Noah Millman

Infinite Space, Bounded in a Nutshell

Jacob Tremblay in "Room"
Jacob Tremblay in "Room"

When I was younger, I experienced a pair of recurring dreams. I began having the dreams when I was around seven years old, and continued to have them, on and off, for years after.

In the first of these, I was lying in bed in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister (she was in her bed in the dream), and someone on the other side of the bedroom door was nailing the door shut – more precisely, nailing boards across the door to prevent it being opened. I knew this was happening – I could hear it – and I knew that my mother was on the other side, also aware that I was being nailed in. The dream recurred for years, but stopped recurring when I was still a child.

The other dream was both similar and thematically opposite, but it requires a bit of background to explain. So, in actual reality, when I was about six years old I and my three-year-old sister went exploring down a small hill behind our apartment building. A short distance down, we came to a path that went through a wooded area. We walked along the path for a bit, until we encountered a barking dog. The dog scared my sister, who began to cry, and I threw a stick in the dog’s direction, trying to distract it. That didn’t work, so we turned around and walked back along the path – but we couldn’t find our apartment building. We walked back and forth along the path, failing to find our way home, getting more and more anxious, until finally, in desperation, I led us off the path and straight up the hill. At the top of which we found our building, and my father, waiting on a park bench. I had forgotten that we had walked down the little hill to get to the path in the first place.

So: the dream. In the dream, I would wake up – and I would still be down on that path in the woods. I was still with my sister, still lost – but if I was sixteen when I had the dream, then I was also sixteen in the dream; time had passed just as it had in reality. And, in the dream, I would realize that it was my waking life – school, home, the works – that had been  a dream, while in reality for however many years had passed since that adventure when I was six, my sister and I had lived as feral children in the lonely dog-ridden woods. I had this second dream for far longer than the dream of being nailed in, recurring well into my teenage years and possibly into my twenties – I don’t recall precisely when it stopped. And it was so vivid that frequently I would wake from it to a deep disorientation about which was reality and which the dream.

All of which is preface to saying: the new movie, “Room,” knocked the frigging stuffing out of me.

“Room” – directed by Lenny Abrahamson (whose previous film, “Frank,” I also really liked; I’m clearly a fan) and based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, (who also wrote the script) – tells the story of the survival, escape and post-escape adjustment to mundane reality of a pair of captives. “Ma” (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son, “Jack,” (an astonishing Jacob Tremblay) live in a 100-square foot garden shed they both call Room. This is their entire world – and the only world Jack has known. You see, Ma was kidnapped by a stranger (Sean Bridgers) seven years ago, and has been held captive by him in this room ever since. He keeps her alive, bringing her food and providing heat and electricity and other necessities, so that he can continue to rape her on a regular basis. Jack, her son by her rapist and captor, was born in Room. He has never been outside.

For the first half of the film, our world is Jack’s world, and while we are aware of the horror that his mother experiences, the camera doesn’t make much more sense of it than Jack does. As well, by the time we meet this little family, the horror of their situation has settled into routine. Jack’s childhood, though strange, is also strangely idyllic, because he has the rapt attention of his mother. She feeds him and exercises him, reads to him and teaches him to read; she makes snakes out of egg shells to be his companions; and she hides him in the bureau when her captor pays his nighttime calls. Her entire existence is oriented around protecting and nurturing him. He is her only joy, her only care, her only interest in the universe.

Or so Jack thinks. Not long after his fifth birthday, his mother tells him the truth. (And we begin to see, really for the first time, what it has cost Ma to be what she has been for Jack for the past five years.) He learns that his mother has a history; that there is an outside world; and that he has a crucial role to play in the escape that will take them out of Room, and into that world outside. In a sequence that is simultaneously harrowing and exhilarating, Jack – who, remember, is only five years old and not only has never been outside but does not really have a concept of “outside” – carries out his mother’s plan for their escape.

And that’s when the trouble starts. Ma is reunited with her own mother (Joan Allen), father (William H. Macy) and new stepfather (Tom McCamus) – her parents’ marriage did not survive the trauma of their daughter’s kidnapping. But, bereft of the purpose provided by her terrible predicament, she comes face to face with how much she suffered, and lost, and begins to break down, falling into a suicidal depression. Jack has to reckon not only with a confusing and unfamiliar world, the need to read new people and situations, experience vantages and enter spaces whose contours he knows not at all, but with the loss of his anchor of stability, his mother.

The escape forms a structural hinge in the middle of the film, similar to the hinge in the middle of “Captain Phillips” that I described in my review of that film, in that there are effectively two films here. But in this case, the second film is not a reversal of the first (the pursuer now pursued, the aggressor now the apparent victim), but rather a commentary on the first. The first movie is primarily about Jack’s experience of life in Room, though through him we can experience something of what his mother is going through. The second movie is still secondarily about the mother’s experience, which we still get primarily through Jack’s understanding of it – but it’s primarily about Jack’s adjustment as he begins to make sense of the idea of Room as just one place among a world of places, a world in which he is quite suddenly not the center. It’s a testament to Jack’s emotional resourcefulness, and to the calm strength of his grandmother and her husband, that he is able to make the adjustment as well as he does, and say goodbye to Room.

That goodbye is a perfect capsule of the movie, and hence a perfect (perhaps too perfect) ending. Jack asks to be allowed to visit Room one last time, and so they are escorted by the police back to the scene of the crime. The shed, which once encompassed an entire world, now appears almost unfathomably shrunken, to us as well as to Jack. Jack says goodbye, and Ma echoes him. In her voice, it’s a plea – that she, and Jack, will actually be able to say goodbye to this horrible place. But in Jack’s voice, it’s the same goodbye any child gives to his or her first home, to a beloved transitional object, or to the first dear friend or relative who dies.

“Room” doesn’t lean too hard on the obvious exile-from-Eden trope, which is why that trope works so powerfully. What Jack is going through – expulsion from an exclusive zone of maternal concern into a world of complexity and independence – is what every child goes through eventually, though not usually in such a sudden and violent way.

Or maybe that expulsion is getting more violent as it is more delayed. Perhaps there’s something especially resonant about this story in our age of helicopter parenting, when too many kids are so thoroughly supervised that “outside” is unfathomable, and when too many mothers feel trapped by a crushing obligation that is also their entire purpose for being.

In any event, it would make an excellent double feature with “The Babadook.”

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Has Religious Polarization in America Maxed Out?

Political protest sign from the inauguration of George W Bush. (L. Kragt Bakker /
Political protest sign from the inauguration of George W Bush. (L. Kragt Bakker /

At the end of this FiveThirtyEight post about the big issues in the election, Leah Libresco has a bit about religion and social issues and how they may play out that references the big Pew Religious Landscape study with respect to party affiliation by religion. And, this being a FiveThirtyEight post, she has a chart. See?

Screenshot 2015-11-19 15.55.03

As the chart shows, certain religious groups skew more substantially to one party or the other. In particular, black Protestants, non-Christians and the unaffiliated skew strongly Democratic, while white Evangelicals and Mormons skew strongly Republican. Catholics and mainline Protestants are pretty evenly split.

This, of course, is not news. We’re a religiously polarized country; we know this. But, I wondered, has this polarization strategy reached a point of diminishing returns? Have we reached the point where either or both parties need to start reaching across the divide to prevail in close contests? Or do we potentially have even further to go down this polarized road?

To answer that question, I took a look at the Pew data and sliced it a bit differently. Rather than take a look at each religious group and how they skew by party, I decided to look at each party and see how they skew by religious group. Assuming that the Pew data is of registered voters (which I couldn’t determine readily if it was or was not), multiplying that data by Libresco’s numbers for percentages of the U.S. population and percentages of each group that is registered should give demographic weights for each group within each party.

And, I should stress, I didn’t look only at the breakdown of the politically affiliated. I also looked at the religious breakdown of that group which leans toward neither party. This group, after all, is the low-hanging fruit for any electoral strategy aimed at mobilizing voters by religious-based identity politics.

Here’s what I got:

Religious breakdown by party

As expected, the religious composition of the party coalitions differs starkly each from the another. Approximately 40% of the GOP electorate is white Evangelical, while only about 12.7% is religiously unaffiliated and a negligible percentage is black Protestant. By contrast, among the Democrats 26% is unaffiliated and 13% is black Protestant, while white Evangelicals make up 17.5%. Catholics and mainline Protestants make up similar percentages of each coalition, and other groups – “other” Christians (mostly Mormons but also Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox) and non-Christians (Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists) – make up relatively small proportions of either party coalition.

But what’s most interesting to me is the breakdown among those who lean to neither party. And what’s interesting is that among the politically unattached, the two largest groups are the religiously unaffiliated and white Evangelicals. Indeed, the religiously unaffiliated are a larger percentage of the politically unattached than they are of the Democratic coalition – and the relatively weight of white Evangelicals among the politically unattached is larger than the relative weight of any other group, including Catholics and mainline Protestants, within the GOP coalition. Together, the two groups represent more than 50% of the politically unaffiliated – several percentage points higher than their representation among the politically affiliated (Democrats plus Republicans).

What that suggests to me is that there are still gains to be made for both parties by pursuing a strategy of religious polarization. Rather than moderate its image on social issues, the GOP could further cement its image as the party of white Evangelical Protestants, and try to win converts from the substantial number of politically unattached Evangelical voters. Similarly, rather than make overtures to religious voters, the Democrats could double down on their identification with the irreligious, and try to win votes from the religiously unaffiliated voters who do not currently lean toward either party.

Needless to say, these identity-politics-based strategies would be mutually reinforcing. The more the GOP pursues the path of polarization, the easier it is for the Democrats to make gains by doing the same, and vice versa.

And since Catholics and mainline Protestants are the fastest-shrinking groups, that calculus is unfortunately unlikely to change any time soon.

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Why Defeating Daesh Is So Difficult

Ok, I know I said I had nothing useful to say about Daesh. And I really don’t. But Olivier Roy does, and this article is one of the best I’ve read since the attacks on Friday.

Roy has basically two points to make. First, France has no real regional allies in their fight against Daesh – and neither would the US if we joined them.

You would think Bashar Assad would be an obvious ally in this particular fight. TAC‘s founding editor even thinks we should explicitly align ourselves with Assad, Russia and Iran in order to crush Daesh. But is that what Assad even wants?

Bashar al-Assad’s main adversary is the Syrian opposition — now also the main target of Russia, which supports him. Mr. Assad would indeed benefit from there being nothing between him and ISIS: That would allow him to cast himself as the last bastion against Islamist terrorism, and to reclaim in the eyes of the West the legitimacy he lost by so violently repressing his own people.

And we’ve already seen that Russia’s efforts to shore up Assad have been aimed primarily at the Syrian opposition groups that are not affiliated with Daesh.

Iraq’s Shiites face a similar calculus, as does Iran:

The Shiites of Iraq, no matter what pressure they face from America, do not seem ready to die to reclaim Falluja. They will defend sectarian borders, and will never let Baghdad fall. But they are in no hurry to bring the Sunni minority back into Iraq’s political mainstream; if they did, they would have to share power with it. . . .

The Iranians, for their part, want to contain ISIS but not necessarily to destroy it: Its very existence prevents the return of the kind of Arab Sunni coalition that gave them such trouble during their war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

I would add, in addition, that if an explicit Shiite offensive would be a great recruitment tool for Daesh in the Arabian Peninsula, in Africa and in South Asia. Trying to win a sectarian civil war without picking sides has proved impossible – but what makes us think that by picking sides we’ll suddenly be able to win? The last time we tried a gambit like that was in our support for Croatia’s Operation Storm which – not coincidentally – led to the ethnic cleansing of basically the entire Serb population (as many as 200,000 people) from the reconquered region.

What about the Turks? They are Sunnis, and they surely don’t want the chaos in Syria to spread further into Anatolia?

The Turkish government is very clear: Its main enemy is Kurdish separatism. And a victory of Syrian Kurds over ISIS might allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., to gain a sanctuary, and resume its armed struggle against Turkey.

Well, then – surely our Kurdish allies will be of assistance?

The Kurds, be they Syrian or Iraqi, seek not to crush ISIS so much as to defend their newfound borders. They hope the Arab world will become more divided than ever. They want to seize Sinjar because it is in a Kurdish area. But they won’t attack Mosul, because that would be playing into Baghdad’s hands.

For the Kurds of Iraq, the main danger is seeing a strong central government emerge in Baghdad, for it could challenge the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan today. ISIS stands in the way of the creation of any such power.

I’m noticing a pattern. Should I even bother to ask about the Saudis? Or the Israelis?

For the Saudis, the main enemy isn’t ISIS, which represents a form of Sunni radicalism they have always supported. So they do nothing against it, their main enemy being Iran. . . .

Then there is Israel, which can only be pleased to see Hezbollah fighting Arabs, Syria collapsing, Iran mired in an uncertain war and everyone forgetting the Palestinian cause.

The conclusion sounds ominous.

In short, no regional player is willing to send out its forces, bayonets at the ready, to reclaim land from ISIS. Then again, unlike after 9/11, neither are the Americans. The United States’ strategy today relies on waging a war from afar, based on aerial strikes; Washington does not have the political will to send ground troops. Containment will have to do, and so, too, will killing terrorists by way of bombs and drones.

But war is not won without infantry.

Indeed, America has been conducting a pretty vigorous air war against Daesh for a year with at best equivocal results. Nobody is gung-ho for an American invasion, and our forays into Afghanistan and Iraq should not fill anyone with confidence in the likelihood of such an endeavor’s success.

But Roy goes on to argue, in so many words, that the spectacular attacks by on France, Russia and Lebanon conducted by Daesh are a sign of weakness rather than strength:

Much as with Al Qaeda earlier, the successes of ISIS increasingly amount to its grabbing headlines and the attention of social media. The ISIS system has already hit its limits.

It had two prongs: lightning-quick territorial expansion, and shock and awe. ISIS is hardly an Islamic “state,” if only because, unlike the Taliban, it claims no specific territory or boundaries. It is more like a caliphate, forever in conquest mode — occupying new lands, rallying Muslims from around the world — like the Muslim expansionist movement during Islam’s first century. This feature has attracted thousands of volunteers, drawn by the idea of fighting for global Islam rather than for a piece of the Middle East.

But ISIS’ reach is bounded; there are no more areas in which it can extend by claiming to be a defender of Sunni Arab populations. To the north, there are Kurds; to the east, Iraqi Shiites; to the west, Alawites, now protected by the Russians. And all are resisting it. To the south, neither the Lebanese, who worry about the influx of Syrian refugees, nor the Jordanians, who are still reeling from the horrid execution of one of their pilots, nor the Palestinians have succumbed to any fascination for ISIS. Stalled in the Middle East, ISIS is rushing headlong into globalized terrorism.

The attack against Hezbollah in Beirut, the attack against the Russians in Sharm el Sheikh and the attacks in Paris had the same goal: terror. But just as the execution of the Jordanian pilot sparked patriotism among even the heterogeneous population of Jordan, the attacks in Paris will turn the battle against ISIS into a national cause. ISIS will hit the same wall as Al Qaeda: Globalized terrorism is no more effective, strategically, than conducting aerial bombings without forces on the ground. Much like Al Qaeda, ISIS has no support among the Muslim people living in Europe. It recruits only at the margins.

That would seem to suggest that TAC‘s Philip Giraldi has a point in calling for a law-enforcement approach and basically waiting Daesh out. The trouble is, terrorists can escalate their attacks faster than they burn themselves out. We saw that with al Qaeda, which conducted an escalating sequence of attacks through 9-11. With infinite time, patience and resilience, a law-enforcement approach could well work even if there is no progress on solving the “root causes” of a phenomenon like Daesh. But neither France nor the United States has that luxury. We also under the constraint of political reality, and that reality demands translating outrage into action. If that action is not a massive effort to defeat Daesh militarily in Syria and Iraq, then what?

The other direction, recommended by Andrew Bacevich, is to play defense, and insulate America (and Europe) from the consequences of Middle East chaos. The trouble is that what this means in practice is rarely well thought out. Clearly, a more security-conscious approach to the refugee situation is in the offing. And I’m on record as saying that we should approach the refugee crisis with a view to facilitating repatriation after the current multi-sided civil war is done, rather than permanently resettling millions in Europe or further afield. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that letting huge refugee populations build up on the borders of Europe will somehow lead to greater stability and an end to migration flows.

Similar complications bedevil efforts to combat radicalization. Roy pooh-poohs the success of Daesh on social media, but social media have, in fact, dramatically changed the contours of any ideological fight. It is more possible than ever before to find a like-minded community of extremists and more possible than ever to insulate oneself from countervailing influences. We’re seeing this dynamic play out domestically with home-grown massacres on our campuses; Daesh and other terrorist groups take the same phenomenon to the next level. Besides which, Western governments and America in particular have exceptionally poor credibility in conducting this kind of ideological campaign. It’s ultimately one that needs to be led and organized by Muslims, and that will only be undermined by American involvement. But the Muslim states in the best position to provide financial support to such an endeavor are on the other side.

Which raises the problem of patronage for radical groups, coming overwhelmingly from the Gulf states that America is charged with defending. It is very easy to be sympathetic to calls from the likes of Charles Pierce to recognize that these states are functionally our enemies, and treat them accordingly. I would love to see America extricate ourselves from our involvement in the abominable war on Yemen, and to take a firmer line with the Saudis generally. But I’m also aware that people who know the Arabian Peninsula far better than I believe the better part of valor lies in not exacerbating the vulnerability of the House of Saud and risking chaos in the heartland of Islam. Our allies have gotten all too good at wielding the weapon of vulnerability against us – but that doesn’t mean the weapon isn’t real.

Roy concludes:

The question now is how to translate into action the outrage sparked by Friday’s attacks in Paris. A massive ground operation by Western forces, like the one conducted in Afghanistan in 2001, seems out of the question, if only because an international intervention would get mired in endless local conflicts. A coordinated offensive by local powers seems unlikely, given the differences among their goals and ulterior motives: It would require striking a political agreement among regional actors, starting with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

So the road ahead is long, unless ISIS suddenly collapses under the vanity of its own expansionist aspirations or tensions between its foreign recruits and local Arab populations. In any event, ISIS is its own worst enemy.

I agree that coordination among local powers seems unlikely, but it would be nice if we occasionally tried diplomacy. It’s hard to believe that regional coordination between the likes of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia is more likely to take place if we simply walked away. But perhaps it would: we are rather out of practice at facilitating the finding of common ground and common interests.

At all events, while the Administration’s approach may not be literally the least-bad of bad options, I take comfort in the fact that we’re led by someone who seems cognizant of the exceptionally thorny nature of the problem we’re dealing with.

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We’ll Always Have Paris


Moi qui tremblais, sentant geindre à cinquante lieues
Le rut des Béhémots et les Maelstroms épais,
Fileur éternel des immobilités bleues,
Je regrette l’Europe aux anciens parapets!

Me, trembling, feeling the howling rut
Of beasts and whirlpools fifty leagues off,
Eternal weaver of blue standstills,
Longing for Europe, its ancient parapets!

From “Le bateau ivre” by Arthur Rimbaud, translation by John Hartley Williams


My wife and I spent a week this past summer in Paris. Weirdly, I’d managed never to have really explored the city before, which was unfortunate, because it meant that this visit had to cover so much tourist ground. I mean, were we really going to go to Paris without visiting Notre Dame, or Saint Chapelle? Without spending a full day at the Louvre and another at the Musée d’Orsay? Without paying our respects to Rodin and Picasso and Monet – you get the idea. The consequence was that we took in an awful lot of art, and never got the “feel” of a city that is kind of all about the rhythms of a deeply civilized life. Or so I am given to understand.

Thankfully, we will always have Paris. It feels funny to say that with confidence, but I feel it. Cities of Paris’s stature are hard to kill. My home city of New York descended into chaos and near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. It’s not only still here; it’s stronger and more prosperous than it ever has been. Tokyo and Berlin were obliterated at the end of World War II. They have never in their history been more important capitals than they are today. In the century between the July Monarchy and World War II, metropolitan France’s population grew negligibly, and would have shrunk were it not for immigration, while the populations of its British and German rivals exploded. But France is still here, and still French. I am hard-pressed to name any outpost of Western civilization that does a consistently better job of passing its heritage down to future generations.

I wish I had something useful and new to say about the enemy of that civilization – of civilization itself – that we’re now enjoined no longer to call “ISIS,” or “ISIL” or “The Islamic State” because those names grant them the prestige they seek, but rather “Daesh” – or “radical Islam” because, apparently, the one thing on which Republican candidates for President and protestors on American campuses agree is that policing language is more important than dealing with reality.

But I don’t. When they first appeared on the scene, I compared this latest band of murderous fanatics to the Khmer Rouge and I stand by that comparison. Of course they have to be destroyed. The question is whether we have any idea how to destroy them, and I don’t see any evidence that we do.

Nonetheless, it’s also worth remembering that those ancient parapets are still standing, show every sign of continuing to stand, and will continue to stand if the spiritual descendants of those who built them don’t conspire in their toppling. Asabiyyah is ultimately an expression of love, and if the people of France still remember what they love, I have every faith that they will not let it be lost.


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Let’s Talk About Korea

In the last Republican debate, Donald Trump said the following in response to a question about how to handle Russia:

Well, first of all, it’s not only Russia. We have problems with North Korea where they actually have nuclear weapons. You know, nobody talks about it, we talk about Iran, and that’s one of the worst deals ever made. One of the worst contracts ever signed, ever, in anything, and it’s a disgrace. But, we have somebody over there, a madman, who already has nuclear weapons we don’t talk about that. That’s a problem.

China is a problem, both economically in what they’re doing in the South China Sea, I mean, they are becoming a very, very major force. So, we have more than just Russia. But, as far as the Ukraine is concerned, and you could Syria — as far as Syria, I like — if Putin wants to go in, and I got to know him very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates, and we did very well that night. But, you know that.

But, if Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, 100%, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it….They blew up a Russian airplane. He cannot be in love with these people. He’s going in, and we can go in, and everybody should go in. As far as the Ukraine is concerned, we have a group of people, and a group of countries, including Germany — tremendous economic behemoth — why are we always doing the work?

Hidden in that word salad is a real idea—or, rather, two ideas, that don’t live happily in harmony.

The first idea is “why are we always doing the work?” If we have interests and goals that align with other powers, we should be able to work together to advance them and share the burden of doing so in an equitable fashion. Likewise if we face a common adversary. Our need to always be the leader, always be the decider, always be involved—that gets in the way of seeing opportunities to get a decent percentage, though not all, of what we want for a hugely reduced price by letting other powers set the agenda sometimes.

The other, conflicting idea is “they are becoming a very, very major force.” If any other state—Russia, China, Iran, whoever—pursues an agenda of increasing their own power and position, that’s something we need to worry about and counter. On Iran, we decided that getting a deal was better than not getting a deal, particularly since Russia and China (and likely Germany) were not going to support continued hostility with no end-game. Iran, of course, was looking out for its own interests. So the deal is a “disgrace” where we gave away the store. China is asserting claims in the South China Sea, expanding its military capabilities—all rational actions for a power of its size and stature. This, by definition—whether or not they aim to challenge America directly, or whether our interests actually align—is viewed as a problem, because it’s a threat to the security of our supremacy.

If you want an illustration of the Thucydides Trap playing out in real time in the mind of a single person, it would be hard to do better.

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about the problems we have with North Korea myself. It’s just that, as I see it, the situation on Korea is not just a problem, but an opportunity. Specifically, an opportunity to lay the foundation of a more constructive relationship with a rising China. That’s what my latest column in The Week is about:

It’s not inconceivable that one day North Korean brinksmanship could spark a war. It’s also possible that the North Korean regime could collapse catastrophically, leading to a necessary intervention both for humanitarian reasons and to protect South Korea. Nor can it be ruled out that a future American President would take preemptive military action against North Korea as we did in Iraq and as we have contemplated doing against North Korea in the past.

In current U.S. war planning, the assumption is that China would remain neutral in the event of war, both because of the potential cost to China and because it lacks the capability to prevail against the United States. But any such conflict would unquestionably be perceived as enormously threatening in Beijing, and would likely set China on a more determined course of confrontation in the future, with an aim to removing America from the Western Pacific. The time to defuse potential consequences for the U.S.-China relationship is now, before a crisis erupts.

Now consider what the effect might be of conducting frank, bilateral discussions with China about the future of the peninsula. These need not be, indeed likely should not be, public discussions, if for no other reason than both sides of the DMZ would receive it poorly for being left out. But the goal would be to make it clear that, in the context of a peaceful reunification of North and South, America would be comfortable with a Korea that was free of both nuclear weapons and American bases. A freely reunified and denuclearized Korea would not be a base for future American encirclement of China.

China would have little reason to trust American intentions after having observed the post-Cold War expansion of NATO into states that were once part of the Soviet Union. But the advantage of undertaking such conversations now, when the situation on the peninsula is relatively stable, is precisely that there is little risk for either party in coming to an understanding in principle. In the event of a crisis, each side would have the basis from prior conversations to know our stated aims, and to measure our actions against them. In that way, our behavior in a future crisis could lead to mutual confidence rather than escalation.

Read the whole thing there.

Xi Jinping, as I understand it, is actually quite aware of just how useless the North Korean regime is to advancing Chinese interests, and how risky that relationship ultimately could be for China. Moreover, while a military base in Korea is valuable to the United States, it’s nowhere near vital. Reversing North Korean proliferation is a far more important goal.

In other words, American and Chinese interests on the peninsula, properly understood, dovetail far more than they diverge. Which means that even if we’re unable to solve the North Korean problem together (China may actually have very little leverage), open discussions could improve relations between America and China by making it clear to our respective leaderships both that we have strong common interests there, and that we are ready to work together to advance them.

But those kind of discussions can only happen if America recognizes that Chinese interests are legitimate, that Chinese distrust of our intentions is rational, and that the point is not to convince them that really we have their interests at heart – they’ll never believe that – but that we are capable of recognizing when our interests align, and in working together as partners when that is the case.

And, unfortunately, I’ve yet to hear a Presidential candidate in this cycle speak that kind of language.

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Happy Armistice Day


On November 11th, 1918, the war to end all wars came to an end.

Of course, it wasn’t the end of war. It isn’t even true that World War I ended on that date; there was an armistice on the Western Front, but fighting continued across the collapsing Ottoman and Russian empires for some time. But it remains true that the reason we are celebrating anything today is that a great and terrible war finally came to an end, and not because the enemy surrendered unconditionally, but simply because they came to the conclusion that fighting on was no longer a viable option, and sued for peace.

It’s is completely impossible to imagine such a celebration today. In our wars today, we cannot even describe what victory looks like; I couldn’t even tell you who might have the stature to sue for peace.

My son is growing up in a world where “armistice” is not a word in common use, but “veteran” always will be – we’re making new ones every day.

Are we sure this is the only possible world for him to grow up in?

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Speaking Truth To Pain

Northfoto /

There’s been a lot of commentary on the protests at my alma mater, which I guess shows that Yalies are right to assume the world revolves around them. Highlights, for me, include this piece by Alan Jacobs, this one by Conor Friedersdorf, and particularly this one by Kate Maltby, first, because she explains one distinctive driver of alienation for black students at Yale:

New Haven, one of the north’s poorest, densely African-American cities, spreads around a single island of privilege, Yale University. Last December, while I was back on campus to research my PhD, America learned that no officer would face charges in the death of Eric Garner, the black man killed in New York during an arrest for selling tax-free cigarettes (a libertarian cause if ever there was one). So each night I listened to angry protests spill out onto the streets – angry, but essentially peaceful. During trips to nearby New York, I hovered with the other awkward white liberals on the fringes of the perma-protest encamped at Grand Central Station, unwilling to walk past without a thumbs up or a few limp handclaps of support, but not sure if we were wanted in an African-American space and really quite keen to get on with our shopping.

This matters at Yale, perhaps more than any other Ivy League college. Europeans have always visited America and come back in shock at the implicit racial segregation visible on every street. (Americans, on the other hand, can never quite believe that Britain’s problems look different). But I’d never felt it in my marrow until I lived in New Haven. For the first time, I lived in a city where every single person on the margins was black, each one so much easier for the average white student to dismiss due to the darkness of their skin.

And then because of her distinctive take on Halloween:

I never thought I’d be defending American Halloween traditions at all. When I was young, my mother banned us from celebrating a ghost-day on Protestant grounds – and what’s fun about a feast that seems based on extortion? (‘Trick or treat? Kinder Egg in our basket or broken egg on your door?’) So when I arrived at Yale, a lost, cold foreigner recovering from a nervous breakdown at Oxford, I found the entire concept of a university-sponsored Halloween culturally alien – some might say, offensive.

But in a new community, you muck in, and pretty soon I discovered a carnival so far divorced from ghoulish paganism as to have abandoned it entirely. Instead, emerging from the Mexican Día de Muertos, and the 1970s drag fests of San Fransisco, adult Halloween became a Latin-style Mardi Gras, a day when any thing goes. It seemed the only day in the year when the pains and pressures of late adolescence were abandoned in favour of something like community: in my second year, deep in nasty student politics, a bunch of us at each other’s throats suddenly dropped the malice and banded together as a beaming Henry VIII and his six wives. (Five years after graduation, Henry and Kathryn Howard are happily expecting their second child). Who ever heard of a carnivale with rules?

It’s this spirit of Halloween – and with it, the balance between adulthood and childhood – that Christakis defends in her email, as she has consistently done in her previous writing. She’s doing exactly what an academic is supposed to do – drawing from her immediate research to inform university debate. ‘Pretend-play is the foundation of most imaginative tasks,’ she writes – in other words, our culture may be obsessed with authentic identity, but dressing-up still requires us to try out false identities instead.

That’s not to say that everything I encountered at Halloween was comfortable, though there are already university directives for dealing with clear-cut racial mockery, like blackface. But it was complicated: take my fellow international student, a black man from Africa, who dressed as a tribal demon from his homeland, only to be confronted by African Americans for looking too much like a racial stereotype.  Or drag: the Halloween drag of straight frat boys was mincing misogyny on display; the carefree, joyous cross-dress of queer students experimenting was a liberal celebration. Do we ban both?

There’s a deep irony in any student asking a university to censor them more, not less. These are students who crib Foucalt between classes, when they actually go to them (one student wrote that in response to Christakis’ email, ‘friends are not going to class, are not doing their homework, are losing sleep, are skipping meals, and are having breakdowns.’) But have they never discussed the institutionalisation of power?

The truth is that Yale has always encouraged students to talk back. In Britain, the student who screeched ‘F-you’ to a professor would be suspended: here, she’ll probably end up on a senior committee. It was this licensed rebelliousness that I loved when I first arrived, a refugee from stuffy, hierarchical Oxford. They really didn’t know how good they had it. At Oxford, it was hard to find a tutor who gave a toss for guidelines on sexual harassment – but at Yale, members of the Women’s Centre, with its safe rooms and empowerment seminars all funded by the university, felt strong enough to sue… the university, alleging that Yale failed to deal adequately with sexual harassment complaints. It is a liberalism to be celebrated, but a liberalism dependent on a lot of money. And a liberalism that reaches stalemate when students ask, according to their rights as adults, to be infantilised, again, like the masochist who demands to be beaten. I used to think Yale was the great example to which all British universities should look. Now, I’m not so sure.

I appreciate her piece because instead of talking in the abstract about racism or kids these days, she talks about her own experience in a particular place. In the face of someone she calls “screaming girl,” she doesn’t scream back. But neither does she respond analytically. She puts herself in the narrative.

I’m a fellow alumnus, and, personally, I think the email from Erika Christakis was a model for how civil discourse should be conducted, and the behavior of the protestors strikes me as ridiculous. But notwithstanding the tiny amount of skin I’ve got in this particular game, my personal opinions are pretty darned irrelevant. Indeed, the mere fact that I have personal opinions about this situation – and that so many of us internet voyeurs do – is a huge part of the problem. (And I’m an alumnus; imagine how irrelevant the opinions of most of the rest of you are.)

Which is why, for my money, the most important response was from Dan Drezner:

As Friedrich von Hayek observed 70 years ago, there is an awful lot of knowledge that is local in character, that cannot be culled from abstract principles or detached observers. What looks like free speech infringement at first glance can turn out to be something different the more one drills down. For one thing, the events of late last week were part of a larger chain of events at Yale beyond the e-mails that suggest a few obvious sources of frustration for minority students there in particular.

For another thing, part of the dispute is over the unique role that house masters play at Yale. . . .

An additional problem that affects the current generation of college students even more is that it is so easy for these contretemps to balloon so quickly into national debates. That’s extremely unfortunate. One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.

The difference today is that because of social media, it is easy for college students to have their opinions go viral when that was not the original intent.

In writing her email to students, Erika Christakis was doing her job, and doing it well. In standing in the yard and listening to students scream at him, her husband was doing his job – and, from what I could see, doing it reasonably well: not being dismissive, not losing his cool, not backing down. I hope that, in person and outside of the bounds of the video we’ve all seen, that he did what Maltby did, and put himself into the narrative.

But what job did the person taking the video think he or she was doing?

Most likely: protecting Master Christakis from being slandered in social media as a raging bigot. And, given the way the story has played out, it strikes me as relatively less-likely that the Christakises will lose their positions as a result of these protests. (I certainly hope they won’t.)

But what about “screaming girl?” The same piece of video that “defended” the college master is the one that could be used to “indict” her. Is she going to become an internet meme? Are there going to be hate websites set up specifically to mock her? To ask those questions is to answer them, isn’t it? This woman says she felt unsafe before. She has no idea how unsafe she could feel if the digital mob found out her name and address. All because someone took a video of her losing her cool.

And, of course, the dynamic could still play out differently. Take a look at what happened to the president of the University of Missouri, who did a notably lousy job (according to reports) of responding to student concerns about the racial climate on campus. If Christakis had lost his cool or been dismissive, I would bet he and his wife would have been canned by now, as Tim Wolfe has been.

(Not that I mean to pre-judge Wolfe’s sacking either. For all I know, he richly deserved his fate for mishandling race relations and campus justice over a long period. And for all I know, his resignation is a tragedy. If I had to put money on it, I’d bet that there were knives out for him already, perhaps for unrelated reasons, as often turns out to be the case when an institutional leader is abandoned by his board in the face of protests. But I’m not putting money on it, because I lack the local knowledge to have a meaningful opinion.)

All of which is to say: if you really think Erika Christakis had it right in her email, then the last thing you should be doing right now is wringing your hands about how “screaming girl” is a sign of the apocalypse. Instead, you should be engaging with her, directly, or ignoring her.

After all, that’s what she recommended that Yale students do when confronted with speech that they find offensive.

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To Vote Or Not To Vote

DonkeyHotey/Flickr (Clinton, Rubio)
DonkeyHotey/Flickr (Clinton, Rubio)

Damon Linker expresses thoughts very similar to my own:

[I]n all likelihood, Hillary Clinton will face off against a Republican nominee I could never support. (Sorry, Bernie Sanders Dreamers — it’s not happening.) My choice will be pulling the lever for Clinton, or sitting out the election. (And before you suggest it: I won’t be wasting my vote on a third-party candidate, which would probably just help the GOP anyway.)

So why am I tempted to withhold my vote from Clinton?

It’s certainly not because, like some Holier Than Thou leftists, I think she’s an “enemy of the poor” and a “garbage rich person.” (But then, I favored welfare reform, which President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996, so I obviously hate poor people, too.) It isn’t that, like Pig-Pen trailed by a cloud of filth, Hillary Clinton and her husband go through life enveloped by a rank-smelling fog of scandal, though that is and will remain a concern. And it certainly isn’t that she’s a woman: My daughter and I are eager for a female president. All things being equal, Clinton’s gender would strongly incline me to cast a ballot in her favor.

But all things aren’t equal. (Are they ever?)

What just might keep me from voting for Clinton is this: Her most recent and most prominent public position was secretary of state. And her biggest accomplishment in that office was helping to persuade President Obama to intervene militarily in Libya to oust Moammar Gadhafi.

It was easily the dumbest foreign policy decision of Obama’s presidency, plunging yet another Middle Eastern nation into anarchy, with the country eventually divided among an array of armed groups, including militias loyal to al Qaeda and bands of ISIS fighters. As one would expect, life in Libya today is markedly worse than it was under Gadhafi’s tyranny: Food and electricity are scarce, the economy is at a standstill, crime and violence are rampant, and the nation has become a major migration route for refugees from North Africa to Europe.

It would be one thing if Clinton acknowledged her error in encouraging the president to intervene militarily in Libya and pledged that she’d learned valuable lessons from the mistake. That would be more than a little galling, since those lessons — like that if you topple a dictatorship without making provisions for securing order, chaos is likely to arise in the resulting power vacuum — could easily have been learned from the precisely parallel failure of the Iraq invasion, which she also supported. But at least it would be a sign that the foreign policy of a new Clinton administration just might be made with slightly greater wisdom.

But Clinton has done no such thing. On the contrary, in the first Democratic debate, she stood by the decision to intervene and pronounced it a splendid use of American military force that amounted to “smart power at its best.” . . .

Over the past seven years, the Obama administration has made very tentative and halting steps in the direction of reconciling the United States to the recalcitrance of reality — to the limits of American power to shape the course of events in war-torn regions of the world and to produce outcomes that further our interests and the well-being of those swept up in convulsions of violence.

The Libyan fiasco was the administration’s single greatest step backwards in this regard — the moment at which the president allowed European allies and his secretary of state to convince him that the U.S. just had to do something about Libyan unrest between anti-government protesters and forces loyal to Gadhafi.

Everything we know about Hillary Clinton up to, including, and beyond Libya indicates that she would abandon Barack Obama’s partial and selective embrace of military restraint in favor of a more consistently hawkish foreign policy.

As Linker goes on to point out, the GOP can’t actually criticize the disaster of Libya because it is, as a party, if anything more reflexively belligerent. Which is why he’s thinking of sitting out the election entirely – unless the GOP nominates someone truly insane or wildly extreme on domestic issues.

My feelings about Clinton apart from foreign policy are a bit different. I’ve moved significantly to the left on a number of economic issues since the 1990s, and as a consequence am somewhat more receptive to a pitch from that quarter to expand the Overton window. And I’d love to see a truce in the culture war, instead of seeing the left press their advantage – but the left is pressing their advantage because it’s working for them; given that fact, it’s the right that needs to figure out how to gain electoral advantage by being more reasonable and less dogmatic, and they show no sign of wanting to do that.

But unlike the Republicans, the Democrats are exceptionally cohesive on both economic and social issues at this point, and I believe Clinton will move as her party moves on these questions. So, really, most of what matters is that she’s a Democrat.

Meanwhile, when it comes to her personal qualities, Clinton strikes me as a strong student of policy, a weak manager, and a mediocre politician. That’s probably not a combination that makes for a great President, but it certainly doesn’t mean she’ll be terrible. And I really can’t get exercised by the kinds of scandals the Clintons typically trail in their wake. The most scandalous thing about the Clintons is the very existence of their foundation, and so far as I can tell that’s completely legal.

There is one area, though, where Clinton is a true believer, and where she aims to lead, and that’s in foreign policy. She has favored every intervention of the past 20 years. She was instrumental in pushing for the Libyan intervention. But she is also on record as arguing for a tougher approach to Russia, and for the continuous expansion of NATO to additional countries. And she holds these views while also calling for a more robust intervention in Syria, including a no-fly zone that even she admits would require Russian cooperation to be at all effective. The difference between Clinton and Marco Rubio is that Clinton has actually been in the arena, and so has some idea of the challenges attendant on implementing a neoconservative foreign policy. But their goals, and their understanding of the world, are very similar.

So it’s fitting, I suppose, that Rubio is the only candidate of the four GOP leaders that Linker doesn’t say he’d oppose so strongly that it would compel him to vote for Hillary.


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Douthat on Houellebecq

Ross Douthat generously links and responds to my review of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission, so it behooves me to return the favor. Douthat’s one bone to pick with my own read is as follows:

Millman loses me when he suggests that this satire on Houellebecq’s own desires is somehow incompatible with the novel also being a satire of the Western elite writ large:

… even if we attribute to [the West’s consciously multiculturally-minded liberal elite] a kind of unacknowledged subconscious yearning for an old-time patriarchal masculinity, this novel does not particularly indulge that yearning—because the men we meet are as far as possible from those types. François does not learn how to be a “real man” from Islam, the Islamic regime simply bestows upon him a new social position, as it has done for an even less likely candidate for transformation whom François meets at a party, an elderly and socially awkward professor who would never have been able to marry under the old sexual dispensation. Even the social-climbing head of François’s department, a character named Rediger who is clearly intended to be a kind of Mephistophelean figure, is more of a dandy than a man’s man and he has done nothing to seduce his teenage bride. She’s simply trained gigglingly to obey.

But why can’t Houellebecq’s point be precisely that the actualsubconscious desire of Western man, liberal man, late-modern man is not really to somehow return to a true patriarchy, where you have to shoulder real burdens as the price of your authority, but rather to just play-act patriarchy with a giggling child bride or three while still drawing a government salary and living in a rent-stabilized apartment in a safe modern city? What can’t be he just be saying that many liberal men are themselves pathetically Houellebecqian, except without his self-awareness about their actual desires?

His suggestion, I think, isn’t that the modern enlightened adult male secretly “liking” teenage bikini pics on Instagram somehow contains, buried deep within himself, the soul of Saladin the Great. It’s that this pathetic excuse for a man could be effectively bought off, in the event of an actual cultural upheaval, by a regime that bestowed the illusion of real manhood (along with a comfortable sinecure) in a way that the present mix of official gender egalitarianism and internet fantasias do not.

That actually sounds pretty right to me – and inasmuch as I felt it didn’t really work as satire of the French or, more generally, Western elite, it’s because the whole book is such a smooth, glib glide. If he’s suggesting that the rest of elite France is Houellebecquian, only unconscious of it, he’d be more convincing if there were any actual characters to perform the function of being Houellebecquian while being unconscious of it. But there aren’t really any actual characters in the book other than François, the author-surrogate – and the various pseudo-characters endorse his neoreactionary read of events rather than disputing it. That’s why I said it felt like a pundit’s idea of a novel.

But I certainly agree with this:

“Submission” is as interesting for what isn’t recognizable about its vision as for what is. You don’t have to share the author’s dark view of late modernity to at least recognize the European society that he’s mocking, the types he’s ridiculing (himself included), the kind of decadence that he portrays as the West’s essential lot. But it’s noteworthy that while he only needs to exaggerate reality to make our own society seem ripe for some sort of submission, he needs to turn to a pure fantasy — one that’s not even detailed enough to be described as Orientalist — in order to envision how that submission might actually be imposed or brought about.

Which is, to harp again on an old theme of mine, the striking thing about our era in human history: There’s enough decadence in the West to make a fall or change imaginable, but it’s very hard, even for a novelist, to breath real life and plausibility into the alternative idea or way of life that might (in the near term) conquer or supplant our own.

It’s almost enough to make one wonder whether fretting about decadence isn’t part of the essential condition of modernity, unrelated to actual material conditions. Which does appear to be the case: after all, western intellectuals have been fretting about this at least since the Edwardian Age.

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Religion and American Foreign Policy

Earlier this week, I appeared on a panel at a TAC-sponsored conference on the theme of “Realism and Restraint.” I am honored to have been asked to speak, and had a wonderful time. So will you if you come next time we do one of these things!

I appeared on the third panel, which covered the subject of Religion and American foreign policy. My co-panelists were:

  • Damon Linker, who spoke critically about the “just war” tradition (if you want to get a good idea of what he said, check out his columns on the subject here and here);
  • Sam Goldman, who spoke about the Christian Zionist tradition in its liberal variant (epitomized by Reinhold Niebuhr), and how that variant came to be eclipsed by a right-wing apocalyptic alternative (epitomized by the likes of John Hagee but with roots that go back to the Puritans); and
  • Father Thomas Zain, who spoke about the plight of Christians in the war-torn lands of Syria and Iraq, how American foreign policy is exacerbating their travail, and how, in his words, what is needed is “not protection but peace.”

Myself, I spoke about the ways in which the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is increasingly of a religious dimension, and hence less-amenable to resolution.

Once upon a time, Zionism and Palestinian or pan-Arab nationalism faced off against each other, and in that contest over land and independence it was easy to understand how the baby might be split, even if it proved extremely hard to get both sides to agree on what kind of split might be fair. But the settlement movement in Israel and the rise of Hamas and even more extreme organizations among the Palestinians have made that less and less conceivable. It’s hard to compromise on commandments.

And this poses a challenge for an American foreign policy that has historically been anchored by the assumption that it is our job to facilitate such a compromise, whether by standing solidly with Israel (so that the other side understands it cannot win by force and must negotiate to get half a loaf), or by pressuring both sides (so that each side can point to the practical necessity of confronting their own rejectionists). We don’t have the standing to opine on religious matters, and hence are generally resented when we do. So it’s worth looking for an American policy that better insulates us from the consequences of a failure to achieve the necessary compromise.

I think I did ok, not great. Leon Hadar, another frequent TAC contributor who has written eloquently on the same subject, but he appeared on a different panel, so while the conference attendees did have the opportunity to partake of his wisdom, they had to settle for his thoughts on public opinion and the making of foreign policy. If you’re interested in his thoughts on religion and the Arab-Israeli conflict, they can be found here.

And you can watch the entirety of the conference here.

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He Didn’t Say Play On What, But I Still Think It’s a Marvelous Idea!

anna russell bagpipe

So, a few weeks ago I wrote a bit about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s perplexing Play On! project to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into more modern English. I ended with the hope that I’d have the chance to talk with someone at OSF to get a clearer picture of what they were after.

Well, I’ve now had the chance to speak to the woman in charge of the project. Unfortunately, the picture I got from our conversation is, if anything, more puzzling and muddier than it was before.

As it was explained to me, the project began several years ago with a grant from a long-time supporter of OSF to produce translations and adaptations of 5 plays, with the aim to reach audiences who might be alienated or distanced by the language of Shakespeare, by the way in which, say, a pun you don’t get takes you out of a scene. The donor was motivated by his own experience, and his suspicion that audiences generally shared this experience, and would benefit from a Shakespeare that could be understood more readily. The money included not just commissions for the authors but money for development through workshops and such, and extended beyond literal translation to more wide-ranging adaptation efforts.

The first play undertaken was Timon of Athens, and the text that resulted from the effort so impressed that they decided to go back to the well and ask for more money to do literal translations of the entire canon, while still undertaking other projects like a hip-hop adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona by the Q Brothers. The translations would be literal, never cutting or adding scenes or characters, but updating the language to make it more readily comprehensible to a modern audience. And thus was born Play On!

The project is completely funded by the grant; no money is coming from OSF. Meanwhile, OSF is only getting the right to publish a bound volume of the various translations. They are making no commitment to produce the plays, and will not produce them as part of their plan to complete the Shakespeare canon. And the various playwrights will retain all rights with respect to future productions – they could, if they so desired, put their translations in a drawer and never let anyone produce them at all.

Several times during the conversation I asked questions about the purpose and aim of the project, and the answers were invariably equivocal. Was the intention to produce texts that could be readily performed, or were they more intended as resources for directors and dramaturgs working with the traditional Shakespeare text? Either or both. How are plays like King Lear or Hamlet where there are important textual questions going to be handled – will the playwrights be working off a particular version of the play, and if so which? That’s a good question! In general they’ll work off the Folio text, but yeah, there are important speeches in Hamlet that aren’t in the Folio, so . . . ?

I asked whether they expected the level of opposition they have encountered. Well, in fact there were just as many skeptics within OSF as there were supporters. But – nonetheless they were quite surprised to face the kind of vitriol they have encountered.

I have to say, by the end of the conversation it seemed to me that the whole project must have been donor-driven to an alarming degree. It didn’t sound like this was something that OSF had long wanted to do. But there was a lot of money on offer to do something with translating Shakespeare. Could they possibly just say no? Of course not. But since they didn’t have a very clear notion of why they were doing what they were doing, they were reluctant to make any firm commitments on that score, in terms of planning productions, or making the texts available to community theaters, or – well, anything else besides fulfilling the donor’s explicit requirement that they commission literal translations.

And as such, it’s a real cautionary tale. I was out drinking the other night with a classically-trained actor friend, who had just completed a table reading of Antony and Cleopatra with a bunch of younger classical actors, and he was struck by the casually disparaging attitude they evinced towards OSF. As he noted, only months ago they would have looked on any kind of affiliation with Oregon as an aspirational goal. Now, overnight, it had become a punchline.

That’s not going to last, of course. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will continue to do great work, and that is what will matter over the long haul. But if they don’t want Play On! to be their New Coke, it behooves them to figure out why they are doing it. And then, if necessary, adjust the terms of the grant and the project to be better aligned with that specific rationale.

Personally, I’d nudge them away from producing “literal translations” of the canon, and towards creating, on the one hand, a publicly-available resource for directors and dramaturgs looking to speed the process of updating the language in particular scenes – which directors do all the time – and, on the other hand, commissioning truly new plays that are adaptations of Shakespeare in the mold of David Ives’s adaptations of Molière – modern verse plays that both draw on and recall the original but are invested with the spirit of the modern playwright.

And, frankly, I’d urge them to look to doing translations that really are necessary, to reach communities for whom there is an inarguable barrier to fully appreciating Shakespeare as traditionally performed. I’m thinking these guys might have some pointed ideas in that regard.


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Awake and Sing


I somehow managed to miss the original production of the musical, Spring Awakening, based on the Frank Wedekind play of the same name. But I am very glad to have managed to see the revival from Deaf West Theatre, currently on Broadway, an exceptionally moving evening of theater.

I say that in spite of the fact that I think the Wedekind play is more than a little bit  hysterical, and the additional fact that the musical adaptation, to my mind, softens the source material in ways that make it less-interesting. Wedekind’s play is substantially about attempts to repress budding sexuality and the pain and suffering that results – but it is first and foremost the budding sexuality that causes the pain; the problem with repression is that it inevitably fails. Spring will awaken, whether you do a May dance for it or not. And that awakening will be beautiful, but also dangerous – and you can’t escape that danger by building walls against the outside world, because it is growing from the inside. Meanwhile trying to escape leaves you unprepared for both the beauty and the danger.

The musical, though, takes its liberationist cues from its alt-rock musical stylings, and suggests that repression is the primary source of danger – that if the grownups would only listen to their children, and stop trying to control them, all would be well. This is a very teenage perspective, and both rock music and rock musicals have gone there before – with more memorable anthems than here. Weekend’s perspective is rather less sanguine.

The change is easiest to delineate when looking at the character of Melchior and his relationship with Wendla. As in the original Wedekind, Melchior is something of an exception to general repression. He’s an atheist, brought up by a mother who believes in free thought. Alone among the teenagers, he knows the facts of life – and teaches them to his hapless friend, Moritz, to help dispel the enchanted power of the succubi that visit him nightly in his dreams, reducing them to a more tolerable, merely human misery. (The gambit doesn’t work; Moritz is just as tormented after his enlightenment as he was before.) As in the play, all the girls swoon over Melchior’s combination of athleticism, intellect and charisma. And, as in the play, he forms a particular connection with Wendla, a just-pubescent girl who is exceptionally ignorant of the most basic facts of sexuality.

In the scene most faithful to the source material, Wendla, having just learned that a friend of hers is regularly beaten (as well as molested) by her father, asks Melchior to beat her so she knows what it feels like – so she can authentically feel something, anything. And when he doesn’t beat her hard enough, she pushes him to escalate his efforts until he is bludgeoning her furiously and runs off in tears.

But in the play, when Melchior later meets Wendla in a hayloft, he is overcome by desire and rapes her. (Earlier in the play, Melchior admits to being unable to imagine what it’s like to be a woman, a clue to problems to come.) Wendla, knowing nothing about sex, doesn’t even really understand what is happening, and is left disoriented and in shock. By contrast, in the musical, sex in the hayloft is a moment of mutual affection. Wendla doesn’t know what she’s doing, and therefore has no idea of the consequences. (She gets pregnant; her mother arranges an illicit abortion; she dies of the procedure.) But she knows what she wants, and what she wants is Melchior.

This alteration makes it much, much easier for us to like Melchior and hope that at least he will come to a good end. Which is precisely why I don’t trust it. It’s stacking the deck, shifting the story to much more comfortable ground, and thereby draining it of some of its visceral power. Melchior’s actions in the play arouse all our protective impulses toward Wendla – but much of the play has already demonstrated how those protective impulses did not serve these children well when their sexual awakening begins. Far easier to imagine that they don’t need no education, and would just be good if they were allowed to be free.

I’ve gone on a bit too long about this one point, but it’s all to explain why I went in without huge expectations for emotional impact. So why do I say this was an exceptionally moving evening of theater?

Honestly, I have to give all the credit to Deaf West. The only play I’ve ever seen before that substantially revolved around a deaf character played by a deaf actor was Tribes, but this isn’t explicitly a play about deafness. Moreover, it’s a musical. And I have to say, it was a really extraordinary experience just watching how everything played out. How choreographed signing of the songs became a kind of music of movement, a kind of modern dance. The double consciousness of watching a signing actor perform a part while another actor, in the shadows, “translated” from sign to speech. The plain old raw energy of relatively less-studied performers on a Broadway stage, and the additional dimension that their deafness – a visible sign of alienation – gave to the situation of their characters. And how young they all seemed!

Doing this play in this way made it something considerably more than it otherwise might have been. I can’t imagine being moved nearly so much by poor Moritz’s plight if he hadn’t been played with such naive poignancy by Daniel Durant, nor by Wendla’s ignorance if it weren’t signified by such desperate signing by Sandra Mae Frank. Frankly, I can’t see myself liking the music half so much without the wonder of seeing how you sign a rock song.

And so, I sincerely hope this is itself an awakening, and not the last Deaf West production that will come east. I mean, I can only imagine what they’d do with West Side Story.

Spring Awakening runs at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway through January 24th, 2016.

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Debate Recap

I saw about a third of the debate. It was enough. Jeb Bush is not going to make it to New Hampshire. He could be out well before then. Almost by definition, the candidate most helped by Bush’s continued implosion is Marco Rubio. So Ross Douthat should be feeling pretty good about his book tonight.

Everything else, I suspect, is second-order stuff.

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A Four-Man Race

Christopher Halloran /; Andrew Cline /
Christopher Halloran /; Andrew Cline /

The GOP nomination contest is starting to settle in to a four-man contest, each of the four having a legitimate argument to being the most-plausible nominee. The four candidates being:

  • Donald Trump. He’s the leader in most polls nationally and in most early states, and has been for an extended period of time. He’s seen by most Republicans as the toughest candidate with the strongest leadership qualities. He’s not a factional candidate, drawing support from across the ideological spectrum within the GOP. And he’s fully capable both of self-financing a primary campaign and of raising a respectable amount of money if needed both from small donors and from his business associates. On the other hand, he’s a political neophyte who appears to know and care next to nothing about policy. He delights in offending people. He’s loathed by essentially the entire professional leadership of the GOP, and has high negatives generally with Republicans for someone in such a strong polling position.
  • Ben Carson. He’s either first or second in nearly all recent polls both nationally and in every early primary or caucus, and his poll position has been rising. He’s raised an impressive amount of money – more than any other candidate has raised in direct campaign funds (he has essentially no support from super-PACs). He’s got the highest favorable ratings of any candidate in the race, and the more Republicans hear about him the more they seem to like him. On the other hand, not only is he a political neophyte who appears to know and care next to nothing about policy, he often sounds like a true crank – or worse. He’s also got essentially no elite support from either party professionals or major donors, and he’s something of a factional candidate, drawing his strongest support from very conservative and evangelical voters. And while he’s rising rapidly in the polls, his supporters are relatively weakly attached, compared to some other candidates’ voters, particularly Trump and Cruz.
  • Marco Rubio. He’s polling third in recent national polls and in most early states. He’s raised a very respectable amount of money both directly for his campaign and from super-PACs (placing fourth in the former and third in the latter). He is acceptably orthodox and can readily win the approval of both professional Republican elites and major donors. He has clearly won the media primary – his coverage is vastly more flattering than the other “normal” Republican candidates like Christie or Kasich, to say nothing of the hapless Jeb Bush. He’s the only establishment-friendly candidate with any kind of positive momentum. And he hasn’t yet made any serious mistakes. On the other hand, he has not had any notable successes, either as a legislator (he has basically no record of accomplishment) or as a campaigner (he’s a Republican Obama who has never given a notable speech or taken a notable stand). The argument for a Rubio candidacy is basically that he’ll be the last acceptable man standing.
  • Ted Cruz. He’s polling fourth or fifth nationally, third or fourth in Iowa, and fourth on average in South Carolina. He’s been an exceptionally impressive fundraiser, placing second in both the direct money race and the super-PAC race. He has run an exceptionally disciplined campaign and has, like Rubio, made no notable mistakes. And he is the best-positioned candidate to win the support of either Trump or Carson supporters should either of those candidates lose momentum, both because of his strong evangelical support and his strong opposition to the GOP establishment. On the other hand, he is positively loathed by that establishment. More important, while he’s not really a factional candidate, he’s more than just an outsider running against Washington – his entire brand is that he is an extremist. And he’s an extremist neophyte with no record of accomplishment.

I no longer consider Jeb Bush as one of the top-tier candidates. His direct fundraising for his campaign has been dismal. He’s been dropping in the polls for months, to the point where he’s now basically fighting with Carly Fiorina for fifth place. He’s got no message. He’s a terrible campaigner. The media mocks him. Conservatives don’t trust him. Nobody is excited about him – not even him. And his last name is Bush. I’m clearly surprised that it’s come to this, since I thought he really had the pole position right from the start. He came into this campaign in a stronger position than John McCain did in 2008 or John Kerry did in 2004, and has performed vastly worse. It’s getting harder and harder to see how he recovers to win this thing.

I also don’t think Carly Fiorina is a serious contender. She failed to capitalize in any important way on the rave reviews she earned for her two debate performances. She’s another orthodox Republican, but without the resources of any of the top four contenders, and she’s an outsider without the distinctive appeal of Trump or Carson, and without a record of achievement outside of politics that she can actually run on. As for the remaining contenders, none of them have anything going for them at this point – not popular support, not elite support, not money. The only ones with somewhat distinctive message and positioning are Rand Paul and John Kasich, and their distinctive positions – relative dovishness for Paul and relatively moderate views on budgetary and economic questions for Kasich – are precisely what make them least-attractive to both elites and the grassroots this season.

We’ll see whether tonight’s debate shifts the ground at all. I don’t expect it to. I think Daniel Larison is probably right that the most-likely points of conflict are going to be attacks on Rubio for not lowering the top tax rate enough, attacks on Trump for not supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and attacks on Congress for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. The first might hurt Rubio, but to whose benefit? It’s unlikely to be Bush’s. Possibly Fiorina’s. The second will likely only help Trump. And the last is pitched right over the plate for Ted Cruz. Kasich will probably make a hail-Mary appeal for economic moderation, and Paul may possibly make a similar appeal for libertarian ideological consistency, but I wouldn’t expect either strategy to move the needle materially for either candidate. Bush might attack Rubio for his inexperience, and tout his own record as governor, in an effort to wound the candidate most-likely to inherit his support if he continues to fall. But that will likely either backfire and help Rubio or will hurt both of them.

So if the ground shifts, I’d expect it to shift modestly in Cruz’s direction if anywhere. He won’t attack Trump on trade, and he’s in the best position to benefit from attacks on Congress for raising the debt ceiling, or from any other events that wound either Trump or Carson. So the top four will still be those above, with the rest of the field running out of time to change the game.

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Michel Houellebecq’s Affair with Islam

Shutterstock / The American Conservative
Shutterstock / The American Conservative

Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, came out in French in the winter of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and it was in the context of that atrocity that the novel was originally received. A speculative fiction premised on the election of an Islamist candidate to the presidency of France, Submission was misconstrued in some quarters as a call to arms from a nativist, anti-Muslim right-wing perspective—a warning of the horrible fate that awaited France, and the West more generally, if it did not wake up to the menace of creeping Islamization.

Now the English edition of the novel is out in the autumn of the Syrian refugee crisis and the divergent responses to it from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Once again, there is the risk of the novel being misunderstood—and unread—as a call to resist an invasion by modern-day Goths, lest the West face another Adrianople in the not-too-distant future.

But far from crying “stand, men of the West!,” Houellebecq’s novel is almost the opposite: an argument for, if not rushing to embrace an Islamic future, at least trying to lie back and enjoy it when it comes. And the lingering question, in this reviewer’s mind at least, is: for whom, apart from Houellebecq himself, is this fantasy of submission especially appealing? If the book is a satire, who, precisely, is being satirized?

Submission’s hero, François, is a professor of French literature specializing in J.-K. Huysmans, a 19th-century Symbolist writer and aesthete who later in life became a devoted Catholic. François, in the manner of previous Houellebecq author-surrogates, is bored, anti-social, and half-heartedly obsessed with sexual gratification—obsessed because nothing else seems to interest him remotely as much, but half-heartedly so because even that quest doesn’t feel especially compelling. He has a rotating series of temporary girlfriends, all well his junior, the most recent of which is a voluptuous Jewess named Myriam. But as a burgeoning political conflict between the nativist right and a new Islamist party heats up, Myriam departs for Israel, taking with her François’s best hope for happiness, however dim it may be. As François laments, “there is no Israel for me”—by which he means, no place, no affection, no identity worth fighting for, worth refusing to surrender.

In the wake of Myriam’s departure, the political background moves to the foreground. Nativist and Muslim paramilitary groups battle in the streets, but the news media fastidiously refuses to report the news. An election is held—and then cancelled because of attacks on polling places. The National Front and Muslim Brotherhood face off, and the country feels on the brink of civil war, until the old political establishment of the Socialists and Gaullists collectively deliver peace by backing the Brotherhood candidate in exchange for all the “important” ministerial posts—defense, finance, etc.—since the Brotherhood is primarily interested in the education portfolio, where they aim to win the future.

The Brotherhood sweeps to victory and promptly delivers the promised peace. Their candidate, Mohammed Ben Abbes, far from being a radical firebrand, is a cultured and patient leader who knows how to move the consensus his way. His economic program is a version of distributism, the Catholic 19th-century school of political economy that emphasizes the importance of small property owners and family businesses rather than the pure free market or the welfare state. His social program is strongly natalist, encouraging women to leave the workforce and take care of their children (and husbands). His foreign policy is pan-Mediterranean, aiming to transform both Europe and the Middle East by bringing North Africa and the Levant into the EU.

This program works almost immediately. Crime in the banlieues drops by 90 percent overnight. Women immediately leave the workforce in large numbers, and start dressing more modestly to boot. France’s stature in the EU vaults upward, and the rest of Europe readily endorses the fast-track approval of majority-Muslim candidate states from Morocco to Turkey. When the budget needs to be balanced, Ben Abbes slashes social spending to the bone, particularly on education (the powerful French unions barely muster a protest), while money pours in from the wealthy states of the Persian Gulf to finance Islamic schools as an alternative—or an outright replacement, as with the newly Islamic Sorbonne, where François used to work but may no longer do so because he is not a Muslim.

That last problem is a matter of little financial importance, though, and easily rectified in any event. Laid-off professors are given extraordinarily generous pensions—again, courtesy of the oil sheikhs—so as to avoid any trouble from the intelligentsia. But the administration is exceedingly eager to have François return to work, offering him a much higher salary with many fringe benefits if he will undergo the formality of conversion. The new regime, it seems, cares far more than the old did for a fellow like François. They will even provide him with a trio of well-trained and pliant wives—he should be able to afford as many as three on his new salary—so that he no longer needs to partake of the services of prostitutes or hunt among the student body for sexual satisfaction, as was his wont.

François submits. And he feels pretty good about it. As he proclaims, it feels like a new lease on life, comparable to his father’s second, late-in-life marriage.

The marital analogy comes almost at the end of the novel, but it seems like a belated key to understanding what had come before—because the vision of the transformation of society Houellebecq describes as taking place once the Islamists take over cannot be read as negative, much less dystopian, but neither is it remotely plausible. So it must be a fantasy.

Why can’t it be negative? Well, from the perspective of François, every aspect of the new regime seems designed to make his life more pleasant. He’s offered both a generous retirement and the chance at a far more remunerative and satisfying career. He never looked for any kind of emotional connection with women, so it hardly matters that, under the Islamists, they are reduced to socially invisible, characterless ciphers. And with three wives, they will be more available than ever before and will provide a more comprehensive list of domestic services. The economy improves; France’s political position improves; crime evaporates—even the food is better. What’s not to like? thisarticleappears

Yet for all the same obvious reasons, it’s a fantasy. In reality, women have psychologies, including Muslim women. Forget about feminism—which is a force within the Muslim world, though badly overmatched by the advocates of traditional patriarchy. Even within a deeply patriarchal society, the family is a zone of frequent conflict, not of perfect harmony. And even if you believe that this conflict is preferable to the ennui of the sexual marketplace, it’s absurd to pretend that under Islam marital relations are pure bliss.

The economics are similarly absurd. The abrupt departure of millions of women from the workforce would reduce the aggregate productivity of the economy, ushering in a sharp recession. Once again, that might be a worthwhile tradeoff for the social good of stronger families, but the tradeoff should be acknowledged. Sillier still is the notion that college professors would be treated like royalty in an Islamist France. In the real world, the Gulf states would be vanishingly unlikely to care enough about winning over the good opinion of obscure French literature professors—they would certainly not triple their salaries in order to do so. (Nor would they have quite enough money to underwrite the complete social transformation of Europe.)

There are no magic wands Islamist leaders can wave to cause crime to vanish. Civil strife has not evaporated in the countries where they have come to power, whether by violent or non-violent means.

So the scenario is a fantasy, which is not necessarily a problem. Houellebecq has created a world, not a position-paper, and that world needs to be emotionally persuasive, not to pass an audit. But then, the world he created has few characters with real emotions—really, only François. The book feels in many ways like a pundit’s idea of a novel, an “idea” laid out through bits of plot and dialogue rather than a living thing.

But to say that it’s a fantasy leads to a question: whose fantasy is it? Without the answer, one cannot say where the satire’s sting is aimed.

It’s not the fantasy of political elites in Western societies. If there’s a fantasy that consciously appeals to the adherents of multiculturalism, it’s that there are no important differences between cultures: we’re all good liberals in training, and Islam will be dissolved as readily as Christianity was before it.

These elites may not know their own minds. But even if we attribute to them a kind of unacknowledged subconscious yearning for an old-time patriarchal masculinity, this novel does not particularly indulge that yearning—because the men we meet are as far as possible from those types. François does not learn how to be a “real man” from Islam, the Islamic regime simply bestows upon him a new social position, as it has done for an even less likely candidate for transformation whom François meets at a party, an elderly and socially awkward professor who would never have been able to marry under the old sexual dispensation. Even the social-climbing head of François’s department, a character named Rediger who is clearly intended to be a kind of Mephistophelean figure, is more of a dandy than a man’s man and he has done nothing to seduce his teenage bride. She’s simply trained gigglingly to obey.

Submission is not the fantasy of the nativist far right, either, though that’s a more intriguing possibility. There are no actual liberals in the novel: essentially all the characters accept the premises of the extreme right as true if unacknowledged. And one of Houellebecq’s more creative choices is to have Rediger be a former nativist and a scholar of Nietzsche who became a Muslim not out of simple expediency but because he saw that, for all his affection for the culture of his ancestors, the Muslims represented more faithfully the virtues that he most admired. But as Putin’s Russia amply demonstrates, there’s no objective reason why Christianity can’t be pressed into service by a state aiming to revive a martial, patriarchal spirit. Indeed, it is Putin’s Russia that has become the real-life fantasy land for Europe’s nativists, who have shown no interest in crossing over to the Islamist side in our clash of civilizations.

Is this supposed to be the fantasy of the Islamists themselves? One can certainly find rhetoric from that quarter about the decadence of the West and the inevitable triumph of Islam due to greater fecundity and civilizational confidence. But we never meet a single cradle Muslim in the novel. Houellebecq’s is a conversation entirely between Frenchmen.

Or, really, entirely with himself. Houellebecq’s vineyard, which he has been working for decades, is Western boredom and exhaustion, the profound dissatisfactions of life under capitalism, the welfare state, and the sexual marketplace. When he began to write Submission, as he has said, he thought it would recount a character’s journey back to Catholicism, much as François’s subject, Huysmans, returned. But he found himself unable to feel his way into that particular journey. It felt forced, false. He couldn’t ultimately believe in such a return.

But Islam—that felt plausible. Not, I suspect, because it fit his needs better, but because he could fit it to his needs better. Catholicism might promise peace and harmony, but Houellebecq had some idea what that religion looked like in practice and what sacrifices it would entail. Islam, the perpetual “other,” he could imagine as being a “worldly religion” that would deny him nothing of consequence and cater to his deepest desires at no cost.

Islam, in other words, is playing the part of the fantasy second wife that the husband imagines awaits him if the old bag finally kicks or he gets the guts to leave. The one who makes no demands, who really gets him, yet somehow isn’t boring but exciting and exotic. She makes him feel alive again, without actually asking him to change anything at all.

That’s a fantasy, yes. But it’s not a fantasy of submission.

Noah Millman is a senior editor for The American Conservative.

Stand and Deliver

Damon Linker defends the history lecture:

A more powerful and compelling defense of the humanities lecture course would have to proceed differently — into terrain that professors of history, philosophy, and literature often find exceedingly uncomfortable these days. Such a defense would require that they confidently assert that professors in the humanities possess knowledge, that this knowledge is valuable, and that the most effective way of conveying it to unknowledgeable students is to explain it to them in a lecture format.

There are many reasons why professors in the humanities are disinclined to mount this kind of self-defense. For one thing, the knowledge they offer seems so much less universally verifiable and socially useful than the knowledge produced in the STEM fields. Then there’s postmodern skepticism, which convinces many humanities professors that all claims to knowledge are thinly veiled assertions of power and efforts at exclusion and marginalization. (Who would want to be found guilty of that?) Finally, there are the democratic sensibilities that Worthen herself highlights in talking about our discomfort with the way that lecturing implies a hierarchy elevating the professor over her students.

All of these trends combine to make us uncomfortable with a professor pronouncing authoritatively from a lecturn — and increasingly at ease with group work in which no one sets himself up as an authority, no one presumes to pronounce definitively on truth and falsehood, and no one lays down a metanarrative and forces the students to master it. Small groups of three or four young adults simply working it out for themselves seems so much more in keeping with our moral convictions.

The democratic approach to education might comport with our egalitarian sensibilities, but it’s pedagogically foolish.

Why do students of history need teachers who will stand at the front of a classroom and lecture? Because history is hard. It presupposes the knowledge of thousands of facts (names, dates, events) and how they fit together into an enormously complicated, multi-dimensional causal sequence. Until the students absorb those facts and grasp that causal sequence, “group work” and other forms of interactive learning are premature.

That’s why lecture-based courses that do the introductory work of explaining the past must come first — and why such courses are typically followed by smaller, more advanced seminars that foster conversation and debate and raise questions of historiography (competing and conflicting interpretive traditions about the past). By that point, students have learned enough — they know enough — to begin participating more actively in their own education.

But not before.

I’m not sure you really need to wait to work in groups until after you’ve finished listening to lectures – I think many students benefit from group work from very young ages. But I agree wholeheartedly with the defense of the lecture as such, and would alter Linker’s emphasis only slightly, as follows.

Some students – particularly those who don’t readily grasp the material – are greatly aided by having a framework within which to situate themselves, and that’s precisely what a narrative provides. But the strongest, most independent-minded students may well chafe against the restraints of such a framework. And the thing is, pushing against that framework is exactly what is going to make their own intelligence more powerful and effective.

I forget who it was – Helen Vendler, possibly – who questioned the Columbia University core curriculum’s notion of what makes books “great” by noting that, while you could build a canon out of Virgil, Dante, Milton and Tolstoy, you could also build a very different canon out of Ovid, Boccaccio, Cervantes and Joyce. Without even getting to once-trendy debates about the identity politics of the canon, you can have a robust debate about what kinds of books qua books belong in such a list, and what putting a book on such a list does to the book itself. But you can’t have that debate without first making precisely such a list.

Similarly, I learned about modern art from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the art history book they put out which amounted to a text. MoMA was notorious, then, for imposing an extremely strong narrative on the history of modern art, one that emphasized purity and a drive toward abstraction. It’s a narrative that was born as Abstract Expressionism rose to prominence, and it reflected that movement’s own values. And it’s a narrative that made it hard to explain why exactly an artist like Klee or O’Keefe was important. But you couldn’t have had that argument without having a strong narrative to argue against.

All of which is not so much an argument for conservatism as it is for taking a stand. Yes, there is a multiplicity of defensible, workable narratives, for history, philosophy, etc. But I am giving the lecture, and I see things this way. And part of the way I am going to teach you how to come to your own perspective is by making you deal with mine. Yes, this means your perspective will be shaped by mine, either by acceptance or by resistance or by a creative reinterpretation that winds up subsuming my own perspective into something new that you can call your own. But how else can you learn?

And now, I’m going to take off my Harold Bloom mask and get back to writing that screenplay.


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Quebec Unveiled

Those of you with fewer Canadian stage actors in your Facebook feed may not have been quite as aware as I have been of the volatile state of politics in Canada. For some time, it has been clear that a majority of Canadians wanted to repudiate Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, but could not decide who to vote for, instead. It looked, for a while, like the New Democratic Party, roughly Canada’s version of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, might build on their dramatic gains in 2011 and form the next government. Instead, yesterday Justin Trudeau and the Liberals surged not only to victory but to an outright majority. Those interested in more details, including results for specific ridings, can find all the data they might want at the CBC.

The Liberal resurgence in Atlantic Canada was expected, as were gains in the West and in Ontario, though obviously if the election had been held in late summer those gains would have been less-dramatic. If there was a decisive development in this election, it is the utter collapse of the NDP in Quebec, where not long ago the Liberals had been comprehensively rejected, and where the NDP had captured the overwhelming majority of ridings in 2011.

And the turning point in Quebec appears to have been NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s defense of Muslim women wearing the niqab (a full, face-covering veil) while taking the oath of citizenship. Harper was attempting to use the question as a wedge issue, not just between immigrants and “old stock” Canadians but between different groups of immigrants (Hindu and East Asian immigrants showed signs of being receptive to the pitch). But while the issue clearly damaged Mulcair badly, and may have led to gains for both the Conservatives and the Bloc in Quebec, the primary effect was to induce secular Quebecois to take a second look at the other alternative to the Conservatives.

These voters – liberal, secular, and anxious about the more reactionary forms of Islam – are a relatively poorly-anchored electoral bloc in those Western countries where Islam has become a political issue. In some cases – as with the rise of the late Pym Fortuyn – they may be dislodged from their “traditional” political alignment. In this case, they ricocheted back into a more traditional alignment and away from a new party that got on the “wrong” side of this issue. But regardless, it’s worth noting just how politically potent the question of traditional Islam can be when there are multiple, plausible alternatives to vote for. I don’t suspect that is going to cease being the case any time soon.

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Donald Trump, Necessary Truth-Teller

I have officially moved from the camp of “why not?” to the camp of “Forza!” when it comes to Donald Trump, and all it took was saying that 9-11 was somebody’s fault.

Jeb Bush has come in for plenty of ridicule, including here at TAC, for his defense of his brother’s record in “keeping us safe” – but it is worth recalling that essentially nobody has gotten any traction in the past 14 years with the attack that the 9-11 attacks were a failure of the Bush Administration. Indeed, not only has there been no criticism from within the Republican Party for that failure, there has been virtually no criticism from the Democratic Party. Criticism has been limited to the loons of the 9-11 Truther “movement.”

So Trump is performing an essential service – vital for the health of our democracy – in using his perch as Republican front-runner to point out the obvious: that George W. Bush was president on September 11, 2001, and that this means the attacks of that day are part of his record.

This service is essential not primarily because we still need to talk about the specific operational or policy failures of the early Bush Administration – a great deal has changed about the way the government is organized since 9-11, so at this point it’s more important to look at that structure as it is than as it was. And, although it is vital that we have a more serious debate about the overall orientation of our foreign policy and how it may contribute to feeding the fires we keep trying to put out, I don’t expect Donald Trump to provide that.

No – the service Trump is providing is in simply reminding America that facts are stubborn things. The striking thing about Jeb Bush’s defense of his brother is not that it’s false but that it is utterly divorced from reality. That his brother “kept us safe” is simply stated as a fact – not a conclusion derived from an analysis of facts, but a primary fact itself. And, since it’s absurd to use one fact to refute another fact, Jeb can honestly say that it’s ridiculous for Trump to say that the fact of 9-11 raises some little problems with the narrative that says George W. Bush “kept us safe.” And can honestly believe that saying it’s ridiculous is some kind of refutation.

Americans of all ideological persuasions have gotten alarmingly good at that kind of Orwellian “thinking.” So while I still don’t want him to be President, I will affirm that if Trump makes even a little crack in that psychological wall, he’ll have done a great service to his country.


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Fretting About the Thucydides Trap

The last of my five foreign policy questions for the candidates that I posed prior to the Democratic debate was about the Thucydides Trap, a coinage of Graham Allison’s to describe the way rising powers and established hegemon’s frequently stumble into catastrophic war that benefits neither:

More than 2,400 years ago, the Athenian historian Thucydides offered a powerful insight: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” Others identified an array of contributing causes of the Peloponnesian War. But Thucydides went to the heart of the matter, focusing on the inexorable, structural stress caused by a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals. Note that Thucydides identified two key drivers of this dynamic: the rising power’s growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway, on the one hand, and the fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo this engenders in the established power, on the other.

In the case about which he wrote in the fifth century B.C., Athens had emerged over a half century as a steeple of civilization, yielding advances in philosophy, history, drama, architecture, democracy, and naval prowess. This shocked Sparta, which for a century had been the leading land power on the Peloponnese peninsula. As Thucydides saw it, Athens’s position was understandable. As its clout grew, so too did its self-confidence, its consciousness of past injustices, its sensitivity to instances of disrespect, and its insistence that previous arrangements be revised to reflect new realities of power. It was also natural, Thucydides explained, that Sparta interpreted the Athenian posture as unreasonable, ungrateful, and threatening to the system it had established—and within which Athens had flourished.

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Is This What a Faction Looks Like?

I’m trying to reconcile David Brooks’s and Damon Linker’s view of the contemporary Republican Party as an angry faction incapable of governing with these two charts:





It sure looks to me like the Republican Party is governing much of the country. And that’s before adding two more charts, of a virtually impregnable hold on the House of Representatives, and a surprisingly durable hold on the Senate. To the first approximation, Republicans control everything – except the White House. And they have gone from strength to strength even as their confrontational tactics have escalated and escalated. If they don’t nominate another member of the Bush family – and it increasingly looks like they won’t – I’d give the GOP a better than even shot at winning the one major office they currently lack. Far from being an angry faction unwilling to play the game of politics, the GOP has been practically running the table. So why change course? Where’s the mystery?

Now, the GOP may be governing badly. I certainly think they are. In a generation America may look back and say: what on earth were we thinking, putting these people in charge? But we, the people, are the ones who put them in charge. Don’t we need to understand why before we can address the problem we the people have created?

Brooks asks, “have we ever seen bumbling on this scale, people at once so cynical and so naïve, so willfully ignorant in using levers of power to produce some tangible if incremental good?” But isn’t the real question: have we ever seen a nation so eager to reward people so cynical and so naïve? A nation so uninterested in whether their representatives and governors are using levers of power to produce some tangible if incremental good?

It does, indeed, feel like somebody is bad at democracy, and bad at conversation. I’m just not sure that somebody is the House Freedom Caucus, nor even the GOP primary electorate.

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