covered city of Kabul, puzzling over the call. It was the middle of an especially tough Afghan winter, with temperatures below freezing and non-stop snow. Temperature tonight was 25 degrees below zero Fahrenheit with the wind-chill. I had yet to meet the insurgent who was willing to climb through 4 feet of snow in his traditional Afghan dress and running shoes to launch a coordinated attack on a checkpoint.

Still, an order was an order. The men went outside to brush the snow off the trucks and prepare for the convoy towards the checkpoint. It would be an hour trip through mountain passes and two towns that had a history of unfriendliness towards Americans and outright support for local insurgents.

Exiting our security gates, we snaked through the Afghan National Army brigade that camped with us. Supposedly it was our job to support them. Yet it was we who were driving out to the checkpoint. We had learned early that any help from our Afghan counter-parts would be near impossible to get approval for. If you request support from an Afghan Colonel, the request had better be accompanied by a gas coupon or new pair of winter boots. Otherwise, one could wait a very long time for movement.

Our drive towards the checkpoint was uneventful, but slow. We were in the middle of a snowstorm so there was no illumination from the moon, thereby making our night vision optics all but useless. We had to switch out the turret gunners every 15 minutes to prevent frostbite and keep an alert soldier in the hole…and although we rehearse doing this on the move, it is still a mini event with all the cold weather clothing and armor on.

As we neared the checkpoint we stopped at a small building used by engineering contractors for the Afghan Army.  The building happened to be occupied by a Turkish contingent that rushed from the building in a confusing frenzy of broken English. They mimicked the sounds of gunfire and tracers: Despite my suspicions, it seemed that there had indeed been sporadic gunfire at the checkpoint over the last couple of hours.

The drive up to the checkpoint took us up another 500 feet of elevation on a mountain ridgeline. A mud and stone structure about the size of a shipping container with no windows greeted us. There were no Afghan soldiers outside, and it was evident that they had a fire lit inside in a vain attempt to stay warm. The lack of visible security and obvious nonchalance brought my suspicions right back.

With our own security in place, I entered the structure and was greeted by 8 Afghan soldiers and the Afghan sergeant in charge of the checkpoint. With the help of my translator (a former Mr. Afghanistan body builder…. but that is another story altogether) we were able to piece together their story. A few hours ago they had come under fire from an adjoining ridgeline. The sergeant and his men claimed that they had rushed outside, returned fire, and fought the enemy until they withdrew, returning to the checkpoint only after they had secured the area.

By this time, my eyes had become adjusted to the light and I had begun to look around the inside of the building as my Team Sergeant went outside to look over the ground. The image I saw contrasted very sharply with the story I had been told.

The Afghan soldiers around me were all attired in thin camouflage uniforms – very likely the same uniforms they had been issued at basic training. There wasn’t a winter coat among them. Their feet were all in either dilapidated leather boots or running shoes. I felt quite certain they together owned not even a single pair of clean socks. They had eaten their last meal that morning and were waiting for the replacement unit that was due to arrive with the morning. Our suspicions were confirmed. The story of the firefight had been an invention.

The Afghans had fired their own weapons over the Turkish engineers knowing full well a report would be made. They knew the Americans would arrive soon after. And they knew we would probably give them something.

Which we did. I was too cold to be mad. In fact, we pulled MREs (our food) out of our bags and handed them out to the hungry soldiers. They begged us for new coats, new boots, and socks to keep their feet warm but of course we had not arrived prepared to outfit an entire squad.

In a country where corruption is rampant through the Afghan Army, it was little surprise that these soldiers were not equipped and supplied, as they should have been. Possibly a senior officer had intercepted their food and equipment and sold it for his own profit. Or perhaps they sold their things themselves or had given them to a family member. I’d never know the truth.

We left the checkpoint tired, cold, and more than a little bitter. We had been in Afghanistan long enough to know the drill however…the following day I presented my Afghan National Army Brigade Commander with a new parka, complete with fur hood. We both knew that he had the supplies necessary to refit his men, yet for him they served more as leverage for a potential trade than the needed components to maintaining his men’s preparedness. Once he accepted the parka and we had shared a cup of tea, I described the state of his men I had found at the checkpoint. I knew by day’s end the squad at the checkpoint would get their refit.

In Afghanistan, the Warlord mentality has become pervasive, complete, and part of their culture. Take what I can, protect what I have, give nothing away…but do it over tea so everybody feels better about it.

Why I’m Not Scared of Bank Nationalization…

David Frum February 20th, 2009 at 9:41 am 9 Comments

… because I don’t think the Democrats want the government to keep the banks. On the other hand, I think they do want the government to keep the healthcare system. So that’s the one to watch.

A Better Souvenir From Canada For Obama

February 20th, 2009 at 8:44 am 8 Comments

President Obama visited Canada yesterday.  During his first official foreign trip, patient he discussed the environment, and trade, diagnosis and other issues with Prime Minister Harper.  Health care wasn’t on the agenda.

That hasn’t prevent commentators on both sides of the 49th parallel from suggesting that the President has much to learn from Canadian health care.  

NPR’s To The Point included fawning reviews of the system (disclosure: I was the one guest on the show who didn’t wax poetic on socialized medicine).  

Writing in Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria argues: “Its health-care system is cheaper than America’s by far (accounting for 9.7 percent of GDP, versus 15.2 percent here), and yet does better on all major indexes. Life expectancy in Canada is 81 years, versus 78 in the United States; ‘healthy life expectancy’ is 72 years, versus 69.”

David Olive in the Toronto Star makes a similar point.  Indeed, Olive closes his essay by pointing out that President Obama himself spoke kindly about the system just a few years ago:

Still, Obama finds the “socialized-medicine” bogeyman risible. In an interview in the liberal U.S. journal Nation three years ago, the then-U.S. senator from Illinois was asked if the single-payer option “is revolutionary or reformist.”

“Anything that Canada does can’t be entirely revolutionary, it’s Canada” Obama laughed. “When I drive through Toronto, it doesn’t look like a bunch of Maoists.”

Maybe not, but Canadian cities don’t seem stocked with heath-care visionaries either.  Since entering a non-Maoist Canadian medical school, I’ve written much on that system and government-run systems in general, including this rebuttal of the life expectancy argument.

With the American President’s trip to Canada in the news, I wish to draw attention to an excellent interview of a Canadian doctor’s exodus to the United States.  

The physician – a Canadian by birth who believed in government-run health care for most of his adult life – talks about illness in the family:

A few years ago, my brother was sick with a really bad cancer. He’d been working for months to try to get it addressed. When he explained his symptoms, I said, “You really need to have an MRI of your head and neck.” He just couldn’t get one. On Christmas Day three years ago, he was in great pain. He presented himself to the emergency departmentÑnot in his own town of Guelph, because there was no MRI machine for people in that community of 70,000 although there is a scanner available for petsÑbut in Kitchener, which is about 15 miles away and where there is an MRI machine for humans in the hospital. Because it was Christmas, they said, “Nope, the MRI scanner is closed. You can’t have an MRI. You can only have it on a business day, during regular working hours.” My parents happened to be there visiting, and they just raised the roof. He got his MRI on Boxing Day, which is the day after Christmas. It’s still a holiday in Canada, but he got the MRI. It was not read properly. I had to actually go to Canada and look at the MRI, and I diagnosed my brother’s nasopharyngeal cancer.

It was very interesting visiting my brother in the hospital. They’ve got this kiosk in the lobby for Tim Horton’s, which is a very popular restaurant chain in Canada, and it was open, basically, 24/7. You could go, sit down in the lobby of this hospital and get a nice sandwich, cup of coffee, and doughnut, 24/7, because it was a free market thing. Yet at the same time, you could not get the health care that you needed, because it’s delivered under a socialist model.

He also describes the limitations of central planning:

When I was working in Canada, we had this personnel meltdown when we had only three radiologists for 250,000 people. I was director of the department at the time, and I said to the hospital administration, “We need a rolloscope.” A rolloscope is a device where the X-rays and CT scans are set up on the scope, and you can push a button and go from case to case to case. It really expedites your ability to read the cases promptly. I was reading about 40,000 cases a year at that time, which is just an enormous number, especially if you’re reading without a rolloscope. The hospital said, “Well, you know, what? There’s no money in the budget for us to buy your rolloscope. Perhaps, you could plead the case to the Ministry of Health. Perhaps, they can make a special dispensation of dollars so that you can get this rolloscope.” The radiologists in Thunder Bay eventually got the rolloscope three years later, but there was no money to hire a clerk to load the films, so it just sat and collected dust for another year. 

When I moved to Minnesota, I worked at St. Francis Medical Center in Shakopee, and we were seeing increasing volumes and just getting busier, and busier, and busier. My partner and I approached our organization, Consulting Radiologists Limited, and said, “We need a rolloscope. We’ve got these increasing volumes.” They looked and said, “Hey, you guys are phenomenally productive. We want to facilitate your productivity. Here’s your rolloscope.” We had the rolloscope in a month, and we had someone to load it, too. That’s the free market versus central planning.

Are Republicans Hypocrites…

David Frum February 20th, 2009 at 6:31 am 9 Comments

… if they help their constituents take advantage of stimulus funds they voted against? So argues Josh Marshall.

It might equally be asked: Are Democrats hypocrites if they enjoy the safety and security of the United States after voting against the military appropriations that defend it? Or if they pay lower tax rates after a Republican tax cut? Or if they accept the benefit of cheaper prices at the store after Republican tort reform?

Once enacted, order laws apply to all. Everyone is obliged to obey them, discount whether they favored them or not, search and everybody gets their benefit, whether or not you believed that benefit was worth the cost. Republicans had a better idea of how to stimulate the economy: a payroll tax holiday. Democrats had the votes to push through their worse idea. We all have to make the best of that worse idea, and Republican constituencies belong to that all.

The Big Sort

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

My column for this weekend’s National Post discusses the two most important books on US politics I read this year, Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State and Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort.

Good news: If you havenÕt already read any of the half-dozen books published about John McCain in 2008 Ñ or the many more published about Hillary Clinton Ñ or the Palin books Ñ or the Bill Richardson book Ñ then you are in the clear! Game over, time saved.

But there are some books of enduring value that emerged from the 2008 political year, and two of them in particular are must-reading for anyone anywhere who wants to understand the inner workings of American politics.

The first is Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. The bookÕs title and cover art may pay homage to Dr. Seuss. The author, however, is a doctor of a very different kind, one of AmericaÕs leading statisticians, Andrew Gelman of Columbia University.

In a lively and accessible way, Gelman sifts through data from the 2004 election to understand how the rich and the poor vote in America.

At first glance, American voting seems topsy-turvy. Super-wealthy communities like Beverly Hills, Aspen, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan vote Democratic. Meanwhile, Appalachia and Alaska are becoming ever more Republican. Republicans accuse the Democrats of Òelitism.Ó Liberals wonder ÒwhatÕs the matter with KansasÓ and suspect low-income voters are either gullible or racist.

Gelman deconstructs the paradox. He argues that low-income voters understand their class interests very well. Americans who earn less than $30,000 vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Poor whites are less Democratic than poor blacks and Latinos; poor Texans are less Democratic than poor New Yorkers; but these are just details. If only the poor voted, the Democrats would win every state in the Union.

Where things get complicated is with more affluent voters, the richest one-third of Americans. In the red states, they vote overwhelmingly Republican. But not in the blue states. In places like California and Connecticut, these upper-income voters swing Democratic: not as Democratic as the poorest one-third, but Democratic enough to solidify a Democratic majority.

Why? Gelman delivers a surprising answer. Most of us have the notion that issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration divide a more liberal, more permissive elite from a more traditionalist voting base: Bob Reiner vs Joe the Plumber. Not so, says Gelman, and he has numbers to prove it. Downmarket voters are bread-and-butter voters. It is upper America that is divided on social issues: a more permissive, more liberal elite in the Northeast and California Ñ a more religious, more conservative elite in the South and Midwest. ItÕs not Hollywood vs. Wassila. ItÕs Hollywood vs the wealthy suburbs of Dallas and Houston and Atlanta.

That division is the preoccupying theme of Bill BishopÕs Big Sort. Bishop begins with a startling fact:
In 2004, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by less than 2.5% of the popular vote. Yet almost half the American population lived in a county that voted for one candidate or the other by a margin of 20 points or better. This trend toward Òlandslide countiesÓ is new: In 1976, only one-fifth of Americans lived in a county that went for Ford or Carter by a margin of 20 points or more.

WhatÕs changed? In an increasingly mobile country, Americans are able to ÒsortÓ themselves by lifestyle Ñ and increasingly, ideology is a component of lifestyle.

As people choose to live with others like themselves, they fall victim to a well-known phenomenon of group psychology: the tendency of like-minded groups to move to extremes more radical than any individual member would have gone on his or her own.

In other words, as Americans sort themselves out, they also become more divided from each other. Fewer than one out of four Americans report having regular conversations with people who disagree with their own political views. To choose a town becomes to choose a side. As local communities polarize, they elect representatives who are more partisan. Co-operation becomes more difficult, politics becomes more zero-sum.

As Americans become more isolated from each other, they increasingly treat reality itself as a political choice. In the 1990s, Republicans were much more likely to describe the economy negatively than were Democrats. After 2000, partisans switched sides, with Republicans more optimistic.

Bishop, himself a liberal Democrat, concludes his book with a surprising paean to the virtues of political apathy. ÒHaving a good number of people who didnÕt care much about politics was just as vital to democratic government as having the voting booths filled É. Indifferent citizens leavened the system, gave it suppleness, just what the partisan personality lacked. Apathy gave politicians room to maneuver, compromise, make deals, smother grease on the gears of representative democracy É Nothing could be more destructive than a society filled with knowledgeable, active and opinionated [citizens].Ó

On the other hand, democracy always needs at least some knowledgeable citizens Ñ and those who read these two brilliant, unexpected, and challenging books will register high on the list.

Return of the Native

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

Like so many of Thomas Hardy’s novels, Return of the Native tells a story of illicit love in the English countryside. But in few of his novels does illicit love carry such staggering penalties as here. In Far From the Madding Crowd, the casualty roll is held to a single casulty. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the toll rises to two. The lethal love pentangle in Return of the Native inflicts three.

Sex and violence pleaed the crowds in the 19th century just as they are today, and Return of the Native scored a big commercial success for Hardy. Yet he had difficulties bringing the novel to print, for both publishers and the major magazines flinched from the book’s uneuphemistic treatment of scandalous themes.

Footnote here. The tone and style of 19th century English literature were heavily influenced by the moral strictures imposed by the then-prevailing publishing system.

A typical mid-Victorian novel stretched cost a guinea, at a time when a skilled worker could expect to make a little less than a guinea a week. (The guinea, or sovereign, was a gold coin with a metal content worth about $200 in our modern money.) Obviously, the market for such books was rather small, usually a few hundred copies, most of them purchased by private lending libraries, which sold all-you-can-read memberships for about a guinea a year. To maximize their revenues, the libraries insisted that novels be published in three volumes, so that one book could serve three customers at a time. That practice explains the wordiness and the convoluted subplots of so many Victorian books: the authors had to stretch their story to fill a specified number of pages. The very most popular authors could also serialize their novels in monthly magazines, sometimes for amazing fees.

The serialization-lending library system reduced the economic risk to publishers, who could count on a minimum number of sales. But it imposed severe artistic restraints on writes, who had to conform to a strict standard of propriety. There’s a reason why no mid-Victorain heroine so much as kisses her fiance – and it’s not that no woman ever did so, or no author ever noticed. There’s a reason why prostitution is never mentioned in print at a time when the streets of London teemed with prostitutes.

By the 1880s, however, the growth of a middle-class market with disposable incomes tempted some publishers to sell directly to the public. Magazines also began to experiment with more realistic themes. These changes made possible the career of a writer like Thomas Hardy, author in Far From the Madding Crowd of what I think is the first explicit description of female sexual arousal in English.

Yet Hardy’s psychological realism set the stage for a tragicomic later development.

His willingness to acknowledge sexual passion gained Hardy a prominent place in the English literature curriculum in universities and some academically intense high schools. Here’s the stuff to fasciante young readers! Teachers hoped to excite their students with Tess’ sexual misadventures – only to bump up against the fact that there was one thing that interests Hardy even more than sex: the long slow rhythms of English rural life. And to students familiar who read, say, Cosmpolitan magazine or play Grand Theft Auto, the rural scenes in Hardy are far more unbearable than the sexy scenes are titillating.

Which is why, to speak personally, I long shuddered at the mention of Hardy’s name. I’d suffered through Tess in my senior year of school. Though I discovered Hardy’s poetry in university, and quite liked it, I did not reopen any of his novels until my 40s.

Then in 2005 I bought myself my first iPod at exactly the same time as I ramped up the ferocity and duration of my workout regime. Had you asked me then, I would have listed George Eliot as my favorite Victorian novelist after of course the gigantic Charles Dickens. Listening to her novels in sequence, though, their flaws – mostly Eliot’s Eleanor Roosevelt idealization of underdogs – became much more irritating. Audiobooks compel one to “read” in a very different way. The eye can charitably skip over weak passages. But when you listen, you have to listen equally to everything. You become very conscious of sloppy wordiness. (This means you Anthony Trollope.) You gain a new appreciation of writers whose style is light, clever, and delicate. (I now think of Thackeray as the Mozart of the Victorians.) And Hardy … well maybe you just grow into Hardy.

For all the lurid passion of the story to come, the real protagonist of The Return of the Native is the harsh geography of the setting, Edgon Heath in southwestern England. A heath, for those of you who wonder, is hilly scrubland, no good for farming. Today, they make nice parks (think of Hampton Heath, north of London) – that is when they are not paved over for airports or shopping malls. But in traditional England, they were spooky places: empty, brambly, and poor. The two main industries in Egdon are sheep-rearing and furze-cutting, furze being the local bramblebush that could be used as a cheap fuel for fires.

Precisely because of its poverty, Egdon has preserved the look – and many of the habits – of the most primordial English past. As Hardy describes it:

This obscure, obsolete, superseded country figures in Domesday. Its condition is recorded therein as that of heathy, furzy, briary wildernessÑ”Bruaria.” Then follows the length and breadth in leagues; and, though some uncertainty exists as to the exact extent of this ancient lineal measure, it appears from the figures that the area of Egdon down to the present day has but little diminished. “Turbaria Bruaria”Ñthe right of cutting heath-turfÑoccurs in charters relating to the district. “Overgrown with heth and mosse,” says Leland of the same dark sweep of country.

Here at least were intelligible facts regarding landscapeÑfar-reaching proofs productive of genuine satisfaction. The untameable, Ishmaelitish thing that Egdon now was it always had been. Civilization was its enemy; and ever since the beginning of vegetation its soil had worn the same antique brown dress, the natural and invariable garment of the particular formation. In its venerable one coat lay a certain vein of satire on human vanity in clothes. A person on a heath in raiment of modern cut and colours has more or less an anomalous look. We seem to want the oldest and simplest human clothing where the clothing of the earth is so primitive.

To recline on a stump of thorn in the central valley of Egdon, between afternoon and night, as now, where the eye could reach nothing of the world outside the summits and shoulders of heathland which filled the whole circumference of its glance, and to know that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead, gave ballast to the mind adrift on change, and harassed by the irrepressible New. The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim. Who can say of a particular sea that it is old? Distilled by the sun, kneaded by the moon, it is renewed in a year, in a day, or in an hour. The sea changed, the fields changed, the rivers, the villages, and the people changed, yet Egdon remained. Those surfaces were neither so steep as to be destructible by weather, nor so flat as to be the victims of floods and deposits. With the exception of an aged highway, and a still more aged barrow presently to be referred toÑthemselves almost crystallized to natural products by long continuanceÑeven the trifling irregularities were not caused by pickaxe, plough, or spade, but remained as the very finger-touches of the last geological change.

Against this primeval background, the action unfolds.

Damon Wildeve is a local no-goodnik. Having failed in an engineering career, he has bought the local pub, the Quiet Woman, a title that memorializes a gruesome ancient murder. The sign of the pub still depicts a decapitated female body. Despite this obvious symbolic warning, women are intensely attracted to the handsome Wildeve, including the two prettiest girls in the vicinity, Thomasin Yeobright and Eustacia Vye. (Vye as in “vie” – get it?)

Thomasin is the respectable niece of a well-to-do local widow. Eustacia is anything but respectable. Black-haired, beautiful, mistrusted by the local townspeople as a witch, 20-year-old Eustacia is the product of a disastrous mesalliance with an Italian bandmaster, she now lives with her grandfather, a retired naval officer, in a cottage on the heath. Voraciously sexual, she chafes against the boredom and censoriousness of village life. Wildeve has been carrying on a fairly obviously consummated love affair with Eustacia while also courting Thomasin.

The novel opens on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. The day commemorates the thwarting of a plot by a group of Catholic conspirators to blow up the Parliament buildings during the reign of James I. But the rituals of the day – bonfires on hills, the burning of effigies – preserve customs that extend back to the Druids. And this is how we first meet Eustacia: standing by a burning fire on a hillside, summoning Wildeve.

The day was to have been the day of Wildeve’s wedding to Thomasin, but through a miscommunication of place, the wedding has gone disastrously wrong. Thomasin has been left at the altar. She staggers home feeling utterly abandoned and disgraced. Thomasin now sees through Wildeve, but in order to rescue her standing in the community must now miserably beg for the wedding to be rescheduled. Wildeve is reluctant: At the last minute, his wandering attentions have returned to Eustacia.

At this point, life in the community gets a new interest when Thomasin’s cousin Clement, nick-named Clym, returns to Egdon. Clym has been working in Paris in the diamond trade – about as radical a departure from Egdon as one can imagine.

Eustacia hears of him and connives to meet him. In her imagination, he becomes a vehicle of escape from Egdon to some more glamorous and fulfilling life. So at exactly the same time as Wildeve is jilting Thomasin for Eustacia, Eustacia jilts Wildeve for Clym. On the recoil, Wildeve marries Thomasin after all. A dazzled Clym marries Eustacia.

One person anticipates the utter disastrousness of both marriages: Mrs. Yeobright, Clym’s mother and Thomasin’s aunt. She tries unsuccessfully to prevent the unions, alienating the young people, and thus leaving them alone as troubles gather.

To Eustacia’s disgust, Clym soon reveals that he has no intention of returning to Pars. He dislikes the diamond trade, thinks it a useless vanity. He wants to remain in Egdon and open a school. He begins a period of intense study to prepare. Overwork brings on a fever that ruins his eyesight. Almost blind, forced to postpone his school project, he attempts to eke out his savings by earning money – and the only trade available is furze-cutting, about the lowest status occupation in the vicinity. Eustacia has bet on the wrong man – and to compound her frustration, Wildeve unexpectedly inherits a considerable fortune.

The now wealthy Wildeve resumes his interest in Eustacia. He comes to visit her. It’s the hottest hours of the hottest days of summer. Clym has returned home from his hours of grueling physical labor to collapse in exhaustion. Eustacia entertains her once and would-be lover as her blind husband sleeps. But the visit is interrupted when Clym’s mother knocks on the door.

Mrs. Yeobright, a proud woman, has relented to make the first move to reconciliation. She has walked miles through the heat to visit Clym and Eustacia. Seeing her, Eustacia panics – and bolts the door. In the context of a small village, there could be no more aggressive and humiliating insult. Clym’s furze-cutting gear is stacked by the door. He must be at home, and therefore party to the insult. Shattered, Mrs. Yeobright turns to walk home, again in fierce heat. She suffers a stroke and dies in a nearby farmhouse.

Clym learns what has happened. His troubled marriage to Eustacia now dies altogether. Damon Wildeve offers to run away with her to Paris. She accepts. The two set off at night. Now it is they who cannot see. They stumble into a weir, are caught in the whirlpool, and drown. The affair that opens with fire ends in water; the woman who yearned only to escape Egdon will remain forever.

Thomasin now reclaims a happy ending. The novel has been haunted by a weird figure, Diggery Venn, once a dairyman (ie, a dealer in the whitest of white goods) who has now taken up the trade of a reddleman (a dealer in the red dye used for marking sheep). The work has turned all his clothes and even his skin red. Diggery Venn is a rejected suitor of Thomasin’s. It was he who ended up driving her home in his van from her abortive wedding. He appears again and again through the novel, almost a supernatural figure, at one point saving Thomasin’s (and Clym’s) inheritance from attempted misappropriation by Wildeve in a spooky midnight gambling match in which Diggery wins every hand.

With Wildeve dead, Venn returns to the dairy trade. His uncanny color fades, and Thomasin accepts him. Clym, still weak in the eyes, does not remarry, but instead takes up a second career as an itinerant (secular) preacher of moral truths, finding an ever growing audience, a teacher after all.

It’s a strange and wonderful story, redolent of Northrop Frye archetypes. The Clym story reminds one of Oedipus (blindness, mourning for a lost mother, atonement). The reddleman is topic for a hundred dissertations.

But for the breakdown of the lending library system, the Victorians would never have had access to this profound, disturbing, and haunting work. We have access. We just ignore it because the opening scenes take a little patience. Don’t be in such a rush. Give Hardy some time. He has earned it. He is worth it.

The Trial

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

Franz Kafka’s The Trial is among the emblematic books of the 20th century. On the eve of his 30th birthday, a respectable young businessman is arrested in his home by thuggish and corrupt officials. He is summoned to a weird court to face charges that are never stated. The legal process becomes ever more surreal. It gradually becomes clear that many others are enmeshed in the coils of this same court – a court that none can ever permanently escape, although personal influence from court favorites can sometimes buy a little time. For the arrested man, K., there is no escape. A year almost exactly to the day after his arrest, he is apprehended again, led to a stoneyard, arranged on a slab as if for sacrifice, and invited to kill himself. When he refuses, he is stabbed in the heart: the verdict.

It’s a wild and suggestive story. Hannah Arendt quipped that it was Kafka’s fate, never having earned a good living himself, to provide gainful employment for generations of intellectuals to come. This prophecy has more than proved itself. He is a mainstay of college courses and of Ph.D.s in literature.

K.’s trial has been variously taken to anticipate and symbolize the show trials of 20th century totalitarianism. Or the guilt of the soul before an angry God. Or the doom of free sexuality by the institution of marriage. Or the condition of the Jew in antisemitic Europe. Or the struggle of the emotional spirit under the strictures of reason. Or. Or. Or. (Googling to find something of interest about Kafka on the Internet, I came across a student paper on one of those free-plagiarism services used by desperate students that analyzed the deficiencies of K.’s legal strategy. Here, it struck me, was a genuinely novel approach: the first paper to suggest that The Trial was the story of … an actual trial! That has to be worth at least a C …)

One reason that Kafka looms so large on college curricula is precisely that he can be so fruitfully interpreted. By trying to figure out what The Trial “means,” students learn how literature generates meaning. They discover that The Trial can usefully be read in multiple ways, and that these ways do not preclude each other. The haunting story and allegoric style of The Trial make it a bottomless treasury for the human imagination, yielding riches to all who seek them.

Despite Kafka’s high place in the contemporary literary canon – despite the hugely improved new English translations which have provided the texts for the excellent Geoffrey Howard audio recordings – I cannot help fearing that these riches are sought by fewer and fewer. Literature is a declining presence in our modern society, increasingly an academic preoccupation. Intelligent young people read literature at university, and when they graduate, they stop. When they feel the need to feed the imagination, they turn to  movies or television shows.

Here in the blogosphere, certainly, the contrast is stark. I just did a Google blogsearch. For “Franz Kafka” and “The Trial,” 7900 entries. For HBO and “The Wire,” 59,000. For HBO and “The Sopranos,” 72,000. For “Battlestar Galactica,” 399,000.

Now “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” are fine shows, that do many of the things literature does. I loved the early seasons of “The Sopranos” myself. As for Battlestar Galactica, well who am I to cavil at a show that has done so much to introduce adolescents around the world to the appeal of things Canadian? Still, I do often feel that we live in a world gone color blind or hard of hearing, cut off from deeper connections that were once broadly shared.

The decline of literature is a phenomenon with many causes.

Technology is the most important obviously – movies and TV are more arresting, more accessible, and less demanding than text.

There are cultural changes at work too. Contemporary culture has scant room for arbiters of excellence, yet without them the obvious and easy will drive out the enduring and important. In any area of art – not only literature, but also music and the visual arts – the modern person reminds me of the first encounter of the modern child, raised on fried chicken strips, and an actual roast chicken: “This thing has bones!”

Then of course there is the collapse of self-confidence among those who ought to act as arbiters. Roger Kimball has devoted a lifetime of work to excoriating the multiple self-betrayals of teachers and critics of the arts and literature. So far, alas, the results of his labors are at best inconclusive.

What happens all too often in high school and college literary classes is this:

Students are assigned work of very low literary quality. These works are chosen to provide sexual/racial/ethnic diversity. Or because they talk explicitly about sexuality or some other topic deemed likely to excite student attention. Or because they reflect approved attitudes on the issues of the day.

The usual result is simply to bore the students – to deaden for a lifetime any potential enthusiasm for the thing they think they are studying. But for the small minority of students whose enthusiasm for reading cannot be killed even by the academic study of literature, the effect is (if possible) even worse. For them, the study of literature has been turned into an experience of organized lying.

Some will be deceived. Some will be corrupted. And some will be made cynical. Why not treat comic books as literature? After all, that’s how we treat Alice Walker!

And yet I persist in hoping that precisely because literature touches something profound and permanent in the human spirit and human condition, that the very best will continue to find its audience. The Trial of course ranks among the very best. And it even gives us a story, a style, and a word to describe the dominant character of contemporary literary life: what is it, but Kafkaesque?

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

The Israeli war for independence has never really ended. The issues in the conflict remain not only unresolved, but violently contested. Of the five Arab states that invaded Israel in 1948, three (Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq) remain legally at war with Israel. The Arab refugees who fled the war zone remain stateless persons.

The ongoing nature of the war has impeded efforts to tell the war’s story. The archives of the authoritarian states surrounding Israel of course remain closed. And even democratic Israel has not felt free to open all wartime records, lest they be used as weapons of propaganda by unreconciled enemies. To an amazing extent for a war fought in the modern era, the Israeli war of independence remains wrapped in myths, both the Jewish myth of “purity of arms” and the anti-Jewish myths that accuse the Jewish state of every crime.

Through a long and controversial career, Benny Morris has proved himself Israel’s leading myth buster. His classic book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1988), revised and expanded with new research in 2004, minutely examined the flight of 700,000 native Arab inhabitants of what became Israel. Morris’ account confirmed some elements of Jewish mythology. Yes, Arab leaders and state broadcasters did indeed encourage local inhabitants to flee. And no, there was no central order from the Israeli high command to expel Palestinians.

However – and here was the new and uncomfortable finding – many important regional Israeli commanders did pursue a policy of expulsion, sometimes deliberately committing atrocities to hasten flight. By the standards of 20th century cruelty, these atrocities hardly begin to compare. But they fell below the standard Israelis expected of themselves – and professed before the world. And all Israelis, up to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, understood that those Palestinians who fled would never be allowed to return.

Now Morris has directed his energy to writing the fullest and best narrative history of the independence war: 1948. Until such time as Arab archives are opened, assuming they exist, this is likely to be the definitive history we shall ever have.

Unlike The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris’ 1948 is a lively and accessible work intended for a large audience. In Morris’ telling, the first Arab-Israeli war broke into two phases.

The first phase was confined to the borders of Mandatory Palestine. From the time the British decided to quit Palestine – and especially from the UN partition vote of November 1947 – a guerilla war erupted inside the Mandatory territories. Incited by their catastrophically extremist and incompetent leadership, Palestinian militias conducted attacks on Jewish settlements, using tactics that often crossed the line from irregular to frankly terroristic.

At first, these attacks had some success. The small Jewish settler community (the Yishuv as it was called) lacked almost all the instrumentalities of war. But it had huge advantages too: above all (and this is the point that Morris stresses) a powerful sense of community and sacrifice. These were people for whom extermination was not an abstract or hypothetical threat. Seldom has there been a more spectacular demonstration of Tocqueville’s observation about the military power of a democracy on the defensive.

Palestinian society by contrast proved as friable as old mortar plaster. It crumbled under pressure. As Morris notes, there seems not a single example of an elite family taking part in the fighting. King Abdullah of Jordan, in a message urging Palestinians not to flee, insisted that everybody remain to fight the Jews except for the old, the sick, women, children … and the rich.

In 1947, the Palestinians paid the price for the Arab Uprising of 1936-37. That year’s strife had begun as a pogrom against the Jews and ended as a civil war within the Palestinian community. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad al-Husseini, had instigated the uprising – then devoted as much energy to murdering his internal Arab opponents and clan rivals as to fighting the Jews or the British. The uprising ended in a defeat that left Palestinian society not only weaker and poorer, but also riven by family feuds and internecine hatreds.

After the UN vote, the Palestinians cracked under the strain of a war they had themselves launched. Dissident groups within the Yishuv – notably the more radical Irgun – submitted to political authority; the Palestinians turned on each other. The Jewish militias came to look and act more and more like a regular army; the Palestinian militias disintegrated into localized gangs. By the time the British evacuated Palestine in May 1948, the internal phase of the war had ended in bloody but decisive triumph for the Jews.

This unexpected and unwelcome presented the neighboring Arab states with an unhappy dilemma. Their populations utterly rejected a Jewish presence in Palestine. (While it’s often suggested that the Arab-Israeli dispute was “national” at the beginning and only became “religious” in the 1980s and 1990s, Morris notes that the Arabs themselves used the language of Islam and jihad from the very beginning.)

Yet the Arab states were in no way prepared for war. Their armies were designed for repression at home, not battle beyond their borders. None of the Arab leaders could admit this, however. They bragged and boasted to each other, creating a grimly humorous situation in which each belligerent knew its own weakness – but credited its neighbors with great strength. The Egyptians invaded because King Farouk feared that King Abdullah of Jordan would otherwise gobble up the whole of Palestine for himself. They Syrians and Iraqis of course could not afford to lag behind. And the shaky Christian-led government of Lebanon dared not expose itself as less Arab than the rest …

Adding to the bizarre ironies of the situation were the actions of the international community. It is of course hard if not impossible to generalize about the intentions of so many different national governments. But as expressed in the actions of the United Nations, the outlook of the international community could be summed up as follows:

The leading states of the English-speaking world dreaded both an Israeli victory and an Israeli defeat, with the US tilting slightly more in favor of Israel and Britain tilting slightly against. Both governments wanted to avoid a massacre of the Jewish population of course. But they also wanted to pressure the Israelis to accept something less than the already narrow borders they had been awarded in 1947 – and Israeli success threatened to win something more. (Which is of course what happened.)

The result: a series of diplomatic initiatives intended to restrain Israel, all of which backfired badly.

The first initiative was an arms embargo imposed equally on all sides. This embargo might have been expected to help the Arabs, since they started the war with a vastly larger inventory of weapons. In fact, it did just the opposite: The embargo cut the Arabs off from desperately needed resupply. The Israelis, who had established arms smuggling operations in pre-independence days, bought World War II surplus on international black markets, did deals with Eastern European governments, and (as the war advanced) began to build their own thanks to their emerging industrial capacity.

The “international” phase of the war was punctuated by two truces, each imposed at a moment when the Arabs had suffered a bad defeat. The idea was to open a space for negotiation before the Arab position deteriorated further. But the Arabs – terrified of their own populations, unwilling to expose weakness to rival Arab regimes – refused to negotiate. So the pauses instead assisted the Israelis, whose strength grew over time while the Arab strength waned. One dramatic example: In May 1948, the Israelis had no air force to speak of. By January 1949, they had won clear air superiority – thanks in great part to the many international volunteers, Jewish and Christian, who arrived to pilot the antique aircraft the Israelis had foraged from around the world.

The war did however eventually end, not in peace but in armistice. The new Israeli state was established – and one by one the Arab belligerents collapsed into instability. The Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1953, Iraq’s in 1958. King Abdullah of Jordan was assassinated. Syria plunged into 20 years of coups and counter-coups. The refugees were refused refuge by their host governments and left to welter and fester in refugee camps. And the 1949 armistice lines – lines that might have become accepted international borders had the Arabs been willing to sign a peace treaty – were soon expanded by further rounds of fighting.

Each of those rounds would have its own story, and yet the pattern of the conflict revealed in Round One would repeat again and again. Before each round, the numerical superiority of Israel’s enemies would look an awesome advantage. The rhetoric of enemy leaders from the Grand Mufti to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would threaten annihilating violence. The international community would always cluck and disapprove and seek to achieve peace through Israeli concession.

And yet in the test, those enemies would prove divided and uncertain; the rhetoric, a substitute for planning and purpose; and the international community would disappoint those who looked to it to impose a peace in their favor. The rise of Israel since 1948 has been the most astonishing act of state-building of the 20th century. For 60 years, we have heard that time was not on Israel’s side. But those who wait for “time” to win their battles for them will discover how very, very, very long “time” can take.

Someday, probably, some kind of negotiated peace will come to Israel. When it does, it will confirm the result won in 1948. Till then, Morris’ authoritative history will stand as a indispensable guide not only to what happened then, but why – and, by inference, why all subsequent attempts to overturn the verdict have so ignominiously failed.

The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Ret

David Frum February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm Comments Off

When the elder Arthur Schlesinger conducted the first presidential ratings poll back in 1948, no rx a panel of professional historians rated Andrew Jackson a handsome 6th, discount just behind Thomas Jefferson.When the younger Schlesinger (who had won a Pulitzer prize for his admiring study, The Age of Jackson) conducted the next of these polls in 1962, Jackson again finished 6th.

Yet in later surveys, Jackson’s standing has declined. C-Span’s 1999 poll consigned him all the way to 13th place.

How can this be?

Well imagine yourself a historian, asked to assign a numerical value to Jackson’s role in American history. On the one hand, he was a decisive executive, the first president to act as a head of government as well as a head of state. He championed national unity against secessionist threats, helping to postpone the civil war for a generation – until such time, as it happened, when the North was strong enough to prevail in a sectional conflict, as it was not in 1830.

On the other hand: Jackson was an economic idiot. When he forced his ideas about banking and finance into effect, he precipitated the worst financial crisis in the nation’s history to date, the crash of 1837 – which in turn triggered the harshest and most prolonged depression of the 19th century, from 1837 to 1843, a depression that Milton Friedman regarded as the only downturn comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Jackson was also a brutish white supremacist, whose expulsion of native tribes from the eastern United States bears uncomfortable comparison to the atrocities of Slobodan Milosevic.

So – 6th place? 13th place? Higher? Lower? Or maybe – silly question?

Alvin Felzenberg, former spokesman for the 9/11 commission, and a longtime friend of NR leans toward the “silly question” answer. His new book, The Leaders We Deserved (And Few We Didn’t) : Rethinking the Presidential Game, confounds all past participants in the game with a minute and detailed analysis of the question and subdivision of the answer. It is as if an NFL coach wandered into a neighborhood  touch-football game to critique the the style of play. Felzenberg breaks presidential performance into categories and subcategories, assigning scores in each and arriving at some startling results. (John F. Kennedy, whose star has tended to decline in recent years, jumps back into the upper brackets.)

Everyone interested in the role and history of the presidents of the United States – and judging by the global media attention to the US political process, that means almost literally everyone – will benefit and enjoy Felzenberg’s intricate and subtle analysis. But in taking the game more seriously than it has ever been taken before, Felzenberg incidentally exposes the game’s core problem: The attentively it is done, the more the false clarity of a number and a rank fades into the complexities and ambiguities of biography.